What John Calvin Taught Me about the Sacraments
By Peter Schellhase
I became a Calvinist in my teens. Before this, my religious understanding had been stunted by my family’s involvement in a cult-like parachurch group. Reacting to toxic fundamentalism, I found new life in the rich soil of Calvinistic theology. Yet, after almost ten years, I was still a “teenage” Calvinist. Much like Jeff Reid, I had read many modern, derivative theological works in the Reformed vein, but nothing by the great Protestant theologian himself.
Browsing the University of Virginia bookstore one day, I discovered a nice little volume of selections from Calvin’s writings introduced by Marilynne Robinson, a favorite writer of mine. This seemed like the perfect way to actually become introduced to the man himself.
My church experience, and most of what I had read of theology up to that point, was of the reformed Baptist genre. Baptists deviate somewhat from the magisterial Reformation in their views of the sacraments and the Church. Wayne Grudem gives a moderate version of the reformed Baptist position when he claims that “participation” in the body of Christ means “a sharing in the benefits of Christ’s body and blood given for us”1 and that God rewards with “spiritual blessing” those who partake in the Lord’s Supper in obedience to his Scriptural command. Grudem’s take on baptism is the same. However, many Baptist churches take a still more distant view of the grace communicated through the sacraments, up to the point of an effective divorce of the ritual from the grace it supposedly conveys. (The “real absence,” as Trevin Wax quips.)
My understanding of other reformed perspectives, such as Presbyterianism, was that they regarded baptism of infants as a sign of entering a visible covenant with the Church. What I did not realize was that the founder of Calvinism maintained an opinion closer to what I understood as the catholic view: in short, that the visible signs of water, bread, and wine not only symbolize a reality separate from themselves, but are used by God to make the grace of that reality present in the life of the Church.
In “A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper” (written in 1541), Calvin approaches the subject from the perspective of human weakness. If it were possible for us to apprehend Christ through the teaching of the gospel alone, Calvin reflects, we might not need these other ordinances. But, “seeing we are so foolish that we cannot receive him with true confidence of heart when he is presented by simple teaching and preaching,” Calvin explains, “the Father, not at all disdaining to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has desired to attach to his word a visible sign by which he represents the substance of his promises to confirm and fortify us and to deliver us from all doubt and uncertainty.”2
But if the sacraments are an accommodation to our weakness, shouldn’t Christians eventually cease to require them as we grow in faith and knowledge of Christ? Calvin envisions no such possibility in this life. To him, our present state is such that we must gratefully submit to this dispensation without pride. “It is indeed true,” he writes, “that this same grace is offered us by the gospel; yet as in the Supper we have a more ample certainty and fuller enjoyment, it is with good reason that we recognize such a fruit [of grace] as coming from it.”3
Calvin’s sacramentology stops short of affirming the “real presence” of Christ in the elements. But neither does he affirm that it is the faith of the participant, or their corporate enactment, which makes the sacraments an effective means of grace. The active part belongs to God.
“Now, if it be asked nevertheless whether the bread is the body of Christ and the wine His blood, we should reply that the bread and wine are visible signs which represent to us the body and the blood; but that the name and title of body and blood is attributed to them, because they are as instruments by which the Lord Jesus Christ distributes them [his body and blood] to us. . . . It is a spiritual mystery which cannot be seen by the eye or comprehended by human understanding. It is therefore symbolized by visible signs, as our infirmity requires, but in such a way that it is not a bare figure, but joined to its reality and substance. It is therefore with good reason that the bread is called body, since not only does it represent it to us, but also presents it to us.”4
Calvin thus rejects the idea that the Lord’s Supper should be seen as a mere memorial or symbolic representation of the Lord’s death and resurrection, since God, through the bread and wine, communicates to us the very substance of these eternal realities. There is at most a very slight difference between this understanding and the Lutheran or even the Roman Catholic understanding of the sacrament, as it has been articulated by someone such as Pope Benedict XVI. I realized that Calvin is far more catholic in this respect than most protestants.
For me, reading Calvin was an important step in the spiritual journey which led me that year to join the Anglican church. In the same treatise, Calvin warns of the danger of approaching the Lord’s Supper while holding hatred against a fellow believer. As I sought to enter into sacramental fellowship, I had the opportunity to deal with a sinful hatred I had developed toward certain people who had offended me and my friends. For teaching me how important it is to walk in forgiveness, and freeing me to truly recognize the body of Christ, I’m deeply grateful to John Calvin.