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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther’s Theology of the Lord’s Supper

Summary and Keywords

The central act of Christian worship is a mystery embodied in a meal. From its earliest expressions, Christianity has practiced the celebration of the Eucharist (lit. “thanksgiving,” from the Greek adjective εὐχάριστος “thankful, grateful”), later and variably also known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Mass (Catholic), and the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodoxy). The practice, which has taken innumerable liturgical forms and religious glosses in the course of Christianity’s history, at minimum both serves as the reiteration of Jesus’s final Passover meal and encapsulates a host of significant biblical and theological images and ideas, including fellowship and community, divine presence, creation, spiritual nourishment, participation, the eschatological celebration, embodiment, and the suffering and death of Jesus. The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is a central theme in Luther’s theology and literary deposit, and it played a significant role in the development of early Protestant doctrine and practice. Worked out primarily in the course of political crises and controversies among a host of interlocutors, both Catholic and Protestant, Luther’s teaching on the Supper reflects deep-seated commitments in areas such as Christology, the relationship between theology and philosophy, and the doctrine of ministry, to name but a few, and it bears important implications for a variety of dogmatic, practical, church-political, and interdisciplinary concerns.

Keywords: Lord’s Supper, Mass, Luther, reform, sacrament(s) baptism Christology crucifixion sacrifice communicatio idiomatum

Texts, Trends, and Themes of Luther’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Theological accounts of the Lord’s Supper typically treat it beneath the heading of Christian sacraments, listing the Supper alongside baptism (most Protestants), sometimes these two together with absolution, or penance (some Protestants), in other arrangements these three plus confirmation, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony (Catholic Christianity), or, at least in the case of Orthodox Christianity, these seven within a larger crosshatch of sacramental rites and practices carried out by the church (e.g., monastic tonsure, the burial of the dead). In all of these instances, the word “sacrament”—from the Latin sacramentum, the translation of the Greek μυστήριον‎ (English, “mystery”)—is used as a designation for a liturgical event, carried out in the context of a church’s ordinary discharge of its ministries, connected to some biblical (usually New Testament) precedent (e.g., an episode from the public ministry of Jesus, a ritual practiced by the nascent Christian church), and in the occurrence of which members of the community, in some way or another, participate in, experience, or celebrate Christianity’s constitutive religious phenomena.

Significantly, especially for a survey of Luther’s account of the Lord’s Supper, Christians have long debated a nest of issues pertaining to the ontology of the sacraments—that is, to aspects such as sacramental efficacy, sacramental action, and the sacramental elements. There are, as it were, “high” and “low” Christian theologies of the sacraments; the former broadly and variably conceptualize the sacramental events as nexuses of divine and human action during which the mysteries of the faith are mediated or enacted through or by use of the elements, while the latter unfold the idea that the sacraments are primarily, if not exclusively, human liturgical actions, the significance of which is due not to any efficaciousness, but to their functions as emblems of Christian commitment and obedience.

While Luther does in a few texts discuss the sacraments categorically, often describing baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and occasionally penance according to the Augustinian definition of a sacrament as the word of God attached to an external sign, he does not spend too much time describing the Supper as an instantiation of some general sacramental principle. Luther, rather, understands the Lord’s Supper as a unique component of the life of the church, in the celebrations of which the risen and ascended Jesus Christ is present, in body and blood, in the midst of his people. As such, we may say that Luther’s view of the Supper is thoroughgoingly “high,” since he upholds the notion that Christ is efficaciously available in the church’s actions and the liturgical elements.

Luther composed a total of fourteen major expositions covering the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper1 or themes pertaining directly to the topic,2 beginning with “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” which appeared in 1519 as the third part of a trilogy, alongside “The Sacrament of Penance”3 and “The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism.”4 These fourteen documents comprise the main deposit of primary source materials for the study of Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. All of these major writings on the Supper are, in varying ways, polemical pieces composed by Luther in defense of the newly emerging evangelical, or Protestant, teachings and practices. The documentary history evidences a shift in Luther’s defensive focus occurring roughly in the middle of the 1520s,5 and this, in turn, corresponds to the fact that Luther engaged in skirmishes over the Lord’s Supper on two fronts—against the long-established sacramental doctrines, traditions, and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, on one hand, and against various factions of reformational Christianity, on the other. Scholarship on Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper has typically divided its labor according to these polemical trajectories, contra Catholicism, and contra Protestant figures such as Karlstadt and Zwingli.

A nuanced unfolding of this bifurcated approach to Luther’s theological development must articulate the continuities and discontinuities between, on one hand, Luther and other early Protestant (i.e., Lutheran) theologians sympathetic to his program, and, on the other, the Catholic and non-Lutheran Protestant interlocutors who received the brunt of his polemic. To be even more precise, it is demonstrable that Luther made some significant departures from the sacramental theology of antecedent Catholic scholastic dogmatics while remaining broadly in harmony with its “high” sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, although the theologians of the Swiss and radical reformations joined Luther in opposition to the Catholic theology of the Mass at least on certain points, they also vehemently rejected the broad thrust of Luther’s “high” sacramental theology in favor of a decisively “low” view of the Supper. We thus summarize this reading in the following way: Luther’s relationship with antecedent and contemporaneous Catholicism in regard to the Lord’s Supper is marked by some significant breaks occurring within the context of a broad continuity, while Luther and the Swiss and radical reformers share points of convergence but end up separated by a sharp dissensus. Properly sorting out these continuities and discontinuities is critical for the disciplines of historical theology, dogmatics, and ecumenical theology, and also bears important implications for pastoral theology and liturgics.

We reiterate that most of Luther’s propositions on the Lord’s Supper were worked out in the laboratory of theological polemics. Taken as a whole, his writings on the Lord’s Supper are marked by eight key points of commitment charted out against one or another interlocutor: (1) the testament of Jesus Christ to his disciples that was instituted at the Last Supper, according to the synoptic tradition; (2) the elements of the meal as seals of Christ’s testament, affirming the validity of Christ’s promises to the recipient; (3) the mediatorial function of the sacraments, insofar as they are capable of transmitting grace to the recipient toward the end of generating salvific faith; (4) the inherent efficacy of the sacraments; (5) the objective, or real presence of Christ in and through the elements; (6) the table as the location of Christ’s enduring presence with the church; (7) the literal interpretation of Christ’s words of institution and other pertinent biblical texts on the Supper; and (8) the ubiquity of Christ’s presence and the unity of his natures. In what follows we will encounter these pivotal themes against the backdrop of Luther’s struggles in the two trajectories of 16th-century controversy over the Supper.

Luther’s Dispute with Medieval Catholic Sacramental Theology

Sacrosanctum concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, summarizes historic Catholic teaching on the Eucharist as follows:

Our savior inaugurated the eucharist (sic) sacrifice of his body and blood on the last supper on the night he was betrayed, in order to make his sacrifice of the cross last throughout time until he should return; and indeed to entrust a token to the church, his beloved wife, by which to remember his death and resurrection. It is a sacrament of faithful relationships, a sign of unity, a bond of divine love, a special easter meal. In it, “Christ is received, the inner self is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”6

While, in his day, Luther raised strenuous objections against the conception of the Catholic Eucharist as the reiteration of the sacrifice of Christ and would thus likely balk at some of the phraseology found in the first part of this conciliar statement, there is, in fact, much here that resonates with the reformer’s mature theology of the Lord’s Supper. This is because Luther’s particular breaks with the antecedent Catholic tradition are properly understood only when the broader lines of continuity are acknowledged. Indeed, Luther followed the tradition he had received in several significant respects: for instance, in his grounding the praxis of the Supper in Jesus’s final Passover meal with his disciples; situating the Supper as the link between the historical meal and the eschatological celebration; stressing the encapsulation in the meal of aspects such as community, unity, and love; and urging that Christ is really present, in body and blood, in the event of the Supper. Luther’s departures from the antecedent tradition primarily concerned practices that had become commonplace in the church by his lifetime, the role of philosophy and metaphysics in discourse over the Supper, and, again, the intricacies of the problem of Eucharistic sacrifice.

Those aspects of the Catholic tradition that Luther placed under heavy scrutiny themselves unfolded from theory to practice in the course of the history of medieval theology.7 By the end of the 13th century and leading from there up to the time of the Reformation, transubstantiation was held widely by the church’s theologians to be the centerpiece of the church’s official teaching on the Mass,8 conceptualizing long-held postures concerning the ontology of the Eucharist. In its most basic form, transubstantiation encapsulates the idea that, while the accidents, or appearances, of the Eucharistic elements—bread and wine—remain changeless during the event of the Mass, their essences are, by divine fiat, transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This Eucharistic transformation occurs as the priest consecrates the elements and initiates the sacramental rite through the proclamation of the words of institution, themselves reiterations of Jesus’s own words to his disciples during the last supper: “Take, eat: this is my body. Drink from [the cup], all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26, 27; cf. Mark 14:22, 24; Luke 22:19, 20). Further, medieval Catholic Eucharistic theology maintained that the Mass is, mysteriously, a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The priest, upon taking and distributing the elements and uttering the Eucharistic prayer, performs the sacrifice of the cross again on behalf of the gathered assembly and for the forgiveness of sins.

By Luther’s time, such theological postures concerning the ontology of the Eucharist had given way to some commonly held dispositions toward the sacramental rite, which led, in turn, to a concrete and controversial tradition of Eucharistic practices—Masses for the dead, private Masses, an increase in the construction of chapels and secondary altars, the expansion of the Eucharistic prayers, and so on.9 Moreover, in time clergy and lay participants alike began to express a high degree of reverence, or adoration, for the elements, as well as a great deal of anxiety over the prospect of dropping, spilling, or otherwise wasting them. Partly in response to these pastoral concerns, by the end of the 13th century the church had adopted the philosophical axiom of concomitance—“the body and blood of Christ are fully present in each of the consecrated elements, meaning that a communicant receiving only the wafer nevertheless receives both the body and blood at once”10—and the corollary practice of “communion in one kind,” the priestly administration of bread only, as signal components of its official Eucharistic doctrine. Since no wine was served to lay participants at the table, the embarrassing and theologically problematic possibility of spilling Jesus’ blood was eliminated. Only the priest could partake of the blood of Christ, present as the wine held in the communion chalice.

In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (BCC, 1520), a sweeping condemnation of Catholic ecclesiology and the medieval doctrine of ministry, Luther unfurls a nuanced constructive set of alternatives to what were, by then, long-established Catholic Eucharistic teachings and practices, even while remaining committed to a “high” view of the Lord’s Supper as the basis for early evangelicalism. BCC is an instructive text for understanding Luther’s theology of the Supper, not least because he summarizes the key points of departure for evangelical teaching vis-à-vis the tradition. In the treatise, Luther flatly and explicitly rejects the idea of concomitance, insisting instead that all participants of the Supper should, on all occasions of its celebration, have access to both elements. The basis of this move is, in the first instance, exegetical. Luther demonstrates that the literal interpretation of scripture, particularly of those passages in the synoptic tradition that narrate the last supper and of some corresponding statements from Paul concerning the early Christian practice of the Eucharist in Corinth, supports the liturgical use of both bread and wine for the sacrament, and never of bread alone.

Moreover, Luther folds the method of literal exegesis back upon Eck and Emser, his Catholic interlocutors in the text, showing that that the plain-sense reading of John 6:51 (“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”), cross-checked with plain-sense interpretations of John 6:55 (“for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”) and 6:53 (“So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’”), self-evidently does not support concomitance.11 At work in this passage is a key component of Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, namely his insistence that the church’s teaching and practice square with a literal reading of scripture, especially of Christ’s words of institution, but also of other passages pertinent to the development of the doctrine of the Supper.

Also, in BCC Luther asserts that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation amounts to an attempt to explain the mystery of the Eucharist through the means of fallible human reason, or philosophy. Significantly, neither here nor elsewhere in the text does he jettison the notion of Christ’s presence in the elements. His worry, rather, is with attempts by scholastically trained theologians to logically evaluate—that is, by means of reason and philosophy—the mysterious phenomenon of the real presence in the sacraments. As he puts it in a critically important passage:

Let us not dabble too much in philosophy … Does it not seem as though [Christ] desired to keep us in a simple faith, sufficient for us to believe that his blood was in the cup? For my part, if I cannot fathom how the bread is the body of Christ, yet I will take my reason captive to the obedience of Christ [II Cor. 10:5], and clinging simply to his words, firmly believe not only that the body of Christ is in the bread, but that the bread is the body of Christ … What does it matter if philosophy cannot fathom this? The Holy Spirit is greater than Aristotle. Does philosophy fathom their transubstantiation? Why, [Eck and Emser; tacitly the Pope, the bishops, and others holding teaching authority in the medieval Catholic church] themselves admit that here all philosophy breaks down.12

Luther, we might say, is here not so concerned with the outcome of the Catholic teaching, that is, its “high” view of the Supper, but with the Aristotelian logic employed to establish it. For Luther, scholastic logic distracts theology from the simple, powerful promises of Christ, encouraging it to engage in sophistries. He argues that Catholic teaching on transubstantiation fails at precisely this point, undergirding the promise of Christ’s real presence in the elements with a groundswell of opinions and arguments.13

Luther goes on in BCC to claim that “the most wicked abuse of all” of the Lord’s Supper in antecedent and contemporaneous Catholicism is the turning of the Lord’s Supper into a “good work and a sacrifice.”14 There are two significant issues at stake in this sweeping condemnation. First, Luther strenuously objects to what he saw as a vast system of religious merit, in the context of which “participations, brotherhoods, intercessions, [other] merits, anniversaries, memorial days, and the like wares are bought and sold, traded and bartered, in the church.”15 He fears that, within such an economic edifice, “the faith of this sacrament has become utterly extinct and the holy sacrament has been turned into mere merchandise, a market, and a profit-making business.”16 Closely related to this is the scholastic idea of Eucharistic sacrifice, which encapsulated the teaching that the Supper reiterates the cross of Christ insofar as the priest enacts an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the gathered assembly in saying the words of institution and the Eucharistic prayer. Not only does Luther protest this teaching on the basis of New Testament passages (e.g., Heb. 7:27, 10:1–12) which state that the sacrifice of Christ occurred only once (and that, by implication, any attempts to re-create it are ineluctably both empty and blasphemous)—; he also perceives that the mechanism of reiteration is far too easily exploited for political and economic gain when the Eucharist is codified within the structure of a meritorious system of exchange. For Luther, the biblical conception of the Supper as a promise trumps any notion that its benefits can be earned: “If the mass is a promise, as has been said, then access to it is to be gained, not with any works, or powers, or merits of one’s own, but by faith alone.”17

Luther’s Critically Constructive Eucharistic Theology from the Early 1520s

Subsequent to the publication of BCC, Luther continued to posit medieval Catholic Eucharistic theology as a foil to emerging evangelical teaching on the Lord’s Supper. At all points, he persists in advancing a “high” view of the Supper while distancing himself from the antecedent tradition and its contemporaneous expressions. In several texts on the topic written during the first half of the 1520s—“The Misuse of the Mass” (1521), “Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament” (1522), “The Adoration of the Sacrament” (1523), and “The Abomination of the Secret Mass” (1525), Luther articulates his ongoing quarrel with the Catholic theology of the Mass on issues such as concomitance, Eucharistic sacrifice, and the categorization of the Supper as a meritorious human work. In addition, some new themes emerge in this literature written against the Catholic tradition that become increasingly important for Luther as he turns his attention to intra-Protestant conflicts.

A central feature of Luther’s teaching in these texts from the early 1520s is the notion that the Lord’s Supper is a testament made by Christ to the promises of forgiveness and eternal life. For Luther, the wellspring of the theology of the Lord’s Supper is the institution of the meal by Jesus of Nazareth during his last supper with his disciples. Accordingly, Jesus’s statements “this is my body” and “this is my blood” permanently identify the elements—bread and wine—as seals, or emblems of his testament. Subsequent to the last Passover meal, the reception of the elements in the event of the Lord’s Supper affirms the testament of Christ toward and for those participating in the eating of his body and drinking of his blood. According to Luther, the promises of forgiveness and eternal life are sealed to the Supper by virtue of Jesus’ testament to his original disciples. In unfolding this argument, Luther makes much of the metaphorical link between the idea of the testament of Christ and the normal legal use of the concept of testament. As he puts it in “The Misuse of the Mass”:

A testament is nothing but the last will of one who is dying, telling how his heirs are to live with and dispose of his properties after his death … Four things are necessary in a complete and proper testament: the testator, the oral or written promise, the inheritance, and the heirs; and all of these are clearly visible to us in this testament. The testator is Christ, who is about to die. The promise is contained in the words with which the bread and wine are consecrated. The inheritance which Christ has bequeathed to us in his testament is the forgiveness of sins. The heirs are all the believers in Christ, namely, the holy elect children of God.18

He is especially insistent here that this metaphorical use of testament prevents theology from understanding the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice and/or human work.19

Luther also articulates in these texts the idea that the sacraments (visible words, following Augustine’s locution) and also preaching (audible words) enshrine the grace of the gospel and communicate it to those who partake of it, or, the case of the preached word, to those who hear it. Moreover, just as, for Luther, the sacraments are capable of communicating grace, they also, he insists, awaken, or generate faith. The external means of the sacrament reach and renew the inner person. At stake here is a pair of distinctions Luther draws between, first, the outer and inner person, and, second, the outward and inward motions of the gospel through preaching and the sacraments20—distinctions that later became especially critical in his dispute with the theologians of the radical reformations. As Luther later puts it in “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments” (1525), one of the earliest texts written expressly to counter Karlstadt’s theology: “God deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly … The inward experience follows and is effected by the outward. God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward.”21 For Luther, God has chosen to awaken the believer through (and only through) the grace communicated through the external means of Word and sacrament.

A further theme found in these texts from the early 1520s is connected to Luther’s nuanced reading of the Augustinian notion that the sacraments are effective ex opere operato, or sheerly by virtue of their being performed. In his polemic against the Donatists, Augustine had argued that priestly misconduct cannot nullify the grace of the sacraments, for they are not made effective by the ministry, but by God alone.22 On one hand, and in a vein similar to Augustine, Luther insists that the sacraments are characterized by an objective efficacy that, in the first instance, has nothing to do with the worthiness (or unworthiness) of either the administrating priest or the recipient. On the other, he was wary of claiming that faith is essentially unimportant to and in the sacramental events. He adapted to his understanding of sacramental efficacy the controversial concept of the manducatio indignorum (lit., the “eating of the unworthy”), encapsulating here the idea that unbelievers who partake in the Eucharist do indeed physically eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, albeit to their peril. As such, for Luther, the faith of the participant (or lack thereof) does not determine whether the sacrament is efficacious, but how. The sacrament is effective toward the believer in accord with the grace of God and the word of promise, and by virtue of the testament of Jesus Christ. For the unbeliever, the sacrament effectively operates as a poison.

Much of what we have examined thus far has demonstrated the soteriological thrust of Luther’s doctrine. Significantly, his teaching on the Lord’s Supper was also inextricably bound to the pervasive Christological character of his theological program. Luther argued that Christ maintains his earthly, embodied presence with his church through the event of the Supper. This conception helps to shed light on Luther’s literal interpretation of the synoptic tradition’s words of institution. For Luther, the verb of being in Jesus’ statements to his disciples—“this is my body” and “this is my blood”—expresses his promise to be present with the church whenever the elements are broken and consumed, and the meal celebrated. Hence, in Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, “is” must always be interpreted literally, or demonstrably. Luther insisted upon the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper on the basis of the testimony of Jesus—his promise—and not upon any metaphysics or sacramental ontology. “For these words [‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’] are a thousand times more important than the elements of the sacrament,” he wrote; and “without them the sacrament is not a sacrament but a mockery before God.”23

Luther’s contention that the resurrected and ascended Christ is truly present in the sacramental events by virtue of his promise resulted in some significant commitments concerning the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Luther persistently opposed concomitance, finding no basis in scripture for the assertion that Jesus’ body and blood are both available in each element. The thrust of his argument in “Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament” (1522), his most thorough analysis of the problem, is that the church should practice communion in both kinds sheerly because Jesus promised his presence in both elements, and not otherwise. As we have observed, for Luther, the testimony of Jesus recorded in scripture always far outweighs metaphysical speculation on “presence” or the nature of “elements.” Likewise, when Luther turns to address specific claims recited in the canon of the Mass, his argument pivots on the exegesis of New Testament passages that identify the uniqueness and unrepeatability of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Hence, in “The Abomination of the Secret Mass,” he works through the canon, highlighting at every point those scriptural passages that, he contends, directly contradict the claims of the prayer. For Luther, the reform of the Mass had primarily to do with what he saw as the failure of the church’s practices to square with biblical teaching.

Luther and the Anti-Sacramental Theologies of the Swiss and Radical Reformations

Beginning in the latter half of the 1520s, Luther found himself in the awkward spot of facing a two-front battle over sacramental theology. On one hand, in numerous texts from this period Luther continues to chart out a nuanced evangelical theology of the Lord’s Supper in dialogue with, and frequently over against, medieval Catholic sacramental theology. On the other hand, from roughly 1526 and with the publication of the important text “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics,” Luther devoted considerable energy to defending his sacramental theology against the teachings of the Swiss and radical reformers who had become increasingly popular by the middle of the decade. Because of Luther’s persistently thoroughgoing “high” view of the Supper, Karlstadt, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and similar reformers worried that he had not done enough to distance his own positions from Catholic teaching. Moreover, these opponents tacitly—and sometimes explicitly—objected to Luther’s aversion to philosophy and the canons of reason, contending that his theology of the Lord’s Supper consisted of logically incoherent and philosophically inconsistent claims and formulations.

Concerning the latter polemic, Luther doubled down on his insistence that the Christian could confidently trust in Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper on the sheer basis of the promise of Jesus. With his characteristic Ockhamist panache, Luther refused to make any sort of systematic metaphysical analysis of the nature of the real presence, appealing instead to the significance of the literal interpretation of the synoptic witness to the words of institution. In short, for Luther, the word of God, read literally, always trumps speculative theology in such matters. As he puts it in “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – Against the Fanatics,” after cataloguing the hermeneutical assumptions of Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius: “Let [the fanatics] go, therefore, and let us adhere to the words as they read: that the body of Christ is present in the bread and that his blood is truly present in the wine … There is the Word, which says that when you eat the bread you eat his holy body, given for you. If the Word were not there, I would not pay any heed to the bread.”24

It is also against such Protestant opponents that Luther developed a unique and lastingly significant solution to the problem of Christ’s location vis-à-vis the sacrament. The groundwork of Luther’s approach to this question is his Cyrillian Christology, and particularly his commitment to the communicatio idiomatum—the communication, or exchange, of the natures of Christ.25 During the Nestorian crisis of the 5th century, the eponymous bishop of the controversy, Nestorius of Constantinople, contended that the divine and human natures of Christ cannot, and therefore do not, coexist in a single person. Nestorius’s antagonist, Cyril of Alexandria, worried that the logical end of Nestorian Christology is the division of Christ into two persons according to the divine and human natures. Cyril thus countered Nestorius with the assertion that the two natures are shared in the one person of Jesus Christ, and, by consequence, that the two natures are interchangeable. Cyrillian Christology encapsulates the rule that one cannot simply and unequivocally divide up the properties and actions of Christ according to the natures. Rather, Christ’s divine attributes are at once characteristics of his human nature; those characteristics peculiar to his human nature are at once attributable to his divinity.26

For Luther, this Cyrillian formula is pivotal for understanding Christ’s mysterious presence in the Supper. Accordingly, since Christ’s divine nature cannot be located geographically and is thus, as it were, ubiquitous, so also his human nature is omnipresent. Relatedly, Luther insisted that Christ’s ascension does not denote the relative movement of his body in terms of geographical location. Rather, his ascension and heavenly session “at the right hand of God, the Father almighty,” as the Apostle’s Creed puts it, is the transformation of his body into a ubiquitous humanity, locatable not geographically, but upon his Lordly seat of power. Precisely so, Luther claims, we may be confident in the corporeal presence of his person, marked by the interchange of the divine and human natures, in the bread and wine of the sacrament. Christ is not bound to one location or another, and is thus able to be personally and corporeally present in the meal, just as he had promised.

Among Luther’s anti-sacramental Protestant opponents, it was Huldrych Zwingli in particular who objected to this application of the Cyrillian rule.27 Zwingli insisted that the biblical claims positing the ascended Jesus at the right hand of the Father must be read literally (an ironic hermeneutical twist, given Zwingli’s commitment to reading the words of institution tropologically). For Zwingli, Christ’s body is spatially confined to a heavenly location and, by consequence, cannot be said to be literally present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.28 Zwingli likewise rejected the communicatio idiomatum and the corollary of ubiquity, positing instead a hermeneutical alloeosis for reading the New Testament, according to which any property or action attributed by scripture to the whole Christ should be read as being attributable exclusively to his human nature.29 Luther contends that such a hermeneutical move amounts to the “separating the person of Christ as though there were two persons.”30 That is, for Luther, Christology itself is at stake in Zwingli’s decisions, and not just the ontology of the Lord’s Supper. “If Zwingli’s alloeosis stands,” he writes, “then Christ will have to be two persons, one a divine and the other a human person, since Zwingli applies all the texts concerning the passion only to the human nature and completely excludes them from the divine nature. But if the works are divided and separated, the person will also have to be separated, since all the doing and suffering are not ascribed to natures but to persons.”31

This Christological dispute over the exchange of idioms is at the foreground of a host of Luther’s worries concerning dissenting Protestantism, most of which crystallize around the teachings of Zwingli. The Zurich reformer, in turn, attacked Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper on a number of points. In addition to what we have already surveyed, we do well to comment here upon Zwingli’s strong polemic against Luther’s views on sacramental mediation and presence. It is generally acknowledged that the basis of Zwingli’s anti-sacramental posture is a tacitly Neoplatonic divorcement of matter and spirit.32 It is no surprise, then, that he rigorously objected to Luther’s (and medieval Catholicism’s) notion that the sacraments communicate, or mediate, grace and presence. For Zwingli, physical entities are, by their very nature, incapable of being conscripted as vehicles of spiritual actualities.

Surrounding his decisions concerning sacramental mediation is Zwingli’s tacit reversal of the order of the sacramental relation between God and the celebrant. For Luther, the Supper is the event of God’s communication of grace to gathered sinners; for Zwingli, the celebration of the meal consists of the participant’s profession of faith before God. Further, Zwingli understood the sacraments as signs of membership for those whose allegiance is pledged to the city of God.33 Accordingly, he identifies the partaking of the Lord’s Supper as a solemn declaration made by the celebrant of her or his allegiance, both to Christ and to the Christian community. In the event of the meal, the celebrant acknowledges the grace and mercy of God received apart from the Supper, and pledges devotion to God and to God’s people. All of these insights prompted Zwingli to insist that the Lord’s Supper is a symbol, or, to be more precise, a memorial. While Luther emphasized the “this is” portion of the words of institution, Zwingli stressed Christ’s instruction to “do this in remembrance of me.” For Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper is, in essence, a solemn memorial of the work of Christ in the crucifixion. It is no surprise, then, that he rejected any notion of Christ’s corporeal presence in the elements of the sacrament. Zwingli contended that the meal is eaten spiritually, by faith, and that, likewise, Christ’s presence is spiritual rather than bodily, for if Christ were physically present in the elements, he could be sensually received by the celebrant, and there would be no need for faith. Every modicum of this phenomenology of the Supper put Zwingli at odds with Luther.

We have underscored Luther’s dissensus with Zwingli not merely on account of its historical and theological significance in the story of the development of Protestant Christianity, but also because Zwingli’s decisively “low” sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper stands in marked antithesis to Luther’s “high” doctrine. That the Lutheran and Swiss camps were unable to reach agreement on the Lord’s Supper at the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, thereby thwarting Philipp of Hesse’s efforts to create a united Protestant front capable of withstanding the military strength of Charles V, is hardly surprising, given the fundamentally different theological and philosophical commitments at the groundwork of their respective programs.34 The issues at the heart of Luther’s dispute with dissenting Protestantism reveal abiding discontinuities, in spite of the common concern to distinguish evangelical teaching from the Catholic tradition.

Retrieving Luther’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper for Contemporary Theology

Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, prominent in his thought and literary deposit, has been so well covered by the field of Luther research that it is difficult to imagine further investigations yielding any significant breakthroughs or unprecedented insights. What remains an ever lively and interesting enterprise is the task of bringing Luther’s doctrine into to the present and in dialogue with contemporary theology and other disciplines.

Since the Reformation, Christian sacramental theologies and doctrines of the Lord’s Supper have continued along the “high” and “low” constructive trajectories. Luther’s dogged emphasis on a literal reading of Jesus’ words at the last supper, coupled with his commitment to the metaphor of testament for use in describing the significance of the sacramental meal, would appear to have much to contribute to both sides of the sacramental-ontological divide: to “high” sacramentalists, a reminder of some key New Testament passages and themes in the background of the notion of real presence; and to “low” sacramentalists, a foil to the view that Jesus’ words should be read only figuratively. Sorting out this complex of issues will undoubtedly require interdisciplinary exchanges with the guilds of critical biblical exegesis and philosophical hermeneutics. As a result of the ongoing scientific work undertaken these guilds, significant advances in our understandings of ancient literature, early Christian cultic practices, the religious milieu of late Second Temple Palestinian Judaism that serves as the backdrop of the New Testament, and so on, have occurred since the Reformation era. Those studying the sacraments today have a considerably greater trove of critical information at their disposal than Luther and Zwingli ever could have imagined. As such, it is incumbent upon contemporary sacramental theologians to move beyond the mere question of whether the words of institution are to be read literally or figuratively, demonstratively the abiding hang-up between Luther and dissenting Protestantism. The exegetical problems in the background of Luther’s debates with his contemporaneous interlocutors must be squared and updated with recent scholarship. “High” and “low” sacramentalists indebted to the debates of the Reformation era must be willing to bend if the evidence begs.

And yet, Luther’s is a voice—and an important one—within the exegetical and commentary traditions that bear upon our contemporary readings of such quandaries. So, for that matter, are Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Eck, and Karlstadt. The modern disciplines of philosophical and theological hermeneutics have raised fascinating questions about the role of tradition and community in the act of interpretation. The idea of pure, “presupposition-less” exegesis, unencumbered by the whims of a priori religious commitments, has been rightly identified as a red herring. Rather, interpreters of texts always go about the task of exegesis from the standpoint of some historically perduring community or nexus of relationships—“the community of interpreters in which a particular reader lives and reads,” as Werner Jeanrond puts it.35 For Christian readers of the biblical texts interested in giving due attention to pertinent passages for the sake of developing theologies of the sacrament, Luther and his contemporaneous interpreters just are part of the interpreting community, and thus the act of reading Scripture involves, to some extent or another, meaningful exchanges between today’s exegete, the ancient text, and the community. The extent to which Luther himself dealt appropriately with this crosshatch of hermeneutical issues is also in need of further investigation and articulation. In any case, we underscore this issue here in order to demonstrate that Luther’s use of the Bible in discourse on the Lord’s Supper spins further conversation and research off into two important directions: toward the question of the proper critical reading of the text, and toward the hermeneutical issue of the posture of the reader vis-à-vis text, community, and tradition.

Beyond these questions concerning the role and interpretation of scripture, other matters in need of further clarification worth mentioning in this context have to do with recent reconceptions in the area of sacramental theology. Advances in the scientific disciplines over the past few centuries, coupled with new developments in philosophical discourse, have introduced new challenges to the idea of the sacraments as instantiations of Christianity’s mysteries. The best recent work on the Lord’s Supper addresses these challenges directly, usually by appealing to phenomenological trends in modern philosophy, together with key texts from the theological tradition, for the sake of constructing new sacramental theologies which prioritize themes such as experience, symbolism, and embodiment.36 Cannot Luther’s insights be commandeered for these discussions?37 To be sure, Luther lived and worked in an age prior to the scientific and intellectual revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, but we have observed that his approach to the Supper includes sophisticated (even for our time) reflections upon Christian experience, the external forms of communicated grace (i.e., the symbolic presentations of the sacraments), and the Christological and ecclesiological implications of sacramental embodiment(s). He also has much to say concerning issues such as Eucharistic sacrifice, sacramental duration (that is, the length of time, following the celebration of the meal, during which the elements remain the body and blood of Christ), the event or interruptive character of the Lord’s Supper, and the longstanding identification (at least in the Christian West) of the sacraments as signs. At stake in all of these specific problems is the more general question of the cross-currency between Luther and today’s explorations in sacramental theology, a hermeneutical relationship that itself is in need of unpacking. Since centuries of research have provided for us a more or less unambiguous picture of the development of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in Luther’s theology and its backgrounds in antecedent Catholicism and nascent Protestantism, what is presently needed is a critically dogmatic appropriation of his thought for contemporary discussions.

We may mention further and briefly along these lines the importance in our present academic milieu of interdisciplinary work, a nexus of methods and commitments that seem especially significant for our contemporary understanding of the Lord’s Supper. New trajectories of research might explore the entailments of Luther’s theology of the Supper for ritual studies, Christian sociology, the disciplines of religious ethics, and the intersection of sacramental theology and the physical and mental health sciences, to name but a few possible avenues.38 To point to one recent endeavor of this sort, the Luther scholar Hans-Martin Barth has recently made a compelling case that the Reformer has much to say concerning what he calls the “therapeutic function” of the Lord’s Supper. Accordingly, for Luther, the Supper “is not only about an obedient liturgical celebration according to the directions of the one who instituted it, or the correct carrying out of a testament.” Rather, the Christian’s participation in the meal “touches even the most elementary functions contributing to life, reaches the psychosomatic whole person, and effects the most radical and comprehensive absorption.”39 Precisely as such, the Lord’s Supper, observes Barth, bears significant psychologically positive effects for the recipient, providing an experience of inner transformation and connection to a broader community, and opening up the possibility for a cathartic release from the existential pressures of day-to-day life.40 While reserving judgment concerning his specific proposals, we highlight Barth’s study as a case of theological bridge building in the articulation of which Luther is shown to speak insightfully to issues of today that far transcend his own cultural and intellectual milieu. Such work is critical for future research into Luther’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its ongoing significance.

Review of the Literature

Luther’s writings on the Lord’s Supper are catalogued in Luther’s Works volumes 35–38, in the series of texts on “Word and Sacrament.” Scholars interested in tracing the trajectories of the development of the theme in his thought and immediately subsequent Lutheranism will need to consult pertinent sections in The Book of Concord, for instance, CA Articles IX–XIII, XXII, and XXIV and Melanchthon’s corresponding commentary in the Apology, and also Article VII in both the Epitome and Solid Declaration. A fully rounded study of Luther against the background of early Protestantism will include interlocutions with contemporaries such as Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, and Oecolampadius.

Because of the prominence of the theme of the Lord’s Supper in Luther’s writings, comprehensive treatments of his life and thought invariably contain comments on the doctrine, usually contextualized by whatever paradigm is set forth by the author as a threshold into Luther’s theology. A few such general works stand out as essential resources for the study of Luther’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

In spite of his stated concern to eschew broad developmental theories for describing the unfolding of Luther’s thought,41 Althaus posits a turn in the Reformer’s writings on the Lord’s Supper in the year 1524 and with the beginning of the controversy over the real presence of Christ in the Supper.42 For Althaus, the two sides of this pivot correspond, broadly, to Luther’s targeted opponents in the debates over the sacrament, with the years leading up to 1524 marked by his opposition “to Rome,” and the subsequent period his hostilities with “the Enthusiasts and the Swiss.”43 The analysis in this entry is structured according to this shift in Luther’s polemics. Lienhard frames Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper within the context of his Christology, demonstrating that the Reformer’s understanding of the eschatological lordship of Jesus Christ animates his approach to the controversy surrounding the idea of real presence.44 By following this trajectory, Lienhard’s study accentuates the interconnectedness among Christology, eschatology, soteriology, and sacramental theology in Luther’s dogmatics.

Brecht’s detailed and chronologically arranged account of Luther’s life and thought from the critical period 1521–153145 situates that decade’s quarrels over sacramental theology in the context of an unfolding biographical narrative stamped by several lifestyle changes and ongoing, intense disputes with a variety of interlocutors over a host of theological and church-political questions. The recent introduction to Luther’s theology by Barth amends standard biographical, developmental, and dogmatic analyses with evocative reflections on Luther’s psychological profile.46 Barth’s groundbreaking study suggests, among other things, that Luther’s account of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper, is pregnant with implications for theological anthropology, religious psychology, and the relationship between theology and the sciences.47 Other significant general studies of Luther’s theology include those by Bornkamm, Lohse, Kolb, Bayer, and Hamm, full bibliographic information for which can be found in the “Further Reading” section.48

A number of specialist monographs exist on the topic of Luther and the Lord’s Supper. In many respects, the classic study by Hermann Sasse remains the high bar for analytical work on the development and significance of the Lord’s Supper in Luther’s theology.49 Sasse grounds Luther’s thought on the problem of the real presence in the context of the unfolding of late medieval sacramental theology, then provides an exhaustive evaluation of Luther’s doctrine during the critical period of the 1520s, including exegesis of the debate between the Lutheran and Zwinglian contingencies at the Marburg Colloquy. Additionally, he highlights the entailments of Luther’s approach to the supper for a variety of contemporary pastoral, dogmatic, and ecumenical concerns. Wandel’s 2006 study, The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy, while not focused on Luther, provides a wealth of information on the unfolding of early Protestant theologies of the Lord’s Supper.50 Scholars interested in this tack will need to consult Köhler’s massive study of Luther and Zwingli, which is unsurpassed for its detailed exposition of the political and theological issues surrounding the Colloquy.51

A handful of significant monographs focus on the development of Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper against the background of his complicated relationship with the contemporaneous Catholic church. Albrecht Peters, well-known for his comprehensive research on Luther’s Catechisms, produced a brief but important study in this vein on the theme of real presence in Luther’s theology.52 The work, still untranslated, remains invaluable for its clarification of the continuities and discontinuities between Luther’s concept of the Lord’s Supper and the antecedent Catholic tradition. In another important, untranslated German work (a published dissertation), the Catholic liturgical studies specialist Reinhard Messner traces the trajectory of Luther’s doctrine of justification through to its liturgical and practical ramifications, demonstrating his retention of certain aspects of the late medieval Mass within a broader program of reform.53 Robert C. Croken frames Luther’s opposition to contemporaneous Catholic sacramental teachings and practices inside the unfolding narrative of ecumenical dissensus between the Catholic and Lutheran theological traditions.54 Focusing on the problem of the Mass as the reiteration of Christ’s sacrifice, Croken spells out, through the exegesis of primary sources, Luther’s rejection of a sacrificial hermeneutic for the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper.

In addition to this lineup of monographs, we must also mention important book-length studies—by Wisløff, Clark, Hilgenfeld, Mann, and Schwab—as well as a handful of short pieces by Meinhold, Iserloh, Peters, Quere, Hendel, and Raunio.55 Full citation information for these sources can be found in “Further Reading.”

Beyond such principal secondary sources, scholars hoping to accentuate the ongoing significance of Luther’s thought for Christian sacramental theology will need to position him in dialogue with official documents from the modern ecumenical movement and contemporary constructive statements on the theology of the Lord’s Supper. Literature pertinent to the task of contemporizing Luther’s sacramental theology comprises a vast field of research that is hardly duplicable here. But a few significant resources are worth at least mentioning.

A handful of documents stand out from the literary yield of modern ecumenical theology. Two official reports from the international Lutheran-Catholic bilateral dialogue—The Eucharist in 1978 and From Conflict to Communion, §140–161—highlight the consensuses and ongoing impasses between the two churches over the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and, more generally, over sacramental theology. Additionally, the Leuenberg Agreement between the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Europe, especially paragraphs 18–20, demonstrates how the different trajectories of Protestantism might be reconciled into one communion in spite of abiding distinctions on the theology and practice of the Supper. Finally, more work is needed comparing Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper to the findings of the Faith and Order report on Baptist, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM), widely lauded as the demarcation of an ecumenical watershed on the areas of sacramental theology and ecclesiology. These and other ecumenical documents are accessible online.

Eberhard Jüngel’s “Das Sakrament–was ist das?” and Robert W. Jenson’s Visible Words are works by Lutheran theologians who turn to the Reformer’s work for the sake of articulating rigorous and forward-facing sacramental theologies.56 Both theologians bring Luther into dialogue with modern ecumenical discussions on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, and both too seek to uncover how a Lutheran theology of the Supper relates to a robust trinitarianism. Johann Auer and Joseph Ratzinger’s contribution to the multivolume Dogmatics stands as a master statement of Catholic sacramental theology, situating the liturgical sacraments within a broad edifice of Christian mysteries.57 Here the church (tacitly, only the Roman Catholic Church) is the great sacrament of God for the world, and baptism and the Lord’s Supper are peculiar instantiations of the church’s sacramental being. Wainwright’s Eucharist and Eschatology, by a Methodist, brings together the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and issues in Christian eschatology, particularly the New Testament idea of the “kingdom of God.”58 He frames the practice of the Eucharist in the context of the “already” and “not yet” of the kingdom, demonstrating that Christians remember and anticipate the eschatological kingdom in partaking of the sacramental meal. Chauvet’s remarkable and comprehensive study discusses the philosophical and phenomenological implications of the Christian belief in the presence of Christ in the Supper.59

Hunsinger offers an ecumenically robust account of the Eucharist from the perspective of Reformed dogmatics.60 He engages heavily with John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli, positing these second-generation reformers as advancing the Reformed account of the Supper considerably beyond Zwingli and his associates. It would be interesting to see how a more extensive analysis of Luther’s thought might be inform his attempt to retrieve Vermigli’s concept of “transelementation” for contemporary sacramental theology.61 The outstanding study of Martos situates sacramental theology over against several non-theological disciplines, most notably psychology, sociology, and ritual studies.62 Pitre serves up what is easily the most penetrating historical and exegetical analysis of the “last supper” ever undertaken.63 The author provides a wealth of information on the religious and political backgrounds of the supper, and challenges traditional assumptions concerning the timing of the event within the lifetime of Jesus. Pitre has given theologians committed to Luther’s literal reading of the synoptic accounts of the event much to consider. Finally, we point the reader to The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, edited by Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, for up-to-date, state-of-the-question analyses of various problems in sacramental theology written by theologians from across the ecumenical spectrum.64

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Translated by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.Find this resource:

Auer, Johann, and Joseph Ratzinger. Dogmatic Theology, vol. 6, A General Doctrine of the Sacraments and the Mystery of the Eucharist. Edited by Hugh M. Riley and Translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Barth, Hans-Martin. The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

Boersma, Hans, and Matthew Levering. The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Bornkamm, Heinrich. Luther in Mid-Career, 1521–1530. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.Find this resource:

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther, vol. 2: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532. Translated by James L. Schaaf. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1990.Find this resource:

Chauvet, Louis-Marie. Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence. Translated by Patrick Madigan and Madeleine Beaumont. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Clark, Francis. Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1967.Find this resource:

Croken, Robert C.Luther’s First Front: The Eucharist as Sacrifice. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Translated by Martin J. Lohrmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

Hendel, Kurt K. “Finitum capax infiniti: Luther’s Radical Incarnational Perspective.” Currents in Theology and Mission 35 (2008): 420–433.Find this resource:

Hilgenfeld, Hartmut. Mittelalterlich-traditionelle Elemente in Luthers Abendmahlsschriften. Studien zur Dogmengeschichte und systematischen Theologie 29. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1971.Find this resource:

Hunsinger, George. The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast. Current Issues in Theology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Iserloh, Erwin. “Sacramentum und Exemplum – Ein augustinisches Thema lutherischer Theologie.” In Reformata Reformanda: Festschrift für Hubert Jedin. Edited by Erwin Iserloh and Konrad Repgen, vol. 1, 247–264. Münster: Aschendorff, 1965.Find this resource:

Jenson, Robert W.Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.Find this resource:

Jüngel, Eberhard. “Das Sakrament–was ist das?” Evangelische Theologie 26 (1966): 320–336.Find this resource:

Kinder, Ernst. “Die Gegenwart Christi im Abendmahl nach lutherischem Verständnis.” In Gegenwart Christi. Edited by Fritz Viering, 33–65. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1959.Find this resource:

Kinder, Ernst. “‘Realpräsenz’ und ‘Repräsentation.’” Theologische Literaturzeitung 84 (1959): 882–894.Find this resource:

Köhler, Walther. Zwingli und Luther: Ihr Streit über das Abendmahl nach seinen politischen und religiösen Beziehungen, vol. 2: Vom Beginn der Marburger Verhandlungen 1529 bis zum Abschulss der Wittenberger Konkordie von 1536. Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1953.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. Christian Theology in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Lienhard, Marc. Luther: Witness to Jesus ChristStages and Themes of the Reformer’s Christology. Translated by Edwin H. Robertson. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982.Find this resource:

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Translated by Roy A. Harrisville. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.Find this resource:

Mann, Frido. Das Abendmahl beim jungen Luther. Beiträge zur ökumenischen Theologie 5. Munich: Max Hueber, 1971.Find this resource:

Martos, Joseph. The Sacraments: An Interdisciplinary and Interactive Study. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Messer, Reinhard. Die Messreform Martin Luthers und die Eucharistie der Alten Kirche: Ein Beitrag zu einer systematischen Liturgiewissenschaft. Innsbruck and Vienna: Tyrolia, 1989.Find this resource:

Meinhold, Peter. “Abendmahl und Opfer nach Luther.” In Abendmahl und Opfer. Edited by Peter Meinhold and Erwin Iserloh, 35–73. Stuttgart: Schwabenverlag, 1960.Find this resource:

Peters, Albrecht. Realpräsenz: Luthers Zeugnis von Christi Gegenwart im Abendmahl. 2d ed. Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1966.Find this resource:

Peters, Albrecht. “Das Abendmahl nach Luther.” Jahrbuch des Evangelischen Bundes 13 (1970): 98–134.Find this resource:

Peters, Albrecht. Baptism and Lord’s Supper: Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms. Vol. 4. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. St. Louis: Concordia, 2012.Find this resource:

Pitre, Brant. Jesus and the Last Supper. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.Find this resource:

Quere, Ralph W. “Changes and Constants: Structure in Luther’s Understanding of the Real Presence in the 1520s.” Sixteenth Century Journal 16 (1985): 45–78.Find this resource:

Raunio, Antti. “Faith and Christian Living in Luther’s Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528).” Lutherjahrbuch 76 (2009): 19–56.Find this resource:

Sasse, Hermann. This Is My Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. Rev. ed. Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1977.Find this resource:

Schwab, Wolfgang. Entwicklung und Gestalt der Sakramententheologie bei Martin Luther. Europäische Hochschulschriften 79. Pieterlen and Bern: Peter Lang, 1977.Find this resource:

Schwarz, Reinhard. “The Last Supper: The Testament of Jesus.” In The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Edited by Timothy J. Wengert, 198–210. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.Find this resource:

Wainwright, Geoffrey. Eucharist and Eschatology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Wandel, Lee Palmer. The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Wisløff, Carl. The Gift of Communion: Luther’s Controversy with Rome on Eucharistic Sacrifice. Translated by Joseph M. Shaw. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1964.Find this resource:


(1.) “Lord’s Supper” is an English locution derived from the translation of 1 Cor. 11:20: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the ‘Lord’s supper.’” The term was popularized in the late 16th century, and so became one of the default English referents for Protestant praxes of the liturgical meal. “Lord’s Supper” appears in theological literature as the standard English translation of the German das Abendmahl (lit. “Supper”), used in German theology both for the synoptic “Last Supper” and for the sacramental rite. Luther favored the German term das Abendmahl, occasionally combining it with Christ’s proper name, as in the case of the full title of the “great confession” of 1528: Vom Abendmahl Christi, Bekenntnis (LW 37:161–372; WA 26:261–509). In the present article I will us “Lord’s Supper” (occasionally abridged to “Supper”) for the sacramental practice.

(2.) Luther’s major texts on the Lord’s Supper are found in volumes 35 through 38 of Luther’s Works (see n. 1). The twelve documents identified here as “major expositions” of the doctrine are, in chronological order (and also order of appearance): “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” 1519 (LW 35:45–73; WA 2:738–758); “A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass,” 1520 (LW 35:75–111; WA 6:349–378); “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” 1520 (LW 36:3–126; WA 6:484–573); “The Misuse of the Mass,” 1521 (LW 36:127–230; WA 8:477–563); “Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament,” 1522 (LW 36:231–267; WA 10/II:1–41); “The Adoration of the Sacrament,” 1523 (LW 36:269–305; WA 11:417–456); “The Abomination of the Secret Mass,” 1525 (LW 36:307–328; WA 18:8–36); “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – Against the Fanatics,” 1526 (LW 36:329–361; WA 1:474–523); “That These Words of Christ, ‘This Is My Body,’ etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” 1527 (LW 37:3–150; WA 23:38–320); “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” 1528 (LW 37:151–372; WA 26:241–509); “Admonition Concerning the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord,” 1530 (LW 38:91–137; WA 30/II:589–626); “The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests,” 1533 (LW 38:139–219; WA 38:171–256); “The Disputation Concerning the Passage: ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’ [John 1:14],” 1539 (LW 38:235–285; WA 39/II:1–33); and “Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament,” 1544 (LW 38:287–319; WA 54:119–167). Throughout the present article, page number ranges in references to full editions appearing in Luther’s Works and the Weimarer Ausgabe include translator/editor introductions to particular texts.

(3.) LW 36:3–22; WA 2:709–723.

(4.) LW 36:23–43; WA 2:724–737.

(5.) The most succinct articulation of this reading remains Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 375–403.

(6.) Sacrosanctum concilium 2, ¶ 47, in Norman P. Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 2, Trent to Vatican II (London: Sheed & Ward, 1990), 830. The citation is from Roman Breviary, feast of Corpus Christi, 2nd vespers, antiphon for Magnificat.

(7.) For the complicated history of medieval sacramental theologies and practices, see Ian Christopher Levy, Gary Macy, and Kristen Van Ausdell, eds., A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 26; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012).

(8.) On the development of transubstantiation during this period, see Stephen E. Lahey, “Late Medieval Eucharistic Theology,” in A Companion to the Eucharist, ed. Levy, Macy, and Ausdell, 499–539.

(9.) See Isabelle Brian, “Catholic Liturgies of the Eucharist in the Time of Reform,” in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Reformation, ed. Lee Palmer Wandel (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 46; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 185–203.

(10.) “Late Medieval Eucharistic Theology: A Helpful Glossary,” in A Companion to the Eucharist, eds. Levy, Macy, and Ausdell, 620.

(11.) LW 36:15.

(12.) LW 36:34.

(13.) See the entirety of his argument in LW 36:28–35.

(14.) LW 36:35

(15.) LW 36:35–36

(16.) LW 36:35.

(17.) LW 36:38–39.

(18.) LW 36:179–180.

(19.) See the entire line of argument in LW 36:174–183.

(20.) Two now-classic studies on these distinctions, the entailments of which have yet to be fully elaborated, are Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought, trans. R. A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), especially 192–209; and Eberhard Jüngel, The Freedom of a Christian: Luther’s Significance for Contemporary Theology, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1998), especially 70–76, 89–92.

(21.) LW 40:146.

(22.) A helpful, short exploration of the Donatist controversy is published as John Anthony Corcoran, Augustinus contra Donatistas (Donaldson, IN: Graduate Theological Foundation, 1997).

(23.) LW 36:254.

(24.) LW 36:346.

(25.) See Joar Haga, Was There a Lutheran Metaphysics? The Interpretation of communicatio idiomatum in Early Modern Lutheranism (REFO500 Academic Studies 2; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), which traces the theme in Luther’s Christology, including its significance for the debate with Zwingli over the supper, and then provides an early Protestant reception history of the concept.

(26.) An excellent introduction to this controversy containing primary source materials and expert commentary is found in Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria (The Early Church Fathers; London and New York: Routledge, 2000), especially 31–58.

(27.) Zwingli’s rejection of Luther’s Christology, radically Cyrillian as it is, animates his comments in the important text, “A Friendly Exegesis, that is, Exposition of the Matter of the Eucharist, addressed to Martin Luther by Huldrych Zwingli,” in Selected Writings of Huldrych Zwingli, vol. 2, In Search of True Religion—Reformation, Pastoral, and Eucharistic Writings, trans. H. Wayne Pipkin (Pittsburgh Theological Monographs, New Series; Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1984), 233–385.

(28.) Zwingli, “A Friendly Exegesis,” 331–334.

(29.) Zwingli, “A Friendly Exegesis,” 319–321.

(30.) LW 37:212.

(31.) LW 37:212–213.

(32.) For a summary statement, see the comments on the background of Zwingli’s theology in the church fathers, with an emphasis on the influence of Origen, in W. Peter Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 17–21.

(33.) On this point, see Robert C. Walton, Zwingli’s Theocracy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 212–213.

(34.) The classic statement, exhaustive in scope and detail, is Walter Köhler, Zwingli und Luther: Ihr Streit über das Abendmahl nach seinen politischen und religiösen Beziehungen, vol. 2, Vom Beginn der Marburger Verhandlungen 1529 bis zum Abschulss der Wittenberger Konkordie von 1536 (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1953).

(35.) Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics: Development and Significance (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 113.

(36.) The most significant such work, the implications of which have yet to be fully explored, is Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995). Brief interlocutions with Chauvet’s work are collected in Sacraments—Revelation of the Humanity of God: Engaging the Fundamental Theology of Louis-Marie Chauvet, eds. Philippe Bordeyne and Bruce T. Morrill (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008).

(37.) It is worth noting that Chauvet fails to even mention Luther in his major work. A scientific study bringing Luther and Chauvet in dialogue for the sake of addressing the lacuna (of engagement with the Reformer) in the latter’s thought would make a significant contribution to the contemporization of Luther’s theology of the Lord’s Supper.

(38.) An excellent introduction (which, however, does not mention Luther) to recent exchanges between sacramental theology and these and other disciplines is Joseph Martos, The Sacraments: An Interdisciplinary and Interactive Study (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009).

(39.) Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 243.

(40.) See the entire discussion in Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther, 243–245.

(41.) Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, v–vi.

(42.) Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther.

(43.) Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 375. See also the whole of his discussion of this bifurcated trajectory on pp. 375–403.

(44.) Marc Leinhard, Luther: Witness of Jesus Christ—Stages and Themes of the Reformer’s Christology, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982), 195–247.

(45.) Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, vol. 2: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).

(46.) Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther.

(47.) See the entire discussion in Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther, 221–275.

(48.) Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther in Mid-Career, 1521–1530 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999); Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, Christian Theology in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008); and Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, trans. Martin J. Lohrmann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

(49.) Hermann Sasse, This Is My Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar, Rev. ed. (Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1977).

(50.) Lee Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(51.) Walther Köhler, Zwingli und Luther: Ihr Streit über das Abendmahl nach seinen politischen und religiösen Beziehungen, vol. 2: Vom Beginn der Marburger Verhandlungen 1529 bis zum Abschulss der Wittenberger Konkordie von 1536 (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1953).

(52.) Albrecht Peters, Realpräsenz: Luthers Zeugnis von Christi Gegenwart im Abendmahl, 2d ed. (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1966).

(53.) Reinhard Messer, Die Messreform Martin Luthers und die Eucharistie der Alten Kirche: Ein Beitrag zu einer systematischen Liturgiewissenschaft (Innsbruck and Vienna: Tyrolia, 1989).

(54.) Robert C. Croken, Luther’s First Front: The Eucharist as Sacrifice (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990).

(55.) Carl Wisløff, The Gift of Communion: Luther’s Controversy with Rome on Eucharistic Sacrifice, trans. Joseph M. Shaw (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1964); Francis Clark, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation, 2d ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967); Hartmut Hilgenfeld, Mittelalterlich-traditionelle Elemente in Luthers Abendmahlsschriften, Studien zur Dogmengeschichte und systematischen Theologie 29 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1971); Frido Mann, Das Abendmahl beim jungen Luther, Beiträge zur ökumenischen Theologie 5 (Munich: Max Hueber, 1971); Wolfgang Schwab, Entwicklung und Gestalt der Sakramententheologie bei Martin Luther, Europäische Hochschulschriften 79 (Pieterlen and Bern: Peter Lang, 1977); Peter Meinhold, “Abendmahl und Opfer nach Luther,” in Abendmahl und Opfer, ed. Peter Meinhold and Erwin Iserloh (Stuttgart: Schwabenverlag, 1960), 35–73; Erwin Iserloh, “Sacramentum und Exemplum—Ein augustinisches Thema lutherischer Theologie,” in Reformata Reformanda: Festschrift für Hubert Jedin, ed. Erwin Iserloh and Konrad Repgen (Münster: Aschendorff, 1965), 1:247–264; Albrecht Peters, “Das Abendmahl nach Luther,” Jahrbuch des Evangelischen Bundes 13 (1970): 98–134; Ralph W. Quere, “Changes and Constants: Structure in Luther’s Understanding of the Real Presence in the 1520s,” Sixteenth Century Journal 16 (1985): 45–78; Kurt K. Hendel, “Finitum capax infiniti: Luther’s Radical Incarnational Perspective,” Currents in Theology and Mission 35 (2008): 420–433; and Antti Raunio, “Faith and Christian Living in Luther’s Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528),” Lutherjahrbuch 76 (2009): 19–56.

(56.) Eberhard Jüngel, “Das Sakrament–was ist das?” Evangelische Theologie 26 (1966): 320–336; and Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

(57.) Johann Auer and Joseph Ratzinger, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 6, A General Doctrine of the Sacraments and the Mystery of the Eucharist, ed. Hugh M. Riley, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

(58.) Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).

(59.) Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament.

(60.) George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(61.) See See George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism, 40–46. While Luther is very much in the center of Hunsinger’s discussion here, more work must be done to properly sort out the technical differences between, on one hand, Luther and early Lutherans, and, on the other, Vermigli, Bucer, and Cranmer.

(62.) Martos, The Sacraments.

(63.) Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Last Supper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

(64.) Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).