This is a paper I originally wrote for a Systematic Theology III class. This first part will cover four major positions on the Lord’s Supper. Part two will analyze the different arguments from each position.

The nature of the Lord’s Supper has often been a topic of internal warfare rather than one of thanksgiving.[1] Nonetheless, the Christian with unyielding devotion to God’s word must ground his beliefs therein, rather than having an unquestioning capitulation to his denomination or disparagingly cast off all denominational ties and embrace relative truth. Rather than doing either, the demand of absolute truth causes one to analyze multiple positions of the nature of the Lord’s Supper in light of the Scriptures.

 The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the church whereby bread and wine (or that of the grape vine) is consumed by the believer, Christ’s Spirit is intensely present in the service bringing the benefits of union with Christ. These benefits include a past remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, a present participation in fellowship with God and other believers, and a future hope of Christ’s return in the eschaton. A convergence of the memorial and Reformed views[2] best fits the Biblical witness in temporal doctrinal development as well as grammatical and syntactical analysis of 1 Cor. 11:24 and Luke 22:19. This definition will be determined by first overviewing multiple major positions on the Lord’s Supper, then examining the biblical theology behind the Supper, followed by a systematic treatment of the topic, concluded with a detailed exegesis of the pertinent texts.

Opposing Views Concerning the Lord’s Supper

The earliest church in Jerusalem commemorated the Lord’s sacrifice by fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.[3] The Lord’s Supper prior to the era of Constantine was a celebration of the new era dawned in the resurrection.[4] Leonard Verduin links the transformation of the Supper to a mixing with Pagan mystery religions.[5] Gregg Allison sees the development of the Lord’s Supper into a sacrificial view in light of Malachi 1:10-11.[6] Justo Gonzales says, “. . .the communion table became an “altar”—in opposition to the instructions found earlier in the Didache.”[7] These historical considerations as well as Greek philosophy utilized by the early fathers contributed to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation.[8]


Due to the Donatist controversy[9], Augustine developed the view ex opere operato. This places the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper in the act itself rather than on the officiator.[10] The term “transubstantiation,” first used in the 12th century and popularized by Medieval scholastics, found its fullest form in Thomastic theology. According to Thomas Aquinas, when the bread and wine (elements) become the body and blood of Christ, they change actually, not sensually.[11] In other words, though they really are the body and blood of Christ, to human senses they remain bread and wine (even down to the chemical level).[12]

As traced historically earlier, the view of the Supper become one of a “sacrifice.” A proper priest uses hocus pocus[13] to change the elements into the body and blood, and thus the congregation venerates Christ as sacrificed anew. The result is that propitiatory grace is imparted by the work performed (ex opere operato) for venial sins.[14]


The reformation did not blow up the Roman Catholic theological systems already existing and build something new. Rather, they, like surgeons, removed unbiblical cancers and left the healthy, biblical systems be. Debate ensued early on about the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli believed Christ was spiritually present in the elements; whereas, Luther consistently reiterated Christ was present bodily (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24).[15] In Luther’s view, “Christ comes to the bread and wine with his body and blood.”[16] Thus, Luther concluded that Christ’s presence is with, under, and among the elements. His presence changes the elements, but they remain ontologically the same, similar to how the flame changes an iron rod.[17]

At this point, the problem of Christ’s human presence being omnipresent comes into view. Lutherans have answered this with the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ. Christ’s ubiquity is that, “Christ is omnipresent in the flesh because his divine attributes penetrate his humanity.”[18] By taking this Supper, the believer gains spiritual benefits they would otherwise miss.[19]

The Reformed View

John Calvin took a different approach than Luther emphasizing the fact that the body of Christ has ascended into heaven:

For though he has taken his flesh away from us, and in the body ascended into heaven, yet he sits at the right hand of the Father—that is, he reigns in the Father’s power and majesty and glory. . .In short, he feeds his people with his own body, the communion of which he bestows upon them by the power of his Spirit. In this manner, the body and blood are shown to us in the Sacrament.[20]

Horton explains this view as Christ’s presence, not spatially but relationally, is mystically placed into the elements by vehicle of the Holy Spirit. He goes on to explain, “It is not simply Christ’s divinity but the Spirit who makes Christ reign universally present, so that even Christ’s true natural body and blood can be communicated to believers.”[21] By receiving the elements, the believer, “receives anew and continually the vitality of Christ.”[22] Thus confirming their covenant and new standing with God anticipating the marriage supper of the Lamb.[23]

The Memorial View

This view emphasizes the commemoration of Christ’s death on the cross (“Do this in remembrance of me” Luke 22:19). One of Zwingli’s major points of contention for this view was the locality of Christ in heaven due to the ascension (emphasized by Augustine).[24] Further, Zwingli argues from the figurative statement in Luke 22:19, “This is my body.” He argues the since the copulative is non-literal, it must mean “signifies.” Thus, the bread signifies Christ’s body. Therefore, Christ’s presence is in no way in the elements, but is represented by them. The believers by participation in the Supper in faith receive the benefits of Christ’s death. “Like a sermon, the event proclaims his death, except that Communion is a visual reminder.”[25]

[1] John Frame shares in this lamentation in his Systematic Theology, “I think it’s unfortunate that these wonderful sacraments have become so much a source of battles in the church. It seems sometimes that they are more a cause for warfare than a blessing to God’s people.” John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013), 1067.

[2] The only thing problematic with the Reformed view is if Christ’s spiritual presence is somehow required to be ontologically located in the elements. The problematic side of the memorial view is if it is only seen as a memorial service without regard to the presence of Christ being in the service. Both of those extremes would be problematic.

[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper One, 2010), 27.

[4] Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, 108.

[5] Leonard Verduin, The Dissent and Nonconformity Series, vol. 14, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub Co, 1964), 138-9.

[6] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 637.

[7] Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, 144.

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 1116. He goes on to explain that even though these Medieval philosophical understandings are no longer at the forethought of modern man, their theological implications still cause division today.

[9] This was a purity movement that insisted especially that baptisms were only valid if the officiator was pure. Thus, when if a sacramental officiator “lapsed” under Roman persecution, their baptism would be invalid. This in turn caused Christians to doubt their baptism and salvation and wonder, “who is worthy to baptize?”

[10] Allison, Historical Theology, 640.

[11] Michael Scott Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 804.

[12] Erickson, Christian Theology, 1124. The change is metaphysical.

[13] An intended historical joke due to the fact the priests would utter hoc est enim corpus meum (Latin for “this is my body”) and “magically” the elements change form. Cf. Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, 141.

[14] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 991-2.

[15] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York, New York: Viking, 2017), 394-5. Metaxas goes on to tell the story of Luther chalking the phrase “hoc est corpus meum” on the table and covering up. When asked for biblical evidence regarding his belief, he uncovered and pointed, “This is my body.”

[16] Horton, The Christian Faith, 805.

[17] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, condensed. ed. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 2011), 1172.

[18] Horton, The Christian Faith, 807.

[19] Erickson, Christian Theology, 1126.

[20] John Calvin, The Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 21, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.

[21] Horton, The Christian Faith, 814.

[22] Erickson, Christian Theology, 1128.

[23] Frame, Systematic Theology, 1068-9.

[24] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 379.

[25] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 1172.