De coena Domini, was written by Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), published first in 1570 and again in 1590. J. A. O. Preus, the former president (1962-1969) of Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois (now in Fort Wayne, Indiana), wrote this in the tenth year of his tenure as president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1969-1981). He had a doctorate in Latin and literature from the University of Minnesota. His translation is thoughtful and challenging. At times he includes original Greek or Latin to help orient the reader. He translates Scripture passages freely, as did Chemnitz, rather than conforming to a given English version.
Chemnitz’ primary argument which he restates over and over again throughout the book, from which he never strays, is that the Words of Institution are the last will and testament of the Son of God. And that they should be treated as such. He laments that the Words are twisted in theological circles in ways that no one would ever do with a loved-one’s last will and testament. Lawyers would never allow parties to diverge from a last will and testament in the way some have from Jesus’ last words on the night in which he was betrayed. They form the foundation for all his arguments. And arguments they are.
The book is written to refute the Reformed position on Holy Communion. In time he lays out the Reformed position, and, for clarification, the Roman Catholic position. It goes like this:
- Reformed: This is not the body of Christ.
- Papal: This is no longer bread.
- Lutheran: This is both bread and body.
Chemnitz in refuting what he calls the sacramentarians, actually lays out their main points in his rhetoric. This is not Christ’s body except in some hyper-spiritualized sense. Christ is everywhere after all. When Christ says, “This is my body,” they interpret it to mean “this represents my body” or stands for my body. After all, when Christ says, “Herod is a fox,” he doesn’t really mean it, does he? To this Chemnitz, with Luther wants us to take Jesus at his word. He means what he says. “Herod is a fox” is clearly an analogy. Understood in its plainest sense, “This is my body” is no parable, simile or analogy. This is the last will and testament of the Son of God. This is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.
Chemnitz refers to what we call the Roman Catholic position as the papalist position. In transubstantiation the bread turns into Christ’s body in substance. Today we might say, “at a molecular level.” The substance of the bread is annihilated as when Moses’ staff turns to a serpent, or the wedding hosts’ water turns into wine in John 2. To this Chemnitz says, no. There is no indication that Christ is changing the bread like he changed water into wine. The bread becomes his body, but it does not cease to be bread in his hand.
Chemnitz insists, with Luther, and his opinion the ancient doctors of the church, that the church’s position has always been that the Lord’s Supper consists of two things: the bread and Christ’s body, the wine and Christ’s blood. As Paul makes clear in I Corinthians 10, the distribution of bread is participation in the body of Christ. Just a Christ is both God and human, so the Sacrament is both bread and body. The Eucharist is a celebration of incarnation.
Chemnitz cites what he calls Luther’s four criteria. Roughly:
1. Do we understand Christ’s words, “This is my body” in the most natural sense?
2. What is present in the Sacrament? What is being distributed?
3. Is the body of Christ only in heaven, that it cannot also be here in earth in the Sacrament?
4. What do the unworthy receive when Christ says also to them, “This is my body?”
I have always loved this fourth point when debating close communion. If Jesus communed Judas, whom the gospels call the “son of perdition” why should we be so worried about communing someone who doesn’t quite have our understanding of Holy Communion, or worse, doesn’t believe at all? This is not our problem. This is between them and God. Apparently Jesus didn’t worry about it too much.
This book is wordy. Chemnitz writes polemically. It reads as one who is embroiled in controversy, overstating his arguments in a heated debate. The arguments are also filled with rationalism. Not quite to the extreme caricatured in Monty Python, but at times close.
I took Reformation History at the Josephenum Pontifical College in Columbus, Ohio with a wise priest. He helped us understand the forces of nominalism and rationalism at work in the controversies of the sixteenth century. While he didn’t convert any of us young Lutherans, he did spark the imagination. The Lutheran position on Holy Communion makes sense. Maybe too much sense at times. Must we explain everything until there is no room left for mystery? Must we all agree on what is mechanically happening in the Sacrament for it to be efficacious? Perhaps those of us in the 21st century can leave the 16th century arguments to the 16th century, not ignoring them, but recognizing they rightly have less weight in the world of quarks and leptons. Perhaps we should just do what Jesus’ said and leave it at that.