Friday, April 21, 2006

John Calvin's View of the Lord's Supper

And now, John Calvin's view of the Lord's Supper- a position that wasn't always well received by later Reformed theologians. Hodge called it “Peculiar”. Dabney called it “strange, incomprehensible, and impossible.” William Cunningham called it, “unintelligible invention.”

Calvin’s position is probably closer to Luther’s, but he incorporates the concerns of Zwingli as well.

Calvin agreed with Zwingli: the doctrine of Christ’s ascension must be very central in our understanding of the Eucharist. Therefore he disagreed with Luther’s ubiquity & communicatio iddiomatum. (Zwingli stressed the Ascension of Christ: He is risen, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father. Christ said he was going to depart, therefore transubstantiation is idolatrous and a violation of the apostles creed).

Calvin agreed with Zwingli: A central place must be given to faith as the reception of blessing in the Lord's Supper. Some of the later Lutheran theologians were not stressing faith enough as the avenue of blessing in the reception of the Supper.

Calvin agreed with Luther: The Lord’s Supper must primarily be seen as a gift that God gives to his people. The Supper is not primarily something we do, but is primarily something God does for us in the gift of his Son.

Calvin agreed with Luther: There must be a stress of the vital importance and centrality of the body of Christ in our redemption. Our salvation is accomplished by the sacrifice of Christ’s body. We are united to Christ, including his body and blood by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Calvin held that Christ is the only food for our souls. We are nourished spiritually by Christ just as our bodies are nourished by the visible signs of the bread and wine. While we cannot truly grasp the mystical, unseen yet real union of Christ with believers, God demonstrates it in the visible terms of the believer's participation in the Lord's Supper. Clearly Calvin believed that the Lord's Supper was more than just a memorial or an empty sign, but would not agree with Luther regarding the physical presence of Christ around the elements.

Calvin sees the Lord’s Supper as “a visible word.”(an Augustinian phrase). What God says in the preached word, he shows in the visible word of the sacrament. This is strongly similar to Luther's understanding of the "word of God".

The visible word assures us that Christ is ever with us, forgiving us, and encouraging us in growth. The elements (bread and wine) speak of our spiritual nurture in Christ- our spiritual development in him. It is a nourishing sacrament- it nourishes us with Christ. The nourishment is Christ himself. Bread and wine represent the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ. Christ is the only food of our soul.

We need to use the sacrament to be strengthened. Just as we receive the bread and the wine, so, by faith we receive the body and blood of Christ to the nourishment and strengthening of our body.

Calvin holds that when we receive the bread and wine by faith, we receive the body and blood “with” the bread and the wine. Calvin not going as far to say that the body is always “in” the bread and the wine (this is where Calvin is not going with Luther). He goes along with Luther though in holding that what we need is Christ and his flesh and blood which are for our salvation. God has promised Christ to us in the visible word, just as he has promised Christ to us in the spoken word. Just as the spoken word offers Christ to us (if we receive him by faith), so the visible word offers Christ to us (if we receive him by faith). Luther would say God does more than just offer Christ in the Lord’s Supper, he actually gives Christ in it. Calvin, in effect, is willing to get close to Luther’s point.

A question arises: If Calvin says that Christ is truly offered and given in the supper, but that Christ is not “in, with, and under” the bread, how is Christ given? If Calvin wants to stress the importance of the ascension, how is it possible that Christ who is in heaven at the right hand of God can be the Christ that we will meet actually in the sacrament?

Calvin would answer: There is a great mystery here. This mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible. But we can say, Christ descends to us both by the outward symbol and by his Spirit that he may truly quicken our souls by the substance of his flesh and his blood; he who does not perceive that many miracles are subsumed in these few words is more than stupid.

But what is the miracle?

Calvin would answer: Somehow in the mystery of the Lord’s Supper by the power of the Spirit, Christ does not come down from Heaven but we are taken up to heaven, and there we commune with our ascended Lord himself.

Here is a helpful explanation from Calvin of his position from the Institutes, IV.17.1, (hopefully simplified with my commentary):

God as our loving parent, provides the spiritual food of the Lord’s Supper for our nourishment:

"After God has once received us into his family, it is not that he may regard us in the light of servants, but of sons, performing the part of a kind and anxious parent, and providing for our maintenance during the whole course of our lives. And, not contented with this, he has been pleased by a pledge to assure us of his continued liberality. To this end, he has given another sacrament to his Church by the hand of his only begotten Son, viz., a spiritual feast, at which Christ testifies that he himself is living bread, (John 6: 51,) on which our souls feed, for a true and blessed immortality. "

The bread and wine are “invisible food”, supplied to the Christian to “sustain and preserve” us in the life we have spiritually been born in to by his word:

"First, then, the signs are bread and wine, which represent the invisible food which we receive from the body and blood of Christ. For as God, regenerating us in baptism, engrafts us into the fellowship of his Church, and makes us his by adoption, so we have said that he performs the office of a provident parent, in continually supplying the food by which he may sustain and preserve us in the life to which he has begotten us by his word."

Christ is our only food. It is only by “partaking of him” that we gather strength to live this life:

"Moreover, Christ is the only food of our soul, and, therefore, our heavenly Father invites us to him, that, refreshed by communion with him, we may ever and anon gather new vigour until we reach the heavenly immortality."

Our union with Christ is beyond our ability to fully understand. God explains it to us with the visible elements in terms we can understand:

"But as this mystery of the secret union of Christ with believers is incomprehensible by nature, he exhibits its figure and image in visible signs adapted to our capacity, nay, by giving, as it were, earnests and badges, he makes it as certain to us as if it were seen by the eye; the familiarity of the similitude giving it access to minds however dull, and showing that souls are fed by Christ just as the corporeal life is sustained by bread and wine."

The Lord’s Supper was given to assure us of Christ’s atonement for us, and for us to “feel” assured:

"We now therefore, understand the end which this mystical benediction has in view, viz., to assure us that the body of Christ was once sacrificed for us, so that we may now eat it, and, eating, feel within ourselves the efficacy of that one sacrifice, - that his blood was once shed for us so as to be our perpetual drink."

If we take the Supper by faith in Christ and faith in his work of redemption, it will be nourishing to us:

"This is the force of the promise which is added, "Take, eat; this is my body, which is broken for you," (Matth. 26: 26) The body which was once offered for our salvation we are enjoined to take and eat, that, while we see ourselves made partakers of it, we may safely conclude that the virtue of that death will be efficacious in us. "

When we take the Lord’s Supper, it is Christ’s way of renewing us as those in a covenant relationship with him, it’s his way of confirming it to us:

"Hence he terms the cup the covenant in his blood. For the covenant which he once sanctioned by his blood he in a manner renews, or rather continues, in so far as regards the confirmation of our faith, as often as he stretches forth his sacred blood as drink to us."


Charles Malone said...

Hi James,

I am aware that the subject is the Lord's Supper but are we to understand from this statement from the "Institutes", [i]"First, then, the signs are bread and wine, which represent the invisible food which we receive from the body and blood of Christ. For as God, [b]regenerating us in baptism, engrafts us into the fellowship of his Church,[/b] and makes us his by adoption, so we have said that he performs the office of a provident parent, in continually supplying the food by which he may sustain and preserve us in the life to which he has begotten us by his word."[/i] that Calvin believed in "baptismal regeneration"?


Howard said...

Howdy James,

Just FYI, Crossed the Tiber ( has posted comments from Calvin portraying him as if he were Roman Catholic in his view of the Sacraments.

I figured since you are the RC expert as well as knowing Calvin I would point this out. In case you are interested.

God Bless