Reformed Tradition(s) on the Eucharist / by Joshua Torrey

Over at my personal site, I am reading Henry Schmidt's The Lutheran Doctrine of the Lord's Supper. One particular historical part stood out to me and so I wished to blog about it here. The book was not written in a vacuum as a straightforward depiction of the Lutheran view of the Supper. Schmidt was responding a movement within American Lutheranism (from one person in particular) promoting a Reformed view of the Lord's Supper.

This is not surprising given the historical events around Reformed and Lutheran engagements on the Supper. This also makes it incredibly interesting to see the "reformed view" that Schmidt is responding against. In his introduction to the historical setting of the work, Schmidt quotes from pietist leader Spener on the Reformed position of the Eucharist:

"So as that the body and blood of Christ are, in their essential reality present only in heaven above, whilst on earth, on the other hand, nothing but bread and wine are present; that these are memorials of the body and blood of Christ, in the use of which faith recalls these two recollections, and therefore partakes of them in a spiritual and figurative manner." (24)

Is this an accurate representation of the Reformed view(s) on the Supper? I'm not sure if Schmidt will expand upon this later in the book, but I thought time could be spent looking at Reformed theologians and their expression of the doctrine. For time sake, a look at key confessions will have to suffice.

Three Forms of Unity: Heidelberg Catechism & Belgic Confession

The first important set of Reformed confessional standards is the Three Forms of Unity. With significant variance in the reason for their writing, these documents do not align as neatly as the Westminster Standards which will come next. The Heidelberg defines the sacraments thusly:

"Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and seal that promise." (Q66)

There is a definitive stress here on the sacraments containing God's promise though not necessarily the substance signified. This is something that other confessions deal with more directly. The Belgic Confession's position is similar when it states that God "has ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith" (Article 33).

Even reading charitably, the Heidelberg's Question 75 comes close to Spener's memorialist definition when it asks "How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?" Once again, the Heidelberg focuses the sacrament on an external promise and not the substance.  This is reiterated in the answer that the bread and wine are "given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood." Yes, God "nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood," but it seems unclear as to how and when this nourishment occurs. The Belgic Confession says the bread and wine "represent better to our external senses" (Article 33) the internal work of Christ but confessed more that is substantially more clear:

"Our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper to nourish and sustain those who are already regenerated and ingrafted into his family...just as truly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands and eat and drink it with our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior." (Article 35)

The Belgic Confession here gives a better representation that in the sacraments "truly we receive" not just a sign/memorial of what was done on our behalf but "the true body and true blood of Christ." There is little grounds to say that only bread and wine are present in the Reformed practice of this sacrament despite both Heidelberg and Belgic mentioning the heaven and earth expanse of Spener:

"Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us, we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body. And so, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. And we forever live on and are governed by one Spirit, as the members of our body are by one soul." (Q76)
"We do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood—but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven—but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith." (Article 35)

While both of these speak of the divide between heaven and earth, neither suggests that we are carried up to Christ. The Heidelberg speaks of the union between Christ and the church with the language of marriage. In the sacrament, our flesh is united with His flesh. The Belgic Confession is also very clear that "Christ's own natural body" is communicated down to us who receive him by faith. This is all quite against the memorialist view.

After stating that "the holy bread of the Lord’s Supper does not become the actual body of Christ, even though it is called the body of Christ" (Q78), the more reserved Heidelberg explains why this matter of language is used: 

"He wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge, that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance" (Q79)

Once again, the Heidelberg ties to the sacrament the promise and pledge of the work already accomplished. There remains no clear indication that there is any spiritual grace associated with the substance of the sacrament. The Belgic Confession is again more clear and precise:

"This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood." (Article 35)

The Three Forms of Unity certainly do have elements of memorial teaching on the Eucharist. But by and large, there is a tremendous affirmation that the church is united with the present Christ in a very real sense—though of course not corporeally.

The Westminster Standards

Unlike the Three Forms of Unity, the documents of confessional Presbyterianism are a pretty tight knit piece of theological work. Though composed by separate committees, the Westminster Divines were thoroughly consistent in their articulation of their faith. The testimony cross the three documents will be easily covered:

"Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits" (WCF XXVII.I)
"Sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted." (WLC Q161)
"In every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other." (WCF XXVII.II)

These expressions are decisively more clear on the union of the sign with the thing signified. While the Three Forms of Unity leave some doubt, Westminster affirms that the substance of God's grace is truly available in the sacraments. They can be called "effectual means of salvation" while also representations of "Christ and His benefits." All of this is the benefit of the "sacramental union" emphasis that undergirds the Westminster Standards. This allows for straight forward (from a Reformed perspective) speech about the Eucharist:

"By giving and receiving bread and wine according to the appointment of Jesus Christ, his death is showed forth; and they that worthily communicate feed upon his body and blood, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace;" (WLC Q168)

There is language of remembrance memorial (e.g. "showed forth")—also present though when the Larger Catechism states that "in thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was broken and given, and his blood shed, for them" (WLC 169)—but the Supper is never merely a memorial since the church "feed upon his body and blood." Or as the Confession states in introducing what the Supper means:

"The perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him" (WCF XXIX.I)

Yes, a sense of memorial is enunciated. This emphasis on remembrance or "a commemoration of that one offering up" (WCF XXIX.II) is to combat the error of the Eucharist as a repeated sacrifice. Still, the Standards as a whole go out of their way to speak to the reality of Christ's presence. The Larger Catechism specifically contrasts the reality of the outward elements (bread and wine) with the real presence Christ spiritually via faith despite having no change in substance:

"As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses;" (WLC Q170)
"In substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before" (WCF XXIX.V)
"Really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses." (WCF XXIX.V)

Once again, this is not the church lifted up to Christ or mere memorial. Christ is given to the church at its level. Christ truly is present but not corporally—the substance of the elements themselves do not change. And yet, the realness of Christ's presence is as assured as the presence of the elements themselves.

The emphatic point of a changed substance is the principal point that Rome and Constantinople affirm—hence, the adoption of "transubstantiation" in both traditions despite disagreement on what it entails. This is also why the Reformed are charged with a "spiritual" or "dynamic" presence. But in either case, the Westminster Standards do not seem as simple as Spener's definition in any of the categories he lists.

The Second Helvetic

The final document of interest is the Second Helvetic Confession. A personal exansion project of the "First Helvetic Confession" for Heinrich Bullinger, the confession is the third most important Reformed confession. With regards to the sacraments, it shares many of the themes mentioned in the other confessions. In particular is the consistent internal/external relationship of the sacrament in which God promises and seals with visible signs:

"Sacraments are mystical symbols, or holy rites, or sacred actions, instituted by God himself, consisting of his Word, of signs and of things signified, whereby in the Church he keeps in mind and from time to time recalls the great benefits he has shown to men; whereby also he seals his promises, and outwardly represents, and, as it were, offers unto our sight those things which inwardly he performs for us, and so strengthens and increases our faith through the working of God's Spirit in our hearts. Lastly, he thereby distinguishes us from all other people and religions, and consecrates and binds us wholly to himself, and signifies what he requires of us." (Article XIX)
"He that instituted water in baptism did not institute it with the will and intention that the faithful should only be sprinkled by the water of baptism; and he who commanded the bread to be eaten and the wine to be drunk in the supper did not want the faithful to receive only bread and wine without any mystery as they eat bread in their homes; but that they should spiritually partake of the things signified, and by faith be truly cleansed from their sins, and partake of Christ." (Article XIX)

This general approach is then applied to the two sacraments where once again we see that the Supper is remembrance but also qualitatively more. There is again a clear idea of sacramental union. And there are definitive rejections of the elements being merely elements. There is nothing close to Zwinglian in the confession:

"The Lord wishes to keep in fresh remembrance that greatest benefit which he showed to mortal men, namely, that by having given his body and shed his blood he has pardoned all our sins, and redeemed us from eternal death and the power of the devil, and now feeds us with his flesh, and gives us his blood to drink, which, being received spiritually by true faith, nourish us to eternal life." (Chapter XXI)
"At the same time by the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit they also inwardly receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, and are thereby nourished unto life eternal. For the flesh and blood of Christ is the true food and drink unto life eternal; and Christ himself, since he was given for us and is our Savior, is the principal thing in the Supper, and we do not permit anything else to be substituted in his place." (Chapter XXI)


The Second Helvetic emphatically points out that Christ alone is the purpose of the sacraments. The true (though Spiritual) reception of Christ is the sacrament. But He is not the purpose in a nature based way as to devoid the necessity of faith. This the Second Helvetic brings to light when it states that the things signified in the sacrament are always offered even when it is not received in faith:

"For as the Word of God remains the true Word of God, in which, when it is preached, not only bare words are repeated, but at the same time the things signified or announced in words are offered by God, even if the ungodly and unbelievers hear and understand the words yet do not enjoy the things signified, because they do not receive them by true faith; so the sacraments, which by the Word consist of signs and the things signified, remain true and inviolate sacraments, signifying not only sacred things, but, by God offering, the things signified, even if unbelievers do not receive the things offered. This is not the fault of God who gives and offers them, but the fault of men who receive them without faith and illegitimately; but whose unbelief does not invalidate the faithfulness of God" (Chapter XIX)

That substance offered in the sacrament of the Eucharist is "true food and drink unto life eternal." How then is this true eating done? The confession states the eating of Christ's flesh very similarly to Schmidt:

"There is more than one kind of eating. There is corporeal eating whereby food is taken into the mouth, is chewed with the teeth, and swallowed into the stomach."  (Chapter XXI)

Finally, the Second Helvetic then provides a great conclusion statement on the Reformed view of Christ's presence that is shared by the other confessions. Christ comes down to the church in the supper and is truly present—though not corporeally:

"The body of Christ is in heaven at the right hand of the Father; and therefore our hearts are to be lifted up on high, and not to be fixed on the bread, neither is the Lord to be worshipped in the bread. Yet the Lord is not absent from his Church when she celebrates the Supper. The sun, which is absent from us in the heavens, is notwithstanding effectually present among us. How much more is the Sun of Righteousness, Christ, although in his body he is absent from us in heaven, present with us, not corporeally, but spiritually, by his vivfying operation, and as he himself explained at his Last Supper that he world be present with us."  (Chapter XXI)


If one breaks down Spener's description of the Reformed faith we get something reasonably close to the Reformed position without any of the efficacy. The shell of the Reformed confessions is certainly there viewed from the Lutheran position. But the description removes any of the positive, efficacious statements contained in these confessions.

It is true that the Reformed disposition to covenant theology makes the depiction of the sacrament less neat and tidy. However, it would be a mistake to presume a Zwinglian position that has historically become more and more popular.