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

This section follows Part 4 found here: The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 4: True Humanity: The Bodily Ascension and Romanist & Lutheran Error

B.  Christ’s Body is Present through the Power of the Holy Spirit

It is through his divine Spirit that Christ is present at the Supper. Through the Spirit, the signs of bread and cup in fact present what they represent – the body and blood of Christ.

     1.  Grounded in The Spirit’s Teaching

Christ’s physical flesh and blood are in heaven, yet he is also present at the Supper. The believer feeds upon his very flesh and blood. This is not a problem for Calvin. He relies on the teaching of Scripture for a logic uniquely spiritual and is insistent that it not be disregarded.

What is more futile than to frame the question in terms of physical body since often before this I have declared that in this matter I pay no regard to physical arguments, nor insist on the opinions of philosophers, but acquiesce in the testimony of Scripture alone. It is plain from Scripture that the body of Christ is finite, and has its own dimensions. Geometry did not teach us this; but we will not allow what the Holy Spirit taught by the apostles to be wrested from us . . . We do not deny that Christ, whole and entire, in the person of the Mediator, fills heaven and earth. I say whole, not wholly, because it would be absurd to apply this to his flesh. The hypostatic union of his two natures 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.[1]

The subject of the sacraments, in other words, cannot be circumscribed by human dimensions. It has a spiritual nature that transcends ordinary human calculus. Defending his view against one detractor Calvin writes: “If our dispute is not philosophical, and we do not subject Christ to physical laws, but reverently show from passages of Scripture what is the nature and property of his flesh, it is futile for Heshusius to gather from false principles whatever he pleases.”[2]   The biblical view may present problems for human logic or demonstrate the limits of human intelligence. But it is not contrary to divine logic and is what the Holy Spirit has taught.

     2.  Grounded in the Spirit’s Way of Speaking: Metonymy

In speaking of sacraments in Scripture, Calvin says, “nothing is more common than metonymy.”[3] This is, for Calvin, a “sacramental mode of speaking”.[4]

“Metonymy” (meta: other + onoma: name) is a figure of speech where one name is used in the place of another associated with or suggested by it. One might refer to “the White House” when speaking of “the President”. To identify one thing, another related name is used. “The name of the thing, therefore, is transferred here to the sign – not as if it were strictly applicable, but figuratively on the ground of that connection which I have mentioned.”[5]

Scripture employs this way of speaking often. Where the cloud and pillar of fire were, God was present. God’s presence was with the Ark. “The rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10), the dove the Holy Spirit (John 1:32), the bread the body, the cup the blood, and baptism the “laver of regeneration” (Tit. 3:5) that washes away sin (I Pet. 3:21).[6] What man does by a figure, God does in reality; “the name of the thing signified is aptly transferred to the sign.”[7]

In the Supper, therefore, the bread and cup are not themselves the body and the blood. But in showing the symbols, the things themselves are shown. This is the true nature of sacraments, the mysteries of God. “In the sacraments, the reality is given along with the sign.”[8] While the bread and the cup are only symbols, they are not bare or empty symbols. “The true effect is conjoined with the visible sign.”[9] Christ is as present in the Lord’s Supper in the bread and cup as the Spirit was in the dove at His baptism.

God has given visible signs because man is limited in his ability to comprehend spiritual reality without them. Yet the reality is present even though only a symbol is used:

It is a spiritual mystery, which cannot be seen by the eye, nor comprehended by human understanding. It is therefore symbolized by visible signs, as our infirmity requires, but in such a way that it is not a bare figure, but joined to its reality and substance. It is therefore with good reason that the bread is called body, since not only does it represent it to us, but also presents it to us.[10]

While the sign is not the thing signified, it signifies that that which God represents by it and truly makes present with it.

[T]he godly ought by all means to keep this rule: whenever they see symbols appointed by the Lord, to think and be persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is surely present there. For why should the Lord put in your hand the symbol of his body, except to assure you of a true participation in it?[11]

God, by His own use of language, demonstrates that his signs truly present what they represent.

     3.  Grounded in The Spirit’s Power and Virtue

In relying on what the Spirit taught, Calvin relies upon what the Spirit is able to do. It is by the Spirit that the bread and cup truly present what they represent.

First, the mind of man is no sound standard by which to measure the Spirit’s work and our view of the Supper should not be limited by it. The Spirit can accomplish far more than man can conceive:

Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure. What, then, our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.[12]

Second, the power of the Spirit is unlimited, without bounds, and able to bring together that which for man space divides:

For though we as pilgrims in mortality are neither included nor contained in the same space with him, yet the efficacy of his Spirit is limited by no bounds, but is able really to unite and bring together into one things that are disjoined in local space. Hence we acknowledge that his Spirit is the bond of our participation in him….[13]

Christ, by the power of His Spirit, transcends all human limitations. “I uniformly maintain,” Calvin says, “that through the virtue of the Spirit there is a present exhibition of a thing absent in respect of place.”[14] In another place Calvin writes:

The kingdom is neither bounded by location in space nor circumscribed by any limits. Thus Christ is not prevented from exerting his power wherever he pleases, in heaven and on earth. He shows his presence in power and strength, is always among his own people, and breathes his life upon them, and lives in them, sustaining them, strengthening, quickening, keeping them unharmed, as if he were present in the body. In short, he feeds his people with his own body, the communion of which he bestows upon them by the power of his Spirit. In this manner, the body and blood of Christ are shown to us in the Sacrament.[15]

Because the Spirit is at work, respective locations may be acknowledge and affirmed, yet impose no limitations:

“For us to have substantial communion with the flesh of Christ, there is no necessity for any change of place, since by the secret virtue of the Spirit he infuses his life into us from heaven; nor does distance at all prevent Christ from dwelling in us, or us from being one with him, since the efficacy of the Spirit surmounts all natural obstacles.[16] 

Third, it is through the virtue or power of his Spirit that Christ, though his body is in heaven, makes his flesh and blood present at the Supper:

I say that although Christ is absent from the earth in respect of the flesh, yet in the Supper we truly feed on his body and blood, and owing to the secret virtue of the Spirit, we enjoy the presence of both. I say that distance of place is no obstacle to prevent the flesh once crucified being given to us for food.[17]

Finally, the work of the Spirit in transcending these limitations and, moreover, being central to them, is evident by the testimony of Christ himself. To send his Spirit, Christ must go. As Hughes Oliphant Old observed:

We need to understand the nature of that presence [of Christ at the Supper]. According to Calvin, our Lord, ever since the ascension, has been at the right hand of the Father. Nevertheless, through his Spirit he is still present with us. We read, for example, in the Gospel of John, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). As we read further in the Gospel of John we discover that Jesus promised the disciples the Holy Spirit, which the disciples could not receive unless Jesus left them. Nevertheless, leaving the disciples, Jesus sent his Holy Spirit that he might dwell within them. As Calvin understood it, although Christ is clearly in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, he is nevertheless present among us through the Holy Spirit. As Calvin understood it, Christ’s presence at the Lord’s Table is not so much a local presence as it is a personal presence. Again, it is not so much that Christ is present on the table as that he is present at the table.[18]

In his view Calvin was not formulating some innovative theory of the Supper and Christ’s presence at it.  He reminds us of the teaching of Augustine:

“Here (to note this also briefly) Augustine conceives of Christ as present among us in three ways: in majesty, in providence, and in ineffable grace. Under grace I include that marvelous communion of his body and blood – provided we understand that it takes place by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by that feigned inclusion of the body itself under the element. Indeed, our Lord testified that he had flesh and bones, which could be felt and seen [John 20:27].[19] 

Christ is present at the Supper despite earthly impediments and the limitations of the human condition. His divine nature and the power and work of the Spirit make it so. The bread and cup present what they represent – the body and blood of Christ – and the believers is nourished by them when received by faith.

Next:  The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 6: Calvin’s Hope and Thoughts Raised On High

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

[2] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 315.

[3] Calvin, Comm. on I Cor. 10:4, C.R.49:455, Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 163.

[4] Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 162.

[5] Calvin, Comm. on I Cor. 10:4, C.R.49:455, Word and Sacraments, 163.

[6] See Wallace, Word and Sacraments, at 161-2, referencing Comm. on Exod. 34:5, C.R. 25;113; Ps. 47:5/6f, C.R.25:113; John 1:26, C.R. 47:23-4; John 1:32, C.R. 47:27; et al.).

[7] Calvin, Comm. on John 1:32, Wallace, Word and Sacraments, at 162. Significantly, the presence is never automatic or mechanical but always dependent upon the Spirit. Though the Ark goes into battle against the Philistines, God does not grant success (I Sam. 4). Yet, when it sits in Dagon’s temple as an offense to God, God topples the Dagon statue (I Sam. 5).

[8] Calvin, Comm. on Isa. 6:7, C.R.36:133; Wallace, Word and Sacraments, at 159.

[9] C.R. 9:19, Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 159.

[10] Calvin, Short Treatise, 147.

[11] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:10, 1371.

[12] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:10.

[13] Calvin, Confession, 168.

[14] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 277.

[15] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:18, 1381.

[16] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 278.

[17] Calvin, Clear Explanation, 309, see also Wallace, Word and Sacraments, 201, 2d paragraph.

[18] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) p. 132 (Hereinafter referred to as Worship Reformed). Old’s concluding formulation may offer some avenue for resolving the apparent inconsistency in Calvin’s statements noted by Wallace in Word and Sacraments at 208.

[19] Calvin, Inst. 4:17:26, 1394. Cf. “Paul, however, reminds us that, though withdrawn in respect of bodily presence, he yet fills all things, namely by the virtue of his Spirit.” Tr. Clear 312. “As the divine majesty and essence of Christ fills heaven and earth, and this is extended to the flesh; therefore, independently of the use of the Supper, the flesh of Christ dwells essentially in believers, because they possess the presence of his deity.” Calvin, Clear Explanation, 313