Why not Real Presence?

I have lately been thinking about the Eucharist. I affirm a broadly Zwinglian or memorialist account of the Eucharist according to which the Lord’s Supper is a ritual reenactment and personal appropriation of the death of Christ in atonement for the sins of the whole world. Christ’s body and blood are not really present in the bread and wine, but it is nevertheless a part of the ritual to take the bread and wine as being His body and blood and to eat them in an act of faith understood as a personal appropriation of the sacrifice of Christ.

Many Christians throughout history have affirmed that Christ’s body and blood are really present in the bread and wine. Some say that this position has universal and unambiguous attestation in the earliest sources, though I disagree on that point. (See my discussions on Ignatius here and here, as well as the discussion of the Didache here.) At the same time, it is fair to wonder why a person might reject the notion of the real corporeal presence. Here I wish to give a few arguments.

Biblical argument

My biblical argument is a simple one. The idea of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the eucharistic meal is not demanded by the biblical text. Everything in Scripture can be understood in a perfectly natural way without committing ourselves to such a thesis. There are a few texts which are commonly mentioned in discussing this point: the words of institution, Jesus’ discourse at John 6, and Paul’s words at 1 Cor 10.

With respect to the words of institution, I say the following. I think it is obvious that Christ was referring to the cup and the bread as His blood and body only metaphorically. He was using them as symbols. Why do I think that? Because I think it is obvious that this is going on in most cases when someone picks something up and calls it what it plainly is not. If I were to reenact a car crash making use of inanimate objects at my disposal, e.g. my glasses, my phone, and my mug of coffee, it would be absurd to interpret me in a literal sense. I do not mean that my phone is really my car or that my glasses are really the other car. I mean that my phone represents my car and my glasses represent the other car, even if I say: “This is my car, this is the other car.” We can reasonably discern a metaphorical reenactment where someone calls things what they plainly are not. Furthermore, when He uttered the words of institution, Christ was celebrating the Passover with His disciples. But the Passover celebrated by later generations of Jews is a ritual reenactment of the night of the original Passover, when the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt. So it seems to me appropriate to understand the Lord’s Supper also as a ritual reenactment. But a ritual reenactment does not demand real presence.

In my view, the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in the way that an actor is Hamlet or Daniel Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012). The “being” involved is “theatrical being,” if we can call it that. The bread and wine “are” His body and blood in the sense that it is a part of the ritual theater of the Eucharist to take them as being His body and blood.

With respect to John 6, I say the following. Christ’s cannibalistic language in vv. 53–58 appears at the end of a longer conversation with a hostile audience who have repeatedly shown themselves to be unwilling to accept what Christ says. He multiplies the fish and loaves for them, and they see the wonderful miracle He had performed and wish to make Him king (vv. 14–15). They come looking for Him the next day (vv. 22–25), crossing to the other side of the sea, to Capernaum. When they find Him, He tells them that they have followed after Him because they ate their fill and are looking for more food. In other words, Christ knows that they only want Him because He offers them food, not because they are committed to Him. He tells them: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (v. 27). They want to know what work to perform. He tells them to believe in the one whom God has sent (v. 29). They ask what work He will perform. After all, their fathers ate manna in the desert through Moses. He responds that there is a bread which comes down from heaven, from the Father, which gives life to the world (v. 33). They ask to receive this bread always. He tells them that He is that bread which has come down from the Father, and if anyone believes in Him they will have eternal life (vv. 35–40). They grumble and complain about Jesus’s claim to have come down from heaven, since they suppose themselves to know who His father and mother are. Christ reiterates the point: He is the bread which has come down from heaven, from which anyone who eats will receive eternal life; everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life; and the bread He offers is His flesh for the life of the world (vv. 47–51). They complain and grumble even more at the suggestion that they should eat His flesh. He insists on the point, saying that His flesh is true food, just as His blood is true drink, and that whoever does not eat and drink of His flesh and blood has no life (vv. 53–58). They complain that this teaching is very difficult to accept. Jesus insists that His words are “spirit” and “life,” and that “the flesh is useless” (v. 63). He ends by saying that no one can come to Him unless it is granted by the Father (v. 65).

In my opinion, this text does not propose a doctrine of the real corporeal presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Christ uses cannibalistic language in vv. 53–58 not because we actually need to eat His real flesh and drink His real blood in order to have eternal life, but because He is frustrated with the faithlessness and lack of understanding of the people with whom He is talking. They refused to accept the simpler teaching He offered them about believing in Him, and their rejection of Him became increasingly hostile. He wishes to put them in the position of committing to Him despite their misunderstanding or else leaving Him (which is precisely what the twelve do in vv. 66–71). What Christ wants is for them to believe in Him. He uses the metaphor of “eating” because they came to Him looking for physical food to eat (vv. 22–27). He calls them to a different kind of “eating,” which consists in trusting in Christ with all of their hearts and finding all their spiritual sustenance in Him and in His sacrifice for our sins. In other words, the “eating” of vv. 53–58 is no different than the “believing” of v. 29. And anyone who is aware that “the flesh is useless” (v. 63) — i.e. that we are spiritually destitute apart from Christ — knows exactly what this “eating” consists in and the spiritual sustenance that it provides.

With respect to 1 Cor 10, I say the following. Paul affirms that the cup which we bless and the bread which we break is a “sharing” or “fellowship” or “communion” in the blood and body of Christ (vv. 16). This should be understood as follows. The Lord’s Supper is a ritual reenactment of the death of Christ on our behalf, in which the bread and wine are taken as being His body and blood. Likewise, it is a ritual appropriation of that death through the act of eating and drinking. It is a ritual act by which we exercise total faith and dependence upon Christ. In this sense, the Eucharist is about John 6, rather than John 6 being about the Eucharist. But a reenactment, as an exercise in theater, is also a “sharing” or “fellowship” or “communion” in the event being reenacted, even if the reenacted things are not really present. And it is a part of the logic of reenactment that one take things to be what they are not, e.g. this contemporary person is in fact someone else from the past, or what is happening now is in fact an event from long ago. So I do not think there is anything in this passage which demands a doctrine of the Real Presence.

It seems to me, then, that the biblical evidence can be satisfactorily interpreted without appeal to the notion of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Philosophical argument

Beyond the fact that the doctrine of the Real Presence does not (to my mind) have a compelling basis in the biblical texts, it also implies philosophical commitment to the idea that human flesh and blood can be really present without being empirically detectable in principle. To my mind, this is extravagant. It implies that a thing can be present in a place without manifestly possessing any of the properties that belong to that thing essentially. But it is obviously a part of the concept of “body” that it is visible in principle. “Visibility” for bodies means occupying space in one’s visual field and possessing color, shape, and the rest. This is what experience teaches us, and experience is where we get the concept of a body in the first place.

There are of course bodies which are not visible to us because they are very small, or very far away, or perhaps very large. These could become visible in principle, if the conditions of observation were different, say if we had smaller or larger bodies ourselves. But the doctrine of the Real Presence does not say that the flesh and blood of Christ are not visible in the bread and wine because they are present in very tiny “doses.” Rather, they are invisible in principle, despite being fully present. One could observe the bread and wine under whatever conditions one pleases, and they would never become detectable in the relevant ways. This seems to me to be a tremendous departure from the notion of “body” that we gain through experience. It is a piece of highly speculative metaphysics which proposes a tremendous rupture between what we think and what we experience. And in light of my opinion that there is no compelling biblical basis for affirming the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, it seems to me unnecessary to invite the philosophical complications implied by adopting such a view.

This is not necessarily a knock-down argument. One could say that the body and blood of Christ are special in a way that other bodies are not. They can be fully present without being detectible qua bodies. But this seems to me to be akin to positing Ptolemaic epicycles. It provides a response to an objection but only by complicating the matter even further through the supposition of special modes of presence for certain bodies. In light of my conviction that there is no compelling biblical basis for affirming the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the eucharistic meal, it seems preferable, from the point of view of theoretical simplicity, to deny the real presence.

Theological argument

According to the doctrine of the Real Presence, the body and blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine of the eucharistic meal without being detectable in the way normally appropriate for bodies and blood. But this means that the teaching of the Real Presence cannot be seen to be true. Seeing that an idea about a thing is true means having the thing in question before you in an experience and seeing that the thing is precisely such as it is being characterized. See my argument here. Indeed, the doctrine of the Real Presence was not formulated because people ate the bread and drank the wine and tasted human flesh and blood. Rather, the doctrine is affirmed because it is implied by various other ideas or commitments that people may have, e.g. about how Scripture is to be interpreted. This means that it is an “ideology,” by which I mean an idea that is accepted because of its relation to other ideas, rather than because of a perception of its truth in experience.

Ideologies cannot be confirmed in an experience. The world of experience is the same for all of us. What I can see, another person can also see in principle. Removing the truth of an idea from the common world of experience means inseparably associating it with the people who affirm it. In this way, ideologies become the instruments by which some people seek to gain control over others. An ideology is not accepted because one sees it to be true but because the “right” people affirm it. Rejection of an ideology puts one out of friendship with the “right” people. The doctrine of the Real Presence, too, can become an ideology in this sense. By rejecting it, one is put out of friendship with certain ecclesial authorities who, although they cannot prove to everyone’s satisfaction that the body and blood of Christ are really present in the eucharistic bread and wine, nevertheless demand assent to it in order to enjoy friendship with them.

This kind of behavior is inappropriate for theology, where we should be guided not by ideas but by the Will and Word of God. Consider the following analogy. The Gentiles were accepted into the community of the Church and granted baptism after they had already received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10). God showed that He accepted them by sending them the Holy Spirit; it would therefore have been inappropriate for Peter to reject those whom God had accepted (Acts 11:12–17). In the same way, in our day, there are Christians who do not accept the claims to authority of churchmen in certain traditions which affirm the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine. They believe in Christ and accept His sacrifice on their behalf, which is precisely what the Eucharist consists in; they have the Holy Spirit and are thus accepted by God; but they are rejected by men who prefer an idea and demand submission to an idea which they cannot prove but must be accepted on their authority.

My conviction is that this is ideology in practice, and that is theologically inappropriate. Rather than listening to God, who gives the Holy Spirit freely, these traditions prefers their own ideas and demands assent to them. They make others who have the Holy Spirit, thus who are accepted by God, to feel spiritually inferior because they are not admitted to eucharistic communion. They feel the need to leave their churches and to submit to people who claim unfair authority for themselves and demand assent to ideas that they cannot prove. This is reminiscent of what Paul says to the Galatians about the false teachers who were preaching to them to submit to the Law of Moses and become Jews: “They want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them” (Gal 4:17).

This, then, is another argument against the doctrine of the Real Presence: It can make an ideological weapon of the Eucharist. I should note that there is nothing about the notion of the Real Presence as such which entails that it be so used. It is only that it is in fact used in this way by many of the traditions which affirm it, such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Someone could respond to this as follows: “Christian theology is not like science and other pursuits of knowledge. It is about divinely revealed faith. It is about supernatural realities which are only accessed through faith, not through experience. Therefore, it is inappropriate to subject the theses of Christian theology to these strictures.”

By way of response, I would say the following. This is only one conception of Christian theology, one which is bound up with other commitments of the traditional churches, such as a certain understanding of the nature of Christian faith and corresponding ideas about ecclesial authority. But one can reject the one and the others just as well. I think to the contrary that Christian theology is about things that have appeared in the world and that have been experienced, for example the person of Jesus, His teachings, His death, His resurrection, and so on. For me, Christian theology is not a way of engaging in speculation about metaphysical realities. It is about things that really happened and really happen and will really happen in the world. It is not discontinuous with science and other forms of inquiry which are concerned with the common world of shared experience. This is why it is not inappropriate to raise the sorts of objections that I have raised in this brief article.

On the other hand, the Zwinglian conception of the Eucharist that I affirm can be used to militate against the practice of ideology in theology. In the Eucharist, all of us alike are confronted with the absolute beginning and principle of our shared faith: the death of Christ on our behalf, without which we are absolutely destitute and less than nothing. Whatever our theological differences may be, the eucharistic meal makes it possible for us all to recognize our utter dependence on Christ and to find in His death on our behalf the common spring or fount of faith in all of us.

Concluding remarks

In summary, I think that there are good arguments for rejecting the doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the eucharistic meal.

In the first place, there is no compelling biblical basis for this view. One can think of the Eucharist as a ritual reenactment of Christ’s death on our behalf and a ritual appropriation of that death for us through eating and drinking. In a sense, the Eucharist is a form of ritual theater. This understanding can make sense of the biblical evidence without committing us to the doctrine of the Real Presence.

In the second place, the doctrine of the Real Presence implies a commitment to a philosophical idea according to which bodies can be fully and really present without being empirically detectable in the ways typical of bodies, e.g. by taking up space and possessing shape and color, which is contrary to the notion of “body” gained from experience. Although one can respond to this argument by saying that Christ’s body is special or unique in some way, this seems to me like positing Ptolemaic epicycles. The easier route, in light of the biblical argument, is simply to deny the doctrine of Real Presence.

In the third place, the doctrine of the Real Presence can become an ideology. It is not an idea that can be seen to be true in an experience. This means it is a statement which is inextricably tied up with the persons who affirm it. Denying it puts one out of friendship with the “right” persons. But there are Christians who are accepted by God insofar as they possess the Holy Spirit, and yet they are rejected by some churches which affirm the Real Presence. They are made to feel spiritually inferior, even though God accepts them. This is unacceptable for theology, which should follow the lead of God’s Will and Word.

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