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The Contemplative Shape of
Calvin’s Eucharistic Thought

by Michael J. Pahls

Copyright © 2003

Indeed, the believer, when he sees sacraments with his own eyes, does not halt at the physical sight of them, but by those steps (which I have indicated by analogy) rises up in devout contemplation to those lofty mysteries which lie hidden in sacraments [1].

One might profitably approach Calvin’s work on the Eucharist as contemplation rather than simple exposition. I use this distinction because, although one does find a good deal of theological and scriptural exposition in his treatments of the doctrine (a hallmark of Renaissance humanist and Reformation theological approaches) [2], Calvin’s approach to the Eucharistic also has reveals a number of structural and tonal qualities which link him to the contemplative and mystical spiritual traditions of the Church. Even in instances where Calvin engages in harsh polemic and pastoral “contextualization” regarding the modus of Christ’s presence, his spiritual disposition is never without a certain worshipful “gaze” and prayerful register. For Calvin, the Eucharistic celebration is a “visible word” (Augustine) that shows forth and really accomplishes the believer’s salvific union with Christ. In his view, such a profound mystery cannot be simply captured by a sterile explanation. Indeed, the very reason for the institution of the Sacraments is that our limited capacities cannot fully apprehend nor appropriate this rich promise of the Gospel apart from their right use [3]. Calvin’s concern is always to facilitate a proper apprehension of the Eucharist as communion (union) with God in the flesh and blood of Christ the Son by the worshipping Christian. Considered in this light, it appears that the opening quote may be taken as something of an autobiographical comment whereby Calvin bids us to join him in a contemplative participation in the Eucharistic mystery. It will be argued here that in his Eucharistic exposition, Calvin the biblical and systematic theologian is inseparable from Calvin the contemplative and mystical theologian [4].

I. Calvin’s Contemplative Theological Strategy

In contemplation of the Christian mysteries, there is first a revelatory word or symbol that invites imaginative awe and prayerful meditation. This revelatory word or symbol is followed by what one may profitably call a “critical moment” in which meditation encounters “vain imagination” or a “false mysticism” through conflict with the rule of faith. Resulting from this critical moment, a theological definition or a dogmatic conclusion is made which serves to both govern meditation and sanctify the imagination in order to facilitate contemplation. Understood this way, theological definitions mark off cognitive and affective boundaries to inhibit vain imaginings and false mysticism, but they leave a certain openness that is then apprehended through communion and not analysis. To borrow a metaphor from common experience, theological definitions “fence” the back yard of a divine mystery and mark its limits but they do not thereby render an account of each blade of grass.

In Calvin’s meditations on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the words of institution introduce the Eucharist as a revelatory symbol of the true salvific presence of Christ. He then encounters a “critical moment” in which the Eucharistic theologies proffered by Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Zwinglianism are found to be vain imaginings when considered in light of Chalcedonian Christology. For Calvin, the theological definitions of these representative schools inhibited contemplative communion and authentic participation in the mystery of the Eucharist because they did injustice to the person of Christ. Calvin then employs Christology as a constructive tool to theologically define and expound the Eucharist in order to circumscribe and correct the vain imaginings of his opponents. By this he opens again the via contemplativa which facilitates a renewed and “reformed” participation in the Mystery. This outline of Calvin’s Eucharistic project will now be traced out in detail.

II. Calvin’s “Christology” of the Eucharistic Symbol

The “words of institution” as presented in 1 Corinthians 11 and the accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22) constitute the stepping off point for every theological presentation of the doctrine of the Eucharist and, while Calvin’s presentation of the Supper in the 1559 edition of the Institutes does not prioritize their consideration, they are clearly assumed to be central to the debate.

A. The True Presence of Flesh and Blood

In his consideration of the words of institution, Calvin clearly aligns himself against Zwingli and with the majority of the Church in arguing for a true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This was simply to take Christ at his word [5]. In his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, Calvin states, “We will confess, without doubt, that to deny that the true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to” [6]. Calvin goes so far as to use the pregnant theological term “substance” in his assertion of the true presence: “I confess that our souls are truly fed by the substance of Christ’s flesh” [7].

In describing the authenticity of presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Calvin does prefer the term “true” to “real” because the latter was often associated with Lutheran and Roman Catholic arguments for a localized presence [8]. Indeed, Calvin did reject the notion of localized presence for reasons that will follow, but even in his strong rejection of Lutheran and Catholic views, Calvin readily asserted that his disagreement was not over the actuality of Christ’s flesh and blood, “but only the mode of reception” [9]. The Eucharist, therefore, carries an objective force and communicates a peculiar and specific grace [10]. Although the Eucharist must be apprehended by faith in the believer, it is that presence and not faith that clothes the Sacrament with its power [11].

B. The Person Who is Present: A Chalcedonian Critique

Calvin employs Christology as the “critical fulcrum” upon which the distinctive features of his theology turn. As Allister McGrath has argued,

Calvin’s thought is thoroughly Christocentric, not merely in that it centers upon God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, but also in that this revelation discloses a paradigm which governs other key areas of Christian thought. Wherever God and humanity come into conjunction, the incarnational paradigm illuminates their relation. If there is a center of Calvin’s religious thought, that center may reasonably be identified as Jesus Christ himself [12].

Similarly, Wilhelm Niesel has stated that, “More decisive is the appreciation of the fact that the form of Calvin’s theology was shaped by the axis on which it revolves. Jesus Christ controls not only the content but also the form of Calvinistic thought” [13].

With the revelatory symbol under consideration and the scope of the controversy defined, Calvin evaluated the various theologies of the representative Christian communions and found them to be deficient in their ability to sufficiently account for the very presence they desired to defend. For Calvin, contemplation of and authentic participation in the true presence of Christ required one to satisfy the protective Christological definitions of Chalcedon [14]. Any explanation of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist must carefully avoid the vain imaginations of Christological heresy and protect the veracity not only of the presence but of the person who is present. Calvin therefore offers the following guidelines in the believers contemplation of the Eucharist:

Let us never (I say) allow these two limitations to be taken away from us: (1) Let nothing be withdrawn from Christ’s heavenly glory—as happens when he is brought under corruptible elements of this world, or bound to any earthly creatures. (2) Let nothing inappropriate to human nature be ascribed to his body, as happens when it is said either to be infinite or to be put in a number of places at once.

But when these absurdities have been set aside, I freely accept whatever can be made to express the true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, which is shown to believers under the sacred symbols of the Supper—and so to express it that they may be understood not to receive it solely by imagination or understanding of mind, but enjoy the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life [15].

C. Distinctio Sed Non Seperatio — Distinct but Inseparable

Calvin’s first application of Christology to his Eucharistic theology is in his understanding of the Sacraments in general as signs of the realities they represent. According to Augustine, the sacraments are visible words whereby the truth of God’s promises is tangibly shown and instrumentally applied to the believer. Calvin therefore introduces the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures in Christ into the theological apprehension of theological symbols themselves by arguing that in the Sacraments the sign and the thing signified are “distinct but inseparable”. In Book 4 of the 1559 Institutes, Calvin says,

For the distinction [between the sacrament and the matter of the sacrament] signifies not only that the figure and the truth are contained in the sacrament, but that they are not so linked that they cannot be separated; and that even in the union itself the matter must always be distinguished from the sign, that we may not transfer to the one what belongs to the other [16].

And yet he also states, “Now 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” [17]. In other words, just as we must not divide the singular person of Christ when distinguish between his human and divine natures, so we must not posit a division between the physical signs of bread and wine and the spiritual realities which they convey when we distinguish between the sacrament and the matter of the sacrament.

This being the case, whence enters the applicability of the “communio idiomatum” (communion of the properties) which was such a feature of Chalcedon? Calvin describes the communion of the properties in the following manner: “. . . they [the Scriptures] sometimes attribute to him what must be referred solely to his humanity, sometimes what belongs uniquely to his divinity; and sometimes embraces both natures but fits neither alone. And they son earnestly express this union of the two natures that is in Christ as sometimes to interchange them [18]. Interestingly Calvin describes a “sacramental phraseology” (sacramentali modo) that unites the elements of bread and wine with their spiritual realities in similar to the communio idiomatum: “There is no reason for anyone to object that this [the word of institution] is a figurative expression by which the name of the thing signified is given to the sign” [19]. Elsewhere he states, “…those things ordained by God borrow the names of those things of which they always bear a definite and not misleading signification, and have the reality joined with them. So great, therefore, is their similarity and closeness that transition from one to the other is easy [20].

Calvin employs this strategy of exposition for the express purposes of affirming the instrumentality of the Eucharistic symbol [21]. In the same manner in which the full humanity and full divinity of Christ qualify him to be the perfect mediator between God and man, so does the Eucharist become the instrumental means whereby the believer’s union with Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith is presented, confirmed, and effected. Calvin states,

Therefore, if the Lord truly represents the participation in his body through the breaking of bread, there ought not to be the least doubt that he truly presents and shows his body. And the godly ought by all means to keep this rule: whenever they see symbols appointed by the Lord, to think and be persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is surely present there. For why should the Lord put in your hand the symbol of his body, except to assure you of a true participation in it. But if it is true that a visible sign is given us to seal the gift of a thing invisible, when we have received the symbol of the body, let us no less surely trust that the body itself is also given to us [22].

In employing the conclusions of Chalcedonian Christology to illuminate the nature of the Eucharistic symbol, Calvin was introducing a new understanding of the nature of the sacraments as symbols. As Peter Leithart affirms in his comparison of the Eucharistic theologies of St. Thomas, Martin Luther and Calvin that, “Calvin was rejecting the centuries-old separation of figure and reality; he attempted to get out of the dead end and ambiguities of Medieval and early Reformation Eucharistic debates by affirming that the Eucharist was both symbolic and real, or perhaps better, by offering a new understanding of the nature of religious symbols” [23]. In other words, Calvin’s employment of Christology and specifically the doctrine of the Incarnation allowed him to overcome the dualism inherent in both Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and especially Zwinglian Eucharistic theologies.

D. Finitum Non Capax Infinitii — The Finite Cannot Contain the Infinite

The second application of Christology in Calvin’s eucharistic theology represents his desire to withdrawal nothing from Christ’s heavenly glory. To Calvin’s mind, authentic contemplation of and participation in the Eucharistic mystery requires that the believer do justice to the full divinity of Jesus Christ. In addition to being absurd to the physical senses (the bread and wine clearly remaining bread and wine to the senses), both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran assertions of a “local presence” of Christ represented to Calvin an idolatrous attempt to confine the Second Person of the Trinity to the physical dimensions of the bread and wine—a notion he labels a “gross form of enclosing” [24]. In response Calvin asserts his famous “extra Calvinisticum”–that when we are contemplating God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, we must not think, “that the Godhead left the heavens in order to confine itself to the chambers of Christ’s body, but that although it filled all things yet it dwelt corporeally precisely in the humanity of Christ, i.e. dwelt therein both naturally and ineffably [25]. This belief that finitude, even the finitude of Jesus of Nazareth’s human body, cannot contain the infinite being of the Triune God, is then directly applied to the Eucharist. Calvin rejects the notion that we feed only on the divine and spiritual nature of Christ, but he also rejects that we feed commune with his humanity to the exclusion of his divinity. Calvin is concerned that we partake of the whole Christ—God and man. Against those whom he labels “literalists”, Calvin argues,

If it is objected that bread is therefore Christ and consequently God, they will indeed deny it, for this is not expressly stated in Christ’s words. But denial will gain them nothing, since all men agree that the whole Christ is offered us in the Supper. But it is and intolerable blasphemy to declare literally of an ephemeral and corruptible element that it is Christ [26].

Elsewhere Calvin states, “He is both God and man for us, for in the first place, he makes us alive by the power of his Holy Spirit: then he is man within us, for he makes us participate in the sacrifice he offered for our salvation, and declares to us that it is not without cause that he has appointed his flesh to be our food indeed, and his blood our drink indeed” [27].

Calvin takes a similar tack when offering critique of the Roman Catholic practice of adoring the consecrated host. Far from being a sanctioned practice to facilitate Eucharistic contemplation, Calvin says this practice is an idol which evokes a vain imagination: “For what is idolatry if not this: to worship the gifts in place of the Giver himself? In this there is a double transgression: for both the honor taken from God has been transferred to the creature, and he himself is also dishonored in the defilement and profanation of his gift, when the holy Sacrament is made a hateful idol” [28].

E. Vere Homo — Truly Human

Closely related to his Eucharistic application of the “extra Calvinisticum” is Calvin’s assertion that any contemplation of the Sacrament must equally account for the true humanity of Christ and must maintain a particular fidelity to the doctrine of the bodily Ascension of Christ into heaven. In their attempts to explain the mystery, Calvin’s Lutheran opponents argued that by virtue of the communicatio idiomatum, the human nature of Christ partakes of the divine attribute of omnipresence and can thus be present on many altars at once. In a related manner, Calvin’s Roman Catholic opponents argued that the bread and wine were transubstantiated so that they are locally transformed and become literal flesh and blood. Calvin condemns both of these positions on the basis that they do grave injustice to the true humanity of Christ. After all, when one asserts that humanity has become omnipresent (ubiquitous) does this not reintroduce a Eutychian confusion of Christ’s divinity and humanity? Calvin responds, “But as we have proved by firm and clear testimonies of Scripture, Christ’s body was circumscribed by the measure of a human body. Again, by his ascension into heaven he made it plain that it is not in all places, but when it passes into one, it leaves the previous one” [29]. In another place he states that this error has actually frustrated the true contemplation of the Eucharist: “For here Satan has deported himself with wonderful subtlety in order to draw men’s minds from heaven and imbue them with a perverse error–imagining that Christ is attached to the element of bread” [30]. Calvin responds with a full affirmation of the true humanity of Christ: “Christ’s body is limited by the general characteristics of all human bodies, and is contained in heaven until Christ return in judgment, so we deem it unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it present everywhere [31].

Calvin is often criticized as having a primitive understanding of heaven as a place having extension in space [32], but one must keep in mind first that Calvin is simply taking seriously the Scriptural testimonies that Jesus was taken bodily into heaven (Acts 1) and that his physical departure was necessary in order that the Holy Spirit would be given (John 16:7) and giving them their full redemptive-historical weight. Calvin is no slave to Medieval metaphysics. He does recognize that in the glorious mysteries of the Ascension and Glorification of Christ, the prophetic hope has been realized and God has come to dwell in and with his people by the Holy Spirit. It is in this union with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit that the post-Pentecost Church communes with her Lord. Thus it is the Spirit that Calvin designates as the “bond of connection” uniting the Eucharistic symbol and the Spiritual reality allowing God’s people to truly partake of the body and blood of Christ [33]. In this vein Calvin refers his readers to the Apostle: “For Paul, in the eighth chapter of Romans, states that Christ dwells in us only through his Spirit. Yet he does not take away that communion of his flesh and blood which we are now discussing, but teaches that the Spirit alone causes us to possess Christ completely and have him dwelling in us” [34].

F. Incarnation and Sacrament: A Veiling and a Revealing

God has accommodated himself to the limited and sinful capacities of human beings and has savingly revealed himself. As Wallace argues, however, “whenever we read of God as appearing to men in the Old Testament, we always find that it is really something other than God that appears, as a sign that God is there. This sign or symbol of God’s presence holds the attention of the worshipper and obscures the glory of the One who is revealing himself by means of it” [35]. In every act of revelation, therefore, there is simultaneously a veiling and an unveiling so that the revealed truth of the sign or symbol must be apprehended by faith. For Calvin, this was not only true of the Old Testament signs and symbols, but of God’s most perfect self-revelation in the Incarnation as well. Calvin thus says of the humanity of Christ, “The abasement of the flesh was like a veil by which His divine majesty was concealed” [36]. The glory of God’s self-revelation in Christ is apprehended only by the faith of his disciples. Wallace summarizes Calvin thusly: “Whatever signs of his divinity Jesus gave during his earthly life, and whatever rays of divine glory shone through the veil of his flesh, His divine nature could be discerned only by those who had faith. Those who were offended in Him ‘wanted eyes to see his conspicuous glory’” [37].

As in previous cases this Christological principle has direct application to Calvin’s Eucharistic theology. The Sacraments are simple signs that both reveal and conceal the mysteries they exhibit. The Apostle Paul declares that the Eucharist is not discernable to those who partake of them unworthily (1 Cor. 11:29). Commenting on this passage Calvin states, “What he [Paul] means is that they handle the sacred body of Christ with unclean hands, and, worse, they treat it as if it were worthless, giving not a thought to its great value [38]. Calvin leaves no ambiguity in his writings concerning his belief that we may not be united to Christ nor may we receive any of his saving benefits except by faith. Because of this he rejects the notion that a non-Christian can truly feed on the body and blood of Christ. In the Eucharist, he argues that Christ is really presented to the believer and unbeliever alike, and that both may partake of the sacrament (Calvin calls this a mere “sacramental eating” [39]), but only those who have faith participate in his body and blood. Calvin states (with Augustine), “I hold that men bear away from this Sacrament no more than they gather with the vessel of faith” [40].

III. A “Reformed” Via Contemplativa: Calvin’s Mystical Turn

Having demonstrated the manner in which Calvin utilized the dogmatic formulations of Chalcedon to critique those approaches to the Eucharistic Mystery that he considered deficient, it now remains to see how the guidance and governance of Calvin’s “Christological Eucharist” opens to the believer a renewed and “reformed” via contemplativa whereby the believer may mystically apprehend and thereby authentically participate in the spiritual reality that the Sacrament holds forth.

A. Knowing and Unknowing

There is a transcendent openness in Calvin’s Eucharistic theology that invites a “contemplation” of the mystery it symbolizes and sets fourth. Calvin specifically invites this deeper and experiential apprehension of the mystery:

I freely admit that no man should measure its sublimity the little measure of my childishness. Rather I urge my readers not to confine their mental interest within these too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher than I can lead them. For whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive not the tongue to express [41].

Contemplation, as Christian spirituality understands it, is an action of the believer but more importantly it is a gift of God. In Calvin’s Eucharistic thought, there is an emphasis on the right understanding and proper preparation for the celebration of the Sacred Meal, but far more important is his emphasis on the Eucharist as God’s gift [42]. Additionally, the gift is apprehended and participation accomplished by faith— itself a gracious gift. For the believer, then, to apprehend and participate in the Eucharist requires a prior action of divine grace, not only in the gift presented, but in the grace by which the gift is received.

Contemplation also has a transcendent feature where the divine object in which the believer turns from a kataphatic “knowing” through the affirmation of theological formulation to an apophatic “knowing by unknowing”. The revelatory symbol points to an incomprehensible mystery that is incapable of being fully captured or articulated [43]. As Calvin states, “What then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space” [44]. While Calvin does acknowledge that the Eucharistic symbol suggests the mystery, he also recognizes that it does not exhaust the mystery. The mystery is commended to the experience of the believer without being completely codified either verbally or symbolically. Herein lies the practical payoff of the finitum non capax infinitii as well as the distinctio sed non seperatio in Calvin’s Eucharistic imagination. Knowing focuses the “apophatic light” of unknowing and protects it from becoming the “false light” of vain speculation, but one comes to the limits of knowing and the believer is left to apprehend by faith what the mind cannot conceive. Calvin says,

I therefore freely admit that no man should measure its sublimity by the little measure of my childishness. Rather, I urge my readers not to confine their mental interest within these too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher than I can lead them. For, whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express [45].

There are, then, at least some superficial affinities in Calvin’s Eucharistic thought with mystical contemplation. The superficialities become actualities, however, when we consider Calvin’s treatment of the mystery which the Eucharist symbolizes and accomplishes–the union of the devout with Christ.

B. A Mystical Union with Christ

For Calvin, “Union with Christ is the special fruit of the Lord’s Supper” [46]. This union or communion is defined by Calvin as,

…that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts–in short, that mystical union–are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him [47].

Two features of this quote are immediately significant. First it is telling that Calvin describes the union itself as “mystical” (mysticaI), a term closely related to “contemplation”. Secondly, Calvin expressly adopts the unitive posture which is a feature of contemplative spirituality. In other words, Calvin reckons that the nature of the believers saving union with Christ is such that there is no longer a subject-object relationship between the believer and the Savior. Christ has, rather engrafted the believer into his body and experiences a genuine oneness. The mystical union of the believer with Christ is, to borrow Nevin’s summary of Calvin’s view, “real, substantial, and essential” [48]. Keeping with his apophatic approach to Gospel mysteries, Calvin clarifies his understanding of the “secret communion” with Christ in a letter to Peter Vermegli:

. . .we become truly members of his Body, and life flows into us from him as from the Head. For in no other way does he reconcile us to God by the sacrifice of his death than because he is ours and we are one with him. . . . How this happens, I confess is something far above the measure of my intelligence. Hence I adore this mystery rather than labor to understand it. . . . He dwells in us, sustains us, gives us life and fulfills all the functions of the Head [49].

Calvin argues that union with Christ is the redemptive function of the Holy Spirit [50] and here Christology again intersects with the Sacraments. As we have argued, Calvin’s position is that believers truly partake of the human flesh and blood of Jesus Christ: “It is not merely a question of being made partakers of his Spirit: we must also participate in his humanity, in which he rendered all obedience to the Father. . . . When he gives himself to us in order that we may possess him entirely. . . . Our souls must feed on his body and blood as their proper food” [51]. It is in the feeding that Calvin understands the believer to possess the blessing of this union—a union that in connection with the Eucharist is labeled “mystical”:

We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing (mystica haec benedictio), namely, to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for also sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and that his blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink [52].

This “Spiritual” feeding on the body and blood of Christ are symbolized for the believer, whose faith is nourished, sustained, and increased. This is, of course, the point of the symbol. Calvin does not halt at a mere parallelism, however. As has been seen, the Eucharistic symbols have an instrumental function. The Holy Spirit, then is active in the Supper, feeding the believer by nourishing, sustaining, and increasing the mystical union “just as” the believer partakes of the bread and wine [53]. The elements thus retain their substance, but the spiritual reality cannot be separated from them. Calvin, however, has maintained that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are locally present at the right hand of the Father in Heaven. How, then can there be a true feeding?

B. The Eucharistic Ascent

The high water point of Calvin’s mystical turn is in his theology of the “Eucharistic Ascent”. Rather than dragging Christ down to earth under the form of corruptible elements, Calvin argues that believers must be “raised up” to heaven in order to feed upon him there. In the 1539 edition of the Institutes, he argues,

But if we are lifted up to heaven with our eyes and minds to seek Christ there in the glory of his Kingdom, so under the symbol of bread we shall be fed by his body, [and] under the symbol of wine we shall separately drink his blood to enjoy him at last in his wholeness. For though he has taken his flesh away from us, and in the body has ascended into heaven, yet he sits at the right hand of the Father [54].

Calvin is deeply concerned to maintain an actual rather than a purely notional communion with Christ [55]. We must, therefore, understand Calvin to be advocating a quite literal, if mystical, understanding of this “ascent” [56]. Thus, the believer is truly and locally present in heaven with the glorified Christ as he or she communes with the Lord. The ascent is not something that we accomplish in our own strength but something God does in the descent of his Spirit. Arguing against the Lutheran notion of ubiquity, Calvin argues, “For they think they only communicate with it if it descends into bread; but they do not understand the manner of descent by which he lifts us to himself [57]. In addition to his belief that it is literal, Calvin’s also believes that the Eucharistic assent to God is liturgical. In Calvin’s conception of the Eucharistic mystery the stress is on the action of God as it is dramatically portrayed in the Divine Liturgy of the assembled Church [58]. For this reason, joins the preaching of the Word to the Eucharist to the degree that there can be no Sacrament apart from the Word. The liturgical aspect of the Eucharistic ascent is also consistent with the notion of the divine liturgy as a participation in the eternal and heavenly liturgy which takes place among the assembled saints gathered in the heavenly sanctuary around the throne of Christ [59]. In the progression of the liturgy, Christ gathers his people into his presence from their worldly vocations, proclaims his Word to them and declares the forgiveness of their sins, pledges and consummates his union with them in the Sacrament and, then dismisses them with his blessing to again be salt and light in the world. By joining the contemplation of the Eucharistic mystery with the liturgical action of the Church, Calvin joins the traditionally star-crossed spiritual dispositions of contemplation and action, of individual piety and corporate spirituality. The contemplation of the Eucharist is inseparable from the active participation in the mystery in the eating and drinking with the assembled ecclesial community. Applying this understanding against the adoration of the consecrated host, Calvin argues,

They consecrate the host, as they call it, to carry it about in procession, to display it in solemn spectacle that it may be seen, worshipped, and called upon. I ask by what power they think it duly consecrated. To be sure, they will bring forward these words: ‘This is my body.’ But I will object, to the contrary, that at the same time this was said: ‘Take and eat.” And I shall do this with good reason. For when a promise is joined to a command, I say that the latter is included in the former, so that, separated from it, it becomes no promise at all [60].

IV. Conclusion

Calvin has traditionally been considered a harsh and somewhat sterile dogmatician who was more concerned with fine points of deductive logic than the existential experience of the spiritual riches he spoke of. Hopefully this examination of the contemplative features of his Eucharistic theology will contribute yet another blow in the destruction of this caricature. Calvin offers a critique to each of the Sacramental positions of his day, but those points of critique proceed from a heart that is deeply touched with concern that both the individual Christian and the assembled Church enjoy an authentic communion with Christ though a authentic participation faith in the Eucharist. Finally, we see that Calvin is concerned to positively account for the Apostolic witness of Scripture as well as the Ecumenical assent of the Church. Calvin’s hope, therefore, was to render an account of the Eucharist which was Evangelically rooted, critically Reformed, faithfully catholic and spiritually satisfying.

In the tiny chapter, “What is Contemplation?”, Thomas Merton closes his thoughts with the following, pregnant observation:

Contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. Hence contemplation does not simply “find” a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and hold him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return. On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery and his own freedom. It is a pure virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word “wherever He may go [61].

At the far side of a consideration of the contemplative shape of his Eucharistic theology, Calvin, I suspect would have found great satisfaction in this definition.

Copyright © 2003


1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion John T. McNeill, ed.; Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (from the 1559 Latin Text edited by Peter Barth and Wilhelm Niesel [Ioannis Calvini, Opera Selecta Vol. III, IV, V. Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1926-1952] including collations from the earlier editions of that text and versions of the Institutes). The Library of Christian Classics, Vols. 20 and 21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 4. 14. 5, 1280. Priority will be given to the 1559 edition of the Institutes in this paper because it represents Calvin’s most mature reflections on the Eucharist and because it was completed after his polemic engagements with his Lutheran critics. Other sources will be treated as they prove illuminating on the conclusions in the Institutes. Other sources of Calvin’s Eucharistic thought include, “A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper” (1541), “A Confession of Faith Concerning the Eucharist” (1537), “Summary of Doctrine Concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments” (1537), “The Clear Explanation of Sound Doctrine Concerning the True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper” (1561). All of these appear in English in Calvin: Theological Treatises John T. McNeill, ed., J.K.S. Reid, trans. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954.

3. So Calvin, “Since, however this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows it figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.” Institutes (1559) 4.17.1 (1361)

4. On the subject of Calvin’s theology of Pietas see Sou-Young Lee, “Calvin’s Understanding of Pietas” in Calvinus Sincerioris Religionis Vindex: Calvin as Protector of the Purer Religion, Wilhelm Neuser and Brian Armstrong, eds. Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, Vol. 36. (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1997) 225-40.

5. “All these things are so perfectly promised in the sacrament, that we must certainly consider him truly shown to us, just as if Christ himself present were set before our gaze and touched by our hands. For this word cannot fool us or lie to us: ‘Take, eat, drink; this is my body which is given for you; this is blood which is shed for the forgiveness of sins [italics mine].” Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1536 Edition, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 103.

6. “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper”, 170.

7. Quoted in Ronald Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1982) 199.

8. See Joseph Tylenda, “Calvin and Christ’s Presence in the Supper—True or Real?” SJT 27 (1974) 65-75.

9. Quoted in Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament, 199.

10. John Williamson Nevin, “The Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper” The Mercersburg Review 2(5) (September 1850), 432. Idem., The Mystical Presence (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott, 1846) 117-26.

11. Ibid., 431.

12. A Life of John Calvin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 149.

13. Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, trans. Harold Knight (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956) 247.

14. Ibid.

15. Institutes (1559), 4. 17. 19, 1381-2.

16. Ibid., 4. 14. 15, 1290.

17. Ibid., 4. 17. 5, 1364-5.

18. Ibid., 2.14.1, 483

19. Ibid., 4. 17. 10, 1371.

20. Ibid., 4. 17. 21, 1387.

21. Brian Gerrish has rightly described Calvin’s Eucharistic theology as “symbolic instrumentalism” distinguishing it from the pure “symbolic parallelism” of Bullinger. See his Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 167 and id., “John Calvin and the Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper” McCQ 22 (1969) 85-98.

22. Ibid., 4. 17. 10, 1371

23. Peter Leithart, “What’s Wrong With Transubstantiation? An Evaluation of Theological Models” WTJ 53 (1991) 317.

24. Institutes (1559), 4. 17. 16, 1379.

25. Ibid., 4. 17. 30 , 1402-3.

26. Ibid., 4. 17. 20, 1383-4 (Italics mine.)

27. Quoted in Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 200.

28. Institutes (1559), 4. 17. 36, 1413.

29. Ibid., 4. 17. 30, 1401.

30. Ibid., 4. 17.12, 1372.

31. Ibid., 4. 17.12, 1373.

32. A notable example is G.R. Evans: “The distinction between holiness brought to earthly things by God himself for our benefit and therefore actually present in them, and a holiness ‘really’ in heaven but seen ‘through’ earthly things would seem to suppose a spatial separation between the created and divine, the world and the spirit. Calvin does seem to take something of a physicist’s view of heaven . . . that the body of Christ now ascended is his natural body, that it is finite and is physically and spatially present in heaven “Calvin on Signs: An Augustinian Dilemma.” Renaissance Studies 3 (1989) 40.

33. Institutes (1559), 4. 17. 12, 1373

34. Ibid.

35. Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament, 5

36. Commentary on Philippians 2:7. Quoted in Wallace, 13

37. Ibid., 19-20.

38. The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser, Calvin’s Commentaries, ed. D.W. Torrance and T.F. Torrance (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1960) 253.

39. Institutes (1559), 4. 17. 34, 1408-9.

40. Ibid., 4. 17. 33, 1407

41. Ibid., 4. 17. 6, 1367.

42. See Gerrish, “John Calvin and the Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper”, 93. Id., Grace and Gratitude 19-20.

43. Herein lies both the necessity and the limitations of the Sacramental symbol in Calvin: “Since, however this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.” Institutes (1559), 4.17.1, 1361.

44. Institutes, 4. 17. 10, 1370.

45. Ibid., 4. 17. 6, 1367.

46. Ibid., 4. 17. 2, 1361.

47. Ibid., 3. 11. 10, 737.

48. The Mystical Presence, 58.

49. Quoted in Gerrish, “John Calvin and the Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper” 88.

50. Institutes (1559), 3. 1. 1, 538.

51. Quoted in Gerrish, “John Calvin and the Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper”, 93.

52. Institutes (1559), 4.17.1, 1361.

53. Ibid., 4. 17. 3, 1363.

54. Quoted in Christopher Kaiser, “John Calvin Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” Perspectives 13(4) (1998), 10.

55. “. . . no one should think that the life that we receive from him is received by mere knowledge.” Institutes (1559), 4. 17. 5, 1365.

56. In favor of a literal understanding of Calvin, Kaiser sites the words of the Mutual Consent between the Churches of Zurich and Geneva: “Christ, then, is absent from us in respect of his body, but dwelling in us by his Spirit he raises us to heaven to himself, transfusing into us the vivifying vigor of his flesh, just as the rays of the sun invigorate us by this vital warmth.” “John Calvin Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”, 11.

57. Institutes (1559), 4. 17. 16, 1379. (Italics mine).

58. Nicholas Wolsterstorff, “Not Presence but Action: Calvin on Sacraments” Perspectives 9 (2) (1994) 21.

59. Kaiser makes this point and ties it directly to Calvin’s interactions with St. John Chrysostom. “John Calvin Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”, 12. Cf. the thought of Vatican II, “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle.” Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1.8 in Vatican Council II Volume 1: The Concilliar and Post-Concilliar Documents, Austin Flannery ed. (Northport, NY: Costello, 1996) 5.

60. Institutes (1559), 4. 17, 37, 1413.

61. New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961) 5.

One Response to “The Contemplative Shape of Calvin”

  1. 1
    Phillip Ross Says:

    I’m looking for Michael Pahls to get permission to use this essay in the Appendix of a book I’m working on: The True Mystery of The Mystical Presence, John Williamson Nevin. Do you have any contact info? I’ve scoured the net, but found nothing current.

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