John Knox and the Lord’s Supper: Introduction

John Knox gave significant focus to the Lord’s Supper through his life, and there is much in Knox’s teaching that provides fruitful material for theological reflection. As such a series of posts will follow on various aspects of Knox’s understanding of the Lord Supper. However to set the scene some of the high level debates on the Lord’s Supper at the time of the reformation are sketched below.
But as we live in days when the sacraments are undervalued it is worth remembering that in the sixteenth century the doctrine of the sacraments, and in particular the Lord’s Supper, was felt to be so important that is formed the crux of the dispute between Rome and the Reformers, and also soon divided the Reformers. As V.E. d’Assonville notes the sacraments “became the ‘shibboleth’ of every dogmatic system, because it was in the sacraments themselves that the principles each party stood for materialised into the life of the church in practice.” (V.E. d’Assonville, John Knox and the Institutes of Calvin, Drakensberg Press, 1968, 6) The importance of the Lord’s Supper can be seen in four disputes.
Disputes 1 & 2: The Presence of Christ
First, is Christ physically present in the elements, the bread and wine, of the Lord’s Supper? Does the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? Or to put it more generally—how is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper? To state the matter simply Rome (and to a degree Lutherans) said, yes, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. The Reformed denied this while refusing to reduce the bread and wine to be “bare signs.” The Reformed generally held that Christ was really and truly present, albeit spiritually and sacramentally, not physically.
Second, and related, the question was debated between Lutherans and Roman Catholics: Does any other substance remain after the consecration apart from the body of Christ? That is, after the pronouncement of the words “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24) is the bread so transformed that it is no longer the substance of bread, but the very body of Christ which is offered to the communicants. This is the Roman Catholic position. Or does Christ’s body and blood coexist “in and under the bread and wine?” This is the Lutheran position. This may appear a rather fine distinction but in any case the Reformed repudiated both options. (For later reformed thought, see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 19.28.2. On Luther, see Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its History and Systematic Development, 306-313)
Dispute 3: A Sacrifice?
Third, is there a propitiatory sacrifice in the mass for the sins of the living and the dead? Or to draw on a later framing of the question from Francis Turretin, in the sacrament is there “a true sacrifice … external corporeal and propitiatory, in which under the species of the bread and wine Christ is daily offered by a priest to God the Father, as a victim for the sins of the living and the dead”? (Institutes, 19.29.3) This Rome affirmed, but here the Protestants said with one voice no, and decried this suggestion as blasphemy against the once for all sacrifice of Christ. Thus Richard Kyle claims that “the average person [i.e. Catholic] knew that it meant Calvary’s sacrifice was insufficient to satisfy God for humankind’s sin.” (Kyle, The Ministry of John Knox, 132-133)
Disputes 4: Adoration of the Elements
Fourth, there was the question of whether the elements of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper were to be worshipped? The Protestants said, no, Rome said yes. Again according to the later theologian Francis Turretin, this worshiping of the sacramental elements was “the greatest proof of their [Rome’s] Antichristian idolatry”. (Institutes, 19.30.1)
These questions regarding the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, the relationship of the Lord’s Supper to the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, and the question of the worship of the elements were the central questions debated concerning the Lord’s Supper. (There were of course other questions, for instance, was the cup or the wine, to be partaken of by the congregation?)
Again we can take Francis Turretin’s later summary as the general Reformed attitude to Rome’s stance on the Lord’s Supper: “It was indeed a grievous crime, that not content with the spiritual presence they [Romanists] introduced a corporeal [presence] … they foisted in the fabrication of transubstantiation, by which they feigned that Christ is present by a conversion of the bread into the body of Christ. It was a more grievous crime that from the sacrament they made a propitiatory sacrifice properly so called. But it was the most grievous, that they have elevated this sacrifice into an idol…” (Institutes, 19.30.1)
Donald John Maclean