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The Spirit of Sacramental Union: Sign and Thing Signified, by Simon Jooste

2 February, 2008

The Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (2 of 3)

SimonSpirit of sacramental union: sign and thing signified

Like Baptism, the Eucharist contains visible elements that are palpable to the senses, namely material bread and wine. These signs point toward spiritual realities, the things signified, which are the incarnate Christ and all his benefits. [1] Scripture allows for such an intimate relation between the sign and the thing signified that the sign is put for the thing signified and vice versa (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16; Jn. 6; 1 Pet. 3:21; Rom. 6; Gen. 17:10; Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 5:7). [2] It is this close relation between the sign and the thing signified that forms the heart of the sacraments and the age-old debates. A brief consideration of the two extreme positions will aid in further sharpening and elucidating the Scriptural teaching.

Thing signified inherent in the sign

One extreme of the debate is the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation in which the bread and the wine are not deemed to be signs or symbols of sacred things, but are the sacred things. [3] The Council of Trent declares: “[B]y the consecration of the bread and wine a change is brought about in the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ of our Lord, and the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood.”[4] The body and blood of Christ are believed to be “corporally and carnally present” (cf. WLC 170). Rome takes Christ’s words at the institution literally, “This is my body…” (Lk. 22:19).

This position is both impossible and unscriptural for a number of reasons, not least of which is its violation of what Chalcedon taught regarding Christ’s human body being of the same reality as our own, except sin. Thus a body like ours cannot “hold itself in its own hands” (something attributed to Christ at the Lord’s Supper) and cannot be at a number of places around the world at the same time.

Empty Sign

The predominant twenty-first century Protestant evangelical position on the Lord’s Supper is arguably an overreaction to the idolatrous position of Rome and the impossibility of Lutheranism. [5] Espousing more or less the position of Ulrich Zwingli, modern evangelicals hold to a teaching of symbolic memorialism in which any real presence of Christ in the sacrament is denied. Christ’s words of institution should be understood as nothing more than symbolic, and eating the body and blood of Christ is nothing more that putting one’s faith in Christ. [6] There is no question that the Eucharist recalls to the mind the person and work of Christ (1 Cor. 11:24), but it is gloriously more than that.

Joining of sign and thing signified

Between the extremes of conflating the sign into the thing signified and stripping the sign of what it signifies is the joining of the two by the agency of the Holy Spirit, making possible a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). Contrary to corporeal or carnal presence espoused by Rome and Luther, the humanity of Christ is made present to believers spiritually and the organ of consumption is faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls (WLC, 170). Therefore, the church confesses that in the Lord’s Supper we “receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and blood of Christ, our only Savior” (Belgic Confession, 35).

The Reformed community generally admits to some kind of sacramental import to the Supper (i.e., Christ and his benefits are received in some sense). Yet, as to the questions of what the believer comes into contact with and the corresponding how, there has been no lack of controversy.

In sharpening a Scriptural articulation of the real presence of Christ in the Supper, it is profitable to consider the views of eminent Presbyterian theologians Charles Hodge and Robert Dabney. Hodge has no reservations in affirming the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace, in which the benefits of redemption are signed, sealed, and applied to the believer. Yet, he denies any participation in Christ’s human nature. Instead, he asserts that Christ is made present to the believer by mere intellectual apprehension alone. [7] Dabney, following in the footsteps of Hodge, wants to equate eating with mere believing, and the presence of Christ as a mental or spiritual one. [8] Anything more, he claims, “is not only incomprehensible, but impossible.” [9] In summary, these theologians want to argue for a presence of Christ according to his divinity alone – and a phenomenon not confined to the Supper. [10]

Stay tuned for the conclusion to Simon’s discussion of Christ in the Lord’s Supper…


[1] “A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (WSC 92.)[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1938), 617-618.[3] Mathison, Given for You, 244.

[4] Thirteenth Session, chap 4. The substance of the bread and wine (its internal/ essential nature) is said to be changed into the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents (the outward appearance) are said to remain as they are (Mathison, Given for You, 240.)

[5] The Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation argues that the bread and wine remain what they are; yet a miraculous real presence of Christ’s body and blood, in, under and along with the elements, remains. Followers of Luther maintain a local presence of the physical body and blood of Christ in the sacrament. Lutherans share with Rome a violation of Chalcedon and cannot maintain a consistent teaching on the corporeal presence of Christ in the Supper (Luther’s Smaller Catechism (1529) and Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 648-652.)

[6] Popular Baptist theologian Millard Erickson defends symbolic memorialism (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 1115-1134.) And dispensationalist Lewis Sperry Shafer devoted a mere half page to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in which he is quoted as saying: “The Scriptures seem to support the memorial view, and rather than elements containing or symbolizing the presence of Christ, they are instead a recognition of his absence” (Lewis Sperry Shafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 7:229.)

[7] Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Systematic Theology Vol. III (London: James Clarke & Co. LTD, 1960), 499-500, 641-642.

[8] Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 811.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Calvin makes the crucial distinction between eating as an act of faith and eating as a consequence of faith. Hodge, in affirming the former, asserts that our eating is an act of believing, or faith: “the act of receiving and appropriating Christ and the benefits of his redemption” (Hodge, Systematic Theology, 645.) Calvin argues for the latter and thus enables us to say that we partake of the body and blood of Christ, by the instrument of faith. This instrument of faith, our spiritual mouth, by no means nullifies the connection between eating of the elements and faith. “When we eat the elements of bread and wine, it is an act of faith in God’s promise to feed us with body and blood of Christ. When that faith is present, the Holy Spirit causes us to truly receive and partake of Christ’s body and blood” (Mathison, Given for You, 281.)

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