The Biblical Administration of the Lord’s Supper

A Reformed Overview with Particular Focus on Huldreich Zwingli’s Treatment of the Subject and Concluding with Practical Issues for the Present Day

Researched and Compiled by David C. Brand

“I fear that if there is anywhere pernicious error in the adoration and worship of the one true God, it is in the abuse of the Eucharist.”

Huldreich Zwingli, On True and False Religion

            In October of 1529 at the Marburg Conference, Martin Luther rejected the only possibility of uniting the German and Swiss Reform Protestants. After coming to peace with Zwingli on fourteen statements of Protestant concern, Luther refused to yield his literal interpretation of Christ’s words, “This is my body. . .” Opposing Luther’s philosophical commitment to the ubiquity of Christ’s body, Zwingli maintained that Christ’s words should be understood in a metaphorical sense and taken to mean, “this signifies my body.” Realizing that no common ground could be reached on the issue, Zwingli extended his hand in a gesture of fraternal fellowship to Luther only to find that the German Reformer refused to take it and thereby acknowledge Zwingli to be of the same Christian communion.

            I recall the words of Dr. Clifford Drury, Professor of Church History at San Anselmo, who taught a course on Presbyterian History and Polity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Drury offered that had John Calvin been present at Marburg, the outcome may have been different. He reasoned that Calvin’s position would have been mediatory, for Calvin affirmed that Christ was present in the sacrament, but present by the Holy Spirit. Things are not always as simple as they appear on the surface, however, and if we believe that Zwingli held the Lord’s supper to be symbolic and nothing more, we sell Zwingli short. Indeed Zwingli affirmed the “real presence” of Christ in the Supper, but in a spiritual and sacramental sense. Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette maintained that Melanchthon, Luther’s protege and successor, had a strong influence in the outcome at Marburg insisting that if Luther were to yield his position, reconciliation with the Roman Catholics would have been rendered impossible.

            Both Luther and Zwingli rejected the idolatry and superstition associated with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation whereby the act of priestly blessing (via the principle of apostolic succession) was regarded as effecting a miraculous transformation of the physical substance of the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. If Zwingli changed the meaning of “is” to “signifies” or “represents,” Rome changed Christ’s word “is” to “becomes.”

             In regard to the sacraments, Luther pointed to three essentials: the sign, the significance of the sign, and faith. For Luther, the Word was primary in the sacrament inasmuch as it spelled out the significance of the sign and provided the basis for faith. Outward signs were of no avail apart from the Word of God, but outward signs “connected with God’s Word are salvation and blessedness, because they inhere in the Word and bind our faith.” To administer the sacrament in a language not understandable to the hearers, or to impose on the words of the institution a meaning that the words themselves cannot bear, was to reduce the sacrament to the level of superstition. Because the Word defined the sign, the papal doctrine of transubstantiation had to be challenged. For the Word affirmed that a man was justified by faith alone and not by works of the law. If the mass involved Christ’s literal body, and the mass was regarded as a sacrifice, then the officiating priest was effecting the salvation of the participants by his priestly efforts in offering that body as a sacrifice. In the process the Gospel was subverted.

            Zwingli’s position is carefully spelled out in his Exposition of the Christian Faith in a section entitled “The Presence of Christ’s Body in the Supper.” Here he insisted that “that natural, material body of Christ’s, in which He suffered here and now sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the Father, is not eaten literally and in its essence, but only spiritually, in the Lord’s Supper.” Citing Augustine, Zwingli insisted that “Christ’s body must be in some particular place in heaven in virtue of its character as a real body. Christ’s body, therefore, is not in several places anymore than our bodies are.” Here are some of Zwingli’s arguments to support his thesis:


1.         Luke 2:7: “And she brought forth her first born son . . . and laid him in a manger.” Though he affirmed Mary as the “mother of God’ on account of the unity of Christ’s person, Zwingli argued that only the God the Father brought forth the divine nature.


2.         Citing Mark 16:19, “He ascended into heaven,” Zwingli argued that the ascension applied to the humanity as well as to the divinity, but that the humanity was circumscribed by the divinity, whereas the latter was unlimited and uncircumscribed as evident by Matthew 28:20: “Behold, I am with you, even to the end of time.” “The body of Christ is, therefore, not eaten by us literally or in substance, and all the more not quantitatively, but only sacramentally and spiritually.” John 17:11 dispelled any doubt as to this fact.


3.         Acts 1:11: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you see him go into heaven.” In light of this verse, Zwingli comments, “When, therefore, they say, ‘shall so come,’ He means in bodily and literal sense and in substance, But when shall he come? Not when the Church celebrates the Supper, but when she is to be judged by Him at the end of the world.” Note: Zwingli’s point here ought to be all the more obvious in connection with the eschatological dimension to the Supper which we see in Christ’s words: “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do show forth the Lord’s death until He comes.”(italics mine) It would hardly make sense that the coming to which Christ here referred was to take place in the Supper itself! In that case the showing forth via eating and drinking would be followed by the coming which itself would be essential for the eating and drinking–a logical absurdity!


4.         To those who insist that the force of Christ’s words, “This is my body,” is to bring Christ’s natural body before us in the elements of the bread and wine [an obvious reference to Luther’s consubstantiation doctrine], Zwingli argued that, if such were the case, then the first disciples would have partaken of Christ’s mortal body, and, now that Christ has an immortal body, the church would partake of Christ’s immortal body. “Anyone can see how absurd this is.”


5.         Finally, Zwingli argued that piety itself would dictate the absurdity of transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Zwingli noted how Peter’s words in a great moment of spiritual understanding, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8), hardly expressed the cannibal instinct. He then referred to the ministering women and Nicodemus who prepared Christ’s body for burial, wrapping it with spices, but who did not eat it physically. Certainly these people of religious hearts would have recoiled from the notion of bodily manducation.

Zwingli’s Definitions:


          Spiritual eating: “To eat the body of Christ spiritually is nothing else than to trust in spirit and heart upon the mercy and goodness of God through Christ, that is, to be sure with unshaken faith that God is going to give us pardon for our sins and the joy of everlasting blessedness on account of His Son, who was made wholly ours, was offered for us, and reconciled the divine righteousness to us. For what can He refuse who gave His only begotten Son?”


          Sacramental eating: “To eat the body of Christ in heart and spirit with the accompaniment of the sacrament.” “But when you come to the Lord’s Supper with this spiritual participation and give thanks unto the Lord for His great kindness, for the deliverance of your souls, through which you have been delivered from the destruction of despair, and for the pledge by which you have been made sure of everlasting blessedness, and along with the brethren partake of the bread and wine which are the symbols of the body of Christ, then you eat Him sacramentally, in the proper sense of that term, when you do internally what you represent externally, when your heart is refreshed by this faith to which you bear witness by these symbols.” “But those are improperly said to eat sacramentally who eat the visible sacrament or symbol in public assembly to be sure, but have no faith in their hearts. These, therefore, call down judgment, that is the vengeance of God, upon themselves by eating, because they hold not in the same high esteem, in which it is rightly held by the pious, the body of Christ, that is, the whole mystery of the incarnation and passion, and even the Church itself of Christ.

Zwingli’s Faith Distinction:

            Zwingli did not believe that the sacraments worked faith in the heart–“none but the Holy Spirit giveth faith”--though he did acknowledge a kind of historical faith which may result from the sacrament setting before our minds and memory the historical facts associated with our redemption. “Since, then, a man ought to examine his faith before he approaches the table, it cannot be that faith is given in the Supper, for it must be there before you draw near.” [Note: the New England Congregationalists similarly distinguished “historical faith” consisting of doctrinal orthodoxy from that saving faith that was to be set forth in a “narrative of grace” as a prerequisite for full visible church membership and admission to the Lord’s Supper.]

Seven Virtues Associated with the Sacraments:

1.) “They are sacred and venerable rites instituted by Christ, the Great High Priest.”

2.) “They bear witness to accomplished facts.”

3.) “They take the place of the things they signify, whence also they get their names.”

4.) “They signify sublime things.”

5.) “The analogy between the symbols and the thing signified.”

            “The Eucharist has a two-fold analogy, first as applying to Christ, for as bread sustains and supports human life, as wine cheers man, so Christ alone restores, sustains, and makes glad the heart bereft of all hope. . . . It has a second analogy as applying to us, for as bread is made of many grains, and wine is made of many grapes, so the body of Christ is cemented together and grows into one body from countless members, through common trust in Christ, proceeding from one Spirit, so that a true temple and body of the indwelling Holy Spirit comes into existence.

6) “The sacraments bring increase and support for faith, and this the Eucharist does above all others.” “Now in the sacraments the senses are made deaf to the wiles of Satan but bound over to faith, so that like handmaidens they do nothing but what their mistress, faith, does and directs.” “In the Eucharist the four most powerful senses, nay, all the senses, are as it were, reclaimed and redeemed from fleshly desires, and drawn into obedience to faith.”

7.) “They fill the office of an oath of allegiance.”

            Zwingli pointed out that the Latin sacramentum was used in place of “ius iurandum” which meant “oath.” “”For those who use one and the same oath, become one and the same race and sacred alliance, unite into one body and one people, and he who betrays it is false to his oath. When, therefore, the people of God by eating His body sacramentally become united into one body, he who without faith ventures to obtrude himself upon this company betrays the body of Christ, as well as its head as in its members, because he does not ‘discern.’ that is, does not properly value the body of the Lord, either as having been delivered up by Him for us, or as having been made free by His death. For we are one body with Him.”

Zwingli’s conclusion:

            “We are forced, then, whether we will or no, to acknowledge that the words, ‘this is my body,’ etc., are not to be understood literally and according to the primary meaning of the words, but symbolically, sacramentally, metaphorically, or as a metonymy [μετωνυμικς], thus:–‘This is my body,’ that is, ‘this is the sacrament of my body,’ or ‘this is my sacramental or mystical body, that is, the sacramental and vicarious symbol of that body which I really took and exposed to death.’”

In True and False Religion, Zwingli gave an exposition of John, chapter 6, to dispel the notion that this chapter provided biblical justification for the doctrine of transubstantiation. Here Zwingli emphasized that “faith” was what Christ was calling for. Since the unbelieving Jews were more interested in having their stomachs filled than anything else, Jesus’s words about eating His body and drinking His blood in order to have life were designed to encourage the faith of his followers to trust in His sacrificial death for them and as a total “turn-off,” as it were, as far as the unbelieving Jews were concerned, confirming them in their stubborn unbelief, as the only way they could understand his words was in a crassly literal sense. To set the record straight, for the sake of His followers, Jesus made it clear that He was speaking in spiritual terms. “It is the Spirit that gives life. The flesh profits nothing.” These words were, for Zwingli, the key to settle the whole issue of transubstantiation exposing it for the spiritual blindness that it represented.

            Focusing on Christ’s words, “This is my body,” Zwingli then set forth the following positive examples from Scripture how the word “is” is frequently used metaphorically:


          Gen. 41:26: “the seven beautiful kine, and the seven full ears, are seven years of plenty.”

          Luke 8:11; “The seed is the word of God.”

          Matt. 13:38: “The field is the world.”

          John 10:9: “I am the door.”

          John 15:5: “I am the vine.”

          John 8:12: “I am the light.”

            Zwingli pointed out that Christ’s words “Do this in remembrance of me,” demonstrate that the Lord’s Supper is a commemoration of Christ’s death, not a remitting of sins, for that is the province of Christ’s death alone.”

            To further reinforce his argument that “is” can be used in the sense of “signify,” he pointed out how Jesus stated in Luke 22:20, “This cup is the new testament in my blood” noting that here the cup itself signified not only its contents, the wine, but what that wine represented, namely Christ’s blood–but more particularly, the new testament in Christ’s blood.” Here the crass literalism of the Roman Church simply did not fit.

             The following statements show both the logic and the vehemence of the Zurich Reformer as he viewed the Roman Mass:

“If this custom had come down to us from the Apostles or from those first brethren of Christ, it would have something to show for itself; but, as it is, since the ritual of the Mass has absolutely no basis in any institution of Christ or of the Apostles, why, in the Temple, that is, in the Church of God, do we endure this shameless traffic, which breaks out so openly to the dishonoring of Christ? Why do we not bid all these mass-mongerers to cease this atrocious insult to Christ? For if Christ has to be offered daily, it must be because His being offered once on the cross is not sufficient for all time. What greater insult can be named than this? All masses should be immediately abolished, and the Lord’s Supper used according to its institution by Christ.”

Practical Issues for the Present Day:

1) The Communion Table is just that. It should not be referred to as an altar. There are no sacrifices to be made by the officiating pastor.

2) The officiating pastor should face the congregation with the Communion Table between himself and the people, and the assisting elders along side or close by in front.

3) The Lord’s supper should be preceded by Gospel-centered preaching in order that the Word is paramount.

4) The words of the institution, as recorded by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32 should be read along with any other Scripture appropriately selected for the occasion.

5) The people should remain seated as the elders distribute the elements (Mark 6:39-41). Note: The Lord’s Supper was instituted to be a fellowship of the Christian family (who constitute the priesthood of all believers), not a cafeteria line for a public institution. The Reformers in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Scotland were opposed to kneeling during the reception of the elements inasmuch as it suggested to the minds of the worshipers that they were actually adoring or worshiping the host (the signs themselves). Christ said “Take, eat” not “Take, worship.”

6) Prior to the distribution of the elements there should be a time of solemn self-examination, confession, and thanksgiving. By virtue of Christ’s resurrection, joy and celebration fittingly characterize the Lord’s Supper (John. 6:40, 44). Yet joy must not be allowed to degenerate into mindless frivolity in flagrant disregard for Christ’s sacrifice made once for all at the end of the age (1 Cor. 11:21).

7) The Lord’s Supper is not a private institution. Properly administered, the Lord’s Supper should heighten our awareness of the universal Church, militant and triumphant (on earth and in heaven). In keeping with the corporate nature of the Supper, it is fitting for the pastor to include other elders and laity when administering the Supper to shut-ins.

Reference List

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. 1953. A history of Christianity. New York: Harper and Row.


Luther, Martin. 1958. Luther’s Works. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.


Zwingli, Huldreich. 1929. Commentary on True and False Religion. Edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson. American Society of Church History. Reprint. 1981. Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press.


________. 1922. On Providence and other essays. Edited for Samuel Macauley Jackson by William John Hincke. American Society of Church History. Reprint. 1983. Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press.