As we saw last time in this series of posts on the Thirty-nine Articles, the Articles present a view of the sacraments in which they genuinely do something beneficial, but only if they are rightly received. Since the Lord’s Supper was at the heart of the controversies of the Reformation, the Articles have a fair bit to say about it. But the basic point is quite simple.
28. 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.
The first part is secondary but important: the Lord’s Supper is a sign of fellowship between believers. It isn’t a private encounter between me and God.
The central point, from which everything else follows, is this: when people receive the Lord’s Supper ‘rightly, worthily, and with faith’, they partake of Christ through it.
This is incompatible with any suggestion that the bread and wine undergo an objective change in the Lord’s Supper. If such a change takes place, then the benefit you receive does not depend on your attitude to God, and this would be utterly at odds with the idea of justification by faith, which is so central to the Articles.
29. Of the Wicked which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper
The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.
When those who lack faith eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper, they derive no benefit from it. They do not partake of Christ when they eat and drink. This is because they are simply eating bread and drinking wine. But this doesn’t mean the act is neutral. On the contrary, it is a misuse of the Lord’s Supper to eat and drink it without partaking of Christ by faith.
30. Of both kinds
The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.
The practice of withholding the cup from the laity was introduced many centuries after the New Testament, and it is not entirely clear why. Although ‘not quite a doctrine in itself’, the practice ‘nevertheless had serious doctrinal implications’, and effectively made the priest ‘a kind of mediator between the laity and God’ (Bray, 171).
The Roman Catholic Church has since undergone something of a reformation of its practice on this point, but its official condemnations have not been revoked (Bray, 171).
31. Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross
The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.
There is a lot of doctrine packed into Article 31, the final one about the sacraments. It clarifies ‘the nature of the relationship between the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the historical event that it signifies’ (Bray, 173). Basically, the Lord’s Supper is hugely beneficial to us, but it doesn’t accomplish anything on God’s side of the equation. It doesn’t deal with God’s wrath (propitiation), and it doesn’t deal with our sin (satisfaction). Those things happened there and then, when Christ offered himself once upon the cross.
Although, contrary to popular misunderstanding, Roman Catholic theology does not teach ‘that its priests add something to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross’, it is believed that they ‘re-present Christ’s sacrifice both to the worshippers and to God’. As such, ‘it is but a short step to saying that the priest can then offer Christ’s sacrifice as a propitiation for our sins, because he holds that sacrifice in his hands’ (Bray, 175-6).
Gerald Bray unpacks Article 31 by making a distinction between ‘Christ’s satisfaction for sins and his redemption of sinners’ (Bray, 174). As in Article 2, Christ’s sacrifice is ‘for all … sins’ in that it – and it alone – is ‘sufficient to atone for every sin’. But this ‘does not mean that every human being is therefore forgiven and saved’ (Bray, 27).
Having looked at God, Scripture, salvation, the church, and the sacraments, here endeth the doctrinal portion of the Articles. Although there are morsels of doctrine in what remains (just as there were morsels of non-doctrinal matters in Articles 1-31), Articles 32-39 are focused on questions of church discipline and civil society.