John Knox and the Lord’s Supper: Importance and Presence

John Knox’s position on the Lord’s Supper is most formally set forth in his 1550 A Summary, According to Holy Scriptures, of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Works, 3:71-75.) This short work of only 3 pages is nonetheless full in its contents and provides real insight into Knox’s views. In addition to this work, material to outline Knox’s position on the Lord’s Supper will be drawn from the 1556 Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, &c., Used in the English Congregation at Geneva, the 1560 Scots Confession, the 1560 First Book of Discipline and the 1564 Book of Common Order: or the Form of Prayers, and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc., Approved and Received by the Church of Scotland.
The Importance of the Supper
The first and obvious point to draw from Knox is that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is ordained of God. The Lord’s Supper is not a human invention, it is “a holy action, ordained of God.” (Works, 3:73.) Thus the Lord’s Supper is of divine origin, and warrant, and of great importance for the wellbeing of the Church. This carries with it an important corollary. As the Lord’s Supper is “instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ” it is therefore “commanded to be used of all those that will be reputed members of his body.” (Scots Confession in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:201.) The Lord’s Supper is not something that is optional in the Christian life, it is a command of Christ. And if the sacrament is refused, this in effect is to refuse to be a member of Christ’s body. To neglect the Lord’s Supper is to neglect the Christ who says to us, “take, eat” (See Works, 4:172). This is an emphasis that needs to be understood carefully and pastorally, but, which nonetheless needs to be heard.
The Presence of Christ
The second point we can consider from Knox relates to the presence of Christ in the Supper. Knox insisted that Christ was present in the Supper. In the well-known words of the Scots Confession Knox could state: “we utterly damn the vanity of those that affirm sacraments to be nothing else but naked and bare signs … whosoever slanders us, as that we affirmed or believed sacraments to be only naked and bare signs, [they] do injury unto us and speak against a manifest truth” (Scots Confession in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:201-202).
Rather than being a mere memorial, Knox could state that “we confess and undoubtedly believe that the faithful, in the right use of the Lord’s table do eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus … we affirm that the faithful in the right use of the Lord’s table have such conjunction with Jesus Christ as the natural man cannot apprehend” (Scots Confession in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:202). Thus, “in the Supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us (John 6) that He becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls” (Scots Confession in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:201).
But this “real presence” of Christ was spiritual and not physical, for Knox clearly stated that “this union and conjunction which we have with the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the right use of the sacraments is wrought by operation of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal and earthly, and makes us to feed upon the body and blood of Jesus Christ which was once broken and shed for us which is now in heaven” (Scots Confession in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:201) Thus, for Knox, Christ was received “spiritually” in the same manner as “the Fathers of the Old Testament” received Christ. Knox here is referencing Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 10:3-4 “And [they] did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (Works, 3:75). Therefore “if men would well weigh, how that Christ, ordaining this Holy Sacrament of his body and blood, spoke these words sacramentally, doubtless they would never so grossly and foolishly understand them” (Works, 3:75). As such, rather than thinking of “eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood” carnally the Scripture understood this phrase to mean a “spiritually nourishing [of] our souls with the graces and benefits of Jesus Christ” (“The Confession of Faith of the English Congregation in Geneva” in Works, 4:172).
In the Lord’s Supper, then, Jesus Christ is really, but spiritually present as believers really, but spiritually, feed on his body and blood. Knox’s teaching here on the presence of Christ in the Supper is echoed later in the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 170 which states that: “…the body and blood of Christ… 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.”
Donald John Maclean