This question identifies one of the major differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (also between some Anglicans and orthodox Christians). The significance of this question also touches on a number of related issues in the Roman Catholic Church: the doctrine of transubstantiation, the necessity of the priests as those who offer a sacrifice. I will answer the question under three headings:
The meaning of the word altar
The altar in the Old Testament was the place of sacrifice. This is also the meaning of the word in the Greek (thusiasterion—the place of sacrifice). The Latin word altere refers to the lifting up of the sacrifice from the earth.
The importance of the distinction between “altar” and “table”
The Roman Catholic Church today uses the word altar because it teaches that the mass is a sacrifice. The Missal (instruction book for the mass) teaches that at the mass the wrath of God is appeased and the soul redeemed.
The communion table, on the other hand, as taught by the Reformed and evangelical church is not a sacrifice, but a remembrance of the “once for all” sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:10). Nicholas Ridley (Bishop of London, martyred on 15th October 1550) gave three biblical reasons why we ought not to use the word altar:
- Because the word altar speaks of the sacrifices of the law and both the law and the sacrifices of the law have ceased; they have been fulfilled in Christ.
- Because Christ instituted the sacrament on a table and not on an altar. The Apostles after this always used the table rather than an altar in the administration of the Lord’s Supper.
- Because an altar is for sacrifice and a table is for communion. We do not sacrifice Christ again and again; we feed on Him spiritually who was once for all offered for sin.
In addition, it is important to notice the inconsistency of the Roman Catholic mass:
- The Old Testament tells us that the sin offering was never to be eaten (Leviticus 6:30); it was consumed by fire. According to Roman Catholic teaching, in the mass the actual body and blood of Christ are eaten.
- When Christ instituted the Lord’s Super it was not offered to God as a sacrifice; He gave the bread and wine to his disciples as symbols. The disciples were commanded to partake of the feast, not to offer it as a sacrifice. It follows therefore that the Protestant minister is not offering Christ to the people as a sacrifice, but is partaking with them in communion with Christ.
Brief historical background
The celebration of the Eucharist on the “altar” as it is known in the Roman Catholic Church developed in the Middle Ages. It is not apostolic (i.e., it was not taught by the Apostles in the New Testament). The use of the word altar in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was not used by the church fathers; both Augustine and Athanasius used the phrase tables of wood when they spoke of the furniture of the sanctuary.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the bread and wine changed into the real and actual body of Christ) as it is taught today was absolutely denied by Pope Gelasius in 492. In 637 a friar named Anastasius first raised the idea, but it was not until the ninth century that it was fully developed by the Abbot of Corbie in France, Paschus Radbert. The term transubstantiation was first used about 1100 by Stephen, Bishop of Augustodunum, and was formally adopted at the Lateran Council in 1215 and reaffirmed by the Council of Trent during the Counter Reformation (Session xiii, canons 1-4).
This doctrine was reaffirmed by the Roman Catholic Church when the Reformers revived the distinction between the altar and the table because the reasons already mentioned above were seen to be fundamental to the teaching of Scripture. The Reformers were eager to return to the simple remembrance of what Christ has completed on the cross and to feed the soul in communion with Christ.
When Protestants come to the communion table today they do so by faith in the finished work of Christ, remembering (1 Corinthians 11:24–25) what Christ has done for them personally. The bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ that was sacrificed, and the believer coming to the table of communion is remembering that what was done at Calvary was done for him. To discern the Lord’s body (1 Corinthians 11:29) means to partake of the benefits of what Christ has finished for the believer on Calvary. This is the great comfort found at the communion table, a means of grace.
John Jewel, Works, 2:602.
Nicholas Ridley, Works, 322-323
John M’Donald, Romanism Analysed (Scottish Reformation Society: Edinburgh, 1894).
This article is from the Q&A at thinkgospel.com. You can submit questions on biblical or related issues from that page.