The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 2: Spirit-Sanctioned Reason & the Word

This section follows Part 1 found here: The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 1

2.  Spirit-Sanctioned Reason & the Word: The Foundation for Right Thinking.

Calvin follows at least four fundamental rules in interpreting the Bible’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper.

First, God’s Word, the Scriptures, is the only authority in spiritual matters, especially the area of worship.  To formulate teaching on anything other than God’s command is only human invention contrary to God’s authority and dominion:

Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command.  Justly, to, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modest worship, provoke His anger against us.[1]

Second, God’s Word must be interpreted according to God’s own “common usage.” God Himself interprets His own word.  By following this “analogy of faith” where we have Scripture interpret Scripture, we rightly understand God’s language – His “common usage” – as he intends it to be understood.  This is particularly true in matters that are uniquely “spiritual;” “His words ought to be expounded sacramentally (sacramentaliter) according to the common usage of scripture.”[2] The Lord, in other words, has his own unique use of language and way of speaking about matters unique to Him. This is particularly true in the matter of His Supper, which is uniquely spiritual.

This rule requiring this “analogical” interpretation guards against either a literal interpretation or a figurative one where neither is appropriate and where a biblically rooted one does justice to the subject. Roman Catholics and Lutherans have insisted on interpreting literally Christ’s words “this is my body.” If Christ says, “this is my body,” then it is his body. As the Roman priest in the administration of the Eucharist goes through the procedure of “consecrating” the physical bread, it would be transformed – Hocus pocus![3] – into the actual body of Christ.  The bread and wine must become the actual physical body and blood of Christ.  For the Lutheran, Christ’s body and blood must, in some way, be “in, with or under” the elements.[4]

Some Protestant teaching, such as in the Baptist tradition, views the words in purely figurative terms. If Christ is ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, then the bread and wine could not possibly be his body and blood. They must be mere symbols or figures, designed only to remind us of what Christ did with his body and blood on the cross. When Jesus said, “this do in remembrance of me,” He is calling the believers merely to engage in devotional reflection on an important past event.

Neither of these interpretations does justice to the Biblical teaching, as we shall see.

A corollary to this second rule is that clearer passages of Scripture interpret more obscure ones. The specific biblical account of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11[5] is one of the more mysterious passages of Scripture, made significantly so by its brevity.  Brevity can make for obscurity or ambiguity.  In such a situation, as Ronald Wallace observed, “[t]he longer sentences dealing with the mystery better elucidate the meaning than the shorter sentences.”[6]  Calvin put it simply that a narrow study of the words of institution (including the statement “This is my body”), “subject to the common rule and . . . tested grammatically,”[7] is insufficient. The words must be understood, consistent with the second rule of interpretation, in the light of other Scriptures about feeding on Christ in particular and those dealing with sacramental matters in general.  When Jesus Himself first administers the supper, the bread is not His physical body.  He is holding the bread.  Yet, Jesus said more about feeding on Him in other Scripture passages.  Calvin put it this way:  “When our Lord instituted the supper, He spoke briefly, as is usually done in federal acts, whereas in the sixth chapter of John, He discourses copiously and professedly on that mystery of sacred conjunction of which He afterwards held forth a mirror in the sacraments.”[8]  It is important, in other words, to look at the whole of Scripture to interpret correctly its teaching on the Lord’s Supper.

Third, the subject of the Lord’s Supper must be understood according to spiritual rather than human reason. “We have no dispute,” Calvin says, “as to the boundless power of God; and all my writings declare that I do not measure the mystery of the Supper by human reason, but look up to it with devout admiration.”[9] Three kinds of reason are to be considered, only the third of which is adequate for understanding the Supper:

There is a reason naturally implanted in us which cannot be condemned without insult to God; but it has limits which it cannot overstep without being immediately lost. Of this we have a sad proof in the fall of Adam. There is another kind of vitiated reason, especially in a corrupt nature, manifest when mortal man, instead of receiving divine things with reverence, wants to subject them to his own judgment. This reason is intoxication of the mind, a kind of sweet insanity, at perpetual variance with the obedience of faith; for we must become fools in ourselves before we can begin to be wise unto God. In regard to heavenly mysteries, therefore, this reason must retire, for it is nothing better than mere fatuity, and if accompanied with arrogance rises to madness. But there is a third kind of reason, which both the Spirit of God and Scripture sanction.[10]

The first kind – that naturally implanted – is God-given and good. But it is limited and insufficient. The second kind is not only insufficient but impertinent. The third kind is the kind reserved for understanding heavenly mysteries. We understand the Lord’s Supper not by such human reason but a reason that is sui generis, a kind all its own, a unique reason sanctioned by the Spirit and Scripture, the reason by which we “look up to it with devout admiration.”[11]

It is to this third kind of reason – reason uniquely of the Spirit and the Scriptures – to which Calvin turns on almost ever aspect of the Lord’s Supper.

Fourth, Calvin sees a “twofold way of speaking (duplex loquendi modus) in Scripture about the sacraments.”[12] This might be viewed as another corollary to or even application of the second rule above but is worthy of special mention.

It is customary with Paul to treat of the sacraments in two points of view. When he is dealing with hypocrites, in whom the mere symbol awakens pride, he then proclaims loudly the emptiness and worthlessness of the outward symbol, and denounces, in strong terms, their foolish confidence. . . . When, on the other hand, he addresses believers, who make a proper use of the symbols, he then views them in connection with the truth which they represent.[13]

It is necessary, in other words, not only to give attention to the whole of Scripture and have Scripture interpret Scripture when interpreting the subject of the Supper, but to give careful attention to the specific context of particular passage.

Next:  The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 3: True Presence of the True God-Man

[1]  “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume I: On the Reformation of the Church, (Edinburgh, Calvin Translation Society) 128,; see also Eerdmans edition, (Grand Rapids, 1958).

[2] Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacraments (Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, Ltd., 1953, reprinted Geneva Divinity School Press, Tyler, TX, 1982, reprinted Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR, 1997) 197 (hereinafter referred to as Wallace, Word and Sacraments); C.R. 9: 195.

[3] There is some debate as to the origin of the magician or juggler’s expression Hocus-pocus.  There is record, however, that as early as the late 1600s it was thought to be a farcical imitation of the Roman priest in his administration of the sacrament.  In 1695, John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote: “In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.”  A Discourse Against Transubstantiation (Gilbert & Irvington, St. John’s Square, London, 1833) 35.

[4] An Explanation of the Small Catechism, Q. 291, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

[5] I Corinthians 11:23-34.

[6] Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 198, citing Calvin, Inst. 4:17:20.

[7] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:20; cited at Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 199.

[8] C.R. 9:200, cited in Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 198.

[9] Calvin, The Clear Explanation of Sound Doctrine Concerning the True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper (1561), Calvin Theological Treatises, Vol. XXII, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press) p. 266 (Hereinafter referred to as Clear Explanation).

[10] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 272.

[11] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 266.

[12] Calvin, Comm. on John 1:26, C.R. 47;24, cited in Wallace, Word and Sacraments, at 173.

[13] Calvin, Comm. on Gal. 3:27, C.R. 50:222, cited in Wallace, Word and Sacraments, at 173.