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Escaping Zurich: Why Evangelicals Get Communion Wrong

Escaping Zurich: Why (many) Evangelicals Get Communion Wrong

The language we use when talking about Communion has a great deal more to do with our history than our Bibles. 

[note: Although written primarily for churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement that practice weekly communion with an assumed Zwinglian theology, the following is also broadly applicable to most American Protestants]

A quick review of any English Bible will demonstrate words like memorial or emblematic or symbolic are not actually 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 sixteenth century Switzerland.  Here, as in part of Germany, the Protestant Reformation is being born.  Martin Luther is a name known widely as one of the Reformation’s great pioneers.  John Calvin, living in the next generation, is almost as well known.  But, at roughly the same time Luther is bringing his call for fides sola (faith alone) to Saxony, a young priest named Ulrich Zwingli is leading Zurich into an even more dramatic break with Rome.

Zwingli may be the most important leader of the Protestant Reformation that many people have never heard of.  Luther will only want to change whatever parts of traditional worship are biblically wrong.  The complex doctrine of Transubstantiation (the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine into the physical body and blood of Jesus) is rejected and any reference to it removed from the liturgy.  Scripture, particularly through an extended sermon, is given a more important role in worship.  Both the bread and wine are offered to people in Communion (called Communion in both kinds) and people are urged to take it every week, not just the traditional once a year.  To our eyes and hear, though, worship in Luther’s Germany would have seemed very, well, Catholic.

But a trip to Zurich will bring us into a radically different approach to worship.  All of the art in the building has been removed, including most of the stained glass.  The pulpit is elevated and the Altar, now simply called the Table, is on the same level as the worshippers.  The man leading the worship does not wear the elaborate vestments of the Medieval Priest, but the simple attire of an academic or a teacher.  Scripture dominates everything.  It is the mind, not the flesh, that is to be fed.  Even though Zwingli is a gifted musician, music has been entirely removed from the service.  Like the paintings and statues that are also gone, music appeals to the flesh.  You would probably notice the absence of something else, also.  Communion.  Zwingli suggested Communion should be offered 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, would conclude that weekly Communion ought to be the practice of the church.  The town leaders, however, saw no need to change their adaption of 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.

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 serves very well the purpose of distinguishing itself from the looming shadow of Roman Catholicism and its mysterious doctrine of Transubstantiation.  It removes from the meal any real possibility people would think of it as a re-sacrifice of Christ or as a means of renewing the forgiveness of their sins.  For most Protestant traditions, it also fits nicely into the absence of Communion in most Sunday worship gatherings.  

The challenge to this approach to Communion is in reconciling it with the language of scripture and in several troubling questions it seems to raise.

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 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 to the earth so the waters would subside. (Gen. 8:1)  God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the doomed city of Sodom. (Gen. 19:29)  God remembered Rachel and she became pregnant. (Gen 30:22)  God remembered his covenant with Abraham and called on Moses to deliver the suffering Israelites from Egyptian slavery. (Ex. 2:24)  And, of course, the Hebrews are commanded to remember the Sabbath day. (Ex.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 Deut. 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 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.

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 Cor. 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 Cor. 11:27)  Expanding on this, Paul urges serious reflection on Christ’s body and on one’s own life, or taking the bread and the cup is nothing less that eating and drinking judgment – a fact demonstrated in the physical sicknesses and deaths of some within the Corinthian church. (1 Cor. 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 moving away from Zwingli always raises: the Medieval belief in which Christ is re-crucified and people are crushing the physical body of Jesus between their teeth.  At least in part, it is this looming ghost of cypto-transubstantiation that keeps Zwingli’s inadequate views so dominate 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.

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 leaving out words like emblematic would be caving into the old specter of Transubstantiation, time and space permit only a couple of brief.  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 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…”

A particularly delightful, brief, and highly readable book that will deepen your (or any leader in your church) understanding of the Lord's Supper is The Meal that Jesus Gave Us.  It is by noted New Testament scholar Tom (N.T.) Wright.  Among other things, Wright is impressive in his ability to communicate effectively at a popular and readable level.


[1] And so Jerome uses the same Latin word, memento, in both Ex. 20:8 and Dt. 5:15.




4 comments:

Ben Rees said...

Bravo, Tom. Your blog helped give some additional historical perspective to thoughts and feelings I have had off and on most of my life.

John Jordan said...

Well said, good sir. If I understood him correctly, Bob Webber contended for the point that Christ could be present in the bread and the cup just as he was present in the gathering of two or more. Far short OS transubstatntiation, but far more than a memorial.

Tom Lawson said...

Yes, he did. Good memory you have there.

Tom Lawson said...

Thanks, Ben. Coming from someone whose keen mind I greatly respect, that is especially encouraging.