A Brief History of Communion: Five Reformation Views

This post is part of an ongoing series on the history of communion.

The Reformation Church

Martin Luther

With the outbreak of theological reforms in the 16th century came considerable revisions and specifications of the theologies and practices of Communion. Essentially, five major views solidified: Tridentine, Consubstantial, Reformed, Via Media, and Memorialist.

The Tridentine view was that of the Roman Catholic Church, wherein the bread and wine of Communion wholly become transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the Words of Institution in the liturgy. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ.”3 This perspective came to be known as “transubstantiation” because of the Aristotelian logic behind the doctrine, which explains that the substance of the bread and wine are changed (into body and blood) while the accidents (appearance) remain the same.

The Consubstantial perspective holds that the body and blood of Christ are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. That is, the substances of bread and wine remain in elements of Communion, but they are joined via mystery by the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the view of Martin Luther, who believed so strongly in the real presence of Christ in Communion that he famously carved hoc est corpum meum (“this is my body”) into a table at the Marburg Colloquy whilst debating Communion with fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli.

The Reformed articulation of Communion involves affirmation of a spiritual (sometimes “special” or “pneumatic”) presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist. Eschewing Aristotelian explanations, John Calvin and other reformed thinkers argued that Christ really is present spiritually, but that no real transformation (in whole or part) occurs with the bread and wine. Thus, Reformed Christians could say that Jesus was truly present in the bread and wine of Communion, though in a manner differing from the Catholic and Lutheran viewpoints.

The Via Media explanation of Communion comes (unsurprisingly) from the Church of England, which sought to allow for understandings of both the “real presence” and “special presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. Straddling the line between Roman Catholic Aristotelian explanations and Reformed spiritual emphases, the Book of Common Prayer explains Communion in the following way: “Insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ…. The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.”4

The final major view on Communion arising from the Reformation was the Memorialist viewpoint. As articulated by Ulrich Zwingli, Communion should only be understood as a symbolic representation designed to recall the passion of the Lord Jesus. To claim Christ’s real presence (either spiritually or physically) in the Eucharist is to flirt with idolatry and elevate the remembrance of Christ over Christ Himself. In this view, significant emphasis is placed on the “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) portion of the Last Supper.

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1333.
4 Book of Common Prayer, Article XXVIII

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