Are Lutherans “literalists” about the Supper?

I was reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian last night, and at a moment of mild exasperation in his chapter on the Eucharist tweeted the following:

Ron Swanson on Moby DickThis prompted a bigger flurry of responses than I’d been expecting. One person suggested this was a “biblical fundamentalist” hermeneutic (albeit reaching a conclusion rarely reached by “biblical fundamentalists”). Others drew my attention to Jesus’ frequent use of “figurative language” and metaphors. Another simply replied, “parables”.

Now, my aim in this post is not to argue for the Lutheran doctrine of the Supper over that of other Christians, but to address a narrower point from those two responses: does the Lutheran teaching – namely, that the Sacrament of the Altar is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ himself” – depend on a “literalist” or “fundamentalist” reading of Scripture, one which ends up overlooking the metaphorical and figurative aspects of the text?

The discussion last night was helpful in clarifying my own thoughts on this issue. The question is, what type of statement is Jesus making when he says “this is my body”? Is he being metaphorical, as when he says “I am the door”? Or is he using figurative or parabolic language, as when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”?

The answer, I think, is: none of the above. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus said (as compiled in the Small Catechism):

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” … “Take this and drink of it, all of you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The point is that Jesus isn’t just imparting information in these words; he is making a promise, above all a promise of “the remission of sins”.

When Jesus imparted information to people, then yes, he very often used figurative language – though even then, we are told he “explained everything in private to his disciples”. But when he was directly addressing God’s promises to people, especially the promise of the forgiveness of sins, he spoke in clear terms intended to create faith in the listener: “Your sins are forgiven; stand up and take your mat and walk”; “I am willing: be clean”; “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and so on.

The Lutheran belief is that when Jesus says “this is my body, which is given for you,” he is declaring a promise rather than merely imparting information. That is, “this is my body” is in the same category of statements as “your sins are forgiven” rather than statements such as “I am the gate of the sheep”. He wanted his disciples in the upper room, and wants us, to believe those words of promise; to take, eat and drink.

Not all Christians will share that understanding of Jesus’ words, and I don’t expect (though I can always hope!) to have changed many of their minds with this post, But I hope at least to have demonstrated why taking a “literal” view of Jesus’ words of institution (“‘is’ means ‘is’, on this occasion at least”) isn’t a rejection of metaphor generally, and doesn’t commit us to a flat, “literalistic” reading of Scripture as a whole.

14 thoughts on “Are Lutherans “literalists” about the Supper?

  1. As a quick footnote to this post, I have come across the argument that Jesus wasn’t even being metaphorical when he said “I am the door”. The Lutheran blogger Charles Wiese wrote somewhere (I think I saw it quoted on Facebook, and posted it here):

    Jesus really is the door. He doesn’t symbolize a door. I’ve heard some say ‘Is he made of wood?’ but since when does a door have to be made of wood? All earthly doors are in some sense pictures of Christ but Christ is the true door. He is truly the Door who gives us access to the Father.

    That’s fun, but there is still a metaphorical relationship between the sense in which Jesus is the door and the sense in which the large wooden plank on hinges in my bedroom is a door. The point Wiese is making is similar to St Paul’s point in Ephesians 5 that it is marriage that is a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the church, rather than vice versa. But that doesn’t mean that Christ is “literally” married to the church in the same way that I am “literally” married to my wife.

    Or to put it another way, when Jesus says “I am the door”, he doesn’t mean it in the same way that he means it when he says “this [this piece of bread that I’m holding in front of you and offering to you, right here, right now] is my body”.

  2. Lutherans seem to have read the gospel accounts of the words of institution as instructions to the Church, while other Protestants have usually read them as a description of historical facts with an odd saying to be explained. (eg Lutherans do not see much point in those reenactments in which people in bath robes try to look like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, although in the bible belt these things do happen from time to time.) The overall difference in reading has been not so much been literal/metaphorical as obedient/speculative.

    1. It may be partly that, though Reformed Christians have, I think, tended to follow the “obedience to Christ’s command” approach to the Supper (see, e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism q.75, and the prayer of consecration from the Book of Common Prayer communion service). Some later Protestants may have moved further away from this, though.

      So I still think the key distinction is between “word of promise” – spoken by Christ, through his minister, here and now about this piece of bread and cup of wine right here – and “information”.

      1. Yes, John, the promise/ information distinction is key. But even counting Anglicans among the Reformed (which provokes screams from Presbyterians and Episcopalians on this side of the pond), that would mean that those Reformed whose reading of the verba is closest to the Lutherans in practice are also the ones whose practice is closest to the Lutherans. C19 German Reformed books of eucharistic piety would be almost acceptable to high Lutherans, but just plain weird to those for whom the main thing was seeing to it that they were elected before the foundations of the world to belong to a covenant of grace of which communion was a sort of membership card handed out by the local elders. For Anglicans and the old German Reformed, the church is still in some sense real; for the latter, it is a metaphor of the really real covenant.

      2. In relation to HC75, it goes on to say “adding the promises that his body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and his blood shed for me … and that he feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, with his crucified body and shed blood.” Command *and* promise.

        Obviously we understand the nature and fulfilment of the promise differently from Lutherans (as the language of HC75 itself makes plain), but Reformed teaching has no excuse for playing down Christ’s promise in the Supper.

      3. Philip has a very robust case for what he says, even if some Reformed today resist its implications for practice. In those communities, prior cultural codes pre-empt the participatory “here and now… right here” that John and other Lutherans have been talking about. A promise requires a promiser in the pastor-member relation, which sounds too clericalist to egalitarian Reformed. Communion implies incorporation, which sounds too communist or catholic to individualistic Reformed. Promise is unintelligible apart from some space-time presence, which sounds too metaphysical to materialistic Reformed. Where egalitarianism, individidualism, and materialism are the cultural norms by which scripture is normed– admittedly unconsciously– the ecumenical truth revealed by God is very counterintuitive. The revival of Reformed interest in “union with Christ” could renew Heidelberg eucharistic practice in places where this language is accepted as used in scripture.

  3. John,

    taking a “literal” view of Jesus’ words of institution (“‘is’ means ‘is’, on this occasion at least”) isn’t a rejection of metaphor generally, and doesn’t commit us to a flat, “literalistic” reading of Scripture as a whole


    “Figurative” and “metaphor” are not magic keys that we can reach for as we please when we don’t like the implications of the “literal” interpretation. Nor is a “literal” interpretation always guaranteed to be the correct one.

    As always, the context within which a text is to be understood is critical. In this case, the context is the Mass itself, which the Church had been celebrating week in and week out for a couple of generations before the words of the Gospels were ever put to paper. The Church’s understanding of the rule of faith and rule of prayer that had been given to her must illuminate our understanding of the text.

    And that understanding is precisely that the Saviour gave us the Supper to give us the forgiveness of our sins and to unite us to Himself through these objective means, which He chose to identify with His body and blood.

    1. In this case, the context is the Mass itself, which the Church had been celebrating week in and week out for a couple of generations before the words of the Gospels were ever put to paper.

      Yes, exactly. As evidenced by 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: the Mass was already being “handed on” by the apostles as part of their mission (having been “received from the Lord”), and was being celebrated “often”.

  4. Do any Christians believe the cup to be the new testament, literally? If not, there is already metonymy or some kind of symbolism afoot, even in the words of institution.

    1. Thanks for this. Two responses come to mind.

      First, in what sense is the cup not the new testament? With perfect timing, just after reading your comment, I read the following in Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where he discusses the phrase “this cup is the new testament in my blood”:

      Thus, if we inquire what a testament is, we shall learn at the same time what the mass is, what its right use and blessing, and what its wrong use. A testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, in which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs. […] You see, therefore, that what we call the mass is a promise of the forgiveness of sins made to us by God, and such a promise as has been confirmed by the death of the Son of God.

      What Jesus gives us in the cup is not a metaphorical promise of metaphorical forgiveness, but a real promise of real forgiveness.

      Secondly, even if Jesus were being metaphorical when he says “the new testament,” that wouldn’t mean “in my blood” had to be a metaphor, any more than, if a young lover tells his beloved, “I give you my love in this necklace,” that means that the necklace is metaphorical.

      1. That’s a nice coincidence!

        I was trying to find the extent of the literal, taking for granted that the center, so to speak, would be literal. But with the cup, sometimes more than one chalice or cup is used in the mass, and some masses use thimbles or many little cups. But the words aren’t “these cups,” so there is a literal disagreement in number. Perhaps a similar transposition happens with wafers or crackers: there is no “one loaf” that is broken, and with wafers, only one is (symbolically?) broken in the stead of the other wafers.

  5. Girlfriend: Do you love me?
    Lover: Yes.
    Girlfriend: How do I know?
    Lover: I have a necklace for you.
    Girlfriend: You do? I can’t believe it!
    Lover: Here. (Smiles. Hangs sign around her neck that says, “This is a necklace.” Kisses her.)
    Girlfriend: But…?!

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