Survey: What’s going on in Holy Communion?

The doctrine of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, or Lord’s Supper, is a subject of significant debate among various Christian traditions.  Often people tend to over-simplify each others’ (and even their own) views, which inhibits fruitful discussion and the ability to listen and learn.  I’m writing this to outline several major views in order to help clarify the many different nuances that exist.

The list of views that I’m outlining here, and most of their titles, I’ve taken from the book An Incarnational Model of the Eucharist by the Rev. Dr. James Arcadi, a colleague of mine from some years back.

These 10 views will be grouped into three groups of commonality: realism, spiritualism, and absenteeism.

Group One: Realism

The following five views are “realist” in that they all teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are really present in Holy Communion.  The distinctions are found in the manner of how this works, is explained and understood…

Capernite: The bread and wine literally turn into flesh and blood, such that the partakers are basically cannibals and vampires.  This view is not held by any known Christian teacher, and is listed only to mark off an extreme on the chart.  Though it is has long been an accusation leveled against Christians, such as by the Jews at Capernaum in John 6, from whom this view gets its name.

Annihilation: The invisible underlying substances of bread and wine are replaced by Christ’s Body and Blood, though they retain the “accidents” (like appearance, taste, feel, etc.) of bread and wine.  This was a medieval theory that did not gain much traction.

Transubstantiation: The substances of the bread and wine are changed into Christ’s Body and Blood.  Like Annihilationism, the sensible features of the bread and wine remain; the distinction is that the underlying reality of bread and wine are transformed rather than destroyed and replaced.  This is the official view of the Roman Catholic Church since the Lateran Council of 1215.

“Consubstantiation”: Christ’s Body and Blood exist in, with, or under the bread and wine.  Unlike the previous two views, the bread and wine still exist; the change is that the Body and Blood now co-exist with them somehow.  This is the default Lutheran teaching, and is put in quotes because this is not a term used by Luther but is a nickname often attached to his view.

Impanation: Christ’s Body and Blood are united with the substance of bread and wine, analogously to how Christ’s divine nature was united with a human flesh and soul at the incarnation.  This is the teaching of a Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander.

Group Two: Spiritualism

The following three views are “spiritualist” in that they regard Christ’s presence to be spiritual – in the celebration or act of Holy Communion rather than localized specifically in the bread and wine.

Transignification: Christ’s Body and Blood are identified in the bread and wine by the faithful.  So although there is no underlying change in the bread and wine, the faithful in a sense speak Christ’s presence into reality.  It’s a matter of identification on our part, rather than a miracle on God’s part.  This is the teaching of E. Schillebeeckx.

Instrumentalism: Christ’s Body and Blood nourish the faithful in the bread and wine, which the Holy Spirit uses basically as instruments to communicate Christ’s body and blood to the faithful recipient.  This is broadly understood to be the teaching of John Calvin.

Parallelism: Christ’s Body and Blood are fed upon in the hearts of the faithful, just as the mouth feeds upon bread and wine.  It’s an analogy, truly brought about by the Holy Spirit.  This is the teaching of Thomas Cranmer.

Group Three: Absenteeism

The following two views are “absenteeist” in that they do not regard Christ to be any more present in Holy Communion than he is in any other part of Creation.

Memorialist: The Lord’s Supper is a special opportunity for the faithful to reflect upon the Body and Blood of Christ.  This is the teaching of Ulrich Zwingli.

Adeipnonism: There is nothing special or necessary about celebrating the Lord’s Supper; the Church is free to do it or not.  The term “adeipnonism” is Greek for “no supper”, describing those who refuse to celebrate Holy Communion.  This view is held by Quakers and the Salvation Army.

What to make of these views?

From a neutral standpoint, I can only tell you to look at your church tradition’s teachings to discover what view, or range of views are acceptable.  Some are more specific than others.

As an Anglican, I can say that “consubstantiation”, impanation, instrumentalism, and parallelism have all been held and defended by prominent Anglicans since the Reformation.  The outlier views (capernism, annihilationism, transubstantiation, and both absenteeist views) are clearly ruled out in the formularies, particularly Article 28.

Looking at the scope of Church history, particularly its more united period in the first milennium, virtually all Christian writings fell into the Realist group, with hints of the Spiritualist group here and there.  Absenteeism was never accepted before the Radical Reformation, and was typically ruled as outright heresy.

If you want my opinion, I find the views that are the most faithful to biblical teaching, as well as historical teaching, are “consubstantiaion” and impanation.  The further away you get from those in either direction on the list, the more trouble you run into.  But, as an Anglican, I accept that many of our number teach a form of Spiritualism, and I believe that as long as they adhere to the common liturgy of our Prayer Books, God will honor their ministry.  After all, we all make mistakes here and there.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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