One of the significant church controversies that developed during 16th century Protestant reformation was a question about the Supper. Specifically, In what way is Jesus Christ physically present when the church eats the bread and drinks the cup?
The Roman Catholic error
All of the Protestant churches were united in their rejection of the Roman Catholic teaching called transubstantiation. Transubstantiation became official Roman dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215. The Roman church taught then, and teaches today, “that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation" (Catholic Catechism, no. 1376).
This error would allow the Roman church to go on and build another error upon it. In 1562 the Council of Trent decreed that the sacrament was a propitiatory sacrifice. They teach that on the altar – which we call the Lord’s Table - Christ is being sacrificed because his physical body and blood are now there. Here is how their most current Catechism teaches it: “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice…the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory” (CC, no. 1367).
Just as sin was being propitiated on the cross, so too in the Mass is it being propitiated. God’s wrath is being satisfied by the Mass! Technically, they are not teaching that Christ is being re-sacrificed in the Mass, but they are teaching that his sacrifice is ongoing today every time the priest consecrates the host and conducts the Mass.
All orthodox Protestants reject this Roman superstition on biblical grounds. Hebrews 9:26 reads “[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Christ’s sacrifice on the cross put away sin. Nothing can be done to put it away even more as it is put away. To suggest otherwise, is to diminish the work and person of Jesus Christ.
The Lutheran error
When the Roman Catholic monk and theologian Martin Luther began to wage truth upon the church, the Mass soon became a key target around 1520. Luther rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation. He loathed the notion that the priests believed they could transform the bread into the body of Christ by elevating the host and merely saying, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”). Luther said the whole thing "reeked of sacrifice" and was the “most wicked abuse of all.” He rejected it most forcibly stating in the Lord's Supper something was to be received, it was not a work for us to perform (Formula of the Mass, 1523).
To Luther's great credit he rejected all teaching that made the Supper a propitiatory sacrifice. However, Luther did maintain the Mass and continued to encourage bowing and prostration before the elements of the Supper. Why? Because Luther tenaciously held to an almost-Catholic view that the humanity of Jesus, the body and blood, was locally present in the Supper and therefore mysteriously received in eating and drinking. Article X of their Augsburg Confession says: “It is taught among us that the true body and blood of Christ are really present in the Supper of our Lord under the form of bread and wine and are there distributed and received." Thus Lutherans today teach the "real presence" of the humanity of Christ in the Supper at the table with the bread and with the wine. This is called sacramental union, the natural bread and Christ's true natural body are united. This is "not a natural or spatial combination, mixture, or fusion, but a supernatural union." If you do not confess the local presence of Christ's humanity in the Supper, you are forbidden to take the Supper with Missouri-Synod Lutherans and Wisconsin Evangelical Synod Lutherans.
How do Lutherans square their doctrine with scripture? They teach we must take the words of Jesus at their face value. At the last supper Jesus said: “this is my body...this is my blood.” For Lutherans this settles the matter. "A plain and straightforward reading of these words leads to the conclusion that both bread and body, both wine and blood are present in the consecrated elements of the Lord's Supper" (LCMS online Q&A).
The trouble with the Lutheran teaching is two-fold. First, it requires Lutherans to make complex interpretive explanations when they can't apply the same principle to the other words of Jesus: "I am the door" and "I am the vine." Second, they are not even doing what they say they are doing. They rightly reject transubstantiation, keeping the bread distinct from the body. But they use the language of "in, with, and under" to explain His local presence. Yet this is not taking Christ literally as they insist. Jesus said, "This is my body...this is my blood" (Matt. 26:26-28). To take these words literally we must end up embracing the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation. Luther accused others of being rationalistic for not taking the Lord's words literally, but Lutherans fail to do so as well. They turn our Lord's words from, “this is my body” to "this accompanies my body.”
As mentioned above, these errors close-off communion in many Lutheran bodies. Thus their errors create an unnecessary point of division in the body of Christ.
The teaching of scripture
Other Protestants rightly refused to let Luther bully them into thinking he was the literalist and they were not. Other Reformers, namely John Calvin and the Presbyterians, believed scripture did teach the "real presence" of Christ in the Lord's Supper, but not a local presence anyway, not at the table, not with the bread, not with the wine, but with the believer nonetheless, through the Spirit. This is beautifully explained in our Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 170:
Q. 170. How do they that worthily communicate in the Lord's supper feed upon the body and blood of Christ therein?
A. As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord's supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses; so they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord's supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.
This handling of the Lord's metaphors (Matt. 26:26-29) and the doctrine of participation with Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17) fends off another error in the Lutheran system - the distortion of Christ's humanity.
If Jesus has a humanity that can be omnipresent then Jesus has a one-of-a-kind humanity, a humanity unlike our own. But that is not the kind of humanity Christ has. He has our kind of humanity so He can be our true Redeemer and High Priest. Through the incarnation the eternal Word took a true human nature. Without a true human nature Christ could not be a true substitute for human sinners. Christ took a human nature and it was united to his divine nature and remains so for evermore. He did not lose the divine nature by taking a human nature nor did the human nature cease to be human because it was united to a divine nature.
For Christ's body and blood to be locally present with the bread and wine confuses his divine nature with his human nature. As Keith Mathison points out in his excellent book, Given For You: “The scriptures speak of Christ’s body in terms of specific locality. He is in Galilee, or he is in Judea, or he is in Jerusalem. But he is not in all of these places at the same time. … Scripture goes even further and speaks of the specific local absence of Christ’s body for a specific location. After the crucifixion, when the women came to the tomb, they were met by an angel who said to them, “He is not here (Matt. 28:6). If such biblical statements about Christ’s human body are true, then his human body was not ubiquitous in any normal sense of the word.”
It is true that Christ is omnipresent by virtue of his divinity, but it is not true to say he is everywhere by virtue of his humanity (for more study on this point, see Kevin DeYoung's recent article, The Extra-Calvinisticum).
May God give us all the grace to endure in defending the truth of his Word. If these matters were weighty enough to be near the core of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, then we are in no position to say they do not matter today. Let us know what we believe and why we believe it and so serve all who the Lord sends to walk beside us for a time.