Luther on Breaking Bread
- Luther, The Misuse of the Mass (1521)
The whole idea that the mass was a sacrifice was nothing short of blasphemous for Luther and this was the prime focus of his thinking and writing on the subject up until 1524. The words of Christ at the Last Supper, he argued, contain nothing about the idea of sacrifice, rather they refer to a testament, that is, to the promise of forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death at Calvary. The very first martyrs of the Reformation, two Augustinian monks from Antwerp who were burnt at the stake on 1st July 1523 died, amongst other things for this belief: -
“The mass is not a sacrifice but a remembrance of the death of Christ. Therefore, it is not an offering for the dead or for the living.”
The other major focus of Luther’s thinking on breaking bread at this point was his insistence that it should be done in its entirety by all who partake. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (August 1520) Luther argues passionately for the priesthood of all believers, citing 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 5:10 as his proof texts. Since all Christians are priests, Luther saw no theological justification for the Church’s practice at that time of denying wine to the laity. It must have been an amazing moment when the first evangelical communion services were held and ordinary lay persons drank from the cup!
Luther also rejected the Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation during this early phase of his ministry. In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) he dismissed it as a piece of medieval scholastic mumbo jumbo. Transubstantiation, the Catholic Church’s explanation of the doctrine of the “real presence”, the idea that the bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ when the priest says the words “Hoc est corpus meum” was, in fact, a relatively recent addition to the Roman Catholic theological armoury. It had been decided upon at the fourth Lateran Council of the Church in 1215 as a way of explaining the miracle of transubstantiation. A distinction was made (based on Aristotle’s philosophy) between “accidents” and “substance”. Thus, the bread and wine’s external properties or “accidents” remained bread and wine but the internal properties or substance became flesh and blood. Luther was ruthless in his dismantling of this late medieval nonsense.
However, it is important to remember that Luther did not at this, or any other stage in his ministry, ever reject the idea of the real presence – the idea that the bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. He only ever went as far as rejecting the way the Roman Church sought to explain the miracle of what took place at communion (ie transubstantiation). To be fair, he went quite close to a spiritual or symbolic interpretation. In 1520 he wrote A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Mass in which he said:
“In all His promises… God usually gives a sign, for the greater assurance and strengthening of our faith. Thus he gave Noah the sign of the rainbow. To Abraham he gave circumcision as a sign. To Gideon he gave the rain on the ground and on the fleece. So we constantly find in the Scriptures many of these signs, given along with the promises. For in this way also worldly testaments are made; not only are the words written down, but seals and marks of notaries are affixed, so that it may always be binding and authentic. This is what Christ has done in this testament. He has affixed to the words a most powerful and most precious seal and sign: his own true flesh and blood under the bread and wine.”
Why then did Luther step back from the trajectory on which he was headed and ultimately reaffirm his commitment to the doctrine of the real presence? Why was he so vehemently opposed to the “symbolic” interpretation developed by Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich in 1525? The answer to these questions lies in the conflict that was about to break out between Luther and his colleague and erstwhile most enthusiastic supporter Andreas Carlstadt.
To be continued…
This is part 2 of a four part series on Communion.