In my own past study of the Lord’s Supper, some twenty six years ago now, I spent some time wrestling with John Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, especially as he addressed the matter in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and it started me thinking in a different way about it than I had previously thought. In this paper I would like to describe my encounter with his teaching on the Lord’s Supper and the way in which it affected my own understanding. I will do so first by briefly examining his view of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in its historical setting and then by taking up the concept of the Lord’s Supper as a “visible word,” a concept which I first discovered in Calvin’s writings.
The Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper
First I would like to focus our attention on the much debated question concerning the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Specifically, we must try to understand what our Lord intended when, having broken the bread, He said, “This is My body,” and of the wine, “This is My blood” (Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). In addition, there is the related statement in 1 Corinthians 10:16, in which Paul asks, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” That this statement refers to the Lord’s Supper cannot be easily doubted, for what other cup and bread could Paul possibly be referring to here in connection with the body and blood of Christ? In addition, “the ‘cup of blessing’ was a technical term for the third cup drunk at the Jewish Passover, the time when the Lord’s Supper was instituted (Matt. 26:17-30 and parallel passages: Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23; John 13:21-30)” (Mare, p. 251).
In an attempt to properly understand these words of institution, and the interesting allusion made to them in 1 Corinthians 10, we may assert at the outset that Christ was utilizing figurative language. For, when bodily present with His disciples, who had seen Him as such with their own eyes and had handled them with their own hands (see 1 Jn. 1:1-4), Jesus holds forth a piece of bread and says, “this is My body,” how else can we think that they would have understood Him, if not in a figurative sense? Would it not be obvious that what Jesus held out to them at that time served simply as a symbol of His body? And, with this in mind, wouldn’t we assume that Paul was thinking the same way in 1 Corinthians 10, especially since later in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 Paul quotes exactly Jesus’ words of institution, which we have already seen must be figurative?
It is with this in mind – that Jesus was speaking symbolically – that we may set aside without further ado the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation (c.f. Berkhof, p. 652). And we may just as quickly dispense with Martin Luther’s answer that “it is the true body and blood of Christ in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by Christ’s word to eat and drink” (italics mine, Tappert, p. 447). But, recognizing that Jesus was employing figurative language, is there yet a sense in which we may hold that Christ is really present in the Lord’s Supper? In answer to this further question, we will turn our attention briefly to Ulrich Zwingli and then to John Calvin.
When attempting to assess the view of Ulrich Zwingli concerning the Lord’s Supper, one quickly discovers that it is not altogether certain what that view is. Millard Erickson observes that
the view that the Lord’s Supper is merely a commemoration … is usually associated with Zwingli, although some would argue that Zwingli’s conception went further. It is likely that Zwingli embraced more than one stance on this matter, and that he may have altered his position toward the end of his life. (p. 1120)
Louis Berkhof makes the same observation when he concludes that Zwingli “seems to have changed his view somewhat in the course of time. It is very hard to determine exactly what he did believe on this matter” (p. 653). However, it does seem clear that
he identified the eating of the body of Christ with faith in Him and a trustful reliance on His death. He denied the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, but did not deny that Christ is present there in a spiritual manner to the faith of the believer. (p. 653)
If this is an accurate assessment of Zwingli’s view of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, then I would definitely say that it commends itself in several respects. For it does full justice, it seems to me, to the nature of Jesus’ words as symbolic, while at the same time not ruling out His spiritual presence. Also, such a view avoids the Roman Catholic and Lutheran error of being forced to say, because of having asserted the physical presence of Christ in the Supper, that He was and is now physically omnipresent via the communication of the divine attributes. John Calvin is, in fact, supportive of Zwingli on this point for this very reason, although he does criticize Zwingli, as well as Oecolampadius, for “being so eager to decry the contrary opinion of the papists … that they labored more to destroy the evil than to build up the good,” and that, “though they did not deny the truth, they did not teach it as clearly as they ought” (Theol. Treatises, p. 165). More specifically, Calvin was displeased that
in taking too great pains to maintain that the bread and wine are called the body and blood of Christ because they are signs, they took no care to make the reservation that they are such signs that the reality is joined to them; or to protest that they did not at all intend to obscure the true communion which our Lord gives us in His body and blood by the sacrament. (Theol. Treatises, pp. 165-166)
In attempting to set forth Calvin’s own view, I must admit at the start that I have found him to be somewhat confusing in his discussion of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. For example, in his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord and Only Saviour Jesus Christ, Calvin asserts on the one hand that
those to whom God has given knowledge of His truth … should not at all allow that the bread is transubstantiated into the body of Christ, nor the wine into His blood; but we must insist on this, that the visible signs retain their true substance to represent to us the spiritual truth of which we have spoken [namely that we receive the fruit of His death in the Supper, via the promises there given, by faith]. (Theol. Treatises, pp. 162-163)
But, on the other hand, he goes on to say that “they must hold certain that our Lord gives us in the Supper what He signifies by it, and we thus receive the body and blood of Christ” (Theol. Treatises, p. 163). In addition, though Calvin does point out that the body and blood are not received as “enclosed in the bread or attached locally to the visible sign” (Theol. Treatises, p. 163), he nevertheless declares that “in receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the real substance of the body and blood of Christ” (italics mine, Theol. Treatises, p. 166), and that this happens somehow through having raised “our hearts on high to heaven” where Christ is (Theol. Treatises, p. 163, 166).
I must confess that I find it quite difficult to make sense of these apparently contradictory types of statements in Calvin’s Shorter Treatise. However, recognizing that it was originally written in 1540, I turned to the English translation of the 1559 Latin text of the Institutes in search of greater clarity. Much to my dismay, however, I still found most of Calvin’s discussion of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper to be confusing – at least to me. For example, in 4:17:10 he asks the question, “For why should the Lord put in your hand the symbol of His body, except to assure you of a true participation in it?” His answer is that “if it is true that a visible sign is given to us to seal the gift of the thing invisible, when we received the symbol of the body, let us no less surely trust that the body itself is also given to us” (Institutes, p. 1371). Thus Calvin seems to affirm at one and the same time that the elements of the Lord’ Supper are only symbols, but that by the participation in the sacrament we nevertheless really partake of the actual body and blood of the risen and ascended Christ, even though His body is localized in heaven and not in any way physically connected to the bread and wine. But is there no attempt at all to reconcile such apparently contradictory notions? In a word, yes, and it comes in the form of a two part answer.
The first part of his attempt to answer the problem of asserting on the one hand that we experience the real, physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, while asserting on the other hand that Christ “in His flesh … is contained in heaven until He appears in judgment” (Institutes, p. 1403), is to say that instead of Christ being brought down to us we are lifted up to Him. To “those who conceive no presence of the flesh in the Supper unless it lies in the bread,” Calvin says,
to them Christ does not seem present unless He comes down to us. As though, if He should lift us up to Himself, we should not therefore just as much enjoy His presence! The question is therefore only of the manner, for they place Christ in the bread, while we do not think it lawful for us to drag Him from heaven. (Institutes, p. 1403)
But we are led next to ask how it is that Calvin can speak thus of our being lifted up to Christ? And this brings us to the second part of his answer. “Even though it seems unbelievable,” declares Calvin,
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 by space. (Institutes, p. 1370)
Thus we find upon closer examination that work of the Holy Spirit is ultimately the key for Calvin. Indeed, “the bond of this connection,” he says, “is … the Spirit of Christ, with whom we are joined in unity, and is like a channel through which all that Christ Himself is and has is conveyed to us” (Institutes, p. 1373). Now, if anyone should ask Calvin how this takes place, his answer is that “I shall no be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare” (Institutes, p. 1403). He is only sure to reject what he sees to be “absurd things which appear to be either unworthy of Christ’s heavenly majesty, or incompatible with the reality of His human nature, since they are in necessary conflict with God’s Word” (Institutes, p. 1404).
We have found, then, in our examination of Calvin’s view of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, that for him the basic issue is the interpretation of the bread and wine as signs or symbols which are such that the “reality” to which they refer “is joined to them,” i.e. the body and blood of Christ. And we have further seen that the analogy of faith, and in particular his Christology and Pneumatology, have provided the parameters for his final delineation of the real presence of Christ.
In evaluation of Calvin’s view of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, I find myself in the somewhat amusing position of being in basic agreement with the notion that Christ is really present with us at the Lord’s Supper (and note that I said at, rather than in), while at the same time rejecting his insistence upon our receiving “the symbol of the body” (Institutes, p. 1371) as necessitating the presence of the actual body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper during Christ’s present session at the right hand of the Father. I am uncomfortable with the statement, for example, that the bread and wine “are such signs that the reality is joined to them” (Theol. Treatises, p. 166) when this is taken to mean that “the true communion which our Lord gives us is His body and blood by the sacrament” and that “we are truly made partakers of the real substance of the body and blood of Christ” (Theol. Treatises, p. 166).
Now, we have already seen that in the final analysis Calvin backs away somewhat from such strong statements as those to which I have just referred, reinforcing his argument in the end (or so it seems to me) by way of his understanding of Christology. Calvin’s reasoning seems to go something like this: if we are to speak of Christ, we must always understand Him as a whole person, but as a whole person with two natures – one who is both wholly human and wholly divine; thus we cannot speak of Him as truly being present with us, and of our truly having communion with Him, without reference to Him as a whole person; thus, we must speak of Christ as present with us both as God and as man, which includes His bodily presence, even if we do not understand how this can be so, given that His body is limited to one locale, i.e. heaven; and, though we speak of the Holy Spirit as the one who brings us into this kind of communion with Christ, we must not forget that it is not just communion with the Holy Spirit as a substitute for Christ that is ours, but that we actually have communion with Christ Himself, and Him as a total person. This Calvin sees to be a great mystery, and I am inclined to agree with him.
So, I agree with the Christological aspects of his argument for the real presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper, so long as this is not taken to mean that we “feed upon” or “partake of” the actual body and blood of Christ, but only that we experience more fully our fellowship with Him as we respond in faith to the message of the Lord’s Supper, about which I will speak more later. In fact, I would say that Christ is really present with us through the Holy Spirit’s working at all times. After all, Jesus did equate the coming of the Holy Spirit with His own coming to His people when He made the following promise to His disciples:
And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever–the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. (Jn. 14:16-18 NKJ)
And Jesus did also promise every believer that “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20 NKJ). So, again, we may experience the presence of Christ more fully via the believing celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but we are only experiencing what is really true for all believers at all times. However, though I have no disagreement with Calvin’s thinking at this point, I do disagree with the way in which he anchors this concept in the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper as such. I agree that, when Jesus said, “this is My body,” He was pointing to the reality of the thing signified by the bread, namely the body in which He sat with them at the table. But it must be clearly emphasized that, when Christ spoke these words of institution, He did so before His death while He was still with them. These words, then, were indeed speaking of the actual, bodily presence of Christ – of the body and blood not only present before the disciples at that moment, but which also was to be broken and poured out for them in the coming hours on the cross. It is at this point, I think, that Calvin does not do adequate justice to the reading of these words in their redemptive-historical context.
Interestingly, G. C. Berkouwer alludes to this same point in support of Calvin’s understanding when he makes mention of Dankbaar’s assertion that “Calvin‘s concern lay with the humiliated and crucified body of Christ” (p. 235). Berkouwer thus also observes that
In the Lord’s Supper, the believer has communion with the glorified Christ because he has communion with his body and blood. This communion is not a communion with Christ’s glorified “body” and “blood” as a substantial, isolated reality, but a communion with him in his offering and in his true body and blood, with him “who has become flesh and was crucified in history and whose flesh is now in heaven.” (p. 235)
Though this statement of Berkouwer seems rather cryptic at first glance, one may see his stress upon present communion with Christ as integrally tied to, not the body and blood of Christ as presently seated at the right hand of the Father, but to the body and blood as it was broken and poured out on the cross. This seems to me to be the focus of the statements concerning the Lord’s Supper. The reference to the body and blood should be seen always to point back to Christ as crucified. After all, this is what He Himself was referring to when He instituted the Lord’s Supper and what the Apostle Paul says that we proclaim as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26). In fact, it is my contention that, even though 1 Corinthians 10:16 points to a present communion with Christ, its reference to our communion in the body and blood should be seen in the figurative sense established by the other passages in which we have the words of the institution of the Supper. Thus, we are partakers of His body and blood now in the sense that we receive the benefits of the atoning work of Christ which was accomplished for us on the cross, to which the bread and wine always refer.
Before moving on, I would like to point out the rather curious discussion of the real presence of Christ found in Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. It is interesting to me that other Reformed theologians have found themselves having to attempt to understand Calvin in precisely the same way, essentially, in which I am saying that Calvin should have understood the New Testament. In fact, after noting with reference to Calvin’s understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper that “this is undoubtedly an obscure point in Calvin’s presentation,” and that “sometimes he seems to place too much emphasis on the literal flesh and blood,” Berkhof observes that “perhaps … his words are to be understood sacramentally, that is, in a figurative sense” (p. 654). He then offers the suggestion of Hodge that Calvin intends the body and blood to be understood as present only virtually, meaning that only the “virtues and effects” of Christ’s death are conveyed via the sacrament (p. 654). According to this understanding of Calvin, then, there is not much difference from the Zwinglian view previously mentioned, a view that, as we have already seen, Calvin openly criticized for taking precisely this position!
In summary, a statement of my own position would best be described as either a high Zwinglian view or as a low Calvinist view. That is, I do definitely see validity to the notion that Christ is really present at the Lord’s Supper through the work of the Holy Spirit. However, I actually take more of a Zwinglian view of the exegesis of the specific texts concerning the Lord’s Supper, not simply as relating a memorial view of the Supper, but in the sense that I do not think that the real presence of Christ can be shown from such texts in the way that Calvin apparently sought to do it.
The Lord’s Supper as a “Visible Word”
Now that we have sought to understand how Christ is present at the Lord’s Supper, the next question I shall seek to answer is, “What is He doing when He thus meets us there?” And the answer that comes ringing back to me from Scripture is, “He is seeking fellowship with you; that’s what He is doing!” But, beyond simply saying that we experience fellowship with Christ in the Lord’s Supper (which is saying a lot), I think we can say even more particularly that He is speaking to us there, and that the Lord’s Supper is a “visible word” designed especially for this purpose. As is evident from what I’ve written thus far, I am indebted to Calvin for a deeper appreciation of the manner in which our Lord Jesus is present with us at all times through the work of the Holy Spirit, and thus also when partaking of the Lord’s Supper. His thoughts on this issue, as he wrestled with the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, are thoroughly Scriptural and doctrinally sound. But there is one more way in which I am particularly indebted to him concerning my understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and that is through his highlighting the Lord’s Supper as a “visible word.” Although he did not originate the idea, his writing is the first place I encountered it in my own theological journey, and he himself attributes it to Augustine. He writes in the Institutes that
Sacraments, therefore, are exercises which confirm our faith in the word of God; and because we are carnal, they are exhibited under carnal objects, that thus they may train us in accommodation to our sluggish capacity, just as nurses lead children by the hand. And hence Augustine calls a sacrament a visible word (August. In Joann. Hom. 89), because it represents the promises of God as in a picture, and places them in our view in a graphic bodily form (August. cont. Faust. Lib. 19). (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.6, italics mine)
I think this concept of the Lord’s Supper as a visible word is the single most helpful concept I have ever come across in my study of the subject, apart from the teaching of Scripture itself. There are at least two Scriptural lines of evidence which seem to clearly support the idea that the Lord’s Supper should be understood as a visible word.
First, the very fact that our Lord Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as a symbolic act shows that it is designed to communicate something to us about that which is symbolized. And this should not surprise us, because God often uses symbolic acts to communicate with His people. Remember, for example, the symbolic meaning of the Passover meal that was instituted to commemorate God’s salvation of His people while in Egypt. In the twelfth chapter of Exodus we are told that the Passover meal itself consisted of only three required things: 1) the lamb (Exod. 12:3), 2) unleavened bread (vs.8), and 3) bitter herbs (vs.8). These three essential elements were not all that was required, however, for a proper celebration of the Passover meal. There was also a requirement to place the blood of the lamb on the lintel and doorposts of the house where it was eaten (vs.7), the requirement to eat the entire lamb before morning or to burn what was left (vs.10), the requirement to eat the meal standing with a belt on one’s waist and sandals on one’s feet (vs.11a), and the requirement to eat the whole meal in haste (vs.11b). All of these elements apparently had an important meaning which would need to be explained to later generations, as Moses went to to say,
It will come to pass when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, just as He promised, that you shall keep this service. And it shall be, when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” that you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice of the LORD, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.” (Exod. 12:25-27a)
So, there was an intended meaning behind this symbolic meal and the symbolic actions that went along with it. There was truth being revealed by these means so that the people of Israel would always remember God’s saving work on their behalf. And, of course, the celebration pointed to His saving work in the future as well, when our Lord Jesus, whom the Apostle Paul calls “our Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7) would come and give His own life for the sins of His people.
Other examples of such symbolic actions could be given, such as when Ezekiel once drew a picture of Jerusalem on a clay tablet and laid siege to it with mini siege walls and battering rams (Ezek. 4:1-4), or when Jeremiah once broke a flask as a symbol of the way in which God would “break” Israel and the city of Jerusalem (Jer. 19:1-15), or when Agabus bound his hands and feet with Paul’s belt as symbol of the way Paul himself would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:10-12). Our Lord Jesus stands in this same tradition when He chooses to communicate through the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper. But, although there are similarities to be found, we must not think of the Lord’s Supper as just another symbolic act. The point to be made here is simply that it is rightly thought of as a visible word.
Second, we know that the Lord’s Supper is properly thought of as a visible word because of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:26 that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (italics mine). The Lord’s Supper is thus clearly a sort of enactment the Gospel, a proclamation, and therefore a visible word.
Having thus seen that the Lord’s Supper is a visible word, we have an important clue as to the nature of its efficacy. Its efficacy is to be seen as analogous to that of the written word of God. It is a means of revelation from God just as the word we have in Scripture is a revelation from God. And these two means of revelation are both efficacious only when we believe the truth they communicate and trust in God’s promises communicated therein.
What Christ Says to Us Through the Lord’s Supper
Thus far we have seen how Christ is present at the Lord’s Supper, and that He is speaking to us through the Lord’s Supper. Now we shall turn our attention toward trying to ascertain exactly what it is that He is saying to us via the Lord’s Supper. In discussing this particular subject, we will observe that Christ speaks to us of the past, of the present, and of the future (See Murray, Vol. 3, pp. 286-287).
First, Jesus speaks to us of the past. In Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:25 we are commanded not only to observe the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Jesus’ death but that as often as we do it, we should do it in remembrance of Him. Thus we see that Jesus intends always to speak to us in the Lord’s Supper of His death for our sins, holding out to us the offer of forgiveness. But this implies that we must come confessing our sins with a repentant heart (see also 1 Cor. 11:27-32). Thus the Lord’s Supper, though focused primarily upon Jesus’ love and faithfulness, also calls for a proper faith response from us. As Walter Liefeld has correctly noted in commenting on Luke 22:19, “’in remembrance of Me’ … directs our attention primarily to the person of Christ and not merely to the benefits that we receive” (p. 1027). The Lord’s Supper, then, is seen to be a very personal means of fellowship between Christ and His disciples. John Murray echoes this same sentiment when he observes that “it is the Lord that we are remembering. So frequently, believers become so introspective, the preoccupation with themselves excludes preoccupation with Christ” (Vol. 2, p. 378). But perhaps yet another admonition from Murray would be apt here:
It is not simply a recollection that the death [of Christ] took place, and not simply a remembrance of its focal place in the accomplishment of redemption. It is a celebration. It is an event in which we glory (cf. Gal. 6:14). (Vol. 2, pp. 377-378)
Second, Jesus speaks to us of the present. It is especially in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 that we see what Jesus is saying to us concerning our present walk with Him. Jesus says to us that we have fellowship with Him through the Lord’s Supper, speaking of the fact that we are united with Him presently because of His past death on the cross for our sins. And so Paul says, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). With these rhetorical questions, he of course means to highlight that we share in the effects of the broken body and shed blood of Christ and that this is the basis for our fellowship with Him now.
The Lord’s Supper speaks not only of our present union with Christ, however, but also of our present union with His body, the Church. We see this in 1 Corinthians 10:17 where Paul says “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” It is quite likely, in fact, that it is the recognition of this relationship that we each have to one another in the body of Christ that is in the mind of Paul when he writes in 1 Corinthians 11:29 “for he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly.” We see, then, that coming to the Lord’s table to fellowship with Him means maintaining a loving relationship also with His saints, something which an individualistic society such as ours needs especially to see in our local assemblies.
Third, Jesus speaks to us of the future. We find this forward look of Jesus in several passages. Matthew 26:29 says “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (see also Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:16). Also, Paul specifically says in 1 Corinthians 11:26 “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (italics mine). Thus we see that Jesus speaks to us of the future, when He will return and we shall experience perfectly the fellowship that we now know in part through such means as the Lord’s Supper. George Eldon Ladd sees Christ as referring to the future marriage supper of the Lamb (p. 250, cf. Rev. 19:6-10). This, it seems to me, is very likely the reference Jesus has in mind, and so, every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper we look forward to His coming as the Bridegroom for His bride, and we see the Lord’s Supper as one more way in which God purifies us that we might be spotless at His return.
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