This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 28 states:
XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
The doctrine of Holy Communion is a complex subject with a great deal of development in the language describing it over the course of history, and, with the advent of the Reformation, a proliferation of teachings regarding what it is, what happens in it, and how it works. Today the popular conception is to reduce it to two views: the “Protestant” view which says that Communion is purely a symbolic act that we do to remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, and the “Catholic” view which says that the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ. (In an extra twist of irony, the usually-literal-only Protestants here accuse the Catholics of being too literal in their reading of Scripture!)
In actual fact, though, there is a variety of teachings among various Protestant churches that run the gamut from one extreme to the other. I generally group them into three categories, each with their own particulars and nuances: realism, spiritualism, and absenteeism.
A realist view takes Christ’s words at face value (“This is my body…”) and accounts this as a central argument for the sacramental nature of Holy Communion – that it is a means of grace from which we benefit. The mode of Christ’s presence, how his Body and Blood are there, is of some debate among realists: Roman Catholic dogma upholds transubstantiation (the bread and wine become the body and blood), Luther taught that the body and blood are comingled with the bread wine, the Eastern Orthodox Church generally doesn’t venture a coherent explanation, preferring the mystery. Most of the Early Church Fathers taught a form of realism.
A spiritualist view asserts Christ’s presence in a spiritual manner: Christ is present in the celebration of Holy Communion at the table, not necessarily in or with the bread and wine specifically. John Calvin is one of the foremost theologians in this tradition, whose views went on to dominate the Reformed churches and heavily influence the early Anglican reformers. Although attention is often drawn away from the instrumental use of the bread and wine, these views still insist that Holy Communion is a real sacrament. Versions of the spiritualist view can be discerned in the writings of the Early Church Fathers.
An absentee view argues the “real absence” of Christ: the bread and wine are only reminders of Christ’s sacrifice, and the act of Holy Communion is not a sacrament (means of grace) but an ordinance (command of God). Proponents of this view usually refer to it as memorialism, but they mean that term in a reductionist manner: it’s all about men remembering God, rather than the biblical richness of the word which usually refers to God’s remembering of man. One of the first major Protestant champions of this sort of view was Ulrich Zwingli, and absenteeism eventually became the predominant evangelical view in 20th century America. For most of Church history, this view was considered a false teaching at best, and heresy at worst.
Pinning down the Anglican teaching on Holy Communion is a challenge. The language of Article 28 here is heavily slanted in the spiritualist direction, because many of the English reformers were informed by Calvinist theology in Geneva. The language of the Prayer Book is heavily slanted in the realist direction, because (despite themselves) the English reformers tended to be liturgically conservative. Furthermore, because the Church of England was a state church, its leaders had to work very hard to formulate their Articles of Religion in a way that would satisfy a range of opinions – to a point. Thus Article 28 sounds very Calvinistic, but has a few turns of phrase that keep the door open for realists who were more informed by Lutheran teaching.
It begins with a negative statement: Holy Communion “is not only a sign of the love…” This rules out Zwingli’s memorialism or absenteeism, asserting instead that it “is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death”. It goes on to assert that those who receive the bread and wine with faith are partakers of Chris’s Body and Blood. This statement straddles both the realist and spiritualist views without stepping on anyone’s toes except those who reject the sacramental nature of Holy Communion. If we can be sure of anything about the Anglican doctrine of Holy Communion, it’s that it is a real act of God, giving grace to those who receive it.
The second statement is a rejection of the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. Specifically, Article 28 says that transubstantiation “overthrows the nature of a sacrament.” This is, in fact, the most direct way to criticize the Roman doctrine. A Sacrament is a means of grace – God’s use of an ordinary earthly thing to convey a special heavenly thing. The doctrine of transubstantiation, asserting that the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine except in mere appearance, breaks down the definition of a sacrament. If it’s only Christ’s body and blood, how is it any longer an earthly vehicle for Christ’s body and blood?
The third statement is where a Calvinist spiritualist view most directly takes charge, teaching that the Body [and Blood] of Christ is “given, taken, and eaten… only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.” This clearly takes the emphasis off the idea that Christ is truly present, body and soul, in the Sacrament, and directs our attention toward our own faithful participation in Christ through the Sacrament. The concession to the realist view, however, is found in the word “given” – the Body of Christ “is given” in the Sacrament. Anglican teaching clearly keeps us away from the Roman doctrine, and doesn’t put Lutheran teaching in the fore, in favor of Calvinist teaching, yet makes a little room for Lutheran teaching if the individual is so convinced from the Scriptures. We have room for a little disagreement in these details, thanks be to God.
The fourth and final statement of Article 28 is that Holy Communion was not instituted to be “reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped”. These refer to various customs of the time. The reservation of the Sacrament is the practice of setting aside some consecrated bread to bring to the sick or homebound after the liturgy was ended. The Sacrament was “carried about” on solemn holidays such as Corpus Christi, when a procession around the neighborhood would have some consecrated bread on display. The just-consecrated bread was “lifted up” during the Communion prayers so the faithful could see it and be blessed. The consecrated bread was “worshipped” or rather, adored in special liturgies and in private as an extra devotion to Christ in his sacramental presence. Many of these practices have worked their way back into Anglican tradition in the past century, safely removed from the medieval superstitions that had overtaken them by the 16th century when these Articles were written.
Article 29 will cover more of this subject, so stay tuned…