Real Presence vs Really Real Presence: Calvin and Luther on 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.

(Pontifications: 31 October 2006)

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Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, Inner Grace, Outward SignsGood News for Anxious Christians, and the Brazos commentary on Jonah. His most recent book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel That Gives Us Christ, will be published next month.

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6 Responses to Real Presence vs Really Real Presence: Calvin and Luther on the Supper

  1. Андрей Федоров says:

    Hello! I want to ask you one question. I called whether the Greek fathers to Gennady Scholary species of bread and wine in the Eucharist, “the accidents of bread and wine”? Have you ever seen such expressions?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      That’s a good question about St Gennadios, but I’m afraid I do not know the answer. Given his love for Aquinas, I would not be surprised if he employed the language of transubstantiation (substance and accidents) when addressing the eucharistic change. We do know that this language was widely adopted in Orthodoxy: see e.g., “The Doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Orthodox Church.” It seems to be less common today, at least among the Orthodox I hang out with.

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  2. Андрей Федоров says:

    Oh, sorry for my English, I write with an automatic translator. I know that Gennady Scholary used the term “accident” in relation to the types of bread and wine. He was just actually copying Thomas ‘ thoughts. But I was interested in other, more ancient fathers, for example, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, etc. I have never met them with such a name. Hence, the conclusion is that they did not think that the types of bread and wine are “remaining” in the Eucharist “accidents of bread and wine.” Where am I going? If that’s the case, the very possibility of a division into Sacramentum and Res is questioned, you know?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Please don’t worry about your English, Андрей. We’ll find a way to communicate. 🙂

      If we interpret transubstantiation not as a philosophical explanation of the eucharistic change but as an affirmation that God changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, then the doctrine does not seem to be saying anything more than what St Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in his 4th Mystagogical Catechesis in the 4th century: namely, the bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood, despite all appearances to the contrary. Read through Cyril’s catechesis and let me know what you think.


      • Андрей Федоров says:

        Of course, I read this work of Cyril, and, of course, I agree with you that we have nothing to add to this, and it is not necessary. But the matter is that over time, it was a lot of excess and obscuring the meaning of the Ordinances attached. And in fact, now Orthodox Russian people who are interested in theology, put the signs of equality between the scholastic Western teaching and the teaching of the same Cyril of Jerusalem, and this is far from the case. And I, to the best of my ability, try to explain it to them. Here’s a simple example. Cyril says, “Consider before the Bread and the Wine not as bare elements, for they are, according to the Lord’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ.” Is it possible to say so about the “accidents of bread and wine”? We can not call these “accidents of bread and wine” the Body and Blood of Christ because, at least, that they, according to the teachings of the scholastics, do not belong to the Hypostasis of Christ. And Cyril directly says: this is the Body of Christ. The difference is obvious.

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  3. Excellent article Phillip! I am a few days late in commenting, but I would be curious if you would be able to locate where Vermigli is located within a Reformed articulation of the sacraments.

    Also, as a Reformed Christian who does take the sacraments seriously (as sacraments vs. symbolic memorial), it is nice to read an article here at EO that unpacks this. Probably owing to the fact that the Zwingliian view is most prevalent in practice in most conservative Reformed circles it does come to a surprise to some that there are Reformed theologians dating back to the earliest days in the magasterial reformation that were trying to locate a sacramentology that was rooted in the catholic tradition – even if it was developed along distinct lines.

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