It all depends on what the meaning of “is”, is

As an experiment, I’ve added an “Open Thread” page (see link above) for general discussion, tips about interesting sites, etc. That’s not to say that discussion on regular comments threads must now stay ruthlessly on-topic – I’m always happy to watch a discussion about NT Wright’s theological failings slowly mutate into a study of squirrel migratory patterns – just that this is another venue for any random contributions you may wish to make.

This was prompted by reading Tom R’s latest enjoyable and highly-welcome off-topic contribution describing John Dickson’s evangelistic book Simply Christianity (sample chapter here, PDF).

As Tom points out, this book is generally pretty good. It’s based on Luke’s Gospel (which makes a pleasant change from the hundreds of equivalent books and courses based on Mark), and is a good, simple, Jesus-centred introduction to the Christian faith. But it also includes a classic example of the blind-spot most non-Augsburg evangelicals seem to have when it comes to reading Luke 20:19,20 and parallels. As Tom puts it:

Immediately after the account of the Last Supper and the Words of Institution, Dicko editorialises (sorry, but this is quoting from memory):

“The disciples were amazed. What did Jesus mean, when He said that this bread represented [sic] His body and this wine represented [sic] His blood?”

Yes, indeed, given that Jesus never actually said any such thing?

Quite. It’s amazing how ingrained the habit is of performing a mental “Replace Text While You Type” on the words of institution, turning the word “is” into “represents”. I know, because I did it myself for years. It’s like the Simpsons episode where Marge tries to order a coffee in an Australian pub, and the barman is literally incapable of hearing the word “coffee” and instead hears it every time as “beer”, even when she spells it out letter by letter…

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9 Responses to It all depends on what the meaning of “is”, is

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Of course, Jesus doesn’t say “is my blood”, but “is the new covenant in my blood”. I know you know that, but I just wanted to flag the second half up, because the difference between our two sides looks to me like an argument over which half of Jesus’ words here–body or blood–are made determinative. Put that way, the debate can be made a lot less ugly.

    [Didn’t realise Sydney Anglicanism took an essentially Zwinglian view. For what it’s worth, I disagree with the merely memorial, representative viewpoint. Can we not “participate in the blessings of” without getting hung up over physical reception?]

  2. John H says:


    Some of the parallels (e.g. Matthew) do say, “This is my blood of the covenant”.

    This suggests that, rather than saying that the reference to the covenant “de-literalises” (in whatever sense and to whatever extent) Jesus’ statement, we should instead see Jesus’ words as transforming our understanding of covenant. Rather than having the covenant as an abstraction that stands behind the word and sacraments, the covenant is to be seen as something we encounter and receive in the concrete actions of the church in word and sacrament.

    Or to put it another way: Jesus didn’t say “this represents the new covenant”, either.

    Despite the efforts of innumerable Calvinist scholars to the contrary, I don’t think a Calvinistic position can be supported simply by saying, “Look at the plain words! It’s obvious!” After all, the subtleties of the Calvinist position escapes most of the church for 1,500 years. The only position from which the Calvinist position is tenable is to say, “Well, I know it says that, but for all these other reasons we have to prefer an alternative reading”. No shame in that, of course: it happens in plenty of other areas in theology. I just happen to disagree (now) with those “other reasons”.

    Finally, as for the “why do we have to get hung up about it?” argument, this can come across like saying, “Well, I’m sure we can agree to differ on the precise question of whether marriage matters, and agree that it’s the quality of the relationship that’s really important” That presents itself as a neutral position, but really it is asking the other party to accept the speaker’s position.

    Similarly, I don’t think it is for those who stand outside a particular faith tradition to say what truly matters for those within it. The reason Lutherans believe this question to be so important is because of the answer we give to it; the reason Calvinists think the question is less important (certainly nothing to start breaking table fellowship over) is because of the answer you give to it. So asking us to accept your assessment of its importance is basically asking us to accept your answer.

    By way of analogy, I disagree with certain Roman Catholic teachings on Mary, but I wouldn’t expect to get very far saying, “Well, surely what really matters is that we both think Mary is very important?”

    (C.S. Lewis is very good on this topic in the introduction to Mere Christianity.)

  3. Greg B says:

    Hey John

    I was listening to some famous radio preacher a few years ago, when he did the same exact thing you mentioned. It completely blew my mind. (I think it was Chuck Swindoll, but can’t say for sure) I thought I had entered some alternate reality. I think that was the day I started to slowly swing back to my Lutheran heritage. How could I take them seriously? The second turning point was a Baptist pastor sermon on 1 Peter 3:21. The pastor said he didn’t understand what it meant. Then the pastor spent the rest of the sermon explaining why it couldn’t be.

    John you have a great site. Keep up the great work.

    Greg B

  4. Phil Walker says:

    And so we see why I shouldn’t make a comment on Scripture at work, where I can’t check parallels conveniently. 🙂 I’m not able to think my way round the implications of Luke’s version differing from Matthew and Mark’s, but it’s probably not insignificant.

    On the broader points, I recognise that there are significant differences here, and I recognise for sure that Lutheranism has taken a stronger view on the necessity of its own answer than we have on ours. I understand that you guys have a different set of concerns, and that they work themselves out in different ways. I know that your beliefs centre themselves around the Sacraments in a way that ours don’t. I certainly would not attempt to tell you what you should think important.

    But I am also concerned to find out the correspondences and agreements. I wouldn’t exalt this concern to the status of “argument”, but it is a genuine desire to see reformational evangelicals looking for areas where we can celebrate truth together. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m hardly expecting to found a greater Marburg! You believe I’m muddled and unable to appreciate fully the gifts that Christ has given to me in his Sacraments; I believe that you’ve gone a bit further than the Scriptural story will allow in terms of understanding the Sacraments. You, with sadness, believe that these disagreements preclude fellowship around the Lord’s Table; I, with equal sadness, respect your decision of conscience.

    And yet, there are non-trivial statements to which we can both subscribe, and I’m more concerned about looking for those than re-heating arguments we can both find on the BHT archive. And it’s in *that* context that I want to avoid getting hung up over physical reception, not to say you should think it unimportant, or even drop it as the most important aspect of your doctrine.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    Many years ago, I went to the Crystal Cathedral’s Glory of Easter pageant. When it came to the Words of Institution, “Jesus” said, “Take, eat. This represents my body…” Uh oh.

    Such a treatment surely makes it difficult for people even to realize there are other options. Children will hear of another view of the matter and think, “That’s dumb. Jesus only said it represented his body.”

  6. Lito Cruz says:

    Not only is there a theological implication of not taking “is” is, it also has a pastoral implication too. Taking the supper becomes a form of works not a form of receiving a gift. As they say, it becomes a toast. I was Zwinglian about this when I was a Pentecostal then became Calvinistic on this, it did not do the job, 1 Cor 10:16 hit me in the face.

  7. Tom R says:

    O/topic yet again… That “Simpsons Visit Australia” episode was one of their few stinkers. It got almost nothing right, and missed many chances to make jokes about the truly funny things about this weird country. Re Marge’s bar experience: You can now get coffee — quite decent coffee — in nearly any pub (and I live in a regional town of 50,000).

    Re: Replace As You Type… as I like to say to Dave Armstrong, “Thanks for posting your latest tract refuting the concept of Sola Scriptura. I am pretty amazed to discover that you believe God is an exalted man and L Ron Hubbard is His Prophet. Not, of course, that you ever actually wrote such a thing, but…”

  8. John H says:

    Tom: I agree about that episode. I watched it the other day and was struck by how lame it was, how they had failed to get under the skin of Australia as they do so effectively with their home country. But it still seemed an appropriate illustration.

  9. John H says:

    Phil: I certainly don’t want to exaggerate the differences between the Lutheran and the Calvinistic position. The Calvinist position on the Supper is a genuine attempt to reconcile a view of the Supper as something in which we receive Christ for the forgiveness of sins, rather than being a mere memorial. The problem is that it attempts to do so while retaining an essentially Zwinglian view towards the elements themselves.

    To put it another way, it’s an attempt to retain a catholic view of the Supper from a Swiss perspective.

    The problem is that it still misses the essential point of the Supper. It’s not “physical reception” that’s the trouble, but the answer to the question, “What is the Lord’s Supper?” The Lutheran answer is that “it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the forms of bread and wine, given for us Christians to eat and drink”.

    The Calvinist view is a gallant attempt to retain the Lutheran answer to the second question from the Small Catechism (“What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?”) while ditching the first (“What is the Sacrament of the Altar?”). Now, in looking for points of commonality, I should think that second answer is a good place to start (“…in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us…”).

    The problem is that – as history testifies pretty well – holding the second answer without holding the first is a fundamentally unstable position that, in the life of the church, rapidly decays into full-blown Zwinglianism. (See the post I wrote some time ago on the Calvinistic Supper’s short half-life.)

    The Lutheran view is also less hard work at the altar rail than the Calvinist view. I used to struggle a lot with what was actually going on in the Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism represents the best of the Calvinist position:

    …as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.

    But that’s still a lot to call to mind at the altar. And the problem is that that calling to mind is what then becomes really important (this is my personal experience I am describing here rather than general principles). Much simpler just to be able to say, inwardly or outwardly, “Amen!” to the words “Receive the true body of our Lord Jesus Christ, given into death for your sins”, etc.

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