An Incarnational Model of the Eucharist by James M. Arcadi

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Wednesday 1 May 2019

The Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship. Billions and billions of Christian across the globe and across time have participated in billions and billions of celebrations of the Eucharist. At the heart of the Eucharist are some very curious phrases that Christ says in the Gospels and ministers now repeat: Christ says of a piece of bread, “This is my body,” and of a measure of wine, “This is my blood.” What could these curious utterances mean? Answering this question has spawned no small amount of theological debate in the history of Christian theological reflection. In fact, at times in Christian history, getting the answer to this question wrong could get you burnt at the stake. There are lots of interpretations and models of the Eucharist out there on offer in the spectrum of Christians traditions. My idea was to take an old, but somewhat neglected model of the Eucharist and brush it up with some contemporary conceptual tools. The idea, simply, is that when Christ utters those curious words about bread and wine—and when ministers do the same—the bread of the Eucharist is consecrated and renamed, bringing about a metaphysical state of affairs much like the Incarnation, where that consecrated and renamed object both continues to be a piece of bread and becomes part of Christ’s body. Here are a few of the steps in the argument for this idea.

The first step in the argument is to lay an exegetical and biblical-theological foundation for this notion. Especially important concerning the exegetical foundation is the manner in which the term ‘this’ in ‘This is my body’ relates to ‘my body’. Its actually a little tricky when one sees the sentence in Greek, but I argue that there is good reason to suppose the natural read (that we have in English) is best, wherein ‘this’ and ‘my body’ refer to one and the same object: the object in Christ’s hand at the moment of his uttering the phrase ‘This is my body’. I think this exegesis fits with what George Hunsinger has called a ‘real predication’ linguistic model: Christ really predicated ‘his body’ of the bread that was in his hand. Hunsinger exposits real predication to entail the ‘syntactical equivalence’ of ‘this bread’ and ‘the body of Christ’ in the context of the Eucharist. I use William Alston’s account of speech act theory to discuss a model of renaming that can explain this real prediction by syntactical equivalence. This analysis argues that one of the Scriptural and liturgical givens of the Eucharist is that the consecrated object can be referred to both as ‘bread’ and as ‘the body of Christ’. The Eucharistic linguistic state of affairs is similar to what occurs in traditional explications of the Incarnation. This teaching is that that both ‘is a human’ and ‘is God’ can be aptly predicated of Christ.

Further on a biblical-theological note, the narrative contexts of the Last Supper in John 14-16 and the Road to Emmaus story in Luke 24 provide reasons for thinking that the issue of Christ’s presence is an important theme of the Eucharist. But since Christ is God, thinking about ways that God is present in the world should inform how we think God is present in Christ and how Christ is present in the Eucharist. I argue that attention to God’s presence in particular locations helps us to conceive of God’s presence in all locations, or what we call God’s omnipresence. But both God’s particular presence and omnipresence are better understood along the lines of an action motif of presence, not the occupancy account of some recent omnipresence theories. That God is where God acts is the maxim borne out of consideration of specific instance of divine presence in Scripture. When God speaks from the midst of the Unburnt Bush, when God goes before his people in the pillar of fire, or when God acts in the Holy of Holies, it is apt for God’s people to say that God is there. It is the divine activity in these locations that sanctions the notion of the divine presence at those locations.

Furthermore, from my examination of instances of divine activity as divine presence there emerges a connection between the divine presence and holiness. Holy objects are loci for divine activity and thus divine presence. When objects become holy, when they are consecrated, they become owned by God in a manner that is beyond God’s normal ownership of all objects in the cosmos. Consecrated objects are separated for a holy use, for God’s use. Holy objects thus belong to God to be used by God for God’s purposes. One use that God has for holy objects is that they be a particular locus of God’s presence.

In the next step, I pivot from the presence motif to Christology. In harmony with the discussion of divine presence as divine action, I deploy Katherin Rogers’ action model of traditional Christology. When the Word acts with his human nature, the hypostatic union obtains between his divine and human natures. In a similar manner as holy objects such as the Unburnt Bush or Mercy Seat are loci of divine activity (and thus presence), so too was/is Christ’s human nature a locus of God’s presence. When the Word acts with his human nature it is apt to say ‘God is there’ or ‘God is present’ at the location of the human nature in Christ. Moreover, as the concept of ownership plays an important role in the discussion of holy objects, so too does ownership serve to characterize the instrumental action of the Incarnation. The Word’s use of his human nature is what brings about the hypostatic union. But, as my analysis shows, the Word uses this human nature as his own. To return to the linguistic state of affairs, this metaphysical state of affairs sanctions the aptness of the predicates ‘is a human’ and ‘is God’ when spoken of Christ.

Since the linguistic states of affairs of the Incarnation and the Eucharist are so similar, and since there is precedence in the Christian theological tradition for applying the Incarnation to discussions of the Eucharist, I make the move to apply a particular metaphysical explication of the teaching of traditional Christology to the metaphysics of the Eucharist. I call this ‘Sacramental Impanation’ (‘impanation’ being ‘en-breaded’ like ‘incarnation’ is ‘en-fleshed’). The cluster of notions related to Christ’s presence, divine omnipresence, consecration, and Christology lead to the construction of Sacramental Impanation. Just as God is present in such holy locations as the Unburnt Bush, the Mercy Seat, and Christ’s human nature, so too can we say that God is there in the Eucharist, this is the body of Christ. It should thus be clear how traditional Christology is so vital to Sacramental Impanation. Not only is it an explanatory motif, but in order for the analysis of consecration—which states that consecration brings about the divine presence at the location of holy objects—to apply to the Eucharist, it must be the case that Christ is divine. For in the Eucharist, the holy object is the body of Christ. Yet, if Christ is not God, then the consecration analysis does not go through to the Eucharist. Nevertheless, since I adopt the traditional position that Christ is divine as a given, then instances of divine presence are indeed an apropos motif for understanding Christ’s presence at the location of the consecrated Eucharistic elements.

However, Sacramental Impanation does not merely say that Christ is present in his person, his divine nature, or his human soul. Rather, Sacramental Impanation is a model of the bodily presence of Christ. This bodily presence is due to an instrumental union between the human body of Christ and the Eucharistic elements that is akin to the phenomenon we see in prosthesis use. Hence, Sacramental Impanation relies on a similar metaphysical analysis as one finds in models of the Incarnation to explain the linguistic realities of the Eucharist. As Christ uses the consecrated elements, he forms an instrumental relation with those elements. Because of this action, the elements become his body as his body is extended to include the bread and wine as parts of his body. Sacramental Impanation holds that the bread and wine become parts of Christ’s extended body and blood such that it is apt to say that Christ is bodily present where the bread and wine are. The faithful can say of the Eucharistic bread that Christ is herethis is the body of Christ.


The Revd Dr. James M. Arcadi (PhD, University of Bristol) is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, USA. He is the author of An Incarnational Model of the Eucharist (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and is presently co-editing (with JT Turner) the T&T Clark Companion to Analytic Theology. Prior to his current appointment, he held a three-year postdoctoral research fellowship at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California and a two-year research fellowship at the Hertzl Institute in Jerusalem, Israel. In addition to his academic work, he is an ordained Anglican priest having served in parishes in Massachusetts, California, and Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter at @JamesArcadi.

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