Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Lutheran-Catholic Joint Statement on the Eucharist?

In response to a request from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the ELCA and the U.S. Roman Catholic Church will explore the possibility of a joint teaching statement on the real presence of the Eucharist. Such a statement no doubt would build on the important work already done in the 1967 Statement on the Eucharist--one of the early statements to come out of the bi-lateral dialogue that only began two years earlier, the fruits of which are still largely unknown by members of both communions.

Last year, I was invited to present at the 2007 Covenant Celebration of the Diocese of Youngstown and the Northeastern Ohio Synod (ELCA) on the topic "Bread of Life: Roman Catholic and Lutheran Understandings of the Eucharist." Here is the text of my presentation which includes my thoughts on the points of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on the Eucharist as well as areas that need continued work.

“Bread of Life: Roman Catholic and Lutheran Understanding of the Eucharist.”
Northeastern Ohio Synod -Youngstown Diocese
A Lutheran Understanding of the Eucharist
Cheryl Peterson
October 28, 2007

Thank you, Bishop Murray and Bishop Eaton, and the planners of this covenant celebration, for the opportunity to be with you today. It is an honor to be making this presentation alongside my colleague on the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue, Father Jared Wicks, whose presentation gives us much to consider—in fact, much of what he said can and is affirmed by Lutherans in our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. A Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, is, I will suggest, both catholic and evangelical. Among Protestants, Lutherans arguably have the strongest “sacramental realism” – and this is a point of contact with our Catholic sisters and brothers.

The Lutheran emphasis on Christ’s real presence in the sacrament was (oddly) a surprise to Catholic participants in the third round of the bi-lateral U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue on the Eucharist (1967).[1] Kent Knutson reported that “Roman Catholics had been led to believe that the Lutheran concept of real presence was only . . . in the eating and drinking.” He adds that “Lutherans were happy to correct this misunderstanding and articulate their belief that the Lord is present in the whole Eucharistic action, both before and after the eating and drinking.”[2]

This misunderstanding can be attributed to Luther’s rejection of transubstantiation as dogma. Luther’s concern was not to propose a new way of explaining the real presence by recourse to scholastic theology but more basically to affirm the mystery of the presence of Christ (in his humanity as well as his divinity) without resource to such constructs, which is why “consubstantiation” (the idea that at consecration there are two substances present alongside one another) is also rejected.[3]

I might note here that the common statement of the 1967 dialogue states that while there has been an agreement that Christ is truly present in the supper, what has been disputed is a particular way of stating the “how,” the manner in which he becomes present.” One of the things the Lutheran participants in that dialogue learned is that contemporary Catholic expositions of transubstantiation intend to affirm the fact of Christ’s presence and of the change which takes places, not to explain how Christ becomes present. Even though Lutherans can acknowledge that transubstantiation is a legitimate way to express the mystery, they continue to believe that the conceptuality associated with it is misleading and prefer to avoid the term.

Interestingly, Article 10 of the Augsburg Confession – the central confessional document of the Lutheran Church – uses language strikingly similar to that of transubstantiation without subscribing to this doctrine. The article affirms that Christ is truly present “under the form of bread and wine.”[4] (And this is one of the few articles the Augsburg Confession that does not give “offense” to the Roman Catholics in their Confutation!). In the Apology, this teaching is reiterated—again using words that affirm a true substantial change but without embracing the formula used in the doctrine of transubstantiation. It states, “In the Lord’s Supper, the body and blood of Christ are “truly and substantially present and are truly offered with those things that are seen, bread and wine.”[5] In the Quarto, Philipp Melanchthon goes on to positively cite the epiclesis in the Greek liturgy, in which the priest “clearly prays that the bread may be changed and become the very body of Christ.”[6]

Later debates about real presence (within Lutheranism and with other Protestants) led to the formula most familiar to Lutherans – “in, with, and under” – which appears in the Formula of Concord/Solid Declaration (1570). The true body and blood of Christ are received not only spiritually through faith but orally with the bread and wine because of the “sacramental union” of the elements with the body and blood of Christ.[7]

Evangelical and Catholic

What is at the heart of Lutheran Eucharistic Piety, however, is an evangelical understanding of God’s self-giving in this real presence through which the believer receives “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” When Lutherans speak about the Eucharist, they emphasize what is promised and received in the supper, the gospel. In the Eucharist, the gospel is proclaimed and received in a visible way—“This is my body, given for you” – indeed, Luther calls the sacrament a short summary of the whole gospel, “For the Gospel is nothing but a proclamation of God's grace and of the forgiveness of all sins, granted us through the sufferings of Christ. . . . And this same thing as we have seen, is contained in the words of this testament.”[8] As Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has said, “The main thing to remember is that what Lutheranism says about sacraments is always a specification of what it says about the gospel communication event in general.”[9] He explains: "The gospel is an unconditional promise, three things follow. First, the gospel promises personal communion. The only thing that can be promised unconditionally is the promiser’s own love.” . . . the shortest form of the gospel content is: ‘I will give myself.’ Second, this promise grants a present reality. . . . Third, the subject of the gospel-promise is the risen Christ himself.” Thus, in the Lord’s Supper, “the speaking of the gospel is the event of Jesus’ own giving of himself into communion with the hearers” in a real and embodied way – by his true presence in and under the bread and wine." [10]

Luther’s Critique of the Mass

Luther’s critique of the medieval Catholic mass (which is most forcefully stated in his Smalcald Articles[11]) comes out of this evangelical concern. When the Reformers are accused of abolishing the mass, they retort that they are honoring it and celebrating it more than their opponents because they have reclaimed the biblical understanding of the supper’s purpose. What they abolished was the misuse of the “mass” as a good work – something we do for God (that benefits ourselves or someone else—which led to a multiplication of private and votive masses for the living and the dead) – rather than a celebration and reception of what God has done for us in Christ. The mass is not our sacrifice to God, but a means by which we receive the assurance of the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

The Augsburg Confession states that “the holy sacrament was not instituted to provide a sacrifice for sin—for the sacrifice has already occurred—but to awaken our faith and comfort our consciences.”[12] This is why the sacrament requires faith—because faith alone van grasp the promised grace and forgiveness of sin by Christ. Thus, the Reformers insisted that the Mass is not a sacrifice that takes away anyone’s sins (living or dead), but it should be a “Communion” whereby those gathered—the priest and the people—receive the sacrament together and with it the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, which Luther calls “food for the soul, for it nourishes and strengthens the new creature.”[13]

Thus, for Lutherans, the emphasis is on communion—and not sacrifice—when we celebrate the sacrament. And yet, in our Lutheran liturgy, this language is not completely foreign, for we do speak of our “sacrifice of praise” in connection with the supper. In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (Article 24), Philipp Melanchthon makes an important distinction between propitiatory sacrifices which he defines as the human work of satisfaction for sin that reconciles God or merits the forgiveness of sins, and eucharistic sacrifices, or sacrifices of praise, which by contrast, do not intent to merit forgiveness because there is one propitiatory sacrifice: the death of Christ.[14]

While the mass can never be a propitiatory sacrifice, he does allow that we can call the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice of praise or spiritual sacrifice in which those who have been reconciled give thanks and express their gratitude for the forgiveness and blessings they have received.[15] He further notes that the term “Eucharist” arose out of this piety which focuses on what has been given and what has been forgiven; and of how great God’s blessings are in comparison to our sin.[16]

Allow me a brief excursus on the use of the term “Eucharist.” It is more traditionally used by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican communions but has increasingly become the most commonly used term for the supper in ecumenical and liturgical circles (e.g. it is the preferred term in dialogues, and is the term employed for the sacrament in the watershed 1982 Lima Document of the World Council of Churches, “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” aka BEM).” One colleague believes that the term partially caught on because it’s easier to make an adjective out of it – e.g. Eucharistic – other names for the meal, such as “Holy Communion” and “Lord’s Supper” are more limited in this regard.

Not all Lutherans are happy with the increasing usage of this term because of its association with sacrificial language of any kind. In its official response to the Lima Document, the American Lutheran Church made a point with regard to the use of this term, whereas the Lutheran Church in America did not.[17] For these Lutherans, the term “Eucharist” misses the real focus of the supper; it makes it primarily something we offer, rather than something that is offered to us. Most Lutherans with this perspective suggest that we reclaim the name “Lord’s Supper” as the primary name for the sacrament, since it is the most frequently used name for the sacrament in the Lutheran confessions and of course, is the term that St. Paul uses. Eucharist, on the other hand, does not appear in the Bible as a name for the sacrament, although it does appear very early on in Christian literature such as the Didache in this regard.

Even if Lutherans continue to favor “Lord’s Supper” for these good reasons, there is no reason we need to reject “Eucharist” as long we remember that our “thanksgiving” is only offered in response to God’s great gift to us – and that this element of joy should be part of our liturgical celebration of the Supper.

As some of you may know, the third round of the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue in 1967 (to which I already briefly referred) had for its topic this very issue: the Eucharist as Sacrifice. In the common statement, Lutherans and Catholics were able to affirm together the unrepeatable nature of the cross for the sins of the world. The Catholic Church does not teach that the priest “re-sacrifices” Christ at each mass. Secondly, they affirmed the idea that the celebration of the Eucharist is the church’s sacrifice of praise and self-offering.

Two points of controversy also were addressed: one historical controversy centered on the whether the worshipping assembly “offers Christ” in the sacrifice of the mass in any sense. This Catholic affirmation has been increasingly explained in terms which the statement argues have answered Lutheran fears that this detracts from the full sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice (at least, those members of the dialogue were satisfied with this explanation). I quote directly from the statement:

The members of the body of Christ are united through Christ with God and with one another in such a way that they become participants in his worship, his self-offering, his sacrifice to the Father. Through this union between Christ and Christians, the Eucharistic assembly ‘offers Christ’ by consenting in the power of the Holy Spirit to be offered by him to the Father. Apart from Christ, we have no gifts, no worship, no sacrifice of our own to offer to God. All we can plead is Christ, the sacrificial lamb and victim whom the Father himself has given us.” [18]
A second point of controversy that was left unresolved has to do with the term “propitiatory” and whether that can be applied to the Eucharistic sacrifice. As noted, both Catholics and Lutherans affirmed the unique propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross. However, Lutherans reject what they understand Trent to say about the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice “offered for the living and the dead,” and the implications of this in practices such as “masses for the dead.”

This national bi-lateral dialogue was followed by an international Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in 1978. The dialogues are significant for the theological clarifications that have been made, in particular regarding what each means by “real presence” and long-held misunderstandings have been removed, especially regarding the Catholic notion of sacrifice.

However, in spite of this progress, there is still the need for clarity and mutual understanding regarding our distinctive practices and expressions of Eucharistic piety. Many aspects of the celebration of the Mass as practiced in the Catholic Church remain “foreign” and even troubling to those of us in Reformation traditions. But Lutherans have their own unique Eucharistic piety, which perhaps seem as “foreign” to Roman Catholics as masses for the dead are to Lutherans. I would like to conclude with some remarks on Lutheran Eucharistic piety and practice in the United States today.

Lutheran Eucharistic Piety Today

All Lutherans learn in the Small Catechism that the Lord’s Supper “is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.” Lutherans have never wavered from a belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament; it is a central tenet our faith and life. The benefits of the sacrament—central to our Eucharistic piety—are given in the words of promise: “given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” As Luther states, these words show us that forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us in this sacrament, “because where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”[19]

Although faith plays an important role in effecting the benefits of the sacrament to the believer, Lutherans teach that Christ’s presence in the sacrament does not depend on the faith of the recipient, but solely on the word of Christ’s promise. As one Reformation historian puts it, Jesus shows up in the sacrament because he promises to! If one receives the Lord’s Supper without faith in Christ—by which the Reformers did not mean a weak or struggling faith, but a rejection of God—then one would eat and drink to his condemnation. Indeed, as the Article VII of the Formula of Concord states, “the true and worthy guest, for whom this precious sacrament above all was instituted and established, are the Christians who are weak in faith, fragile and troubled, who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity of their sins and number of their sins and think they are not worthy of this precious treasure and of the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, who feel the weakness of their faith and deplore it, and who desire with all of their heart to serve God with a stronger, more resolute faith and purer obedience.”[20]

Traditionally, Lutherans have emphasized the assurance of the forgiveness of sins as the central aspect of the sacrament, though “communion-fellowship” (in terms of personal communion with Christ) has also been stressed. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the great eighteenth century Lutheran missionary to the colonies, notes with approval that people desire the sacrament in order “to be more closely united with Christ and his body and blood and to be strengthened in their weak faith”[21]

But it is the connection of the Supper with the “forgiveness of sins” that has really shaped Lutheran Eucharistic piety in the last two centuries. Since the Lord’s Supper is an “application of the forgiveness of sins,” the church took seriously its responsibility to examine, instruct, and discriminate with regard to who can come to the table. The supper became a solemn event, for which church members were counseled to consider their sinfulness and unworthiness before God through private confessional examination for those.

Infrequent reception (most often quarterly)—due to a host of factors—heightened the special nature of this observance, which often had little celebratory tone to it. Communicants filed up to the altar by “tables” to receive a wafer and a small—usually pre-filled—individual glass of wine. As a historical aside, these individual cups were first proposed in 1888 and used at a Protestant Communion service in 1893[22] out of a concern for public hygiene. The Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and faculty at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia opposed this “innovation” but the use of these cups soon became commonplace in many Lutheran congregations. Following the proper preface and sanctus, the words of institution stood alone in The Common Service (used until 1958) apart from any longer prayer of thanksgiving—emphasizing that this was a pure proclamation by which God addressed the promise of forgiveness to the Christian.

Many changes were introduced into Lutheran Eucharistic practice through the publication in 1978 of The Lutheran Book of Worship (preceded by the Service Book and Hymnal of 1958) and the adoption of a “Joint Statement on Communion Practices” by the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, which were strongly influenced by the liturgical renewal movement that had become widespread by that time.
Both the LBW and the Joint Statement assume weekly communion as a normative practice for Lutherans as stated in our own confessional symbols—which was not the case with the previous worship resources.

The more recent (1997) ELCA Statement on Sacramental Practices, “The Use of the Means of Grace” reaffirms weekly communion as a normative Lutheran practice. Currently, 46% of ELCA congregations celebrate the sacrament weekly (up from 16% in 1989!). Nearly as many congregations celebrate it more than once a month (once a month plus festivals, twice a month, etc). Only 5% offer it monthly or less.[23]

In 1969, a report was adopted by a majority of congregations now in the ELCA which separated the rite of confirmation and reception of Holy Communion and began inviting children to receive their first communion in fifth grade. Since that time, a number of congregations have continued to lower the age of communion, especially for school age children, but in some cases, even infants.[24] The “Use of the Means of Grace” along with more recent worship resources, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) assumes the unity of word and sacrament in the service and discourages congregations from “tacking on” a communion service at the end as sometimes was done in the past.

These also recommend the retrieval of a full Eucharistic prayer which includes the “proclamation of the words of institution” (though it should be noted that the Service Book and Hymnal was the first to introduce a Eucharistic Prayer as an alternative to the bare verba). The new worship resource, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, has continued this pattern, offering now ten (instead of three!) Eucharistic prayers which follow a Trinitarian pattern (thanks to the Father, words of institution, prayer for the Holy Spirit) but also continuing the practice of allowing for the option of the bare verba (the words of institution by themselves). It is not known how many congregations continue to use this option, but those who do believe they are safeguarding the meaning of these words as “pure proclamation” to the assembly.

Other Recent Changes in Lutheran Eucharistic Practice and Piety

Other significant changes in Lutheran Eucharistic practice include a strong accent on communal celebration (including more frequent use of the common cup), the sense of the altar as a table in our midst, the character of the sacrament as a meal, more prayer for the hungry world, a stronger emphasis on the eucharist leading to mission, more use of the posture of standing rather than the posture for kneeling for communion, and a certain diminution of the accent on sin and forgiveness.[25] The focus on the assurance of forgiveness has not been replaced, but today the Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist is being broadened to include other aspects which have not been as strongly emphasized in our tradition: reconciliation, communion-fellowship (horizontal as well as vertical), and participation in Christ’s life.

As Lutheran liturgy scholar Beverly Nitschke has written, “It may be argued that in Lutheran consciousness the forgiveness of sins which is received is an intensely individual experience. It is the individual experience of forgiveness which is received.” Luther’s concentration on the word of promise “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sins” have in effect “rendered the Eucharist subservient to a form of ‘penitential piety.’”[26] This is what German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg calls the “Lutheran distortion of the meaning of the Eucharist, in celebrating it primarily as a visible and touchable assurance to the individual of the forgiveness of sins.”[27]

It must be remembered that Luther’s distinctive emphasis on the evangelical promise “for you, for the forgiveness of sins” was developed in light of late medieval practices which to him seemed to take away from the notion of the supper as “pure gospel” and the priority of God’s action in the meal. At the same time, Luther does not focus exclusively on forgiveness of sins. In the Small Catechism (1529), as we saw, he speaks of three benefits: life and salvation, in addition to the forgiveness of sins.

It is also important to note that an ecclesial or communal element was not absent from Luther’s teaching on the sacrament. Lutheran theologians such as Simo Peura are reclaiming the ecclesial dimension of Luther’s Eucharistic teaching, found most profoundly in his 1519 “Sermon on the Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ.” In this sermon, Luther speaks of communion as a sharing or participation in the life of Christ, through his body the Church.[28] “Thus in the sacrament we too become united to Christ and are made one body with all the saints, to that Christ cares for us and acts on our behalf. . . likewise by the same love we are to be united with our neighbors, we in them and they in us.”[29]

In conclusion: a Lutheran understanding of the eucharist will continue to have at its center the “pure gospel” of the assurance of the “forgiveness of sins” given in this meal. And yet, these other aspects of the Lord’s Supper are important for Lutherans to reclaim as a part of our larger “catholic” tradition, especially the more horizontal dimensions of “communion-fellowship” and the sign of unity that the sacrament conveys, for ultimately we are part of one body of Christ, Lutherans and Catholics, called to work to heal the divisions of the past through mutual affirmation and admonishment that one day we might share “full communion” at the same table.


[1] “The Eucharist: A Lutheran-Roman Catholic Statement,” in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue I-III, ed. Paul C. Empie and T. Austin Murphy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 187-197. The text can also be found at this link:
[2] Kent S. Knutson, “Introduction: The Eucharist as Sacrifice, Roman Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue,” in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue I-III, 15.
[3] Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 307-310.
[4] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 44-45, §1-2. Hereafter, BC.
[5] BC, 185, §4.
[6] BC, 185, fn. 269.
[7] BC, 599, §34.
[8] E. Theodore Bachman, ed., Luther’s Works: American Edition, Volume 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 106.
[9] Eric W. Gristch, and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writing (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 85.
[10] Ibid., 86.
[11] BC, 301-305.
[12] BC, 70, §30.
[13] BC, 469, §23.
[14] BC, 260-272.
[15] BC, 260-262, §14-24; 272, §77.
[16] BC, 272, §77.
[17] The Response of the American Lutheran Church to Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper 111, Adopted as the official response of the American Lutheran Church at the June 1985 meeting of the Church Council, 5.
[18] “The Eucharist: A Lutheran-Roman Catholic Statement,” 189-190.
[19] BC, 362, §5-6.
[20] BC, 605, §69.
[21] Reginald W. Dietz, “The Lord’s Supper in American Lutheranism,” in Meaning and Practice of the Lord’s Supper, ed. Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), 138.
[22] Ibid., 162.
[23] A chart with these statistics prepared by ELCA Research and Evaluation is attached.
[24] The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament,” 41. This statement was adopted by the 1997 ELCA Churchwide Assembly for guidance and practice. It is available at this link:
[25] Gordon Lathrop, ed. What is Changing in Eucharistic Practice? (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994), 4.
[26] Beverly A. Nitschke, “The Eucharist: For the Forgiveness of Sins: A Lutheran Response,” Ecumenical Trends (June 1991): 92.
[27] Cited in Ibid., 92.
[28]Simo Peura, “The Church as Spiritual Communion,” in The Church as Communion: Lutheran Contributions to Ecclesiology, LWF Documentation 42, ed. Heinrich Holze (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1997), 104-121.
[29] Luther’s Works: American Edition, Volume 35, 59.