Rob Sturdy: Martin Luther’s Personal Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper

20 12 2011

The essay below is about how Martin Luther conceives of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.

How, if at all, is Christ present in the Eucharist?  The question itself was one of the most hotly contested of the Protestant Reformation.  Though the question is formally a matter of sacramental theology, the answer to the question for the Reformers often rested upon their own Christological presuppositions.  After all, how one understands the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, as well as what limits (if any!) one believes should be placed upon the physical body of Jesus, will influence how one understands the possibility of the presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine.  One could say that Christology sets the ground rules for sacramental theology.

For many of the Reformed, the Christology that sets the ground rules for their sacramental theology has come to be known as the extra-Calvinisticum. Oberman defines the extra-Calvinisticum as the theological conviction “that the immutable God became man without diminution or loss as regards any of his attributes” joined with the conviction that the “existence of the second person of the Trinity et extra cernem.” [1]To put it more simply, the extra holds to the ubiquity of the divine Word and the local presence of the physical body of Jesus contained in heaven, while emphasizing the unity of the two in the person of Christ.[2] The doctrine lends itself to a real, albeit spiritual, presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to memorialism.  Because of Christ’s physical presence in heaven, the doctrine prohibits a carnal presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to transubstantiation.  It is typically supposed that because the doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum prohibits a true, carnal presence it must then also oppose Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation.  This paper will argue that this is not necessarily so.  Using Luther’s writings from 1520 up until the eve of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, I will argue that the highly nuanced Christology underpinning Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation is thoroughly consistent with the extra-Calvinisticum.  It will be shown that Luther believes that the humanity of Christ is locally present at the right hand of God and that the divinity of Christ maintains a ubiquitous or extra presence in the world.  Furthermore it will be shown that by virtue of the union between the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, Christ can really and truly be said to be present in the Lord’s Supper.  This will serve to benefit a larger project of historical theology, tracing the development and significance of the extra-Calvinisticum in Christian thought and practice.

To understand Luther’s Christology one must enter the world of the Eucharistic controversy of the 1520’s.  Luther credits his adversaries for prompting the work that historians widely regard as responsible for initiating a Protestant discourse on sacramental theology.   “Whether I wish it or not,” he writes, “I am compelled to become more learned every day, with so many and such able masters eagerly driving me on and making me work.”[3] The work that Luther refers to here is his famous The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It was The Babylonian Captivity that prompted Erasmus to declare the breach with Rome and Wittenberg “irreparable.”  It prompted Henry VIII of England to write his clumsy, yet nevertheless famous 78 quarto page work denouncing Luther and defending Roman positions on the sacraments.[4] Within a year of Luther’s publication Karlstadt had begun massive reforms concerning the Lord’s Supper.[5] Likewise in the same year Zwingli renounced his own pension.[6] Because of the explosive effect Luther’s work had on Europe, especially in regards to the subject matter, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church is the best place to begin an exploration of the Christological presuppositions introduced to the Eucharistic discourse of the 1520’s. Read the rest of this entry »