Book 4 - Chapter 17 (Parts 1-4)
Chapter seventeen is one of the longest chapters of the Institutes. It is so because, in the time of the Reformation (which began in 1517) there were multiple, mutually exclusive ways of understanding the communion. They ranged from the meal as merely a remembrance of what Christ said and did (Zwingli), to Christ being spiritually present in the supper (Calvin), to Christ being present “in, with and under” the elements (Luther - consubstantiation), and then to Roman Catholicism in which the bread and wine became the actual body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). While it will seem odd to us, Christians during the 16th and 17th centuries not only argued about the differences, but killed each other over them. Thus, Calvin spends a great deal of time explaining and defending his view.
Summary: Calvin begins with a rationale for Jesus instituting communion. “God has received us once for all into his family, to hold us…as sons. Therefore, to fulfill the duties of a most excellent Father, concerned for his offspring, he undertakes also to nourish us throughout the course of our life. To this end therefore, he has through the hand of his only begotten Son, given to the church another sacrament (baptism being the first) that is a spiritual banquet wherein Christ attests himself to be life giving bread upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality” (pg. 1359-60). Though this sounds rather straight forward (we belong to God’s family and so God spiritually feeds us), given the disagreements over communion, Calvin believes that it “demands a careful explanation” (pg. 1360).
He begins this careful explanation by explaining that that the bread and wine “…represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ” (pg. 1360). He continues “Now Christ is the only food for our soul, and therefore our Heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that, refreshed by partaking of him, we may repeatedly gather strength…Since however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in visible signs…we are therefore bidden to take and eat the body which was once and for all offered for our salvation in order that…we may conclude…that the power of his life-giving death, will be efficacious in us.” (pg. 1360-61). In these sentences Calvin is trying to hold two things in tension. The first is that the elements are not actual body and blood, but are representations of them. The second is that when we receive the supper, we are spiritually receiving the body and blood of Christ. In other words, Calvin rejects the Roman assertion that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, the Lutheran assertion that Christ is physically present in, under and with the elements, and the Zwinglian assertion that Christ is not present at the supper at all. Instead he argues that Christ is spiritually but not physically present in the meal.
Calvin expands on this idea of Christ being spiritually present in the sacrament with these words. “Thus when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes…the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body and so realize the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood (pg. 1363). Thus, in Calvin’s understanding, though Christ is not physically present, he is present in spirit to “…nourish, refresh, strengthen and gladden” us (pg. 1363).
Reflections: As Presbyterians we speak of communion as a “means of grace.” What we mean by that phrase is that in communion, the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection (the defeat of sin and the empowering of our lives for good) are made real, in ways that are not ordinarily available; that there is something that actually happens to us and in us when we eat the bread and drink from the cup.
Chapter seventeen is one of the longest chapters of the Institutes. It is so because in the time of the Reformation (which began in 1517) there were multiple, mutually exclusive ways of understanding the sacrament of communion. They ranged from the meal as merely a remembrance of what Christ said and did (Zwingli), to Christ being spiritually present in the supper (Calvin), to Christ being present “in, with and under” the elements (Luther), and then to Roman Catholicism in which the bread and wine became the actual body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). While it will seem odd to us, Christians during the 16th and 17th centuries not only argued about these differences, but killed each other over them. Thus, Calvin spends a great deal of time explaining and defending his view. In the last article Calvin gave an overview of his belief that Christ is spiritually present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In this section, he expands on his initial statements.
Summary: Calvin begins by noting that the promise of Christ’s forgiveness and salvation are “sealed in the supper” (pg. 1363). He writes that “It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply to…extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm the promise by which…his flesh…and blood…feed us unto eternal life” (pg. 1363). Calvin continues that the promises are confirmed when in the sacrament “we receive him (Jesus) by faith” (pg. 1364). What this means is that when we partake of communion, we are not simply eating bread and drinking wine, but that something is happening that through our faith in Christ, the benefits of that faith (forgiveness and salvation) are being transferred to us. This means that in communion there is something beyond “an outward profession” (pg. 1366) of belief that is occurring. In a sense, he argues that when we eat and drink at the table, we become actual, spiritual partakers of Christ and all that Christ accomplished on the cross.
Calvin believes that all of this is possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit. He writes that “…our souls are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ in the same way that bread and wine keep and sustain physical life…for though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by so great a 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…” (pg. 1370). The Spirit is the conduit through which this mysterious feeding becomes possible and because of that, whenever Christians take communion, they are to be “…persuaded that the truth of the thing (what Jesus has done for us) is surely present…”(pg. 1371) at the table. He summarizes his view in this way. “I say therefore that in the mystery of the Supper, Christ is truly shown to us through the symbols of bread and wine, his very body and blood…that we may grow into one body with him…and also feel his power in partaking of all his benefits” (pg. 1372).
Calvin then argues against transubstantiation, the Roman view that the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ, and consubstantiation, which is Luther’s view that Christ’s body is physically present “under” the bread. He argues that these are not possible because 1) the body of Christ is in heaven with God and so cannot be here on earth 2) Christ is not returning until he comes in his second coming 3) and it takes what is a mystery and turns it into something that needs “…some physical form of enclosing” (pg. 1379).
Reflections: Many years ago, I was doing some continuing education at a local Roman Catholic Seminary in San Antonio. During a break, I asked a priest if he believed in transubstantiation as explained in classic Roman Catholic theology. He smiled and replied that that he did not, but that he still believed in the real presence of Christ in communion. In some ways, I believed that he and I were not all that far apart in our beliefs; that we both believed that there is a mystery in communion that we cannot fully explain, in that on the table are bread and wine (juice) but that in and through what we do, Jesus and his saving love for us are made real.
Chapter seventeen is one of the longest chapters of the Institutes. It is so because, in the time of the Reformation (which began in 1517) there were multiple, mutually exclusive ways of understanding the sacrament of communion. They ranged from the meal as merely a remembrance of what Christ said and did (Zwingli), to Christ being spiritually present in the supper (Calvin), to Christ being present “in, with and under” the elements (Luther), and then to Roman Catholicism in which the bread and wine became the actual body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). While it will seem odd to us, Christians during the 16th and 17th centuries not only argued about these differences, but killed each other over them. Thus, Calvin spends a great deal of time explaining and defending his view. In the last two articles Calvin explained that Christ was not only spiritually present in the sacrament but that the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection are offered to us in it as well. In this section, he returns to a discussion of the purpose of communion.
Summary: We begin this article with a summary of Calvin’s rejection of the notions that 1) Christ is physically present either “in” or “under” the bread and wine and 2) Christ is not present in the supper at all. “But we must establish such a presence of Christ in the supper as may neither fasten him to the element of bread, nor enclose him in the bread… and we must reject that the sacrament is to be received…solely by the imagination or understanding of mind…” (pg. 1382). For Calvin, so long as Christians reject those two views and believe that in the supper they are receiving the “…nourishment of eternal life…” (pg. 1382), then they are on the right track concerning the sacrament of communion.
Calvin defends this view by examining Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. “What Christ took into his hands and gave to the disciples he declared to be his body; but he had taken bread - who therefore cannot understand that bread is still shown? And accordingly, that there is nothing more absurd than to…” transfer to the bread the physical presence of the one breaking it (pg. 1383). Thus, the symbols (the bread and wine) are different from the things that they symbolize (the body and blood of Jesus). In other words, bread stays bread. Even so it is still important to him that there be a visual connection between the symbol and the thing symbolized. To make his point he quotes Augustine (354-430 CE), “If sacraments did not have a certain likeness to those things of which they are sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all” (pg. 1386).
At this point Calvin discusses one of the central acts of the Roman Church, which is the “adoration of the host.” (The host is the consecrated bread, which is considered to be the body of Christ. As such it was and still is often paraded in procession and treated as if it is the incarnation of Christ). He objects to the adoration of the host because the sacrament is supposed to cause people to seek to follow Christ more closely. It is to be an encouragement for their spiritual journey. If, however, they believe that in the host, they have already reached their destination in Christ, then they are not challenged to continue their journey of personal transformation. Calvin puts it this way, “…if the function of the Sacrament is to help the otherwise weak mind of man so that it may rise to look upon the height of spiritual mysteries, then those who are halted at the outward sign wander from the right way of seeking Christ” (pg. 1412).
Reflections: When my wife Cindy and I went on a trip for our 35th wedding anniversary, we were in Prague when we watched a procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi, or the feast of the body of Christ. In the procession, a priest was holding aloft the host in an elaborate container. Even as a Protestant, I could admire the beauty of the procession (bells, flower petals, chanting, incense). Yet at the same time I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the message…that Christ was more present in that piece of bread, than in the people in the procession. That moment was a reminder to me of how our theology about the sacraments can and does influence our theology about where Christ is most present.
In the first three articles on this chapter we examined these basic ideas: 1) that Christ is spiritually present in the sacrament 2) that in the sacrament the elements do not become the body and blood of Christ 3) that something mysterious happens in the sacrament wherein the benefits of Christ (forgiveness and salvation) are made real in us 4) that the sacrament is intended to spiritually nourish us for our journeys of faith 5) that we are nourished at the table through the work of the Holy Spirit as we receive it in faith and 6) we are not to venerate the bread, or host, but to see that bread is always bread and wine is always wine. In this chapter Calvin discusses several of the more practical aspects of the sacrament.
Summary: First, Calvin begins by reminding his readers that the sacrament must always be accompanied by the Word proclaimed (preaching). “This…confirms what I said elsewhere; that the right administration of the sacrament cannot stand apart from the Word. For whatever benefit may come to us from the Supper requires the Word…there needs to be preaching” (pg. 1416). This is so for Calvin because the supper is intended to support faith; faith that is created by hearing and responding to God’s word.
Second, Calvin wants to be clear that people do not have to worry about being worthy of the sacrament because no one can be. Instead, in communion “…we shall think that we, as being poor, come to a kindly giver; as sick, to a physician; as sinners, to the Author of righteousness; finally, as dead, to him who gives us life” (pg. 1420). For this reason, he is very critical of those who demand some sort of perfection to come to the table; a perfection that would in his view, make the sacrament unnecessary.
Fourth, it does not matter how communion is served. “But as for the outward ceremony…whether or not believers take it in their hands, or divide among themselves, or severely eat what has been given…whether they hand the cup back to the deacon or give it to the next person; whether the bread is leavened or unleavened; the wine red or white…it makes no difference. These things are indifferent and are left to the church’s discretion” (pg. 1420).
Fifth, communion ought to be offered every week during worship which contains public prayers, a sermon, the words of institution and after serving a prayer of thanksgiving. Calvin understands that many Reformers wanted communion to be served infrequently (sometimes only once a year). He rejects this not only because the Church Fathers offered it every week, but because 1) the early church participated in the sacrament every time they worshipped and 2) because without the sacrament people are more likely to stray from the path Christ has set before them.
Sixth, the sacrament is to consist of both bread and cup. While this may seem odd to us, in Calvin’s day the Roman church only offered the bread to church members. The cup was only consumed by the priest. He responds to that tradition in this way. “The symbol of the blood which, denied to lay and profane persons…was given as a special property to a few shaven and anointed men. The edict of the eternal God is that all should drink…for Christ…commands ‘Drink ye all from it’” (pg. 1425-26).
Reflections: I grew up in a Presbyterian church in which communion was only served once a quarter. This meant that if my parents and I happened to miss one communion Sunday, we could go half a year without the sacrament. As a child who was not allowed to take communion (I had to wait to be confirmed) this did not seem onerous. But now that I am pastoring a church in which communion is served at our 8:30 service every Sunday, I have come to appreciate the power of the sacrament. It is as if I have plugged directly into God and am refreshed by the bread and cup.