Foundations: No.68 Spring 2015

The Lord’s Supper in England: Then and Now – A Look at How Thomas Cranmer’s Eucharistic Theology Compares with Today

What happens in the Lord’s Supper? To answer that question this article critically explores the mature Eucharistic theology of Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer’s theology is then used as a point of reference for discussing the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in contemporary English Evangelical-ism. The relevant scriptural passages are also explored when discussing both Cranmer and contemporary Evangelicalism. The conclusion seeks to offer comparative remarks and also provide a basis for further discussion.


There is little doubt that Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) left a considerable mark on English Christianity, not only for the Anglican Communion but also for all who profess a Reformed, Evangelical, Protestant faith. At the centre of Cranmer’s legacy are his writings and disputations concerning the Lord’s Supper, a doctrine that was only seriously debated in England for the first time during his Archbishopric. His mature doctrine of the Eucharist became enshrined in liturgy, a form of which is still being used every Sunday in churches across England and indeed worldwide.

Today, however, many English Evangelicals appear less concerned with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and it could be said that this apathy is also seen in practice. It is only as we understand the theological significance of breaking bread and drinking wine that we can begin to appreciate the importance of why the Lord Jesus gave this meal to his church.

Therefore, the interest of this article is to first examine Cranmer’s mature doctrine of the Lord’s Supper to aid our understanding of its spiritual benefits and effects and how we receive such benefits. We will then use Cranmer as a framework for determining whether contemporary English Evangelicalism has remained faithful to biblical principles or drifted from them. Along the way we will interact with other key contributors, from both historical and contemporary sources.

Cranmer’s mature doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Early Influences

Evidence suggests that Cranmer was raised and educated to be a staunch Roman Catholic and that it wasn’t until he began working on the matter of Henry VIII’s divorce that he was exposed to Reformation thinking in European universities. By the time he was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532 Cranmer was ready to set in motion the English Reformation.[1] The Church of England formally broke with Rome in 1534 paving the way for significant change theologically and practically.[2]

Concerning the Eucharist, Cranmer held to a more or less Lutheran “real presence” theology until around 1547.[3] After this Cranmer began to publicly uphold a “spiritual presence” understanding of the Lord’s Supper. It will be beneficial to briefly consider some of the key known influences that led Cranmer to develop his understanding.

In his public writings Cranmer makes little mention of the ideas of others, favouring to reflect his own ideas adopted from Scripture, the Fathers and “right reason”.[4] This should not be considered arrogance, but rather understandable caution. At a time when public figures were being regularly executed, citing their name in one’s own publications, particularly as an influence, was dangerous. As such, this makes it somewhat difficult to determine who was influencing Cranmer and to what extent.[5]

(i) Nicholas Ridley

However, at his trial in 1555 Cranmer testified that it was Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of Rochester and London, who had been the main agent of change.[6] Ridley had introduced Cranmer to the Eucharistic theology of a ninth century monk, Ratramnus of Corbie.[7] Ratramnus opposed transubstantiation prior to it being adopted as official Roman doctrine, concluding that the bread and wine remain what they were before consecration and that they are only the body and blood of Christ in a “spiritual” sense.[8]

It is understood that Ridley shared this discovery with Cranmer, possibly sometime in the late 1540s, and at the very least planted a seed of thought that would mature into Cranmer’s mature Eucharistic doctrine.

(ii) Martin Bucer

Bucer had sought to combine elements of the Zwinglian and Lutheran positions.[9] With Zwingli he held that “the bread and wine… in themselves are completely unchanged but merely become symbols”; and with Luther he held that in the Eucharist we receive “the very body and blood of the Lord, so that by their means we may increasingly and more perfectly share in the imparting of regeneration”.[10]

It was Bucer, along with Peter Martyr, who made suggestions for the necessary changes to the language used in Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer, moving it further away from the Roman Catholic Mass.[11] Cranmer himself mentions Bucer in his Answer to Stephen Gardiner, as being a supporter of his Eucharistic views, suggesting an influence.[12]

(iii) Peter Martyr Vermigli

Martyr Virmigli spent considerable time with Cranmer at Lambeth Palace, and is believed to have shown Cranmer and Ridley works by Chrysostom and Theodoret, both of which affirmed their discoveries in Ratramnus concerning the “spiritual presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.[13] Passages from Chrysostom gleaned from Martyr were freely incorporated into Cranmer’s 1550 polemic, the Defence, suggesting the considerable influence Martyr had on the Archbishop.[14]

However, Cranmer gives hardly any real evidence for his influences, but instead determines to show that his principle authorities were the Early Church Fathers and, not least, the Word of God.

Doctrine of Scripture

Central to Cranmer’s refutation of the Roman Catholic Mass was his appeal to the authority of Scripture.[15] It was Cranmer’s clear assertion that Rome had devised its doctrine of transubstantiation out of thin air. “No man ought to be so arrogant and presumptuous to affirm for a certain truth in religion, any thing which is not spoken of in holy Scripture.”[16]

Moreover, people ought not to have their consciences troubled by things that are contrary to Scripture. With regards to the Lord’s Supper, what was spoken and done by Christ, written by the apostles, and testified to by Paul are sufficient for the faith of all Christian people.[17]

The most sure and plain way is, to cleave unto holy Scripture. Wherein whatsoever is found, must be taken for a most sure ground and an infallible truth; and whatsoever cannot be grounded upon the same (touching our faith) is man’s device, changeable and uncertain.[18]

J. I. Packer has noted that Cranmer consistently affirmed two facts about Scripture: that it is sufficient for salvation, and that it is useful and has value as a means of grace.[19] “Nothing, he held, matters more for the Christian than to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, the Bible.”[20] It is interesting to note, not only in Packer’s description but also in Cranmer himself, the language of eating, feeding and ingesting with regards to Scripture as a means of grace.[21]

It therefore appears that Cranmer the Reformer held firmly to the principle of sola scriptura, and that this guided and girded his Evangelical reforms of the Church of England, particularly with regard to the Lord’s Supper.[22]

However, Cranmer does not appeal to Scripture alone; he also demonstrates a wide expertise in the Early Church Fathers.[23] He continually appeals to the Fathers to support his view of Scripture, and to substantiate his position that the Mass was an invention of the Church of Rome.[24] Clearly, tradition was important in determining biblical orthodoxy, particularly with regard to the doctrine of the Eucharist.

However, for Cranmer the whole controversy is related to the more essential matter of reconciliation between God and man.[25] On this note, Cranmer the Archbishop demonstrates a pastoral and evangelistic zeal; his desire is that all people would come to a saving knowledge, and faith in the finished work, of Christ, the work which is displayed in the Lord’s Supper.[26]

The Lord’s Supper is therefore worth contending over and engaging in sharp debate because it is given to the Church as a continual reminder of Christ’s finished work, which is the comfort needed for troubled consciences. Cranmer holds Scripture as the primary source of authority on all matters of faith, and in particular he views Scripture as being essential to the proclamation of the gospel, including and especially as it takes place in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Cranmer’s high view of Scripture and his expertise in the Fathers is clearly evident in his main works relating the Lord’s Supper, his Defence of the Reformed doctrine, and his Answer to Stephen Gardiner’s response. These works will be critical in outlining Cranmer’s mature doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Summary of Defence and Answer

It appears that by the late 1540s the maturation of Cranmer’s Eucharistic thinking was almost complete.[27] In March 1548 a new liturgical form of the communion service was introduced called the Order of the Communion. The Royal proclamation announcing the new liturgy avoided any use of the word “Mass”; instead, the phrase “Holy Communion” became the preferred description.[28]

While MacCulloch maintains that Cranmer’s Eucharistic thought was complete by 1548, with the Order of the Communion as evidence, Jeanes argues that even in the years between 1548 (when the new Order was published) and 1552 (when the revised Book of Common Prayer was published), Cranmer’s theology was still developing.[29] Jeanes highlights some key differences between the theology of the Order and Cranmer’s mature theology. For example, the rubrics in the Order speak of the bread and wine as consecrated, whereas such language is absent from the 1549 Prayer Book; there, it is not referred to as “consecrated bread” but as “the bread prepared for the communion”.[30] Jeanes summarises the key differences between the 1548 liturgy and Cranmer’s mature theology: “the bread and wine of the Eucharist… are seen as being at least instruments of the grace signified.”[31]

It is possible, as Jeanes suggests, that these differences are because Cranmer had not quite reached maturity of thought on the Eucharist, as he would in only a matter of years. However it is just as plausible that Cranmer and his colleagues were struggling to find and use the correct language for the new-look communion service as they broke tradition with the Mass, leaving Cranmer open to the charge of inconsistency in his Eucharistic doctrine.[32]

To make matters worse, soon after the publication of the Order of the Communion, It is thought that Cranmer was personally involved in overseeing and prefacing the Catechism. Despite this the revisions were not substantial enough to make a clear break from “real presence” language, and Cranmer came under scrutiny from his opponents. He could not simply borrow language from his influences, nor could he adopt the phraseology previously associated with the Mass and “real presence” theology. Instead, Cranmer needed to express his mature Eucharistic theology in fresh, clear and acceptable language to the laity, Episcopal colleagues and his Reformation contemporaries.

The Book of Common Prayer 1549 did little to help, and the revised Prayer Book with improved Eucharistic language did not appear until 1552. In the intervening years, Cranmer sought to give a “semi-official explanation” of the Eucharistic theology of the Prayer Book, known as A defence of the true and catholic doctrine of the Sacrament of the body and blood of our saviour Christ (hereafter, the Defence).[33] Divided into five books, the Defence is largely a polemical work written to aggressively refute the doctrine of transubstantiation and “real presence” theology, at the same time affirming the mature theology that Cranmer had arrived at by now.

In the First Book of the Defence Cranmer sets out his understanding of the nature of the sacrament, including all of the relevant Gospel and Pauline texts.[34] To provide a clear understanding of the Sacrament, he makes eight observations, considered below:

  1. All people, being sinners, desire to be delivered from judgment and hell. Scripture speaks of this as the “hunger and thirst of the soul”.[35] Christ spoke plainly of spiritual (not carnal) food and drink, provided by God to comfort this spiritual hunger and thirst.

  1. This food and drink is our Saviour Christ, who himself said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:37–38), and “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

  1. Though Jesus likens the bread and wine to his body and blood as that which feeds the believer, he more than surpasses all carnal food that feeds the body. His nourishment and feeding so preserves the believer that both body and soul live eternally.[36] “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25).

  1. True knowledge of these things is true knowledge of Christ. “And the more clearly we see, understand, and believe these things, the more clearly we see and understand Christ, and have more fully our faith and comfort in him.”[37]

  1. Christ chose the sacramental bread and wine to represent our spiritual feeding, as these (opposed to other foods) “do most lively represent unto us the spiritual union and knot of all faithful people, as well unto Christ, as also amongst themselves”.[38] Bread being made of diverse ingredients, mixed and baked together in one loaf, and wine consisting of many grapes pressed into one cup; both elements signify the whole multitude of Christian people spiritually united in Christ and with Christ.

  1. Bread and wine, when digested, become part of the body and blood of the one who eats and drinks; likewise, all faithful believers are spiritually joined to Christ and to one another.[39]

  1. The Lord’s Supper “aptly and effectuously” moves the Christian community to live together in love, peace and unity. It causes those partaking to reflect that they are all members of one spiritual body, of which Christ is head. Where the Lord’s Supper does not stir up love in a person’s heart for Christian brothers and sisters but instead hatred and malice, this is a clear sign that the Spirit of Christ does not indwell that person.[40]

  1. The spiritual food of Christ’s body and blood is not received in the mouth and digested in the stomach like corporal foods. Rather it is received “with a pure heart and a sincere faith”.[41] “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17).

What follows in the First Book, and in the entire Second Book, is an extended refutation of the doctrine of transubstantiation. We will consider Book Three in more detail as it concerns Cranmer’s understanding of the presence of Christ in the Supper.

The Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper

This was a topic as contentious as transubstantiation.[42] Not only does Cranmer deny transubstantiation, he also flatly denies Luther’s consubstantiation.[43]

Cranmer’s own argument is focused on the ascension of Christ: if Christ has ascended to heaven and is now corporally present at the right hand of the Father, then he cannot be corporally present on earth.[44] Cranmer proceeds to give a skilled argument armed with “Scripture, Reason, and the Fathers”.[45]

(i) The argument from Scripture

Cranmer presents his argument from Scripture in one paragraph, which amounts to little more than two hundred words, and consists of seven New Testament proof texts supporting his case (John 16:28, Mt 26:11, Mt 24:23, Mk 16:19, Col 3:1, Heb 8:1 and Heb 10:12).[46]

It is clear that Jesus spoke plainly to his disciples of his returning to the Father; that he would no longer be with them; that they would no longer see him; but that he would be present with them by his Spirit until his return. Moreover, Paul and the writer to the Hebrews clearly understand Christ to be seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, having completed his redemptive work on earth. This seems to support Cranmer’s argument that Christ is no longer physically present on earth, and that he therefore cannot be physically or corporally present with his people in the Supper.

(ii) The argument from the Church Fathers

In contrast to his brief reference to Scripture, Cranmer devotes three lengthier chapters to providing proof from the Early Church Fathers, suggesting that they also supported his argument that Christ is no longer present in the world in respect to his humanity. Among the ancient authors used are Origen, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose and Gregory of Nazianzus.[47]

Cranmer makes confident use of the Fathers, and despite the accusations levelled against him at his trial and subsequently that he purposefully misused and mistranslated patristic texts, evidence from the marginalia of his own editions suggests wide reading and careful examination.[48] However, that is not to say that Cranmer did not employ selectivity when appealing to the Fathers, being keen to demonstrate that they were on his side even when he does not always present their views in full.

(iii) The argument from reason

Some have argued at length that Cranmer was a “nominalist”.[49] Nominalism was a philosophical trend chiefly concerned with what kind of reality “universals” possessed.[50] The theory denies that universal principles possess any kind of objective reality and only exist in the mind of the individual. Whilst there is general consensus that Cranmer displayed certain nominalistic traits, some doubt that he was ever consciously operating in such a philosophical way.

Cranmer was a nominalist, but in a very popular sense, thinking of things as self-enclosed objects, without further reflection… It was by a blunt common sense, as sober as it was superficial, that he tried to make short work of transubstantiation.[51]

Richardson goes on to note that Cranmer’s popular nominalistic tendencies determined how he viewed the presence of Christ.[52] For Cranmer, an object (such as the corporal body of Christ) can only be present in one location at any one time. Hence there is no notion in Cranmer that the body of Christ could have both mystical and empirical qualities, permitting a location in heaven but also a “pervasive, substantial presence on earth”.[53]

Nominalist or otherwise, Cranmer certainly seemed to display a simplistic “common sense” approach to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist: if Christ is corporally present in heaven he cannot be present anywhere else.

(iv) The sun and its rays

A popular analogy used when debating the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was that of the relationship between the sun and its rays.[54] Bucer and Gardiner both contended that, just as the rays of the sun are of the same substance as the sun itself,

so our Lord, even though he be comprehended in one place of the secret and divine heaven, that is to say, the glory of his Father, yet nevertheless by his word and holy tokens he is exhibit present truly whole God and man, and therefore in substance in his holy supper.[55]

However, Cranmer (along with Zwingli) voiced the opposite opinion: that the rays of the sun are not of the same substance as the sun. However, though the sun is corporally present “in the heavens” it is nevertheless present on earth by its “operation and virtue” (i.e. its rays); the power of the sun pervades all things but not its substance.[56] Likewise, though Christ is corporally present in heaven, he has promised to be with his people spiritually through all ages, and is so by virtue of his divinity.[57]

Cranmer quite clearly denied that Christ was physically or corporally present in the sacrament because he is presently at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Moreover, Cranmer went further to say that the physical or corporal presence of Christ is irrelevant to faith.[58] How, then, is Christ present in the sacrament according to Cranmer? “In the nature of his humanity he is gone hence, and present in the nature of his Divinity.”[59]

(v) “True Presence” or “Spiritual Presence”

MacCulloch notes that in the wake of the publication of the Catechism in 1548 the language used caused considerable consternation and criticism of Cranmer: it was said by one critic that the Archbishop

has all but consented to that foul and sacrilegious transubstantiation of the papists in the holy supper of our Saviour; all the rest of Luther’s dreams seem to him to be sufficiently well-grounded, evident and plain.[60]

Cranmer went on to categorically dismiss the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation, devoting an entire chapter to its refutation in the Defence in 1550. As well as making these denials, he also affirmed his mature understanding of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, moving away from the “real presence” language and doctrine of Luther.

The Archbishop begins Book Three by outlining thirteen points of comparison between “the heinous errors of the papists” and his own understanding.[61] To list them here will help to demonstrate Cranmer’s emerging theology of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist:

  1. Rome insists that Christ is in the bread and wine, whereas Cranmer argues that he is present in those who worthily eat and drink the bread and wine.

  1. The “papists” hold that when a person receives the bread and wine, Christ goes into the mouth or stomach “and no further”. However, Cranmer holds to a more holistic understanding, in which Christ is in the “whole man, both the body and soul of his that worthily eateth the bread and drinketh the cup”.

  1. “They say, that Christ is received in the mouth, and entereth in with the bread and wine: we say, that he is received in the heart, and entereth in by faith.”[62]

  1. Cranmer insists that Christ remains in the worthy receiver so long as he remains in Christ. However, Rome holds that Christ “flyeth up” from the receiver once the bread has been chewed and digested.

  1. They say that the whole Christ is contained in each part of the bread and wine, feet, arms, head etc. Cranmer merely dismisses this as an “abominable invention… to make of the most pure and perfect body of Christ such a confused and monstrous body!”

  1. According to Rome, even dogs can eat the body of Christ if they happen to eat the sacramental bread! Cranmer insists that only humans can eat the body of Christ and drink his blood.

  1. Moreover, only those who are “lively members of his body” can eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, says Cranmer. For Rome, everyone receives the body and blood of Christ, whether regenerate or unregenerate.
  2. They also say that people only eat the body of Christ and drink his blood when they receive the sacrament. “We say, that they eat, drink and feed of Christ continually, so long as they be members of his body.”

  1. Rome says that the body of Christ has its own form and quantity in the sacrament, while Cranmer holds that Christ is there without form or quantity, but only sacramentally and spiritually.

  1. The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament did not eat the body nor drink the blood of Christ, according to Rome. However, Cranmer insists that, though Christ was not yet born or incarnated, they did eat his body and drink his blood.
  2. Furthermore, Christ’s body was made only once, of the substance of his mother Mary (i.e. human flesh and blood). Rome says that the body of Christ is made numerous times each day, whenever a Mass is held, and that he is made of bread and wine.

  1. Rome also holds that the Mass is a “sacrifice satisfactory for sin”, on the basis of the devotion of the offering priest, and not of the thing offered. “But we say, that their saying is a most heinous lie and detestable error against the glory of Christ.” Only the death of Christ, offered once for the sins of the world, is able to make satisfaction for sin.

  1. Rome says that Christ is simultaneously corporally present in multiple places. Here Cranmer draws on the analogy of the sun and its rays, insisting that the sun is only present in the heavens, but its operation and virtue makes it present on earth. Likewise, Christ is bodily and corporally in heaven at the right hand of God, but is spiritually present on earth, and godly people spiritually eat his flesh and drink his blood by faith.

MacCulloch and Brooks differ on what phrase best describes Cranmer’s understanding of the presence of Christ. Brooks highlights Cranmer’s use of the phrase “true presence” in one section of the Answer to Stephen Gardiner to demonstrate that this is the most appropriate way to represent the Archbishop’s views.[63]

However, MacCulloch argues that this is a rare occurrence in Cranmer’s later writings. Rather, it is more characteristic of Cranmer to speak of Christ being “spiritually” present, as has just been demonstrated in the thirteen points of difference with Roman doctrine.[64] Jeanes makes the same observation when he says that “the most common theme is of the presence of Christ that is enabled by the Holy Spirit”.[65]

Cranmer’s emphasis on the spiritual presence of Christ is so strong that it can be applied to all of life, and not merely restricted to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.[66] Indeed this is probably deliberate as Cranmer views the regeneration and sanctification of the believer as normative aspects of the Christian life.[67]

No doubt scarred by the attacks following the Catechism and the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer clearly wanted to make a clean break from any talk of “real” or even “true” presence, terms that evidently could be mistaken for Rome’s transubstantiation and Luther’s consubstantiation. As such, in the Defence and Answer he made sure that he could not be mistaken, but consistently spoke of the “spiritual” presence of Christ with his people, both in the Eucharist and at all other times.

(vi) “The Spirit giveth life, the flesh availeth nothing.”

This emphasis on the spiritual force of Christ’s presence and work, leads Cranmer to make repeated use of the words of Christ in John 6:63: “The Spirit giveth life, the flesh availeth nothing.”[68] In a brief exegesis of that passage Cranmer seeks to demonstrate that Christ made a clear distinction between carnal eating and spiritual eating. Having announced that he was the “bread of life” and that “whosover should eat his flesh, and drink his blood, should have everlasting life”, many were offended with his words and declared, “This is an hard saying; for how can he give us his flesh to be eaten?” Cranmer argues that Christ’s purpose was to turn away all thoughts of carnal eating and instead to make clear that he meant spiritual eating, because to actually eat his flesh would not profit them at all.[69] Rather they should spiritually eat of him by faith, as did the patriarchs many years before he was incarnate (cf. 1 Cor 10:3-4).[70]

He goes even further in the Answer to Stephen Gardiner, in saying that salvation is not dependent upon believing that “the natural body and blood of Christ is really, substantially, and naturally present in the sacrament”.[71] If this were so, it is certain that Christ and the Apostles would have taught the doctrine carefully and clearly; indeed Christ would not have said, “The Spirit giveth life, the flesh availeth nothing” if the eating of his own flesh were so necessary for salvation.

Cranmer dispelled any notion that he held to a doctrine of the Eucharist that included either Rome’s transubstantiation or Luther’s consubstantiation. Rather than “real presence” theology, Cranmer affirmed a “spiritual presence” of the ascended Christ. As such, participants of the Lord’s Supper ought not to think of themselves as feeding carnally on the body and blood of Christ, but spiritually feeding on all the benefits of Christ’s finished work on the cross, and thus being nourished in their Christian walk.

This leads us to the other major query of Cranmer’s mature doctrine of the Lord’s Supper: the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace.

The Lord’s Supper as a means of grace

In what way are we to understand the Lord’s Supper representing or effecting the grace it signifies? Cranmer sought to answer this question in the Defence and his Answer to Stephen Gardiner.

Brian Gerrish has provided a helpful structure in order to make the distinction between three viewpoints concerning the Lord’s Supper within the Reformed camp: symbolic memorialism, symbolic parallelism and symbolic instrumentalism.[72]

In all three the shared component is the notion that a sign or symbol “points to” something else. They differ in that the reality pointed to is variously thought of as a happening in the past, a happening that occurs simultaneously in the present, or a present happening that is actually brought about through the signs.[73]

(i) Symbolic memorialism

Gerrish ascribes symbolic memorialism to Zwingli, for whom the sacraments could not be “vehicles of grace”.[74] Rather, for Zwingli the sign points to “a happening in the past”. In response to Gardiner’s suggestion that he thought of the bread and wine as “tokens only to signify Christ’s body and blood”, Cranmer insists:

They be no vain nor bare tokens, as you would persuade, (for a bare token is that which betokeneth only, and giveth nothing, as a painted fire which giveth neither light nor heat), but in the due ministration of the sacraments, God is present, working with his word and sacraments.[75]

Although Cranmer would certainly agree that as signs the bread and wine point to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ in the past, nevertheless it is evident that he viewed the sign as more than a mere memorial. That leaves symbolic instrumentalism or parallelism.

(ii) Symbolic instrumentalism

Gerrish finds that symbolic instrumentalism is most evident in Calvin.[76] The emphasis here is on “a present happening that is actually brought about through the signs”.[77] MacCulloch stresses that Cranmer and Calvin would find themselves on common ground in a number of areas related to the Eucharist.[78] In particular, there would be an agreement in emphasising the complementary ministry of word and sacrament. Gerrish comments that for Calvin “the indispensable component in a sacramental action is not the sign but the Word, which sign confirms and seals; and we are not to imagine that a sacrament adds to the word an efficacy of a totally different order”.[79]

However, Cranmer would not concur with Calvin’s assertion that the sacraments could “confer” or “contain” grace.[80] For Cranmer, it is not the elements themselves that confer grace upon the believer; rather “communion was a liturgical event which was only complete when a congregation made an experience of God’s grace effectual by its act of willing acceptance in faith”.[81] This rules out symbolic instrumentalism for Cranmer.

(iii) Symbolic Parallelism

Cranmer does not speak of the sacraments conferring grace, but “prefers to speak of God, not the sacraments, working, and it is more typical for him to say that God works by his sacraments in those who rightly receive them”.[82] This puts Cranmer more in line with the symbolic parallelism of Bullinger.[83]

Richardson has said that for Cranmer, “sacraments teach, while incarnation and redemption (with the corresponding faith in them) are what effects.”[84] The emphasis here is not on the signs themselves but on those who receive them in faith. It is faith then, and not the symbols, that brings about a real relationship between the sign and the reality, the sacrament and the grace.[85] This is the essence of symbolic parallelism: as the people of God exercise faith in the things signified, God works grace in them alongside the elements and action of the sacrament.

For Cranmer, though, grace does not come to the recipient through a mere “speech act”.[86] The analogy of speech acts was employed by some reformers (notably Peter Martyr) as a way to explain sacramental efficacy. Speech act theory argues that words create relationships; in the case of the Eucharist, the words of the minister in the action of administering the bread and wine create a relationship between the sign and the grace they signify, thereby effecting the grace in the recipient. For Cranmer, however, the idea of speech acts in the Eucharist unhelpfully “link the grace too closely with the action and the minister. That link can only be made in the private world by the individual’s reception by faith.”[87]

It is as though, for Cranmer, the sacrament is hardly necessary. If the link between grace and action is made privately in the world of the recipient, then the “elements and action of the sacrament are left somewhat exterior and incidental”.[88] In other words, what is the point of the elements and the action if the grace is received by virtue of the recipient’s faith alone? It seems that this is a compromise on Cranmer’s part in his determination to use the language of signification, and to avoid the language of exhibition where the signs are also the seals. As such, he appears to suggest that the work of God pointed to in the sacrament is actually a continual action.

We say, that the presence of Christ in his holy Supper is a spiritual presence: and as he is spiritually present, so is he spiritually eaten of all faithful Christian men, not only when they receive the sacrament, but continually so long as they be members spiritual of Christ’s mystical body.[89]

Despite clearly falling into the symbolic parallelism category, Cranmer would strongly claim to hold to an instrumentalist view where the elements are not empty tokens.[90]

Cranmer’s studies led him to understand a spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as opposed to a real corporal presence. In this model, Christ is physically present in heaven, but is present with his people by virtue of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Cranmer held that grace was conferred on the recipient of the Supper not by the action itself but by faith in the realities signified by the action.

Cranmer spent almost a decade trying to find the correct language with which to express his mature doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, wherein there could be no suggestion from his opponents that he retained Roman Catholic or Lutheran views. This highlights the intense nature of the sacramental debates that were raging at the time, not only in England but also on the continent. That these debates rage on today is perhaps indicative of how difficult it is to determine the true biblical teaching on the matter. Nevertheless it remains an important topic for debate, and it is to contemporary English Evangelical views of the Lord’s Supper that we now turn.

The Lord’s Supper in contemporary English Evangelicalism

In the years since Cranmer the debate over the Lord’s Supper has continued and there are as many conflicting views concerning the sacraments today as there were then. In contemporary Evangelicalism in England alone there are numerous different positions. That said, comparatively little has been published by English authors on the subject, making it difficult to trace contemporary understanding and practice, which may be indicative that, for the majority of English Evangelicals, the Lord’s Supper is either a non-contentious issue, or indeed that it is not a theological priority.[91]

It could be argued that this silence has led to some level of ignorance amongst Evangelical congregations in England. Would the average believer participating in a communion service be able to express what was happening in that moment? We cannot know, but the suspicion is that very few could. One thing is clear: a theological understanding of what happens when we break bread and drink wine as the gathered church, however superficial, has a direct impact on our practice of the Supper.

The Supper as sign

So, from the evidence available, what do contemporary Evangelicals believe is signified in the Lord’s Supper? Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in volume three of Great Doctrines of the Bible, lists five things signified in the Supper, which will serve as a basis for our discussion here.

(i) It signifies the Lord’s death

Paul in 1 Cor 11:26 is sufficient to demonstrate this: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” This continues to be the case even when there is a lack of cross-centred preaching from the pulpit.[92] Tim Chester, co-founder of The Porterbrook Network and a prolific author, affirms that while the communion meal is more than a memorial, it is certainly not less than a memorial of Christ’s death.[93] Likewise, Derek Prime states that the purpose of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial is that believers “should recall to mind Christ’s sufferings on our behalf”.[94] Robert Letham, an ordained Presbyterian minister, author and lecturer, says that the Lord’s Supper is most commonly thought of as a memorial of Christ’s death because “we all know how to remember past events”.[95] Consequently, he bemoans, the Lord’s Supper is most commonly thought of in this way only.

(ii) It signifies participation in Christ and his death

Romans 6:4-5 uses the language of participation to describe how the believer is united with Christ in his death, and even participates in his death. This is clearly signified in the Lord’s Supper. “It reminds us of… our union with Him and, therefore, of our participation in His death.”[96] Prime agrees, and also adds that the Lord’s Supper is a reminder that by faith we share in the benefits of Christ and his death.[97] For Letham, this relates to the believer’s “union with Christ and its cultivation by the Holy Spirit as [they] eat and drink the physical elements”, a point which will be expanded when discussing the Lord’s Supper as grace “sealed” below.[98]

(iii) It signifies participation in the benefits of the New Covenant

The Communion Service is a reminder to believers that God has made a new covenant with them (cf. 1 Cor 11:25) through the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ.[99] Lloyd-Jones cites Heb 8:8-12 to describe the benefits of the “marvellous” new covenant in which believers share.

(iv) It signifies the help we receive in living the Christian life

“Each mouthful is a reminder that we cannot save ourselves.”[100] Partaking in the bread and wine reminds the believer of the life and strength they receive from Christ to live the Christian life.[101] Here, Lloyd-Jones refers to John 6:56: ‘‘He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” Lloyd-Jones explains his understanding that Jesus is using the language of eating his flesh and drinking his blood as a picture of the life believers receive from him. The example Jesus uses is of the life he receives from the Father: “As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.” (John 6:57)

Jesus cannot mean that he draws his spiritual life and strength from eating the substance of the Father; he cannot, therefore, be suggesting that believers receive their strength for living the Christian life by the eating and drinking of his body and blood. Rather, using a text favoured by Cranmer, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). As such, when the believer eats the bread and drinks the wine they should be reminded of the need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in a spiritual sense, “if [they are] to be a strong and a virile and a conquering Christian”.[102]

(v) It signifies the union of believers with one another

Believers are not only united to Christ but they are also united to one another.[103] Lloyd-Jones says that careful attention must be given to 1 Cor 10:16-17:

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

The “one loaf” that is used in the communion service is therefore a representation of the union between believers. Even when the loaf is divided into multiple parts, it serves as a visual picture of the unity shared by multiple believers.[104]

Chester argues that the church proclaims the Lord’s death when it comes together as a community reconciled by the cross.[105] This was being undermined in Corinth as the wealthy looked down on the poor precisely at the point of their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, Paul’s teaching concerning the unity of believers in 1 Cor 10 is what drives his teaching in 1 Cor 11 concerning the divisions that were seen in the church at Corinth, especially when they gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. “Paul talks about the divisions and the heresies and he condemns them because they are a contradiction of everything that is represented by the Communion Service.”[106]

The five things signified in the Lord’s Supper, as described by Lloyd-Jones, would all be endorsed by Cranmer. Indeed, at the very least, most Evangelicals in England would agree that the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic signification of the spiritual realities outlined above. The more contentious issue is how, or even if, the Lord’s Supper seals the grace that it signifies.

The Lord’s Supper as grace “sealed”

As we have seen, Cranmer’s basic understanding was that sacraments are signs, but he was at pains to resist referring to them as seals. Jeanes notes that Cranmer’s model was a weak attempt at symbolic instrumentality, where the connection between the sacrament and the grace it signifies is effected by prayer and faith, “appropriating God’s promise”.[107] Consequently, Cranmer is to be understood to have held more to symbolic parallelism. In contemporary English Evangelicalism, it appears that there are diverse meanings when speaking of the Lord’s Supper as a “seal” of the grace it signifies.

(i) Grace confirmed

Lloyd-Jones speaks of the Lord’s Supper giving assurance to the believer that Christ died for them, that they are united to him, and have died and risen with him.[108] Earlier he has described the sacrament as a seal, as something that “authenticates a promise”; nothing is added to the promise but rather it confirms the truth of the promise to the one to whom the promise is made.[109] For example, circumcision was the seal of the promise made to Abraham, as was the rainbow to Noah and his descendants. Each of these was a further confirmation of what had already been promised.

Lloyd-Jones uses the illustration of the wedding or engagement ring to describe how the Lord’s Supper (as well as baptism) is a seal of the grace it signifies.[110] The ring is given to seal the statement or promise that has already been made (i.e. the promise to marry the person receiving the ring). Nothing is added to the original statement, but the ring “simply tells the same thing in a different way”.[111] The person receiving the ring is reminded of what it represents whenever they look at it; the ring is a constant assurance to the wearer of the love of the person who gave it. Likewise, according to Lloyd-Jones, the bread and the wine are a special assurance of the love of God and the benefits by them signified.[112] For Lloyd-Jones, therefore, to speak of the Lord’s Supper as a seal of grace is to understand it as giving assurance of the promises of God. Just as a man gives a ring to his beloved, so God has chosen to speak to the believer and give affirmation of the benefits of their salvation by means of the communion meal, and that is how it is to be received.

Chester, while not using the word “seal”, certainly speaks of the communion meal in much the same way as Lloyd-Jones. Objectively, salvation is not dependent upon participation in the Lord’s Supper, but as believers partake in the meal “salvation becomes a subjective reality for us afresh. We enact our union with Christ, and in him find we’re forgiven, justified, and adopted.”[113] Again we find that the Lord’s Supper is spoken of as affirming the promises of God in Jesus Christ and his work to those who, by faith, take part in the Lord’s Supper. More than simply representing what Christ has done, the action of the communion meal confirms to the senses the reality of salvation in Christ.

Again, we find in the FIEC booklet, Light for Life (a commentary on its Basis of Faith) that the Lord’s Supper is spoken of as confirming grace to the believer:

The Lord’s Supper enriches our Christian lives because in a special way it focuses our minds and hearts on the Saviour and all that he has accomplished for us at Calvary. As we think about these things with faith, our hearts are encouraged and strengthened (John 6:57-58).[114]

Furthermore, the FIEC Basis of Faith states that all the blessings of the Lord’s Supper are received by faith. Clearly the Lord’s Supper is understood to seal the grace it signifies by affirming to the faith of the participant all the salvific accomplishments of Christ. It is as these truths are brought to mind with faith that the blessings of salvation flow to the believer.

David Wenham, an Evangelical Anglican theologian, has posited the idea that at the Last Supper Jesus was enacting a parable, whereby he “acted out” with bread and wine what he was about to have done to his body and blood.[115] Moreover, he was not merely giving theological information but involving his disciples in a “theological experience”.[116] “In the Last Supper they experienced for themselves what the cross was all about – about the body and blood of Jesus being given up, broken, poured out for them, and about the need to take that death to themselves (“eat … drink”).[117] The meal is now a communication to all who partake that Jesus’ death is something he shares with them, that they are to take into themselves. It is a reminder that the cross is the source of life for the believer, “food for our spiritual life, as we take it to ourselves”.[118] As the bread and wine are taken it is a way of saying that the believer has accepted the death of Christ into themselves. The language is moving somewhat more in the direction of the conveyance of grace. However, Wenham makes clear that his meaning is not that by physically eating the bread and wine the believer receives life; rather the eating and drinking is an expression of faith in the death of Christ. For Wenham, therefore, the Lord’s Supper affirms the grace it signifies in the sense that it is an enacted parable, which vividly displays the work of Christ and also involves the participants in the action.

There are some, therefore, who think of the Lord’s Supper as a seal which affirms the promises of salvation in Christ to the believer. How else is the Lord’s Supper thought to be a seal of grace?

(ii) Grace conveyed

Melvin Tinker, an Evangelical Anglican Vicar, has contested Wenham’s concept of the Last Supper or Lord’s Supper as an enacted parable, arguing for a strengthened view.[119] For Tinker, far from being merely grace acted out, the whole action of the Lord’s Supper is an “illocutionary act”, in which the Lord does things by his Spirit.[120] As the bread and wine are given, and the accompanying words are spoken, “the correlated aspects of divine love, forgiveness and eschatological hope are not merely attested to, but imparted”.[121] Tinker evokes Lloyd-Jones’ analogy of the wedding ring, but takes it further; the ring doesn’t simply “speak” of love and commitment, but its giving partly “brings it about” in establishing the wedding covenant. The giving and receiving of the bread and wine, he says, can be understood in the same way: God has committed himself to the believer at Calvary (signified in the Supper) and the believer responds accordingly.[122] By paying attention to the “performative nature” of the Lord’s Supper, Wenham’s “multi-media parable” concept is augmented as the grace signified is actually said to be conveyed via the bread and wine.[123]

Letham has no problem with the view that the Lord’s Supper confirms or affirms the grace it signifies; the Lord’s Supper “serves to sign and seal in our consciences the promises of the gospel… As a result we will have a right assurance of salvation.”[124] However, Letham goes further in his under-standing of the Lord’s Supper as a seal: it not only assures us of the promises of God, but it also gives assurance that “this (i.e. the Lord’s Supper) is our true spiritual nourishment”.[125] More than being just a confirmation and affirmation of salvation to the believer, the Lord’s Supper is actually a means by which the believer is fed spiritually. Elsewhere, Letham has described what happens in the Lord’s Supper in this way:

As we exercise faith in Christ through the Spirit, the Spirit enables us in eating the bread and drinking the wine to grow into union with Christ. We thus share or participate in the body and blood of Christ.[126]

It is actually as the communicant eats and drinks the bread and wine that they grow in their union with Christ, as a work of the Spirit through faith. Along with Calvin, therefore, we find that Letham uses the explicit instrumentalist language that Cranmer could not bring himself to use.

The justification for this view is largely taken from John 6:47-58.[127] Following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus introduces the idea that he is the bread of life come down from heaven to give life to the world (v. 33). He must be received by faith, which is a gracious gift from the Father (vv. 44, 47). Jesus says it is his flesh that is given for the life of the world, a clear reference to his work of atonement on the cross (v. 51). Jesus then begins using the language of “eating” and “drinking” his flesh and blood in order to receive this life. Letham draws on Newbigin to highlight the explicit nature of what Jesus is saying. The use of sarx (flesh) instead of soma (body) “shifts the content of what it means to receive Jesus away from a purely mental and spiritual hearing and believing, in the direction of a physical chewing and swallowing”.[128] Letham then claims, along with Newbigin, that this is the Johannine equivalent of the words of institution spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.[129] The only way to reconcile Jesus’ seemingly cannibalistic language is to view it as being “theologically connected with the Eucharist”.[130] Faith and feeding, therefore, are synonymous – “both go together and both are necessary and indispensable”.[131]

Eating and drinking go together with faith. They are two sides to the same coin. The eucharist is central to the gospel. While the eucharist without faith profits us nothing, so faith without the eucharist is barren and empty. In the Lord’s Supper through faith (the gift of the Holy Spirit) we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood and so are nourished to everlasting salvation.[132]

This is differs significantly from Thomas Cranmer, who held that eternal life comes by faith, and that the Christian is nourished continually by the Spirit, not only at the Lord’s Supper.[133]

It is difficult to see how Letham can suggest that faith is “barren and empty” without the Eucharist. Certainly, faith in the atoning work of the cross, signified in the Eucharist, is essential and without such faith there is no eternal life and no union with Christ. It is faith in Christ and the giving of his flesh that leads to eternal life (John 6:51). All talk of eating and drinking in this passage proceeds after talk of faith and believing. There is significant cause, therefore, to understand the former as a picture that points to the latter. “Coming” and “believing” are replaced by “eating” and drinking”.[134] Consequently, there are grounds for understanding the Lord’s Supper in much the same way; eating and drinking the bread and wine is a visible sign and affirming seal of the life that comes by faith in Christ. But to suggest that participation in the Eucharist itself is as essential as saving faith seems to go beyond the teaching of Christ.

Recalling Lloyd-Jones’ argument, in this passage Jesus drew a comparison between feeding on his flesh and blood to receive life and the life he himself received from the Father.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. (John 6:56–57)

From where did Jesus receive life? Clearly, he received it from the Father, but the spiritual life Jesus drew upon from the Father in his incarnation was not dependent on him partaking in a sacrament, nor on any kind of eating and drinking.

As the Son lives “through the Father”, i.e., has his life from and is sustained by the Father, so the believer has life from and is sustained by the Son… the Father has given to the Son to have life in himself, and through him alone can that divine life be known by man.[135]

We must not ignore the comparison Jesus makes in v. 57: “so the one who feeds on me will live because of me”. In other words, Christians receive spiritual and eternal life because of Christ’s work of atonement on their behalf, in which they have placed their faith. The Eucharist is given to the church as a means of signifying and affirming the substitutionary work of Christ to the believing participant, and indeed to strengthen their faith in that work as a spiritual nourishment for sustaining them through their earthly pilgrimage. But the eternal life spoken of in John 6 comes to the believer through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as they come to God in faith. Likewise, the ongoing feeding of that faith comes by the Holy Spirit who draws the believer into closer union with Christ through the work of sanctification.

Letham certainly sees the reference to the cross, and can speak of it as providing “eternal nourishment”, in the language of John 6.[136] Yet he goes further to suggest that “Christ is to us the bread of life as we feed on him in the eucharist, as we eat and drink his flesh and blood.”[137] Both faith and eating and drinking are indispensable, according to Letham.

Clearly Letham’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a seal of grace differs substantially from that of Lloyd-Jones and Chester. That Letham’s view is in accord with historical Reformed Christianity, as expressed by Calvin and the Westminster Confession, is beyond dispute. Rather than simply affirming or confirming the grace that is signified in the action of the meal, grace is instrumentally conveyed as the bread and wine are chewed and swallowed. For Letham “this is a matter more to be adored than investigated”, and with Calvin, it is “a high and incomprehensible mystery”.[138]

However, the New Testament does not refer to the Lord’s Supper as a mystery.[139] In fact, it appears that it was instituted precisely at the moment when Christ was speaking to his disciples in the plainest of language (cf. John 16:29). Neither is it spoken of as exhibiting, conferring or conveying Christ crucified and his benefits to the believer. To be sure, the mode and means of the believer’s spiritual growth in Christ, and the believer’s growth into union with Christ, may be a mystery, in that it is not understood precisely how it takes place; sufficient for us is the knowledge, and more importantly, the promise that it does take place. Therefore, it is the promise that is to be believed in, and thereby the grace of God is sealed and confirmed to the believer who rightly looks to Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper is clearly given to the church by Christ to be observed by all who come to him in faith. There are words of institution (Matt 26:20-29, Mark 14:17-25, Luke 22:14-38, cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26); there is a right and wrong way to approach and partake in it (1 Cor 11:17-34); it must be observed in obedience and with worshipful reverence to Christ; it clearly signifies spiritual realities, and can even be said to “seal” or confirm those realities to the believer (1 Cor 10:16,17). But it is surely not to be understood as instrumentally conferring grace to the participant; that appears to be absent from the plain teaching of Christ himself in Scripture.

Rather, as with Cranmer, believers should partake by faith, and lean on the promises signified and sealed to them in the sacraments, seeking the growth and nourishment promised by Christ and available to them continually, not only in the sacraments. However, the sacraments are an appointed means by which the church is made mindful of the promises of God and are called to respond to him in faithful obedience. Those promises come to the mind and heart of the believer by virtue of the word of God spoken and received. Indeed, Cranmer spoke of the necessity of feeding on Scripture as a means of grace. Therefore, it is as a ministry of the word of God that the Lord’s Supper can be said to convey grace to the faithful believer.

As such, despite denying that there is any instrumental conveyance of grace in the Lord’s Supper, Cranmer can say that the bread and wine are not “bare tokens”; God is working with his word and sacraments.[140]

And the true eating and drinking of the said body and blood of Christ, is with a constant and a lively faith to believe, that Christ gave his body and shed his blood upon the cross for us, and that he doth so join and incorporate himself to us, that he is our head, and we his members, and flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones, having him dwelling in us, and we in him. And herein standeth the whole effect and strength of this sacrament. And this faith God worketh inwardly in our hearts by his Holy Spirit, and confirmeth the same outwardly to our ears by hearing of his word, and to our other senses by eating and drinking of the sacramental bread and wine in his holy Supper.[141]


The aim of this article has been to critically assess Thomas Cranmer’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and to compare it with that of contemporary English Evangelicalism. In particular, the subject of what happens in the Eucharist has been a key focus.

Cranmer has bequeathed to the English an immense legacy with his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Working at a time when this was a hotly debated topic, Cranmer remained committed to faithfully expounding the scriptural teaching on the subject, and was steadfast in achieving an appropriate language with which to express his views. What is regrettable is that, compared with other key reformers, Cranmer is a relatively neglected figure. This is particularly the case with regard to his Eucharistic theology.

The notion of spiritual presence, as opposed to “real” or even “true” presence, is now so accepted that contemporary English Evangelicals barely mention the subject of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The spiritual presence of Christ is also a sound footing for understanding the spiritual feeding that takes place when faithful believers partake of the Lord’s Supper, looking to and trusting in the promises of God in Christ found in Scripture.

While the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was considered so important in England during Cranmer’s time that men (such as Cranmer) were burnt at the stake for their views, the subject has to a large extent been neglected today. Perhaps much of English Evangelicalism has now lapsed into a more-or-less memorialist position; or maybe the Lord’s Supper is seen as a resolved issue, while other matters such as eschatology and atonement are more readily defended and debated; or perhaps the Lord’s Supper has been neglected to the extent that it is now considered a “mystery”, not theologically but intellectually, with a great many Christians not really grasping its significance. Whatever the causes or reasons, the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper has generally drifted away from Evangelical thought in England.

It is likely that there is no easy solution. It may be that it will take a doctrinal controversy to spark off another Cranmer-like debate concerning the Lord’s Supper. Should that happen, Cranmer’s legacy will be available to reinvigorate Evangelical discourse concerning the true and catholic doctrine of the sacrament of the body and blood of our Saviour Christ.