Is the Finite Capable of the Infinite?
“This is My body. …This is My blood”
—Matthew 26:26, 28
Is it possible for the true body and blood of Christ to be present in, with, and under the bread and wine received by the communicants in the Sacrament of the Altar? A simple Christian with even only an elementary knowledge of the Bible can answer that question correctly, and say: “Of course it is possible! God is able to do anything!” And though that answer may sound simplistic to some, it is established and confirmed by the Scriptures, which emphatically state: “With God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37); and again: “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). The Reformed, however, actually say that it is not possible for the true body and blood of the Savior to be present in the Sacrament, because, according to their reasoning, that would be inconsistent with His humanity. They claim that the body of Jesus must be “finite” in order to be a true human body, and that it is, therefore, incapable of actually possessing any of God’s infinite attributes (such as having a presence that is not restricted to a specific locality). The rationalistic axiom of the Reformed (gleaned from Aristotelian philosophy) that “the finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non est capax infiniti) has been used to argue against a number of different doctrines set forth in Holy Scripture, including the personal union of the divine and human natures in Christ, the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Lord Jesus according to His human nature, and the real presence of the Lord’s body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. For example, they teach that the finite humanity of Christ could not possibly have received the infinite power of God, even though Jesus plainly declares: “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18)—which could only be said with reference to His human nature, since all power has always been possessed by Him according to His divine nature (and hence would not need to be “given” to Him).
Relating to their denial of the doctrine of the real presence of the Lord’s body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, the Reformed claim that the human body of Christ can only have one mode of presence, namely, a local presence like every other human body, which occupies a specific, finite amount of space and can only be located in one place at a time. Defending that anti-Scriptural position, John Calvin advances the following argumentation: “The presence of Christ in the Supper we must hold to be such as neither affixes Him to the element of bread, nor encloses Him in bread, nor circumscribes Him in any way (this would obviously detract from His celestial glory); and it must, moreover, be such as neither divests Him of His just dimensions, nor dissevers Him by differences of place, nor assigns to Him a body of boundless dimensions, diffused through heaven and earth. All these things are clearly repugnant to His true human nature. …Let no property be assigned to His body inconsistent with His human nature. This is done when it is either said to be infinite, or made to occupy a variety of places at the same time” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 4, chapter 17, §19).
The Reformed teach that the human body of Christ is currently restricted to heaven, at the right hand of God (which they regard as a specific locality in heaven). Therefore, they conclude that His true body and blood cannot be present anywhere on earth at the same time it is in heaven—especially not present everywhere throughout the world where the Lord’s Supper is being observed at any given time, because they maintain that “the finite is not capable of the infinite” (the finite humanity of Jesus is not capable of an infinite presence). In opposition to that rationalistic argument, it should be remembered and carefully considered how Jesus told Nicodemus that while He was speaking to him on the earth, He was also in heaven at the very same time (John 3:13). And Jesus’ words on that occasion cannot be restricted to His divine nature, because He there calls Himself “the Son of man,” which was a personal designation that specifically referenced His humanity.
Another rationalistic objection is this, that even if it were possible to divide the body of Christ across the many places where Christians receive Holy Communion, that His body would be completely consumed by now. This, again, is a direct result of the limitations that the Reformed themselves, without any Scriptural support, place upon the body of Christ, namely, that it is only capable of a local presence like that of any other human being. Now all such objections would quickly vanish if they correctly understood and accepted what the Scriptures teach about the communication of divine attributes to the human nature of Christ as a result of the personal union (genus maiestaticum). At the time of His incarnation in the womb of the virgin Mary, the eternal Son of God took into His divine person a true human nature (not a separate human person); and that human nature of God the Son possesses all of God’s divine attributes (Colossians 2:9). One of those attributes is that He is at all times present everywhere (in and through all things). This is called God’s omnipresence, or repletive presence. Thus Jesus, the God-Man, is omnipresent; His entire person, which includes both the divine and human natures, fills all things in heaven and in earth (Ephesians 1:23; 4:10).
Now the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper is not the same thing as His omnipresence. However, in a discussion with the Reformed, it is still important to establish the fact that the divine attribute of omnipresence has been communicated to Jesus’ human nature, because, as long as it is believed that Jesus’ body is restricted to a local presence, the real presence of His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar will be denied (believed to be impossible). On the other hand, once a person has been convinced by the Scriptures that the true body and blood of Christ can be present in an illocal manner (not taking up space) without compromising His humanity (because of the communication of the divine attributes to His human nature), then it should also be accepted that His true body and blood are, indeed, present in the Communion bread and wine, since that is what the Scriptures clearly teach.
Our catechism (A Short Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, CPH, 1943, Q/A 300) lists four important points of evidence from the Scriptures that support the doctrine of the real presence, the first of which emphasizes the very words with which Christ instituted this Sacrament. In connection with the bread that He gave to His disciples in that first Lord’s Supper, Jesus plainly told them: “This is My body” (Matthew 26:26); and of the wine He said: “This is My blood” (v. 28). Interestingly enough, in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written by inspiration of the Holy Ghost) the word “is” does not even need to be specified in such a statement, and it would still be understood. For example, Mark 12:30 records the words of Jesus as “This is the first commandment,” even though the word “is” is not in that statement as it is found in the original Greek. The translators correctly added “is” in Mark 12:30, because English grammar requires it. Accordingly, even if the words of Jesus with which He instituted the Sacrament had simply been recorded as “This My body” and “This My blood” (without the “is”) in the original text, it would still mean “this is My body,” because of the way Greek grammar works. However, in the words of institution, the word “is” is not merely implied or understood, but is specifically stated in the inspired Greek text! This is why Luther kept pointing to the word “is” in his meeting with Zwingli (who denied the doctrine of the real presence) at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.
Specifying the word “is” in the inspired Greek text, God shows that He certainly wants us to accept the fact that the true body and blood of Christ are, indeed, present in His holy Sacrament, and are received by the communicants together with the bread and the wine. That the real body and blood of Christ are actually present (not merely symbolized) under the visible elements of the bread and the wine gives us the assurance of real blessings being conveyed to us through them. Giving us the very body and blood with which He paid the penalty of our transgressions, the Lord Jesus offers, gives, and seals to us the benefits of that redemptive work (His body broken for us and His blood shed for us), even the forgiveness of all our sins. He says: “This is My body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19); “This is My body which is broken for you” (I Corinthians 11:24); “This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20); “This is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The Gospel covenant (“the New Testament” connected with Christ’s blood) assures us of God’s grace and mercy on account of the propitiation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, through this Sacrament, the Gospel’s strengthening power is conveyed to all those who receive it in true faith.
However, the real presence of the Lord’s body and blood also brings with it real consequences for those who partake of this Sacrament “unworthily,” namely, without saving faith in the Lord Jesus, or in denial of the doctrine of the real presence. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes: “Whosoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (11:27, 29). Therefore, it is not the faith of the communicant that effects the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. On the contrary, it is the pronouncement of the Lord Jesus when He instituted this Sacrament that has placed His body and blood into the bread and wine for us to eat and to drink. Consequently, the hypocrite who foolishly despises the warnings of Holy Scripture and comes to the Lord’s Table under the pretense of oneness with his fellow communicants still receives the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, but for his judgment instead of his blessing.
The warning against receiving the body and blood of Christ “unworthily” does not refer to personal worthiness or deservedness; for, as sinful human beings, we deserve nothing from God (Cf. Genesis 32:10, etc.; also Luther in the Fifth Petition). The blessed fact that, as believers, we cling by faith to the Savior’s cross and to the forgiveness merited by Him for all mankind and declared for all the world by God Himself, thus being “cleanse[d] from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9), does not mean that we “deserve” anything of the Lord. But we are to partake of the Sacrament, having examined (tested) ourselves (v. 28) as to our penitence and faith — including our faith in the real presence — so that we come to the Holy Supper appropriately, properly, as is befitting the Sacrament, “discerning the Lord’s body” as penitent and believing communicants, regarding it as what it truly IS (“This is My body…this is My blood…given and shed for you for the remission of sins”) and not a mere symbolic meal of bread and wine.
Thankfully, in His Holy Supper the Lord does not present us with a mere symbol of His body and blood (conveying merely symbolic benefits), but, instead, tenders His real, actual body and blood—supernaturally connected with the bread and the wine—that convey the real, actual benefit of what that body and blood secured for us, namely, the forgiveness of sins, life, and eternal salvation! We gratefully believe, teach, and confess the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, not because of any philosophical or rationalistic reasoning, but because of the clear and certain testimony of our Savior and Redeemer who instituted it for our spiritual and eternal welfare. Thus we sing to the Lord in one of our beloved Communion hymns:
Although Thou didst to heav’n ascend
where angel hosts are dwelling,
and in Thy presence they behold
Thy glory, all excelling,
and though Thy people shall not see
Thy glory and Thy majesty
till dawns the Judgment morning,
Yet, Savior, Thou art not confined
to any habitation;
but Thou art present ev’rywhere
and with Thy congregation.
Firm as a rock this truth shall stand,
unmoved by any daring hand
or subtle craft and cunning.
We eat this bread and drink this cup,
Thy precious Word believing
that Thy true body and Thy blood
our lips are here receiving.
This Word remains forever true,
and there is naught Thou canst not do;
for Thou, Lord, art almighty.
Though reason cannot understand,
yet faith this truth embraces:
Thy body, Lord, is everywhere
at once in many places.
How this can be I leave to Thee;
Thy Word alone sufficeth me;
I trust its truth unfailing.
(TLH 306, vv. 2–5)
— P. E. B.