Friday, 4 July 2014

Lutherans Do Not Believe in Consubstantiation, OK?

Lutherans do not subscribe to the theory of the 'how' of the 'real presence' called consubstantiation. But if you received your orientation to Lutheran doctrine only from evangelical Reformed dogmaticians, you might be excused for thinking so, for in my experience that is how they almost unanimously represent the Lutheran doctrine of the 'real presence' of our Lord's body and blood in the Lord's Supper (even the Anglican scholar Alister McGrath, who wrote a decent study of Luther's theology of the cross, did so in his Christian Theology).

The latest example of this egregious misrepresentation comes from Australian Anglican theologian, Michael L. Bird, who holds a PhD from the University of Queensland in my home city of Brisbane and teaches at Ridley Theological College in Melbourne. In his systematics text, Evangelical Theology (Zondervan, 2013; pictured),  after correctly describing the Lutheran doctrine as a reaction against the Roman Catholic doctrine of sacrifice, Bird also correctly notes that Lutherans still hold to a 'real presence' in the sacrament of the altar, a position which he says is called consubstantiation. No reference to the primary literature of the Lutheran Confessions is made to justify this terminology; in fact, if Dr. Bird had checked, he would have found the term is never used in them!  

Bird then goes on to compound his error by suggesting an illustration for the Lutheran doctrine: Lutheran teaching regards our Lord's body and blood as present "within" the bread and wine like a "nut is within a cookie". Now, I realise theologians writing text books for the American college and seminary market need to dumb things down a bit, but really...a nut in a cookie!? No Lutheran would ever use such an illustration because it leads so easily to the false representation of the Lutheran doctrine as Capernaitic. And that is the real nub of the issue, I think: even Reformed scholars who propose to write objectively about the Lutheran doctrine cannot get around their unfounded prejudice that the Lutheran doctrine involves something akin to cannibalism. The Lutheran Confessions addressed this charge in this manner:
"...we hereby utterly condemn the Capernaitic eating of the body of Christ, as though [we taught that] His flesh were rent with the teeth, and digested like other food, which the Sacramentarians, against the testimony of their conscience, after all our frequent protests, wilfully force upon us, and in this way make our doctrine odious to their hearers; and on the other hand, we maintain and believe, according to the simple words of the testament of Christ, the true, yet supernatural eating of the body of Christ, as also the drinking of His blood, which human senses and reason do not comprehend, but as in all other articles of faith our reason is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and this mystery is not apprehended otherwise than by faith alone, and revealed in the Word alone." [[Formula of Concord, Epitome, VII The Lord's Supper, Negative Theses]
The Lutheran doctrine is properly characterised not as 'consubstantiation', a philosophical doctrine which uses Aristotelian categories to teach a mixture of substances in the sacrament, but as a 'sacramental union' between the heavenly and earthly elements effected by our Lord's Word. The justification for this belief is not philosophy - unlike the Reformed, Lutherans do not use philosophy to authorise doctrine but merely as a handmaiden to theology - but Holy Scripture:
"We believe, teach, and confess that the body and blood of Christ are received with the bread and wine, not only spiritually by faith, but also orally; yet not in a Capernaitic, but in a supernatural, heavenly mode, because of the sacramental union; as the words of Christ clearly show, when Christ gives direction to take, eat, and drink, as was also done by the apostles; for it is written Mark 14:23: And they all drank of it. St. Paul likewise says, 1 Cor. 10:16: The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? that is: He who eats this bread eats the body of Christ, which also the chief ancient teachers of the Church, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Leo I, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine, unanimously testify." [Formula of Concord, Epitome, VII The Lord's Supper, Affirmative Theses]
Disagree with the Lutheran teaching if you must, Reformed theologians, but please, if you write about it, at least take the trouble to represent it correctly.

Let ma also say that any theology which permits philosophy to be a guiding principle cannot be truly evangelical.


Paul said...

I hear the same misrepresentation by Roman Catholic apologists all the time.

Acroamaticus said...

Thanks Paul. I don't read much contemporary RC theology because I find they don't accurately convey the magisterium's teaching - I focus on the authoritative documents and classical theologians like Aquinas. But it make sense that a RC apologist who sincerely believes the RC dogma of transubstantiation would be predisposed to think in Aristotelian categories and describe the Lutheran doctrine as consubstantiation. As I mentioned in the text, the Reformed also work with a priori philosophical assumptions, such as 'finitum non capax infiniti'. Only Lutheran theology let's God be God in its methodological approach to defining doctrine. Thanks again for your comment and for visiting the virtual old manse.

Steve Martin said...

"In, under, and with the bread and the wine."

Yes He is truly there.

But unlike the Catholics, we don't claim to know exactly how He does it. Only that He promised to be in it, for us.

For us Lutherans, that promise is all we need. It is enough. It is enough.

Robertus said...

The Lutheran doctrine of "sacramental union" as taught in the Lutheran confessions is only defined in the Formula of Concord, so it follows that we should refer to that to understand it. I see two questions raised by your post. First, is sacramental union really defined outside the use of Aristotelian philosophical categories? Second, can sacramental union be appropriately called consubstaniation?

+To the first question, I think the answer is decidedly not. The authors of the FC speak about this issue in their section on original sin. They state that the categories of substance and accident are an "indisputable truth."

"Now, then, since it is the indisputable truth that everything that is, is either a substance or an accidens, that is, either a self-existing essence or something accidental in it, as has just been shown and proved by testimonies of the church-teachers, and no truly intelligent man has ever had any doubts concerning this, necessity here constrains, and no one can evade it, if the question be asked whether original sin is a substance, that is, such a thing as exists by itself, and is not in another or whether it is an accidens, that is, such a thing as does not exist by itself, but is in another, and cannot exist or be by itself, he must confess straight and pat that original sin is no substance, but an accidens." (SDFC I.57)

There position is that these terms ought not to be used in public sermons before people who would not understand what they mean, but that they are necessary for the educated to use in order to define doctrine (SDFC I.54).

Since these terms are such foundational aspects of reality, it follows that they can be and ought to be used in defining eucharistic doctrine. Is Christ truly and substantially present in the Sacrament of the Altar? Does the substance of the bread remain after the consecration? These are not unreasonable questions and they are questions addressed by the Formula of Concord and in the teaching of the Catholic Church of transubstantiation.

+To the second question, it is my opinion that the doctrine of sacramental can accurately be called consubstantiation even though it is not a term favored by Lutheran theologians. I say that with the qualification that we should generally use the terms that others settle upon rather than foisting terms upon them that are foreign to their tradition. It would sound strange to speak of Catholic doctrine of the Fall as total depravity after all. That said, the basic definition of consubstantiation, as the word is commonly understood, is that the substances of Christ's body and the substance of the bread in some way exist together ("con") in the sacrament. This is exactly what the Formula of Concord teaches.

"For the reason why, in addition to the expressions of Christ and St. Paul (the bread in the Supper is the body of Christ or the communion of the body of Christ), also the forms: under the bread, with the bread, in the bread [the body of Christ is present and offered], are employed, is that by means of them the papistical transubstantiation may be rejected and the sacramental union of the unchanged essence of the bread and of the body of Christ indicated." (SDFC VII.35)

"[I]n the Holy Supper the two substances, the natural bread and the true natural body of Christ, are present together here upon earth in the appointed administration of the Sacrament." (SDFC VII.37)

You bring up another point which is that Calvinist authors misrepresent the Lutheran view. That is true. An interesting observation is that they make the same accusations against Lutherans as against Catholics. For example, they imply that Lutheran teaching is that of a local presence of Christ's body, and they also allege that it implies cannibalism.

Robertus said...

Steve Martin, do you really think it is accurate that Catholics "claim to know exactly how He does it" to an extent that Lutherans do not? I certainly don't think it is accurate.