John Calvin on Communion

12 Oct

Today is Thursday…sermon preparation day. I love Thursdays. I am preaching through 1 Corinthians 11 this Sunday and so I have been studying all day on two subjects, two traditions: head coverings and communion in Christian worship. Head coverings is a tradition practiced by some, but communion is THE tradition practiced by nearly all Christians at all points in Christian history.

During my time of study, I read about fifty pages of John Calvin’s Institutes. I had read about 200 pages or so of the Institutes while in seminary as a part of my church history class, but I had lost contact with Calvin over the years. I recently ordered my own two-volume copy and have been reading various sections this week. I was once told to forget reading the Calvinists, but read Calvin. How true! I have found Calvin personally refreshing and intellectually stimulating. He is becoming one of the voices from the past who is a teacher in the church today for me. No matter where you find yourself on the arminianism vs. calvinism debate, READ CALVIN. I find that John Wesley more accurately represents the tradition that gave birth to my faith, a tradition that emphasizes free grace, free will and human responsibility. Wesley said that he was within a “hair’s breadth” away from Calvinism. (Read more here.)

Calvin has been talking to me today. He has been sitting in my office lecturing me on communion. I do not have enough time on Sunday morning to preach through all that I am learning from Calvin, so here are some notes from Calvin and his understanding of communion.

The knowledge of this high mystery is very necessary, and in view of its (the Lord’s Supper’s) very greatness it demands a careful explanation. Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.1
Calvin uses two important words in talking about communion – mystery and greatness. My protestant experience in mostly non-denominational churches has exposed me to a very low view of communion. It is a mere symbolic ritual that should be done four times a year, if necessary. There is no talk of mystery…no talk of greatness. How do you market a mystery? How do you promote and “sell” anything mysterious? There isn’t much practical about taking communion. It doesn’t do much for me. It is a “royal waste of time.” These are the thoughts I have had about communion, up until the last few years, old worn out thoughts that are being replaced with the worshipful mystery of communion.

We are therefore bidden to take and eat the body which was once for all offered for our salvation, in order that when we see ourselves made partakers in it, we may assuredly conclude that the power of his life-giving death will be efficacious in us. Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.1
Calvin understood what it meant to “take” communion, to partake, to commune. The Lord’s Supper is not a dead ritual, but a spiritual experience—a mystical and mysterious encounter with Jesus who is flesh and blood and who gave his flesh and blood for our salvation. We are called to the “table,” not by a pastor or priest, but by the Spirit himself, who calls us to enter the life of Christ, enter the death of Christ, enter the resurrection of Christ. Communion is worship as participation…there is movement, words spoken, smells, tastes.

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us, that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him… Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.2
Communion is a part of a salvation. It is a part of the journey, part of the process of transformation. It is an exchange of my sin for his grace, my depravity for his righteousness.

Now here we ought to guard against two faults. First, we should not, by too little regard for the signs, divorce them from their mysteries, to which they are so to speak attached. Secondly, we should not, by extolling them immoderately, seem to obscure somewhat the mysteries themselves. Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.5
The statement set up the rest of what Calvin has to say on communion. He goes on to talk about how the Spirit gives life through communion and how the Spirit unites the symbol to the real presence of Christ.

He also discusses how the real humanity of Christ defeats the false notion of transubstantiation, which he calls “that monster” (4.17.14) and “crude imagination” (4.17.15). He also discusses the thoughts of the early church fathers (particularly Augustine) who “enhance the dignity of the mystery” (4.17.14).

But that is exactly what Calvin has done for me. He has enhanced the dignity of the mystery. Isn’t that are call as church leaders? Aren’t we called to dig deep into the Scripture to enhance the dignity of the mystery? We need that in the church today. I need that in my church today. I need that in me today.

To enhance the dignity of the mystery

Calvin said there are two faults that we have to guard ourselves against. It is the faults of Luther and Zwingli. There was a historical and unfortunate debate between Luther and Zwingli over the meaning of the bread and wine in communion. Luther argued that the elements were literally and mysteriously the body and blood of Christ. Zwingli argued that they were token, mere symbols. We have to guard ourselves from missing the mystery because of the symbol and missing the symbol because of the mystery.

Communion is a mystery.
Communion is a symbol.

Let’s worship with both in mind.

I received this from a friend today. It is an email from Ravi Zacharias on the devastating effects of that fight between Luther and Zwingli. The fight was over the meaning of the bread and wine in communion.

Approaching Fact, Applying Faith
Ravi Zacharias

On the long walk up the steep hill of the historic castle in Marburg, Germany, nostalgia throbbed through every vein. If only the stones could speak and resonate with the voices that held forth within those confines–what rapture that would provide! Within the rooms of that castle a memorable meeting was held in October of 1529 at which a handful of men, principally Luther and Zwingli, were present. What occasioned that auspicious gathering, and why were the emotions so intense as the moods swung from castigating outbursts to heartfelt apologies?

The question before them was one of consolidating their theological convictions and of presenting a unified platform on what they believed and why they believed it. We read in the summation of those proceedings that of the fifteen points under debate they agreed on fourteen but with great anguish disagreed on the fifteenth. The issue that strongly divided them was the meaning of Jesus’s words “This is my body,” and the significant implications of those words upon the elements of the Lord’s Supper. To Luther it appeared to be as clear as the day–“This is my body” could only be literal. “Jesus said, ‘This is my body,'” he kept thundering forth. He was not arguing for transubstantiation, although Zwingli saw it as a capitulation to that. To Zwingli the words were only symbolic of Christ’s spiritual presence.

One has only to read the points and counterpoints made between the two and the spirit is stirred by the passion of the reformers. The contest of two different convictions, and the harshness of the words spoken in the heat of argument prompted tears and regret in each as they parted with the hope that the sharp edges of their verbal outbursts would be blunted and gentler words would prevail. Unfortunately, subsequent history unfolds a reality different to their hopes.

Today we marvel at such diatribe between people committed to Christ. But let us not lose sight of something so close to the eye that we may lose focus. For both Zwingli and Luther the fundamental question was unmistakable: What did Jesus mean? That was of supreme importance. To be absolutely sure of the answer to that question on the Lord’s Supper we may have to await the Real Presence when eternity is ushered in. But I strongly suspect that both Zwingli and Luther will be applauded for their unswerving commitment to determine God’s intent in his Word.

With the twists and turns of history, Marburg has a more sobering warning to us than a debate in a castle by a handful of reformers. The prestigious University of Marburg was founded just two years before that colloquy. In more recent times it has been the spawning ground for schools of thought that have brought havoc into theological institutions. In this university the famed existentialist Martin Heidegger taught. His impact was also felt by the notable neoorthodox theologian Rudolf Bultmann.

Bultmann’s legacy to Christianity is his self-arrogated task to “demythologize” the New Testament; that is, to strip it of what he considered its contemporaneously false assumptions and beliefs which modern learning has clearly debunked, and to find in its place that which is personally meaningful. He drew a line between the alleged facts of history and history as we need to apply it. Thus, to Bultmann the resurrection was not a fact but a faith event, fused with meaning and embraced with passion whether or not it is true. This philosophically impoverished approach could not have been more ironically evidenced than on that Easter weekend I spent in Marburg. For seventy-two hours the stores were closed and the streets were barren. Two of the most precious days to Christendom were being commemorated in a culture where the truth of those days has been lost.

After decades of ministry, one of the deepest concerns I have lies in this twin-headed dilemma–how we approach the Scriptures and how we apply them. So much of our faith today is muddied by spiritual jargon. Time and again we hear, “God spoke to me”–a mind-boggling statement, to be sure, not only to the skeptic but to many a serious student of the Word. Could such a claim not just as equally be the spiritual clothing of ambition with the verbiage of inspiration? I have seen some of the most incredible behavior justified with the words “God spoke to me.” How does one argue with that? The only way is to turn to the Scriptures and to verify whether the truth deduced is in keeping with the truth of Scripture, not just personally wrested but objectively revealed to all humanity. Further, if the life and conduct of the one to whom God is “constantly speaking” belies a disjunction between practice in day-to-day living and a precept that is harnessed to justify specific behavior, that one too has amputated the organ of fact from the feeling of faith.


Posted by on October 12, 2007 in Ministry, Theology



2 responses to “John Calvin on Communion

  1. Anonymous

    October 16, 2007 at 12:32 am

    kxwywjzCommunion for me over the many years I have participated in recieving Communion has been a heart moving experience.Long before I understood the significance of what it Really was I always new through the experience leaving it I was forgiven of all my sins and was a new creature. You see, I prayed each time for forgivenes of all my known sins as well as my unknown sins during the quiet time prior to the acual partaking of the bread and juice. I always felt it neccesary to do that before taking of Jesus’s body and blood. It was a long time before I realized why I always felt so good after the Lords supper. Not knowing what confessing all my sins actually did for me.
    We/you/them can debate all we can about what/why the Communion is, but to me it is a worship of God that I long for and eagerly look forward to as a time to flush out all my sins before my Lord and Savior. I think it is a time demanded by Christ, to honor him, to actually partake of His Body adn Blood, to be more like him. Perhaps that is strange, I have no formal training on the subject. I just know how it makes me feel, and How I beleive it reads.
    Fred Flintsone

  2. Derek Vreeland

    October 16, 2007 at 12:47 am

    You comment is not strange at all. It gets to Calvin’s very point. Communion is not merely a symbolic ritual. It is a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with very real presence of Jesus.

    Communion is worship and it is finding a more central place in my understanding of worship.



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