Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

A Curious Argument on the Lord’s Supper: Melanchthon to Oecolampadius

In 1529, Philipp Melanchthon wrote a letter to Johannes Oecolampadius on the debates then raging over the correct way in which to understand “Hoc est corpus meum” in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

According to the letter, a very brief piece, it is Melanchthon’s first foray into the debate. He had previously been silent because, no matter what he said, it would have been taken as no more than cheerleading for Luther. Now, however, he has decided to speak in response to some letters of Oecolampadius.

Melanchthon is distressed over the debate, as he holds Oecolampadius in high esteem and as he believes that the Supper should be an occasion for “cementing charity” (ad glutinandam charitatem) rather than for dissension and discord. Nevertheless, he cannot remain silent about Oecolampadius’ “memorialist” view of the Supper, which he describes as teaching that the body of Christ “is represented as in a tragedy” (Vos absentis Christi corpus, tanquam in tragoedia repraesentari contenditis)–it holds the same position in the celebration of the Supper as a theatrical fiction; it’s not really there. Melanchthon cannot abide this position, and so he seeks to refute it.

To this end, Melanchthon advances an interesting argument from the Fathers to counter Oecolampadius’ citations that show a diversity of opinion on the matter among the Fathers. Melanchthon thinks one can find unanimity by going to the statements of the “most serious authors” (gravissimorum authorum), and there one will find a “common opinion” (despite Oecolampadius’ interpretation of some of these passages in a way that Melanchthon disagrees with).

He then says this:

Veteres cum de resurrectione disputant, allegant Coenam, nec inepte, meo quidem iudicio, significavit enim  Christus Apostolis se resurrecturum esse, quia sui corporis κοινωνίαν instituit. Necesse enim erat, ut viveret corpus, quod nobis impartiendum erat. Quod si veteres sensissent absens corpus repraesentari, quomodo inde probarent resurrectionem? quia etiamsi non resurrexisset Christus, tamen absens corpus & consumptum repraesentari potuit, sicut in fabulis Hector repraesentatur.

When the ancients dispute about the resurrection, they adduce the Supper [as evidence]–not unfittingly, at least in my judgment, for Christ signified to his Apostles that he would rise again, because He instituted the communion [κοινωνίαν] of His body. For it was necessary that the body that He was going to impart to us be alive. But if the ancients had thought that an absent body was represented, how from this could they have proved the resurrection? Because, even if Christ had not risen again, nevertheless his absent and destroyed body was able to be represented, as Hector is represented in dramas.1

I take fabulis in the last phrase as “plays” or “dramas” because Melanchthon has already compared Oecolampadius’ view to theatrical representation, as I noted above, which of course can be completely fictive even when displaying a semblance of veracity. But it is interesting to note an additional resonance to the use of Hector in particular: Hector’s ghost appears to Aeneas in Aeneid 2, which (obviously) could occur when Hector’s body was dead and gone.

Let us grant for the sake of argument that Oecolampadius held to a bare memorialism in the Supper. Insofar as he did, Melanchthon is right that Christ’s continued bodily existence is not required to memorialize His death, just as such a thing would not be required for any other kind of memorial with which we are familiar in ordinary human life. One could even say that precisely the same relationship would obtain between the incarnate Christ, the elements, and the recipients in the celebration of the Supper now as it did in its institution–which is to say, none at all.

If, however, we grant the ancient argument that the Supper should serve as a proof of the resurrection, then Christ’s continued bodily existence and the relation of that body to the Supper in some sense (more on this in a moment) is required. I am inclined to say that there is good reason to do so, given 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, which indicates that the cup is a “participation” (κοινωνία) in Christ’s blood and that the bread is a “participation” in Christ’s body (indeed, this is the very passage to which Melanchthon is referring in the passage quoted above). If that is the case, then Christ’s body and blood must continue to be in living existence now, because, if they are not, we cannot participate in, share in, or communicate with them. If, therefore, we participate in Christ’s body and blood in the Supper, then Christ rose from the dead. That’s the argument.

Notice, however, what this argument, should it be accepted, does not prove: it does not prove anything about the precise mode in which Christ is present. If the argument is correct, then it means that whatever relationship obtained between the incarnate Christ, the elements, and the recipients at the institution of the Supper should obtain in its celebration now, but it does not tell us what that relationship was and is. It does not, for example, prove the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature as somehow locally present in the elements (which 1 Corinthians 11:23-32 would seem to mitigate against), either at the Last Supper or in our memorials of it.

Melanchthon himself is somewhat coy about Christ’s presence in this letter. He refers more than once to the “presence of the body” (praesentia corporis), though never to “bodily presence” (praesentia corporalis), and certainly never to the “presence of the body in bodily mode” (praesentia corporis corporaliter). On the one hand, he says there is no need to tear the humanity away from the divinity (nihil est opus divellere ab humanitate divinitatem) in the promise that Christ made to be always with his people (Matt. 28:20) and in other similar promises, but then says that in the same manner or therefore or accordingly (proinde) the sacrament is a witness of the true presence (sentio hoc sacramentum verae praesentiae testimonium esse), presumably in keeping with those very same promises of His presence to His people. But, again, none of that speaks to the particular way in which that is true.

All in all, an interesting little argument and an interesting window into this sixteenth-century debate.

  1. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.