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

This section follows Part 2 found here: The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 2: Spirit-Sanctioned Reason & the Word

III.    True Presence of the True God-Man through the Spirit

The Reformers believed that, according to the Scriptures, Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper and that his body and blood are communicated to us. The question is, “what is the nature of this communication?”[1]  How is it that Christ is both in heaven and here?  How can he be?  In what respect is he “present?”  In what sense do we “eat his flesh and drink his blood?”  One significant problem in answering these questions, Calvin says, is that “inquisitive men demand an exaggerated mode of presence, never set forth in Scripture.”[2]

  A.  Calvin’s Christological Commitment

For Calvin, the confusion of many rested in their failure to do justice to the Biblical teaching of the person of Christ, particularly the “hypostatic union,” the true union of Christ’s humanity and divinity in one individual existence.

Following the Scripture, the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 recognized the Biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. These two natures – fully God and fully man – are preserved in one prosopon or person and hypostasis.  Hypostasis is the essential substance or reality of a thing.

In other words, Jesus Christ was and is, of, or in, two natures “unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible and inseparable.” He was not, as the Nestorians taught, two persons and natures, one divine and the other human, bound into one body. Nor did he have, as the Eutychians maintained, only one nature – the divine one – absorbing his humanity. As the framers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism expressed it a century after Calvin, “the Lord Jesus Christ . . . being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continues to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever.”[3]

The hypostatic union, Calvin maintains, is a “hidden and incomprehensible mystery”[4] and an “unparalleled mystery.”[5] He suggests, nevertheless, a tentative explanation by way of an analogy manifest to every living human being:

If, in human affairs, anything analogous to this great mystery can be found, the most apposite similitude seems to be that of man, who obviously consists of two substances, neither of which, however, is so intermingled with the other as that both do not retain their own properties. For neither is soul body, nor is body soul.[6]

Soul and body.  A human being is comprised of both, very different and indivisible except in death.  It is Calvin’s allegiance to this biblical teaching on the person of Christ that governs and regulates his understanding of the presence of Christ at the Supper.

It is Christ’s true human nature that precludes the Romanist and Lutheran views. It is his true divine nature that provides the means by which he is truly present at the Supper through His Spirit (and overcomes the limitations in the Baptist view).

  1. True Divinity: The Totality of Christ’s Person and the Work of His Spirit

Christ is fully God and fully man. Accordingly, the totality of the person of Christ is not coterminous with his human flesh. “The hypostatic union of his two natures” Calvin says, “is not equivalent to a communication of the immensity of the Godhead to the flesh, since the properties of both natures are perfectly congruous with the unity of the person.”[7]

It is due to this full divinity that Christ is able to be present at the Supper. In affirming his view and distinguishing it from that of a man named Heshusius, Calvin states:

He admits that Christ is everywhere by communication of properties, as was taught by the fathers, and that accordingly it is not the body of Christ that is everywhere, the ubiquity being ascribed concretely to the whole person in respect of the union of the divine nature. This is so exactly our doctrine, that he might seem to be wanting by prevarication to win favour with us. Nor have we difficulty in accepting what he adds, that it is impossible to comprehend how the body of Christ is in a certain heavenly place, above the heavens, and yet the person of Christ is everywhere, ruling in equal power with the Father. Indeed the whole world knows how violently I have been assailed by his party for defending this very doctrine . . . I employ the trite phrase of the schools, that Christ is whole everywhere but not wholly.[8]

In another place he writes:

There is a commonplace distinction of the schools to which I am not ashamed to refer: although the whole Christ is everywhere, still the whole of that which is in him is not everywhere. And would that the Schoolmen themselves had honestly weighed the force of this statement. For thus would the absurd fiction of Christ’s carnal presence have been obviated. Therefore, since the whole Christ is everywhere, our Mediator is ever present with his own people, and in the Supper reveals himself in a special way, yet in such a way that the whole Christ is present, but not in his wholeness. For, as has been said, in his flesh he is contained in heaven until he appears in judgment.[9]

The body of Christ is not the whole Christ. His human nature is not a limitation on his divine nature. His humanity did not destroy his divinity. His body may be in heaven, but the ubiquity of his person due to his divinity is unimpaired.

Next: The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 4: True Humanity: The Bodily Ascension and Romanist & Lutheran Error

[1] C.R. 9:31-2; cited in Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 204.

[2] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:33, 1405.

[3] Answer to Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 21.

[4] Calvin, Comm. on Exod. 26:31, C.R. 24:417 cited in Word and Sacraments, 167.

[5] Calvin, Comm. on Isa. 7:14, C.R. 36:158, cited in Word and Sacraments, 167.

[6] Calvin, Inst. 2:14:1, cited in Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 167, observing that Augustine employed the same simile, Ep. 102, and Cf. also Calvin, serm. on I Tim. 3:16, C.R. 53:326-7.

[7] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 311-312.

[8] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 274-5.

[9] Calvin, Inst., 4:17:30, 1403.