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