Let’s Talk has invited readers to write what they appreciate about Martin Luther as we observe the 500th anniversary jubilee of the Reformation. I’m a cradle Lutheran who grew up in a church-going family, so I’ve had a long relationship with the reformer. I don’t know when I first became aware of Martin Luther, but I remember seeing the classic black-and-white film Martin Luther (1953) when it was shown in a downtown movie theatre when I was about age ten. I saw the film several times after that in church showings (with reels and a projector!) and the Irish actor Niall MacGiniss is indelibly etched in my memory as the face of Martin Luther. Of course, I memorized Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation class and had to recite parts of it in front of the congregation before my confirmation on Palm Sunday (a real Lenten scrutiny). I earned the Lutheran Scouting religious award, Pro Deo et Patria, at about age fourteen, which included as one of my projects writing a 30-page paper on the life of Martin Luther under the supervision of my pastor. In my high school world history course during my sophomore year I wrote a term paper on some aspect of Luther and the Reformation, although I don’t remember now what it was. In a college religion course I wrote a paper on Luther’s orders of creation (church, state, household).
I went on to seminary and graduate school and seminary teaching and Luther went with me. At the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary, which became the Maywood campus of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, I had the Reformation and Modern Church History and the Lutheran Confessions courses from Professor Robert H. Fischer. My senior year at LSTC several of us had a reading course with Professor Franklin Sherman on the recently published church and society volumes in Luther’s Works (American Edition), including Luther’s anti-Jewish screeds. During my term as Assistant Professor of Liturgics at LSTC (1978-81) I taught one of the tracks in Reformation and Modern Church History while Professor Fischer was on sabbatical. (It was in my contract to teach one of the tracks in Ancient and Medieval Church History; it was thought that with a University of Notre Dame PhD I might know something about that.) And, of course, I have studied, taught, and written about Luther’s liturgical projects and sacramental theology. (I also once taught Reformation Liturgy at Notre Dame.)
I recollect this personal history with Martin Luther to indicate that there are probably many things I appreciate about Luther. I won’t list them all here. I will single out what has been most existential to me and that is Luther’s sacramental theology as it relates to the human body. In particular, I appreciate his dogged defense of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
My Early Eucharistic Faith
In my new book, Eucharistic Body, I recount my early adolescent experiences of being bullied and sexually molested when I was thirteen.1 In my experience of receiving first Communion on Easter Day 1957 I believed that I was not only forgiven whatever real or imagined adolescent sins I had committed, but also that honor was restored to my dishonored body when I received the sacramental body and blood of Christ into my body. I have come to believe that the body itself is sanctified by the sacrament, not just the soul. We are physically in union with Christ and in this real sense become bodily “a little Christ to our neighbor” when we are dismissed from the Eucharistic assembly.
My first Communion was the most important religious experience of my early life. I didn’t have the intellectual concepts to understand why the sacrament was so important to my faith at age fourteen. I accepted the Catechism’s teaching that the benefits of the sacrament are forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. In college my faith sought understanding. The concept of sacramentality began to fall into place as I read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World (first written for the National Student Christian Federation in 1963) and Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. Schmemann wrote that “The world was created as the ‘matter,’ the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.”2 Eliade wrote, “By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding cosmic milieu.”3 To see the whole created world as an all-embracing sacrament given to us as food and drink (Schmemann) and particular natural objects like stones and trees (like bread and wine) as hierophanies of the divine presence (Eliade) while remaining natural greatly expanded my sense of sacramentality. But how do I have access to this cosmic sacrament? How does it become a specific means of grace for me? Here Dr. Luther entered the discussion.
Luther on the Real Presence
The same campus pastor who recommended that I read Eliade (among other authors) also suggested that I read Luther’s 1528 treatise, That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics. In this work Luther nails down the divine presence by appeal to the Word. The fanatics were challenging Luther’s concept of ubiquity, that the right hand of God (Christ) is not limited to being in heaven but is present everywhere, and therefore can be present in the bread and wine. But having argued this way he imagined the fanatics tripping him up by saying: “If Christ’s body is everywhere, ah, then I shall eat and drink him in all the taverns, from all kinds of bowls, glasses, and tankards! Then there is no difference between my table and the Lord’s table. Oh, how we will chew him up.” Luther responds:
Listen now, you pig, dog, or fanatic, whatever kind of unreasonable ass you are: Even if Christ’s body is everywhere, you do not therefore immediately eat or drink or touch him…
See, the bright rays of the sun are so near you that they pierce into your eyes or your skin so that you feel it, yet you are unable to grasp them or put them in a box, even if you should try forever. Prevent them from shining in through the window—this you can do, but catch and grasp them you cannot. So too with Christ: although he is everywhere, yet he does not permit himself to be so caught and grasped; he can easily shell himself, so that you get the shell but not the kernel. Why? Because it is one thing if God is present, and another if he is present for you. He is there for you when he adds his Word and binds himself, saying, “Here you are to find me.” Now when you have the Word, you can grasp and have him with certainty and say, “Here I have thee, according to thy Word.”4
Luther says in his Catechisms, following in the tradition of Ambrose and Augustine and Aquinas, “the Word makes the sacrament.” Only when the word is joined to the sign is there a sacrament. But there is also no sacrament without the external signs of bread and wine because “sacrament” is an external sign.
Luther also emphasized that there is no right use of the sacrament unless communicants are eating and drinking the bread and wine. This means taking these earthly elements into our earthly bodies. Since Luther believed that the bread and wine are received as the body and blood of Christ (the Formula of Concord says “in, with, and under”), according to Christ’s word, we ingest Christ’s body and blood.
Controversy Over the Real Presence
In Luther’s colloquy with Zwingli and the Swiss reformers at Marburg, he insisted on an oral eating of the body of Christ as well as a spiritual eating.5 This ill-fated meeting of the reformers pulled together by Landgrave Philip of Hesse in 1529 in the interests of Protestant unity resulted in agreement on fifteen points but total disagreement on the last half point: that there is an oral as well as a spiritual eating of the sacramental body. In the debate on the meaning of “is” in “This is my body,” Zwingli held fast to the interpretation that “is” means “signifies.” On this basis, wrote G. R. Potter in his biography of Zwingli, “it was possible to differentiate between the bread eaten by the communicants and the Christ received by faith. All that followed was a development, elaboration, ripening, and justification of this decision.”6
The impasse at Marburg divided the emerging Protestant movements and churches. Lee Palmer Wandel expressed surprise that the Council of Trent gave a disproportionate response to Zwingli out of all the reformers. Zwingli was long dead by 1563 when the Council ended and Calvin and Beza had succeeded to dominant theological leadership in the Reformed churches. But the council fathers saw where the real threat lay. Most Reformed Protestants since the sixteenth century have followed Zwingli’s “memorialist” view rather than Calvin’s more complex “real spiritual presence.” Palmer concluded her history of the Reformation Eucharist, “In confessional polemics faith itself has been changed from a process to a bipolarity: presence or absence.”7
I think this is an exaggeration. Zwinglian Protestants have experienced the presence of Christ in the Scriptures and the community of faith. But post-Reformation Roman Catholics, reacting to the threat of divine absence from the world, emphasized the real presence of Christ especially in Solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and post-Reformation Lutheran celebrants in Electoral Brandenburg were known to practice “ostension” to counter Calvinist influence, in which they elevated the host at the words of institution and said, “See, dear Christians, this is the true body of Christ.”8
The Sacraments and the Human Body
Among the benefits in eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is eternal life in body and soul. Luther writes in his treatise That These Words of Christ…Still Stand Firm:
…it is a glory and praise of his inexpressible grace and mercy that he concerns himself so profoundly with us poor sinners and shows such gracious love and goodness, not content to be everywhere in and around, above and beside us, but even giving his own body as nourishment, in order that with such a pledge he may assure and promise us that our body too shall live forever, because it partakes here on earth of an everlasting and living food.9
This is a standard Catholic teaching derived from the church fathers. In fact, later in this treatise Luther refers to Irenaeus’ refutation of the Valentinian heretics who taught that Christ is not God’s Son and there is no resurrection of the flesh. They cited St. Paul who says, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). Luther notes:
Against this Irenaeus writes that the body also will be saved, and that there is a resurrection of the flesh, as our Creed confesses. Among other things he cites this proof against them: If the body is not to be saved also, why should it be fed with the body and blood of the Lord in the sacrament?10
Lutherans have stressed Luther’s rejection of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist (what we offer to God) in favor of the gift character (what God offers to us). In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) Luther speaks of the Eucharist as Christ’s last will and testament.11 And the inheritance bequeathed to his followers is the promise of forgiveness of sins. But this is only one of the three benefits of the sacrament listed in the Small Catechism. The other two are life and salvation. “Life” here is not limited to “eternal” and may, in fact, refer to living the Christian life here and now in our earthly bodily existence as well as expecting eternal life and salvation in the resurrection of the body—although, to be sure, forgiveness of sins is held up as the primary gift “because where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”12 Forgiveness of sins is a precondition for life and salvation.
When it comes to matters of the body, Luther is thoroughly medieval—but medieval with a difference. Luther got more deeply into the earthly body than his medieval forerunners did with their emphasis on the soul. I have come to appreciate Luther’s focus on the human body as I have returned to the body, especially to my own body after treatment for colon cancer ten years ago. I have explored the body in its various aspects and brought some of this together in my book, Embodied Liturgy13. In Luther’s attention to the body I have been greatly helped by the PhD dissertation of Dr. Charles Cortwright of Wisconsin Lutheran College.14
We do not have a treatise on the body from Luther or even a systematic approach such as the late Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.15 But neither are references to the human body only scattered in miscellaneous fashion throughout Luther’s writings. The most obvious places to turn are to his great Lectures on Genesis begun in 1535 and completed just before his death in 1546, in which Luther speaks directly about God’s creation of the human body.16 In his explanation of the first article of the Creed in the Catechisms he speaks of God’s provision for the needs of bodily life. After his marriage to Katerina von Bora Luther is quoted in his Table Talk speaking positively (even enthusiastically) about human sexuality. Luther was also subjected to many bouts of illness as he aged and he wrote in his letters about his medical conditions in great detail and also about his own impending death. (He came close to death from an illness in 1527.) In 1531 Luther preached a whole series of sermons on 1 Corinthians 15 concerning the resurrection of the flesh.17
Perhaps Luther’s most familiar comment on the body—his own body—occurs in his 1521/22 Sincere Admonition to All Christians, written at the time of the iconoclastic mob actions in Wittenberg in 1521. Luther implored his followers:
I plead that [every]one should nevermind my name and not call himself Lutheran, but Christian. What is Luther? The teaching is certainly not mine. In the same way I was not crucified for anyone. St. Paul, 1 Cor. 3, would not allow it that the Christians [in Corinth] be named Pauliners or Peterans, but Christian. How comes it then that I, a poor stinking maggotsack at that, should have someone call the children of Christ by my awful name? Not so, dear friend. Let us erase partisan names and be called Christians, whose teaching we have.18
“Maggotsack” is a good example of Luther’s use of earthy language. It was apparently one of his favorite terms to describe the embodied human condition after the fall. Cortwright says that he used the term 125 times, mostly in sermons. As a late medieval man, Luther was conscious of the presence of death in the midst of life. In fact, one of his hymns, “In the midst of earthly life, snares of death o’ertake us,” is based on the medieval antiphon In media vita.19 Richard Marius’ assessment that Luther was terrified by death20 has been rejected by many reviewers, including Heiko Oberman.21 Neil Leroux‘s extensive study of Luther‘s primary writings dealing with death and concludes—contra Marius—that “they take [death] out of the realm of the dreary and depressing and onto something of infinite promise, because, for the dying believer, death provides the best opportunity to redeem the benefits of Christ‘s death and resurrection.”22
Luther looked to the promise of God in the sacraments to counter the threat of death. In his 1519 sermon on The Holy Sacrament of Baptism, Luther says that “The significance of baptism is a blessed dying unto sin and a resurrection in the grace of God, so that the old man, conceived and born in sin, is there drowned, and a new man, born in grace comes forth and rises.”23 This is verbally similar to the explanation of baptism in the Small Catechism of 1529 that “It signifies that the old creature [Adam] in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”24 Luther goes on in the 1519 sermon to say that
This significance of baptism—the dying or drowning of sin—is not fulfilled completely in this life. Indeed, this does not happen until man passes through bodily death and completely decays to dust. As we can plainly see, the sacrament or sign of baptism is quickly over. But the spiritual baptism, the drowning of sin, which it signifies, lasts as long as we live and is completed only in death.
Therefore the life of a Christian, from baptism to the grave, is nothing else than the beginning of a blessed death. For at the Last Day God will make him altogether new.25
A new life is born of water and the Spirit in the sacrament of Baptism. But it is a life of struggle between the new Adam and the old. To aid us in persevering in this struggle there is prayer, Scripture, confession and absolution, but most of all there is the Eucharist and the communion of saints. In his sermon On the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods (1519), Luther shows how we are joined to the communion of saints in the Eucharist which support us in our struggles.
To receive this sacrament in bread and wine, then, is nothing else than to receive a sure sign of this fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all saints….
This fellowship consists in this, that all the spiritual possessions of Christ and his saints are shared with and become the common property of him who receives this sacrament. Again all sufferings and sins become common property; and thus love engenders love in return and [mutual love] unites.26
Luther goes on with an extended analogy of all the things citizens of a city possess in common for their mutual defense against adversaries. He then paints a realistic picture of the adversities that afflict the baptized Christian.
Now adversity assails us in more than one form. There is, in the first place, the sin that remains in our flesh after baptism: the inclination to anger, hatred, pride, unchastity, and so forth. This sin assails us as long as we live. Here we need not only the help of the community [of saints] and Christ, in order that they might with us fight this sin, but it is also necessary that Christ and his saints intercede for us before God, so that this sin may not be charged to our account by God’s strict judgment. Therefore in order to strengthen and encourage us against this same sin, God gives us this sacrament [of Holy Communion].27
According to Luther, this is the relationship of Baptism to the Eucharist. The lifelong struggle between the old Adam and the new begun in baptism continues throughout the whole of our earthly life. This necessitates the nourishment and help provided by this second sacrament. Our struggles of body and soul are brought to the table where they are taken on by Christ and the communion of saints. They are taken on by Christ because Christ becomes a part of us just as we become a part of him when we receive the sacrament of his body and blood into our bodies. The sacrament signifies union with Christ. Our struggles are also taken on by the saints who have been joined to Christ by a common sharing (koinonia) of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.
I have found it helpful to refer to the social body of Christ (the church) as an “interpersonal body.”28 This is not a term used by Luther; in fact, I learned it from a Buddhist teacher of meditation, Reginald Ray. But it well describes the corporate character of the communion of saints taught by Luther in this remarkable sermon on the relationship between the Eucharist and the communion of saints. Ray writes that “…the more we descend into our body, the more we uncover a very vast and expanding interpersonal world of connections with other people.” In fact, “We discover, then, that to have a body is already to be in intimate and extensive connection to others.”29 Other people have experienced what we struggle with and we connect with them in a common bond of mutual struggles. But our connections are carried to a new level by our common sharing of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.
Return to the Actual Body
Luther’s strong sense of the real presence of Christ in, with, and under the sacramental elements is what I appreciated most in my early life and what I appreciate now at my present stage in life. As I emphasized in Eucharistic Body, the sacramental body of Christ is received into the body of the communicant who consumes the bread and wine and these elements are shared among the members of the interpersonal body in the communion of saints. This is a return to the intuitions of my youth, but now I am equipped with concepts—not only from theology but also from biochemistry, neuroscience, embodied mind theory, and philosophy30—that can help me express what I experienced so profoundly when I brought to the table of the Lord all my adolescent bodily anxieties and ate a tasteless wafer that stuck to the roof of my mouth and drank a little glass of wine that burned my esophagus as I swallowed it.
I think there has been a tendency in sacramental theology, Protestant as well as Catholic since Vatican II, to focus on the actions of the sacraments more than their applications to actual bodies. Even in Roman Catholic sacramental theology there has been a move away from the actual body. One of the most important and influential Catholic sacramental theologians since Vatican II has been Louis-Marie Chauvet. In a work which popularized his sometimes rather dense thought, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, he makes “body” a rich root image for theological thinking (like St. Paul’s soma).31 But Chauvet’s “body” is not the animate biological body by which humans sense the outside world, think about it with the perceptions of the mind, and respond to it with postural movement. This is the actual body I address in Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Liturgy. Chauvet certainly acknowledges that the sacraments are applied to bodies, but the “body” that the “visible words” of the sacraments are at “the mercy of” is the “corpus” of scripture, tradition, culture, language, material objects (including water, bread and wine), etc. He is right to bring the sacraments into conversation with this “corpus” of human expression, but one can lose the sense that these anthropological realities are peopled with real bodies—bodies that phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty defined as “living bodies” as opposed to abstract bodies.32
God connects with human beings through the church community, its rituals and traditions. I have long taught that theology needs to pay more attention to the social structures and natural symbols studied by anthropologists because God has worked through these structures and symbols. But I think Luther would never let us forget that the sacramental body addresses human bodies that are formed by these structures and use these symbols. In exhorting Christians to come to Communion in The Large Catechism, his argument of last resort is to say to those who don’t feel a need for the sacrament that “they should put their hands to their bosom to determine whether they are made of flesh and blood. If you find that you are, then for your own good turn to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians and hear what the fruits of your flesh are.” He cites the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-20. “Again,” wrote Luther, “look around you and see whether you are also in the world. If you do not know, ask your neighbor about it. If you are in the world, do not think that there will be any lack of sins and needs.” After describing some of these, Luther concludes: “Moreover, you will surely have the devil around you, too. You will not entirely trample him underfoot because our Lord Jesus Christ could not entirely avoid him.”33 Faced with the flesh, the world, and the devil, we need the sacrament for the strengthening of body, soul, and mind as we live in this world.
The sacraments are all about God connecting with us bodily. The Eucharist especially is about the connection of bodies: Christ’s body, the communicant’s body, the church’s interpersonal body all joined together as food and drink given, received, and shared.
- ^Frank C. Senn, Eucharistic Body (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), chapter 4.
- ^Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 15.
- ^Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard Trask (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1957), 12.
- ^Martin Luther, “That These Words of Christ, ‘This Is My Body,’ Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works [LW] 37, ed. and trans. Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), 67-68.
- ^LW 38: 25-27, 38-41 (two different reports of the colloquy)
- ^G. R. Potter, Zwingli (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 293.
- ^Lee Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 207.
- ^Bodo Nischan, Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 64-65.
- ^LW 37:71.
- ^Ibid., 115.
- ^LW 36:37ff.
- ^The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 362.
- ^Frank C. Senn, Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).
- ^Charles Lloyd Cortright, “Poor Maggot-Sack that I Am”: The Human Body in the Theology of Martin Luther (2011). Dissertations (2009 – ). Paper 102. epublications.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1101&context…mu
- ^John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. with Introduction by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).
- ^LW 1:68-73, 83-94.
- ^See LW 28.
- ^LW 45:70.
- ^“Even As We Live Each Day,” Lutheran Book of Worship, Hymn 350.
- ^Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge, MS: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999).
- ^Heiko Oberman, “Varieties of Protest,” The New Republic 16 August 1999: 40-45.
- ^Neil R. Leroux, Martin Luther as Comforter: Writings on Death (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 278.
- ^LW 35:30.
- ^Book of Concord, 360.
- ^LW 35:51.
- ^LW 35:53.
- ^Senn, Eucharistic Body, chapter 5.
- ^Reginald A. Ray, Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body (Boulder, CO: SoundsTrue, 2008, 2014), 279.
- ^See, for example, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999); David Hogue, Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past: Story, Ritual, and the Human Brain (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003); Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Besser van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Viking, 2014).
- ^Louis-Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001).
- ^See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012, 2014).
- ^The Book of Concord, 474-75.