Era of Reform Lord's Supper
Era of Reform

The sacrament associating Christ's body and blood with bread and wine; object of intense controversy during the era of reform.

11th-century representation
of Holy Communion

Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Radical, and Anglican theologians differed considerably over the Holy Communion during the era of reform.The theology and practice of the English Protestant reformers seems largely to have been derived from the Reformed pattern.

Roman Catholic: At the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Roman Catholic Church reiterated the position on the Holy Communion it had defined and refined during the middle ages. Three positions in particular had become controversial during the era of reform. First, the Roman Catholic Church taught that the mass is a sacrifice during which Christ sacrifices himself to God the Father bloodlessly under the signs of bread and wine. This sacrifice is intended to represent the sacrifice of the cross to the congregation and apply its saving power to them. Second, employing a distinction borrowed from Aristotle and put to Christian use by medieval theologians, the Roman Catholic Church taught the doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the "accidents" of bread and wine, the things determining its appearance and the human perception thereof, remained that of bread and wine, while its "substance," the internal nature of bread and wine, became Christ's body and blood. Third, Roman Catholic practice withheld the cup from the laity who were permitted to receive only the bread.

Protestants consistently rejected both the sacrifice of the mass and the doctrine of transubstantiation. Protestants also consistently maintained the privilege of the laity to receive both bread and wine in the Holy Communion.

Lutheran: Martin Luther's understanding of the Holy Communion went through several phases. As his teaching developed, Luther taught that the Holy Communion was not a sacrifice but the last will and testament of Jesus, a promise, in which he bequeathed to believers the forgiveness of sins secured by his death on the cross. For Luther, this trustworthy promise could be met by either faith or unbelief. Although repudiating transubstantiation as a philosophical invention unworthy of Christian theology, Luther laid great weight on the real presence of Christ in the Holy Communion, claiming that Christ's body and blood were eaten and drunk by believers and unbelievers alike. Believers, he taught, ate and drank at the Lord's Supper to their blessing, while unbelievers ate and drank to their own condemnation.

Reformed: Huldrych Zwingli advanced the first Reformed doctrine of the Holy Communion. Unlike Luther, Zwingli thought of the elements or signs in the Lord's Supper not as means by which God communicates grace to the faithful, but as signs by which the faithful declare that they have received grace and belong to the body of the faithful. For Zwingli the Holy Communion was essentially a communal profession of faith, a celebrative thanksgiving in which the church declared its gratitude and faithfulness to God. Later Reformed theologians, including Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin, sought a middle way between Luther's position and that of Zwingli. Against Zwingli they argued that Christ was certainly present in the signs of bread and wine, but against Luther they argued that Christians could not rightly comprehend the mode of Christ's presence. Like Luther, they considered the Holy Communion to be constituted by Christ's promise and like Zwingli they thought that it rightly included an element of eucharistic thanksgiving.

Radical: Some theologians of the radical Reformation, including Sebastian Franck and Kaspar von Schwenkfeld, abandoned altogether or suspended the use of the Holy Communion. Others dramatically reinterpreted it. Some radical theologians associated the elements of the Holy Communion in various ways with Christ's heavenly body. More often, however, they saw the Lord's Supper as an occasion to hold Christ's death in grateful remembrance. The ideas of an egalitarian fellowship in the sight of God and preparation for martyrdom often dominated the piety of this faction of the Reformation.

English: The teaching of Thomas Cranmer, architect of the English Book of Common Prayer, regarding the Holy Communion is a matter of considerable dispute as is the proper interpretation of the doctrinal statements issued during the English reformation. These standards of the English reformation seem clearly to reject both the sacrifice of the mass and transubstantiation. In the matter of Christ's presence, the Thirty-Nine Articles appear to align the English reformation most closely to the position of Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin. They affirm a heavenly and spiritual presence of Christ in the Holy Communion and consider it to be a means rather than merely a sign of grace.

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