Melanchthon’s change of eucharistic opinions

A few months ago I wrote here about Melanchthon and his remarkable change of opinion with regard to the questions of contingency and determinism. It’s not entirely clear when he changed his mind, but the years 1527-1528 have been suggested. Recently I bought W.H. Neuser’s, Die Abendmahlslehre Melanchthons in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung 1519-1530 (Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968). While reading some parts of it, I was struck by the fact that Neuser describes a parallel change of opinion, in this case with regard to eucharistic theology. In his book Neuser Luther and Melanchthonelaborates on the eucharistic controversy between Luther and his followers on the one hand and Zwingli, Oeculampedius, but also ‘Schwärmer’ like Karlstadt on the other hand. Matters were, of course, far more complex than a division along one line of demarcation. While Luther tended to be blunt in eucharistic matters, Melanchthon striked a more nuanced note. Both men, however, were basically in agreement about Christ’s real presence.

In 1527 Melanchthon carried out, with three others, a visitation in Thüringen. There were considerable worries about this area, because of the obstruction against the Reformation in the monasteries on the one hand and of Karlstadt’s influence on the other hand. Melanchthon himself wrote the instruction for the visitation (July 1527). He locates the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in pane et in calice” (in the bread and in the cup). In the Articuli visitationis, the report Melanchthon made after the visitation, which was cut short on the 13th of August, he writes something different: “cum pane et cum calice” (with the bread and with the cup”). That’s more than a play upon words. It means that Melanchthon changed his mind with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. A couple of questions arise from this observation of Neuser.

(1) What caused this change of mind of Melanchthon? Neuser suggests (p.276) – and I’m inclined to believe him – that the visitation confronted him with a massive heritage of roman catholicism, in particular the magic realism of the old opus operatum theology. In order to combat this, Melanchthon changed his own formulations with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence.

(2) Can we date the change more precisely? Yes, we can, to a certain extent. The terminus a quo must be the date already mentioned, when the visitation was terminated temporarily: August 13. The terminus ante quem is the 26/27th of September. At that time Melanchthon had a consultation with Luther about the visitation. We only know of the conversation between the two men from Melanchthon’s letters, but it is clear that Melanchthon felt uncertain about his eucharistic opinions. Initially, he was relieved about Luther’s reaction, but a month later his tone is bitter. “I don’t want to be involved with this question anymore”, he writes to Joachim Camerarius.

(3) Is there a link between his change of opinion with regard to the mode Christ’s presence in the eucharist and with regard to contingency and free will? That is of course a question that is not easy to answer. Both changes are dated in or close to 1527. That makes it worthwile to give the suggestion a serious look. To establish the connection precise textual research for the date of Melanchthon’s change with regard to contingency needs to be done.  However, if – for the moment – we suppose that there is a connection, it seems plausible that the change of opinion has been initiated by the experiences of the visitation. Is that conceivable? Yes, I think so. It would for example mean that Melanchthon found out that the emphasis on God’s sovereignty made people indifferent. So, yes it is conceivable. But, is it probable? So far, I’m not convinced, although – I have to admit – I’m certainly intrigued by these two changes of opinion.

Vermigli, Incarnation and our Resurrection

The sixteenth century was filled with intense debate about the eucharist. By the 1550’s the divisions between Roman Catholics, Lutherans and the Swiss Reformation were largely defined by the difference in opion about the eucharist. The religious dialogues in the late 1530’s and the early 1540’s hadn’t resulted in mutual agreement about the eucharistic doctrine, despite intense efforts from Bucer, Melanchton and Calvin, among others. Neither the doctrine of justification, nor the doctrine of predestination, were the principal stumbling block. However, the eucharist was.

In the 1550’s a second round of the eucharistic debate started. Hence, it’s called the ‘second eucharistic controversy’ (the debate between Luther and Zwingli being the first). It became an intense discussion between Lutheran and Reformed theologians. The Lutheran Joachim Westphal ignited the debate. The discussion between Westphal and Calvin caught the eye, but there were far more theologians involved. It was the ‘trending topíc’ in their correspondence.

Peter Martyr’s letter to John Calvin (Strasbourg, 8 March 1555; Calvini Opera 15, p.492-497) is a fine example of this kind of correspondence. In this long letter Vermigli appears to be an highly original theologian. He proposes his thoughts to Calvin about the communion we have ‘with Christ’s body and the substance of his nature’ (cum corpore Christi, atque substantia ipsius naturae). First of all, he says, we have a very general communion with Christ, because he shares in our fles and blood, ‘by the benefit of his incarnation’ (beneficio incarnationis eius). But because this kind of communion is very general and feeble, there must be another one. In that second kind of communion share the elect, in whom faith is incited, by which they not only are reconciled to God, but also share in the restoring power of the Holy Spirit, by which also our bodies, flesh, blood and nature are ‘made capable for immortality’ (immortalitatis capacia fiunt). In this way, Vermigli says, we become more and more ‘like Christ, as I may say so’ (Christoformia, ut ita dixerim). 

According to Vermigli then, there are two kinds of communion with Christ: one is natural, the other spiritual. But, he continues, ‘in between these two (communions) there is a middle one’ (inter has duas mediam esse). This ‘mediating’ communion he calls the communion with the Head, Christ himself. This communion is prior, ‘at least in nature, be it perhaps not in time’ (saltem natura, licet fortasse non tempore). I suspect that what Vermigli is after, broadly corresponds with what Calvin calls the mystical union with Christ. It’s the spiritual bond with Christ through faith. Vermigli then draws a comparison between the human body and the communion with Christ. The point he wants to make, seems to be this: the spiritual bond (mystical union) with Christ opens up the way for another communion with Christ, by which our nature becomes renewed from within. We’re made fit for immortality!

What’s so special about this? Vermigli clearly agrees with Calvin (and many others) about the location of Christ’s body: He is in heaven. But, he seeks a way to prevent that the communion with Him would become mere spiritual. The key to his thinking is Christ’s incarnation. The incarnation is the guarantee for, both the natural and the spiritual communion. But this last way of communion is also a bodily communion. It’s the sharing in the resurrection of Christ in which we share by the Word of God and the sacraments, received by faith. There we are: the sacraments as preparation for our resurrection!

The Lord’s Supper and Christ’s participation in our death

In about two weeks I will have to give a lecture about death and the Lord’s Supper. (By the way, that’s why I’ve been silent here for a couple of weeks.) In what sense does the celebration of the Lord’s Supper remind us of our own death? And in what way is the death of Jesus related to both our own death and the Lord’s Supper? The focus, thus, is not upon the atoning meaning of Christ’s death. The question is which meaning the ‘mere fact’ of his death has for us and in which way the Lord’s Supper can reveal that to us.

I will start with a short passage from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a son. In this book Wolterstorff describes what happened when he received a phone call that his son Eric had died in a mountain climbing accident. Somewhere in the book he tells about the funeral service. He writes:

“We celebrated the Eucharist, that sacrament of God’s participation in our brokenness. We came forward successively in groups, standing in circles around the coffin, passing the signs of Christ’s brokenness to each other.” (p.39,40)

The key-word here is ‘participation’. In what sense is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper a participation of Christ in our brokenness? There are, at least, two possible directions here. One way is to focus upon the Lord’s Supper as a commemorative ritual. A rite invites us into a kind of participation, so it is argued, that transcends our rationality. We might even argue that in the ritual enacting of the Lord’s Supper we are – somehow – made one with the reality, to which the celebration refers. The problem, however, is located in this ‘somehow’. How do we have to understand that? Is this a kind of ‘Traumzeit’ (Josuttis), in which we forget about everything here and now? Or should we think of it as a kind of ‘game’, in which we are playing like children? When a child is playing fireman, he is a fireman. Is it something like this?

These proposals can’t convince me. First, they posit a relationship between the ritual and the reality it refers to in terms of a kind of (weak) analogy. And second, in this way we’ve lost the spiritual reality. There is no appeal to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and no appeal to the reality of our sharing in his death and resurrection. That leads me to an alternative route: the route of exploring the resources of the eucharistic theology in the Reformation. I don’t think we have exhausted these resources. On the contrary, traditionally much attention is paid to the aspect of the atonement. But there is more to say. Three things, in fact, I’d like to call attention to in my lecture.

1. The body of Christ is – at least for Calvin – the locus of our salvation. Therefore, Calvin is very insistent that we should lift up our hearts. That is because Christ is in heaven. Calvin does not want to depreciate the role of the senses or of the human body. On the contrary, the wounded and tortured body of Christ, the body that tasted death, is for him a very substantial and almost palpable reality. But He is in heaven! There we have to seek Him, not in the elements. And He nourishes us from above…

2. The Lord’s Supper is for Calvin also a pledge for our own resurrection. In the Catechism of John Craig this accent is even more pronounced. So, the Lord’s Supper has not only meaning for our souls, but also for our bodies! Because Christ is the Resurrected One, the Supper is a foretaste for our own resurrection. No doubt about that!

3. Thomas Torrance, and James Torrance in his trail, developed the view that for Calvin Christ’s priestly office meant that our worship is included in His worship, our response to God in His. The same applies to the Lord’s Supper. We are sharing in his death and resurrection, not in an analogical way, but as an ontological reality. In my previous post I expressed some doubts about this ontological thinking. However, the thought is precious to me, because it underlines the reality of our participation, where the ritual approach puts up with a weak analogy.

Well, in this direction my lecture will move. My question is: what do you think?