Thursday, April 21, 2016

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?



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  2. Great job Claire. I believe communion is a great sharing of Christ with us, yes. But also we with Christ and all of us with each other. The idea that the Lord's Supper is a banquet shared by all members of the Body of Christ, past, present and future, is one which I find engaging. It seems to me that Communion is when all the aspects of our connection with God come together. As Calvin explains (4.17.31) we are connected to Christ through the Holy Sprit. But furthermore, Christ is in us, we are in Christ, as the Body of Christ, we could even be said to be Christ, at least in part.

  3. Claire, as always you write a wonderful summary of our reading. Like Tim, I love the image of the banquet table that links us all: past, present and future. One of the beautiful linkages in our church is a fairly new practice for us. We have a large basket of Communion kits sitting near the Communion Table on Sunday morning. These elements are consecrated during the service and then they are distributed to our “home-bound” members by Deacons. In March, I arranged to have our Confirmands go with the Deacons to serve Communion. It was a lovely connection of the Spirit moving outside of our walls and among generations. This makes me think how we need to take pictures of these sweet saints receiving Communion and showing it to our congregation before Communion some time. What a testimony to caring for our flock and not forgetting those who Christ has claimed as his own.

  4. Claire, great job distilling this complicated section. As I was reading and trying to sort out everyone's views, I kept imagining Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, and the Pope trying to squeeze together in a pew meant for three people! There must have been some pretty feisty discussions back in the day when you must argue about what "is" is. Like Lane, I had trouble distinguishing between "spiritual presence" and "substantive presence" in Calvin's sense, but found Calvin's comparison between just looking at and pondering the elements, versus taking them into our body, to be most helpful (4.17.5). Do we just think that partaking with Christ is a good idea, or do we actually partake? Something deeper, though stopping short of actual ingestion of flesh and blood, is taking place.

    In the Lord's Supper at our church, we partake of the bread individually, signifying communion with Christ, and partake of the wine/juice collectively, signifying communion with each other. I like the up and out imagery of this method. I, too, believe there is a mystery involving the Holy Spirit that we can't know, but can feel (4.17.32).

    1. One of the feistiest exchanges occurred between Luther and Zwingli at the 1529 Marburg Colloquy. According to this eyewitness account, Luther threatened to punch Zwingli in the face:

    2. I was unaware how feisty things got in those conversations. Of course a reading of "a punch in the face" would get my attention and even send me of to read the account listed above. It seems amazing, but them I have witnessed pretty intense discussions at presbytery meetings (none that I heard any threats of violence though).

    3. Ahaha - nothing like coming to blows trying to define abstract concepts!

  5. While I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, I have attended various churches throughout the years. When I came back to the Presbyterian Church and started teaching Sunday school, I made the comment that we don't talk about the Holy Spirit much in the Presbyterian church. After taking this class, I can see that I was mistaken. While we may not "Talk" about the Holy Spirit much, the Spirit is an integral part of all that we do in the church. This is pointed out again to me in this section of the Institutes. While Calvin does not believe that the bread and wine become Jesus Christ, he does believe that the faithful on earth, through the Holy Spirit, in Communion, are joined with the heavenly body of Christ as a means to strengthen our faith. What a gracious gift from God, using the common things in life, to strengthen our faith.

  6. I concur with my fellow students in the regards to the past, present, and future Christians. It is more than a meal, but short of the actually body and blood. I like that everything does not have to be explained away or we must have concrete explanations. It allows for growth and maturity in faith.