This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
Related reading from yours truly:
Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)
A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)
Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)
OF THE LORD’S SUPPER, AND THE BENEFITS CONFERRED BY IT.
They are greatly mistaken in imagining that there is no presence of the flesh of Christ in the Supper, unless it be placed in the bread. They thus leave nothing for the secret operation of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us.
And that is supposed to make more sense? Christ’s flesh is somehow present by “the secret operation of the Spirit” but couldn’t possibly be under the appearance of bread? If the former is possible, why not the latter? Jesus said nothing about this notion of Calvin’s, but He did explicitly teach that what was bread would somehow become His actual Body.
Christ does not seem to them to be present unless he descends to us, as if we did not equally gain his presence when he raises us to himself.
But we are not really bodily present in heaven. For Calvin, that is possible during Holy Communion, but it is not possible for Jesus to be bodily present again on the earth in a eucharistic fashion. We can only magically travel up to heaven: Calvin finds this ultra-odd scenario quite plausible. Perhaps we Catholics can be forgiven if we do not.
The only question, therefore, is as to the mode, they placing Christ in the bread, while we deem it unlawful to draw him down from heaven. Which of the two is more correct, let the reader judge.
I’m very happy to let the reader judge: especially now that both sides can be considered side-by-side, rather than Calvin’s position alone being presented.
Only have done with the calumny that Christ is withdrawn from his Supper if he lurk not under the covering of bread. For seeing this mystery is heavenly, there is no necessity to bring Christ on the earth that he may be connected with us.
We don’t “bring” Christ anywhere: He decides where He wants to go and how He wants to be present.
Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than understand it.
Then why does he go on and on if he himself admits that he can’t “comprehend” it or put it in words? And why is he so dogmatic in opposition to the unanimous patristic view, as if it were self-evident that he were right and all others wrong? Wouldn’t this lack of comprehension suggest that he should not write about it at all, let alone be arbitrarily and irrationally dogmatic about the matter?
The truth of God, therefore, in which I can safely rest, I here embrace without controversy. He declares that his flesh is the meat, his blood the drink, of my soul; I give my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I have no doubt that he will truly give and I receive.
But it can’t be physical. Calvin is prepared to believe every aspect of the Eucharist except that Jesus is truly there: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. He removes the very essence and profundity of the Holy Mystery.
Only, I reject the absurdities which appear to be unworthy of the heavenly majesty of Christ, and are inconsistent with the reality of his human nature. Since they must also be repugnant to the word of God, which teaches both that Christ was received into the glory of the heavenly kingdom, so as to be exalted above all the circumstances of the world (Luke 24:26), and no less carefully ascribes to him the properties belonging to a true human nature.
More of the same old same old . . .
This ought not to seem incredible or contradictory to reason (Iren. Lib. 4 cap. 34); because, as the whole kingdom of Christ is spiritual, so whatever he does in his Church is not to be tested by the wisdom of this world; or, to use the words of Augustine, “this mystery is performed by man like the others, but in a divine manner, and on earth, but in a heavenly manner.” Such, I say, is the corporeal presence which the nature of the sacrament requires, and which we say is here displayed in such power and efficacy, that it not only gives our minds undoubted assurance of eternal life, but also secures the immortality of our flesh, since it is now quickened by his immortal flesh, and in a manner shines in his immortality.
His flesh quickens us but yet according to Calvin it is not His flesh in the Eucharist. Makes a lot of sense . . .
Those who are carried beyond this with their hyperboles, do nothing more by their extravagancies than obscure the plain and simple truth.
Calvin’s sophistical, logic-torturing, self-contradictory position is anything but plain and simple.
If any one is not yet satisfied, I would have him here to consider with himself that we are speaking of the sacrament, every part of which ought to have reference to faith. Now by participation of the body, as we have explained, we nourish faith not less richly and abundantly than do those who drag Christ himself from heaven.
If anyone is “drag[ging]” anyone, it is Calvin dragging us to heaven in the Eucharist, rather than Jesus voluntarily being corporeally present with us.
Still I am free to confess that that mixture or transfusion of the flesh of Christ with our soul, which they teach, I repudiate, because it is enough for us that Christ, out of the substance of his flesh, breathes life into our souls, nay, diffuses his own life into us, though the real flesh of Christ does not enter us.
1) Christ, out of the substance of his flesh . . .
2) . . . the real flesh of Christ does not enter us . . .
I may add, that there can be no doubt that the analogy of faith by which Paul enjoins us to test every interpretation of Scripture, is clearly with us in this matter. Let those who oppose a truth so clear,
Clear as mud, if Calvin is correct . . .
consider to what standard of faith they conform themselves: “Ever spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:3); 2 John ver. 7). These men, though they disguise the fact, or perceive it not, rob him of his flesh.
Another silly and groundless — but at least interesting — charge . . .
The same view must be taken of communion, which, according to them, has no existence unless they swallow the flesh of Christ under the bread. But no slight insult is offered to the Spirit if we refuse to believe that it is by his incomprehensible agency that we communicate in the body and blood of Christ. Nay, if the nature of the mystery, as delivered to us, and known to the ancient Church for four hundred years, had been considered as it deserves, there was more than enough to satisfy us; the door would have been shut against many disgraceful errors. These have kindled up fearful dissensions, by which the Church, both anciently and in our own times, has been miserably vexed; curious men insisting on an extravagant mode of presence to which Scripture gives no countenance.
The last clause exactly describes Calvin’s position, not ours.
And for a matter thus foolishly and rashly devised they keep up a turmoil, as if the including of Christ under the bread were, so to speak, the beginning and end of piety. It was of primary importance to know how the body of Christ once delivered to us becomes ours, and how we become partakers of his shed blood, because this is to possess the whole of Christ crucified, so as to enjoy all his blessings. But overlooking these points, in which there was so much importance, nay, neglecting and almost suppressing them, they occupy themselves only with this one perplexing question, How is the body of Christ hidden under the bread, or under the appearance of bread? They falsely pretend that all which we teach concerning spiritual eating is opposed to true and what they call real eating, since we have respect only to the mode of eating. This, according to them, is carnal, since they include Christ under the bread, but according to us is spiritual, inasmuch as the sacred agency of the Spirit is the bond of our union with Christ.
Here Calvin is opposing Lutheran consubstantiation, which is far closer to the full eucharistic truth than his view.
Not better founded is the other objection, that we attend only to the fruit or effect which believers receive from eating the flesh of Christ. We formerly said, that Christ himself is the matter of the Supper, and that the effect follows from this, that by the sacrifice of his death our sins are expiated, by his blood we are washed, and by his resurrection we are raised to the hope of life in heaven. But a foolish imagination, of which Lombard was the author, perverts their minds, while they think that the sacrament is the eating of the flesh of Christ. His words are, “The sacrament and not the thing are the forms of bread and wine; the sacrament and the thing are the flesh and blood of Christ; the thing and not the sacrament is his mystical flesh” (Lombard, Lib. 4 Dist. 8). Again a little after, “The thing signified and contained is the proper flesh of Christ; the thing signified and not contained is his mystical body.” To his distinction between the flesh of Christ and the power of nourishing which it possesses, I assent; but his maintaining it to be a sacrament, and a sacrament contained under the bread, is an error not to be tolerated. Hence has arisen that false interpretation of sacramental eating, because it was imagined that even the wicked and profane, however much alienated from Christ, eat his body. But the very flesh of Christ in the mystery of the Supper is no less a spiritual matter than eternal salvation. Whence we infer, that all who are devoid of the Spirit of Christ can no more eat the flesh of Christ than drink wine that has no savour.
So Jesus can be present or not present, as if He were a phantom who beckons to the whim and fancy of conjurers who determine whether He will be present or not, by their faith or lack thereof. The Bible doesn’t teach this; it teaches precisely the opposite. Paul doesn’t say that those who receive Holy Communion irreverently do not at all receive Jesus, but rather, that they “will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27) and that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29). Clearly, we again need a Revised Calvin Version to correct these serious biblical errors from St. Paul. Calvin knows better than the great Apostle.
Certainly Christ is shamefully lacerated, when his body, as lifeless and without any vigour, is prostituted to unbelievers.
No worse than He was treated when He was on the earth during the first century . . .
This is clearly repugnant to his words, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
That is a general, proverbial-like statement, that admits of exceptions.
They object that he is not there speaking of sacramental eating; this I admit, provided they will not ever and anon stumble on this stone, that his flesh itself is eaten without any benefit. I should like to know how they confine it after they have eaten. Here, in my opinion, they will find no outlet. But they object, that the ingratitude of man cannot in any respect detract from, or interfere with, faith in the promises of God. I admit and hold that the power of the sacrament remains entire, however the wicked may labour with all their might to annihilate it. Still, it is one thing to be offered, another to be received. Christ gives this spiritual food and holds forth this spiritual drink to all. Some eat eagerly, others superciliously reject it. Will their rejection cause the meat and drink to lose their nature? They will say that this similitude supports their opinion—viz. that the flesh of Christ, though it be without taste, is still flesh. But I deny that it can be eaten without the taste of faith, or (if it is more agreeable to speak with Augustine), I deny that men carry away more from the sacrament than they collect in the vessel of faith. Thus nothing is detracted from the sacrament, nay, its reality and efficacy remain unimpaired, although the wicked, after externally partaking of it, go away empty. If, again, they object, that it derogates from the expression, “This is my body,” if the wicked receive corruptible bread and nothing besides, it is easy to answer, that God wills not that his truth should be recognised in the mere reception, but in the constancy of his goodness, while he is prepared to perform, nay, liberally offers to the unworthy what they reject. The integrity of the sacrament, an integrity which the whole world cannot violate, lies here, that the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy than to the elect believers of God; and yet it is true, that just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the wicked by their hardness repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them. We may add, that it is no more possible to receive Christ without faith, than it is for seed to germinate in the fire.
Calvin rambles on and on from his convoluted perspective. I’ve already dealt with all of these errors.
They ask how Christ can have come for the condemnation of some, unless they unworthily receive him; but this is absurd, since we nowhere read that they bring death upon themselves by receiving Christ unworthily, but by rejecting him.
Again, Calvin seems utterly (quite strangely) unaware of 1 Corinthians 11:23-30: alluded to above. Paul specifically states that some have died because they partook of Holy Communion “in an unworthy manner”; not “discerning the body.”
They are not aided by the parable in which Christ says, that the seed which fell among thorns sprung up, but was afterwards choked (Mt. 13:7), because he is there speaking of the effect of a temporary faith, a faith which those who place Judas in this respect on a footing with Peter, do not think necessary to the eating of the flesh and the drinking of the blood of Christ. Nay, their error is refuted by the same parable, when Christ says that some seed fell upon the wayside, and some on stony ground, and yet neither took root. Hence it follows that the hardness of believers is an obstacle which prevents Christ from reaching them. All who would have our salvation to be promoted by this sacrament, will find nothing more appropriate than to conduct believers to the fountain, that they may draw life from the Son of God. The dignity is amply enough commended when we hold, that it is a help by which we may be ingrafted into the body of Christ, or, already ingrafted, may be more and more united to him, until the union is completed in heaven. They object, that Paul could not have made them guilty of the body and blood of the Lord if they had not partaken of them (1 Cor. 11:7); I answer, that they were not condemned for having eaten. but only for having profaned the ordinance by trampling under foot the pledge, which they ought to have reverently received, the pledge of sacred union with God.
Paul didn’t talk about a pledge, or profaning an ordinance, but of profaning the Body and Blood of Jesus: a completely different notion. Calvin’s sophistries know no end. He should have been a politician.
Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]