Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Dialogue on John Calvin's View of the Eucharist (vs. Alastair Roberts)

By Dave Armstrong (9-6-05)

Alastair's words will be in green; "Josh"'s in blue.

You note that Luther believed in the Real Presence, but Calvin believed in it as well (though not in a presence that was physically enclosed within the elements): "Therefore, if the Lord truly represents the participation in his body throught the breaking of bread, there ought not to be 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. For whys hould the Lord put in your hand the symbol of his body, except to assure you of a true participation in it? But if it is true that a visible sign is given us to seal the gift of a thing invisible, when we have received the symbol of the body, let us no surely trust that the body itself is also gives to us" (Institutes, 4.17.10; p.1371, McNeill/Battles trans.).

Would you agree that the biggest difference concerning the Eucharist between your church, the Lutherans, and the [classical] Reformed is not over the Real Presence, but rather the means or mode of that presence (i.e., the relation between the signum and the res)?

Yes. Calvin adheres to a "mystical presence." Luther and Catholics accept substantial presence (which is a more accurate term for our view than "real presence"). I think Calvin's view (with all due respect) is confused, and not able to be defended on solid philosophical (or for that matter, theological and exegetical) grounds. It seems incoherent and, frankly, strange, to me. He wants the presence of Christ to be real, yet he has to separate the consecrated elements by making them symbols. I don't see how this mode of "presence" is distinguishable from God's omnipresence. Of course, God is everywhere, and He is always everywhere. So of what additional use is a symbolic (or semi-symbolic) "reality" that is not substantial?

The whole miracle of the Eucharist is that it is an extension of the Incarnation: Jesus actually became a man: a physical person, and walked among us. Transubstantiation means that Jesus is actually present just as He was when He walked the earth. But the rub is that it always requires faith to believe this, because the accidents remain the same, and it seems nonsensical to a naturalistic mind that what looks like bread and wine really aren't. I think that causes disbelief in it: I would call it an excessive rationalism, and I say that Calvin (and Zwingli) succumbed in part to that. They can't accept the miracle that all the Fathers accepted.

Of course the comeback is that it is not a "rational" thing, but a mystery, but I reply that even mysteries don't have to be (indeed, should not be) contrary to reason; they can be reasonable as far as reason goes, and then require faith for those aspects which transcend (but do not contradict) reason.

This is the Catholic view: always reason and faith; not faith and reason some of the time, or reason and faith some of the time, or faith and unreason, or faith as unalterably opposed to reason, etc. We will not yield the mind or reason. The Bible doesn't require such a thing. So why does anyone go that route? I've never understood it.

I know this is yet another deep subject, and I am not trying to simplify Calvin's view. We can pursue the discussion further, time-permitting, if you like.

Hi Alastair,

I find many of your comments highly abstract and a bit difficult to follow (and you may take that as a compliment — it means I can learn a lot from you), but I will reply as best I know how:

First, Calvin's doctrine of the Supper did develop over the course of his lifetime. He later regretted some of his compromises with the Zwinglian view.

That's fascinating. Could you briefly summarize and direct me to passages in the Institutes or the Commentaries or paste something to elaborate on this? The trouble with dealing with these great minds (people like Augustine and Calvin) is that they do develop their views, precisely because they are thinkers. And that is easy to overlook.

Second, Calvin's doctrine stressed the work of the Holy Spirit. In this respect I feel that his approach can be seen as somewhat akin to the Eastern Orthodox view with its emphasis upon the epiklesis as the moment of transformation. Reading Schmemann, for instance, on the Real Presence in the Supper I see essentially the same doctrine that I as a Calvinist hold to. I would like to hear more on the RC view of the role of the Spirit in the Supper.

Nothing particular to say on that at the moment. Sounds like a heavy (therefore, good) topic. I have often noted, though, similarities between the Orthodox and the more presuppositional Reformed, in how they view the relation of faith and reason.

Alongside this concern I would like to know more of the eschatological aspect of the RC celebration of the Eucharist. I feel that this element can easily be downplayed and where it is present (e.g. the transubstantiated elements as firstfruits of the new creation) it can be problematic.

I feel this is, again, over my head, but it makes a great deal of sense to me to tie in the Eucharist to the Resurrection, because it was precisely that, along with the Incarnation, which "prefigures" the Eucharist and makes it possible. As Jesus had a Glorified, Resurrection body which could do extraordinary things, so He supernaturally enters into the consecrated elements and is truly, substantially there — just in a different form: just as His post-Resurrection body had elements of physical and spiritual (or simply multi-dimensionality, if we follow a more "modern physics" model). I could see exploring this in light of 1 Corinthians 15, in great depth indeed.


Third, Calvin stressed the instrumental efficacy of the elements, whilst many Reformed only held to occasionalism or even intermittent occasionalism. I feel that his doctrine was a bit higher, at in its developed form, than you suggest.

So this would be akin to our ex opere operato? I guess these differences in your group account for the relative stress on sacramentalism. You have on the continuum people like James White, whose extreme anti-sacramentalism would mean that even Luther and St. Augustine could not have been regenerate Christians (as I think I demonstrated from White's own words), and people like yourself, whose views are very close to ours on baptism and the Eucharist. So learning more about Calvin's actual "mature" views on this would be very interesting to me. I love discovering stuff like this. I knew that he accepted Catholic baptism as valid, which pretty much puts to rest the matter of whether Catholics are Christians or not. But tell that to your anti-Catholic brethren!

Fourth, I feel that most of these debates hinge around certain presuppositions that are held concerning the 'body of Christ'. I feel that we need to establish a careful balance between the historical, ecclesial and sacramental body of Christ. I am not sure that this has been maintained in RC circles (it certainly hasn't in most Protestant circles), but I would be happy to be proved wrong. I sense that the sacramental body has tended to eclipse the ecclesial body.

This is heavy stuff; you would have to elaborate more fully. Would Col 1:24 and similar verses tie into this?

I also feel that many of these debates fail to take seriously enough the fact that there is something that we simply don't understand about the resurrection body of Christ.
Oh, sure. Hard to deny that . . .

I feel that, in general, RCs have been in danger of downplaying the significance of the resurrection in the shaping of different areas of theology (not least ecclesiology). The resurrection of Christ is the future invading the present in Christ. It is the source of the powers of the age to come and the Holy Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is always the eschatological Spirit (John Zizioulas' book Being As Communion is great on this).

I have no problem with that. I'm not sure we minimize it . . .

When we celebrate the Supper we are tasting of the future that has become present in Christ.

Also the past (Calvary) that has been made supernaturally present to us. I say it transcends time, and that would include what is "future" to us.

This occurs as we are raised up to be with Christ by the eschatological Spirit. We truly partake of Him and have communion with Him both in His divine and human nature. He is not merely our Host; He is also our food. However, the eschatological stress is crucially important, IMHO.

Fascinating line of thought . . . I hope you hang around!

I fear that many have trespassed on the mystery by trying to fit the resurrection body of Christ into doctrinal boxes that it simply transcends.

I would like to hear more. Much of this needs more explanation (for me, anyway). It may be that you are talking in typically Reformed ways of expression that are more familiar to that group, but a bit strange and different for outsiders.

Thanks for the great post!

In Him,


Thanks for your comments. Here is a long response, which I trust will serve to clarify some points.

With regard to the development of Calvin’s Eucharistic thought I am thinking particularly of the movement from the compromise document of the Consensus Tigurinus to the later Defense of the Sane and Orthodox Doctrine of the Sacraments. Calvin expressed regret to Bucer concerning the compromise of the first document: “Let us therefore bear with a sigh that which cannot be corrected.” As Thomas Davis points out in The Clearest Promises of God: The Development of Calvin’s Eucharistic Teaching, in the later document Calvin “emphasizes that it is Christ himself the Christian enjoys, in his flesh and blood, and not simply a communion that results because of his receiving Christ’s benefits”. Calvin’s emphasis upon the instrumental power of the elements is seemingly absent in the early Calvin (e.g. 1536 edition of the Institutes). Thomas Davis writes again:

“What we see, then, in Calvin’s last eucharistic writings is the completion of a journey. At the beginning of his career, as he wrote on the Eucharist in his 1536 Institutes, Calvin flatly and unequivocally denied substantial partaking of Christ in the Eucharist. He claimed that the Eucharist could not, in fact, be thought of as an instrument of grace. Moreover, he delineated no clear eucharistic gift. As has been shown, over a period of twenty-three years, Calvin’s eucharistic theology matured. It developed in such a way that Calvin claimed as essential those very elements he had originally denied as part of his eucharistic doctrine.”

For a study of Calvin’s Eucharistic theology I have appreciated John Williamson Nevin’s The Mystical Presence and the records of the subsequent debate with Charles Hodge in such books as Given For You by Keith Mathison. Both of these books chronicle the demise of the high Reformed doctrine of the Supper, particularly in the Puritan era and the following period. For many the relationship between the sign and the reality became merely a subjective one created by the mind and faith of the participant.

The issue of the Spirit and the Supper is crucial in my estimation. It is interesting to notice that the elements have never become the objects of adoration, contemplation and worship in the Eastern Church as they have in the West.

Eastern Orthodox theologians differ with Roman Catholics regarding the place of the transformation of the elements within the liturgy. Orthodox theologians argue that this takes place at the epiklesis (the invocation of the Spirit) rather than at the words of institution. Schmemann maintains that this is not merely replacing one ‘causality’ with another:—

“It is to reveal the eschatological character of the sacrament. The Holy Spirit comes on the “last and great day” of Pentecost. He manifests the world to come. He inaugurates the Kingdom. He always takes us beyond. To be in the Spirit means to be in heaven, for the Kingdom of God is “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” And thus in the Eucharist it is He who seals and confirms our ascension into heaven, who transforms the Church into the body of Christ and—therefore—manifests the elements of our offering as communion in the Holy Spirit. This is the consecration.”

The transformation of the bread and wine cannot be explained in the categories of this world (time, essence, causality, etc.). The transformation of the bread and wine is revealed to faith by the Holy Spirit. However, the transformation is not something that takes place in “this world” but it occurs as the Church is made to participate in the “world to come” by the invocation of the Spirit. The manifestation of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ must be understood in terms of the action of the Eucharist. He is ‘made known through the breaking of bread’.

Schmemann argues in his book The Eucharist that the elements as the true Body and Blood of Christ are only revealed to faith by the Holy Spirit. He also stresses that the purpose of the Eucharist is the manifestation of the Church itself as the body of Christ. The Roman Catholic doctrine is frequently accused for downplaying this purpose of the Eucharist in my reading (of Reformed, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox particularly). Perhaps this charge is a trifle unfair, I don’t know. Schmemann complains that trying to explain the cause of the change of the elements is unnecessary and harmful. It places the Supper within the categories of “this world” and loses the sense of a ‘temporal’ gift (for want of a better word).

In the Supper we taste of the powers of the age to come. The presence of Christ is probably best understood, not primarily in terms of ‘local’ presence, but in terms of ‘temporal’ presence. The essence of the Church lies in the future, finding its true existence in Christ Himself. Our relationship with the future is both ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’. By ‘horizontal’ I mean that we are still expecting a final consummation in the future. By ‘vertical’ I mean that we already taste of that realized consummation as we have union with the One in whom that future has already been realized. This union is effected by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Thinking of the Supper in terms of ‘local’ presence can mute the strong eschatological themes of the Supper. We truly eat of the Body and Blood of our Lord. However, we need to be careful of understanding this eating in terms belonging to this present age, as the liturgy of the Eucharist is a movement from this age to the age to come.

As I pointed out in my previous comments, this is closely related to the Eastern Orthodox charge that Roman Catholics have not paid sufficient attention to the Spirit’s constituting of the Church as the Body of Christ. To most outsiders Roman Catholic ecclesiology seems to take the Incarnation more than the Resurrection and Pentecost as its starting point. As I mentioned earlier, John Zizioulas criticizes RCs, and I believe rightly, on this area in his fantastic book Being As Communion. Christology has not, he claims, been significantly conditioned by pneumatology (and consequently by eschatology) in the West. He sees this deficiency manifest in the failure to recognize the equal ultimacy of the local and universal Church in RC ecclesiology. If you have not already done so, I would highly recommend that you read Zizioulas. He is always immensely stimulating, even when one would disagree with him.

Calvin, in his doctrine of the Supper treated the elements as instruments by which we truly partake of the theanthropic Christ. He argued that this occurs as we are raised into heaven by the Spirit. I think that Calvin is generally right on this. However, I would have liked to see him stress the eschatological nature of this movement. We are being raised ‘vertically’ to the heavenly city (cf. Hebrews 12:22) that we are still awaiting ‘horizontally’ (Hebrews 13:14). In Christ — the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever — expectation merges with remembrance and the future invades the present.

Once this approach to the Supper has been understood, the argument over ‘local’ presence will be seen to be unhelpful. Spatial categories tend to divert our attention from what is really happening.

On the issue of the Reformed attitude towards the language of ex opere operato I would suggest that you read the following article, which gives a helpful treatment of the subject.

The chief concern that I would have regarding the language of ex opere operato is not that it presents the elements as ‘instruments’ — I am agreed that the elements are instruments and not merely occasions of the grace that they signify. Admittedly my position is less common within Reformed circles than the lower forms of the doctrine that have developed. Nevertheless, my views on this certainly have a long history and were shared by such as Calvin and Nevin.

There is an inseparable connection between the symbol and the reality. This bond is no mere nominal, external bond. In the proper practice of the sacrament the reality is actually conveyed. If this is all that ex opere operato is taken to mean then I will readily say ‘Amen!’ to it. Reformed theologians have often reacted to a form of transubstantiation (which I am increasingly convinced is a caricature) which imprisons the reality in the symbol. The symbol is done away with rather than consummated by the presence of the reality. Opposed to this position I would stress that the symbol participates in the reality. [At this point I should express my dislike for the terminology of ‘symbol’ and ‘reality’ — reality itself is symbolic]. The reality remains a free and open mystery whilst being partially imparted through the sign. It can never be contained within the sign. To contain the reality within the sign is to bind the mystery.

Biblically the sign is not a substitute for the reality, but the ‘self-supplementing presence’ of the reality (as Catherine Pickstock terms it). Christ’s physical presence did not render His signs in the gospels superfluous. They were a means of manifesting and conveying the reality of His Person to people.

As regards the issue of the sacramental (the bread of the Eucharist), historical (the crucified, resurrected and ascended body of our Lord) and ecclesial (the Church) Body of Christ I think that it is imperative that we do not separate these. It is essential that we recognize that the Eucharist is fundamentally an action not the elements. For this reason it is probably unhelpful to operate in terms of sign / thing signified. This language tends to frame the Eucharist less as an action than as a static symbol. The Eucharist is a ritual whereby the Church fulfills itself as the Body of Christ. Christ Himself is present in our midst as our Host (historical Body). Christ Himself is present in us as His Church (ecclesial body). Christ Himself is present in the elements as our food (sacramental body).

The fact that the Eucharist is an action performed by the Church is crucially important. Were the Eucharist not performed by the ecclesial Body of Christ it would become an extrinsic miracle. I fear that many Roman Catholics have failed to stress the action of the Eucharist as essential to what it really is. Many forms of the doctrine of the transubstantiation seem to make the liturgy itself ‘accidental’ to the ‘essence’ of the sacrament. Little concentration is given to the Eucharist as a meal. The reality interrupts the liturgy, rather than fulfilling it. I would prefer to think of the reality as being made manifest through the liturgy, rather than breaking in from outside the liturgy. The symbol / reality dichotomy is 90% of our problem at this point.

From an outsider’s perspective, the three-fold nature of the Body of Christ appears to have been obscured by RC teaching. In passages like 1 Corinthians 11 they are beautifully jumbled up together. One moment Paul is talking about the bread of the sacrament as the Body of Christ, the next it is the historical Body of Christ that he speaks of; he then proceeds to speak of the Church as the Body of Christ. It is the relationship between these aspects of the one Body of Christ that make the Eucharist what it is, that make the Church what it is and, dare I say, fulfill what Christ Himself truly is — not just an individual but a corporate Personality.

In the light of this, any individualistic celebration of the Eucharist should be out of the question. This is one of the reasons why I believe such things as private masses to be distortions of the true nature of the sacrament. I might also add that even when most churches celebrate the Eucharist it is merely a collection of individuals that do so and not the Church as Church.

As for Colossians 1:24 and other such verses: yes, I would understand them within the conceptual matrix of the three-fold nature of the Body of Christ. Paul’s sufferings can never be seen as an addition to the sufferings of Christ Himself, suggesting that Christ’s sufferings were somehow deficient. Paul’s sufferings can never be opposed to Christ’s own sufferings because Paul is participating in the sufferings of Christ, not competing with them. Paul no longer lives but Christ lives in Him. Paul now will spend and be spent for the sake of the Church. His vocation is the fulfillment of the vocation of Christ Himself who is at work in Paul.

Wow, Alastair,

That was an extraordinary post, almost breathtaking in its depth and insight. Are you a theologian or something? Man! This is a very mystical view of the Eucharist that I have not yet had the pleasure to explore all that much. I am almost certain, however, that some of the more mystically-minded Catholics have dealt with this from basically the same standpoint.

I thought of Matthias Scheeben as a likely candidate right away, and went and looked up what he wrote about the Eucharist in his book, The Mysteries of Christianity (tr. by Cyril Vollert, S.J., St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1952; from 1887 edition, pp. 485-486, 488):

"The Eucharistic presence of Christ is in itself a reflection and extension of His incarnation, as the Fathers so often observe. The changing of the bread into the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is a renewal of the wonderful act by which, in the power of the same Holy Spirit, He originally formed His body in the womb of the Virgin and took it to His person . . .

"But this presence is multiplied only that the body of Christ may grow and spread throughout the members which He attaches to Himself and fuses with Himself. For this reason alone the true body of Christ is reproduced at the Consecration, that He may unite Himself with individual men in Communion and become one body with them, so that the Logos may, as it were, become man anew in each man, by taking the human nature of each into union with His own . . .

"So completely do we become one with Christ that we can say with deep truth that we belong to the person of Christ, and in a sense are Christ Himself. "Christ is the Church," says St. Hilary, 'bearing it wholly within Himself by the sacrament of His body' . . .

"This participation in the divine nature is at the same time a replenishing of man with the Holy Spirit and a fellowship with Him. Since the Holy Spirit dwells in the body of Christ in a quite singular way by a very real union, He must also pour Himself out upon those who have been joined to Christ in one body. That we are filled with the Holy Spirit, that the Eucharist becomes a fellowship with the Holy Spirit for those who partake of it, and that we are all joined to one another in the fellowship of the one Holy Spirit, we find indicated in the ancient liturgies as the aim and effect of the Eucharist."

This is just a drop in the bucket of the riches in this 834-page book.

That was utterly fascinating information about John Calvin. I had never heard that. If you know of any Internet articles on this, please let me know. I'd like to do excerpts from them on this blog.

God bless, and thank you very much for this.



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