The language we use when talking about Communion has a great deal to do with our history. A quick review of any English Bible will demonstrate words like memorial or emblematic or symbolic are not found in any of the passages about Communion. So, where do they come from and why do we hear them so often? The flip side of that question might be: Why are there a number of biblical phrases and teachings about the Lord’s Supper we rarely hear?
To understand why we hear what we hear, it is important we take a brief trip back to 16th-century Switzerland. There, as in part of Germany, the Protestant Reformation was being born. Martin Luther was known widely as one of the Reformation’s great pioneers. John Calvin, who lived in the next generation, was almost as well known. But, at roughly the same time Luther was bringing his call for fides sola (faith alone) to Saxony, a young priest named Ulrich Zwingli was leading Zurich into an even more dramatic break with Rome. He may be the most important leader of the Protestant Reformation that many people have never heard of.
First Luther, and Then Zwingli
Luther wanted only to change the parts of traditional worship that were biblically wrong. The complex doctrine of transubstantiation (the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine into the physical body and blood of Jesus) was rejected and any reference to it removed from the liturgy. Scripture, particularly through an extended sermon, was given a more important role in worship. Both the bread and wine began being offered to people in Communion and people were urged to take it every week, not just the traditional once a year. To our eyes and ears, though, worship in Luther’s Germany would have seemed very, well, Catholic.
But a trip to Zwingli’s Zurich of that day would reveal to us a radically different approach to worship. All of the art in the church building had been removed, including most of the stained glass. The pulpit was elevated and the altar, now simply called the table, was on the same level as the worshippers. The man leading worship no longer wore the elaborate vestments of the medieval priest, but the simple attire of an academic or a teacher. Scripture dominated everything. It was the mind, not the flesh, that was to be fed.
Even though Zwingli was a gifted musician, music was entirely removed from the service. Like the paintings and statues that were also gone now, it was felt music appealed to the flesh. You probably would notice the absence of something else, too—Communion. Zwingli suggested Communion be offered only once every three months.
A generation later, when John Calvin came to nearby Geneva, many of the changes in worship Zwingli had fostered at Zurich were already in place. In fact, Calvin, like Alexander Campbell some three centuries later, concluded that weekly Communion ought to be the practice of the church. The town leaders, however, saw no need to change their pattern, adapted from Zwingli’s ideas of frequency. Since there were four churches in Geneva, each one celebrated Communion only once a year, making Communion available once a quarter, as it was in Zurich.
Emphasizing the Invisible over the Visible
Zwingli also applied the same overall emphasis of downplaying the physical (visible) for the spiritual (invisible) in his approach to the two remaining sacraments (or ordinances): baptism and Communion. In both instances, the outward physical action was only important because it suggested an unseen inward act. Anything as physical as water or bread or wine must be symbolic. And symbolic, in Zwingli’s approach, should always be preceded by the word merely.
This merely symbolic or memorial meal served very well the purpose of distinguishing itself from the looming shadow of Roman Catholicism and its mysterious doctrine of transubstantiation. It removed from the meal any real possibility people would think of it as a resacrifice of Christ or as a means of renewing the forgiveness of their sins. For most Protestant traditions, it also fit nicely into the absence of Communion in most Sunday worship gatherings.
The challenge to this approach to Communion was in reconciling it with the language of Scripture and in several troubling questions it seemed to raise.
To Remember Is Different from to Recall
Remember may not mean recall. To our modern ears, the opposite of remember would be forget. In a number of biblical passages, however, it would be more accurate to describe the opposite of remember as ignore, especially with the idea of failing to act. In other words, remember often communicated active involvement, not just mentally recalling some past person or event.
Thus we read that God remembered Noah and the animals and made a wind blow over the earth so the waters would subside (Genesis 8:1). God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the doomed city of Sodom (Genesis 19:29). God remembered Rachel and she became pregnant (Genesis 30:22). God remembered his covenant with Abraham and called on Moses to deliver the suffering Israelites from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 2:24).
And, of course, the Hebrews were commanded to remember the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8). This fourth commandment focuses on how people are to participate in the Sabbath, not whether or not they know it is Saturday. Thus, the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy 5:15 is not to remember the Sabbath, but to keep or observe the Sabbath. To ancient readers, the two phrases would be synonymous.1 There are far too many other examples to list here.
In this case, then, our modern idea of a memorial is simply not a biblically adequate understanding of Communion. A memorial is to think about someone or something in the past that we believe to be important to us: the Lincoln Memorial, a memorial service for a deceased relative, a memorial plaque listing a community’s fallen soldiers.
The two distinct definitions of remember are depicted in the oft told joke where, while reading the will of a dead rich uncle, a lawyer says, “And to my nephew Fred, who I promised to remember in my will: Hi, Fred.” The joke is in the switch of meanings. Fred wanted to be given a portion of the estate. The uncle, instead, merely recalled his nephew’s name.
More than Mere Symbols
The language of Scripture does not fit Zwingli’s approach. In addition to a substantially different image of what “in remembrance of me” means, Zwingli’s notion that the elements are mere symbols designed to invoke inward meditation does not fit what we are told in Scripture.
The bread and the cup are a participation (sharing, communion) with the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16, 17). After recounting Jesus’ words in the last supper, Paul goes on to warn that doing Communion in an unworthy manner results in people being held liable (guilty or perhaps answerable to) the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:27). Expanding on this, Paul urges serious reflection on Christ’s body and on one’s own life. Otherwise, taking the bread and the cup is nothing less than eating and drinking judgment—a fact demonstrated in the physical sicknesses and deaths of some within the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:28-30).
These passages do not ignore the importance of the heart. But, they clearly place something both wonderful and potentially dangerous within the physical bread that is eaten and the physical wine that is drunk. A time of corporate meditation on the cross, no matter how intensely experienced, is not remotely a substitute for the physical bread and cup.
Of course, these truths seem to raise the fear always raised by moving away from Zwingli; that is, will we revert to the medieval belief in which Christ is recrucified and people are crushing the physical body of Jesus between their teeth? At least in part, it is this looming ghost of crypto-transubstantiation that keeps Zwingli’s inadequate views so dominant among Protestants.
But, it may be asked, are these really the only two options we have? It should be remembered that Zwingli took a similar merely symbolic approach to Christian baptism and that this approach has been historically rejected by most within the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Resisting Human Explanations
The New Testament never explains how or in what manner the cup and the loaf offer Christians a way to participate in the body and blood of Jesus, any more than it explains how or in what manner Jesus’ death serves as a propitiation of God’s wrath or how it is that water serves as a means of being buried with Christ. We do not obey only as far as we have no questions left unanswered. That would be a pitiably small degree of obedience.
As to the inevitable fear that leaving out words like emblematic would be caving into the old specter of transubstantiation, time and space permit only a couple of brief comments. Since the New Testament never explains how the elements are a participation in the body and blood of Christ, shouldn’t we resist later human explanations? And, is the only benefit we can imagine from being invited to share in the body and blood of Jesus limited to the realm of forgiveness?
Acknowledging that Communion is a sharing in his body and blood should elevate its importance. Regardless of what we may tell ourselves, we invest extended preparation for and extended time in those parts of worship we believe to be most important. A hurried Communion, prefaced with no reference to the last supper, no warnings of its potential dangers, and little time in prayer puts Communion at roughly the same level of importance as the announcements. Yes, we do them every week. No, they are not critically important to worship.
We should abandon words like symbolic or emblematic or memorial when explaining Communion, and replace them with phrases and descriptions actually used in the New Testament. Centrally, of course, this would include reminding us that, “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23, 24).
1And so Jerome uses the same Latin word, memento, in both Exodus 20:8 and Deuteronomy 5:15.
Tom Lawson teaches classes in worship, Old Testament, and New Testament at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.