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

This section follows Part 3 found here: The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 3: True Presence of the True God-Man

  1. True Humanity: The Bodily Ascension: Romanist & Lutheran Error

Romanists and Lutherans failed to frame a view of Christ’s presence consistent with the Biblical teaching that the body of Christ is truly human and that it is in heaven.

Christ was and is truly a man who died, was raised from the dead, and ascended bodily into heaven from whence “he will come again in like manner” (Acts 1:11):

For the Scripture teaches us everywhere that as our Lord Jesus Christ on earth took our humanity, so he has exalted it to heaven, withdrawing it from its mortal condition, but not changing its nature. So we have two things to consider when we speak of our Lord’s humanity. We may not destroy the reality of his nature, nor derogate at all from its glorious estate.[1]

The body of Christ “from the time of the resurrection was finite, and is contained in heaven even to the Last Day. [cf. Acts 3:21].”[2] Calvin recounts Augustine’s explanation:

When Christ said, “You will not have me with you always,” he was speaking of the presence of the body. For with regard to his majesty, to his providence, to his ineffable and invisible grace, he fulfilled what he said, “Behold, I am with you even to the end of the age. [Matt. 28:20, Vg.] But with regard to the flesh that the Word assumed, the fact that he was born of the virgin, the fact that he was seized by the Jews, was fastened upon the tree, taken down from the cross, wrapped in linen, laid in the tomb, manifested in the resurrection – “You will not always have me with you.” Why? Because according to his bodily presence, he had fellowship for forty days with his disciples; and while they accompanied him, seeing but not following, he ascended [Acts 1:3,9]. “He is not here” [Mark 16:19]. And yet he is here, for the presence of his majesty has not departed [Heb. 1:3]. According to the presence of his majesty, we have Christ always; but according to the presence of the flesh, it is rightly said, “You will not always have me” [Matt. 26:11]. For the church had him according to the presence of the flesh for only a few days; now it holds him by faith, but does not see him with the eyes.[3]

In short, as Wallace puts it, “[i]n heaven the body of Christ retains all human properties unimpaired.”[4]

The Romanist and Lutheran views effectively deny this biblical teaching. The Roman Catholic Church taught (and still does) the doctrine of “transubstantiation”: that the bread and wine upon their consecration by the priest automatically turn into the actual body and blood of Christ. They are made physically present before the parishioner and the parishioner ingests the actual body and blood of Christ.

Calvin has no patience with this view. That it comes from those who are supposed to be God’s stewards of His holy things is particularly offensive. By “gesticulating in the manner of sorcerers, they think to constrain Jesus Christ to descend into their hands.” Such consecration, Calvin says, “is nothing but a piece of sorcery.”[5] He says:

This is rather to circumscribe God, when by our fictions we attempt to test what he can do. For from what word have they inferred that the body of Christ is visible in heaven, but lies hidden invisible on earth under innumerable crumbs of bread? They will say that necessity demands this so that Christ’s body may be given in the supper. That is, because they have been pleased to deduce a physical eating from Christ’s words, being carried away by their own prejudice, they had to coin this subtlety against which all Scripture cries aloud![6]

Luther taught the ubiquity of Christ’s post-resurrection body, that Christ is everywhere (from the Latin, ubique: everywhere).[7] From it Lutherans teach that the bread “is truly the substance of an earthly and corruptible element, and suffers no change in itself, but holds the body of Christ enclosed underneath itself.”[8] They affirm “an inherence in the sacraments themselves of the reality they convey.”[9] Invisibly omnipresent, Christ “corporeally indwells the bread and wine.”[10]

This teaching Calvin calls a “monstrous notion.”[11] His quarrel with the Lutheran’s on the matter of the Supper was chiefly on this issue. As Neilsen notes:

Certainly the humanity of Christ enjoys preeminence through the resurrection [2] but assuredly not that immeasurability which the Lutherans ascribe to it in order to be able to maintain their Eucharistic doctrine. [3] For by glorification a body loses only those characteristics which arise from the corrupt and decadent state of this world, but not such as belong inseparably to its essential being. [4] If we describe the body of Christ in such a way as to cancel out the community between His body and ours, then we are endangering God’s self-revelation in our flesh. Calvin said that he quarreled with the Lutherans only on this ground. Because they substituted a reality of infinite extension for the flesh of Christ, he defended against them “the truth of the human nature in which our salvation is grounded.”[5][12]

Simply stated, for Calvin there can be “no local enclosing or carnal infusing.”[13] There can be no dragging down of Christ from heaven to be contained in the elements to achieve his presence:

[W]e do not doubt that Christ’s body is limited by the general characteristics common to all human bodies, and is contained in heaven (where it was once for all received) until Christ return in judgment [Acts 3:21], so we deem it utterly unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it to be present everywhere….[14]

Calvin rejects any view that seeks to draw Christ’s body down from heaven not only as an offense against his nature, but also as wholly unnecessary to achieve his presence:

To them Christ does not seem present unless he comes down to us. As though, if he should lift us to himself, we should not just as much enjoy his presence! The question is therefore only of the manner, for they place Christ in the bread, while we do not think it lawful for us to drag him from heaven . . . . For since this mystery is heavenly, there is no need to draw Christ to earth the he may be joined to us.[15]

Scripture is clear. If Christ is to be sought, it is not on earth. “[W]hen he is borne high into the air, and by the cloud beneath him [Acts 1:9], teaches us that he is no longer to be sought on earth, we safely infer that his abode is now in heaven – just as Paul also declares, and bids us look for him from heaven [Phil. 3:20].”[16] “The body of Christ can no longer be thought of as present on this earth in any form or condition. The testimony of the Scripture is quite final. Christ, according to Peter, is contained in heaven till He appears to judge the world.”[17]

For Calvin, this view is the only sensible view. It is grounded in the Scripture and the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom, and does justice to the glory of the ascended Christ and the reality of his human nature:

I reject only absurd things which appear to be either unworthy of Christ’s heavenly majesty, or incompatible with the reality of his human nature, since they are in necessary conflict with God’s Word; for it also teaches that Christ was so received into the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom as to be lifted above all worldly estate, and no less carefully sets off in his human nature those things which are proper to true humanity. [¶] This ought not to seem either incredible or out of accord with reason. For as Christ’s whole Kingdom is spiritual, whatever he does with his church must not be subjected to the reason of this world.[18]

There is not, nor can there be, any descent of the physical body. There need not be any such descent because of the work of the Spirit.[19] Christ’s body is finite and in heaven till the judgment, but he sends his Spirit.[20]

Next: The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 5: Christ’s Body is Present through the Power of the Holy Spirit

[1] Calvin, Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord and only Saviour Jesus Christ (1541), Calvin Theological Treatises, Vol. XXII, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press) p. 159 (Hereinafter referred to as Short Treatise); see also, Wallace, Word and Sacraments, at 205-6.

[2] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:26 p. 1393. See also Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 204.

[3] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:26, 1393-4; citing Augustine, John’s Gospel l.13 (MPL 35. 1763; tr. NPNF VII.282).

[4] Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 205-6.

[5] Calvin, Short Treatise, 161, full quote: “Therefore their consecration is nothing but a piece of sorcery, seeing that, by murmuring and gesticulating in the manner of sorcerers, they think to constrain Jesus Christ to descend into their hands.”

[6] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:26, 1392.

[7] See Calvin, Inst. 4:17:16, pg. 1379, note 54.

[8] See Calvin, Inst. 4:17:16, pg. 1379.  At note 54, the editor asserts this “[a]s taught by Lutherans, not explicitly by Luther, though Luther had taught the ubiquity of Christ’s postresurrection body.”

[9] Wilhelm Nielsen, The Theology of Calvin (Great Britain, Lutterwork Press, 1956, reprinted Baker Book House, 1980, originally appearing as Die Theologie Calvins, Chr. Kaiser Verlag, Munich, 1938.) p. 224 (Hereinafter referred to as Theology of Calvin).

[10] Nielsen, Theology of Calvin, 224.

[11] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:30; N.B. Wallace, Word and Sacraments,, 210, ft. 1, for Calvin’s use of sub.

[12] Nielsen, Theology of Calvin, at 224; Neilson’s footnote references to Calvin’s work are as follows: [2] CR 9,79f. [3] CR 16, 429, 677; [4] CR 14, 333; Inst. 4:17:24; [5] CR 9, 208; 16, 678.

[13] C.R. 9:34, cited in Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 209.

[14] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:12, 1373.

[15] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:31, 1403.

[16] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:27, 1395.

[17] Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 204, citing C.R.:9-72

[18] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:32, 1404.

[19] Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 206.

[20] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:26, 1393.