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.
– 39 Articles of Religion: Article XXVIII. OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
Presence in the Object versus Present in the Event
Most inter-denominational discussion on the Lord’s Supper focuses on objects or elements of the bread and wine and asks how Christ’s physical body and blood is present in the bread and wine. Whether it is transubstantiation, real presence, spiritual presence, or symbolic, most of the discussion on this topic is focused on the relationship between the objects/elements of the bread/wine with the physical body/blood of Christ and how they are “united”, if at all, together.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper, which shall be explained below, is of a revolutionary reorienation of the question. For him, as I hope to show, the relationship between the bread/wine with the physical body/blood of Christ is somewhat of a non-question or at best a secondary question. For him he locates the presence of Christ, not with the elements in the Lord’s Supper, but with the actions and events of the Lord’s Supper. It is the acts and events, namely, the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine in remembrance of Christ’s death, which constitutes the Lord’s Supper, which is of primary importance, for it is those events/actions which figuratively corresponds to the spiritual reality of us being incorporated into the body and life of Christ and us being forgiven of our sins by the death and blood of Christ. As such the physical actions in the Lord’s Supper figuratively corresponds to the spiritual acts of Christ for us and in us in our souls. (Such a figurative reading of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ can be argued to have precedence in Clement of Alexandria’s The Paedagogus: Book 1, Chapter 6.)
If the primary focus of the Lord’s Supper is a figurative correspondence between the physical acts on our part and the spiritual acts of Christ for us, how Christ’s physical body is related to the bread in the Lord’s Supper is a question of irrelevance. This is simply because Christ’s body in this context is simply a figure for the Body of Christ qua Christian fellowship, communion of saints, and common life, which life/fellowship is communicated to us when we share the meal and feast, an event of which the objects, the bread and wine, is of secondary importance. As the Article 28 of the 39 Articles puts it, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, not of the body and blood of Christ, but “of our redemption by Christ’s death”, a physical event/action figuratively corresponding to a spiritual event/action.
However how exactly are the physical acts/events of eating/drinking the bread/wine connected to the spiritual realities of us being incorporated into the life and body of Christ and being forgiven of our sins by the blood of Christ? The link between the physical and spiritual reality is testimony and faith. The physical eating and drinking visibly testifies to us the spiritual realities, we believe the testimonies to the benefit of our souls.
In summary there are two parts to Cranmer’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper: (1) The main purpose of the Lord’s Supper is testify, certify, and assure us of Christ’s communion with us and his benefits for us. (2) The physical eating of the bread and wine corresponds to the spiritual eating of the body and blood of Christ which is itself a figure of our reception of Christ’s life and forgiveness. (3) The physical eating testifies to us the spiritual realities to which it corresponds, which testimonies we grasp by faith is the proper spiritual eating.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17; The Cup and Bread as Communion with Christ
In his A Defence of the True and Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Saviour Christ, Cranmer gives his reading of 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 in these words:
…our Saviour Christ called the material bread which he brake, his body, and the wine (which was the fruit of the vine) his blood, And yet he spake not this to the intent that men should think that material bread is his very body, or that his very body is material bread: neither that wine made of grapes is his very blood, or that his very blood is wine made of grapes, but to signify unto us (as St. Paul saith) that the cup is a communion of Christ’s blood that was shed for us, and the bread is a communion of his flesh that was crucified for us. So that although, in the truth of his human nature, Christ be in heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father, yet whosoever eateth of that bread in the supper of the Lord, according to Christ’s institution and ordinance, is assured by Christ’s own promise and testament, that he is a member of his body, and receiveth the benefits of his passion, which he suffered for us upon the cross. And likewise he that drinketh of that holy cup in that supper of the Lord, according to Christ’s institution, is certified by Christ’s legacy and testament, that he is made partaker of the blood of Christ, which was shed for us. And this meant St. Paul, when he saith, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless, a communion of the blood of Christ ? Is not the bread which we break, a communion of the body of Christ?
Thus the eating of the bread in the supper figuratively corresponds to being “a member of his body” and receiving the benefits of his passion, while the drinking of the holy cup corresponds to being a “partaker of the blood of Christ, which was shed for us.” What do such physical acts of eating and drinking do? They assure and certify to us the spiritual realities to which they figuratively correspond. This, according to Cranmer, is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper.
The Body and Blood of Christ as “Meat” and “Drink”
Cranmer explains the doctrine of spiritual eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood via a two step argumentation. First he establishes the sense in which Christ’s body and blood are “meat” and “drink” for us:
The meat, drink, food and refreshing of the soul, is our Saviour Christ, as he said himself. “Come unto me all you that travail and be laden, and I will refresh you’.” — ” And if any man be dry,”saith he, “let him come to me and drink. He that believeth in me, floods of water of life shall flow out of his belly’.” — “And I am the bread of life,” saith Christ; “he that cometh to me, shall not be hungry ; and he that believeth in me, shall never be dry ‘.” For as meat and drink do comfort the hungry body, so doth the death of Christ’s body, and the shedding of his blood, comfort the soul, when she is after her sort hungry. What thing is it that comforteth and nourisheth the body ? Forsooth, meat and drink. By what names then shall we call the body and blood of our Saviour Christ (which do comfort and nourish the hungry soul) but by the names of meat and drink ? And this similitude caused our Saviour to say, “My flesh is very meat, and my blood is very drink.” For there is no kind of meat that is comfortable to the soul, but only the death of Christ’s blessed body ; nor no kind of drink that can quench her thirst, but only the blood-shedding of our Saviour Christ, which was shed for her offences. For as there is a carnal generation, and a carnal feeding and nourishment, so is there also a spiritual generation, and a spiritual feeding… And as everyman is carnally fed and nourished in his body by meat and drink, even so is every good Christian man spiritually fed and nourished in his soul by the flesh and blood of our Saviour Christ. And as the body liveth by meat and drink, and thereby increaseth and groweth from a young babe unto a perfect man, (which thing experience teacheth us,) so the soul liveth by Christ himself, by pure faith eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And this Christ himself teacheth us in the sixth of John, saying, “Verily, verily I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day : for my flesh is very meat, and my blood is very drink. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father, even so he that eateth me, shall live by me.” And this St. Paul confessed of himself, saying, “That I have life, I have it by faith in the Son of God. And now it is not I that live, but Christ liveth in me.”
And in like manner Christ ordained the sacrament of his body and blood in bread and wine, to preach unto us, that as our bodies be fed, nourished, and preserved with meat and drink, so (as touching our spiritual life towards God) we be fed, nourished, and preserved by the body and blood of our Saviour Christ ; and also that he is such a preservation unto us, that neither the devils of hell, nor eternal death, nor sin, can be able to prevail against us, so long as, by true and constant faith, we be fed and nourished with that meat and drink. And for this cause Christ ordained this sacrament in bread and wine, (which we eat and drink, and be chief nutriments of our body,) to the intent that as surely as we see the bread and wine with our eyes, smell them with our noses, touch them with our hands, and taste them with our mouths; so assuredly ought we to believe, that Christ is our spiritual life and sustenance of our souls, like as the said bread and wine is the food and sustenance of our bodies. And no less ought we to doubt, that our souls be fed and live by Christ, than that our bodies be fed and live by meat and drink. So that the eating and drinking of this sacramental bread and wine, is, as it were, a shewing of Christ before our eyes, a smelling of him with our noses, a feeling and groping of him with our hands, and an eating, chawing, digesting, and feeding upon him to our spiritual strength and perfection.
Fifthly, it is to be noted, that although there be many kinds of meats and drinks, which feed the body, yet our Saviour Christ (as many ancient authors write) ordained this sacrament of our spiritual feeding in bread and wine, rather than in other meats and drinks, because that bread and wine do most truly represent unto us the spiritual union and knot of all faithful people, as well unto Christ, as also amongst themselves. For like as bread is made of a great number of grains of corn, ground, baken, and so joined together, that thereof is made one loaf; and an infinite number of grapes be pressed together in one vessel, and thereof is made wine ; likewise is the whole multitude of true Christian people spiritually joined, first to Christ, and then among themselves together, in one faith, one baptism, one holy spirit, one knot and bond of love.
Here he makes a figurative argument. Just as physical meat and drink nourishes the body, likewise does Christ’s body and blood nourishes the soul. However what is of interest is how exactly does Christ’s body and blood nourish the soul. The soul is “nourished” by Christ’s body and blood by being comforted by the death of Christ’s body for us and the shedding of his blood for us. Again, the nourishment doesn’t refer to the physical body and blood of Christ but to specific historical events, the event of Christ’s death and blood shedding for us. It is the “comforts” of these events which are properly meat and drink to us, not the actual consumption of the physical body and blood of Christ. Amongst other “comforts” or benefits which the body and blood of Christ, properly referring to the historical event of his death, brings is his preservation of us from the devil, hell, and sin prevailing against us. The final figure to which the bread and wine corresponds is that of the Body of Christ qua Church and Communion of saints. That to partake or share the physical bread is to partake of the fellowship, union and knot of all the faithful people together with Christ.
Spiritual Eating and Drinking
Having explained the sense in which Christ’s body and blood are “meat” and “drink” to us, we can look at the nature of the “spiritual” eating of the body and blood of Christ. Cranmer expresses it in these terms:
…this spiritual meat of Christ’s body and blood, is not received in the mouth, and digested in the stomach, (as corporal meats and drinks commonly be,) but it is received with a pure heart, and a sincere faith. And the true eating and drinking of the said body and blood of Christ, is with a constant and a lively faith to believe that Christ gave his body, and shed his blood upon the cross for us, and that he doth so join and incorporate himself to us, that he is our head, and we his members, and flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones, having him dwelling in us, and we in him. And herein standeth the whole effect and strength of this sacrament. And this faith God worketh inwardly in our hearts by his holy Spirit, and confirmeth the same outwardly to our ears by hearing of his word, and to our other senses, by eating and drinking of the sacramental bread and wine in his holy supper. What thing then can be more comfortable to us, than to eat this meat and drink this drink? Whereby Christ certifieth us, that we be spiritually and truly fed and nourished by him, and that we dwell in him, and he in us. Can this be shewed unto us more plainly, than when he saith himself, “He that eateth me, shall live by me?” Wherefore whosoever doth not contemn the everlasting life, how can he but highly esteem this sacrament? How can he but embrace it, as a sure pledge of his salvation ? And when he seeth godly people devoutly receive the same, how can he but be desirous oftentimes to receive it with them ? Surely no man, that well understandeth and diligently weigheth these things, can be without a great desire to come to this holy supper.
This is probably the clearest summary of Cranmer’s doctrine on the Lord’s Supper. To “eat” and “drink” Christ’s body/blood spiritually just is to believe that “Christ gave his body, and shed his blood upon the cross for us, and that he doth so join and incorporate himself to us, that he is our head, and we his members, and flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones, having him dwelling in us, and we in him.” Thus the physical eating and drinking of the bread and wine certifies and testifies to us these things, which we “spiritually” consume by believing in the spiritual realities to which they figure, that is, Christ’s giving of his body and dying for us, against events and not things.
No Figure without Actual Bread and Wine
To better understand the figurative nature of Cranmer’s argument we can take a look at Cranmer’s first objection to the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. While most objections to transubstantiation is focused on the physicality of the body and blood of Christ and the impossibility of its consumption or presence, Cranmer’s main objection against transubstantiation is not the physical presence of Christ’s body and blood but the absence of the bread and wine. Without the bread and wine there would be nothing to figure the spiritual realities and no physical medium to confirm the spiritual realities to us.
But all these foresaid godly admonitions, exhortations, and comforts, do the Papists (as much as lieth in them) take away from all Christian people, by their Transubstantiation.
For if we receive no bread nor wine in the holy communion, then all those lessons and comforts be gone, which we should learn and receive by eating of the bread and drinking of the wine. And that fantastical imagination giveth an occasion utterly to subvert our whole faith in Christ. For if this sacrament be ordained in bread and wine (which be food for the body) to signify and declare unto us our spiritual food by Christ, then if our corporal feeding upon the bread and wine be but fantastical, (so that there is no bread nor wine there indeed to feed upon, although there appear there to be,) then it doth us to understand, that our spiritual feeding in Christ is also fantastical, and that indeed we feed not of him. Which sophistry is so devilish and wicked, and so much injurious to Christ, that it could not come from any other person but only from the devil himself, and from his special minister, Antichrist.
If we are unaware, the doctrine of transubstantiation states that by priestly consecration the substance of the bread and wine is converted to the body and blood of Christ and it effectively ceases to be bread and wine. It mere looks or appears to be bread and wine but it simply ceases to exist. There is no trace of any bread and wine, there is only the body and blood of Christ. Cranmer’s objection as such is that if there is truly no bread and wine, then there is simply no “material base” which figures the spiritual eating or testimonies of spiritual realities. It is only by eating the actual physical bread and wine whereby the spiritual realities are figured to us. If there is no physical bread and wine then nothing is figured and it corresponds to nothing.
This is not in Cranmer’s argument, but suppose you answer that well, you have the substantial body and blood of Christ (supposedly). Isn’t that a good thing? The reply is, but what good does the physical body and blood do? If say you were a Jew living during the time of Christ and perchance you came across him and then waylaid him and chopped off some chunks of meat off Christ and ate it. Will you receive any remission of sins? Be in fellowship and communion with Christ and his disciples? Or is it more likely that you will be condemned for assaulting and injuring Christ? As such the sheer physical eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood does nothing. As Christ himself puts it in the climax to the discourse on what eating his flesh truly means in John 6:63:
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.
The flesh as such profits or means nothing, eating Christ’s physical flesh will do no need. Rather, it is the words, that is, what Christ ordained, which properly gives life and are spirit. And it is by obeying and following the words of Christ to celebrate his death by eating actual physical bread and wine, whereby the spiritual realities which they figure are communicated to us.
Conclusion: Christ’s Spiritual and Sacramental Presence in Us and the Events
I am still working through Cranmer’s entire defence but I think this little analysis of his first book gives us more or less the broad outlines of his theology of the Lord’s Supper. Cranmer’s focus as such is not on the elements but the actions and events in the Lord’s Supper, which actions and events figuratively corresponds to the spiritual realities of Christ’s death, blood shedding for us, and his incorporation of us into his fellowship.
As such if one were to speak the language of “presence”, Christ is present at the event itself, he dines and feasts with us, during our celebration of his death. When we eat and drink the bread and wine in his memory and his name, Christ, through the Holy Spirit, testifies to us in our hearts and soul his work for us and on our behalf, for us and for our salvation. He is present, as such, not so much in the elements but in us, as Cranmer himself would put it:
And although Christ in his human nature substantially, really, corporeally, naturally and sensibly, be present with his Father in heaven, yet sacramentally and spiritually he is here present in water, bread, and wine, as in signs and sacraments, but he is indeed spirittually in the faithful Christian people, which according to Christ’s ordinance be baptized, or receive the holy communion, or unfeignedly believe in him.
One thought on “Present at the Event; Thomas Cranmer’s Lord Supper as a Figure of our Redemption”
Excellent distillation of Cranmer, a big thank you from an Anglican seminary student 🙂