Sabbatical Day Three: LTS library, worship and lunch

Three days into sabbatical and I have enjoyed the rhythms of college life at LTS, with study, fellowship over coffee, midday worship, and a sermon on Ephesians 2 by Garry Williams followed by lunch and more study.

My head hurts from trying to grasp the ungraspable theology of the communion in Reformed thinking.  Calvin says that the union of believer and Christ, by faith through participation in the sacraments, has parallels with the communion of the divine and human natures of Christ in the incarnation.  After two days of study I can see the parallel. They are both beyond the grasp of finite minds. At some point we simply admit the mystery and so bow down and worship God.  

I know I need to understand the background to our Anglican communion so that I can explain it clearly, and I am enjoying the discipline and fruits of study.  My heart is moved to wonder, awe and praise but my head just hurts.

One of the papers I have read today asks this question:

Would the average believer participating in a communion service be able to express what was happening in that moment? We cannot know, but the suspicion is that very few could. One thing is clear: a theological understanding of what happens when we break bread and drink wine as the gathered church, however superficial, has a direct impact on our practice of the Supper.

My hope by the end of these five weeks of study would be that I would be able to express what is happening in communion and be able to set out a study guide to help others, at least at Holy Trinity parish West Bromwich.

As before, here’s my notes on Wallace’s “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament” which I finished reading few minutes ago, as well as notes on papers in “Foundations” the Affinity Journal Issue 68 Spring 2015 on communion.

I’m heading off now to see Amanda’s mum for supper, that’s of the normal variety.

Sabbatical Day Three: London Theological Seminary

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, Ronald S. Wallace, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1953

Our union with Christ, one of the most important doctrines any Christian can grasp, is the aspect of the Gospel which the sacraments chiefly clarify. The word of God and sacraments assure believers of their mystical union with the Son.

The natural mind cannot easily grasp the meaning and reality of union with Christ. By the sacraments, we may come to know and understand better the nature of our union with Christ.

We see that God not only dwells among us but that He also dwells in everyone of us.

Jesus Christ through his life, death and resurrection performed all that was necessary for the salvation of mankind. It follows that the benefits of his work are not available for 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. Participation in the blessings which Christ died and rose to win for us is inseparable from communion with His person, and Calvin insists that this can be attained only through participation in the “flesh” of Christ.

This union between us and the human nature of Christ effects the completion of the reconciling act of God in uniting to Himself in Jesus a human nature…Christ takes upon himself what is ours, and transfers to us what is his own.

The true enjoyment of union with Christ belongs to true believers only. The exchange of properties between the Son of God and mankind is a covenant ratified by the sacrifice and death of Christ, but it would not avail us without the addition of that “secret communication by which by which we are made one with Christ.”

Calvin speaks of both sacraments as being signs of our incorporation in the body of Christ. Romans 6:5 speaks of believers being ingrafted into Christ. The Lord’s Supper is equally a sign of this mystical incorporation in the body of Christ.

When Calvin thinks about the nature of this union between Christ and His people as figured forth in the sacraments, he finds it indeed shown forth in the sacraments to be a mystery. He insists that it is no mere spiritual connection between Christ and ourselves, as if the relation between us and Christ was merely that of believing in Him through our own mental apprehension of what He is and what he has done for us. Calvin cannot get away from the fact that our bodies as well as our souls are involved in this union, and that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper especially testifies that the flesh of Christ, the body in which he lived and died, is also involved in the mystery. Nor can Calvin put out of his mind the fact that in the sacrament of the Supper the elements of bread and wine which represent the body and blood of Christ are not simply beheld and adored but really eaten by the participant. All this, in spite of the intellectual difficulties involved, Calvin takes to signify the setting up of a real connection of being between Christ and the communicant. P151

The nature of the union indicated by Calvin…is beyond our power to conceive. P152

How can our bodies be united to Christ’s flesh, his body, which is ascended and sits at the right hand of the Father? Mysteriously, this union is really and substantially brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit. How can such a distant reality, the resurrected body of Christ, become food for us? What our minds cannot grasp, let our faith conceive.

Our union with Christ, means we are in him and he in is us, such that both the imputation of his righteousness and the actual death of the believer to sin, takes places because, by faith, we are united to Christ, not just spiritually, but really and substantially. We each have individual bodies, defined by the boundary of our skin, and yet we are “in” Christ’s body and members of it, really and substantially, not just spiritually. We feed on him, by a work of the Holy Spirit, he feeds us with his body, really and substantially, he makes us a part of himself, yet our individual bodies are not mixed or boundaries violated, we don’t eat Christ’s body substantially. How can this work?

Calvin is often ambiguous when he speaks of our ingrafting into the body of Christ. It is unclear whether he means the body of Christ as the church or as the actual glorified body of the risen Christ. In Calvin’s thought, the admission by grace through faith and baptism into the body of Christ as church and glorified body is the same thing. Inst 4:17:8

Bk4 Ch17 Section 8. In explanation of it, it may be observed, I. There is no life at all save in Christ. II. Christ has life in a twofold sense; first, in himself; as he is God; and, secondly, by transfusing it into the flesh which he assumed, that he might thereby communicate life to us.

In what way are we raised up and seated with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6)? The union of believer with Christ’s body is eschatologically complete. The reality has been achieved but is not yet attained, because we are not yet in possession of the final reality. The sacraments are a pledge of its present yet hidden reality. The soul and body of believers are already united to the body of Christ, this union is not only a spiritual connection of the soul.

In the sacraments, Christ does what it says on the tin. He shows us his body and blood and ratifies the promises that those who are in him will never die.

Were all this not so, the whole instituting of sacraments on the part of God would be a mockery and a lie. If he gave us empty symbols, without giving us the spiritual reality which lies behind them, by antecedent promise, then his promises are false and God is a liar. Thus in the sacraments we have no bare figure but the giving of the thing itself.

We can say “I am putting John on the mantelpiece” when we put a photo of John on the mantelpiece.

Likewise, the sign differs from the thing signified, yet it not only figures the thing signified but truly exhibits it. This is what a sacrament is.

The firey pillar is not spoken of as “the cloud went before them” but “The Lord went before them”. The thing signified is truly exhibited by the sign. The dove descended on Jesus, signified the Holy Spirit, it is said “The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus.”

Yet, Calvin is concerned to allow for the complete sovereignty of God in the sacraments over human action, lest by taking the sacrament carelessly or thoughtlessly, the communicant causes God to act in a way, mechanically, contrary to his will. There is a parallel relationship between the sign and thing signified, between human action and divine grace. One is not separate form the other.

There is no natural analogy for sacramental union but it can be paralleled with the incarnation. The two natures of Christ do not become one by mixing or alloying and likewise the bodies of believers are united with Christ but not mixed with him, the boundaries of individual bodies are respected.

The efficacy of the sacraments depends entirely on God’s initiative and the work of the Holy Spirit. The wind will blow as it pleases, yet God will fulfil the promises, whilst guarding his promises against the presumption, arrogance, superstition and pride which rise in the fallen hearts of men. He always seeks to fulfil his promises but will not put himself at the disposal of those who presume upon his grace (prayer of humble access). Calvin also wishes to protect communion from the arrogance of ministers who think that they hold power in office to make God act as they will. Yet the sacrament will do what God ordains it to do, even if the minister is wicked and unconverted.

Christ’s Spirit, divine nature and human nature are mediated to us in communion. The sacraments direct our faith the whole, not a part, of Christ. We have union with his divine and human nature.

In heaven the body of Christ retains all its human properties unimpaired. The body of Christ cannot be though of as present on earth in any form or condition. The “substance” of the flesh in not something which is to be thought of as “material” substance., rather “virtue” or “fruit” or “efficacy” or “effect” of the sacrament, or the “efficacy and fruit” of the nativity, death and resurrection of Christ. There can be no physical decent of the body of Christ in any way into the elements, since it remains in heaven; nor can the body become invisibly present on earth, since visibility is a proper and inseparable quality of body.

Communion with the body of Christ is effected through the Holy Spirit, by whom our souls are lifted up to heaven, there to partake of the life transfused into us from the flesh of Christ. He assists us by the grace of his Spirit as if he stretched out his hand from heaven. He, who dwells at great distance in respect of his body, raises us up in the Spirit that his life might dwell in us, as we are united with him in one body so that the flesh, though it remain in heaven, is our food.” Christ, though absent in the body, is nevertheless not only present with us by divine energy which is everywhere diffused, but also makes His flesh give life to us.” Calvin does not expect anyone, even himself, to fully understand it.

Partaking of the flesh of Christ in the supper is thus a heavenly action, in which the flesh is eaten in a spiritual manner. The action of eating by faith involves the receiving of the life of Christ in the substance of his flesh into our souls, spiritually not by mingling of substance, yet there is a real gift substantially bestowed in communion.

The presence of the body of Christ in the Supper, though it my be called a real presence and a decent of Christ by the Spirit, is nevertheless also a celestial mode of presence. Calvin makes seeming paradoxical statements about the decent and not decent of Christ, who descends by His Spirit.

The reception of the gift

In the Lord’s Supper the body of Christ is received by faith. There is a difference between eating and believing. In participating the the Supper faith connects itself with something outside of itself and other than a mere idea, and, in doing so, effects in the spiritual realm a real communication between itself and the earthly reality such as that figured in the eating of the bread. Eating is more than believing. Eating is the fruit of faith [as eating the fruit of the Tree of Life would have been a fruit of faith had Adam had faith in the antecedent promise, or word of God, annexed to the Tree of Life – what would have happened to Adam had he eaten accidentally, without faith in the word of God, from the Tree of Life? Would God have honoured the promise of eternal life, being moved to fulfil his promise by the act of eating or would he have done nothing as Adam had no faith in the word? According to Calvin, it would be the latter.].

Though the act of eating the flesh of Christ is different from believing in him; yet we ought to know that it is impossible to feed on Christ in any other way than by faith because the eating itself is a consequence of faith. [Unless eating is by peer pressure, cultural habit or accident].

Participation in the Lord’s Supper without faith is not participation in the body of Christ. Christ cannot be disjoined from his Spirit, hence His body is not received as dead or even inactive if disjoined from the grace and power of His Spirit.

It is by eating and drinking without discerning the body, by faith, that the communicant eats and drinks judgement in himself. It is a great offence to hear of Christ, to be reminded of his death for us and his resurrection to eternal life, then to reject his grace and to eat and drink unthinkingly or ungratefully without faith. God can use the sacrament to raise awareness of the unbeliever the promises made to us in Christ and yet the promises fall on deaf ears.

The Eucharistic Sacrifice

Believers bring nothing to the table except thankfulness. There is no sacrifice on the part of the communicant, except a humble and contrite heart which is full of gratitude. Horizontally, we embrace and accept our brothers and sisters, who are also incorporated in the body of Christ. We testify to one another that we our bound to one another in Christ.

Affinity Journal No 68 Spring 2015

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its Relevance for Today

William B. Evans

Professor of Bible & Religion, Erskine College, Due West, South

Carolina, USA

Calvin in his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper sought to mediate between views that affirmed a local, physical presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements (both Roman Catholic and Lutheran) on the one hand, and largely symbolic and memorialist understandings (e.g., Zwingli and the Anabaptists) on the other. In short, he endeavoured to affirm a true presence of Christ in the sacrament but to do so in a way that was non local, respected the integrity of Christ’s ascended humanity, and recognised the centrality of the believer’s union with Christ. In other words, Calvin’s understanding of the Supper is closely connected with his Christology, eschatology, and soteriology.

On the relationship between Christ, the sacrament, the Holy Spirit and faith.

On the one hand, Christ “unites us to himself by the Spirit alone. By the grace and power of the same Spirit we are made his members, to keep us under himself and in turn to possess him”. Thus the union is “spiritual”. But Calvin also insists that “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit”, and that the faith which saves is that which engrafts one into Christ, for “it does not reconcile us to God at all unless it joins us to Christ”.

Thus far we have seen that, for Calvin, the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant promises of God, that Christ himself is the material content of these covenant promises, that the sacraments are objective offers of Christ to the believer, and that they are instruments used by God to unite his people with Christ. Now we will explore the implications of this for the Lord’s Supper.

Double grace

First, as we just noted, the humanity of Christ acts as a “channel” for the power and life which are integral to Christ’s deity. This first function relates primarily to the transforming aspects of salvation (i.e., sanctification).Second, communion with the humanity of Christ is crucial because it was particularly as a human being that Christ offered his atoning sacrifice for sin. This second function relates primarily to the forensic benefits of salvation (i.e. justification). While Calvin nowhere fully explains this, his assumption is that the forensic ebenefits inhere in Christ’s incarnate humanity.


At this point we can summarise Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper under four headings. First, the elements of bread and wine remain symbols; that is, they are not physically transformed and there is no localised presence. Second, the elements are nevertheless used by the Holy Spirit as instruments to communicate what they symbolise, and so there is a sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. Third, there is a dialectic of objectivity and subjectivity as what is objectively offered and bestowed by the Holy Spirit must be subjectively received by faith. Finally, what is received is the whole Christ, whose incarnate humanity serves as a “channel” for the power of Christ’s deity and all the benefits of salvation.

John Stevens

This paper is a biblical critique of ritualised and ceremonial celebration of the Lord’s Supper, where John Stevens argues from scripture, esp 1 Corinthians and Luke-Acts, that early church communion was regular, frequent and more akin to a family meal with the breaking of bread than the individualised devotion using tiny fragments of bread and sips of wine.





Richard Wardman

It is only as we understand the theological significance of breaking bread and drinking wine that we can begin to appreciate the importance of why the Lord Jesus gave this meal to his church.

Cranmer dispelled any notion that he held to a doctrine of the Eucharist that included either Rome’s transubstantiation or Luther’s consubstantiation. Rather than “real presence” theology, Cranmer affirmed a “spiritual presence” of the ascended Christ. As such, participants of the Lord’s Supper ought not to think of themselves as feeding carnally on the body and blood of Christ, but spiritually feeding on all the benefits of Christ’s finished work on the cross, and thus being nourished in their Christian walk.

MacCulloch stresses that Cranmer and Calvin would find themselves on common ground in a number of areas related to the Eucharist. In particular, there would be an agreement in emphasising the complementary ministry of word and sacrament. Gerrish comments that for Calvin “the indispensable component in a sacramental action is not the sign but the Word, which sign confirms and seals; and we are not to imagine that a sacrament adds to the word an efficacy of a totally different order”.

However, Cranmer would not concur with Calvin’s assertion that the sacraments could “confer” or “contain” grace. For Cranmer, it is not the elements themselves that confer grace upon the believer; rather “communion was a liturgical event which was only complete when a congregation made an experience of God’s grace effectual by its act of willing acceptance in faith”.

This rules out symbolic instrumentalism for Cranmer.

Cranmer does not speak of the sacraments conferring grace, but “prefers to speak of God, not the sacraments, working, and it is more typical for him to say that God works by his sacraments in those who rightly receive them”.

This puts Cranmer more in line with the symbolic parallelism of Bullinger.

Richardson has said that for Cranmer, “sacraments teach, while incarnation and redemption (with the corresponding faith in them) are what effects.”

The emphasis here is not on the signs themselves but on those who receive them in faith. It is faith then, and not the symbols, that brings about a real relationship between the sign and the reality, the sacrament and the grace.

This is the essence of symbolic parallelism: as the people of God exercise faith in the things signified, God works grace in them alongside the elements and action of the sacrament.

Contemporary Practice

Would the average believer participating in a communion service be able to express what was happening in that moment? We cannot know, but the suspicion is that very few could. One thing is clear: a theological understanding of what happens when we break bread and drink wine as the gathered church, however superficial, has a direct impact on our practice of the Supper.


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