I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.

John 16:28

Since yesterday is Ascension Day, I thought I would write something on the relationship between the Ascension of Christ and Christ’s presence in the Eucharist; a historical discussion on the various schools of thought on this topic.

The Truth of Christ’s Words

The key consideration in all discussions about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is primarily the question of in what sense is it true of what Christ has said concerning this bread/cup that it is ‘My Body which is broken for you’/’the new testament in my blood which is shed for you for the remission of sins’. All major denominations affirms that somehow the bread and the cup are Christ’s bodily presence, except for groups for whom the sacramentality of the gospel (as visible and tangible proclamation), and so its character as gospel, is entirely forgotten. We can safely disregard those groups. We begin first with the Roman Catholic doctrine, before moving on to the Reformed doctrine, before ending with the Lutheran and Anglican understanding on it.

Before we begin, we need to understand some background to the issue. First, no denomination, not even the Roman Catholics, actually believe that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, that Christ physical flesh and blood is somehow united to the bread and the wine, a doctrine otherwise known as “impanation”, which has been unambiguously rejected by all major denominations, even the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, I don’t think the distinction between “real” and “spiritual” presence would be very helpful, without understanding the context for the meaning of “presence” within the various traditions.

Thus, given this fact, discussions about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist before the Reformation has occurred within certain limits or “boundary conditions”. (1) It is impossible for Christ’s physical or “local” body to be located at more than two places at once, and therefore (2), given that Christ’s body is in heaven, it cannot be located anywhere on earth, not even on the altars of the Church. St Thomas Aquinas would put it this way,

That one body should be at the same time locally in two different places is not possible, even by a miracle. Therefore, the Body of Christ is not on the altar locally.

Scriptum in Sent., lib. IV., dist. 44, ques. 2, art. 2, ad quar.

It is impossible that the Body of Christ should be made present under the Sacrament by a local motion, because if this were so, it would follow that the Body of Christ would cease to be in heaven whenever the Sacrament was celebrated.

Contra Gentiles, lib. IV., cap. 63.

Thus, given the fact that bodily it is impossible for Christ to be “located” on altars on earth, in what sense is the sacrament on earth Christ’s body and blood?

Roman Catholicism and Transubstantiation

For St Thomas Aquinas, his answer, to put it succinctly, is as follows. While the accidents of the bread and the wine remain what they are, the substance of it has been converted from bread and wine to Christ’s flesh and blood. What this means is that empirically speaking, according to the senses of this world, the bread and the wine behaves exactly like bread and wine, it tastes the same, it smells the same, and if you put the wine under a microscope, you wouldn’t find any blood cells in it. But in reality (whatever that means), which for simplicity sake and for the purpose of this discussion, let’s call, “in the eyes of God”, it is the Body and Blood of Christ.

Of course, one might very well ask how can the “substance” of something be separated from its “accidents”. According to Aquinas, it can happen only by a miracle, a new miracle which happens at every mass. But in order for it to be a sacrament, this miracle must be predictable, it can’t happen as and when the Spirit blows, we must know where to find it. This miracle is guaranteed by the Church. God gives the Church, through its priesthood, the authority to invoke this miracle whenever the priest consecrates the bread and the wine. Thus, the truth that this bread and this wine is Christ’s bodily presence, is guaranteed by the ministry of the Church.

Reformed Understanding of Presence by Faith

Strangely enough, no matter how different the Reformed understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist may be from the Roman Catholics, they operated within the same boundary conditions or limits. Calvin himself emphasized the boundary conditions set down by Aquinas in these words,

For this is the hope of our resurrection and ascension into heaven, that Christ rose and ascended… And this is the eternal truth of any body, that it is contained in its place.

Thus, Calvin would maintain the premise that Christ’s body is in heaven, and can’t possibly be physically present on altars on earth. However, the Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic’s claim that the Church guarantees the truth of Christ’s words; the Church does not guarantee that the bread and the wine partake of the truth of Christ’s words, rather, it is the word that is the guarantor of the church and all its rites.

Thus, since the Church and its priesthood doesn’t constitute the truth of Christ’s words regarding the sacraments, what does? Calvin’s solution is to replace the authority of the Church with the faith of individuals, worked by the Spirit.

This is how it works according to the teachings of Theodore de Beze, one of Calvin’s students. The Spirit uses the word and the visible sign (i.e. the bread and the wine) together, miraculously to gain access to the soul and thus to create faith. And by faith created by the Spirit, to whom local separation means nothing, the believer is joined to the whole Christ in heaven, in a spiritual-bodily communion as intimate and complete as any Catholic or Lutheran could wish.

This account does have some important, and objectionable consequences. Whereas the Catholic doctrine can guarantee the presence of Christ independently of the faith or disbelief of the individual, the Reformed solution obviously cannot make the same guarantee. Therefore, classical Reformers taught that for the unbelieving communicant, Christ is simply absent. No faith, no presence. Its a little like Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment where the act of observing an experiment changes its results, so likewise, it is how you look on the sacrament which determines its reality. If you look on it with faith, it is the Body and Blood of Christ, if you look on it disbelievingly, it is nothing more than bread and wine. Luther however would vehemently object to this to which we now turn.

Lutheran Solution and its Elimination of the Boundary Condition

Luther denounced the Reformed teaching on the sacraments in unambiguous terms, accusing them of being “scourges of the sacraments”. One quibble was that it is hard to see why the unworthy unbeliever would be eating and drinking judgement if it were just ordinary bread and wine and nothing more, and that it has to be the body and blood of Christ, independently of that person’s faith, which is the reason why unbelieving eating and drinking would invoke God’s judgement. But this is a minor point compared to a more fundamental gospel issue at stake which provoked the violence of Luther’s objections.

In Reformed doctrine, Christ’s words of promise in the Supper would simply be untrue when addressed to an unworthy unbelieving recipient, and so is no gospel promise at all, which only the unworthy needs. The person who cries ‘Lord help me with my unbelief!” would receive no comfort from the sacrament, no promise of remission of sins or strengthening of faith from the bread of life, because for this unworthy unbelieving recipient, the Christ’s words of promise of his body/blood, broken/shed for him, simply isn’t true. Thus, the objectivity of the Gospel promise, over and above the subjective unworthiness of its recipients (due to unbelief), would simply be lost. In order for the gospel promise to be true and to address unworthy persons who need help with their unbelief, its truth cannot be contingent upon the person’s unreliable subjective faith, but upon the infallible promise of Christ.

Therefore for Luther, he simply dropped the boundary condition. Christ’s body has no location or space-time characteristics of its own, distinct from its location on the altars. Thus, Luther feels no need to overcome the spatial separation between Christ’s ascended body and Christ’s body on altars. Because Christ’s body is a spiritual body, it is not bound to the laws of physics, and it is not therefore “forced” to be located at one point in some sort of space-time continuum (even a heavenly one!).

Look at it this way. When Christ was on earth in the days of his incarnation, if you wanted to speak to him or ask him anything, you have to physically locate him on the map somewhere in Israel. Miracles can be done in Christ’s name from anywhere even when he was on earth, and he can cure illnesses without being physically present, but the roman centurion still had to sent someone to locate Christ about it and tell him in the flesh about the problem before Christ can do anything about it.

Thus Christ’s bodily ascension to God’s right hand’s in heaven is not to say that he is now somehow quasi-located in some heaven which now contains his “proper” body. His “location” at God’s omnipresent right hand is simply his sharing in God’s possibility of making himself available where he wills. Before the Ascension, if you wanted to speak to Christ, you had to find him bodily somewhere on the map, after the Ascension, Christ is at God’s omnipresent right hand, you can speak to Christ anywhere on earth, because Christ’s spiritual and divine body now shares in God’s omnipresence and is available everywhere.

In particular, Christ is present at every embodiment of the Gospel promise. When absolution is pronounced, baptism performed, or the Eucharist celebrated, Christ is present by virtue of his words of promise embodied in those contexts. So whilst the Catholics makes the truth of the promise of Christ at the Supper dependent on the Church, and the Reformers make it dependent on the individual faith, the Lutherans make the truth of Christ’s promise dependent on the words of the promise itself. This bread and wine is the Body and Blood by virtue of the words of the promise of Christ, whenever we “do this” (take the elements, give thanks, break it and eat it), in commemoration of him.

This is not to say that the Lutherans have managed to work out all the problems with what they mean exactly by saying that the bread and the wine is the body and blood of Christ. But fortunately, the Anglican understanding on this issue makes the exact definition unnecessary.

Anglicanism and the Use of the Sacraments

Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker, the two of defining theologians of the Anglican tradition, focused less upon the “This is my body/my blood of the new testament” in Christ’s words, but more upon the “broken for you/shed for you for the remission of sins“. They were not so concerned as to in what exact sense Christ’s body/blood was present in the eucharist, but rather more on what is it for or in its usage. They emphasized more upon the fact that the broken bread and wine outpoured is given for us to be received for communion with Christ and for the remission of our sins. As St Paul puts it,

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

1 Corinthians 10:16

The bread somehow participates with the body of Christ and that’s what its for, to enable sharing in Christ’s life.

The Reformed Anglicans pointed out that even if the eucharistic bread and wine were “substantially” the body and blood of Christ, it is hard to see why should the sheer act of consuming Christ’s body and blood be the reception of Christ’s life and remission of sins, which is the point of the promise of Christ’s words; in fact, it would just be an act of unimaginable cannibalism. (Imagine during the days of Christ’s incarnation a deluded Jew goes and capture Christ and decides to chop him up and drain him of blood to eat his flesh “for the communion of Christ’s body” and drink his blood “for the remission of sins”, I think we can all agree that far from sharing in Christ’s life and receiving remission of sins, this cannibalism will instead earn him eternal damnation!)

Cranmer in particular focused on the grace which is offered in the sacraments according to the promise of Christ, the grace of communion with Christ and remission of sins. He described the sacraments as “tokens” or signs of Christ’s body and blood, and there is “virtue” in the eucharist, virtue being used in just the sense as when Jesus felt that ‘virtue was gone out of him’ (Mark 5:30) when the woman suffering from her bleeding touched his cloak.

The word “token” is particularly suggestive, as it is like “tokens” which arcades distribute, they have currency and value in the context of the arcade in question, as recognised by the arcade, for purposes of purchasing a game slot. In a sense, the sacraments are a little like money. Pieces of plastic notes and metal acquire value or becomes “legal tender” by the declaration of the monetary authority of Singapore. They can now be used by us to acquire goods and exchange commodities, because they have been authorised by the MAS for such purposes

In the same way, this piece of bread and this cup of wine, becomes tokens or “legal tender” in the eyes of God, for the purposes of receiving Christ’s bread of life and remission of sins, when they are consecrated according to Christ’s institution; they gain currency on the authority of Christ’s promise, there is virtue in them to effect grace unto us, to give us communion with Christ and remission of sins; these promises become true for us. This is why in Cranmer’s first Prayer Book, his epiclesis formula for consecrating the eucharistic bread and wine contains an invocation of both the Holy Spirit and the Word,

Hear us, O merciful Father, we beseech thee; and with thy Holy Spirit and Word, vouchsafe to ble+ss and san+ctify these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine, that they may be unto us, the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

Thus, it is both with the power of the Holy Ghost, and with the virtue of the promise of Christ’s words, by which these “creatures of bread and wine” “be unto us, the body and blood” of Jesus Christ.


I think in place of the common distinction between “real presence” and “spiritual presence”, we can replace it with “objective presence” and “subjective presence” . Both Roman Catholics and Reformed churches essentially hold to a “subjective presence” view, i.e. that the sacrament’s reality is subject to factors outside of the actual words of the promise of Christ, i.e. an empirically identifiable Church or an individual’s faith. The Lutheran confessions themselves condemn the Papacy as the subjectivism of one person, i.e. the Pope. Thus, against this “subjective presence”, the Lutheran tradition maintains the “objective presence” of the sacraments, that it is valid by virtue of the actual words and promise of Christ itself, independent of the subjective faith or empirical whims of a church institution. The independence of the proclamation of the Gospel promise of Christ from human control, whether by faith or by the church, is vital for the sovereignty of the Gospel of Christ above all the fallible actions of man, that it may be Christ himself who draws all man to himself.

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