Saturday, April 24, 2010

Calvin on the Lord's Supper

I'm preparing to preach on 1 Cor 10.14-22 tomorrow so I thought I'd re-read over Calvin's Shorter Treatise on the Lord's Supper. On the bread and the wine Calvin states:

"We begin now to enter on the question so much debated, both anciently and at the present time—how we are to understand the words in which the bread is called the body of Christ, and the wine his blood. This may be disposed of without much difficulty, if we carefully observe the principle which I lately laid down, viz., that all the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to."

In sum, no real presence = no real benefit!


David Brush said...

I would add that no real relational narrative is no real benefit either. Too many times I have seen the 'community' of communion reduced to a personal transaction rather than the uniting of the bride of Christ with her groom. Communion is at once personal, communal, and eschatological in that it bears witness to Christ's abiding presence now and his return ahead.

John Thomson said...

In what sense is Christ communicated in the visible word that he is not communicated in the written or preached word?

James said...

Well, this all depends on what "real presence" means. Calvin states that we receive Christ in our participation in the supper. To my knowledge, he's a dynamic receptionist in this regard. I'm not aware that he sees Christ present inside the elements in any kind of fashion. Rather, the Spirit gives us Christ as we participate. For Calvin, it's more a matter of our ascending to heaven by the Spirit than the reverse, in which case it's less that He is Spiritually present to us than that we are Spiritually present to Him!

GDL said...

For Calvin partaking in the Eucharist is partaking in the benefits which have been wrought by Christ’s sacrifice and applied to the believer united to Jesus Christ. Thus, the “sacrificial meal” received as a gift, is properly viewed as an extension of His sacrifice. The Eucharist is “a spiritual banquet, wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed.” To put it another way, as Tylenda argues, for Calvin, “the Lord’s Supper is the sacramental presence of the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross”(Joseph N. Tylenda, “A Eucharistic Sacrifice in Calvin’s Theology,” Theological Studies, 37, no. 3).
Calvin emphasizes the ritual act of eating and drinking as the means by which we are made partakers of the benefits of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice (For a presentation of Calvin’s emphasis on the Eucharist as a “ritual event” see Martha L. Moore-Keish, Do This in Remembrance of Me: A Ritual Approach to Reformed Eucharistic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008), 15-59.). Conflating Christ’s command to eat and drink Calvin comments, “By bidding us take, he indicates that it is ours; by bidding us eat, that it is made one substance with us; by declaring that his body is given for us and his blood shed for us, he teaches that both are not so much his as ours. For he took up and laid down both, not for his own advantage but for our salvation” (Institutes 4.17.3). Later, Calvin states, “It remains for all this to be applied to us. That is done through the gospel but more clearly through the Sacred Supper, where he offers himself with all his benefits to us, and we receive him by faith...Christ would not have been the bread of life for us if he had not been born and had not died for us” (Institutes 4.17.5).
It is clear for Calvin that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the Eucharist are indissolubly joined.

Tylenda observes, “It is the sacrifice that vivifies the Supper, makes it what it is. The Supper receives its meaning and efficacy from Christ’s cross.” Calvin argues for a “mystical blessing” by eating “the body which was once for all offered for our salvation, in order that when we see ourselves made partakers in it, we may assuredly conclude that the power of his life-giving death will be efficacious in us” (Institutes 4.17.1).

Thus, I agree with James (above) that it depends on what you mean by "real presence" and it appears that Calvin is a dynamic receptionist.

pennoyer said...

For me it is enough that the early Reformers corrected the popular conception of the Lord's Supper (i.e. the Mass) as sacrifice and human work. That was something they certainly agreed on. If Luther and others did not quite "get" the primarily symbolic (for the lack of a better term) nature of the Lord's Supper, that can be forgiven. And keep in mind that Bucer and Calvin in historical context were consciously trying to mark out a mediating position between the Lutherans on the one hand (who held firmly to a "real presence" in, with, and under the bread and wine) and the Zwinglians on the other (who held to a flat symbolic interpretation). It may not sound like it on first reading, but Calvin's position here really is a mediating position. Some of the other comments have brought this out.

John Thomson said...
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John Thomson said...


A further question.

Suppose the participant, though a believer, has no idea what the meal he eats signifies, will eating convey Christ to him(since ultimately the only blessing we have is Christ)?

I ask because I cannot see what 'real presence' means beyond the 'real presence' believers experience when the word of the gospel(whichenacted, is what the Lord's Supper is)is preached and received by faith. Faith is an intelligent believing response to God's revealed word (promise and command) and is the medium through which God's blessings are mediated; as the word of Christ dwells in us richly, Christ dwells in us richly.

However, it seems to me, that my presbyterianbrothers are claiming more for TLS but do so a bit tentatively for they do not quite know what that 'more' is?

Feel free to shoot me down.

sujomo said...

Hi Mike,

I can't comment on Calvin and 'real presence' on the run but I believe the correspondence between him and Bullinger leading up to the Consensus Tigurinus (1549) reveal that Calvin wanted to insist on the Lord's Supper being an "instrument of grace". Those who read your blog and want to know Zwingli's view (as apart from the so-called Zwinglian view)should read Peter Stephens.

I would need to check on Calvin's position but Bullinger certainly saw a link between John 6 and the Lord's Supper re "feeding on Christ".

Trust you gave a challenging sermon that stimulated the congregation to continue to work out themselves what Scripture is saying.

cheers, sujomo

Keith said...

Calvin actually distinguishes between real presence (no) and real communion (yes). The first is not necessary for the second in his view. He writes: "Though I have classed among opinions to be rejected the idea that the body of Christ is really and substantially present in the Supper, this is not at all repugnant to a true and real communion" (Second Defence of the Pious and Orthodox Faith Concerning the Sacraments, in Answer to the Calumnies of Joachim Westphal, in Tracts and Letters, Vol. 2, ed, Beveridge (Banner of Truth, 2009), 281.

Keith said...
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Chris Donato said...

Yes, but no real faith = no real presence (and thus no benefit or condemnation). Right?

Isn't this potentially the main weakness of Calvin's view? The place he gives to individual faith in receiving the presence of Christ, for good or ill?