Foundations: No.68 Spring 2015

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and Its Relevance for Today

Calvin’s approach to the Lord’s Supper, which sought to mediate between the local-presence theologies of Rome and Luther on the one hand and Zwinglian memorialism on the other, is closely connected with his soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. In the Supper, the incarnate humanity of Christ is objectively offered and subjectively received by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through this union with Christ’s “flesh” both the power of his deity and the forensic benefits of salvation are received. However, subsequent developments in Reformed theology rendered Calvin’s formulations implausible to some, such that by the nineteenth century outright opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper was being expressed by Reformed luminaries such as Charles Hodge, William Cunningham, and R. L. Dabney. Others, such as J. W. Nevin and J. B. Adger, vigorously supported Calvin’s intentions. Nevertheless, Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper is rooted in Scripture and in the great tradition of the church, and it offers important resources for the renewal of Reformed and Evangelical theology and practice.

If I am reading the contemporary Evangelical church situation correctly, issues related to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (often called the Eucharist in more liturgical Christian traditions) are less than prominent. Questions having to do with the relationship of the sign and the thing signified and related issues of sacramental efficacy are largely ignored, and a Zwinglian view of the sacrament as a symbolic mental exercise of the faithful seems to be largely assumed in Evangelical and even Reformed circles.

All this, of course, contrasts rather dramatically with the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, in which differences over the Supper not only were extensively discussed but also served to mark the boundaries between Roman Catholics and Protestants (who generally rejected the medieval dogma of transubstantiation), and also between different sorts of Protestants. Lutherans with their doctrine of what is sometimes (and controversially) called “consubstantiation” affirmed that the body and blood of Christ are locally present “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine, and accompanying this was a view of the person of Christ such that the incarnate humanity has become “ubiquitous” by virtue of its union with the deity and the resulting communication of attributes.[1] The Zurich Reformer Ulrich Zwingli explicated his own symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of Christ’s death and as an expression of the unity of the church as the body of Christ. For Zwingli, this view reflected an understanding of divine grace as purely spiritual and unmediated by created means of grace.[2] Anabaptists tended to follow Zwingli in a symbolic and memorialist understanding of the sacraments, which they augmented with a profound emphasis on the Supper as a call to ethical behaviour and as an expression of the solidarity of the Christian community.[3] Thus we see that understandings of the Lord’s Supper were closely connected with other areas of theology – especially Christology, soteriology and ecclesiology – and that one’s under-standing of the Supper cannot be abstracted from these broader concerns.

The same is true with Calvin. As we will see, Calvin in his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper sought to mediate between views that affirmed a local, physical presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements (both Roman Catholic and Lutheran) on the one hand, and largely symbolic and memorialist understandings (e.g., Zwingli and the Anabaptists) on the other. In short, he endeavoured to affirm a true presence of Christ in the sacrament but to do so in a way that was non-local, respected the integrity of Christ’s ascended humanity, and recognised the centrality of the believer’s union with Christ. In other words, Calvin’s understanding of the Supper is closely connected with his Christology, eschatology, and soteriology. Thus, in his recent study of Calvin’s Eucharistic doctrine Brian Gerrish rightly notes that “Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper was bound up with a total conception of what it means to be saved and of how the historical deed of Christ reaches out to the present.”[4] In other words, it appears that we do not have the option of treating differences over the Lord’s Supper as mere tempests in teapots, and that this is an area where our faith must diligently seek understanding.

The Sacraments and Union with Christ

Calvin begins his discussion of the application of redemption in Book III of the Institutes with a recognition of the central importance of the believer’s union with Christ. As Calvin famously put it,

How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only begotten Son – not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.[5]

This union with Christ then serves for Calvin as an overarching reality in which all the benefits of salvation are received, and he points particularly to the way in which benefits both forensic (e.g. justification) and transform-atory (e.g. sanctification) are found only in Christ.

By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace [duplex gratia]; namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[6]

Furthermore, according to Calvin this union with Christ involves both the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the recipient. What is objectively given by the Holy Spirit must be subjectively received by faith. This twofold emphasis is, as we shall see, important for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper, for it enabled Calvin to avoid both overly subjective interpretations of the sacrament that reduced union and sacramental presence to the exercise of faith, and excessively objective views of sacramental presence. On the one hand, Christ “unites us to himself by the Spirit alone. By the grace and power of the same Spirit we are made his members, to keep us under himself and in turn to possess him”.[7] Thus the union is “spiritual”. But Calvin also insists that “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit”,[8] and that the faith which saves is that which engrafts one into Christ, for “it does not reconcile us to God at all unless it joins us to Christ”.[9]

Both the richness and complexity of this spiritual/faith dialectic and its implications for sacramentology are evident in the fact that Calvin also refuses to reduce the believer’s union with Christ to the work of the Holy Spirit or to the exercise of faith. Regarding the first (and referring specifically in this context to the Lord’s Supper), he insists that he is “not satisfied with those persons who, recognising that we have some communion with Christ, when they would show what it is, make us partakers of the Spirit only, omitting mention of flesh and blood”.[10] Regarding the second, Calvin contends that faith is the instrument of union rather than the union itself, and thus that union with Christ is “a remarkable effect of faith”.[11] We will explore this matter further below.

At this point we must also recognise that Calvin did not view the union with Christ in the context of the sacraments to be different in kind from the believer’s union with Christ through the ministry of the Word. The sacraments, he says, “have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they offer and profit nothing unless received in faith.”[12] But if there is no qualitatively special sacramental grace, why are the sacraments needed? They are given, Calvin says, as visible signs accompanying the Word because of human ignorance and weakness.

 By this means God provides first for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness. Yet properly speaking, it is not so much needed to confirm his Sacred Word as to establish us in faith in it. For God's truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped up on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.[13]

While its importance has generally gone unrecognised, the language of objective offer and subjective reception referenced above is highly significant for our understanding of Calvin’s view of the place and role of the sacraments.[14] Foundational here is his conception of the sacraments as signs and seals of the covenant promises of God.[15] Furthermore, the substance of the divine promise is Christ himself, and so the sacraments are instruments used by the Holy Spirit to offer and convey Christ to the believer. Nevertheless, what is objectively offered must also be received by faith.

I say that Christ is the matter or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him… Therefore, the sacraments have effectiveness among us in proportion as we are helped by their ministry sometimes to foster, confirm, and increase the true knowledge of Christ in ourselves; at other times, to possess him more fully and enjoy his riches. But that happens when we receive in true faith what is offered there.[16]

In all this Calvin demonstrates a keen concern for balance. He believed that he was able to avoid the errors both of those who make too much of the sacraments (e.g., Roman Catholics with their ex opere operato conception of sacramental efficacy, in which grace is conveyed in a more or less mechanical fashion unless an “impediment” is presented by the recipient) and of those who make too little of them (e.g., the Zwinglian tendency to view the sacraments in largely symbolic and non-efficacious terms).[17]

Nevertheless, this dialectic of offer and reception does not detract from the objective nature of the sacraments, for, as Calvin insisted, “it is one thing to offer, another to receive.”[18] Baptism and the Lord’s Supper truly offer Christ, but these do not benefit the impious person bereft of faith. Calvin makes this point forcefully in his commentary on Ezekiel 20:20:

We must hold, therefore, that there is a mutual relation between faith and the sacraments, and hence, that the sacraments are effective through faith. Man's unworthiness does not detract anything from them, for they always retain their nature. Baptism is the laver of regeneration, although the whole world should be incredulous (Tit 3:5): the Supper of Christ is the comm- unication of his body and blood, (1 Cor 10:16) although there were not a spark of faith in the world: but we do not perceive the grace which is offered to us; and although spiritual things always remain the same, yet we do not obtain their effect, nor perceive their value, unless we are cautious that our want of faith should not profane what God has consecrated to our salvation.[19]

Thus there is for Calvin an objective sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. The Lord’s Supper is not a bare or empty sign, and here Calvin argues that the honour and truthfulness of God are at stake.

For unless a man means to call God a deceiver, he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by him. Therefore, if the Lord truly represents the participation in his body through the breaking of bread, there ought not to be the least doubt that he truly presents and shows his body. And the godly ought by all means to keep this rule: whenever they see symbols appointed by the Lord, to think and be persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is surely present there.[20]

Our understanding of this sacramental objectivity is further helped when we realise that, as a number of scholars have noted, Calvin often utilised the Chalcedonian Christological language of “distinction without separation” as a way of describing the sacramental relationship between the sign and the thing signified. In fact, B. A. Gerrish views this usage as “one of the most distinctive features of his sacramental theology”, and one which “defined his position against the Zwinglians on the one side, and the Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the other”.[21] Consistent with this, Calvin often speaks of the sacraments as “instruments” used by the Holy Spirit to communicate what they signify to the believer.[22] Representative of such instrumental language is this description of “the mystery of the Supper”:

I therefore say (what has always been accepted in the church and is taught today by all of sound opinion) that the sacred mystery of the Supper consists in two things: physical signs, which, thrust before our eyes, represent to us, according to our feeble capacity, things invisible; and spiritual truth, which is at the same time represented and displayed through the symbols themselves.[23]

The Presence of Christ in the Supper

Thus far we have seen that, for Calvin, the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant promises of God, that Christ himself is the material content of these covenant promises, that the sacraments are objective offers of Christ to the believer, and that they are instruments used by God to unite his people with Christ. Now we will explore the implications of this for the Lord’s Supper.[24]

As the Jesuit scholar Joseph Tylenda has rightly observed, “Calvin is one with the other Christian communities in teaching a presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper”.[25] In fact, Calvin’s language at this point is strong indeed, insisting that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, that this presence extends to his “body and blood”, and even that Christ’s presence in the Supper is “substantial”. In light of our earlier comments about the “spiritual” character of this presence, there is obviously more to be said.

In clarifying these matters, Calvin took pains to reject what he viewed as four misunderstandings of Christ’s presence in the Supper. As we noted above, he opposed the theological successors of Zwingli who equated the exercise of faith with the reception of Christ in the Supper.[26] Second, he also opposed the notion that the presence of Christ is simply the reception of the work of the Holy Spirit, as if the Spirit is a surrogate for an absent Christ.[27] Third, Calvin further clarifies his position by noting that the believer’s union with Christ goes beyond the mere reception of the benefits of Christ’s work. Answering the Lutheran controversialist Tileman Heshusius, he writes, “Equally futile is he when he says that I keep talking only of fruit and efficacy. Everywhere I assert a substantial communion, and discard only a local presence and the figment of an immensity of flesh.”[28] Finally, replying again to Heshusius, Calvin goes further in specifying the nature of the Christian’s union with Christ by asserting that the union involves the incarnate humanity of Christ, as well as his deity: “When he represents me as substituting merit and benefit for flesh and blood, and shortly afterwards adds that I acknowledge no other presence in the Supper than that of the deity, my writings, without a word from me, refute the impudent calumny.”[29]

Calvin’s insistence on this real reception of Christ is driven by important soteriological considerations. Calvin was convinced that the believer must be united with the “flesh”, or incarnate humanity, of Christ, for “salvation and life are to be sought from the flesh of Christ in which he sanctified himself, and in which he consecrates Baptism and the Supper”.[30] Crucial here is Calvin’s view of the incarnate humanity of Christ as the channel through which all salvation grace is received: “For as the eternal Word of God is the fountain of life, so His Flesh is a channel to pour out to us the life which resides intrinsically, as they say, in His divinity. In this sense it is called life-giving, because it communicates to us a life that it borrows from elsewhere.”[31] This mediatorial humanity of Christ functions in at least two ways for Calvin, corresponding to the duplex gratia structure noted above. First, as we just noted, the humanity of Christ acts as a “channel” for the power and life which are integral to Christ’s deity. This first function relates primarily to the transforming aspects of salvation (i.e., sanctification). Second, communion with the humanity of Christ is crucial because it was particularly as a human being that Christ offered his atoning sacrifice for sin. This second function relates primarily to the forensic benefits of salvation (i.e. justification).[32] While Calvin nowhere fully explains this, his assumption is that the forensic benefits inhere in Christ’s incarnate humanity.

Calvin insisted equally strongly, however, that this realistic presence of Christ’s incarnate humanity in the Lord’s Supper was not a local presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements themselves, as if the physical body and blood of Christ are physically chewed and swallowed in the sacrament. Here Calvin’s broader concerns were Christological, eschatological and soteriological. With regard to the first, Calvin is especially concerned to safeguard the integrity of Christ’s incarnate humanity: “Let nothing inappropriate to human nature be ascribed to his body, as happens when it is said to be infinite or to be put in a number of places at once.”[33] Closely connected with this is the reality of the ascension. That Christ has ascended in glory to the right hand of the Father and is no longer present on earth in the manner of his earthly ministry has implications (if the integrity of his humanity is to be maintained) for the mode of Christ’s presence in the Supper, and hence for the nature of the believer’s union with Christ.

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 returns in judgement [Acts 3:21], so we deem it utterly unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it to be present everywhere.[34]

Calvin also advanced a set of soteriological objections to the notion of a local presence. When Christ’s presence is understood locally, as in the case of both Roman Catholic transubstantiation and Lutheran consubstantiation, it becomes difficult to restrict reception to the believing community. The notion that the unbeliever received Christ in the Supper together with the believer was problematic in that it proved too much. On the one hand, such a view implied that Christ’s flesh is not vivifying, and on the other hand it indicated that Christ may be separated from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.[35]

Thus the issue, for Calvin, involves the mode of Christ’s presence in the Supper. Against the subjective memorialism of Zwingli on the one hand and the spatial/local objectivism of the Roman Catholics and High Lutherans on the other, Calvin asserted a true but spiritual communion with Christ, particularly with the incarnate humanity. By “spiritual”, of course, Calvin does not mean that the believer’s communion with Christ is somehow less than true and actual. Rather, the communion is accomplished by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin writes,

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. What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.[36]

For Calvin, the consecrated elements are important, not in themselves, but as they direct the believer’s faith toward heaven where Christ’s saving humanity exists at the right hand of the Father. In dependence upon Eph 2:5-6, he preferred to speak of the believer’s true reception of Christ as a matter of the heart being lifted up to heaven.

But if we are lifted up to heaven with our eyes and minds, to seek Christ there in the glory of his Kingdom, as the symbols invite us to him in his wholeness, so under the symbol of bread we shall be fed by his body, and under the symbol of wine we shall separately drink his blood, to enjoy him at last in his wholeness.[37]

This lifting up of the heart is not mere psychology, however, for “the Spirit truly unites things separated in space”. In keeping with this emphasis, Calvin continued to utilise the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”) of the Roman Mass in the Strasbourg and Genevan Reformed liturgies,[38] and he aptly characterises advocates of a local presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements as those who “refuse to lift up their hearts”.[39]

Thus far Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Needless to say, there are complexities here. Many over the years have found Calvin’s views on the Lord’s Supper and the related issue of union with Christ to be perplexing, and more than a few have been unwilling to take the Reformer’s statements at face value. As Brian Gerrish notes, some who have emphasised Calvin’s teaching on “spiritual” communication, faith, and the symbolic nature of the elements have viewed him as a “subtle sacramentarian” (i.e., as a sophisticated Zwinglian). On the other hand, some who objected to Calvin’s teaching on the vital importance of union with Christ’s incarnate humanity as essential to the reception of all of salvation (including forensic justification) have viewed him as a “crypto-catholic”.[40] This latter concern has been, as we shall see, particularly prominent in some later Reformed appraisals.

We will engage the second concern later in this article, but at this point it is sufficient to note that there is a dialectic of in nobis and extra nos thinking evident in Calvin that has often not sat well with later Reformed theologians who have sought rigorously to prioritise the forensic dimension of salvation. That is to say, there is in Calvin’s thinking here a matrix of realistic, forensic, and personal categories that is sometimes difficult, especially from the standpoint of later concerns, to untangle. On the one hand, the sacrificial work of Christ is accomplished outside the believer.[41] In addition, the believer, though fully justified, is not made fully righteous in this life.[42] Thus, from the standpoint of both the objective work of Christ and the fact that complete righteousness is never attained in this life, the justification of the Christian is to be found extra nos. On the other hand, as Calvin pointedly insists, “as long as Christ remains outside of us… all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us”.[43] Whatever questions have been raised subsequently, it is clear that Calvin himself detected no contradiction here. As Paul Van Buren has rightly argued, subjective incorporation and objective substitution are not mutually exclusive categories for Calvin.[44]

The first concern (whether Calvin was a “subtle sacramentarian”) may be fruitfully engaged by examining his language regarding “substantial” com-munion with Christ. Particularly striking is Calvin’s use of the term “substance” (substantia) to describe the believer’s union with Christ. Throughout his career and in a variety of contexts – exegetical, controversial, and sacramental – Calvin insisted that believers partake of Christ’s “substance”.[45] But such passages must be evaluated over against other statements by Calvin that appear to place severe limits on “substantial” communion. These are particularly evident in Calvin’s polemic against the eccentric Lutheran Andreas Osiander, who argued that justification is not merely declarative, but renders one actually righteous. Thus Osiander proposed that union with Christ involved indwelling divine substance. In response, Calvin rejected Osiander’s notion of a “gross mingling of Christ with believers”,[46] and he repudiated Osiander’s notion of an essential and unmediated union with the deity.

He says we are one with Christ. We agree. But we deny that Christ’s essence [essentiam] is mixed with our own... Then he [Osiander] throws in a mixture of substances [substantialem] by which God – transfusing himself into us, as it were – makes us part of himself. For the fact that it comes about through the power of the Holy Spirit that we grow together with Christ, and he becomes our Head and we his members, he reckons of almost no importance.[47]

This is a complicated matter, and the literature on it is extensive. For our purposes, however, we can achieve needed clarity by focusing on two related issues. First, there is the precise nature of Calvin’s polemic against Osiander. Here we see that Calvin combatted Osiander’s notion of an essential union with the deity by emphasising the role of the mediatorial humanity of Christ. We have already seen that Calvin viewed the “flesh”, or incarnate humanity of Christ, as the channel through which the power of deity flows to the believer. In this context, Calvin affirms that Christ’s mediatorial work was accomplished primarily in his humanity, and that the benefits of that work are therefore received through union with that humanity. Here Calvin argues that

we are justified in Christ, in so far as he was made an atoning sacrifice for us: something that does not comport with his divine nature. For this reason also, when Christ would seal the righteousness and salvation that he has brought us, he sets forth a sure pledge of it in his own flesh. Now he calls himself “the bread of life” [John 6:48], but, in explaining how, he adds that “his flesh is truly meat, and his blood truly drink” [John 6:55]. This method of teaching is perceived in the sacraments; even though they direct our faith to the whole Christ and not to a half-Christ, they teach that the matter both of righteousness and of salvation resides in his flesh; not that as mere man he justifies or quickens by himself, but because it pleased God to reveal in the mediator what was hidden and incomprehensible in himself. Accordingly, I usually say that Christ is, as it were, a fountain, open to us from which we may draw what otherwise would lie unprofitably hidden in that deep and secret spring, which comes forth to us in the person of the Mediator.[48]

Thus Calvin’s rejection of “substance” language in the context of his polemic against Osiander should not be understood as directed against “substantial communion” with Christ per se, but rather against substantial communion of a particular sort – one involving the unmediated compounding of the divine and the human.

Second, there is the issue of Calvin’s use of technical language (e.g., substantia). Even in sacramental contexts Calvin uses the term substantia in a number of different senses – sometimes in its scholastic Aristotelian sense as the union of form and matter (denoting a local presence), and sometimes in reference to what may cautiously be termed a spiritually qualified substance (denoting a real but non-local presence).[49] Calvin’s concerns become more clear when we realise that, for the Reformer, the mere reception of the physical material of Christ’s body and blood is soteriologically irrelevant if those natural materials are abstracted from Christ’s very being. Calvin viewed the crucial centre of Christ’s vicarious humanity as something much more profound than material substance separately considered. Calvin writes:

When I say that the flesh and blood of Christ are substantially offered and exhibited to us in the Supper, I at the same time explain the mode, namely, that the flesh of Christ becomes vivifying to us, inasmuch as Christ, by the incomprehensible virtue of his Spirit, transfers his own proper life into us from the substance of his flesh, so that he himself lives in us, and his life is common to us.[50]

Thus, for Calvin the spiritual “substance” of Christ’s humanity received in the Supper is not an issue of local and material/spatial presence but of the animating force or life from which that material presence comes.[51] Here the religious genius of Calvin is apparent. He recognised that the Supper is, first and foremost, spiritual food for the soul. Yet the body and blood of Christ (physically considered) could not provide spiritual nourishment unless they were endowed with magical characteristics. This was precisely the problem inherent in all the local-presence theories Calvin combatted – the physical presence of body and blood was abstracted from Christ’s mediatorial life. Only as the substance of Christ was understood as the very life of Christ was a true feeding of the soul upon Christ conceivable without resort to magical gimmickry.[52]

From all this we conclude that Calvin did indeed intend this “substance” language in an ontological sense, albeit one that does not correspond to any formal philosophical ontology. His contention that the incarnate humanity of Christ functions as a channel for the reception of the power of Christ’s deity and that union with the substance of the humanity of Christ is therefore necessary seems to demand that substantia be taken as a reference to ontological reality. Similarly, Calvin’s insistent refusal to reduce union with Christ to a “virtual” communion involving only the reception of the benefits of salvation, to the action of faith, or to the reception of the Holy Spirit seems to demand an ontological referent for substantia. E. D. Willis rightly observes:

Calvin is not beginning with a general category – substance – of which Christ and our life in Christ are instances. The substance of the eucharist is the fundamental ontological fact, Christ himself. That is not a non-ontological statement; it is an ontological statement which forces into a subordinate position ancillary philosophical elucidations.[53]

As we shall see, this lack of philosophical apparatus is both a strength and, depending upon context, a potential weakness of Calvin’s position.

The Reception of Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

At this point we can summarise Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper under four headings. First, the elements of bread and wine remain symbols; that is, they are not physically transformed and there is no localised presence. Second, the elements are nevertheless used by the Holy Spirit as instruments to communicate what they symbolise, and so there is a sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. Third, there is a dialectic of objectivity and subjectivity as what is objectively offered and bestowed by the Holy Spirit must be subjectively received by faith. Finally, what is received is the whole Christ, whose incarnate humanity serves as a “channel” for the power of Christ’s deity and all the benefits of salvation. In this section we will briefly examine the reception of Calvin’s doctrine in the Reformed theological community.

We are fortunate to have the detailed study of the Eucharistic theology of Calvin’s student and successor, Theodore Beza, by Jill Raitt. She concludes that Beza followed Calvin closely, but that key points were explained in an “increasingly scholastic manner”.[54] Nevertheless, the key elements of Calvin’s doctrine are quite present, including the importance of participation in Christ’s incarnate humanity. Raitt describes Beza’s position here in terms that apply equally well to Calvin: “According to Christ’s total being as the Word incarnate, there can be no direct participation. According to Christ’s nature as man, there can be participation in his very substance.”[55] But as we move into the post-Reformation period there were forces and influences – both scholastic and pietistic – at work that would result in increasing distance from Calvin’s formulations. This issue is, to be sure, a controverted matter, and we can only briefly suggest some important developments that were to push the tradition away from Calvin’s concerns.

Key here was the development of more extrinsic modes of soteriological thinking. As we have seen, Calvin highlights the importance of a single spiritual union that issues in a duplex gratia (the “double grace” of justification and transformation of life), and he saw no contradiction between such an intimate spiritual union and forensic justification. As Calvin powerfully put it, “We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body.”[56] But as the covenant or “federal” theology trajectory continued to develop in the latter part of the seventeenth century some Reformed theologians began to speak of a justifying “legal” or “federal” union with Christ.[57] This notion of “federal union” as it developed was rather clearly a nominal relationship extrinsic to the persons involved. Accompanying this were seventeenth-century developments regarding the nature of imputation in the context of the Placaean controversy (named after the French Saumur theologian Josué de la Place), in which a distinction was made between “mediate imputation” (imputation mediated by participation in moral qualities) and “immediate imputation” (imputation via an extrinsic legal relationship). When imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer was framed in these terms, it was understandably understood by many as immediate and as communicated by a fundamentally extrinsic relationship.[58] Thus it was that the forensic aspect of salvation came to be framed in extrinsic legal terms (a legal union with Christ) while the transformatory aspect of salvation came to be viewed in terms of the reception of the work of the Holy Spirit (a spiritual union), and this language of two unions – legal and spiritual – became widespread by the early eighteenth century. The distance from Calvin’s formulations grew greater, though formal opposition to Calvin’s Eucharistic doctrine was still rare at this point. That would come later.

Pietistic influences associated with Puritanism also were significant here. It has been a commonplace of modern scholarship that Puritans tended to depreciate the sacraments and sacramental efficacy,[59] but this eclipse of the sacramental was not uniform, and the careful work of Brooks Holifield in particular has underscored both the complexity and the diversity of Puritan opinion. While many early Puritans certainly intended to follow Calvin in their view of the Supper, and the Westminster Confession of Faith appears on the face of it to be rather faithful to Calvin’s sacramental concerns,[60] there were factors at work that would eventually push some Puritan thinking in other directions. For example, Holifield has shown that the Puritan stress on subjectivity served to heighten interest in the faith of the recipient, and that this was sometimes expressed at the expense of recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit. We also see moves toward “virtual” conceptions of sacramental presence – a presence not of the substance of Christ’s humanity but rather of the “virtue,” or power and saving effects, of Christ’s work.[61] Implicit in all these developments is a shift from a participationist model of salvation to an appropriationist model.[62] No longer was salvation concretely found through participation in Christ, but rather it was appropriated by external means and on the basis of what Christ has done.

From such thinking it was but a small distance to outright Zwinglian memorialism, a step taken by many later New England Puritans. For example, Jonathan Edwards’ view of the Supper is thoroughly Zwinglian – the elements symbolise an absent Christ; they do not mediate a real presence – and his New England Calvinist successors followed in this path. Edwards wrote:

The sacramental elements in the Lord’s Supper do represent Christ as a party in covenant, as truly as a proxy represents a prince to a foreign lady in her marriage; and our taking those elements is as truly a professing to accept Christ, as in the other case the lady’s taking the proxy is her professing to accept the prince as her husband. Or the matter may more fitly be represented by this similitude: it is as if a prince should send an ambassador to a woman in a foreign land, proposing marriage, and by his ambassador should send her his picture, and should desire her to manifest her acceptance of his suit, not only by professing her acceptance in words to his ambassador, but in token of her sincerity openly to take or accept that picture, and so seal her profession, by thus representing the matter over again by a symbolical action.[63]

By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the gap between Calvin and mainstream Reformed thinking was so great that explicit and even strident opposition to Calvin’s Eucharistic doctrine was being expressed by some Reformed champions of late federal orthodoxy. Assuming both a Scottish Common Sense metaphysic and that the forensic relationship between Christ and the Christian was extrinsic, they found Calvin’s notion of a substantial union with the humanity of Christ foundational to both justification and sanctification to be at best odd, and at worst a betrayal of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. Charles Hodge spoke of Calvin’s theory as an “uncongenial foreign element” at odds with the doctrine of justification.[64] Scottish federal theologian William Cunningham termed Calvin’s view of union with Christ’s humanity “altogether unsuccessful” and “the greatest blot in the history of Calvin’s labours as a public instructor”.[65] R. L. Dabney declared, “We reject the view of Calvin concerning the real presence… because it is not only incomprehensible, but impossible.”[66] Finally, Louis Berkhof averred that Calvin’s view of the Supper is “an obscure point in Calvin’s representation”, and that the Reformer “seems to place too much emphasis on the literal flesh and blood”.[67] So pervasive has been such thinking in certain circles that more recently Carl Trueman has presented as the “Reformed” position that “Christ was present in the eucharist but only according to his divine nature”.[68]

Such sentiments have not been unanimous, however. The Mercersburg theologian John W. Nevin wrote a remarkable treatise, The Mystical Presence, in which he defended Calvin’s position regarding communion with the incarnate humanity of Christ and strongly criticised the extrinsic soteriology and abstraction of later Puritanism and federal theology. Nevin subsequently engaged in an extended polemic with Charles Hodge over these issues.[69] Later in the nineteenth century Nevin (and Calvin) received strong support on this issue from the American Southern Presbyterian church historian John B. Adger.[70]

More recently, however, in America there has been a revival of interest in Calvin’s Eucharistic doctrine and in the Mercersburg Theology which sought to champion it.[71] In the United Kingdom, Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper has always found exponents among Scottish Calvinists. Here we think especially of the work of Thomas F. Torrance, whose emphasis on the mediatorial humanity of Christ parallels Calvin’s concerns at key points.[72]

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Supper as Material for Reformed and Evangelical Ressourcement

We conclude with some reasons why Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is worthy of renewed attention as a source for retrieval and the renewal of the Reformed and Evangelical tradition. The first is that Calvin demonstrated a remarkable sensitivity to Scripture, both in refusing to say more and less than does the Bible. One cannot read the Institutes, the commentaries, and the controversial literature without sensing just how concerned Calvin was to do justice to what the Bible teaches. In Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians we find some striking statements regarding the efficacy and presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:16-22; 11:27-31). The first of these passages tells us that the Supper is a communion or participation in the body and blood of Christ, and it underscores the impossibility of communing with Christ and with the powers of darkness in pagan repasts. The second passage tells us that whoever eats and drinks in an unworthy manner is guilty of the body and blood of Christ. We also see here that the presence is something that must be discerned (in context, Calvin’s interpretation of “discerning the body” in 1 Cor 11:29 seems to me quite superior to the currently fashionable but otiose Zwinglian interpretation of “body” as the “congregation” or “church”[73]).

Second, Calvin’s Eucharistic doctrine can claim continuity with the Christian past that Zwinglian symbolic memorialism cannot. Writing shortly after the death of the Apostle John, Ignatius of Antioch condemned those holding “strange doctrine concerning the grace of Jesus Christ”, who “allow not that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ”.[74] Early on the church was content to affirm the real presence of Christ in the Supper without explaining it (e.g., the symbolic realism of Augustine), but in the medieval period there was a decided trend toward transformationalist understandings (i.e., the notion that the bread and wine are somehow transformed into body and blood), beginning especially with the ninth-century Eucharistic debates between Radbertus and Ratramnus of Corbie, and culminating in the codification of the doctrine of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Zwinglian memorialism, however, represents a decided break with this tradition going back to the early post-apostolic period.

Third, in pointing to a more participatory view of salvation, Calvin’s Eucharistic doctrine provides an alternative to the appropriationist soteriologies that have seemingly come to define modern conservative Protestantism. We have already seen that Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is closely connected with his Christology and soteriology, and that a particularly prominent aspect is his emphasis on union with the incarnate humanity of Christ, through which the believer participates in all the benefits of salvation. In this Calvin stands in solidarity with the great tradition, which viewed the mediatorial humanity of Christ as the means whereby Christ and his work become determinative for human beings.[75]

This great tradition held until the Reformation and is certainly evident in Luther and Calvin and found its way into Reformed confessional documents.[76] But in the post-Reformation period more extrinsic ways of thinking about salvation emerged. In Reformed circles the tendency from the late seventeenth century onward was to construe justification as an extrinsic legal arrangement, and sanctification as the reception of the work of the Holy Spirit (who served as a sort of surrogate for Christ). In this move to extrinsic categories we see a shift from a participationist to an appropriationist model in which salvation in no longer “in Christ” but rather “on the basis of what Christ has done”, and the humanity of Christ was increasingly eclipsed as a theological factor in that it became little more than a prerequisite for the Atonement. These structural moves produced results with which Reformed and Evangelical theology is still dealing. As the forensic dimension of salvation was abstracted from the persons involved it was also abstracted from the life of faith, and it became increasingly difficult to explain how the life of faith and perseverance is relevant to eternal destiny. Moreover, the unity of salvation in Christ was undercut as the forensic and transformatory aspects of salvation were understood in very different ways. The result of this dualistic soteriology was that those who emphasised the former sometimes tended toward antinomianism, while those who stressed the latter could lurch toward neonomianism. Perhaps it is time to revisit Calvin![77]

But how can Calvin’s notion of a realistic union with the incarnate humanity of Christ in the Supper (and more generally in union with Christ) be formulated such that it is neither unintelligible nor framed in terms of some particular (and timebound) philosophical ontology. Here the answer lies, not in any particular philosophy, but in the teachings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, who emphasises the identity and work of Christ as the Second Adam and root of a new humanity (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:45, 49; Col 1:18), the relationship of the resurrected Christ and the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 3:17-18; 1 Tim. 3:16), the believer’s participation in the new creation through union with Christ (2 Cor 5:17), and the eschatological transformation of the humanity of Christ by the Holy Spirit at the resurrection in anticipation of the general resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-22). Only as Christ’s humanity has been transformed by the Spirit is it spiritually accessible and life-giving (1 Cor 15:42-45).[78] In the resurrection of Christ we encounter the nexus of the old and new creations, and here all attempts to arrive at a philosophical ontology common to both must cease. Now we also see why Calvin’s conception of Christ’s presence in the Supper as realistic and ontological but not tied to any particular philosophical ontology can be a great asset for today.

Fourth, the pastoral and ecclesial implications of Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper for Reformed Christians today should not be missed. If the Supper is indeed spiritual food for Christian souls, if it is an instrumental means whereby Christ and all his forensic and transforming benefits are received, if it is a decisive expression of the unity of the church in Christ, and if it is a key depiction of what Calvin eloquently calls the “wonderful exchange” by which Christ took what was ours so that we might receive what was his, then it should be treasured and received often.[79] Relevant chapters of the Institutes suggest that he viewed weekly communion as preferable (in contrast to the common Roman Catholic practice of his day of receiving once a year), but, as is often noted, the city fathers of Geneva forced him to settle for quarterly communion in the churches of the city, and quarterly communion has since become standard in many Reformed churches.[80] Again, if the sacrament is indeed what Calvin viewed it to be, then Reformed Christians should be looking for reasons to maximise rather than minimise the frequency of partaking by congregations.

Finally, we find in Calvin an approach to soteriology and the sacraments that is both evangelical in its concern for the necessity of the reception of Christ’s righteousness by faith and robustly sacramental in its continuity with the great tradition of the church. To use a timeworn phrase, Calvin really was “evangelical, Catholic and Reformed”. In an age when many younger evangelicals, in their quest for a more objective and historically rooted approach to Christianity than they have known, feel the tug of Rome and Constantinople, Calvin’s approach to the Lord’s Supper and the soteriology it implies are worth exploring.