For some historical context, read On the Supper, Part 1. Enter Calvin. As I said in part 1, Calvin attempted to strike a mediating position between Luther and Zwingli, but in the end his views are much closer to Luther’s than to Zwingli’s. To understand Calvin’s view of the Supper one needs to consider the meal as a sacrament, a sign and a seal, a means of grace, as the real spiritual presence of Christ, and as being miraculous.
1. Sacrament. In many parts of the evangelical world, the word ‘sacrament’ is replace with ‘ordinance’, but Reformed churches understand the sacraments to be a special subset of ordinances, as the Westminster Confession makes clear: “”Chapter VII, Article VI. Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed, are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Calvin followed Augustine in describing a sacrament as “a visible sign of a sacred thing,” and again, “a visible form of an invisible grace.” A few Questions/Answers from the Heidelberg Catechism flesh this out more:
§ Question #65: It is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his blessings: where then does that faith come from?
§ Answer: The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments (John 3:5; 1 Cor. 2:10-14; Eph. 2:8, Rom. 10:17; 1 Pet. 1:23-25, Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:16).
§ Question #66: What are sacraments?
§ Answer: Sacraments are holy signs and seals for us to see. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise. And this is God’s gospel promise: to forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross
§ Question #67: Are both the word and the sacraments then intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?
§ Answer: Right! In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us and through the holy sacraments he assures us that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross
2. Sign and Seal. Calvin argues that the main purpose of the Supper is to serve as a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace (secondarily, to remind us of God’s great goodness expressed in the giving of Christ for us, and finally to exhort us to holiness and promote brotherly love). As a sign, the Supper represents a reality – Christ’s body broken for us, his blood spilled for us, as well as our participation in Christ. But it does more than just represent, for there is a union between the sign and the thing signified. In other words, the Supper doesn’t just represent or symbolize our participation in Christ in a bare way, but it also conveys what it signifies – we truly do participate in Christ by partaking of the Supper in faith. While the things, the sign and the thing signified, can be distinguished, they cannot be separated. The outward signs (the bread, the cup, the eating and drinking, all coupled with the words of institution) are, Calvin insists “conjoined with their reality and effect.” As the partaking of the bread and cup signify our union with Christ, we are united with Christ just as surely as we eat and drink. What is promised in the sacrament, namely communion with Christ and participation in his body and blood (1 Cor. 10:14ff), is really and truly given. As we partake in faith our souls truly feast on Christ and are nourished.
All of this is grounded in a deep understanding of the mystical union we share with Christ – Christ in us and us in Christ. This has not been a large part of evangelical or even Reformed theology for some time, having been eclipsed by more forensic language. It is not, however, necessary to choose between the forensic and mystical. In fact, I think we do a great injustice to the beauty of Reformed teaching and the Bible when we divorce those two truth – Christ is a federal head and we are united to him not just legally, but organically as well.
Calvin understood that this was deeply mysterious and could think of no natural analogy. The only analogy possible is the incarnation. Since the Council of Chalcedon Christians have affirmed that Christ be “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ”. This is analogous to the distinction between the sign and the thing signified, which, though inseparably united in a sacramental unity, are still distinct.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that believers are united with Christ, not just the disembodied soul of Christ and not just Christ’s divine nature. We commune with Christ the person, both in his divine nature and in his human nature – his flesh and blood. This isn’t done by Christ descending bodily to be present in the sacraments, but by the believers ascension to heaven through the Spirit to partake of Christ. This is incredibly important to Calvin (and to me!). I’ll come back to this in the next posts. Let me tease you with a quote from Keith Matthison, “Since Christ has thus worked out our salvation in and through his human body and human nature, it follows that the benefits of his work are not available to us unless we ourselves are brought into some kind of communion with the human nature and indeed with the body, in which all the work of our salvation was performed” (from Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper)