McEucharist: I blame Zwingli

I have been hanging around evangelical free churches since 1984 and it seems to me that there is something of a problem with the way in which Holy Communion is practiced.

Problem 1: Who-carist?
The first problem is that the Eucharist can be an infrequent visitor to free church gatherings — more who-carist? than Eucharist. The weeks and months (and sometimes the years!) roll by and not a scrap of bread or a drop of wine is seen.

Problem 2: McEucharist
The second problem is that when the Eucharist is celebrated it is often shoe-horned into the little space between the "worship" (i.e., the singing) and the sermon in the spiritual equivalent of fast food for Christians on the go.

How is it that the meal that was given by Jesus to the church and which has been at the centre of Christian worship down the centuries has been relegated to a sideshow by so many contemporary evangelical churches?

A simplistic answer with more than a grain of truth:
I blame Zwingli. The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, in his zeal to reject anything that looked like transubstantiation and that smacked of medieval hocus pocus (from hoc est corpus, latin for "this is my body"), reduced Communion to a mere symbol. For Zwingli Holy Communion is a memorial meal to celebrate Christ's once-for-all victory at Calvary. But Christ is NOT present in the Eucharist — Christ is in heaven.

Zwingli was right about some things and wrong about others.

He was right that Christ's death was once for all and that communion celebrates it. He was right that Christ is in heaven. He was right that transubstantiation (as a metaphysical account of real presence) has its problems.

BUT he was wrong to think that transubstantiation is incompatible with the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ (as were all the Reformers) and he was wrong to reject the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. You can have real presence without transubstantiation (as is clear from looking at Orthodoxy, at Luther, and at Calvin).

The reason why it matters is that Zwingli's theology unintentionally undermines the significance of the Eucharist. If the physical elements do not mediate Christ's presence (by the Spirit) — and Zwingli did not think that they could — but merely help us to think about Jesus then Eucharist ceases to be essential. There are plenty of ways that we can be reminded to think about Jesus' once-for-all death. We can, for instance, sing songs about it.

For many evangelicals Bread and wine are simply a slightly odd prompt for reflection. And they break the flow of "the worship" (i.e., the flow from one song to another song, like Tarzan swinging from vine to vine). And so it is that we take communion less and less often and when we do it we do it quickly so we can move on to more important things. (Of course, we don't say that but if we really valued the Lord's Supper would we celebrate it the way that we do?)

Learning to eat well:
But Zwingli was wrong.

Holy Communion is a sacrament: it mediates grace; it mediates the presence and life of Jesus. If we are to recover the significance of communion as evangelicals we need to rethink out theology.

I recommend Calvin as a great place to start.


Juan C. Torres said…
Absolutely right, Robin.
It's so sad evangelicals have
largely done away with such a
nurturing sacrament.

Glad the Eucharist is the climax of our weekly Sunday Service in the Episcopal church.
Peter said…
Maybe this is the case in England. But i have grown up in free Churches all my life in Northern Ireland and we have communion everyweek and it is a very important part of the service. While I do have some problems with communion the way we practise it as I believe it should be actually be done as part of a full meal in much the same way as the Early Church did. The way you describe communion does not ring true for me.
Robin Parry said…

That is helpful. You are right that free churches are not all cut from the same cloth. My experience has been with the more charismatic end of the free churches. I suspect that those who are less influences by charismatic worship are more inclined to celebrate the Eucharist.

And that seems to me to be supremely ironic because the Eucharist is a charismatic event. The problem with charismatic worship is that it is not charismatic enough!
Temp said…
Hi Robin... thanks for this post i've found it thought provoking. I really struggle when i'm asked to lead the eucharist slot at gatherings because i never feel we do it justice. As one of the most profound, uniting and truly religious practices of the church, how can we expect to appropriately teach on and practice it in 10 minutes!?

A couple of quick questions for you:

1) Where can i find some of Calvin's thoughts on this (i haven't got the first clue!)

2)Have you any thoughts on what it might look like to celebrate the eucharist more fully?

3) Considering your comments on how Christ is still present through the bread and the wine - what are your thoughts on the substitution of these materials in a missional contextualisation of communion?
Micah said…
At the same time, I do find Luther's statement "I'd rather drink blood with the Pope than mere wine with the Swiss" a bit annoying. If I remember right, Luther traveled to visit Zwingli, and they agreed on pretty much the whole list of things they discussed, but then it came to how they viewed the bread and wine -- and oops, gotta go now. It seems like the key thing is to do this in remembrance of Him. True, some other thing could be done to remember Him (our whole lives should be in remembrance of Him, right?); but those elements were the specific things that Christ chose to use, and the specific things affirmed by Paul and the early church to be used. So even if they are only symbols, that historical connection can trigger a very real internal spiritual connection. If there's something more to it mystically or literally in a transformation of the elements within the person taking them -- then great! I just don't think Luther, Zwingli and the Pope would need to have divided over that issue alone, as if they couldn't fellowship together because of it. But maybe I'm exaggerating the idea of schism because of it?
Robin Parry said…

Luther said that? Sweet!

If I had to choose between transubstantiation and Zwinglianism I'd choose transubstantiation any day.

I don't think that the Reformers' schism with Rome was all about the Eucharist (although there were concerns). It did create a divide between the Reformers (although I am not sufficiently "up" on my Reformed history to give the details.

The plus point is that the Eucharist is more than Zwingli thought even for Zwingli. He just did not realize it. So the problem is more to do with how mistaken ideas can affect our appreciation of what is going on in the Eucharist and also our practice of it.

You are right that Jesus' words and Christian practice can provide a rationale for celebrating Eucharist—indeed they have done that. (Indeed, I suspect that they are the only reason why most evangelicals have not gone the whole way and dropped it, like the Quakers and Salvation Army.) But my observation is that in practice many evangelicals are not bothered about marginalizing Communion. And whatever the reasons for that the theological rationale seems to be this suspicion that the same effect can ge had via other less weird means. That is what I blame Zwingli for.

But I would never divide from a Zwinglian (as the man said, some of my best friends are Zwinglians). They still celebrate communion and benefit from real presence even if they don't know it.

So this is most certainly not a reason to break fellowship. (How ironic would such a schism be!)
Robin Parry said…

I should add that I also think that Luther is wrong about Holy Communion. He was right about real presence but his account of it was, in my view, more theologically problematic than transubstantiation.

So my personal top of the theological charts on Eucharist in the West are
1. Calvin
2. Transubstantiation
3. Luther
4. Zwingli

Of course, I may well be horribly mistaken. (I can see lots of Lutherans hunting me down as I type.)

Robin Parry said…

1. The section from Calvin's Institutes is online here:

2. I have some thoughts
(a) it needs to be the climax of the gathering — that to which all ends flows to and from. The worship before it is shaped to lead up to it rather than being a self-contained "time of worship" with Communion tacked on.

(b) it needs explaining to a congregation so they appreciate the importance of it

(c) one can explore the connections between Eucharist and creation, and exodus, and the cross and resurrection, and the church, and the eschaton, and suffering, etc. to highlight different aspects of it and to enable congregants to connect it with different aspects of their lives.

3. The main thing for me is to avoid any attempt at relevance that ends up trivializing Eucharist. So chocolate instead of bread may seem cool but it is not a good idea.

Fortunately bread and wine are relevant in most cultures (in some non-alcoholic wine will be necessary).

The type of cup(s) and the style of bread can easily flex

But bread and wine are not simply arbitrary symbols—they are embedded in the historical particularity of God's way with Israel and the nations. Bread and wine have symbolic resonances in and throughout the Bible that we would wish not to lose. Even if a contemporary culture does not know all those vibrations part of "conversion" is being inducted into those stories and practices, of learning the resonances.

In the modern West I see no cause for moving from bread and wine to ... something else.

I do see grounds for moving away from little wafers (that don't look or smell or taste or feel like bread) to real loaves of bread that are ripped and shared.
Micah said…
Hi, Robin --

Yeah, I think the exact quote of Luther's might have used the term 'Enthusiasts' instead of 'Swiss', but was referring to Anabaptists, etc.

Even though my background on this topic is probably more Zwinglian in approach, I do share your concerns about Communion becoming some kind of weird side thing tacked on to a more general worship service, rather than being as much of a main focal point as it should be. I should study each of those views you listed in more depth -- hadn't realized there was much of difference between Calvin and Luther on that.
Anonymous said…

You are the champion of the straw-man argument.
Robin Parry said…

alas, to my shame, I have no doubt that I do sometimes attack straw men. I try not to but perhaps not hard enough.

In this case I must indeed be a champion of the straw man because I seem to have even fooled myself.

I am struggling to spot the straw man in my argument. Please can you help me out here and show me where it is.

I will not bite so you are welcome to share your name to. If there is a straw man I would like to know.

Kind Regards

Robin Parry said…
correction: "name too"
Robin Parry said…

Thanks. Luther's view, if I understand it correctly, is that Christ's two natures (human and divine) participate in the properties of the other. Hence, Christ's human nature is literally omnipresent (because it shares in the divine property of omnipresence). Thus Christ's body is literally present everywhere. This is how it is that Christ is present in the bread and wine.

My problem with that is that is seems to confuse the human and divine natures of Christ (which Chalcedon was keen to not confuse).

Calvin represents a via media between Luther and Zwingli. He agrees with Zwingli that Christ is in heaven and not physically present on earth. But he thinks that the Spirit enables the physical elements to mediate Christ's presence to us. The Spirit lifts us up into heavenly places, where Christ is, when we celebrate communion. So it is more than a memorial or an oath of allegiance. It is communion.

I probably explained the views terribly there.

Popular Posts