Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Calvin on the Eucharist

After Zwingli’s death, John Calvin became the leader of the Reformed branch of the reformation. Calvin greatly admired Luther and looked at him much more highly than he did Zwingli. In his reply to Sadoletto, Calvin even referred to himself as a Lutheran. This being the case, Calvin tried to make a compromise between the Zwinglian and Lutheran positions of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin sent letters to Luther by means of his friend and Luther’s pupil Philip Melancthon. However, fearing that Luther had become too grumpy in his old age for debate, Melancthon refused to give these letters to his teacher.

Calvin outlines his position in his most famous work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. He refutes the doctrine of Transubstantiation as did theologians of every branch of the Reformation because it promoted a resacrifice of Jesus and was based not on exegesis, but on Aristotelian logic. In the beginning of his discussion, Calvin wishes to take the focus off of the issue of the presence of Christ in the supper to focus on what he sees as its prime purpose. “It is not the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is blood indeed and his food is drink that leads us to eternal life.” For the Lutheran reformers, he testifies to his promise by giving us his body. They are not two separate purposes but one.

Calvin then tries to explain how he believes that Christ is both present bodily in heaven, and we can be partakers of his body and blood.

"Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure."

Calvin introduces a third element into this discussion which was not before present; the role of the Spirit. For Calvin, we truly partake of Christ, but do so not because his whole person is present to us, but because the Spirit causes it to happen mysteriously. The Spirit causes our soul to ascend to heaven to partake of the whole person of Christ. It is important to remember that we are actually partaking in Christ. “For why should the Lord put in your hand the symbol of his body except to assure you of a true participation in it?”

Calvin denies the doctrine proposed by Luther that the attribute of omnipresence is communicated to the human nature of Christ by the divine.

"For as we do not doubt that Christ’s body is limited by the general characteristics common to all human bodies, and is contained in heaven (where it was once for all received) until Christ return in judgment [Acts 3:21], so we deem it utterly unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it be present everywhere."

For Calvin, Christ at the ascension was seated at the right hand of the father, and would remain there until he returned. Thus we should not expect his body to be anywhere else. If the human nature were to be in more than one place at a time it would simply cease to be truly human. He fears that the Lutheran doctrine intermingles the two natures too much that it is in danger of supporting monophysitism. As Luther believed the reformed separated the natures too much, Calvin believed they emphasized the unity of his person to a dangerous extent.

Calvin believed Christ’s words of institution to be symbolic. When saying “this is my body” Christ was saying that it was his body, not in a literal sense but in a sacramental sense. “Christ’s words are not subject to the common rule and ought not to be tested by grammar.” Calvin supports this figurative view of the words of institution by pointing to other places in the Bible where figurative language is used. For example, Paul says that the rock the Israelites drank from “was Christ.” He also points to the common anthropomorphisms in the Old Testament.

Calvin goes on to argue why he believes the human nature of Christ to be in heaven and their alone. He points to the passages in which Christ tells the disciples he is to depart from this world. He claims that the Lutherans make Christ’s human body into a phantom in a docetic manner. Calvin argues that in the supper, Christ does not come down to us to feast; rather we are lifted up to him.

The final disagreement which Calvin has with Luther and his followers is the presence of Christ in the supper for unbelievers. Luther believed that Christ was present for the believing for their salvation, and the unbelieving for their condemnation. Calvin denied this saying, “all those who are devoid of Christ’s Spirit can no more eat Christ’s flesh than drink wine that has no taste.”


Anonymous said...

One thing I heard recently that seems to really put Calvin's position on the hot seat, is that in his view, man can be in two places at once, whereas Christ cannot. Your thoughts?


Jordan Cooper said...

I think this is a valid criticism. For Calvin the Spirit mediates between us and Christ, causing us to "ascend to the heavenlies" and partake of Christ. Apart from the fact that this is simply confusing and exegetically unfounded, why is it an assumption that the Spirit couldn't bring Christ to us instead?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jordon.

I am greatly enjoying your blog as I slowly go through the archives. I think you are especially gifted in explaining Lutheranism and will become a terrific professor.

I would like to offer where I heard this criticism. Rod Rosenbladt teaches at his church and it was in his series on Chemnitz's Two Nature's of Christ. Dr. Rosenbladt is also teaching on Galatians. You can find both series at this link, if you are interested (plus some other professors):


Jordan Cooper said...

Thanks for the link. I started listening to some of the lectures. It looks like there is some great stuff here.

Elendil son of Amandil said...

I have heard Calvin's theology of the Eucharist described as "Suprasubstantion", would you agree with that view?

Leeda said...

I have yet to find a protestant who is able to refute John 6:48-66. At the last supper Jesus instructed his disciples to do this in remembrance of me. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church those who knew the disciples or are descendants of those who did speak clearly about transubstantiation. The problem for the Lutherans and Calvinists and the 30,000 off shoot groups is they don't have Apostolic succession. Jesus touched His disciples, he made Peter the head and gave them the sacrament of reconciliation as well. Please search your heart and souls for the truth and answer Jesus' question. Luther and Calvin left the church, St. Paul wrote several letters to the Corinthians and others regarding those who taught false doctrine. Please come and join me in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Yes, there are sinners here, grave ones as there are in your folds as well. Read the early church Fathers and the scriptures which support the institution of the sacraments.