Veith, Gene Edward Jr., & A. Trevor Sutton. Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017. “Chapter 5, “The Real Presence” pp. 125-150.
Counter to the mystical views that the spiritual is the highest reality, Veith and Sutton point out that Christianity has a high view of the physical. God is the creator and sustainer of physical things. He became flesh in the person of God the Son, with a very physical presence (Veith & Sutton 2017, 126). In this vein, it is important to remember that Lutheranism, unlike much of Protestantism, is sacramental in nature. In some specific settings, God uses a command, a promise, and a physical element to accomplish holiness (Veith & Sutton 2017, 127). In baptism, Lutherans confess that God does deliver actual grace for salvation. In communion, Lutherans confess that the body and blood of Christ are united to the elements of bread and wine, and are used to deliver forgiveness (Veith & Sutton 2017, 127).
Veith and Sutton observe that “both modernists and postmodernists have problems with the objective physical world . . . They assume that the physical real has no meaning, that meaning is a purely human enterprise” (Veith & Sutton 2017, 127). This is a common view among Christians as well, but should be denied by Lutherans, as we confess God works definitively through physical means. In essence, Veith and Sutton consider that the modern era, as stated by Max Weber in the early 20th century, is “disenchanted” with the world. Our rationalism has stopped looking at the physical as something sublime (Veith & Sutton 2017, 128). Those utilitarian views of natural things eventually caused a sharp dichotomy between “fact” (in the realm of the physical) and “value” (in the realm of the immaterial) (Veith & Sutton 2017, 129). This has led to challenges in worldviews. “A physical realm void of spiritual significance has come to lack any significance whatsoever. Tangible objects are valuable mainly for the ways we can use them” (Veith & Sutton 2017, 130). Even in the environmental movement, nature seems to be a victim of humans, who are separate frm the world We also question our relationship with our bodies, suggesting sometimes the division between a physical reality and the reality of our moral, or inner, person. The enchanting nature of the physical is perplexing when we are committed to a rejection of either the spiritual or the physical.
Veith and Sutton observe that Christians in the Enlightenment and since have also attempted to separate Christianity from physicality. Particularly among the more radical movements in Protestant Christianity, it became common to emphasize Christianity as “from the heart” apart from physicality. This was not entirely new, as there had always been some movements which had problems with the very physical presence of Christ in communion. But they were not prominent until the time of the Reformation (Veith & Sutton 2017, 132). In the Reformation the Lutherans and the Calvinists split regarding the physicality of Christ’s presence in communion, with the Calvinists and the Zwinglians both denying Jesus’ physical presence. This remains a distinction which is fundamental in understanding of multiple concepts (Veith & Sutton 2017, 133). Lutherans assert their view of Christ’s presence, as well as much of the rest of their understanding of Scripture, in the context of not forcing Scripture to be subject to human reason, but that human reason is subject to Scripture (Veith & Sutton 2017, 135). The important element then becomes what Chrsit does in his presence.
Veith and Sutton boil the controversy down to a simple statement. In Reformed or Roman Catholic theology, the finite cannot contain the infinite (Veith & Sutton 2017, 136). We are forced to find another explanation. However, in Lutheran theology, we are forced to accept the finite containing the infinite because Scripture describes it, not only in communion, but also and especially in the incarnation of Christ (Veith & Sutton 2017, 137). This view was, not surprisingly, taken by many Reformed theologians as a form of idolatry (Veith & Sutton 2017, 138). The Reformed wanted God to be entirely and only tanscendent, which Veith and Sutton find to dogmatize the “disenchantment” of the physical (Veith & Sutton 2017, 139). Lutheran theology, being radically sacramental and based on the incarnation, rejects the disenchatment.
Veith and Sutton go on to describe a biblical view of God’s presence in and with his ccreation, from Genesis 3 (Veith & Sutton 2017, 140) to Genesis 12, to the many statements in Exodus which depict God as dwelling where his people are (Veith & Sutton 2017, 142). In the New Testament clearly Jesus, God the Son, is physically with his disciples in time and space, even through his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (Veith & Sutton 2017, 143). Veith and Sutton think that there is no reason to expect anything else when it comes to Communion. Rather, Jesus promised to be present (Veith & Sutton 2017, 144). In sharp contrast, Veith and Sutton observe our contemporary world full of elements of absence. We have virtual meetings and distance ourselves mentally from our actual surroundings. The moments of presence are relatively rare (Veith & Sutton 2017, 145). The idea of God being present is therefore difficult for us to grasp. However, it is the message of Scripture and, thus, of Lutheranism (Veith & Sutton 2017, 147).
Veith and Sutton conclude that the Christianity which is consistent with Lutheran teaching takes the physical world very seriously, not rejecting it in favor of spiritualism, but embracing it as that which is radically inhabited by God in accord with his promises (Veith & Sutton 2017, 148).