Christian TraditionsCommunionReformedTheology & Spirituality

Neither Substance Nor “Naked Signs”: The Lord’s Supper in Calvinist Understanding

This is meant to be a continuation of last year’s Round Table discussion on Communion

In the midst of the Reformation, the so-called “Reformed” theologians beliefs concerning the Lord’s Supper charted something of a middle way between what they deemed were two extremes. On the right, the Reformed denied the Catholic and Lutheran belief that the substance of Christ’s body and blood exists in the sacrament. On the left, the Reformed also denied the followers of Zwingli who asserted that the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic of Christ’s body and blood. This disagreement was no mere scuffle over petty doctrinal differences, the Reformed believed that they were restoring true worship to God’s Church.

In order to chart how the Reformed understood the Lord’s Supper, I will be drawing from both John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, as well as the 1560 Scots Confession, a product of six Scottish “Johns” (most principally John Knox).

Not Substance

The denial of the substance of Christ within the very elements of the bread and wine was not the result of an individualistic, sola scriptura reading of scripture or a naïve, dehistoricized understanding of “This is my body.” The Reformed truly believed that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist was idolatrous, the “false worship of the one true God.”1 Calvin and the Scots Confession argued this primarily on two grounds.

First, Christ in his resurrected body is no longer located here on the Earth but is ascended, and sits at the right hand of God the Father. This is good news, for Christ is seated as an advocate and mediator for us in Heaven. This status of Christ as ascended, both in terms of location and kingly role, precludes his bodily substance existing here on Earth until the eschaton. As the Scots Confession emphasizes, there is a great “distance between his glorified body in heaven and mortal men on earth.”2 Therefore, the ritual of the Lord’s Supper cannot involve worship of the elements, for Christ is to be worshiped as King over the world in Heaven.

Second and intimately connected to the first, Christ has given us his Holy Spirit, the “Helper” (John 14) who will “convict the world of sin and righteousness” (John 16), who “gives life to our mortal bodies,” just as He rose Christ from the dead (Rom. 8:11). Christ, in his ascended absence, proclaims the good news to his disciples that “through the Spirit alone we possess Christ wholly, and have him abiding in us.”3

If this be the case, that our union here on Earth with the ascended Christ is based on the work of the Holy Spirit, then the sacrament of Communion is, as Calvin claims, “a spiritual feast, at which Christ testifies that he himself is living bread (John 6:51), on which our souls feed, for a true and blessed immortality.”4 The Lord’s Supper, then, is the means by which our souls are nourished by body and blood of Christ, giving us eternal life. The Scots Confession summarizes,

“This union and conjunction which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus in the right use of the sacraments is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus, once broken and shed for us but now in heaven, and appearing for us in the presence of his Father.”5

Given that we are united with the ascended Christ by the Holy Spirit, who brings us up to the heavenly Christ to be spiritually nourished, the Scots Confession can say, “we neither worship the elements, in place of that which they signify, nor yet do we despise them or undervalue them, but we use them with great reverence.”6

Nor Naked Sign

The Reformed responded with just as much distaste for the Zwinglian interpretation of the Lord’s Supper as for the Catholic/Lutheran understanding. In fact, the Scots Confession proclaims its opposition to the Zwinglians (“we utterly condemn the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked and bare signs”) first before getting to the problems of the Catholics.7 The Reformed argued against the Zwinglian interpretation most centrally on two grounds.

First, in the sacrament Christ is the central actor towards us, not we who are performing the action. In the Zwinglian understanding, the ingesting of the symbols of the bread and wine is meant as the Church’s call to remembrance of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice, rather than an extension of Christ’s body and blood to the Church. Calvin expresses beautifully the movement of Christ towards us in the sacrament:

“For these are words which can never lie nor deceive – Take, eat, drink. This is my body, which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. In bidding us take, he intimates that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation.”8

As the Church is nourished spiritually in the body and blood of Jesus in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Church can be assured of eternal life, for we know that Christ is ours. The bread and the wine are thus tangible promises of God’s salvation and our union with Christ. Within the Zwinglian understanding, the sacrament would only be a symbolic production of the Church, which would not accomplish any assurance. The Scots Confession explains this central concern of assurance within both baptism and the Lord’s Supper:

“These sacraments…were instituted…to exercise the faith of his children and, by participation of these sacraments, to seal in their hearts the assurance of his promise, and of that most blessed conjunction, union, and society, which the chosen have with their Head, Christ Jesus.”9

Second, Christ also intended for us spiritual nourishment in the Supper, as Christ proclaims, “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). The Lord’s Supper means Christ giving to us of his life through the action of eating, thus giving us spiritual energy. For the Zwinglians, eating is inconsequential, the symbolic production of the Church to remember Christ’s sacrifice could be done using any number of symbols. But for the Reformed, the action of eating is essential to Christ’s institution of the sacrament. Calvin exegetes the passage in John 6:

“In this way, the Lord was pleased, by calling himself the bread of life, not only to teach that our salvation is treasured up in the faith of 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.”10

To conclude, it seems to me that Protestants have a far richer historical theology of the Lord’s Supper than is currently recognized and practiced. The vast popularity of a vague Zwinglianism in Protestantism does not give Christ’s body and blood its heavenly due. For those unwilling to believe that Christ’s body and blood are really present in the Lord’s Supper (unwilling to become Catholic/Orthodox/Lutheran), the Reformed bring a rich, trinitarian, and Christ-centered understanding of the ritual.

Only because I find this quote from Calvin so beautiful, I want to end the article by quoting Calvin at length on the assurance of salvation that Christ in the Lord’s Supper promises us:

“Pious souls can derive great confidence and delight from this sacrament, as being a testimony that they form one body with Christ, so that everything which is his they may call their own. Hence it follows, that we can confidently assure ourselves, that eternal life, of which he himself is the heir, is ours, and that the kingdom of heaven, into which he has entered, can no more be taken from us than from him; on the other hand, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from the guilt of which he absolves us, seeing he has been pleased that these should be imputed to himself as if they were his own. This is the wondrous exchange made by his boundless goodness. Having become with us the Son of Man, he has made us with himself sons of God. By his own descent to the earth he has prepared our ascent to heaven. Having received our mortality, he has bestowed on us his immortality. Having undertaken our weakness, he has made us strong in his strength. Having submitted to our poverty, he has transferred to us his riches. Having taken upon himself the burden of unrighteousness with which we were oppressed, he has clothed us with his righteousness.”11

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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