Spiritual eating: Taking issue with Chemnitz

Thus in these latter words concerning the salutary use of the Supper there is a description of the spiritual eating of the body of Christ which takes place by faith. And just as the substance of the Supper and the salutary use of the same are distinguished, so it is one thing when Christ says: “Take and eat; this is my body,” and another thing when He says: “This do in remembrance of Me,” which takes place by spiritual eating through faith. Thus the sacramental and the spiritual eating are dealt with and described separately. For there is a distinct and clear description of how the substance of the Supper, which consists of the bread and the body of Christ, is received,namely, in the mouths of the participants. This is the sacramental eating … And then there is also a distinct and clear description of how those who participate in the Supper receive it and use it in a salutary way, namely, by faith. This is the spiritual eating. (‘The Lord’s Supper’ [CPH, 1979], 112-113, underlining added)

This is an unhelpful distinction. Or rather, the categories are unhelpful.

To refer to the anamnesis (‘do this in remembrance of me’) as “spiritual eating” has the tendency to drive a wedge between physical and spiritual eating, despite Chemnitz’s eloquent and earnest efforts to the contrary.

Presumably the category of ‘spiritual eating’ as distinct from ‘physical eating’ derives from John 6 where, according to traditional Lutheran (and Reformed) exegesis, Jesus’ words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood refer to spiritual eating in the form of receiving Him and His words in faith.

This category of ‘spiritual eating’ has here been transposed onto the Lord’s Supper, even though I’m not aware of New Testament references to the ‘spiritual eating’ of the Supper.

Is it not the case that Jesus’ words instruct the disciples concerning how they are to eat (physically) His body and blood, namely in faith (“in remembrance of me”)? This is not a twofold eating—physical and spiritual—but a single eating with one of two effects.

The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is not that one eats physically and spiritually while the other eats physically only. The believer eats physically with faith, thereby receiving grace through the physical eating. The unbeliever also eats physically but without faith, thereby receiving condemnation through the same eating.

So there is only one category of eating: physical eating. But there are two categories of reception: in faith to salvation, and without faith to condemnation.

By avoiding the misapplied category of ‘spiritual eating’, we can make a clean break from those who deny the physical eating of the Lord’s body and blood, as well as avoid all sorts of ecumenical ambiguities when dealing with those who thrive in the blurring of lines (e.g. mainstream Anglicans).

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Am I missing the mark here?

8 thoughts on “Spiritual eating: Taking issue with Chemnitz”

  1. No I don’t think that you are. As you note, Chemnitz’s remarks here appear to be an outworking of the whole Marburg Colloquy “hang-over,” where Luther, to counter Zwingli’s pernicious use of John 6.53, refers Christ’s words to spiritual eating by faith, rather than (categorically not, in fact) “physical eating” of Christ’s body and blood, words which certainly must have shocked the Pharisees, but in the context of the pragmatic force of John’s rhetorical crafting of the account had a quite different intended effect on the implied reader, (i.e. the Church). But Lutheran “traditional” exegesis has all too often tried to maintain and develop this line of Luther’s “interpretation” in slavish devotion to the Master, which for my money is unfortunate at this particular juncture.

    Here’s the rub – the two so-called categories of eating, physical vs. spiritual, are a product of the systematic appropriation and repackaging of the relevant texts (Christ’s eucharistic words & John 6). But they are not in the text. Ad fontes.

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  2. Pr Weedon,

    I am hoping to address FC in a separate post. However, since you force my hand, a quick comment in reply.

    Although the FC text is clearly from the hand of Chemnitz (at least the bulk of it – I’d have to refresh my memory on its precise authorship), there is a slight difference between the FC passage you refer to and what Chemnitz writes in De Coena Domini: in the former, it is made clear & explicit that the ‘spiritual eating’ is not unique to the Supper but is the faithful reception of the Gospel.

    Not making this distinction clear in De Coena Domini, Chemnitz (no doubt inadvertently) ends up using the categories of his opponents, which gets in the way of clarity.

    It is my view that we would have been better off with different terminology. As it is, I will continue to make my quia confession, while wishing that I didn’t have to make certain clarifications when talking to the Anglicans or High Presbyterians (who think they are good Lutherans because they too speak of spiritual eating).

  3. It is unfortunate because the terminology leads to a false conclusion that is capitalized upon by those who have a high view of the spiritual communion but a no physical eating and drinking. It seems one more time when we have attempted to explain or go beyond the simple words of Jesus and ended up clarifying nothing at all. How some Lutherans and the Reformed can separated the Eucharist from John 6 remains one of the most challenging mysteries to me. The only folks who got it in John 6 were those who attacked Jesus for suggesting that His flesh was real food and His blood real drink. They were wrong in the rejection but they heard clearly what Jesus was saying. I am not so sure some Lutherans do by attempting to qualify or explain John 6 away from the Eucharist.

  4. Pr. Peters,

    I think you put your finger on the central problem: moving beyond the words of Jesus.

    I don’t know but I suspect that the origins of this kind of language is in defensive: the categories were (again, I suspect) developed by ‘sacramentarians’ of one description or another. Throw in the slander of ‘Capernaitic’ eating. And hey presto, you have Lutheran dogmaticians picking up the category of spiritual/physical eating and trying to twist them back into the biblical text, while vehemently denying being guilty of Capernaitic eating.

    Instead of doing what they ought to have done: stick to the text, avoid the extra distinction, ignore the slander altogether.

  5. In translating both Sasse and Giertz I have seen both of these outstanding Lutheran Theologians take issue with this traditional reading of John 6. I tend to think he was referring in one way or another to the Lord’s Supper.
    I think it is wise to remember that Luther was debating with Zwingli. Zwingli wanted to make his argument from John 6, which can be a challenging chapter to exegete. Luther was merely trying to get Zwingli to go to the clear words as we have them in the words of institution and move off from John 6. I don’t think anything he has to say there about John 6 should be taken as dogma.
    As to the spiritual eating bit, well I think I might be with you Tapani. Not entirely helpful. But for people to think they are Lutheran because they talk about that, and ignore the other two? Really? Some have no shame.

  6. Tapani,

    If you’re missing something, it’s only something helpful to the point you’re making. I think it is deeply misleading when we speak of the “remembrance” as an act separate from the eating (whether we call it spiritual eating or something else). Jesus doesn’t say, “eat this and also remember Me.” He says, “when you eat this, you are remembering Me” or “this eating is for *My* remembrance (in distinction from the Passover, which was in remembrance of the Exodus)”. When remembrance is made into a separate act, one result is the misleading idea that the Eucharistic Prayer *must* contain a specific act of “anamnesis”. This is not at all what Jesus is saying. The eating and drinking themselves are the remembrance.

    Tom Winger.

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