First, let’s look at the historical context in which Calvin articulated his doctrine. Luther condemned the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church on three grounds:
1. They withheld the cup from the laity.
3. The idea that the priest performs a good work or sacrifice on behalf of the people in the Lord’s Supper.
Zwinglians were memorialists. Calvin’s doctrine is actually quite a bit closer to that of Luther’s than it is to Zwinglians. Zwinglians believe it is a strictly symbolic memorial.
It must be understood that Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is enormously influenced by St. Augustine’s writings on the subject. Augustine’s writings long preceded the ratification of transubstantiation as official Roman Catholic doctrine. Nonetheless, in this respect, Calvin has substantive patristic pedigree in Augustine. Let’s look at how each defines the sacrament:
John Calvin’s definitions:
1. “an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith.”
2. “A testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him.”
St. Augustine’s definitions:
1. Visible words of God.
2. Visible sign of a sacred thing.
4. Visible form of invisible grace.
Calvin borrowed from Augustine in five important respects:
1. The nature of signs and their relationship to the reality that is signified – Like Augustine, Calvin emphasized the importance of not conflating the sign with the thing signified. The two are inseparable but also irreducibly distinct. Contrary to being a closet Nestorian due to his insistence on the locality of Christ’s physical body in heaven, Calvin’s understanding of the relation of the sign to the thing signified is modeled on a properly Chalcedonian christology which acknowledge the distinction between Christ’s two natures while also affirming their inseparability.
Instead, it is Lutherans who are in danger of the christological heresy of Eutychianism, since Luther declares that the bread, once consecrated, becomes a totally new substance called “flesh-bread,” which confuses and mixes the natures of Christ so that he becomes a kind of non-Chalcedonian chimera.
For Calvin, the “substance” or “matter” of the sign must be distinguished from the sign itself. As stated below, there is a visible sign of grace whose matter or substance (the person of Christ) is nonetheless fruitless for the unbelieving recipient. To cite Augustine, carnal reception of the spiritual supper does not cease being spiritual, but it is not so for you.
So Calvin: “They do not bestow any grace of themselves, but announce and tell us, and (as they are guarantees and tokens) ratify among us, those things given us by divine bounty. The Holy Spirit…is he who brings the graces of God with him, gives a place for the sacraments among us, and makes them bear fruit.”
So the sign and thing signified must be distinguished but never separated. Indeed, Calvin says that “the union formed between the divine and human activity in the event of God’s action in the sacrament is so close as, practically speaking, to become one of identity…The name of the thing, therefore, is transferred here to the sign – not as if it were strictly applicable, but figuratively, on the ground of that connection which I have mentioned.”
Nevertheless, the sacramental union is “so transcendent and freely personal that the thing signified must be regarded as distinct from the sign.” It is in this way that Calvin tries to articulate his understanding of the Lord’s Supper in terms of a properly orthodox Chalcedonian christology, in which the two natures are distinct but utterly inseparable.
2. The figurative nature of the words of the institution –
When Christ says “this is my body, this is my blood,” he is certainly speaking literally. He does say that the symbols are “figurative,” but this did not seem the same thing to Calvin that it does for modern ears. It does not refer to bare, inefficacious symbols. Instead, the body is applied to the bread and his blood to the wine in a manner similar to the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a dove (Jhn. 1:32).
“Now the reason why the Spirit was so called was this – that he had appeared i the form of a dove. Hence the name of the Spirit is transferred to the visible sign. Why should we not maintain that there is here a similar instance of metonymy and that the term body is applied to the bread, as being the sign and symbol of it…? I Lay it down, then, as a settled point, that there is here a sacramental form of expression, in which the Lord gives to the sign the name of the thing signified…We must now proceed farther, and inquire as to he reason of the metonymy. Here I reply, that the name of the thing signified is not applied to the sign simply as being a representation of it, but rather as being a symbol of it, by which the reality is presented to us…Hence the bread is Christ’s body, because it asssuredly testifies, that the body which it represents is [truly] held forth to us, or because the Lord, by holding out to us that symbol, gives us at the same time his own body, for Christ is not a deceiver, to mock us with empty representations. Hence it is regarded by me as beyond all controversy, that the reality is here conjoined with the sign, or, in other words, that we do not less truly become participants in Christ’s body in respect of spiritual efficacy, than we partake of the bread.”
Indeed, it is absurd hyper-literalism of a dispensationalist degree when Luther requires a woodenly “literal” reading of “This is my body, this is my blood,” rather than understanding the language in terms of a metonymy of Christ’s full person, including both his divinity and humanity, which believers are confirmed as being partakers of in the Lord’s Supper. Christ is present in the Supper, and he confirms his promises to believers and stands in judgment of unbelievers (judgment being quite the opposite of grace) who unworthily participate in it.
3. The unprofitable nature of unworthy reception – The sacraments are invincibly spiritual, and the faithlessness of the one who takes the supper in an unworthy manner does not negate this, but they do not receive grace. The confirmation of the promises to the believer’s confirmation requires the work of the Holy Spirit, and so unbelievers obviously do not receive this confirmation because they do not possess the Holy Spirit. Citing Augustine, Calvin understands that there can be invisible sanctification without a visible sign, and on the other hand, there can be a visible sign without authentic sanctification.
Indeed, for Calvin, an essential component of the Lord’s Supper is the Holy Spirit’s lifting the believer to heaven to participate in communion with Christ in such a way that the Spirit confirms to us that we are partakers of Christ’s *full person* (both his humanity and deity, not just his spirit, as some misunderstand him to teach) by virtue of their union with Christ’s full person.
4. The heavenly location of Christ’s natural body – like Zwingli and unlike Luther and Roman Catholics, Calvin insisted that Christ could not be physically present in the sacrament because he is physically in heaven, whereas Lutherans argue that the attributes of Christ divine nature (in this case, his omnipresence) are transferred to his human nature so that his entire person can be physically in the bread and wine no less than he is physically in heaven.
5. the relationship between the sacraments of both testaments to Christ.
The Latin word used to translate the Greek “musterion” is sacrament. Calvin says it was “applied to those signs which reverently represented sublime and spiritual things.”
Essential to Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper is his understanding of the relation of the Word to the Sacrament. He says of the sacrament that “from the definition I have set forth we understand that a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it s a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it.”
The two are joined and the sacraments accomplish what the word accomplishes. Indeed, the sacraments require the word in order to even be sacraments. Nor does the word have any power apart from the sacrament. And so the two are jointly necessary and mutually and reciprocally produce the efficacy of the other.
Insofar as the sacraments are seals of God’s promises, they are also signs of the covenant. So Calvin:
“Since the Lord calls his promises ‘covenants,’ and his sacraments tokens of the covenants, a simile can be taken from the covenants of men. What can the slaughter of a sow accomplish unless words accompany the act, indeed, unless they precede it? For sows are often slain apart from any inner or loftier mystery. What can giving the right hand accomplish when hands are often joined in battle? Yet when words precede, the laws of covenants are by such signs ratified, although they were first conceived, established, and decreed in words. The sacraments, therefore, are exercises which make us more certain of the trustworthiness of God’s word.”
For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper seals and confirms to the believer’s conscience that they are authentic partakers of Christ’s full person and body, both human and divine. The mystical union of the believer with Christ’s person and body is essential for understanding his doctrine. Christ, the eternal Son of God, assumed human flesh so that he might communicate the benefit of adoption to us as Sons of God, which we now vicariously participate in by virtue of our union with him.
It is his incarnation that allows us to enjoy expiation, imputation and intercession. Unless we are in union with him, as our head, we do not enjoy these benefits. The promises of the covenant are obviously only efficacious to those who are actually in the kind of legal union with Christ that makes them efficacious. The idea that the supper communicates grace even to the non-elect or unregenerate is utterly ridiculous. How can Christ’s promises be confirmed to those who are not even part of his body, by which we alone are partakers of promises?
The Lord’s Supper must be understood in terms of the promises of the covenant. The supper, as signs and tokens of the covenant, must be understood in terms of the blessings promised to the ones in the covenant and curses to those promised outside. We must understand it in terms of the covenant and in terms of the relation of our union with Christ to the promises of the covenant, not in terms of some kind of magical cannabalism.
When the animal was slain in Gen. 15 and the promises made to Abraham, it is clear that the promises were made solely to Abraham and his offspring and not to the Canaanites, for example. Nothing was promised the Canaanites except destruction precisely because they were not part of the covenant as recipients of God’s covenantal promises.
In our union with Christ, we become partakers of his body, his flesh and blood (Eph. 5:30). Calvin says that just as Eve was made from Adam’s body and joined to it, so also, we are true members of Christ if we are part of his body.
Many Reformed have departed from a truly Calvinistic view of the Eucharist and argued that we only benefit from Christ’s spiritual presence rather than participation with his full body. The Lutheran Heshusius accused Calvin of this and Calvin responded:
“I do not restrict this union to the divine essence, but affirm that it belongs to the flesh and blood, inasmuch as it was not simply said, My Spirit, but, my flesh is meat indeed; nor was it simply said, My Divinity, but, my blood is drink indeed.
Moreover, I do not interpret this communion of flesh and blood as applying only to the common nature, in respect that Christ, by becoming man, made us sons of God with himself by virtue of fraternal fellowship; but I distinctly affirm, that our flesh which he assumed is vivifying by becoming the material of spiritual life to us. And I willingly embrace the saying of Augustine, as Eve was formed out of a rib of Adam, so the origin and beginning of life to us flowed from the side of Christ. And although I distinguish between the sign and the thing signified, I do not teach that there is only a bare and shadow figure, but distinctly declare that the bread is a sure pledge of that communion with the flesh and blood of Christ which it figures.”
The sure pledge of the communion with the body of Christ produced in the Eucharist causes it to nourish, strengthen and sustain our faith. Those are the intended subjective effects of the Eucharist.
To speak of the sign as a sign is, to be sure, to speak of a representation, but it is not a bare representation of something absent, as memorialists believe, but a representation of something really present. The Latin term Calvin uses is not “adesse,” which indicates a physical presence, but “exhibere,” which presupposes a presence which manifests it. Calvin is emphatic that the signs re not bare and empty figures, but objectively efficacious. He does not teach, as many Reformed churches do, that the bread and wine are mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood.
Christ’s full person is person for believers in the Lord’s Supper thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, our separation from the local presence of Christ’s person is overcome and we are able to participate in his Person as recipients of his covenant ratification through the Spirit’s power. Calvin insisted that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper, and he therefore can be understood as teaching the “true” presence of Christ.
That is, Christ is truly present insofar as we enjoy covenant ratification to our consciences as members of his Person and body, but he is not “really” present if by this it means that he actually leaves heaven and enters the Supper. Nonetheless, Calvin insisted on the “true” presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper because he intended to contrast it with the idea of a deceptive or illusory presence.
Christ is no less present in the Supper than the bread and wine are to us as real elements, but this does not mean that he is physically present in a manner understood by Roman Catholics and Lutherans. Thus, Calvin certainly does agree with Lutherans and Roman Catholics that Christ is truly present, but he disagrees with them concerning the mode of this presence. For Calvin, Christ’s physical body is in heaven and will remain there until he returns physical in glory.
Apart from this, the return of Christ in the second coming has no meaning. In what sense could Christ physically return again, if Christ’s humanity were given the attribute of omnipresence as Luther had said?
In any case, there are 4 crucial points that must be kept in mind as we turn to an account of Calvin’s understanding of the mode of presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
1. The body of Christ – Our redemption is wrought through Christ’s body and apart from this we can’t be saved. This body remains in Heaven until he returns in glory, as the Bible says. Calvin says that the “eating” and “drinking” of Christ is understood by some to refer merely to faith. Calvin says that for such, to eat is merely to believe, whereas Calvin says that we eat Christ’s flesh as a result of this faith. We do eat Christ’s flesh in believing, but this is because it is made ours first by faith. This eating, therefore, is the result of faith rather than its equivalent.
Calvin is quite emphatic, as noted before, in his dialogue with the Lutheran Heshusius, that he most certainly does not believe that we enjoy merely the spiritual presence of Christ.
“Moreover, I am not satisfied with those persons who, recognizing that we have some communion with Christ, when they would show what it is, make us partkers of the Spirit only, omitting mention of flesh and blood.”
“I say that although Christ is absent from the earth in respect of the flesh ,yet in the Supper we truly feed on his body and blood – that owing to the secret agency of the Spirit we enjoy the presence of both. i say that distance of place is no obstacle to prevent the flesh, which was once cruciiffed, from being given to us for food. Heshusius supposes, what is far from being the fact, that I imagined a presence of deity only.”
So Calvin even acknowledges that there actually are some out there who insist that we only commune with Christ spiritually rather than also communing with his human nature, which constitutes the other half of his personhood. He also notes how easy it is to confuse his own position with such individuals, and strenuously seeks to distance himself from such individuals in his dialogue with Lutherans.
We eat the person of Christ, not the Spirit of Christ.
2. We are lifted up to heaven by the Holy Spirit and it is in this way that Eucharist partakers commune with Christ.
3. Participating with Christ in the Supper is therefore a heavenly action involving flesh being eaten in a spiritual manner – As the Holy Spirit lifts us up to heaven to enjoy the person of Christ, Christ also “descends” to us, not by leaving heaven, but, through the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, we ascend to heaven through the Spirit, and on the other hand, the risen Christ by his Spirit descends to us and nourishes us spiritually. Both are true, absolutely, but Calvin emphasizes the former (while acknowledging the truth of both).
4. The true presence of Christ is a celestial mode of presence rather than a local one. Christ’s body is not included in the elements, not currently present on earth, etc.
To feed on Christ’s *full person* spiritually is not to say that our consumption of Person is merely imaginary. For example, Christ is our spiritual temple. but this does not mean that the Temple promises in the OT were merely “figurative” or “allegorical.” No, Christ is a real, literal Temple, more literally real than any Temple made of brick and mortar because a Temple is simply the dwelling place of God. as members of his body, we are literally components of the Temple of God.
We partake of Christ not through our digestive system but through faith. Faith is that organ which digests the real body and blood, the person, of Christ, and it is only through faith that this occurs.