Martin Luther rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, that is, that the Communion bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Luther saw no need for this doctrine. Rather, he agreed that Christ's presence did not replace the presence of bread and wine but was added to the bread and wine. Luther maintained that the body and blood of Christ are somehow present in, under, and through the elements of bread and wine. It is customary to call the Lutheran view consubstantiation because the substance of the body and blood of Christ are present with (con) the substance of bread and wine. Lutheran theologians, however, do not like the term consubstantiation and protest that it is understood in terms that are too closely associated with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
But it is clear that Luther insisted on the real physical and substantial presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper. He repeatedly cited Jesus' words of institution, "this is My body," to prove his point. Luther would not allow the verb is to be taken in a figurative or representative sense. Luther also adopted the doctrine of the communication of attributes by which the divine attribute of omnipresence was communicated to the human nature of Jesus, making it possible for His body and blood to be present at more than one place at the same time.
Ulrich Zwingli and others argued that Jesus' words "this is My body" meant really "This represents My body." Jesus frequently used the verb to be in such a figurative sense. He said, "I am the door," "I am the true vine," etc. Zwingli and others argued that Christ's body is not present in actual substance at the Lord's Supper. The supper is a memorial only, with Christ's presence no different from His normal presence through the Holy Spirit.
John Calvin, on the other hand, when he debated with Rome and Luther, denied the "substantial" presence of Christ at the Lord's Supper. Yet when he debated with the Anabaptists, who reduced the Lord's Supper to a mere memorial, he insisted on the "substantial" presence of Christ.
On the surface it seems that Calvin was caught in a blatant contradiction. However, upon closer scrutiny we see that Calvin used the term substantial in two different ways. When he addressed Roman Catholics and Lutherans, he used the term substantial to mean "physical." He denied the physical presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper. When he addressed the Anabaptists, he insisted on the term substantial in the sense of "real." Calvin thus argued that Christ was really or truly present in the Lord's Supper, though not in a physical sense.
Because Calvin rejected the idea of the communication of attributes from the divine nature to the human nature, he was accused of separating and dividing the two natures of Christ and committing the Nestorian heresy, which was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. Calvin replied that he was not separating the two natures but distinguishing between them.
The human nature of Jesus is presently localized in heaven. It remains in perfect union with His divine nature. Though the human nature is contained in one place, the person of Christ is not so contained because His divine nature still has the power of omnipresence. Jesus said, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Despite its limitations, and at the risk of being misunderstood, we give the following picture to illustrate what we are saying.
Calvin taught that though Christ's body and blood remain in heaven, they are spiritually "made present" to us by Jesus' omnipresent divine nature. Wherever the divine nature of Christ is present, He is truly present. This is consistent with Jesus' own teaching that He was "going away" yet would abide with us. When we meet Him at the Lord's Supper we commune with Him. By meeting us in His divine presence, we are brought into His human presence mystically, because His divine nature is never separated from His human nature. The divine nature leads us to the ascended Christ, and in the Lord's Supper we have a taste of heaven.
The Essential Truths of the Christian Faith devotional is excerpted from Essential Truths of the Christian Faith Copyright © 1992 by R. C. Sproul. All rights reserved.