Bavinck on Calvin’s View of the Lord’s Supper

Here is an extended quote from Herman Bavinck’s article on Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper. Bold is mine.

In a manner that is different and still clearer than in the gospel, Christ is presented to us in the Lord’s Supper as the only food for our souls. In the signs of bread and wine he himself is truly and essentially present; in the Lord’s Supper we properly receive Christ’s own body and his own blood. Through eating the bread and drinking of the cup, we become partakers not merely of the Spirit of Christ and his benefits obtained through his dying, but specifically of the proper flesh and blood of the crucified and now glorified Savior. With this objective view of the sacrament, Calvin stands decidedly on the side of Rome and the Lutherans. As vigorously as possible he opposes the notion that the Lord’s Supper is merely a confession of our faith or a remembrance of the Lord’s death. He can hardly find words strong enough to express his conviction concerning the real, essential, genuine presence of Christ’s own flesh and of his own blood in the Lord’s Supper. He declares explicitly that the issue between him and his Roman Catholic and Lutheran opponents involves only the manner of that presence.

What then is the difference? The opponents could conceive of no other fellowship with Christ and no other presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper than a local, sensory, material presence, the kind of presence whereby the body and blood of Christ descend from heaven and are changed into or contained within the bread and wine. This kind of presence is strenuously opposed by Calvin. This is in conflict with what Holy Scripture teaches us about the truly human nature of Christ, about his ascension and glorification at the right hand of the Father. Christ is still truly human, [a humanity that is] finite, limited, governed by space and therefore located in heaven. It is wholly false when these opponents can imagine no other fellowship with Christ’s flesh and blood than one which consists in the merging of Christ with them in the same location. But that is a kind of presence that ties Christ to and contains him within the elements of bread and wine. Such a presence robs him of his greatness and majesty and glory, one that detracts from his human nature. Flesh must remain flesh, and the human must remain human. Calvin opposes this Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrine not first of all because transubstantiation and consubstantiation are impossible, but because they detract from the genuineness and glory of Christ’s human nature.

But even though this particular manner of Christ’s presence was rejected by Calvin, he did not deny that presence itself. He gladly accepted everything that could serve to express our true and substantial fellowship with the body and blood of Christ, just as long as it was the kind of presence that did not rob Christ of his majesty. Indeed, Calvin teaches a much more genuine and much more essential presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper than the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans. But the latter appeared unable and unwilling to grasp the nature and the manner of the presence of Christ that Calvin was teaching. And that lay in the differing meaning people attached to the word spiritual.

When Calvin opposes the physical, local presence and over against that teaches that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper in a spiritual manner (spiritualiter), then his opponents understood him to be teaching merely a non-essential, deceptive, imaginary presence, a presence within the mind, in the imagination, in the remembrance. Calvin himself had complained of that misunderstanding already in his struggle against Westphal and Heshusius. Westphal could not distinguish between an imaginary (imaginarium spectrum) and a spiritual fellowship with Christ; and his comrades in faith suffer the same limitation to this day. For Westphal, fellowship with Christ consisted in the fact that Christ’s flesh entered his mouth and stomach. Nevertheless, the term spiritual stands in contrast not with genuine and essential, but over against physical and material.

The spiritual presence that Calvin taught is much more of an essential presence than the physical presence of the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, which by itself is wholly unprofitable. And that presence does not exist merely in the imagination or in the mind, but in the Lord’s Supper we become partakers of the proper flesh and blood of Christ in reality and in truth.

Contempt of the Sacraments


Yesterday I posted a quote from Pierre Marcel where he explained that the Word is absolutely necessary for salvation whereas the sacraments are not. Does that make the sacraments a waste of time, a “get to it if you can” means of grace? Marcel says no. These paragraphs come right after the quotes from yesterday. All italics are his all bold is mine.

According to the Reformed view of a sacrament, sacraments are not necessary for salvation. The necessity of means is in general an absolute necessity, a condition sine qua non. In this sense, food is a vital necessity for the body, light is necessary for the use of sight, the Word for the exercise of faith. In our opinion, the sacraments possess a necessity of precept. It is a duty to make use of them, but they are not means necessary for salvation.One can be saved without them. The benefits which they signify, and of which they are the organs of signification  for sealing and applying them to believers, do not depend on their use in such a way that these benefits cannot be received apart from them.

Christ, however, has ordered His disciples to baptize all those who are received as members of His Church, and the He has required that His disciples should regularly commemorate His death by the celebration of the Lord’s supper; thus His people find themselves under a compelling moral obligation to obey these commandments of His. But it may happen that the exercise of this duty is counteracted by external circumstances…which hinder the obedience even of those who are disposed and desire to practice their Savior’s injunction. Even where obedience is not opposed by external circumstances the observance of these commands may be neglected through ignorance or through scruples of conscience which are unjustifiable. We believe that if such people possess faith through the Word alone their salvation is in no way compromised.

It is not the privation but the contempt of the sacraments which renders us culpable before God. Let us not forget that we are not spirits, but sensible and earthly creatures who cannot understand spiritual things otherwise than by sensible forms; not that God has instituted the sacraments in order that, by gazing upon signs, we might acquire a better notion of His benefits and be more firmly assured of His promises, and thus sustained and strengthened in our faith. No one can neglect the use of the sacraments deliberately  without exposing himself to grave spiritual consequences.The believer has no right to rely upon the operation of grace apart from the conditions upon which the promise of help is made, and these conditions are: the hearing of the Word and the participation  of the sacraments. It is for this reason that the faithful Christian, even at the cost of the greatest sacrifices, will go to hear the Word preached and will partake of the Lord’s Supper. In dispensing with these, excuses valid before God will alone be admissible.

To summarize: The Word is absolutely necessary for our salvation. The sacraments, while not necessary in the absolute sense, are a necessary part of obedience to Christ. We can be saved apart from the sacraments. We can either not have access to them or our conscience can be misinformed about their importance. Neither of these reasons would qualify as contempt. But the willful, deliberate, neglect and contempt of the sacraments will lead to the damnation of our souls.  We cannot expect the promise of grace to be given apart from the means of grace.

Word is Necessary, Sacraments are Not


Pierre Marcel in his excellent book Infant Baptism, takes several pages to discuss the similarities and differences between the Word and the sacraments. He clearly explains how the Word and the sacraments are the same and how they are different. Here are some good paragraphs explaining the priority of the Word over the sacraments. All italics are Marcel’s.

The Word is indispensable to salvation, but the sacraments are not. The sacraments, in fact, are subordinated to the Word; they are signs of the content of the Word and are joined to it. The Word, therefore, is definitely something apart from the sacraments, but the sacraments apart from the Word are nothing: apart from it they have neither value nor power. The sacraments are nothing less than, but nothing more than, a visible Word. All the benefits of redemption come to us from the Word and only through faith, but there is not a single benefit which can be received through the sacraments alone, apart from the Word and without faith.

It is for this reason that the preaching of the Word should precede the administration of the sacraments in order to teach us and bring to our knowledge the significance of the visible sign. The words which are call “sacramental” are nothing other than a summary preaching of the promise of the Gospel, which ought to be proclaimed by the minister with force and clarity so that believers may be brought to the end for which the sign was prescribed.

The Word is thus indispensable for salvation, whereas the sacraments are not.

Naturally the next question is: If that is the case then why should we administer the sacraments? Do they become unnecessary if they are not absolutely necessary to our salvation? I will post Marcel’s answer to that question tomorrow.

Calvin, Baptism, and Election

Here is quote by Calvin, which lays out nicely his view of the sacraments. In this section he is refuting Pighius, a Roman Catholic theologian.  I am quoting from Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. I have added paragraph breaks. Brackets and bold are mine. Everything else was in the book.

Paul represents (Romans 2:29) circumcision as of letter and spirit. We must think similarly of baptism. Some carry in their bodies the mere sign, but are far from possessing the reality. For Peter also, teaching that salvation follows our baptism, immediately adds as though in correction that the mere external washing of the flesh is not enough unless there is added also the answer of a good conscience (I Peter 3:21).

Thus Scripture, in dealing with the sacraments, customarily speaks  of them in a twofold sense. When dealing with hypocrites who glory in the sign and neglect the reality, in order to prostrate [throw down] their confidence, it separates the reality from the signs, in contrast to their perverse understanding. Thus Paul (I Cor 10:3-13) reminds his readers that it did not profit the ancient people to have been baptized in their passage through the Red Sea and to have with us the same spiritual food in the desert (meaning, that is, that they participated with us in the same external signs of the spiritual gifts).

But addressing the faithful he describes the use of the sacraments as legitimate, efficacious and corresponding to the divine institution. It is here that phrases apply: to have put on Christ, engrafted into His body, buried together with him, who have been baptized in His name (Rom. 6:4, Col 2:12, Gal. 3:27, I Cor. 12:27). From [these passages] Pighius concludes that all sprinkled with the visible element of water are truly regenerated by the Spirit and incorporated into the body of Christ so as to live to God and in His righteousness...

But a little later, as if drawing in his wings, Pighius remarks that many fall away from Christ who had been truly engrafted into His body; for he makes out  that those committed to Christ and received into His faithful care are saved by Him in such a way that their salvation is dependent on their own free will. To many, he says, the protecting grace of Christ is not wanting, but they are wanting in themselves. Certainly the stupidity and ingratitude of those who withdraw themselves from the help of God can never be sufficiently condemned. But it is a quite intolerable insult to Christ to say that the elect are saved by Him, provided they look after themselves. This is to render doubtful the protection of Christ which He affirms is invincible against the devil and all the machinations of hell. Christ promised to give eternal life to all give Him by the Father (John 17:2). He testifies that He is a faithful custodian of them all, so that none perishes except the son of perdition (John 17:12)…

If eternal life is certain to all the elect, if  no one can pluck them from Him, if no violence nor any assault can tear them from Him, if their salvation stands in the invincible power of God, what impudence for Pighius to shake so fixed a certitude. Though Christ casts none out, he says, yet many depart from Him, and those who once were children of God do not continue so. But Pighius is a bad and perverse interpreter, not acknowledging  that whatever is given him by the Father is retained in the hand of Christ, so that it remains safe to the end; for those that fall away, John declares to be not of His flock.

This lengthy quote is worth reading carefully for several reasons. It shows that certain lines from Calvin, such as “yet many depart from Him, and those who once were children of God do not continue so” can be interpreted out of context to mean something they do not mean. This line, by itself, sounds like Calvin believes true Christians can fall away. However, throughout the passage and the book he draws a clear line between the elect and the non-elect while still agreeing that many things are found alike in the reprobate and the children of God. But, however they shine in appearance of righteousness, it is certain they are not possessed of the Spirit of adoption, so that their owners may truly invoke God as Father.” (This quote is two pages after the one above.) While there are some similarities with the elect, those who fall away are never part of the elect in the fullest sense. They are not adopted and God is not their Father. 

This passage also shows that the relationship between election and the sacraments has long been an issue. Pighius argued that the elect were saved at baptism, but the rest was left up to them. They were “regenerated by the Spirit.” They have been truly grafted into Christ’s body, but they must keep themselves there. Calvin says God gives all to his elect, including the promise that Christ is the “faithful custodian of them.” Those given to Christ by the Father are kept by Christ unto the end. There are none lost (John 6:39). 

Calvin gives the classic understanding of how the sacraments are to be understood. There is the sign (baptism/communion/the Word) and there is the reality, Jesus Christ received by faith. Hypocrites need to have the two distinguished so they do not glory in the sign while not having the reality. The faithful need to have the two wedded together so they do not despair, but know that Jesus really feeds them through these signs.

Finally, he makes clear that Christ’s power and glory are at stake in any debate about election. Predestination debates are not primarily about man’s free will, but about the power of Christ to save and redeem. When we say man can and does slip from Christ’s grasp the primary problem is not that we grant man a completely free will, but that we deny the efficacy of Christ’s work.

Baptism Not Based on Faith

Every attempt to base baptism on one of the consequences or fruits of the [covenant] promise (knowledge of salvation, personal faith, change of heart, etc.) is bound to fail; it is entangled in insurmountable difficulties and insoluble contradictions, and-a fact decisive in our judgment-it does not take into account the united testimony of the Biblical data which relate or are relevant to baptism as a sacrament of the covenant of grace. Pierre Marcel