History Of The Lord's Supper

Source: The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Robert E. Webber, General Editor

One of the most profound events in the life of Jesus was the supper he shared with his disciples on the eve of his death. At that supper, Jesus commanded his disciples to share this meal until he comes again. For centuries the church has followed this command, sharing the Supper of the Lord, eating the bread and drinking the cup as a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. No sacred action has been as significant for the life of the church as the Lord's Supper. Every worship...

The Lord’s Supper In The Early Church

The early church established the patterns for the theology and practice of the Lord's Supper that have largely been recovered in our century. Many of the recent developments in the renewal of worship can be understood by examining the early history of the Lord's Supper.

The Lord’s Supper In The Medieval West And The Modern Roman Catholic Church

Both the texts of the various prayers and directions for eucharistic practice survive from about the seventh century onward. The early Middle Ages was characterized by growing awe surrounding the sacrificial presence of Christ at the eucharistic altar. Controversies over the exact nature of Christ's presence in the elements of bread and wine broke out during the ninth century, with the spiritualized interpretation of Ratramnus of Corbie, being rejected in favor of the insistence on Christ's physical presence by Pascasius Radbertus. As scholastic theology developed in the medieval universities, the theology of transubstantiation emerged.

The Lord’s Supper In The Eastern Churches

Although the Eastern churches divided in the fifth century between those that accepted the Christological formula of Chalcedon (Eastern Orthodox churches) and those that rejected it (non-Chalcedonian Eastern churches, particularly the Nestorians and Monophysites), the regional liturgies that had developed before Chalcedon continued to be used by Christians on both sides of this ecclesial divide. The following paragraphs classify and interrelate the Syrian, Byzantine, Armenian, and Alexandrian traditions.

The Lord’s Supper In The Reformation Era

Martin Luther insisted that Christ's body and blood are really present in the Eucharist. On the other hand, the Swiss and South German Reformers, who initiated what became the Reformed tradition, believed Christ was present only symbolically in the minds and hearts of those participating in the Eucharist. Between these two positions, John Calvin later insisted on a real but wholly spiritual presence of Christ. All Protestant Reformers accented the role of preaching and insisted that lay people receive both bread and wine.

The Lord’s Supper Among Radical Protestants (1525–1900)

A cluster of believers' church movements offered an alternative view of Protestant approaches to the Lord's Supper. Although most of them espoused a nonsacramental, memorialist understanding of Christ's presence (more precisely, absence) in the bread and wine, they nonetheless developed intense forms of Communion piety. Much of their practice was inspired by an attempt to return to primitive Christian practice, which they were convinced had been memorialistic rather than sacramental.

Convergence At The Table

Creative thinking about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the twentieth century has been largely devoted to overcoming the ecumenical impasse on eucharistic presence inherited from previous times, especially the Reformation era in the sixteenth century. One of the consequences of ecumenical dialogue has been a reconsideration of the positions of medieval scholastic theologians and Protestant Reformers. One of the best surveys of the issues discussed remains Hermann Sasse's This is My Body (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1959).