Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

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John Calvin is widely considered to be one of the greatest theologians of the Reformation era. Many associate his name with doctrines such as the sovereignty of God, election, and predestination, but fewer are aware that he wrote extensively on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. The topic occupied many of his sermons, tracts, and theological treatises throughout his career. Calvin’s emphasis was not unusual. Among the many doctrines debated during the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper was discussed more than any other.

By the time Calvin became a prominent voice in the late 1530s, the Reformers had been debating the Lord’s Supper with Roman Catholics and with each other for years. In order to understand Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, it is necessary to understand the views he opposed. Throughout the later Middle Ages and up until the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass was the received view in the Western church. Two aspects of the Roman Catholic doctrine require comment: Rome’s view of the Eucharistic presence and Rome’s view of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

According to Rome, Christ’s presence in the sacrament is to be explained in terms of the doctrine of transubstantiation. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that when the priest says the words of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. The accidens (that is, the incidental properties) of the bread and wine remain the same. Rome also teaches that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice; in fact, the same sacrifice Christ offered on the cross. The Eucharistic sacrifice is offered for the sins of the living and the dead.

The Reformers were united in their rejection of both aspects of Rome’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. They rejected transubstantiation, and they rejected the idea that the Lord’s Supper is a propitiatory sacrifice. In his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Martin Luther attacked both of these doctrines. Also opposed to Rome’s doctrine was the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. However, although Luther and Zwingli agreed in their rejection of Rome’s doctrine, they were not able to come to agreement on the true nature of the Lord’s Supper.

Zwingli argued that Christ’s words “This is my body” should be read, “This signifies my body.” He claimed that the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic memorial, an initiatory ceremony in which the believer pledges that he is a Christian and proclaims that he has been reconciled to God through Christ’s shed blood. Martin Luther adamantly rejected Zwingli’s doctrine, insisting that Christ’s words “This is my body” must be taken in their plain, literal sense.

Martin Luther argued that although Rome’s explanation of Christ’s true presence in the Lord’s Supper was wrong, the fact of Christ’s true presence was correct. He offered a different explanation for the presence of Christ. In order to understand his view, however, a brief explanation of some rather obscure theological terminology is required. Medieval scholastic theologians had distinguished various modes of presence, or ways of being present. They used the term local presence to describe the way in which physical, finite things are present in a circumscribed place. Spiritual presence described the way in which spiritual beings (such as angels, souls, or God) are present. Because this term was somewhat vague, other terms were used in order to be more specific. Illocal presence, for example, described the way in which finite spiritual beings (for example, human souls or angels) are present, while repletive presence described the way in which an infinite spiritual being (God) is present.

Zwingli argued that the only mode of presence proper to the human body of Christ was “local presence.” Therefore, according to Zwingli, Christ’s body is locally present in heaven and nowhere else until the Second Advent. Luther rejected Zwingli’s view, claiming that other modes of presence were proper to Christ’s human body — specifically the illocal mode of presence. Because Christ’s body can be present in an illocal manner, according to Luther, it can be present in the bread of the Lord’s Supper. In his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), Luther argues that there is a “sacramental union” between the substance of Christ’s body and the bread resulting in a new and unique substance that Luther refers to as fleischbrot (“flesh-bread”). Thus, according to Luther, Christ’s human body is present in the Lord’s Supper supernaturally in a real and illocal manner.

Calvin’s first significant contribution to the subject appeared in the 1536 edition of his Institutes, by which time the battle lines had already been drawn. He continued to progressively clarify and explain his doctrine of the Supper over the next two decades. Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper was very much influenced by Luther, but others were just as instrumental in shaping his approach to the subject. Among those whose influence is discernible are Augustine, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, and Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Calvin followed Augustine in defining a sacrament as “a visible sign of a sacred thing” or as a “visible word” of God. The sacraments, according to Calvin, are inseparably attached to the Word. The sacraments seal the promises found in the Word. In regard to the Lord’s Supper, more specifically, it is given to seal the promise that those who partake of the bread and wine in faith truly partake of the body and blood of Christ. Calvin explains this in terms of the believer’s mystical union with Christ. Just as baptism is connected with the believer’s initiation into union with Christ, the Lord’s Supper strengthens the believer’s ongoing union with Christ.

All of this raises a question. How does Calvin understand the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper? According to Calvin the sacraments are signs. The signs and the things signified must be distinguished without being separated. Calvin rejects the idea that the sacramental signs are merely symbols (for example, Zwingli). But he also rejects the idea that the signs are transformed into the things they signify (for example, Rome). Calvin argues that when Christ uses the words, “This is my body,” the name of the thing signified (“body”) is applied to the sign (the bread).

Calvin repeatedly stated that his argument with the Roman Catholics and with Luther was not over the fact of Christ’s presence, but only over the mode of that presence. According to Calvin, Christ’s human body is locally present in heaven, but it does not have to descend in order for believers to truly partake of it because the Holy Spirit effects communion. The Holy Spirit is the bond of the believer’s union with Christ. Therefore that which the minister does on the earthly plane, the Holy Spirit accomplishes on the spiritual plane. In other words, those who partake of the bread and wine in faith are also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, being nourished by the body and blood of Christ.

This, of course, raises a second question regarding the mode by which believers partake of the body and blood of Christ. Zwingli had argued that to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ was simply a synonym for believing in Christ. Calvin begged to differ. He argued that the eating of the body of Christ is not equivalent to faith; instead, it is the result of faith. Calvin often used the term “spiritual eating” to describe the mode by which believers partake, but he is careful to define what he means. He asserts repeatedly that “spiritual eating” does not mean that believers partake only of Christ’s spirit. “Spiritual eating” means, according to Calvin, that by faith believers partake of the body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit who pours the life of Christ into them.

Calvin also rejected the idea that we partake of the body and blood of Christ with the mouth. Not only Rome, but Luther and his followers, asserted the doctrine of oral manducation (that is, oral eating). According to the Lutherans, the body of Christ is orally eaten, but it is a supernatural or hyperphysical eating rather than a natural or physical eating. Both believers and unbelievers receive the body of Christ according to the Lutherans, although unbelievers receive it to their own judgment. Calvin denied that unbelievers receive the body of Christ at all. According to Calvin, the body and blood of Christ are objectively offered to all, but only received by believers.

According to Calvin, the Lord’s Supper is also “a bond of love” intended to produce mutual love among believers. It is to inspire thanksgiving and gratitude. Because it is at the very heart of Christian worship, Calvin argued that it should be observed whenever the Word is preached, or “at least once a week.” It should be shorn of all superstition and observed in its biblical simplicity. Calvin considered the Lord’s Supper to be a divine gift given by Christ himself to His people to nourish and strengthen their faith. As such, it is not to be neglected, but rather celebrated often and with joy.

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