CommunionTheology & Spirituality

A Brief History of Communion (Part II)

This article continues the overview of the history of communion begun here. This post considers the history of communion from the medieval period until today.

The Medieval Church

During the medieval period, the Church began to use a common liturgy for Eucharistic celebration, with prescribed texts and traditions for services and practice. Some differences emerged between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, differences which were formalized following the Great Schism of 1054 CE.1 In the Roman West, the liturgy increasingly occurred in Latin, even in non-Latin speaking areas which were evangelized. In the Byzantine East, Greek liturgies were the most common, although in many locations liturgy continued to be held in vernacular languages.

In 1079 CE, the Sixth Council of Rome affirmed that “…the bread and wine which are placed on the altar are substantially changed into the true and proper and living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord….” In 1215 CE, the Fourth Lateran Council declared, “Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine; the bread (changed) into His body by the divine power of transubstantiation, and the wine into the blood….” These statements, which were affirmed by Pope Innocent III (1208 CE), the Second Council of Lyons (1274 CE), Pope Benedict XII (1341 CE), the Council of Constance (1415 CE), would serve as the basis for the Reformation era debates between Protestants and Catholics on the substance and importance of Communion.

The Council of Constance was also noteworthy for its statement of the practice of Communion “in one kind.”2 That is, regular lay parishioners, when they would receive communion, would only receive the bread/body of Christ, while the priests administering the sacrament would also partake of the cup/blood of Christ. This practice arose from the sacred status of the elements present in Communion, a reflection of the increasing specificity of scholastic theologians on what the Eucharist was and how it should be approached. There is some debate as to when the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (to be discussed further below) arose; although certainly present in some form prior to the Reformation, the doctrine was not formally declared until the Council of Trent (1563 CE).

The Reformation Church

With the outbreak of theological reforms in the 16th century came considerable revisions and specifications of the theologies and practices of Communion. Essentially, five major views solidified: Tridentine, Consubstantial, Reformed, Via Media, and Memorialist.

The Tridentine view was that of the Roman Catholic Church, wherein the bread and wine of Communion wholly become transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the Words of Institution in the liturgy. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ.”3 This perspective came to be known as “transubstantiation” because of the Aristotelian logic behind the doctrine, which explains that the substance of the bread and wine are changed (into body and blood) while the accidents (appearance) remain the same.

The Consubstantial perspective holds that the body and blood of Christ are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. That is, the substances of bread and wine remain in elements of Communion, but they are joined via mystery by the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the view of Martin Luther, who believed so strongly in the real presence of Christ in Communion that he famously carved hoc est corpum meum (“this is my body”) into a table at the Marburg Colloquy whilst debating Communion with fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli.

The Reformed articulation of Communion involves affirmation of a spiritual (sometimes “special” or “pneumatic”) presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist. Eschewing Aristotelian explanations, John Calvin and other reformed thinkers argued that Christ really is present spiritually, but that no real transformation (in whole or part) occurs with the bread and wine. Thus, Reformed Christians could say that Jesus was truly present in the bread and wine of Communion, though in a manner differing from the Catholic and Lutheran viewpoints.

The Via Media explanation of Communion comes (unsurprisingly) from the Church of England, which sought to allow for understandings of both the “real presence” and “special presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. Straddling the line between Roman Catholic Aristotelian explanations and Reformed spiritual emphases, the Book of Common Prayer explains Communion in the following way: “Insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ…. The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.”4

The final major view on Communion arising from the Reformation was the Memorialist viewpoint. As articulated by Ulrich Zwingli, Communion should only be understood as a symbolic representation designed to recall the passion of the Lord Jesus. To claim Christ’s real presence (either spiritually or physically) in the Eucharist is to flirt with idolatry and elevate the remembrance of Christ over Christ Himself. In this view, significant emphasis is placed on the “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) portion of the Last Supper.

The Contemporary Church

In general, the five major Reformation views on Communion persist today, although with literally tens of thousands of denominations worldwide, explanations of Communion can vary greatly among contemporary churches. Adding further complexity is the “rediscovery” of worldwide Christianity in the 20th century, which has led to an influx of interest in and co-option of Eastern articulations of Communion. Particularly influential has been the Orthodox expression of Communion, where the Eucharist is confessed to mysteriously be the body and blood of Christ without reliance on philosophical categories. Similarly important has been the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II shift to celebrating Mass in the vernacular, which has enlivened Catholic understanding of Communion and spurred on ecumenical dialogue on the sacraments.

For many contemporary American Christians, the different articulations of Eucharistic theology throughout the history of Christianity remain unknown. American Protestants—even those from denominations historically articulating Consubstantial, Reformed, or Via Media views—have increasingly adopted Memorialist explanations and practices of Communion, a reality that is true even within some denominations which formally affirm theologies of real or special presence. Wherever one stands on the Communion spectrum, this reality underscores the need for continued education (dare I say catechesis?) within Christian churches of all forms on what Communion is and how is ought to be practiced.

Ancient Christian and Reformation era articulations of the Eucharist convey a depth of theological understanding and insight which seem to be lacking for many Christians. Robust Eucharistic theology speaks to the reality of Christ’s Incarnational presence in the world, the sacrament as a tangible means of forgiveness and grace in a broken world, and emphasizes the continuing mysterious work of God in the lives of his people. As Christians proclaim the Kingdom of God, we would be wise to again swim in the deep waters of Eucharistic theology that a history of Communion provides for us.


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Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

Pastor of Church Planting at Rooftop Church. Cubs Fan. Alumnus of various institutions.

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