Calvin and Luther: Is Jesus REALLY Present in the Supper?

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Is Christ’s body objectively present in the sacrament, according to John Calvin? Unfortunately, that depends on what you mean by “objective,” which is a slippery and ambiguous word with no exact equivalent in the 16th-century discussion. (The word did not begin to acquire its current range of meanings until the writings of Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century.) Still, we can always try defining our terms explicitly. And if we do that, we can identify one important sense of the phrase “objectively present,” in which Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views but not in Calvin’s.

calvin_zps4131ab0cFor suppose we define “objectively present” as meaning “present independent of anyone’s state of mind,” where “state of mind” includes things like belief. Then Christ’s body is not objectively present in the sacrament in Calvin’s view but is objectively present in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views. Let me illustrate. I may believe there is no bread present in the house, but be mistaken: my wife has bought bread and put it in the breadbox where it is objectively present despite my belief to the contrary. Likewise, I can even have bread objectively present in my mouth without believing it: suppose for instance I inattentively pop a piece of bread in my mouth thinking it’s a bit of rice cake. The bread is present in my mouth even though I don’t believe it. In precisely this sense, according to both Lutheran and Roman Catholic views, Christ’s body is objectively present in the mouth of all who partake in the sacrament, whether they believe it or not.

This is a form of Eucharistic presence that Calvin explicitly and repeatedly denies, and he quite astutely identifies it as the key point on which he differs from the Lutherans. The point even has a technical name: manducatio indignorum, or the eating of the unworthy. In the Lutheran view, even unbelievers and anyone else who unworthily partake of the supper have not only bread but Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Calvin insists, on the contrary, that we do not partake of Christ’s body without faith.

In what sense, then, can a Calvinist say that Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament? I would suggest that according to Calvin’s view Christ’s body can rightly be said to be “objectively presented” to us. This seems to me a good description of the intention of Calvin’s characteristic language of Christ’s body being truly offered, exhibited, presented and even given to us.

Since that last verb can be misleading, let me clarify: when Calvin says the body of Christ is given to unbelievers in the supper, he means it is offered but not received, like a gift given but refused. People who partake of the sacrament without faith of course do not refuse the bread—they take it right into their mouths—but they do refuse Christ and his body. And their refusal is effective. Again, the Lutherans affirm the contrary: precisely in putting the bread in their mouths, all who partake of the sacrament put Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Roman Catholics agree, except that they teach that the Eucharistic host is wholly Christ’s body under the appearance of bread. Those who partake of the sacrament, worthily or not, have no bread in their mouths at all, but only Christ’s body.

Calvin’s view that Christ’s body is objectively presented rather than objectively present–—as he would say, “truly presented to us” but not “enclosed in the bread” or “chewed with the teeth”—gives his teaching a distinctive place on the spectrum of Eucharistic doctrine. This is distinct not only from the Lutheran and Calvinist views but also from the low Protestant view usually attributed (I do not know how fairly) to Zwingli. In this low Protestant view the supper is merely a memorial, which means that the only link to Christ’s body is our state of mind, our faith. On the contrary, when Calvin insists that Christ’s body is truly presented, offered, and given to us, he is talking not about our state of mind but about the action of God, and perhaps the most important thing to pay attention to is the adverb truly, for what is at stake here is the truth of God’s word. Does God do as he says when he offers us Christ’s body? Calvin’s answer is an emphatic yes.

With this in view, we can see why Calvinist theologians insist on the objectivity of the sacrament. And we could explain the fact that the unworthy do not partake of Christ’s body using this terminology: the offer is objectively made—quite independent of whether we believe it—but subjectively refused. As Calvin puts it, in one of his most helpful discussions of the manducatio indignorum, “it is one thing to be offered, another to be received” (Institutes 4:17.33). What is not objective is whether we actually partake of Christ’s body, for that requires precisely our subjective appropriation of the truth of God’s word, which is to say, our faith.

All this can be explained without using the technical terminology of signum and res (sign and thing signified) which goes back to Augustine. But if we turn to that terminology, I think we will see the fundamental conceptual difference at stake here. There are a number of key conceptual points, going back to Augustine, on which all parties to this dispute agree. Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic all think of the sacrament as a sign that signifies spiritual gifts. What is more—and this is not often noticed—all agree that certain kinds of unworthiness, especially unbelief, separate the sign from the thing it signifies, so that the unworthy receive the signum or sacramentum but not the res. So for instance all agree that those who receive the sacrament in unbelief receive an outward sign but not the inner grace it signifies.

Given these agreements, the crucial question is whether Christ’s body is signum or res, the sacramental sign or thing it signifies. Calvin’s answer is clearly the latter. To see this, those of us who read Calvin in English need to be reminded that when he says Christ’s body is the “substance” or “matter” of the sacrament, which he does quite often, the Latin term he uses is res. Thus, in the shared Augustinian vocabulary of 16th-century theology, he identifies Christ’s body as belonging to the res sacramenti, the thing signified by the sacrament. That means it is precisely the sort of thing that is not received by unbelievers.

It can be properly be said of unbelievers that they receive a mere empty sign—which for Calvin means, the bread of the supper without the body of Christ that it signifies. Or to put it in medieval terms, those who partake of the sacrament without faith receive “the sacrament alone” (sacramentum tantum, which means sacramentum without res). This is just another way of saying “the sign alone,” since by medieval definition the sacrament is always a sign, so that sacramentum and res are related precisely as signum and res. And the key point is that those who partake of the sacrament unworthily do partake of the sign, quite independently of what they believe, because to partake of this sacrament is to precisely to take the sacramental sign into your mouth.

The difference between Martin Luther and Calvin on this point is that Luther thinks of the body of Christ as the sacramental sign, not just the thing signified (see for instance his Babylonian Captivity, in Luther’s Works 36:44). Thus in Luther’s reckoning when unbelievers receive the sacrament but not the thing it signifies, this means that they receive no grace or spiritual benefit in the sacrament, but they do receive Christ’s body. For unbelief separates signum from res, but it cannot prevent the sacrament from being the sign that it is. So long as the sacrament is present, the sign is present, which includes Christ’s body. Thus even in receiving a “mere sign” the unworthy eat Christ’s body, whether they believe it or not. They are partaking of the body to their own harm. (There is no paradox in this, for Christ’s bodily presence has always been an occasion not just of blessing and grace but of scandal and unbelief. It was, after all, quite possible to receive Christ’s body and nail it to a tree.)

When Luther thinks of the body of Christ as both sign and thing signified, he is following a standard medieval view. Peter Lombard, followed by many other medieval theologians, not only distinguished sacramentum and res, but added a third, hybrid category, sacramentum et res (“sacrament and thing”), to which Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist belonged. Calvin rejects this threefold classification in Institutes 4:17.33 (the same passage cited above rejecting the manducatio indignorum) and specifically denies that Christ’s body can be classified as sacramentum. He clearly recognizes the implication: if Christ’s body is sacramentum as well as res, sign as well as thing signified, then every valid sacrament will contain not only bread but Christ’s body, present in the outward sign whether you believe it or not. And that is precisely what he means to deny.

[Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 31 October 2006]

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books on St Augustine, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, Inner Grace, and Outward Signs, as well as Good News for Anxious Christians.

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10 Responses to Calvin and Luther: Is Jesus REALLY Present in the Supper?

  1. mkenny114 says:

    Very interesting (and informative) post. I wonder, based on Calvin’s views as outlined here, in what way he would then interpret Saint Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that to partake of the cup unworthily brings judgement upon the communicant? Luther saw those partaking without faith as doing so to their own harm, because of the presence of Christ’s Body regardless of subjective belief; but if, for Calvin, reception of Christ depends upon that belief, can the unbelieving communicant be said to incur judgement (either at all, or in the same way)?

    Also, Calvin’s views seem very similar to those expressed by Richard Hooker in Book V.53 (particularly section 6 therein) of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Do you know how much of an influence Calvin might have been on Hooker, or whether they developed similar views independently of one another?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Michael. I’m afraid I no longer own Calvin’s NT commentaries, so cannot take a look at how he exegeted 1 Cor 11:27.

      The question about Calvin’s influence on Hooker is quite interesting. I do not know how much of Calvin Hooker had read, but as you note there certainly are similarities between the respective views on the Supper, as well on justification.

      Hopefully others who are acquainted with Calvin and/or Hooker can chime in here.

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      • mkenny114 says:

        Thank you for the reply Fr. Kimel,

        It is an interesting question re Hooker, not least because of the divergent claims of Anglicans with respect to the influence (or not) of Calvin and Calvinism on ‘classical’ Anglicanism, but also as Hooker is quite a difficult person to pin down in general.

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  2. John says:

    In regard to Hooker and ‘classical’ Anglicanism, this essay by J. B. Mozley may be of some interest.

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Thanks John,

      The article isn’t quite what I was looking for, as it seems to just give a summary and explanation of Anglican positions on the Eucharist rather than compare any of them (Hooker’s included) to that of Calvin and show what influence he did or didn’t have therein (it mainly seems to be a description of why various Catholic doctrines are not accepted). Nevertheless, it is certainly an interesting article – thank you.

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  3. David Gray says:

    Here is Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27:

    27.Therefore he who shall eat this bread unworthily. If the Lord requires gratitude from us in the receiving of this sacrament — if he would have us acknowledge his grace with the heart, and publish it with the mouth — that man will not go unpunished, who has put insult upon him rather than honor; for the Lord will not allow his commandment to be despised. Now, if we would catch the meaning of this declaration, we must know what it is to eat unworthily Some restrict it to the Corinthians, and the abuse that had crept in among them, but I am of opinion that Paul here, according to his usual manner, passed on from the particular case to a general statement, or from one instance to an entire class. There was one fault that prevailed among the Corinthians. He takes occasion from this to speak of every kind of faulty administration or reception of the Supper. “God, ” says he, “will not allow this sacrament to be profaned without punishing it severely.”

    To eat unworthily, then, is to pervert the pure and right use of it by our abuse of it. Hence there are various degrees of this unworthiness, so to speak; and some offend more grievously, others less so. Some fornicator, perhaps, or perjurer, or drunkard, or cheat, (1Co_5:11,) intrudes himself without repentance. As such downright contempt is a token of wanton insult against Christ, there can be no doubt that such a person, whoever he is, receives the Supper to his own destruction. Another, perhaps, will come forward, who is not addicted to any open or flagrant vice, but at the same time not so prepared in heart as became him. As this carelessness or negligence is a sign of irreverence, it is also deserving of punishment from God. As, then, there are various degrees of unworthy participation, so the Lord punishes some more slightly; on others he inflicts severer punishment.

    Now this passage gave rise to a question, which some afterwards agitated with too much keenness — whether the unworthy really partake of the Lord’s body? For some were led, by the heat of controversy, so far as to say, that it was received indiscriminately by the good and the bad; and many at this day maintain pertinaciously, and most clamorously, that in the first Supper Peter received no more than Judas. It is, indeed, with reluctance, that I dispute keenly with any one on this point, which is (in my opinion) not an essential one; but as others allow themselves, without reason, to pronounce, with a magisterial air, whatever may seem good to them, and to launch out thunderbolts upon every one that mutters anything to the contrary, we will be excused, if we calmly adduce reasons in support of what we reckon to be true.

    I hold it, then, as a settled point, and will not allow myself to be driven from it, that Christ cannot be disjoined from his Spirit. Hence I maintain, that his body is not received as dead, or even inactive, disjoined from the grace and power of his Spirit. I shall not occupy much time in proving this statement. Now in what way could the man who is altogether destitute of a living faith and repentance, having nothing of the Spirit of Christ, (699) receive Christ himself? Nay more, as he is entirely under the influence of Satan and sin, how will he be capable of receiving Christ? While, therefore, I acknowledge that there are some who receive Christ truly in the Supper, and yet at the same time unworthily, as is the case with many weak persons, yet I do not admit, that those who bring with them a mere historical faith, (700) without a lively feeling of repentance and faith, receive anything but the sign. For I cannot endure to maim Christ, (701) and I shudder at the absurdity of affirming that he gives himself to be eaten by the wicked in a lifeless state, as it were. Nor does Augustine mean anything else when he says, that the wicked receive Christ merely in the sacrament, which he expresses more clearly elsewhere, when he says that the other Apostles atethe bread — the Lord; but Judas only the bread of the Lord (702)

    But here it is objected, that the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the worthiness of men, and that nothing is taken away from the promises of God, or falls to the ground, through the wickedness of men. This I acknowledge, and accordingly I add in express terms, that Christ’s body is presented to the wicked no less than to the good, and this is enough so far as concerns the efficacy of the sacrament and the faithfulness of God. For God does not there represent in a delusive manner, to the wicked, the body of his Son, but presents it in reality; nor is the bread a bare sign to them, but a faithful pledge. As to their rejection of it, that does not impair or alter anything as to the nature of the sacrament.

    It remains, that we give a reply to the statement of Paul in this passage. “Paul represents the unworthy as guilty, inasmuch as they do not discern the Lord’s body: it follows, that they receive his body.” I deny the inference; for though they reject it, yet as they profane it and treat it with dishonor when it is presented to them, they are deservedly held guilty; for they do, as it were, cast it upon the ground, and trample it under their feet. Is such sacrilege trivial? Thus I see no difficulty in Paul’s words, provided you keep in view what God presents and holds out to the wicked — not what they receive.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I had to chuckle when I read “as others allow themselves, without reason, to pronounce, with a magisterial air, whatever may seem good to them, and to launch out thunderbolts upon every one that mutters anything to the contrary”—Calvin has to be referring to Luther here.

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Very interesting – thanks for posting this!

      I took two things away from what Calvin writes here – firstly, that the punishment incurred by those who receive Communion unworthily is something imposed by God separately from the act of reception, as opposed to the punishment being involved in the unworthy reception or flowing naturally from it. Secondly, that Calvin seems to shy away from the idea that Christ makes Himself just as vulnerable to us and our sins in the Sacrament as He did in His Passion and on the Cross. I guess both of these flow from his overarching theme of God’s absolute sovereignty.

      I also had to chuckle a bit at the passage about others pronouncing with a magisterial air and launching thunderbolts at anyone who differs, but more because of the irony of these words coming from Calvin, who spent the majority of his life doing just that! 🙂

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  4. I’m in the camp Christ resurrected in spirit not body and present in spirit not body in Last Supper. Matter of fact He is present in spirit if we embrace the Holy Spirit always. Find it distasteful that those who believe in presence of body condemn our belief in spirit only as unChristian heresy. Also that we rise at End of Times if part of Elect in spirit only as well. Isn’t the spirit our soul that exists without an earthly body? The true body of Christ is His church and community of believers.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Carl, I can certainly understand why you would find distasteful the description of your views on the resurrection and the eucharistic presence as heretical; but can you at least appreciate why many of us do find the denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ, and thus the bodily resurrection of all believers in Christ, so objectionable? I for one can make no sense at all of the NT accounts of Pascha if they are construed as witnessing to a resurrection of spirit and not of the body.

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