By: Rick Serina
This is the latest in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
Much like his November 1519 treatise on baptism, when Luther writes about the Sacrament of the Altar just one month later, he could never imagine someone arguing against the bodily presence of Christ in the sacrament. With precious few exceptions, no one had made that argument in the centuries preceding and it would not be until 1523 that Luther’s colleague at Wittenberg, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, would be the first of the Reformation to raise this objection to the traditional doctrine. In December 1519, however, Karlstadt is still in line with Luther, objections to the bodily presence of Christ at the table are nowhere to be found, and the medieval Latin mass is still relatively uncontroversial. When Luther drafts this treatise on the sacrament, he treads rather cautiously on altogether different ground: what the sacrament creates among the communion of saints gathered around the altar.
Luther describes the sacrament in this treatise using the same categories of sign and thing signified, which he had drawn from Augustine, as in the earlier treatise on baptism, though he adds an important third feature reflecting the direction he wants to go with his discussion. The sign in the sacrament is the bread and wine. The one relatively controversial comment he makes in this connection is that the full sign—the wine along with the bread—was not being given to the laity as Christ instituted it and deserves correction. He even suggests a council might reinstitute the full sacrament by decreeing that both elements should be received. This would instigate a modest conflict since to many ears Luther was appealing to the position of the Hussites, a fifteenth-century Bohemian sect that demanded—and, at least according to a contested agreement with the Council of Basel in 1433, were given—the right to receive the sacrament in both kinds. The decision to prohibit the administration of both kinds has rather unclear origins. It owes as much to the unwillingness of the laity to receive as it does to the priests withholding the cup. Nevertheless, the medieval scholastic doctrine of concomitance was used to defend the practice: since Christ’s body and blood were present in both elements, rather than merely the blood in the wine and the body in the bread, then it was permissible for the laity to receive only the host, for it contained the true flesh of Jesus—both body and blood.
Yet, despite his encouragement to receive both elements, Luther did not spend much time advocating for that practice, nor did he broach questions about how the body and blood of Christ were present. In fact, when describing what the sign of bread and wine signifies, he does not even point to the body and blood of Christ; rather, he points to the fellowship of the saints. Again, Luther assumes the bodily presence of Christ and in no way seeks to debate that point. However, he has a more practical point in mind: the sacrament incorporates the recipient into the communion of the faithful. To make the case, Luther uses a traditional image, drawn from 1 Corinthians 10 and found throughout the ancient and medieval tradition, including Augustine: “For just as the bread is made out of many grains ground and mixed together, and out of the bodies of many grains there comes the body of one bread, in which each grain loses its form and body and takes upon itself the common body of the bread; and just as the drops of wine, in losing their own form, become the body of one common wine and drink—so it should be with us, if we use the sacrament properly” (AE 35:58). The sacrament of Holy Communion should inculcate something in the lives of those receiving it. They should be moved to unity with one another and toward changed lives spiritually on account of the sacrament. It is not simply an individual reception according to one’s individual views. On the contrary, the sacrament makes those receiving it into a holy communion, a fellowship of saints.
In addition to the sign of bread and wine and the fellowship of saints that it signifies, Luther also talks about the faith which one needs to receive the sacrament rightly. Again, much to our surprise, he does not speak of acknowledging the bodily presence of Christ since that was assumed. Instead, he talks about the necessity of a faith that realizes what Christ is doing through the sacrament. He has not simply given his body and blood, but has brought the believer into a fellowship and offered all of his gifts there. The reason Luther insists upon the necessity of faith—apart from the fact that Augustine himself said the right “use” of the sacrament requires faith on the part of the recipient—is to counteract the medieval notion of the sacraments working ex opere operato (“by the work which is worked”). Luther had specifically raised this concern with the medieval sacrament of penance, which allowed for the purchase of an indulgence for the remission of sins of those in purgatory, even if they had no personal repentance or faith. Luther argues to the contrary that faith is necessary to receive that which the sacraments offer, as Augustine had long before him. In the case of the Sacrament of the Altar, one must receive in faith the signs and what they signify in order to truly realize that the communicant now shares in the fellowship of the saints at that altar. This is why Luther takes time at the end of the treatise to attack the so-called brotherhoods (confraternities or guilds), mostly lay by Luther’s day, which would endow private masses, hold social gatherings, and practice devotion to a variety of saints or relics. While their sectarian approach to fellowship draws attention away from the church to their own private and social practices, Luther believes the sacrament should create just the opposite: a communion of people committed to one another and being formed in love toward Christ and one another.
In all of this, what remains the most surprising about Luther’s treatise is the absence of any detailed affirmation or description of Christ’s presence at the table. But he didn’t need to precisely because no one had questioned it. That dynamic has reversed entirely in our day. While the earliest reformers could not have imagined an argument against the presence of Christ in the sacrament, we find ourselves now having to defend how Christ can be present to those who reject the notion. Never mind that it is only in the wake of Karlstadt and the Sacramentarians like Ulrich Zwingli and Johannes Oecolampadius that this issue was raised, the burden of proof has now shifted to us. It is worth remembering that Christians at no point in time prior to the Reformation doubted that Christ was present in the sacrament. There was a host of disagreements about how Christ was present. Some Alexandrian Greeks, influenced so heavily by Platonism, had a view much closer to the metonymical thought of Calvin, where our spirits were lifted to Christ’s in heaven (a “metonymy” in the sense that he believes Christ is present for the believer, just not with the bread and wine of the sacrament). The medieval debates of the eleventh century, centering around Berenger of Tours, also affirmed the presence of Christ while only questioning how he was present. The “how” will make its way into Luther’s rejection of transubstantiation in his 1520 Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Nevertheless, with the Sacramentarians of the sixteenth century, we have the first movement to deny the presence of Christ in the sacrament, no matter what term one uses to describe it: local, real, true, bodily, spiritual, or metonymical. This is why Luther will accuse Zwingli of being of another Geist, or spirit. Yet sadly American Protestantism has adopted a view that Christians nearly categorically prior to the Reformation would have rejected. What was once an extreme outlier has now become the norm, and we find ourselves having to defend not only that Christ is present, but also how he can be present, in order for our converts—or even members—to understand. This is a shift Luther could not have anticipated when writing in 1519.
At the same time, we face another challenge Luther does address in this treatise: how we view the solidarity of those communing at the table. In American Lutheranism, that has ordinarily resulted in a debate about table fellowship, in particular who is eligible to commune at our altars. Luther obviously did not deal with this problem in Electoral Saxony in 1519. All his people were Catholic—like him! What he has in mind here is the pastoral responsibility to ensure the communicant understands what is being received in the sacrament and to what end it is being received. This is why Luther’s exhortations to communicants will shift over time from strictly emphasizing what the sacrament means to why one should want to receive it. This will also lead to the Lutheran reformers carrying over the practice of absolution and examination prior to receiving the sacrament, as Augsburg Confession 25 clearly states. The point remains just as crucial for us today in executing our pastoral responsibilities at the altar faithfully, all the more when we live in a world with permeable religious boundaries and loose religious affiliations, where we can’t possibly know whether or not a visitor has any instruction in the Christian faith whatsoever, let alone what that visitor actually believes. It really is not a question of denomination titles or catholicity or being hospitable or kind; it is a matter of clearly communicating to the faithful what Christ offers at the table, what it should create in their lives, and how, to the best of our ability, we can ensure the people communing at the altar understand and seek to live out those things. Simple printed communion statements or the fact that someone was once confirmed in a Missouri Synod parish cannot possibly replace the interaction between pastor and communicant. For Luther, it is a question of the pastor’s responsibility to care for the faithful at his table so that they might receive the sacrament with a right understanding and for the benefit of their common life and growth together. The reasons seem no different for us now, even if the context and challenges have changed.