Home > Lord's Supper, Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Communion, the Eucharist: Doctrine and Practice > Refuting the Claim that Calvinism and Lutheranism Differ Only Over the Mode of How Christ is Present in the Lord’s Supper

Refuting the Claim that Calvinism and Lutheranism Differ Only Over the Mode of How Christ is Present in the Lord’s Supper

November 13th, 2009
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Sacrament-altar1It is very common for Calvinists and those who follow in his general school of thought, such as Baptists, that they do not reject the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, but it is all really a matter of disagreeing how Jesus is present. Often I have watched Baptist bloggers and others swat down any conversation about the Real Presence by saying, “We are not going to get into an argument about how Jesus is present, we’ll just agree that he is in some way that none of us can adequately describe.” That rings with just enough of the truth as to mislead a great many people.

In fact, Calvinism clearly rejects that there is a real, actual presence of Christ under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Let this much be clear. Hermann Sasse put matters well when he wrote, many years ago:

For Calvin, the body of Christ as a truly human body exists in finite form and must, therefore, after the exaltation, be as far removed from us as heaven is from earth. The Lord’s body thus cannot simultaneously be present in heaven and on earth, and in multiple locations on earth. Calvin is not in a position to substantiate these assertions from the Bible, for he did not derive them from the Bible. These are metaphysical statements and ideological presuppositions that he uses to explain the Supper texts. No sign testifies with such infallible certainty the death throes of a congregation, or a whole church, as the decline and decay of the celebration of the Eucharist. This is, however, the deadly serious situation in which a very large segment of these Protestant churches of the world finds itself. This refusal on Calvin’s part to concede the presence of the body and blood of Christ under the bread and wine made clear to the Lutherans that the point at issue was not a mere question de modo praesentiae, [the mode of the Lord's presence] involving just “the how” of the presence. Against this understanding of the dispute, they always objected that this method would permit any theological controversy to be dismissed as a tempest in a teapot. Even Arius and Athanasius were agreed that “God was in Christ” and that “in Him the whole fullness of Godhead dwells bodily.” They only disagreed de modo praesentiae, that is, on the question of how the whole fullness of Godhead might be in Christ.

Now, here’s a thought, one that will be the subject of a blog post in the future. If we, as Lutherans, do confess that our Lord Christ is present under the bread and wine in His Supper, how does that give shape, form and definition to our celebration of the Supper? Will we look, to outside observers, not very dissimilar from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who confess the actual presence of Christ under the Eucharistic host? And what does it mean about our confession of the Supper, when we do not? But, can we, in zeal to affirm these realities, take matters too far? Yes, we can. Some do.

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  1. Guillaume
    November 13th, 2009 at 08:33 | #1

    It would help if had some actual Calvin quotes. But even that probably won’t help as the Reformed are about as mushy about doctrine as Free-masons are about what any of their stuff means also.

  2. Guillaume
    November 13th, 2009 at 08:42 | #2

    Wait, here are some.

    But though it seems an incredible thing that the flesh of Christ, while at such a distance from us in respect of place, should be food to us, let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive–viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.

    And, first, we are not to dream of such a presence of Christ in the sacrament as the artificers of the Romish court have imagined, as if the body of Christ, locally present,. . .

    As we cannot at all doubt that it is bounded according to the invariable rule in the human body, and is contained in heaven, where it was once received, and will remain till it return to judgment, so we deem it altogether unlawful to bring it back under these corruptible elements, or to imagine it everywhere present. And, indeed, there is no need of this, in order to our partaking of it, since the Lord by his Spirit bestows upon us the blessing of being one with him in soul, body, and spirit. The bond of that connection, therefore, is the Spirit of Christ, who unites us to him, and is a kind of channel by which everything that Christ has and is, is derived to us.
    The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin, John (1509-1564)
    Beveridge, Henry (Translator),
    book 4, ch. 17, part 10
    Ibid, part 12
    Ibid, part 12

  3. Dave Dehnke
    November 13th, 2009 at 09:26 | #3

    You have to wonder if Calvinist schools mark a student as present if he’s only there in spirit.

  4. November 13th, 2009 at 09:47 | #4

    “Hence the bread is Christ’s body, because it assuredly testifies, that the body which it represents is held forth to us, or because the Lord, by holding out to us that symbol, gives us at the same time his own body; for Christ is not a deceiver, to mock us with empty representations. — (To think that he would feed us with shadows and empty representations.) Hence it is regarded by me as beyond all controversy, that the reality is here conjoined with the sign; or, in other words, that we do not less truly become participants in Christ’s body in respect of spiritual efficacy, than we partake of the bread….

    But that participation in the body of Christ, which, I affirm, is presented to us in the Supper, does not require a local presence, nor the descent of Christ, nor an infinite extension of his body, nor anything of that nature, for the Supper being a heavenly action, there is no absurdity in saying, that Christ, while remaining in heaven, is received by us. For as to his communicating himself to us, that is effected through the secret virtue of his Holy Spirit, which can not merely bring together, but join in one, things that are separated by distance of place, and far remote.”

    -John Calvin on 1 Corinthians 11:26

    In a conservative Presbyterian church, when asked for ordination, how Christ was present, I heard this answer given and accepted: “We partake of Christ, in both natures, by means of the Spirit.” For Calvin, the human nature was not absent in partaking, but the Spirit is employed to explain how we can partake of Christ’s body when it is not on earth. “Spiritual” in the “spiritual presence” is not the absence of the human nature of Christ, but the means (by the agency of the Holy Spirit) by which we partake of the body of Christ.

    McCain: Those are very fine words and would that John Calvin had stuck with them, however, we know that he forcefully advocated the views he put forward in the document he wrote called “The Consensus Tigurinus” in which he asserts that the body of Christ is far from the bread as heaven is from earth, and that it is an impious superstition to believe Christ’s body is actually and truly present under the bread. See: http://www.bookofconcord.org/consenus-tigurinus.php

  5. November 13th, 2009 at 12:44 | #5

    For as to his communicating himself to us, that is effected through the secret virtue of his Holy Spirit

    The line quoted could only apply to a believer. Hence, Calvinists and Lutherans also disagree about whether an unbeliever would receive the body of Christ and, in so doing, bring judgment upon himself.

  6. November 13th, 2009 at 13:21 | #6

    Thanks Rev McCain, for treating this fairly. You seem to have a better grasp on the Reformed position than many Reformed people do :) I think too often Calvin’s doctrine is over-simplified. I think the Reformed tradition can be rightly criticized for drifting Zwinglian, which ought to be resisted.

    But for some of the other commentors, I would suggest 2 clarifications:

    1. As Calvin would understand it, Calvin argued against a local, static presence because the Mass is not a magical act of the priest, rather the deliverance of the Spirit. By an act, the elements do not magically change. But by the Spirit, the believer and Christ are mystically united. This is not a spiritual versus physical presence, but a physical and spiritual presence by means of the Spirit or by means of incantation.

    2. I would also add to clarify, Calvinists equate Christ’s body and blood with salvation, thus the choice is between receiving Christ or receiving judgment, rather than Christ’s body somehow being both salvation and judgment.

  7. Bethany Kilcrease
    November 13th, 2009 at 14:02 | #7

    “You have to wonder if Calvinist schools mark a student as present if he’s only there in spirit.”

    No, having attended Calvin College I can assure you that you have to be there in body as well. ;)

  8. Phil
    November 13th, 2009 at 16:20 | #8


    Magical is an imprecise word. What does “magical” mean?@Jared Nelson

  9. Mark Veenman
    November 13th, 2009 at 20:03 | #9

    On a Sunday in early 2009, a visiting, retired seminary pastor preached in a (continental, ie Dutch) reformed church a sermon on the Lord’s Supper. In answering the question “how is Christ present” he answered “God descends in the supper and we eat Him. With the mouth of faith”.

    McCain response: I strongly suspect that if you were to ask the same professor what the pastor brings from the altar and holds in his hand and puts into the mouth of each communicant: he would not say, “The true body of Jesus Christ.”

  10. Mark Veenman
    November 14th, 2009 at 06:18 | #10

    You’re right. He would not have said said that after bringing the consecrated elements from the altar. And seated around the Lord’s Supper table he wouldn’t have put Christ’s body and blood in my mouth for me because he does not consider my hands as ceremonially unclean.

  11. November 14th, 2009 at 12:15 | #11

    I have heard that the practice of placing the host in the recipient’s mouth arose to prevent people from taking it home for adoration or use as a talisman. We certainly do not consider the hands of the communicant to be ceremonially unclean. Today, many Lutheran pastors place the host in the communicants hands and have them grasp the chalice to control how much wine they receive.

  12. Mark Veenman
    November 14th, 2009 at 16:08 | #12

    Still, in claiming that “God descends and we eat him” he opposed even Peter Martyr who claimed that we “ascend spiritually in faith to the throne of God”. By stating “God descends” he made the Lord’s Supper much more objective than any reformed pastor I’ve ever heard. The following Sunday a pastor preached again on the Supper stressing that “the nature of a sign is always to point away from itself” namely that we should, at the supper, focus on the past sacrifice and the glorified Christ in heaven. Yet another pastor endorsed Peter Martyr’s view: we ascend spiritually at the table to partake of Christ’s flesh and blood “which is in heaven”. Chaos in reformed eucharistic theology? Yes. Absolutely. Is there clarity in the Book of Concord? Yes. No Lutheran pastor I’ve heard has EVER screwed this up.

  13. Phil
    November 14th, 2009 at 16:33 | #13

    Pr. McCain,

    I apologize for the somewhat off-topic but hopefully tangentially related question. I believe you noted earlier on this blog that the Lutheran Confessions have elevated Luther’s doctrine of the Sacrament to confessional status (I believe, on the basis of FC SD VII.41 and 91). In terms of his writings, does this apply to everything he ever wrote on the Sacrament, or is there some development in Luther’s doctrine, the writings before which would not be elevated to confessional status?

    “…Against the Heavenly Prophets, That These Words, “This Is My Body,” Still Stand Firm; likewise in his Large and his Small Confession concerning the Holy Supper [published some years afterwards], and in other of his writings…”

    And I can say for myself that reading these writings has helped clear up my understanding of what Luther taught contra the Sacramentarian positions, including some of the points Jared mentions above.

  14. Stephen
    November 14th, 2009 at 20:23 | #14

    Calvin was off, to say the least, about his view of the “Real Presence.” Yet, I hesitate to place him in the same camp as the Baptists, who cannot even call the Supper a Sacrament, but rather an ordinance – i.e. we do this because Jesus told us to. There are many “Calvinistic” churches (like the Reformed Episcopal Church) where there is a sacramental piety that is quite strong. Ask anyone in the pew what’s going on during the liturgy of the sacrament and they’ll tell you, “Well, that’s the body and blood of Jesus.” Yet, the confessional language is totally inaccurate from Calvin and it needs to be pointed out.

    I would also add that Calvinists do not have “mushy” theology, so to speak. That’s more of an Anglican feature. My experience with them is that they have very precise theology, but it leans far too heavily on reason (logic) or scholasticism, or some related notion, so that the words of Jesus do not mean what they say on their face. This is their problem with gratias universalis. The WORLD in John 3:16 does not really mean the world. God wishing that none should perish means that he does not wish that any of the ELECT would perish. This is not mushy, it is definite, and they are meticulously consistent with themselves about this. What I mean to say is that their view of the “ordo salutis” is so inflexible, they will even compromise the words of our Lord, himself. (I suppose that is tantamount to mushiness to some, but I view it as entrenched in a precise, yet flawed system that is incontrovertible in their minds. Mushy, to me, means noncommittal, driven to and fro, cannot be pinned down- not characteristics of the Calvinists I know. They are consistently wrong, but not mushy).

    The Baptists are too eager to ignore precise doctrine in favor of some ideal that we all believe in Jesus so there is nothing to fight about. That is why they have such imprecise theology and worship practices. Baptists lose all sacramental language and do not even try to see a Real Presence. They deny the Words of Institution and Jesus’ words in John 6. The Calvinists misinterpret them to be sure. But I am more sympathetic to them than to a Baptist. Plus, generally speaking, Baptists are Arminian and semi-Pelagian. Calvinists are neither of those. I am not a crypto Calvinist, so do not misunderstand — paleeeze! I just do not think that Calvinists should be painted with the same brush as Baptists. There are enough substantive differences that are worth noting. I am a Lutheran for a reason. I left behind both Baptist AND Calvinist theology to become so.

    I know all this is much more complex. After all, books could be written on such a subject and I’m only trying to write a little comment here.

  15. Bruce G
    November 18th, 2009 at 12:47 | #15

    Stephen, I concur. I have never found true Calvinists to be mushy at all, and in fact generally are better catechized by far than Lutherans (I know; I married a Cal gal). You are right that they put a very high emphasis on human reason in its purest form, and subject scripture to it rigorously. Don’t go into a debate with a Calvinist expecting a Baptist. I think the most they have in common, to oversimplify, is their devotion to the word “duty”. But I may be unkind there.

  16. Stephen
    November 20th, 2009 at 21:39 | #16

    As much as I love all the Confessional Lutheran theologians and pastors I know, there are some fundamental misunderstandings they carry regarding the Reformed. They tend to call people “Reformed” who are not, and they tend to forget the Calvinist/Arminian dichotomy which is very pronounced. Arminians are NOT Calvinists and Calvinists are not semi-Pelagians, which many Arminians are. Some clearer distinctions need to be made there. In some ways we have more in common with the Calvinists than Lutherans like to think. Yet, we also have significant and valid critiques.

    McCain reply; You are correct that we Lutherans often lump all heirs of Zwingli and Calvin together, in ways that are not helpful; however, in this discussion about the Lord’s Supper, though there are differences in how such Christians articulate the Lord’s Supper, in the end, as the Consensus Tigurinus decisively proves, they all do reject the Real Presence. Zwinglian type Reformed Christians are more crass about it than Calvinist types.

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