Michael Bird on Consubstantiation

In yesterday’s post I expressed my dissatisfaction with Michael Bird’s treatment of transubstantiation. Today I want to focus on his discussion of the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper. Bird says that

“Lutherans hold to a real presence of Christ in the elements in what is called consubstantiation. According to this teaching, Christ’s body and blood are understood as being ‘in, with, and under’ the bread and wine. Consubstantiation entails the coexistence and substantial union of the body and blood with the Eucharist elements after their consecration. Christ’s presence is not identical to the elements, but it is contained within them, much like a nut in a cookie.” (782)

I was surprised to see Bird label the Lutheran view as consubstantiation. This is a label that Lutherans are not entirely happy with. Michael Horton says “Lutherans generally eschew this term because it suggests a local (circumscribed) presence of Christ’s body and therefore a physical (cannibalistic) eating, which the Formula of Concord rejects as ‘gross, carnal, and Capernaitic.'” (The Christian Faith, p. 806)

According to David Scaer one definition of consubstantiation fits while another does not. This one fits: “The substantial union of the body and blood of Christ with the eucharistic elements after consecration.” This one does not: “At the consecration of the Eucharist the substance of the body and blood of Christ coexists with the substance of the consecrated bread and wine.” He says, “‘Coexists’ suggests, or least allows, that Christ’s body and blood lie side by side with the earthly elements without any essential communion between them.” (Understanding Four Views of the Lord’s Supper, p. 87). But even he notes that “Lutherans rarely use this term.” (87) Bird takes a phrase from Scaer that the Lutheran view is like a “nut in a cookie.” After reading Scaer I wonder if Bird has not misunderstood him. Here’s Scaer’s comment in its context:

“If with by itself allows for consubstantiation, in, as Christ is in the bread and wine, suggests impanation, the belief that Christ’s body is contained in the consecrated bread like a nut in a cookie. Used together, these prepositions affirm that the elements are actually Christ’s body and blood and do not have a spatial significance. Adequate is Luther’s explanation that bread and wine ‘are truly the body and blood of Christ.” (88)

It seems that Scaer is saying the Lutheran view is precisely not like a nut in a cookie. When all the prepositions are considered together they show there is no spatial significance. Only if the prepostion in is considered by itself would it be like a nut in a cookie. If I’m reading Scaer correctly here (and I may not be) it would appear Bird has really misrepresented the Lutheran view. Indeed, in the quote above Scaer says the view of consubstantiation that is wrong is the one that sees the body and blood of Christ laying “side by side with the earthly elements without any essential communion between them.” (87) That to me is what a nut in a cookie is.

Bird objects that the Lutheran view “feels as if they are groping after an explanation that retains Christ’s real presence, but is somehow sufficiently distanced from the Catholic view of transubstantiation. The problem as I see it is that the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation looks to be mostly semantic rather than ontological. Furthermore, the Lutheran claim that the Reformed churches believe only in a ‘spiritual presence,’ like an illusory or fictive apparition of Christ around the elements, is a caricature. That is unfair because the Reformed generally believe in a real, genuine presence, but without the confusion of consubstantiation.” (788)

Bird says the Lutherans are guilty of a caricature in their understanding of the Reformed view yet he describes the Catholic view as a “mutation” and philosophically “kookie.” Where is the caricature now? His choice of language is also discouraging. Lutherans are “groping” and Catholics are “grasping at straws.”

What about the Zwinglian view? Bird writes,

“I have to profess that most Baptist churches I have visited believe in the doctrine of ‘real absence’ of Jesus from the Eucharist. Wherever Jesus is, he is nowhere near the bread and wine (whoops, make that grape juice). In fact, it is probably better for Jesus to wait outside the church during out communion services, because if he came too close to the bread and wine, we might end up turning Catholic!” (788)

Whatever the strengths are in Bird’s Evangelical Theology his discussion of the Lord’s Supper has been a major disappointment for me.

Evangelical Theology


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to Michael Bird on Consubstantiation

  1. Great post Louis! I think “in, with, and under” often get misunderstood and the Lutheran Confessions never even contain that phrase. Each word is used separately to confess something different about the Supper. “In” tells you where Christ’s body and blood are to be found. “With” tells you that that you receive body, blood, bread, and wine. “Under” indicates that Christ’s body and blood come to us in a hidden way. You can’t detect Christ’s body and blood via scientific instruments. Lutheran is happy to simply say that the bread is Christ’s body and the wine is Christ’s blood but unfortunately some of this other vocabulary is necessary. There were several theories floating about at the time of Luther explaining how it is that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Luther rejected all of them because they all went beyond Scripture. Transubstantiation isn’t so bad as a pious opinion but it’s problematic if you attempt to bind consciences with it. Luther was even more critical of Rome for turning the Supper into something which we offer up to God rather than something “given for you.” In this respect, those positions that regard the Supper as our act of obedience go further than Rome.

    Unfortunately, it seems pretty common to find Lutherans being accused of teaching consubstantiation. Mathison’s book on the Supper does the same thing. It seems like most of the Calvinist writers don’t take the time to read actual Lutherans but just repeat what they’ve read in Hodge or elsewhere. The Lutheran and Zwinglian positions are probably the simplest. The Calvinist position (or rather positions) seems to be the most difficult to understand.


  2. Martin Diers says:

    No one can understand the concepts of transubstantiation and consubstantiation without deferring to the Thomist theory of the Lord’s supper which adopts Aristotilian platonic concepts of substance and accidence. By substance, Acquinas does not mean physical substance of a thing, but the platonic Form of which the accidence is merely its external aspect, as perceived by the senses.

    By appealing to this scheme, Aquinas proposed that the substance of bread and wine was replaced with the substance of the Body and Blood.

    Consubstantiation was a later modification of this theory, which proposed that the substance of the the Body and Blood was added to the substance of the bread and wine, while tha accidents remained that of bread and wine.

    By rejecting transubstantiation, Lutherans, by definition, also rejected consubstantiation.


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