Saturday, 11 July 2009

The Wreck of Calvin's Lord's Supper Doctrine

To mark - mark, not celebrate, mind you - the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth yesterday, I'm posting these reflections on the Genevan Reformer's theology of the sacrament from the German-Australian theologian and confessor, Hermann Sasse, which I recently added to my other blog, What Sasse Said. The portrait of Calvin below is by Oliver Crisp, and my own comment follows below it.

But first, Calvin's highest written expression of his Lord's Supper doctrine:

"While we, as long as we sojourn in this mortal life, cannot be included or contained in the same place with Him, the efficacy of His Spirit is not limited by boundaries of space and time and therefore is able to bring together and connect what is separated by local distance...Thus we recognise that His Spirit is the bond of our participation in Him. The Spirit feeds us with the substance of the flesh and blood of our Lord for immortality."

Calvin: Theological Treatises, Library of Christian Classics, SCM, London, 1954.

"In his doctrine of the Lord's Supper, Calvin tries to find the via media between Luther and Zwingli. Already in the first edition of the Institutio, which appeared in the year of the Wittenberg Concord, his doctrine was almost complete. Without mentioning names, he rejects the understanding of the Words of Institution held by Luther on the one hand and by Zwingli and Oecolampadius on the other hand. Neither is the bread the body or the body is the bread*, nor is the bread a mere sign or figure of the body. In the Sacrament 'we are spiritually fed' (Spiritualiter pascimur, Corpus Reformatorum, [Calvin] I, 118), that is, our souls are fed with the body and blood of the Lord. There is no Real Presence of the body of Christ in the Sacrament, as Luther believes, for the body of Christ exists , locally circumscribed, in heaven."

From This Is My Body Luther's Contention for the Real Presence...Revised Australian Edition, March 1977, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, p261-262

* This awkward phrase sounds like a Germanism which may have slipped passed Sasse's English style advisor.

"No-one can study Calvin seriously without feeling the deep longing of this man for the real Sacrament. There is a touching hunger and thirst for the Sacrament which expressed itself in the classical liturgies of the old Reformed churches. Calvin really wanted to retain the Sacrament. Only reluctantly did he give up the desire to have the Sacrament celebrated each Sunday. But his theology, and perhaps still more the philosophical presuppositions of this theology, made it impossible to reconcile the realistic terminology with his actual thoughts. This was seen at once by the Lutherans."

This Is My Body, Luther's Contention for the Real Presence...
Revised Australian Edition, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, 1977, p. 266.

Comment: Behind Calvin's views on the Lord's Supper there is a large hinterland of philosophical assumptions on spirit and matter and pertinent theological developments, including the Marburg Colloquy and Zwingli's adoption and promotion of the Dutch lawyer Cornelius Hoen's repristination of Wessel Gansfort's critique of transunstantiation. Indeed, this hinterland even stretches as far back to the Second Eucharistic Controversy of the 11th century between Berengar and Lanfranc, which helped to usher in the era of medieval scholasticism, not to mention the oft-debated question of relation of John 6 to the Lord's Supper, all of which territory we would have to explore carefully in order to fully understand the issues involved.

However, we can set all this aside for the moment, because we do not have to fully understand the issues in order to understand what Holy Scripture teaches on the matter. Calvin's doctrine on the Supper (and, btw, I haven't yet met a "Calvinist" who holds it, although I have met several high church Anglicans who do, although they would shudder at being called "Calvinists"!) comes to grief on the twin rocks of 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 11:27, which clearly show that for Paul, and therefore for the Holy Spirit which inspired him, it is the bread and wine which are the bearers of Christ's body and blood to us in the sacrament, not the Spirit. A doctrine which exists in such tortured contradiction to Paul's teaching as Calvin's does cannot be called scriptural.


L P said...


We do not really need to know all the issues but first we need to be aware of what the Scripture says on the matter.

I am so blessed with what you said that the elements bear Christ's body and blood for the HS is always on the background pointing always to Christ.

PS. I just went to AELC web site, I was intrigued to find they have a statement on UOJ or LC-MS 1932 wording.

M. A. Henderson said...

Yes, Calvin had great difficulties with that notion - "finitum non capax infinitum" is the shorthand for his basic position; it is also reflected in Calvin's Christology.

I'll check out the AELC site.

M. A. Henderson said...

OK, Lito - I checked the AELC site - I assume you are referring to their Statement of Faith? Article on Justification? They have one sentence there saying because of Christ God declares all people forgiven. I think this statement would be present because Pr Clarence priebbenow, who founded the ALEC, has been strongly influenced by the old Missouri theology, as he went to seminary in the old ELCA at Highgate when it was still very much under Missourian influence. However, I don't think he would be guilty of the universalist error - you should e-mail him and ask him his opinion on the UOJ issue - I'd be very interested to hear his response.

Lvka said...

Take, eat: this is my Spirit... ;-)

Drink ye all of this, this is a mere figure of my blood... :-)

Do this in ***REMEMBRANCE*** [caps and stars in the original Greek] of Me... :D