I just finished reading Herman Sasse's This is My Body, which was highly recommended by two different Lutheran pastors. The Lutheran position, as I understand it, is that believing in Christ's Real Presence in Communion is essential, but philosophical explanations as to what/how this presence is accomplished are not. Luther's own explanation, that Christ's human nature is "ubiquitous" and thus can be present anywhere including in the wafer of bread, is not asserted as dogma, but simply as a possibility. Sasse and the pastor I talked to are both emphatic, however, that eating Christ's body does not mean we are eating his bones or muscles or viscera.

Then comes Calvin, who also speaks of a "Real Presence", but with a different explanation of what this means: In taking Communion, we are spiritually lifted up to heaven where Christ is (bodily) and consume his body in a spiritual manner.

The Lutherans seem to object to understanding the eating of Christ's body as "spiritual" instead of "literal", but it isn't clear to me what the difference between eating Christ's body in a spiritual way (as Calvin talked about) is different from eating Christ's body, but not the bones or muscles or viscera (as Luther talked about). What other sense is there, other than mere symbolism (as Zwingli said, and both Luther and Calvin rejected)?

I thought the Lutherans' objection might be that Calvin's view requires the communicant to engage his/her intellect in contemplating Christ in order to receive the blessing, whereas Luther might say that you only must receive the elements in faith. However, this doesn't seem to be the difference. The Lutherans do not offer communion to children, on the basis of their inability to "discern the body" (1 Cor. 11:29), an intellectual exercise.

The Lutheran pastor told me that the important thing to believe is that Christ is present in a special, unique way in communion, different from how he is present "in this room". However, Calvin would also assent to that, as does my (Baptist) pastor, and Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology Chapter 50. These three would not assent to Luther's theory of ubiquity, but neither Luther nor Sasse nor that pastor would say that belief in ubiquity is required for an acceptable doctrine of communion.

With all this in mind, I am a bit at a loss as to what, in particular, about Calvin's eucharistic theology the Lutherans find unacceptable?


3 Answers 3


Let's look at your description of the Calvinist take:

In taking Communion, we are spiritually lifted up to heaven where Christ is (bodily) and consume his body in a spiritual manner.

In addition to my knee-jerk reaction being "wtf?!", it's hard to discern where in here — in, if you will, the claim "when you eat this, you spiritually will also partake of My Body" — there is room for the statement (presumed to be true because Christ said it) "this is My Body". The Lutheran take, as I understand it, is that in the Eucharist, the bread really is Christ's Body. How? We (that is, Lutherans) aren't really sure, but Christ said it is so, therefore it must be so.

To quote Wikipedia:

Calvin, like Zwingli and against Luther, did not believe that Christ is bodily present in the elements of the Eucharist.

Quite a few articles, discussions and such on the subject can be found if you search for "calvin vs luther eucharist".

Now, I'm not sure your description, quoted above, is entirely accurate, but one of those articles found via the above search gives its own description and elaborates on how Luther and Calvin differ (emphasis added):

Suppose we define “objectively present” as meaning “present independent of anyone’s state of mind,” where “state of mind” includes things like belief. Then Christ’s body is not objectively present in the sacrament in Calvin’s view but is objectively present in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views. [...] According to both Lutheran and Roman Catholic views, Christ’s body is objectively present in the mouth of all who partake in the sacrament, whether they believe it or not. This is a form of Eucharistic presence that Calvin explicitly and repeatedly denies.

Thus, the Calvinist view would be that it is the combination of faith and physical elements wherein "this is My Body" becomes true, while Lutherans (and Roman Catholics) would argue that the bread (when it has been blessed, anyway) is always Christ's body. This would also suggest that Lutherans would be much more concerned with who partakes of the elements (n.b. 1 Corinthians 11:29!) than Calvinists, and indeed, non-Lutheran Protestant churches tend to have "open" communion.

In fact, if not for 1 Corinthians 11:29, it would be easy to see Calvin's point and to interpret Christ's words as only speaking to those who eat and drink in true faith. However, that verse does seem to suggest that the Body is present regardless of the partaker's belief.

I would highly recommend the above-linked article, as it seems to exactly address the question you ask.

Addendum: In a comment, you also wrote:

What do you mean "body" if not the muscles and viscera etc? It seems you interpret "is" literally at the expense of taking "body" literally.

I don't believe this is a fully accurate critique, although it may have some validity. The critical point of difference with Calvinism is that the Presence is specifically bound to the Elements themselves aside from the actions of beliefs of any person that happens to handle the Elements.

It is true that Lutheranism rejects both transubstantiation (in which the Elements become fully the Body and Blood) and consubstantiation (in which both are physically present together). From the first of those links:

Lutherans explicitly reject transubstantiation[105] believing that the bread and wine remain fully bread and fully wine while also being truly the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The Lutheran take, referred to as "sacramental union", is that the union is more "spiritual" in nature. The key point, with respect to your Question, however, is that there exists a rough spectrum, with Roman Catholicism on one end and Calvinism on the other, with Anglicanism (consubstantiation) existing in the middle toward the Roman Catholic side, and Lutheranism ("in, with and under") existing in the middle toward the Calvinist side.

  • 1
    Thanks, I think that answers my question as posted. It still leaves me quite baffled (and I think this is my main hang-up with Lutheran communion theology): What do you mean "body" if not the muscles and viscera etc? It seems you interpret "is" literally at the expense of taking "body" literally. Commented Jan 25 at 15:14
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    Sasse is not that helpful He should have said that there is not a chemical change going on. That is to say that it is not as if one could detect DNA fragments in, with and under the Eucharistic elements. Think of the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment and was healed. "Who touched me?" Jesus said. There was power that flowed through the garment. In like manner spiritual healing energy flows through the sacramental elements.
    – Jess
    Commented Jan 25 at 23:56
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    @DarkMalthorp, it might help to point out that, for the Elements to literally be Christ's Body and Blood would require transmutation, e.g., as Jess hints, one would find hemoglobin in the no-longer-wine. Since that is trivially disproved, no one believes that is a correct interpretation. Hence, the Lutheran belief is "it's there... somehow, just don't ask us to be more specific", while Calvin takes it as purely metaphorical.
    – Matthew
    Commented Jan 26 at 1:16
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    Luther isn't closer to Calvin: he said that Rome had the Sacrament/Eucharist because they believed what the Savior said and did it, they just added pointless philosophy to it, but that the Calvinists don't have the Sacrament/Eucharist at all.
    – Traildude
    Commented Mar 19 at 21:30
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    @DarkMalthorp, perhaps? 🙂 Lutherans (indeed, all non-Calvinists) believe that the Presence is a) literal in some sense / more-than-merely-spiritual, and b) actualized by the celebrant prior to the elements being distributed and regardless of the belief/faith of any recipient. Calvinists believe neither. As to "why it matters", non-Calvinists would say Calvinists deny Christ's words, and there are also implications for the handling and distribution that should be obvious. (For example, the Calvinist view effectively denies 1 Corinthians 11:29.) If that still doesn't make sense... 🤷
    – Matthew
    Commented Apr 5 at 15:34

I like to think of Calvin’s view of the Eucharist as a type of “Star Gate” theology. The bread and the fruit of the vine become the portal through which the human spirit is transported into the heavenly dimension and there a connection with Christ’s heavenly presence (body & blood as transpositional or transignification equivalents) occurs under the form of the bread and wine.

On the other hand, Luther had a more localized view of the sacrament. The presence of Christ’s body and blood is that of an “illocal” hyper-dimensional super-substantial presence, much like the presence the resurrected Jesus morphed into while going through a closed door to meet with His disciples in a locked room (John 20:19).

For example, some time between October 19th and November 5th 1540, Luther said at one of his table talks


There are some who let the Supper be a sacrament only while it is in use. Whatever remains leftover they throw away [a reference to the practice in places like Leipzig?]... One must not make it so precise: four or five steps or even several hours... Whether one or two hours has passed and a person takes it from one altar to another or carries it across the street, it nevertheless remains the body of Christ. (LW 54:407–08)

To be sure, in Lutheran theology this the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is not like a type of chrysalis in which the body and blood of Christ are given without the soul and spirit of Christ being present. Luther writes:

He who takes hold of this bread, takes hold of Christ’s body: and he who eats this bread, eats Christ’s body; he who crushes the bread with the teeth or tongue, crushes with teeth or tongue the body of Christ. (LW 37:300)

And in his Catechism, he writes:

Those who feel their weakness, who are anxious to be rid of it and desire help, should regard and use the sacrament as a precious antidote against the poison in their systems. For here in the sacrament you receive from Christ’s lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God’s grace and Spirit with all his gifts, protection, defense, and power against death and the devil and all evils. (Large Catechism: LC VI. 70)


To a large extent it comes down to believing in the power of the Word -- in this case, both as Incarnate Word and the words spoken by the Incarnate Word. I forget which theologian it was, but one Lutheran divine noted that just as we believe that when God commanded light to be, then light was, so also we believe that when the Word Incarnate declared "This is My Body" and "This is My Blood", those words had the same power as the first ones, and so when those words are spoken again through an ordained servant of that Incarnate Word, lending his voice and hands to that Word, they are just as true as when first spoken.

When Calvinists would argue that Christ's human body is only in one place, Lutheran theologians would point to the Chalcedonian Definition where it states that the Two Natures in Christ are without division and without separation, and thus wherever Christ is found in His divine nature, there His human nature is found as well. That the Incarnate Word should be present in both natures in the Eucharist is no more a "confusion" than that they were both present when He walked on this Earth.

Some would add that the Lutheran view is incarnational while Calvin's is not: when the bread takes on (becomes) Christ's Body and the wine takes on (becomes) Christ's Blood, then it is the Son of God Who again comes down to us -- we do not ascend to Him.

  • What is a "Lutheran divine"? I'm not familiar with this apparent use of "divine" as a noun. Perhaps you meant "theologian", or forgot a word?
    – Matthew
    Commented Feb 27 at 18:03
  • I think you missed the content of my question... Lutherans say that the bread takes on Christ's body and the wine takes on his blood, but what they mean by this is totally opaque. You do not claim to be eating Christ's organs or blood plasma when you do it, so this is eating the body and blood in a different manner than you would eat a human body if you were a cannibal. What this manner is and how it is different from Calvin's explanation is not clear to me. The idea that Calvinists do not believe in the power of the Word of God is, I believe, purely a straw man. Commented Feb 28 at 12:03
  • @Matthew From Merriam-Webster: divine noun 1 religion : clergyman a Puritan divine 2 religion : theologian
    – Traildude
    Commented Feb 28 at 19:33
  • @DarkMalthorp You said "What this manner is and how it is different from Calvin's explanation is not clear to me. " The big difference is as I wrote, " it is the Son of God Who again comes down to us -- we do not ascend to Him." To the Lutheran, when Jesus holds the bread and says "This is My body", then we look to the bread to find the body, but to Calvin the body isn't there, it is up in heaven.
    – Traildude
    Commented Mar 19 at 21:43
  • @DarkMalthorp As for defining the body, that's something Lutherans don't do except to say it doesn't mean "flesh and blood" but something new and different which gets labeled "sacramental", which is a fancy way of saying, "We don't know how it works, but we know it;s different than any other way that things are present". It gets compared to how Jesus could be God but have a human body; if you got a sample of His muscle tissue and put it under a microscope you wouldn't be able to see "godness" despite it being there. Another comparison is to the resurrected body that could pass through walls.
    – Traildude
    Commented Mar 19 at 21:49

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