John Calvin on the Lord’s Table – keeping it “real” without compromising
The Christian church should be united around the Lord’s Table; the Church catholic is guilty of airing its grievances at and about the Lord’s Table. According to Ralph P. Martin, emeritus Professor of Fuller Seminary, modern opinions trace to a prevailing attitude of sharp antipathy during the sixteenth century and for many traditions little has changed.
Transubstantiation had arisen during the medieval era as the official view of the Roman Catholic Church, but this doctrine was never fully accepted and was assailed more or less successfully on all sides during the Reformation. People who believed Jesus’ physical corpse was present in the bread and those who believed that the “ordinance” was merely memorial disagreed with and undermined the official Roman dogma. Luther and Zwingli were two representatives of these dissenting views. Luther promoted real corporal presence in consubstantiation and Zwingli promoted a non-sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper wherein he declared it was commanded by God but was in no special way a means of grace.
Born too late for the initial milieu, John Calvin was a youth dissatisfied with transubstantiation, dissatisfied with Luther, and dissatisfied with Zwingli; Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion put forward a middle way between the opposing views that held the Lord’s Supper was a sacrament while denying Jesus’ corpse was present in the elements.
Historical Issues of Note
Two main aspects of Calvin’s life story are highly relevant to the discussion at hand. The first being Calvin’s religious development, and the second being Calvin’s expulsions from Geneva and France. It is necessary to remember that Calvin was instructed in traditional Roman dogma and that his acclimation to reformed principles was gradual. According to Williston Walker’s autobiography, John Calvin: the organizer of Reformed Protestantism, before 1529young Calvin had come across Aecolampadius’ and Zwingli’s views by way of Luther and at first expressed his dislike for them all. At the same time however, Walker references Calvin’s early growing distrust of “man-made” institutions in Calvin’s early publication, Reply to Jacopo Sadoleto. Calvin was not easily convinced by any of the new writers, yet Walker states Calvin seemed to be equally dissatisfied with what he was trained to accept as his beliefs. This is evidenced by his life’s work and conversion to Protestantism despite misgivings about protestant theologies on the issue of communion and other doctrines. Calvin’s misgivings would propel him to seek another answer.
Later on in life, due to political machinations that need not be elaborated, French Geneva was politically subject to German Bern. In 1538 the city of Bern officially adopted Zwingli’s views and pressed Geneva to adapt to Bern’s ceremonial traditions. Calvin refused. If Walker is to be believed, Calvin dissented not so much for theological reasons, but because “to administer the Supper in Circumstances of such popular tumult would be to profane so holy a mystery.” Either way the result was the same, and he was banished from Geneva. Eventually Geneva welcomed Calvin back; nevertheless, within his Institutes, Calvin tiptoes around the Zwinglian views of his neighbors. Perhaps this is more for political expediency than their acceptability to him, but he wrote from a position where to attack and distance himself from Roman views was more politically expedient than to openly attack Zwinglian views. His attacks on the Bern doctrine are sparse, his method in respect to ordinance only views being one of persuasion.
Though in the present discussion the subject is only one sacrament, it is still important that we first discuss the significance Calvin gives the general term sacrament throughout his Institutes. Calvin was aware that a loose definition of sacraments can lead to an infinite number of sacraments. Not wanting to stand on his own authority, he constantly appeals to Augustine’s works concerning sacraments in multiple works such as In Johann, De Doctrina Christiana and others. From this background, Calvin definesa sacrament as “[a] visible sign of a sacred thing, or a visible form of an invisible grace.” Then he immediately comments on the ambiguity of this statement, but he defends the statement as a commonality between all western branches of the church and its antiquity. He finds in Augustine an agreed upon base from which to build. Calvin’s basic idea is that sacraments are rites that assume deeper meaning than is apparent.
Calvin’s theology stresses the importance of the biblical Word of God or the Gospel. He maintains that for an act to be considered proper worship it needs to have a biblical basis or it is merely a human institution and idolatry. He feels that sacraments have a biblical basis, and it is to this biblical basis that Calvin attributes their power. Sacraments alone to Calvin are “nothing in themselves, just as seals of a diploma or a public deed are nothing in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment.” He holds that the elements and the motions of the sacraments do not themselves contain any power. Therefore, he rejects claiming there is an “ex opere operato” power in the empty motions of the rite.
For Calvin, a sacrament is only an augment to the preaching of and general acceptance of the gospel’s own saving power and authority. Using the same metaphor, he concludes they are like seals on a document. They let the receiver know it is official, but they do not change the contents. Both a warrant and birth certificate can have seals attached. Thus, it is only from the more general scriptural promises and effectual covenant of God that sacraments derive their ability to give power/grace. Martin comments, “[For Calvin] to see only the outward symbol is to partake in an unworthy manner; the communion is an inward experience… but still a most real communication.” Meaning that a sacrament exists primarily to let us know the validity and authenticity of God’s gospel and disposition towards us, but it is a preexisting fact that is not changed but validated as already known from the biblical witness.
Because he makes sacraments so dependent on biblical testimony and more general aspects of the faith, Calvin is forced to define why sacraments deserve any special recognition. Calvin explains:
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…For Just as faith leans on the word of God as its proper foundation, and yet when sacraments are added leans more firmly, as resting on pillars
Thus, for Calvin sacraments are a support for a faith that is already there. It is towards faith that already exist that, “They, by sealing us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith.” For Calvin it is the gospel’s saving power that gives the sacraments their power. Calvin so equates the two, that Martin concludes that Calvin holds the grace we receive through a sacrament is the selfsame grace given us by the gospel. The idea of a special sacramental grace is denied by Calvin, but equally so is the idea that no grace comes from the sacrament. Calvin does hold that to deny that sacraments confer grace is to deny that God is always perfecting faith through his gospel.
Unfortunately, Calvin never succeeds in providing us with a concise definition or at least a summary paragraph of his overall view. Thus, it is only by comparing a nexus of statements within his Institutes one can outline his general position as we have done here. This tendency for a nebulous definition is apparent when others have attempted to summarize him as evidenced by the Westminster Confession of Faith where there are 5 lines of text giving summery statements but no singular definitive summation.
Calvin on communion
Calvin’s initial description of the Lord’s Supper shares a marked level of similarity with his opponents; according to him, it is “invisible food by which we receive the body and blood of Christ.” Calvin utilizes language one would expect in accordance with Roman and Lutheran views, since he is adamant that, “The body which was once offered for our salvation we are enjoined to take and eat.” Nevertheless, the differences are subtly apparent as well. Those familiar with Lutheran or Roman terminology upon careful reading can note how familiar phrases are spliced. Words such as “in appearance” or “by analogy” are injected quite often into otherwise Roman figures of speech. In this way, we can see that Calvin wishes to linguistically weave his opponent’s polarized views together.
Calvin echoes Augustine strongly throughout his whole commentary on communion. While he does not cite it directly, I believe one of the strongest sentiments from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, that Jesus left towards heaven to entice us to follow, shaped Calvin’s sacramental paradigm and he returns to it multiple times;
The apostle yet says: “Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more.”… And hence we may learn how essential it is that nothing should detain us on the way, when not even our Lord Himself, so far as He has condescended to be our way, is willing to detain us, but wishes us rather to press on; and, instead of weakly clinging to temporal things, even though these have been put on and worn by Him for our salvation, to pass over them quickly, and to struggle to attain unto Himself, who has freed our nature from the bondage of temporal things, and has set it down at the right hand of His Father.
The goal of exegeses, in Augustine’s view, is to reveal how earthly realities and events are analogous to the spiritual realities and events that drive them. For Augustine heavenly truth and movements may lay behind everyday actions, but the particular events recorded in scripture are meant for a higher meditation than just the historical.
Calvin applies this Augustinian ideal to define the goal of a communicant of communion, “It is not the principle part of a sacrament simply to hold forth the body of Christ without any higher consideration, but rather to seal and confirm [his] promise.” Roman scholars had claimed that it must be taken on faith that Christ body is contained in the elements, despite the senses telling us otherwise. They had made receiving the sacrament an end in and of itself and drove exegeses and liturgy toward the act itself. Calvin rejects this and proffers the explanation that God condescends to “exhibit [the mystery’s] figure and image in visible signs adapted to our capacity.” For Calvin, the supper is guided by this purpose of enabling feeble human minds to comprehend our mystical union with Christ, and only benefits us if we accept the invitation and follow Christ towards the spiritual. Calvin insists the communicant need to look beyond the physical act of eating in this world for a deeper heavenly meaning.
In Calvin’s Eucharistic theology, the supper is sacramental because in it we apply the gospel promises. This application goes far beyond simply remembering or acquiescing to belief in Jesus or his supper, but it is applied toward living faith. “We are quickened by the true partaking of him, which he designated by the terms eating and drinking, lest anyone suppose that the life which we obtain from him is obtained by simple knowledge.” Calvin uses the analogy of food giving energy to state that the Eucharist is a spiritual food that allows our souls to live as Christ lives producing his spiritual fruit. He sums this up concisely, “The Lord was pleased, by calling himself the Bread of Life, not only to teach that our salvation is treasured up in his death and resurrection, but also, by virtue of true communication with him, his life passes into us and becomes ours, just as bread when taken for food gives vigor to the body.”
Calvin’s own views established by contrast
Calvin’s theology is driven by synthesis and contrasting his opponents’ views and thusit is important to explore his rejections and counter arguments as if they are positive statements of his own doctrine. The fact that Calvin dedicates the bulk of his exposition of Eucharistic theology to rebuttals is a good indicator that the finer points of his doctrine lay in his rhetoric and intellectual sparing.
Calvin does not flatly reject that Christ’s body and blood are truly received in communion, but what he rejects is the mode in which his opponents say Christ’s body is present. His rejection of both transubstantiation and consubstantiation is based on the verses that place Jesus’ human body is in heaven. Calvin’s main logic in argument against these positions is that bringing back the physical body of Jesus is unnecessary for, “The Lord by his Spirit bestows upon us the blessing of being one with him in soul, body, and spirit.” The idea of focusing on a physical Jesus runs contrary to the normative influence of Augustine in Calvin’s thinking; as sighted above, the church father held Christ’s assumption should always lead us to follow him heavenward. Ideologically, perhaps more than in any way else, Calvin’s thought process is against real presence as Rome understands it.
Not stopping at a purely ideological level, Calvin viciously mauls the vitals of his opponents’ thesis theologically. Calvin counters their claims that they are following a type of literalism, hoping perhaps to avoiding the argument that Luther had used against Zwingli so adamantly. Calvin asks how a literal reading of “this bread” in the words of institution means that Jesus is holding the “appearance of bread” not actual bread.
Calvin then points out that the water in the sacrament of baptism is still held to be water, so he states that logically his opponents must themselves explain away his difficulty in understanding how the term “is” means “converted to something else” in communion only. Calvin also states that the words said over the cup in the Lucian and Pauline traditions, “This cup is the new testament,” further complicate the matter, because we know that “is” here does not mean “is transformed into.”
Calvin goes so far as to take a literal reading after his opponents fashion to prove his point, “Assuming the body and blood of Christ are attached to the bread and wine, and then one must necessarily be dissevered from the other.” Calvin makes it sufficiently clear that his opponent’s doctrine is not possible from a plain reading of the text itself; his opponents cannot simply shield themselves behind the words of institution because they themselves are reading the word “is” two different ways. How can they prefer one to the other?
The door open, Calvin philosophically attacks what he considers the gnostic doctrines of his opponents. Lutherans tried to explain the presence of Christ’s body in the elements by promoting a doctrine called ubiquity. They claimed that after Jesus’ resurrection, his human body could take on the principles of the divine. The Catholics likewise had also referred to Christ’s divine omnipotence. Calvin strikes through the smoke. He points out that placing Jesus physically in the elements using a post-resurrection transfer of divinity ignores the actual last supper or degrades its authenticity. “What did Christ give to his disciples the day before he suffered?” Calvin asks, “What a door was left open to Marcion, if the body of Christ was seen humble and mortal in one place, glorious and immortal in another.” By this Calvin insists that Christ’s full humanity at the last supper is denied. For if we hold that the last supper was indeed a Eucharistic celebration as authentic as ours today, someone in the Lutheran or Roman camps is in effect say Jesus was not really “all there” like a normal human. His body would be in the bread as well as where he stood. The gnostic concepts that Christ did not suffer, was a phantom, or did not really die except in appearance are given a tacit nod by such ideas. Christ’s human nature must be maintained, and Calvin sees no justification in deviating from Chalcedon for the sake of Eucharistic theology and establishes that the ancient orthodoxy stands against Roman views.
Though he destroyed the means by which his opponents had hoped to establish a real presence, Calvin at the same time moves strongly to establish its reality. He states, “I am not satisfied with those who only make us partakers of the spirit… omitting all mention of flesh and blood.” Calvin wants to do justice to the biblical terminology that drove his opponents’ expositions. For Calvin the crux of the issue is that the word of God took on human flesh so that God’s life may flow into sinful man. Yet he is very sensitive to the phrasing of his argument, because he does not want to say Jesus’ humanity itself gives us eternal life, “[Christ’s body] even now, endued with immortality, lives not by itself.” Calvin understands John 5:26 to mean that Jesus’ resurrected humanity draws its life straight from God. He then uses the Pauline metaphor that Christ is the head of the Church to state that the life of God in Jesus is transmitted to us. Calvin concludes that this process really gives us Christ’s blood and flesh in that his life force, the Holy Spirit, is actually communicated into believers.
Calvin seems to want moderation between two views that he holds as too extreme. He faults those that say the elements transform into Christ’s living corpse attempting, through philosophy, to explain a mystery.Likewise, he equally faults those that say communion is not spiritual as tossing out the mystery altogether. In his seeking of a middle way, he exposits greatly on Augustine’s ideal that physical things can lead us towards the spiritual as shown in the Christ’s very own incarnation.
Calvin also utilized Augustine’s methods of exegeses; Augustine held that difficult passages should be explained by simpler . Calvin used simpler doctrines such as our union with Christ spiritually as exposited by the apostle Paul, as well as the orthodox ideal of Christ’s full humanity to explain the mystery of communion. Calvin often uses simpler agreed upon doctrines to explain why some have erred in exceedingly explaining a mystery that he is adamant we must leave mysterious. However, he still does justice to what had motivated those who overreached. He maintains that the ideas of a sacrament, real presence, and a rejection of certain traditions do not need to so firmly polarize the issue of the Lord’s Supper, but actually arise from other traditions that all sides of the debate profess.
For Trent and Luther the sacrament’s mystery is that Christ’s body is present despite what our senses tell us. For scholars in these schools it was to be taken as an item of faith that Christ’s body is contained in the elements. Even though the senses tell us otherwise, they would have us fight to believe that they cease to be bread and wine.  Calvin read the mystery of the sacrament in a different light ̶ that it was God communicating to humans through earthly elements to raise us above their natural weakness and preoccupation with worldly things by a mystical union with Christ’s own humanity. In this aspect, Calvin sees Jesus working as stated in the Gospel of John, “You believe not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” Calvin makes it imperative that we eat the spiritual bread of Jesus, because for worldly humans that builds the faith more than even signs or revelations.
The Catechism of Trent defined the sacraments using a different definition of sacrament for each one. Regarding the Eucharist it states, “St. Augustine says that this Sacrament consists of two things, the visible species of the elements, and the invisible flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.” Calvin rejected this modification and returned to Augustine’s own words and their broad implications on all sacraments. Starting with a base definition of a sacrament, he was able to point out the inconsistency of his opponents’ interpretation of the composition of the water in baptism and the elements in communion.
Luther earlier pointed out his opponent’s confusion when defining justification with sanctification. In an ironic twist of history, Calvin would hound and contradict Luther’s own disciples with this same device of refining definitions. Roman dogma handled each of the seven sacraments separately with seven independent definitions of sacraments. Calvin instead starts with a core definition of sacraments and exposits each of his two sacraments in light of this definition. Where his opponents were disorganized, Calvin is organized and focused.
While Calvin maintained that the meal is a memorial and the Jesus died only once, he does not see the last supper of Jesus and his disciples as having only one purpose. Calvin grasped firmly onto the fact that Jesus’ bodily ministry and its communication to us is real and vital to the healthy Christian life. Moreover, he managed to do so without recourse to degrading the authenticity of Jesus humanity. According to Professor Martin, the ongoing debates about the Eucharist have largely been framed along the original lines drawn during the reformation. As such, Calvin’s importance in the field of Eucharistic studies remains of interest for any who refuse to follow the opinion that the meal is purely memorial. Because he systematically worked between two dynamic poles, Calvin’s Institutes would also offer any who would read them a solid basis for ecumenical reform that stays true to a biblical understanding while listening to the early church.
I can only criticize that while Calvin exegetes the New Testament thoroughly, Old Testament voices are not given their full impact in his Institutes. Calvin was comfortable joining Pauline thought and the thoughts of Hebrews’ author in expounding that the manna and the water from the rock in the wilderness prefigure the spiritual food of the Church, yet he never picks up the vital key metaphor of the Passover from Exodus. Given his motif of a journey heavenwards, it is interesting he allowed the metaphors of the river crossings, wanderings, angels of death, and taking of the promise land to lie fallow while stating that so much of the power of the Eucharist lies in the Gospel promises. By this Calvin neglected major parts of the important historical task of expounding the last supper within the Jewish social continuum in which Jesus ministered, and the connection between the exodus and Christian redemption.
However, Calvin for the most part is excellent in promoting the reality of our redemption throughout his whole exposition on communion. In Roman Catholicism, one can only receive the Eucharist having first confessed mortal sins to a priest, splashed oneself with holy water to remove venial sins, fully believe Jesus is present, and have a Priest who says the Mass properly. Only a Catholic who is in a perfect state of grace can approach the sacrament. Calvin, however, reminds us that Jesus is a doctor who is sent only to the sick. In my opinion, Calvin overturns this whole Catholic sacramental system in a few sentences:
It were to stupid, not to say idiotical, to require a perfection which would render the sacrament vain and superfluous, because it was not instituted for the perfect, but for the infirm and weak, to stir up, excite, stimulate, exercise the feeling of faith and charity and at the same time correct the deficiency of both. 
Because Calvin so relates the word and the sacrament, he makes the focus of the sacrament the good news itself. Calvin strove to return to the Church the sense that at the Lord’s Table we are experiencing anew how Jesus took our burdens upon himself and bore our sin. He wanted to free the faithful from having to attempt to accumulateChrist’s holiness by their own actions. It was for Calvin a core element of the gospel that they couldrely instead on the Holy Spirit renewing and sanctifying them apart from their failures. This was a radical notion in Calvin’s day and even today offers what so many believers constantly seek in repeated altar calls. The communion calls all of us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and to approach him anew.
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed. Phillip Schaff. Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion trans. Henry Beveridge, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011.
Johnson, William S. John Calvin, Reformer for the 21st Century. Louisville: Westminster, 2009.
Martin, Ralph P. The Worship of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.
Old, Hughes Oliphant. “John Calvin and the Prophetic Criticism of Worship,”In John Calvin and the Church, ed. by Timothy George. Louisville; Westminster, 1990.
The Catechism of Trent, trans. by Very Rev. Jeremiah Donovan. New York: Catholic Pub. Society, 1914, accessed 15 March 2013); available from http://fuller.worldcat.org.naomi.fuller.edu:2048/title/catechism-of-the-council-of-trent/oclc/688539539, Internet.
“The Formula of Concord,”In Concordia Triglota, ed. F. Bente. St. Louise: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.
Walker, Williston. John Calvin: the organizer of Reformed Protestantism, New York, London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906, accessed 15 March 2013; available from http://fuller.worldcat.org/title/john-calvin-the-organiser-of-reformed-protestantism-1509-1564/oclc/386826&referer=brief_results, Internet.
Wallace, Ronald S. Calvin’s doctrine of the Word and sacrament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.
 Ralph P. Martin. The Worship of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 164.
 Williston Walker. John Calvin: the organizer of Reformed Protestantism (New York, London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906, accessed 15 March 2013); available from http://fuller.worldcat.org/title/john-calvin-the-organiser-of-reformed-protestantism-1509-1564/oclc/386826&referer=brief_results.. Internet.
 John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 2011), Book IV, Chapter IXX, Section. II.
 Ibid. IV, XIV, I.
Ibid. IV, XIV, I –IV.
 Ibid. IV, IXX, II.
 Ibid. I, XI
 Ibid. I, XI
 Ibid. IV, XIV, IV.
 Hughes Oliphant Old. “John Calvin and the Prophetic Criticism of Worship,”in John Calvin and the Church, ed. by Timothy George (Louisville; Westminster 1990), 235-7.
 Ronald S Wallace. Calvin’s doctrine of the Word and sacrament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 137-8.
 Martin. The Worship of God, (164).
 Ibid. IV, XIV, VI.
 Ibid. IV, XIV, VII.
 Ibid. IV, XII, VI; IV, XIV,VI; VII; XXVII.
 Ibid. Loc. cit.
 Ibid. IV, XVII, I.
 Ibid. Loc. cit.
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed. Phillip Schaff (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010), Book I, Chapter XXXIV.
 Calvin. Institutes, IV, XXVII, IV.
 The Catechism of Trent, trans. by Very Rev. Jeremiah Donovan, (New York: Catholic Pub. Society, 1914, accessed 15 March 2013); available from http://fuller.worldcat.org.naomi.fuller.edu:2048/title/catechism-of-the-council-of-trent/oclc/688539539 Internet, Part II, Chapter III, Section X.
 Calvin. Institutes, IV, I, I.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, V.
 Ibid. Loc. cit.
 Ibid. Loc. cit.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, XII.
 Ibid. Loc. cit.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, XX – XXII.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, XIV.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, XX.
 Luke 22:20;1 Cor 11:25.
 Calvin. Institutes, IV, XXVII; XVIII.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, XVII.
“The Formula of Concord,”in Concordia Triglota, ed. F. Bente (St. Louise: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), Epitome VII, affirmation 5.
 Ibid. Loc. cit.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, IX.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, VII.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, VIII.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, IX.
 Ibid. Loc. cit.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, X.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, XXXII, XXXV.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, VIII.
 Ibid. IV, XXVII, XXXIV.
 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Bk. II.
 Martin. The Worship of God, 160-4.
 Calvin. Institutes, IV, XVII, I.
 The Catechism of Trent, Part II, Chapter III, Section X.
 John 12:30.
 John 6:26.
 The Catechism of Trent, Part II, Chapter III, Section VI.
 1 John 4:2.NIV
 Martin. The Worship of God, 161.
 Calvin. Institutes, IV, XIV, XVII. See also 1 Cor 10; 1-13.
 The Catechism of Trent, Part II, Chapter III.
 Matt 9:12.
 Calvin, Institutes, IV, XVII, XLII.
 Romans 5.