William Lane Craig on the Eucharist

The second major topic of the Defenders podcast’s “Doctrine of the Church” is the Lord’s supper or the Eucharist. Again I enjoyed hearing a theological case for the ordinance view. After presenting the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist views Craig settles for the Baptist view according to which Christ is present at the Lord’s supper spiritually in his divine nature as he is everywhere else, but not in his human nature, in which he is in heaven.

Craig’s main arguments against the sacramentalist view are again rather philosophical in nature. First, how could the bread at the Last Supper be Christ’s body, since Christ’s body was right there in front of the apostles? Obviously he didn’t mean the words of institution to be taken literally. Second, the sacramentalist view doesn’t take Christ’s resurrection body seriously enough: he has a concrete risen body, and clearly we’re not eating parts of that body in church.

Craig also pointed out that insisting on the words “this is” like Luther did fails to take into account the metaphorical use of language and that John 6 comes before the Last supper and thus the bread of life discourse is not plausibly about the Eucharist. He also said that there was some diversity in the early Church and in medieval times about this doctrine, and so there is room for differing theological opinions.

During the Q&A session there was a Catholic who gave the usual popular Catholic apologetics arguments from John 6, “this is” and the consensus of the early Church fathers. Craig didn’t have time to respond to everything but said that we should simply agree to disagree. To another question about the necessity of orthodoxy in this issue for salvation, Craig answered with an emphatic negative. Finally, I liked Craig’s point that symbols are not unimportant (like wedding rings), even if the Lord’s supper is merely a symbol, it can still be sacred and it can still be a sacrilege to take it lightly.

Some Thoughts in Response

As with baptism, here too Craig seems to elevate philosophy and human reasoning above the sources of faith. Craig said that one’s theology will depend largely on one’s interpretation of 1 Cor 11, but he didn’t give any explanation as to why Paul calls the Eucharistic elements the “body and blood of the Lord” if it is only Jesus’ divine nature that is present at the Eucharist. Even more astonishigly he totally left out 1 Cor 10, where Paul presents a rich theology of the Eucharist as spiritual food and drink, a sacrifice (comparing it to Jewish and pagan sacrificial meals) and communion (the very thing that makes the Church the Body of Christ).

Craig also tried to get around the teaching of Ignatius of Antioch the same way James White did, by making reference to the anti-docetic context of the words. But that context simply strengthens the point that the earliest followers of the apostles believed Christ’s humanity was present in the Eucharist. Craig said Cyprian and Augustine favored a spiritual view of the Eucharist but cited no texts.

In fact Augustine said that Christ carried himself in his own hands, contradicting Craig’s main argument against the real presence. The argument might appeal to common sense, but Jesus was a miracle worker after all. I have no idea how Padre Pio could bilocate, but with God everything is possible, and similarly I guess Jesus’ body and blood can somehow be present in the Eucharist although Jesus in his resurrected body is exalted in heaven.

The Really Interesting Issue

The really interesting and decisive question here is, however, not the interpretation of this or that scriptural or patristic text. What is more important is the question about unity and heresy. I think Craig is right to point out that there was diversity in both patristic and medieval times – transubstantiation should not be absolutized. Second, I think Craig is right to say that one does not need to have the correct doctrine of the Eucharist in order to be saved. I think Vatican II affirms this by granting that the Holy Spirit works salvifically in Protestant communities, even though these communities don’t hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation.

But the problem here of course is that historically speaking the medieval Church did dogmatize transubstantiation, and Trent anathematized Protestants who rejected its teaching on the Eucharist. The larger picture is this: there are many doctrines over which both sides of the divide anathemized and condemned each other originally, but which now are dismissed as secondary. Craig himself lists only a few doctrines that a person must believe to be a Christian: the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ…

The problem is that Craig’s list is simply an opinion of Craig’s, and it sounds a lot like – surprise surprise – a compilation of the main points of interest in Craig’s own apologetics. By contrast take James White for whom “the gospel” is almost equivalent to Reformed soteriology and excludes from salvation a much larger group of people than does Craig’s thin list of “dogmas”. The problem in Protestantism is that there is no objective way to tell the difference between theological opinion, doctrine and dogma.

Not that present-day Catholicism solves the problem, either. For the Catholic Church the problem is at least as acute – what on earth are we to make of preconciliar anti-Protestant “dogmas” after Vatican II and postconciliar ecumenism? If Protestants who still deny Trent but affirm the Joint Declaration, or who don’t care about any official documents but simply live the Christian life to the full, do in fact possess the Holy Spirit and are expected to get to heaven, then how are any of the medieval and modern preconciliar Catholic “dogmas” dogmas in the technical sense?

It seems to me that they are not. If we look at how the Church officially treats Protestants since Vatican II, if we look at what the recent Popes have thought and taught about Protestants, we cannot really avoid the conclusion that what used to constitute heresy does not do so any more. In other words, the Church has been too harsh, too blind to its own fallibility, it has made secondary issues and developments dogmatic in an unjustified way. The task for Catholic theology now is to figure out the mess and look for credible and tenable criteria for orthodoxy and unity.

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4 Comments on “William Lane Craig on the Eucharist”

  1. pointvicente Says:

    “..we cannot really avoid the conclusion that what used to constitute heresy does not do so any more. In other words, the Church has been too harsh,..”

    Can you please elaborate on these conclusions? Confusion is precisely what divides. There is no confusion. There is a real presence in the Eucharist and that is what the Church can have confidence and faith in going forward. Individuals may have different styles in communicating that truth that may appear harsh but it is not the Church that is being “harsh”. I believe that softening of the truth of the real presence can lead to confusion and to human rationalizing.

  2. Robert Eaglestone Says:

    “The task for Catholic theology now is to figure out the mess and look for credible and tenable criteria for orthodoxy and unity.”

    It’s our (protestants) task, as well. It takes two to tango, so to speak: if, as you say, the church has been too hasty, then that includes the reforming side too.

  3. Terry Says:

    Very good summary. I listened to the same podcast. Very well summarized. I am a Baptist who loves the Catholic Church and Catholics and the traditions and yearns for the body of Christ to be one. I am amazed that the different theologies on the nature of communion don’t have to be the absolute divide anymore for salvation. At least we all seem to agree that at minimum Jesus is at least spiritually present at communion when faith is present. I think the problem for us Baptist is not believing even that enough. Jesus really being in us, spiritually is no small thing if it is real, it is an enormous thing, the biggest thing. We treat it way too casual. Something our Catholic brothers aren’t guilty of. In a way I wish I could believe in transubstantiation but just don’t see it for the reason’s Dr. Craig pointed out. But I too don’t believe being correct or not on the issue is an ultimate salvation issue. Really having Jesus in you or not (as obviously many Catholics do) is the real salvation issue. How he gets in you is less important. The main thing that Jesus offers himself and he is there for us to receive and we must nourish ourselves on Christ inside us in faith and become one with him, with GOD and then we will be one with each other.

    Protestant theologians also share the same task. I am praying for my Catholic brothers and sisters and ask for your prayers and pray for unity in faith.

  4. pointvicente Says:

    JOHN 6:51-56
    “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

    52. The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” 53. Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 54. Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. 55. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. 57. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

    Our Lord is clear and his Church confirms this truth which has been passed down to us through the centuries. Martyrs have died to provide us this truth. Why is it that Luther himself believed in a version of the real presence? Once it was watered down many have walked away ever since. Should we? No. Can we create our own justification and walk away or can we embrace the unity that Christ prayed for? Sacred tradition is part of our faith (2 Thessalonians 2:15). As it says in Hebrews 13:7: “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you.”

    Ignatius of Antioch

    “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]).

    “Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).

    Justin Martyr

    “We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).


    “If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” (Against Heresies 4:33–32 [A.D. 189]).

    “He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?” (ibid., 5:2).

    Clement of Alexandria

    “’Eat my flesh,’ [Jesus] says, ‘and drink my blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his flesh and pours out his blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:43:3 [A.D. 191]).

    You may dismiss these early writings as you wish. However, would you dismiss your pastors writings just the same? The words of our Lord are truth. There is no need to understand the words of our Lord any differently because of the doubt the world attempts to cast upon us.

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