When one of the most famous personalities of the “young, restless, reformed” world starts sounding like an emissary from Vatican City, #BigEva social media takes note. That’s what happened this week when a sermon clip surfaced of Francis Chan hinting at his evolving view of the eucharist: “I didn't know for the first 1500 years of church history everyone saw [the Lord’s Supper] as the literal body and blood of Christ.”
As the three-minute clip spread, so too did theories about Chan’s current theological thinking and future ecclesial home. Matt Kennedy offered the best of the hot-takes, as he so often does:
“It sounds like Francis Chan has been listening to Catholic Answers on a loop and that he’s ready to swim the Tiber. It really is important to actually read the fathers rather than let Roman apologists tell you what ‘tradition’ says. I put tradition in scare quotes because for Rome ‘tradition’ is whatever the magisterium says that it is. If a passage from one of the church fathers contradicts the contemporary Roman magisterium then that passage is, by definition, not ‘tradition’. The Reformers were thoroughly versed in the fathers and believed themselves to be defending catholicity not breaking with it. And they were right.”
Kennedy—a fellow evangelical clergyman in the Anglican Communion—is no doubt correct in his insistence that the Reformers viewed their eucharistic theology as inherited from the Fathers. Yet, it must be stressed, this is not because the Reformers viewed the Fathers’ eucharistic theology as merely symbolic. Rather, it’s because the Reformers themselves viewed the Supper as so much more than symbolic. John Calvin says it best:
“Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure. What then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.”
Keith Mathison’s assessment of Calvin’s view is salient:
“Calvin repeatedly stated that his argument with the Roman Catholics and with Luther was not over the fact of Christ’s presence, but only over the mode of that presence. According to Calvin, Christ’s human body is locally present in heaven, but it does not have to descend in order for believers to truly partake of it because the Holy Spirit effects communion.”
Did Calvin believe in the literal presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper? If by “literal” we mean “real,” then emphatically yes, as did the lion’s share of the Reformers. Thomas Cranmer’s position, codified in the Thirty-Nine Articles, is unambiguous: “The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper only in a heavenly and spiritual manner. The means by which the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.” Note that in stressing the spiritual nature of the meal, Cranmer, like Calvin, isn’t questioning the presence of Christ’s body—He’s there to be received by faith.
While I could see why one would take Chan’s words about the “literal” body and blood of Christ as meaning something other than Calvin’s or Cranmer’s, I don’t. In the very next sentence, Chan says, “It wasn't until 500 years ago that someone popularized the thought that it's just a symbol and nothing more."
That comment makes historical sense if—and only if—he’s not speaking of transubstantiation, but is simplifying the views of the Supper down to two: “literal” and “symbolic.” That is, Christ is either really present (the position espoused by the Fathers and the Reformers) or He isn’t (the position espoused by the Anabaptists and #BigEva). To me, that’s not only the charitable interpretation of Chan; it also makes the most sense, given the point he’s trying to make. In having too low a view of the Supper, his argument goes, we’ve consequently adopted too high a view of preachers:
“…the pulpit goes to the middle, the preacher becomes central, and pretty soon it's ‘I follow Piper, I follow Chan.’ I believe there was something about taking communion out of the center of the church and [replacing} it with a gifted speaker.... The body itself needs to be back at the center of the church."
As I survey the celebrity culture so dominant in today’s evangelicalism, I can’t help but find myself in hearty agreement with Chan’s assessment. This isn’t to impugn the rationale of those who centered pulpits. Indeed, were I living in the 16th century, marked as it was by biblical illiteracy and superstition, I like to think I would do the same.
But no one who has attended a conference at which Chan has preached walks away thinking sacerdotalism is the problem of our day. I’m reminded of that maleficent advice given by Screwtape: “The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there’s a flood; and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gone under.” While I’m sensitive to the temptation to create a false dichotomy between the word and sacrament, the idea that evangelicals have emphasized one at the expense of the other seems right to me.
Seeing how Chan’s hunger for the eucharist is being assessed by evangelicals, I’m tempted to think those swimming the Tiber are as much pushed as pulled. Our defensiveness implies Catholics are the only ones who believe Christ is really, truly present in the eucharist, as if Catholics are the only ones who mourn over the fracturing of the church.
Perhaps the “dream” of which Chan speaks—in which the church looks more like a banquet hall than a lecture hall—isn’t young or restless, but it is Reformed. While I don’t know if Chan is going to convert to Rome or not, I do know he doesn’t need to. I’m confident that Chan’s own Calvinistic tradition has those resources needed to realize the sacramental body-life of which he dreams. May we dream with him.
Dustin Messer ministers at All Saints Dallas and teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX. Additionally, Dustin serves on the board of directors at both the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA) and the Center for Christian Civics in Washington, DC. Before starting his doctoral work at La Salle University, Dustin graduated from Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary and completed a fellowship at the National Review Institute.
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