John Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

A critical question in the historic controversies regarding the Lord’s Supper is: Where is Christ’s physical body when the Supper is served?

The Western Church puts forward three major answers.

First, Rome teaches that the body and blood of Christ are present not only in heaven, but also physically in the bread and wine. At the time of their consecration at the Mass, the bread becomes the actual body of Christ and the wine becomes the actual blood of Christ. The outward appearance of the bread and wine remain unchanged, but their substance (what the elements really are) is changed into Christ’s body and blood. This view is known as “transubstantiation.” (See Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.6).

Second, Lutherans reject Rome’s identification of the bread and wine as the corporal body and blood of the Lord. At the Lord’s Table, the bread remains bread; the wine remains wine. Luther, however, argued that there was a communication of divine attributes to the human nature of the incarnate Christ. The attribute that interests us here is omnipresence. Because the Lord’s body is omnipresent (or, ubiquitous), Luther argues, Christ is physically present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. The Lutheran doctrine is commonly called “consubstantiation.” (See Westminster Confession of Faith 29.7).

Third, both advocates of memorialism and Calvin reject the previous two views. The incarnate Christ is in heaven, seated at the right hand of God (Hebrews 1:3; see Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.26). Like Lutherans, memorialists and Calvin unequivocally reject the Roman Catholic Mass. Nor are memorialists and Calvin satisfied with the Lutheran explanation of the Supper. They point out that Christ, at his Ascension, entered into heaven, where his body and soul remain. Calvin pointed out that the doctrine of the omnipresence (or, ubiquity) of Christ’s body threatens the very integrity of his human nature. After all, how can a body be present everywhere and still be human? (See Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.16 and 4.17.30)

If memorialists and Calvin take exception to the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper, what then separates them?

For memorialists, participation in the Lord’s Supper involves remembering what took place on the cross for our salvation. Calvin emphasizes, however, not Christ’s absence but presence in the Supper. Calvin writes, “But greatly mistaken are those who conceive no presence of the flesh in the Supper unless it lies in the bread. For thus they leave nothing to the secret working of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us. As though, if he should lift us to himself, we should not just as much enjoy his presence!” (Institutes, 4.17.31)

Calvin advances our understanding of the Supper, therefore, by pointing to the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is only in connection with Calvin’s teaching on the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Supper that it is useful to speak of his “spiritual concept of communion.” Robert Letham’s summary of Calvin’s position is helpful:

Christ does not come down to us in his body and blood. Instead, we are lifted up to him by the Holy Spirit. Christ, being the eternal Son of God, is of course, everywhere. Moreover, he has permanently united himself to the human nature assumed in the incarnation. In that sense, the person of Christ is present with us as we eat and drink. Yet, on earth, the Son of God was not restricted or confined to the humanity he assumed, but was simultaneously filling all things, directing the universe even as (according to the flesh) he walked the dusty roads of Palestine. So, at the right hand of God, the Son fills and directs the universe (Col. 1:15-20), now unbreakably united to his assumed humanity, while in terms of that same humanity he is limited and in one place. Yet that humanity is never separate or apart from the divinity, the eternal Son of God with whom and in whom it is one undivided person. Thus, in the sacrament the Holy Spirit unites the faithful to the person of Christ as they eat and drink the signs, the physical elements of bread and wine. There is an inseparable conjunction of sign and reality. As truly as we eat the bread and drink the wine, so we feed on Christ by faith. [Robert Letham, The Lord’s Supper (P&R 2001), 28-29]

In the Lord’s Supper, according to Calvin, believers are lifted up to heaven by the Holy Spirit, where Christ is seated, and feed on him by faith. Calvin confesses:

Now if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [John 6:53ff.]. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them. (Institutes, 4.17.32)

In his rich mercy, God “made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6). It is from this position that believers come to the Lord’s Table, and “they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death” (Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 170).

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