4.17 Calvin's Institutes (Lane Chapter 31): The Lord's Table
by Claire Brettell
For Calvin the Lord's Supper is seen as a Spiritual banquet in which the Lord, Christ "attests himself as life-giving bread". God receives humanity once and for all, not only as servants but as heirs to whom nourishment is provided throughout life by the Sacrament of the Table [pages 1359 & 1360, 4.17.1]. From Calvin's general comments with regard to Sacraments he shares his belief that the chief function of the Sacraments is to seal the promises made [4.17.4]. In baptism the promise of invisible grace and goodwill seals our consciences, while at the table the promise of eternal life by Christ's flesh and blood through the elements of bread and wine is sealed and confirmed [4.14.1 & 4.17.4].
Unity of 'godly souls' is fed to us with the knowledge of the 'high mystery' held in the treasure that is the flesh and blood of Christ, and is found in the signs of bread and wine [pages 1360 & 1361, 4.17.1 4.17.2]. Just as bread and wine sustain us physically, the Sacrament of bread and wine regenerates, sustains and 'continues the covenant' of engrafting and adoption. By the words from Scripture, "Take, this is my body which is given for you" and "the covenant in his blood", we are made partakers in the power of Christ's life-giving death and resurrection [page 1361, 4.17.1]. Calvin shares beautifully how the exchange of our weakness, poverty and mortality for God's strength, wealth and immortality is manifested by Christ's willingness to take the weight of our iniquity upon himself as he clothes us with righteousness [page 1362, 4.17.2].
Calvin speaks of a 'Spiritual Analogy' to explain the presence of Christ's blood and body within the symbols of wine and bread. The benefits which we find in these earthly elements we also find as Spiritual benefits, nourishment-strengthening-gladdening [page 1363, 4.17.3]. For Calvin there is a clear distinction between the faith carried in the eating of the bread of life to believe and eating of the bread of life in belief. The latter, eating while believing, demonstrates for Calvin the action of abiding following faith which is reflected in Ephesians 3:17, "Christ dwells in our hearts through faith" which entrusts our salvation solely on faith in his death and resurrection [page 1365, 4.17.5].The presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, for Calvin is a Spiritual representation, truly and surely present by the Lord's participation in his body through the breaking of bread [page 1371, 4.17.10]. The sacred mystery of the Lord's Supper are the physical elements set visibly before us which represent the invisible spiritual truth [page 1371, 4.7.11]. Calvin explains Christ's body as being contained in heaven until his return in judgment, and as such the thought that the human body of Christ might actually be hidden in (or beneath) the bread is absurd to Calvin [page 1373, 4.17.12]. Calvin discusses at length and with various scripture passages Christ's presence among us through the Holy Spirit. Citing a 'serious wrong' being done to the Holy Spirit by those who disregard the incomprehensible power available and allowing for Christ's body and blood to be present in the Supper through the Spirit of God [page 1405, 4.17.33]. Calvin shares Augustine's concept of Christ's presence among us as being through majesty, ineffable grace and in providence. All through the mighty power of the Holy Spirit after our Lord's departure, the ascending into heaven [page 1394, 4.17.26].
Known as Others or Opponents (Roman Catholics & Luther), Calvin writes contemptuously about their belief that the body of Christ is "lurking" and hidden beneath the bread rather than to believe Christ's presence within the substance of the Holy Sacrament being invisible to our sight by the power of the Holy Spirit [page 1379, 4.17.16]. Zwingli is said by Calvin to recognize communion with Christ through the Supper by the Spirit only, omitting mention of the flesh as food or the blood as drink [page 1366 & 1367, 4.17.7]. Calvin is opposed to the extraction of flesh and blood from the bread and wine, however I have difficulty seeing the difference between Zwingli's and Calvin's interpretations of Spirit infused bread and wine. I am also slightly confused by Calvin's agreement with and conjecture that Augustine's comment, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man" is a figurative teaching of our partaking of the Lord's Passion, and sweetly taking up Christ's flesh which was crucified and wounded for us [page 1366, 4.17.6]. I am not sure I understand the difference between the Roman Catholic's view of the flesh of Christ being present in the bread and Augustine's view. I am thinking, for Calvin it is the principle of binding the flesh of heaven into a loaf of bread that disturbs him, and that his contempt for Catholicism and his agreeable nature toward Augustine has in part clouded his judgement here. What are your thoughts?
Calvin's concerns with regard to Christ's presence within the elements of the Lord's Supper are tied to the contrariness of Christ's true humanity. There is some distress for Calvin over the blood and flesh being separated from one another and from heaven if in fact these are truly present in the bread and wine [pages 1380 & 1381, 4.17.18]. Calvin sees our participation in Communion as our being lifted up to heaven through the symbols of wine and bread as we seek Christ and enjoy wholeness in him [page 1381, 4.17.18].
I find Calvin's example of Christ's flesh and blood being a rich, inexhaustible fountain which pours into us the life of the Godhead as a flowing spring watering fields to be wonderful way of seeing the gifts of God's life-giving Sacraments [page 1369, 4.17.9]. How might you share your view of the gift of God's life-giving Sacraments?