Article 28 — Of the Lord’s Supper
Posted by Ben Cooper, 31 Mar 2017
Ben Cooper examines the Church of England's teaching on holy communion.
XXVIII — OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: 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.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
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.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
We live by faith and not by sight. This, as most of us know, can be hard. Christ, the one we trust, the object of our faith, is not physically with us. We can’t see him or touch him. Can we really be sure he loves us? Is our future with him really secure? We find ourselves crying out to Jesus like the man in Mark 9:24 — ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ We have his word to hold onto, his gospel promises. But does he give us anything else?
He does, and Article 28 is here to protect it. This Article is a masterpiece of careful, concise, pastorally-motivated Reformed theology. And its main purpose seems to be to protect one of the means Jesus has graciously given us to overcome our unbelief from neglect or abuse. Jesus has given us what we call the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion — for our encouragement, assurance, and perseverance in faith.
The Article protects Jesus’ purposes for the Supper in two main ways. The first is to help us think about the Supper rightly as a sacrament. The word ‘sacrament’ will perhaps seem a little obscure or unhelpfully religious to some ears, but Article 25 has already helpfully explained that (rightly understood) sacraments are good things: gifts of God to the church, ‘effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us’. They are means through which God can work to ‘quicken’ (that is, stimulate), strengthen, and confirm our faith. This is a fairly standard Reformed understanding of a sacrament.
Applied to the Lord’s Supper, the visible — and edible! — signs of the bread and wine point us to Christ, and our redemption by his death. But these are powerful signposts. They are ‘effectual’. To the Christian taking the bread and wine rightly, worthily and with faith, receiving the sign is nothing less than a ‘partaking’ of Christ, feeding on him and what he has done for us.
Now, the Article goes on to clarify that this feeding is ‘in a heavenly and spiritual manner’; it is not physical. Nonetheless, if received and eaten with faith, the Supper does in a ‘spiritual manner’ connect us to Christ and what he has done, and will be effective in evoking more faith and assurance.
The Supper works in a believer very much like the written or spoken word of the gospel. Like the written or spoken word, it points us to Christ and brings about faith. If received with faith, it generates more faith. Like the written or spoken gospel word, it proclaims Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 11:26). Indeed, the connection between the Supper and the written or spoken gospel word is essential (which is why the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer insists that a sermon should always be preached).
But the Supper is also distinct from the word received visually or aurally, in that it’s received through tasting, eating, and drinking. It thus expands the ways in which we encounter and connect by faith with Christ and the truth of the gospel, bringing about a deeper remembrance, faith, and assurance. Jesus commands us, ‘Do this [tasting, eating, and drinking] in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25). He doesn’t merely command, ‘Remember me’.
The Supper is therefore much more than a celebration of our love for one another. Article 28 also corrects those who might neglect the Supper, or who treat it superficially in other ways. To do so would be to short-change one another of a God-given means of strengthening our remembrance of Christ and his death for us.
The second way Article 28 protects Jesus’ purposes for the Supper is to insist upon an orthodox understanding of its underlying Christology. By ‘orthodox Christology’, I mean that the one Lord Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human. It’s in this true Christ that we place our trust for salvation and find assurance — because, as a man, he took on human flesh, and then bore our sins and our death in his human body on the cross. It matters hugely therefore that he is indeed fully human, and the Reformers rightly insisted that to be fully human means being in just one physical location at any one time. The rubric at the end of the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer puts it like this:
‘the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural body to be at one time in more places than one’.
Quite so. To suggest that the bread and wine somehow ‘become’ the physical human body and blood of Christ — as in the doctrine of transubstantiation and some related views — is not only nonsensical but teaches a false, heterodox Christology. It is, the Article claims, ‘repugnant to the plain words of Scripture’ (especially those supporting the humanity of Christ or describing the Last Supper, when his physical body and blood remained physically separate and distinct from the bread and wine). What’s more, it ‘overthrows the nature of a sacrament’, as the false Christology robs the Christian of the assurance of salvation the Supper was supposed to strengthen.
Even more than this, when the Supper is distorted by suggesting any kind of ‘change of substance’ in the bread and wine, it ‘has given rise to many superstitions’. It opens up the temptation to treat created things as divine things to be adored — which, as the Communion Service rubric reminds us, is idolatry, ‘to be abhorred of all faithful Christians’. Examples include those mentioned at the end of the Article: when the bread or wine are ‘reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped’. If such activities sound perversely weird, that’s because they are.
J.C. Ryle says this about Article 28 in his book Knots Untied (in chapter 8, on the Lord’s Supper):
“I shall make no remark on these words. I only ask plain churchmen to put them side by side with High Church statements about the Lord’s Supper, and to observe the utter contrariety that exists between them. I appeal to the common sense of all impartial and unprejudiced Englishmen.”
Many of us will have thought similar things when confronted with actual practice in ostensibly Anglican Communion Services, shuddering as we recall the plain words of Article 28 — rendered speechless by the utter contrariety between its words and what we’re seeing. Likewise when it comes to suffering the lazy theological ineptitude of some of the Eucharistic Prayers in Common Worship.
Are we being too sensitive, or too contentious if we complain? Well, maybe, if our only concern were to win an argument. But if we are driven by the same pastoral concern that underlies Article 28, then should we not be similarly horrified when Christian brothers and sisters are robbed of assurance or led astray into idolatry? Why would we want to obscure or distort the Supper? It is after all a precious component of Jesus’ loving response to us whenever we cry out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
Ben Cooper is Minister for Training at Christ Church Fulwood in Sheffield.
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