The Lutheran Hermeneutic of the Real Presence: A Review of The Lord’s Supper, by Martin Chemnitz
By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.
Systematic Theology 502: Symbolics I (Spring 2011)
While the Lutheran Reformation began as a debate between Martin Luther and the Roman Church concerning indulgences, it culminated in the defense, articulated with special clarity by Martin Chemnitz, of Lutheran orthodoxy against the Reformed doctrines of Christ’s two natures and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. To be sure, Chemnitz—that “second Martin” of the Lutheran Reformation—did not shy away from refuting Rome’s theology in contradistinction to the Augsburg Confession to which Lutheran theologians had subscribed; indeed, his Examination on the Council of Trent (1565-1573) demonstrated forcibly that not only Scripture, but also much of church history, favored the Lutheran cause. However, Chemnitz also saw a need to protect Luther’s legacy from Calvinistic encroachments that in the latter half of the century challenged the personal union of Christ’s human and divine natures and denied both the signification and the power of the words of institution in the Lord’s Supper. Chemnitz’s Two Natures of Christ (1558) and The Lord’s Supper (1570) addressed these concerns, laying a foundation for Articles VII and VIII, respectively, of the Formula of Concord (1577), a confessional document that marked the conclusion of the Lutheran Reformation.
For Chemnitz, dogmatic confidence must rest upon theological method, and theological method must rest upon Holy Scripture. We find, for example, that his Loci Theologici (1591), a topical survey of Christian doctrine, begins with a preliminary essay concerning how the church fathers should be read. Chemnitz says the fathers may profitably be read insofar as they agree with Scripture, but in the case of discrepancies their writings should never be elevated above Scripture. Similarly, in The Lord’s Supper, Chemnitz insists that theology must begin with the plain sense of Scripture; exegetes should consider neither allegorical interpretations of Scripture nor the claims of external testimonies until after a doctrine is first established by a straightforward reading of the biblical texts that speak directly to the issue at hand. As this review will demonstrate, Chemnitz’s The Lord’s Supper thereby provides not only a compelling case for the real presence but, of equal importance and broader applicability, also a model for sound hermeneutics.
Chemnitz’s Hermeneutic: Four Principles
Chemnitz first establishes a general hermeneutic procedure, and then applies that procedure to the Scripture passages pertaining to the debate over the Lord’s Supper, in order to establish that the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence is the correct exposition of Holy Scripture. His hermeneutical principles may be identified as follows:
1) The sedes doctrinae [seat of doctrine] consists of those passages which treat the subject explicitly. “All the dogmas of the church and the individual articles of faith,” notes Chemnitz, “have their own foundation in certain passages of Scripture where they are clearly treated and explained” (31). On the other hand, “in some passages the dogmas are not clearly set forth but are either repeated briefly or are only touched on in passing” (32). Those tangential passages do not establish dogma, but only illustrate it, apply it, or—at times—merely allude to it.
2) The sedes doctrinae ought to be interpreted according to the literal sense of the words, unless the sedes passages themselves indicate otherwise. Here Chemnitz follows the dictum, “let Scripture interpret Scripture,” not only as to the dogmatic substance, but also as to the hermeneutic form of Christian theology. That is, he demonstrates that Scripture itself instructs the reader to interpret the text according to the literal sense, except in cases where context indicates otherwise. “The Holy Spirit has shown in Scripture itself that there is a definite method or analogy which must be followed in the interpretation of such passages” (67). Specifically, Chemnitz takes his cue from 2 Peter 1:20, namely, “that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” The words which the Holy Spirit inspired, not the figurative interpretations that a reader imagines, must govern the meaning. Only “when the literal interpretation forces an absurdity on other, clearer passages of Scripture or on articles of faith, then we must correct it by treating it as figurative” (68). Accordingly, the burden of proof shifts from the Lutherans toward the Calvinists:
Therefore, whoever feels and contends that the words of the Lord’s Supper must be understood differently than they read must be able to show in a clear, sure, and comprehensible way that in these passages where admittedly the Holy Spirit treats and repeats the dogma of the Lord’s Supper He has demonstrated, in clear and manifest terms, these two things: 1. That the words must not be taken literally; and 2. In what sense they are to be understood if not taken literally. (70)
Chemitz illustrates this point with the example of Abraham and Sarah, whose human reason inhibited them from taking literally the clear promise that in Abraham’s seed all nations would be blessed (Genesis chaps. 12, 15-18). God’s promise was not to be taken figuratively—as a reference to Abraham’s slave and adoptive heir, Eliezer of Damascus, nor as a reference to Abraham’s illegitimate child through the slave woman Hagar; rather, indeed, Abraham’s literal and legitimate seed from Sarah’s own womb would bless all nations. Never mind the fact that she was old and barren. “Is anything too hard or impossible for God?” (Genesis 18:14). From this account, Chemnitz concludes that “human reason, in the area of interpretation of dogmas of the faith, must not force its way in even when the proper and natural sense seems absurd and in conflict with certain facts” (72).
3) Other passages that treat the subject indirectly must be interpreted in harmony with the aforementioned interpretation of the sedes passages. Chemnitz reminds his readers that Christ followed this hermeneutic when directing the Pharisees away from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (a civil law regulating divorce, which treats the doctrine of marriage only tangentially) and toward the divine institution of marriage recorded in Genesis 1 and 2 (the genuine sedes doctrinae). Writes Chemnitz, “He [Christ] was so anxious to retain their original meaning that He did not even yield to any other passages of Scripture, but pointed out that the later passages must be interpreted in such a way that they do not conflict with the earlier institution of marriage” (33).
4) Such an interpretation must stand regardless of external testimony brought against it, such as arguments from human reason. At this point in the journey, Chemnitz reaches a rhetorical pinnacle, a zenith towering above all counter-examples. Not only must a literal interpretation stand against all arguments from human reason, but it must stand even against Scripture itself, when misconstrued by human reason. Gleaning insight once more from Abraham’s life, Chemnitz this time considers God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Chemnitz emphasizes that this command apparently contradicts not only the Law (Fifth Commandment) but also the Gospel (the promise that through Isaac’s descendents all nations would be blessed). If anyone ever had good reason to doubt the plain sense of God’s promise or command, and to offer a figurative interpretation in its stead, then Abraham certainly did! “The Sacramentarians [may] pile up as many objections [to the real presence] as they can, but they will never be equal to these contradictions” (75). Still, Abraham knew not to doubt, nor to misconstrue, the Lord’s words. He believed that God could restore Isaac from the dead (Chemnitz here cites Hebrews 11:19). Therefore, Abraham obeyed the literal command while trusting in the the literal promise, despite both the internal tension between the command and the promise and also human reason’s external testimony against them.
Chemnitz’s Hermeneutic: Applied to the Lord’s Supper
Applying these four principles to the Lord’s Supper, Chemnitz concludes, first, that the sedes doctrinae must be none other than the words of institution as recorded in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:17-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, allowing also for the supplementary teachings in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:17-22,27-34 to enter the discussion soon after. These passages share the unique property of directly treating the Lord’s Supper. John 6:51 may pertain as well, but not as directly; in fact, Chemnitz argues that the eating of Christ’s flesh referred to in John 6 is an allegorical eating, applicable alike to the spiritual reception of either Word or Sacrament; appeals to John 6 therefore cannot settle the debate over the real presence. Chemnitz removes even further from consideration those texts which exemplify figures of speech, such as “I am the gate” (John 10:7). Such passages do not even indirectly refer to the Lord’s Supper, and therefore have, at best, a tertiary place in the discussion of that sacrament. Of primary importance are the words of institution.
Having determined that the words of institution contain the key to understanding the Lord’s Supper properly, Chemnitz next proceeds to establish how those words should be interpreted. His general hermeneutical principle holds that the words of any passage should be interpreted literally unless the text itself indicates otherwise. In this instance, he discovers that the text is not only devoid of any indication that the words should be taken figuratively, but in fact contains an indication that the words should be taken literally. Specifically, the words of institution are presented as the last will and testament of the Lord Jesus. Chemnitz notes that a person’s last will and testament of necessity uses clear, unambiguous, literally language, lest the testator’s intentions become uncertain. “When the last will and testament of a man has been executed, we are required under the law to observe the words with special care so that nothing be done which is either beside or contrary to the final will of the testator” (27). Approaching the words of institution in this manner, Chemnitz finds inescapable the conclusion that Christ taught His disciples that His body and blood were truly present in the bread and wine.
Third, with the real presence firmly established, together with the salvific power of the Sacrament, other, less directly pertinent, passages may be rightly interpreted. For example, passages teaching that Jesus ascended into heaven, or those teaching that He will come again to earth, should not be construed as denials of His sacramental presence in the Lord’s Supper. The words of institution—“This is My body; this is My blood”—must first be accorded their proper, literal significance, as explained above. Then that firm conclusion may be permitted to stand beside the teaching concerning Christ’s ascension to heaven, to be believed by faith even if not comprehended by reason:
Therefore there is no conflict between these two concepts: He shall come from heave on the last day of judgment with a visible and glorious descent and advent; and what is distributed in the Lord’s Supper which is celebrated here on earth is the body of Christ, in another mode of presence, to be sure, which is past our comprehension and known to God alone; but both concepts are the Word of God. (223)
Finally, no external testimony may be brought to bear against the clear words of Holy Scripture. For example, Chemnitz writes in his final chapter, “We are in no way impressed when the argument is made that it is unworthy of Christ’s body if it is received in our physical mouth as the words of institution declare.” Indeed, what is the alternative? Should our human judgment become the limiter of divine promise? Chemnitz warns of the inevitable conseqence: “If, because of unexplainable absurdities, we are forced to depart form the clear word of God, nothing will remain safe among the chief articles of our faith” (268).
Chemnitz’s Hermeneutic: Applied to the Recent Controversies
In The Lord’s Supper, Chemnitz has provided a model for theological analysis that can be applied fruitfully to other topics as well. For example, liberal theologians err today when they assert that biblical prohibitions of sodomy must be interpreted in light of the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Chemnitz’s method would have us: 1) consider all of the passages directly pertaining to sodomy; 2) interpret those passages literally; 3) only then consider how less pertinent passages, such as the command to love, fit with the literal interpretation just arrived at; and, 4) insist upon that literal interpretation despite extra-biblical objections against it. Specifically in this example, the Golden Rule is too vague to serve as the decisive proof text concerning any moral issue that elsewhere in Scripture receives clear attention. Does loving my neighbor as myself mean encouraging him to engage in sodomitical acts if he so pleases (on the assumption that I, too, desire to do as I please)? Or does it mean correcting him from his error (even as I would hope others would correct me from any errors in which I may become entrapped)? The conscience thus lacks a clear guide when a vaguer statement of the law pre-empts a specific biblical prohibition.
In a similar manner, Chemnitz’s method may bring clarity to recent discussions of procreation vis-à-vis abortion, contraception, and sterilization. The world argues on the basis of personal preference, but Scripture nowhere endorses this “pro-choice” attitude. Some Christians appeal to a subtler rhetoric of choice, veiled under the biblical principles of “Christian freedom” and “stewardship,” when they weigh the economic costs of childrearing against the blessings that God attaches to the parental vocation. I have even heard couples state that they want to limit their children to the number for whom they can foreseeably finance Christian education from parochial grade schools through college, while also being able to save for their own retirement. Chemnitz’s hermeneutic would return us first and foremost to the applicable words of institution, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28; cf. Ap XXIII, 7), and direct us also to the many passages dealing specifically with the topic of childbearing and childrearing (Genesis 24:60, 49:22-25; Exodus 1:17; Psalms 127:3-5, 128:3-6; Malachi 2:14b-16; Mark 10:14; 1 Timothy 5:14; etc.).
Only after firmly establishing from these passages what God’s attitude toward children is, would Chemnitz even begin to entertain the possibility that broader principles, such as “Christian freedom” and “stewardship” could have any bearing on the topic of procreation. Furthermore, Chemnitz would seek specific sedes doctrinae for those principles, rather than leave them to become the darling marionettes of that grand puppeteer human reason. Biblical stewardship includes, for example, due attention to Malachi 3:10, in which God attaches to His command for generous giving a promise of lavish blessing. Does this not render moot the question of whether one can afford private school tuition for this or that number of children? “Christian freedom,” too, requires clearer definition, as does its synonym adiaphoron, which in sixteenth-century confessional Lutheran theology dealt with liturgical rites neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture (FC X). “Christian freedom” has in our own time become a liberal trump card played against the Bible’s explicit commands and promises, particularly with respect to matters of chastity, marriage, and sexual identity. In all such cases, Chemnitz’s hermeneutic points the way toward sound biblical exegesis.
The Lord’s Supper, by Martin Chemnitz, provides a solid apologetic for the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, particularly in contradistinction to the Calvinist denials of the real presence and of the salvific power that the words of institution join to the bread and wine through that real presence of Christ’s body and blood. Because Chemnitz situates his defense of the Lord’s Supper within a broader hermeneutical framework, he also points the way forward for addressing other doctrinal controversies. To read Scripture properly is to learn from Scripture that Christ’s body and blood truly are present in the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins, and to discover that doctrine in Scripture is to read Scripture properly. Mastering this lesson brings many rewards, including both a calm confidence when receiving Christ at the Holy Altar and a clear mind when seeking to understand what Scripture teaches about other doctrines of the Christian faith.
- Chemnitz, Martin. The Lord’s Supper. Trans. J. A. O. Preus. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1979.
- Tappert, Theodore G., ed. and trans. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.