An Economic Reading of Luther on the Eucharist, or How a Sacramental Economics Made Matter Matter in New Ways

[1] The Christian practice of communion has changed dramatically over its history.  Most of the change, however, happened in the first four centuries.  In brief, the full community meals that led Paul to scold the Corinthians for gluttony, drunkenness and greed gave way, as Christianity became a religion cozy with Empire, to meals where Christians received a morsel of bread and (perhaps) a small taste of wine from a Bishop or the Bishop’s authorized and ordained priestly representative (McGowan). The location of these meals also changed as Empire took over Christian practice.  Meals in the homes of Christians were replaced with token rituals in basilicas–modeled after the buildings of imperial bureaucracy (MacCulloch).

[2] It was against this system of inequality in power–which became entrenched through three Empires–Classical Roman, Byzantine, and Holy Roman, that Martin Luther protested.  He did so by asserting (among some other things) the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  Luther’s claim was that the body and blood of the living God was not a token to be doled out in trickle-down fashion by an imperially-garbed Bishop or his priestly representative.  Instead, the real presence of Jesus was in, with, and under readily available sacramental bread and wine, the fruit of the Earth. Through the Holy Spirit, every believer could receive the promise and reality of God’s real presence, and a place at the table to participate fully in the meal.

[3] The economic implications of this assertion were, as Max Weber first perceived, and Carter Lindberg reminded us, revolutionary (Weber, Lindberg).  No hierarchy riddled with inequality could claim to control the living God.  Any such hierarchy turned God into an idol and tool of Empire.  Christians worshiped a crucified Messiah, the victim of Empire and its inequalities (Horsley).  Christians lived by what we might call a sacramental economics.  The real presence of Christ was sheer agape given as grace, mediated through matter, for human salvation and healing. (Nygren)

[4] As is well-known, it may have been a pilgrimage to Rome in 1510 that first triggered Luther’s allergic reaction to Roman hierarchy (Bainton).  The Rome that Luther visited was, in fact, riddled with economic inequality (Alfani).  At the heart of that injustice was the Vatican.  And at the heart of the Vatican was the work of Raphael–whose brilliant fresco, La Disputa SacramentoThe Debate over the Sacrament, was itself painted between 1509 and 1510.  As Raphael’s subversive fresco asserted, debate over what had been codified at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and would be reaffirmed in 1551 at the Council of Trent as the dogma of transubstantiation–that bread and wine change into Christ’s body and blood–to put it baldly, had been ongoing throughout the history of the church. Raphael included in his amazing fresco the usual cast of an imperial Jesus on a throne in heaven, God the Father above, and the Holy Spirit preceding to the disputants below, including the four “Doctors” of the church, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Pope Gregory I.

[5] But Raphael then included two more interesting choices–Dante Alighieri, and Savonarola.  It is the latter who is most significant for our purposes.Savonarola had preceded Luther as a critic of Roman excess, for which he was excommunicated in 1497 and hanged and burned a year later (Weinstein).  That Savonarola protested against Rome on behalf of Florentine power, which included of course people’s access to the matter to meet their basic needs, is less important for our purposes than the point that the genius Raphael preserved in his art:  it was the debate over the sacrament that was at the heart of Savonarola’s economic and political protests (Guide to Vatican Museums).

[6] We shall follow Raphael’s insight in this brief essay.  The doctrine of transubstantiation as reinforced at the Council of Trent (the very conciliar process was important) emerged in part as an effort to remedy economic inequality that concentrated vast and ostentatious wealth in the hands of a hierarchical and imperial church.  Luther’s teachings (and certainly the practices of Reformers who followed him–such as Zwingli and Zinzendorf) began gradually to level the economic playing field through the practices of capitalism associated with the so-called Protestant ethic.  Matter mattered in new ways.  A sacramental economics now contended with sacramentalism, on the one hand, and spiritualism, on the other–both of which, as Luther saw it, left people vulnerable rather than empowered through their relationship with the church.

[7] That ethic had its shadow sides.  It could lead to iconoclastic destruction of matter.  And it could lead to war and greed.  But Luther’s primary weapons were words (Grafton). It was polemic that triggered the Reformation.  From Jan Hus to Savonarola to Luther to the Peasant’s War to Zwingli to Zinzendorf is a winding but clearly marked road with two parallel and intersecting lanes–polemic over the Sacrament, and critique of economic inequality.

[8] In Luther’s works, we can see the connections in his 1517 95 Theses, in his 1520 On the Babylonian Captivity of the Churches, and in his 1527 treatise “That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ Etc, Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics.” We shall discuss each text in turn.  In a brief conclusion I will draw out what I see as the ethical and economic significance and implications of Luther’s polemic down to today.  Luther’s sacramental economics has profound implications to challenge the economic inequality that marks U.S. empire.  Luther’s teaching on the Eucharist, linked to economics, also sheds light on the problem of climate change denial, which we might read as an iconoclastic last gasp (literally) of the shadow side of the Protestant Ethic.

[9] My basic point will be that our words and practices, including the ways we celebrate Eucharist and the public policies we support and advocate for, have consequences for our broader relationships with matter.  If the finite bears the infinite (finitumcapax infiniti), then attention to the finite cannot be fleeting or unjust:  matter matters (Zwanepol).  To state my claim even more strongly:  violence against the finite is to build the cross anew.  Following Schweitzer, there may be tragic choices we must make where “life-willing-life” cannot simply be left to be (Brabazon).  Nonviolence is norm but not absolute (Wink).  But the violence of economic inequality of the scope evident in contemporary U.S. society is contrary to the spirit of the Eucharist (Reich).  U.S. inequality does real harm to the real presence of Christ.  Indeed, global economic inequality, paired with climate change denial, may–if the Earth’s climate changes as rapidly as some scientists now predict, lead to a world with no bread, no wine, no body, no blood (Harvey).

The Critique of Economic Inequality in Luther’s 95 Theses

[10] As Dr. Timothy J. Wengert has made clear, in his recent translation and commentary on the 95 Theses, “Luther’s earliest concern [regarding] indulgences was not that heaven and the gospel were for sale but rather that escape from judgment and from the law were.”(Loc 261).   In general, Wengert makes it clear that the theses should be read as assertions in theological ethics.  The matters at stake in the 95 Theses, and at stake in the later (1518) Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, which was reprinted more than twenty-five times and made Luther a best-seller overnight, were matters of the realm of both God’s “right” and God’s “left” hand, both gospel and law.  Most analysis has focused on the former–on Luther’s theological insights.

[11] But the ethical implications of the Theses are equally, and perhaps even of greater, consequences–given how quickly the Reformation spread, and how quickly it spread well beyond Luther’s intention or control.  And among those ethical matters at stake was matter itself, and how it was distributed and exchanged; what future generations would call the discipline of economics.

[12] It is not difficult to discover the economic implications of the 95 Theses, and then to connect them to Luther’s theology of Holy Communion.  Leo X had proclaimed a plenary “Peter’s Indulgence” in 1515 to help rebuild the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul in Rome(Wengert, Loc 513).  With this as background, Luther’s economic rationale emerges clearly as a defense of the poor.  Theses 27 and 28 read, in the official translation of the German government: 27.  “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.  28.  It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.” The church was fostering a practice based in greed.

[13] Following this claim, in Theses 36 and 37, Luther took away any transactional character to penance through indulgences, and he asserted that all Christians could receive forgiveness regardless of their ability to buy indulgences for their departed loved ones:

  1. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.  37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

The key word in those theses is “any,” Quilibet in Latin.  In effect, as the most basic undergraduate student of the Reformation can reiterate, Luther made the relationship between God and any individual the central locus of the salvific exchange, if we may speak in these terms, rather than a transaction between God and an individual on behalf of another individual soul (or souls) mediated and controlled by the hierarchical church. Theses 41-3 then draw out some of the ethical implications of this change:

  1. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love. 42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

“Good works of love,” “works of mercy,” and giving “to the poor” were more important than buying indulgences to support the pope’s building project.

[14] And the problem with indulgences is that they promoted inequality.  The rich could pay for lots of them, and the Pope was building St. Peter’s by fleecing the poor.  Luther naively (or strategically) imagined that if the Pope actually knew the economics of indulgences, he would end the practice and the inequality it produced.  Theses 50 and 51 put this hope clearly:

  1. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. 51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

[15] This noble hope was, alas, ill-founded. For making the Pope aware of how indulgences were working to sanction greed, as if he did not already know, Luther was excommunicated in 1521.  It is difficult, in retrospect, to imagine any other result.  But in 1517, Luther could imagine that Leo might consider the words of a “shrewd …. lay person,” as Luther put it in Thesis 86, who might ask:  “`Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?’”  It was this basic inequality–the flow of resources from the poor to the Pope, that was at the heart of Luther’s critique of indulgences, in an economic reading.  Luther tied this critique directly to the Sacrament in his 1520 treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, to which we can now turn.


Communion and Economic Inequality in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church

[16] There are three key ways that Luther asserted that matter mattered sacramentally in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and thereby critiqued economic inequality.  First, he asserted that the Eucharist was an egalitarian meal–not a priestly prerogative.  Secondly, he asserted that the “thing itself,” bread and wine, body and blood, is what mattered in the Eucharist–over and against the Aristotelian metaphysical superstructure that differentiated substance from accidents to explain transubstantiation.  Finally, he asserted that the bread and wine were also the “real presence” of Jesus Christ, just as the human body of Jesus was the real presence of the living God through the incarnation.  The last point was the crucial one.  It was a docetic Christology that justified economic exploitation, and that turned the Mass into a tool of Empire.

[17] Luther asserted that the Eucharist was an egalitarian meal by contending that people should be offered the sacrament in both kinds–both bread and wine, as often as they request it, and in a rite that used vernacular languages.  “All who deny communion in both kinds to the laity are wicked,” Luther put it with typical tact (Three Treatises, p. 130).  “Christ gave the whole sacrament to all his disciples,” Luther concluded from his reading of Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22.  Consequently, the sacrament “ought not to be withheld from [the laity] in either form.” (134-5) Behind this assertion of an open table was a question of authority:  Whose meal was it?  “The sacrament does not belong to the priests,” Luther asserted, “but to all [people].” This meant the meal should be readily available.  “The priests are not lords,” Luther went on, overturning the feudal reality, “but servants in duty bound to administer both kinds to those who desire them, as often as they desire them.” (142)  And this ready accessibility of the sacrament, if we may speak in such terms, meant that it should be celebrated in the vernacular.  “Would to God that as [a priest] elevates the sign, or sacrament, openly before our eyes, he might also sound in our ears the word, or testament, in a loud, clear voice, and in the language of the people, whatever it may be.” (174)


[18] The church, in short, did not have the authority to withhold what God offered, and the sacrament, and especially the cup, was offered to all:

Do you not see whom [Jesus] addressed when he gives the cup?  Does he not give it to all?  Does he not say that it is poured out for all?  “For you” [Luke 22:20], he says–let this refer to the priests.  “And for many” [Matt. 26:28], however, cannot possibly refer to the priests.  Yet he says: “Drink of it, all of you” [Matt 26:27].” (137)

The Eucharist was a meal available to all–an egalitarian offering from God for the benefit of all.

[19] Holy Communion was also not just a sign of God’s promise, but the actual thing itself.  “In every sacrament the sign as such is incomparably less than the thing itself.”(137-8)  In a perverse substitution, instead of offering the thing itself to people, the church was hoarding things.  “Having long ago lost the grace of the sacrament,” Luther put it, “we contend for the sign, which is the lesser … just as some men for the sake of ceremonies contend against love.  This monstrous perversion seems to date from the time when we began to rage against Christian love for the sake of the riches of this world.” (138)

[20] What had grown up around the thing itself were layers of ceremonies, signs of Empire and its insatiable greed: “the holy sacrament has been turned into mere merchandise, a market, and a profit-making business.” (152)  Instead, the church must “put aside whatever has been added to [the sacrament’s] original simple institution by the zeal and devotion of [people]:  such things as vestments, ornaments, chants, prayers, organs, candles, and the whole pageantry of outward things.” (153)  Christ was not an Emperor; he died at the hands of empire.  It is here we can understand anew Luther’s critique of the Mass as sacrifice–which has been the preferred rite of imperial power down to today. The language of sacrifice in connection to Communion made the meal a work; something humans had to do–rather than the free offering of God to be received by humans through faith and activated in works of love on behalf of one’s neighbor and the world. (171-4; see also Heim)

[21] And it was Luther’s assertion of the real presence of God in the sacrament that at was at the heart of his economic critique of inequality in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  At Holy Communion one receives “real bread and real wine, in which Christ’s real flesh and real blood are present.” (145) Luther here drew on Occam to satirize the doctrine of transubstantiation.  “No violence is to be done to the words of God,” he asserted, rather “they are to be retained in their simplest meaning as far as possible.” (146)  Applying this razor to the doctrine of transubstantiation, Luther asserted that “it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words to understand ‘bread’ to mean ‘the form or accidents of bread,’ and ‘wine’ to mean ‘the form or accidents of wine.’ (147)  No, the church could be “rid of all these … monstrosities … if they simply permitted real bread to be present.”  And at the root was Christology:

What is true in regard to Christ is also true in regard to the sacrament.  In order for the divine nature to dwell in him bodily [Col. 2:9], it is not necessary for the human nature to be transubstantiated and the divine nature contained under the accidents of the human nature.  Both natures are simply there in their entirety, and it is truly said: “This man is God; this God is man. (151)

The “metaphysical trivialities” of transubstantiation eroded the full humanity of Christ in a docetic denial of matter.

[22] Luther thus used a vivid economic metaphor to describe how the Babylonian captivity of the church had led to the people being “despoiled of all our precious possessions.” (166)  And the consequences of waking up to this captivity were revolutionary.  “But you will say,” Luther noted, turning in his concluding remarks to take up objections:

What is this?  Will you not overturn the practice and the teaching of all the churches and monasteries, by virtue of which they have flourished all these centuries?  For the mass is the foundation of their anniversaries, intercessions, applications, communications, etc., that is to say, of their fat income. I answer:  This is the very thing that has constrained me to write of the captivity of the church.  For it is in this manner that the sacred testament of God has been forced into the service of a most impious traffic. (169)

[23] Here, both the potential, and the peril, of Luther’s sacramental economics, become clear.  The meal was available to all, not just as a sign, but as the thing itself, the real presence of the living God in real bread and real wine.  People could take a place at the table, without reservations.  And they could demand one.  Within a year, on Christmas Day, 1521, Andreas BodensteinKarlstadt celebrated the Lord’s Supper in Wittenberg in both kinds, dressed in plain clothes, and shortly thereafter published his A New Order for the City of Wittenberg, calling for the stripping of altars and removal of images from churches (Reformation 500). Within three years, the Peasant’s War was raging.  Luther now had to contend with a violence more immediate than violence done to the words of God by metaphysical monstrosities.  Luther’s reaction against this violence, siding with the princes, is well known.  But vast swaths of people had been awakened to the practical economic implications of their religious and spiritual lives.  It would take centuries, but the feudal economic system would end along with the end of the Babylonian captivity of the sacrament.  Matter mattered in new ways.

Communion and Economic Inequality in “That These Words of Christ … Still Stand Firm”

[24] But back in 1527, Luther was “caught between two enemies,” as he saw it (Burnett, Loc. 3005).  On the one hand was the papacy, transubstantiation, and the violence of grotesque economic inequality–call it sacramentalism.  On the other hand, were “the fanatics,” notably Thomas Müntzer and the peasants who interpreted the sacrament symbolically or spiritually, and who took the economic and political implications of the meal to the point of revolutionary violence–call it spiritualism.  It was against the latter that Luther penned his “That These Words of Christ … Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics” in 1527.

[25] To be sure, Luther conflated a wide range of critics under the title “fanatics,” and his arguments against Karlstadt,Oecolampadius, Zwingli, and others ranged over a great deal of terrain.  It would be a mistake, however, simply to follow the Marxist line and to assume that Luther’s argument was merely a “conservative” turn, or a retreat from the radical implications of his earlier writings (Brady). Rather, Luther’s polemic asserted (again) something like a sacramental economics.

[26] Luther’s paradoxical Christology articulated a doctrine of the “ubiquity” of real presence, and he sought a middle way between the spiritual and the material, holding them both together:  a sacramental economics.  Left out of Luther’s critique, of course, were the princes–and it was precisely on this point that the reforming parties disagreed.  Luther foresaw a place for “civil government” analogous to the place of bread and wine in the sacrament.  Civil government existed to restrain evil–not as an abstract symbol, but as a mode of God’s presence in the flesh that generated the existence of a harmonious and peaceful society.  To separate bread and wine from Christ’s body and blood, the spirit from the flesh, or civil government from the generation of peace, was to imagine a spiritual purity apart from flesh that in fact produced a “drowning in flesh,” as Thomas Müntzer had experienced in his own torturous life and death. (Burnett, Loc 4666).

[27] It is no coincidence that “the devil” played a much larger role in Luther’s 1527 writing than in his earlier work.  Luther’s invective and satire reflected the rhetorical and physical violence that had accompanied the radical turn in the Reformation.  Luther found himself reviled as an “idolater” who worshiped “the baked God, the edible and drinkable God, the bread-God, the wine-God.”(3086)  Luther and those like him were “cannibals.”(4513)  In turn, Luther called his opponents fanatics, dogs, pigs, asses, and tools of Satan (3735).

[28] Such polemic of course produced real consequences.  Polemic hardened party lines and eventually led to the aligning of princes and civil government with theological parties in conflicts that raged until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, by one accounting, or the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, by another.  Yet a third accounting of history might see the current concentration of economic resources among a global transnational empire as yet a final reckoning with this polemical and ideologically perverse under-side of the emerging Protestant ethic.  Not the Pope but now secular corporations (note well the bodily metaphor) and their CEO’s replicated the kinds of concentration of wealth once sought and displayed by the Pope, with the leaders of neo-liberal or crony capitalism hiding their gluttony and greed under the guise of a new kind of empire, nationalist sovereignty, and/or toxic charity, depending upon one’s perspective (Hardt and Negri; Rose; Lupton).

[29] Luther’s own sacramental economics argued for a unity between infinite and finite that saw divine presence both “everywhere and nowhere,” both “in the tiniest tree leaf” and yet “not circumscribed” by such location in place.  According to Luther, his opponents blasphemed “the holy and venerable sacrament … out of which they would like to make mere bread and wine as a symbol or memorial sign.”(3026)  To separate bread and wine from body and blood, when the words of Scripture said clearly that “this is my body,” struck Luther as the same kind of dualism in a different form against which he had argued against indulgences and the Pope’s greed.

[30] Now the problem was that Luther’s opponents would “play dice with the sacred words of Christ,” as a way to score points in a growing rivalry to control the symbolic assets of crumbling Roman Catholic hegemony (3402).  Unlike the Reformers in Basel and Strasbourg, much less in Zwickau, for Luther Christ’s real presence was also a sensual presence:  in Communion, he wrote, “the bread we see with our eyes, but we hear with our ears that Christ’s body is present.”(3194) Luther’s emphasis on sensual presence asserted that words mattered, and matter mattered.  He thus developed his critique with a creation-centered analogy.  To turn Jesus’ words “this is my body” into “this signifies my body” would be like distorting the first words of Genesis.

[31] It is worth hearing both Luther’s satire and his defense of creation implicit in a somewhat lengthy argument:

This certainly is an extraordinary situation! It is just as if I denied that God had created the heavens and the earth, and asserted with Aristotle and Pliny and other heathens that the world existed from eternity, but someone came and held Moses under my nose, Gen. 1[:1], “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” I would then try to make the text read: “God” now should mean the same as “cuckoo,” “created” the same as “ate,” and “the heavens and the earth” the same as “the warbler, feathers and all.” The word of Moses thus would read according to Luther’s text, “In the beginning the cuckoo ate the warbler, feathers and all,” and could not possibly mean, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” What a marvelous art this would be—one with which rascals are quite familiar! … Ah, what a rumpus I would stir up among Jews and Christians, in the New and the Old Testaments, if such brazenness were allowed me! If you ask, “What devil would allow you to do such a thing?” the answer is, “What devil other than the one who allows Zwingli andOecolampadius to do it? (3227-3241)

Words mattered.  Matter mattered.

[32] Not coincidentally, attention to creation and place runs like a red thread throughout Luther’s polemic.  Notably, one of the arguments that Luther developed was what came to be called (not entirely accurately) the doctrine of “ubiquity.” That is, Christ was sacramentally present everywhere, even as God worked specifically through the bread and wine of the sacrament.  Luther’s opponents, as Luther characterized them, argued that because Christ dwelt at the right hand of God, Christ could not be literally present in the bread and wine.  This gave Luther plenty of room again to employ satire:

We take up the article that Christ sits at the right hand of God, which the fanatics maintain does not allow that Christ’s body can also be in the Supper. Now if we ask how they interpret God’s “right hand” where Christ sits, I suppose they will dream up for us, as one does for children, an imaginary heaven in which a golden throne stands, and Christ sits beside the Father in a cowl and golden crown, the way artists paint it. For if they did not have such childish, fleshly ideas of the right hand of God, they surely would not allow the idea of Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper to vex them so.(3551)

Luther’s alternative argument was earnest:

Scripture teaches us, however, that the right hand of God is not a specific place in which a body must or may be, such as on a golden throne, but that it is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere. It cannot be at any one place, I say. For if it were at some specific place, it would have to be there in a perceptible and circumscribed manner, as everything which is at one place must be at that place circumscribed and determinate, so that it cannot meanwhile be at any other place. But the power of God cannot be so circumscribed and determined, for it is immeasurable and cannot be grasped with the senses, beyond and above all that is or may be.(3582)

This was a clever rhetorical subterfuge.  God’s power “cannot be grasped with the senses, beyond and above all that is or may be.”  Put differently, this meant that God’s power can only be grasped with the senses, through all that is or may be.  Putting God in place was risky, but inevitable.  As Luther put it elsewhere, Christians must seek a God “clothed with definite signs in place.”  The masks of God were inevitably wrapped up with metaphors of place (Pahl, 2003).

[33] Hence, Luther asserted, God’s power “must be present in its essence at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf.”(3587)  Indeed, “God must be present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through, below and above, before and behind, so that nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God and God’s power.”(3591) The economic implications of this doctrine of ubiquity are radical, as Luther was aware.

[34] Some would take it to mean that “If Christ’s body is everywhere, ah, then I shall eat and drink him in all the taverns, from all kinds of bowls, glasses, and jugs! Then there is no difference between my table and the Lord’s table. Oh, how we will gobble him up!”(3735)  Against this interpretation Luther took a well-known strong line:  “The civil government ought to punish such blasphemers.”(3740)  Theological disorder led to civil disorder.  Consequently, Luther went on:

Listen now, you pig, dog, or fanatic, whatever kind of unreasonable ass you are: Even if Christ’s body is everywhere, you do not therefore immediately gobble or swill or grasp him; nor do I talk with you about such things in this manner, either; go back to your pigpen and your filth. I said above that the right hand of God is everywhere, but at the same time nowhere and imperceptible, above and apart from all creatures. There is a difference between God being present and your grasping God, who is free and unbound wherever God is, and does not have to stand there like a rogue set in a pillory or neck irons. (3746)

Let God be God, was how one interpreter put the heart of Luther’s theology (Watson).

[35] God’s presence, like the presence of light, could be experienced by faith but never grasped or possessed:

See, the bright rays of the sun are so near you that they pierce into your eyes or your skin so that you feel it, yet you are unable to grasp them and put them into a box, even if you should grope after it forever. Prevent them from shining in through the window—this you can do, but grope and grasp them you cannot. So too with Christ: although he is everywhere present, he does not permit himself to be so caught and grasped; he can easily shell himself, so that you get the shell but not the kernel. Why? Because it is one thing if God is present, and another if God is present for you. God is there for you when God adds the Word and binds himself, saying, “Here you shall find me.” Now when you have the Word, you can grasp and have God with certainty.”(3751)

It was God’s promise, combined with the bread and wine, that made present God’s body and blood.

[36] The purpose of God’s self-limitation to this mode of presence (like the self-limitation of the cross) was a matter of divine solicitation–an arbitrary (in effect) limitation for the purpose of granting people comfort and freedom from anxiety:

[God] himself points out the bread to you, through his Word, bidding you to eat him. This he does in the Supper, saying, “This is my body,” as if to say, “At home you may eat bread also, where I am indeed sufficiently near at hand too; but this is the true … ‘This is my body’: when you eat this, you eat my body, and nowhere else. Why? Because I wish to attach myself here with my Word, in order that you may not have to buzz about, trying to seek me in all the places where I am. This would be too much for you, and you would also be too puny to grasp me in these places without my Word. (3764)

Again, it would be a mistake to interpret this only as a conservative retreat from radical economic or political positions by Luther. If anything, the best way to understand this argument is pastorally–Luther saw people being hurt by doctrines that separated divine power from economic life.

[37] More accurately, Luther sought to keep flesh and spirit, law and gospel, matter and the divine, God and humanity, in proper unity, relation, or differentiation.  God’s different modes of operation all found clarity in the incarnation and its paradox of God become human; spirit in flesh.  Docetism again lurked in the background of the spiritualist position, which dredged up “all the ancient heresies,” which held “that Christ did not have natural flesh and blood and was not real man.”(3957)

[38] The paradox of the incarnation, in contrast,, required that “flesh is and remains flesh whether in the stomach, bread, the cross, heaven, spirit, and wherever you will. The places do not change it: wine, grain, money, cloth remain exactly what they are, even if they change places a thousand times a day. Should not Christ’s flesh also remain the same flesh whether in heaven, spirit, manger, mother, or wherever you will?” (3987) It was crucial to comprehend that “Word and body are not to be separated.”(4739)  Even more clearly:  “Any spirit that does away with Christ’s flesh is not of God” (4866).  To turn the Eucharist into a memorial meal was to turn “Christ’s supper … into a parish fair.”(4762)  Words mattered.  Matter mattered.  And the two were inherently related.

[39] As Luther saw it, then, as the debate over the Eucharist spun into violence the role of civil government became crucial.  Theological error produced economic (and political) anarchy.  “From such a spirit [as that of those who sought to make the Eucharist a memorial meal],” Luther contended:

…it must follow that civil government is of no use, being an outward thing, since people are unwilling to hear or see that it is encompassed in God’s Word and must be believed to be God’s ordinance, Rom. 13[:1–5]. This belief [in the real presence] indeed is not of no use before God, and therefore this fanatical spirit must remain seditious and murderous.” (4696)

[40] Whether this was a fair interpretation of the ethical consequences of a theological doctrine will be the task of other historians to sort out, although my own answer is no doubt implicit.  But it ought to be clear:  it was the violence of the symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, as it had been the violence of the metaphysical doctrine of transubstantiation, that drew Luther’s invective (violent, no doubt, in its own way).  The spiritualists “rip God’s Word away from the bread and wine, and let nothing remain but eating and drinking, as in taverns, … [so that] their observance makes gluttony and gourmandizing out of it.” (4758)

[41] Just as Luther was accused of worshiping a “baked God,” so did he see in the spiritualists the emergence of a world where noconnection would exist between God and bread, God and bodies, God and blood, God and the Earth.  The stage was thus set, between what Luther saw as the docetic doctrine of transubstantiation and the docetic doctrine of the spiritualists, for the brutal slaughter of the Thirty Years War, for the rapacious riot and gluttonous greed of early modern empires, and for the ecological degradation of late modern transnational capitalist Empire, increasingly protected under assertions of nationalist sovereignty.  If Luther was a “conservative,” then, it was because he sought to preserve a sense of the real presence of Christ “even in the tiniest leaf.”

[42] Such a promise was made evident, or took root in place, through the location of divine power in the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of Eucharist.  Even more, then, Luther sought to conserve a ubiquity of real presence so that even a parish fair, one might suppose, could be something other than a matter of “gluttony and gourmandizing.”  And this meant, finally, that even civil government, we can imagine with Luther–although few Lutheran theologians and ethicists aside from Kant and Schweitzer have done so, might operate to generate a quite real peaceable kingdom of nonviolence, or perhaps a pragmatic pacifism (Cortright), depending to large degree upon the just sharing of the economic resources of God’s good creation (Barsam, Kant, Pinker).

Implications and Trajectories for Today

[43] It is of course perilous to read anything like contemporary economic systems into the polemics of the 16th century; such a reading is invariably a distortion.  Yet several obvious economic implications, at least, seem clear from Luther’s arguments about the Eucharist.  First, it would seem clear that inequality of the type evident in the 16th century Roman Catholic Church, or evident around the globe today, will produce instability, revolt, riot, anarchy–and repression. The authoritarian resurgence in contemporary global politics is a thinly-veiled attempt to protect transnational flows of capital, much as the repression of peasants by princes in the 16th century was a thinly-veiled defense of feudalism. On that much, at least, Marx and Engels were right (Brady).  Today, neo-liberal authoritarians like Putin, Erdogan, Orban, and Trump recognize each other as cronies (Pahl, 2019).  National sovereignty–the doctrine that emerged at the Peace of Westphalia, has increasingly become a shield for transnational plutocracy, with “populism” organized around various resentments (Cramer, Rose).

[44] So, secondly, what will be the contours of a 21st century Peace of Westphalia, if we can imagine such a prospect without the apocalypse of nuclear (or ecological) catastrophe beforehand?  Practices and theological ethics that perpetuate the Eucharist as imperial privilege feed directly into iconoclastic reaction.  And destruction of bodies (see the sexual abuse crisis) and altars (see Protestant decline) follows just as surely from this twenty-first century conflict as from that of the sixteenth-century.

[45] Perhaps the so-called Nordic model–drawn on undeniable Lutheran foundations, holds promise to link economic growth with a strong safety net and global hospitality (Nelson).  But so-called populist or nationalist movements across Europe surely signal storm clouds on the horizon for social democracy, and the 2009 recession led to austerity measures that re-inscribed the kinds of sacrifices built on the backs of the vulnerable poor against which Luther (and the other Reformers) rightly protested.

[46] Similarly, in the U.S., models of democratic socialism have advocates in some quarters–Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren may still have a chance.  But, again, the neo-liberal revanchists seem largely to have crystallized and mobilized the resentments of many rural and small-town voters (Cramer), and Obama’s centrism now appears to have been no more helpful to the working poor than Clinton’s accommodation of neo-liberal “free trade.” This is especially the case as the one Obama policy to provide real solace to the poor–the Affordable Care Act, struggles to survive a concentrated (obsessive, demonic–pick your description) effort to repeal and replace it.

[47] Finally, then, the future seems bleak for any kind of perpetual peace.  And yet, what Luther sought to conserve might be evident in the kinds of economic values inherent in what have come to be called social enterprises–businesses emerging from a regulated and reformed capitalism that serves less the quarterly profits of share-holders and more the long-term sustainability of the planet, people, and profits (Yunus).  Such paradoxical businesses–the fruit of a fragile capitalism still very much on the horizon, promises (perhaps) to help people forge the kind of societies where the human capacity to flourish receives the sort of support it deserves.  That would include initiatives such as those mandated in classical human rights, including a living wage, education, and healthcare for all.   Such societies would incarnate (so to speak) a vulnerable presence, made “real” precisely by its ubiquity in the fragile and fleeting human beings inhabiting any particular social constellation, gathered around any particular table, we might say.

[48] For Christians, such a society might actually represent or incarnate the “real presence” of Christ for which Luther so ardently argued–not only in the discrete rituals associated with the sacrament of Holy Communion, but even more in a sacramental economy that recognizes Christ in all of the fruits of the Earth, and even (as Luther suggested in his better moments) in even the tiniest leaf.  Such reverence for life, following Schweitzer, would turn any meal, any household gathering, any economic exchange, into an occasion for the practices of normative nonviolence, insofar as possible.

[49] Such trusting relations where we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” in fact would flow from a more general sense that it is precisely Christ’s capacity to serve as host, as the real presence of the power of the living God, that empowers our own practices of radical hospitality, not only around the Eucharistic table, but even more in everyday economic and political relations (Carvalhaes). Surely, such practices must include a sharp critique of economic inequality–although polemic is never enough, and polemic can also be counterproductive.

[50] What is lacking (to my knowledge, at least) is a fully developed positive model of a global (transnational) society built around social enterprises, something like the doctrine of sovereignty that emerged out of the Peace of Westphalia.  Such a model would forge a path to societies marked by more just economic relations, flourishing households, and a sustainable planet for future generations (Rasmussen; Moe-Lobeda). Lacking such a positive model, the apocalyptic nightmare looms:  global economic inequality, paired with climate change denial, may lead to a world with no bread, no wine, no body, no blood (McFague).

[51] If we can learn nothing else from Luther’s polemics over the real presence, then, it ought to be this:  words matter.  Matter matters.  And this side of heaven, it is up to us to arrange how we relate to one another through words that advance truth, insofar as possible, and it is up to us to forge policies that preserve and distribute fairly matter, insofar as possible.  If not a perpetual peace, then, perhaps Lutherans might contribute at least to a pragmatic one (Cortright).  And that would be to advance, in fact, what some observers see already happening, quietly and largely unrecognized, underneath and despite the rapacious inequality of the last forty years (Rosling).



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—- and Wee, Paul, The Forgotten Luther:  Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation (Minneapolis:  Lutheran University Press, 2016).

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—–.  Three Treatises, From the American Edition of Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1990).

—–.  See also Burnett; Wengert

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—–, Fethullah Gülen:  A Life of Hizmet.  How a Muslim Scholar in Pennsylvania Matters to the World (NY:  Blue Dome Press, 2019).

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Jon Pahl

Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary.