Friday, April 09, 2004

Dialogue on John Calvin's Mystical Eucharist (vs. Josh, Michael S. Horton, and John Calvin)

I urge Catholics especially to read this dialogue carefully, in order to better understand Calvin's view, and that of our esteemed Reformed brothers in Christ, and how a Catholic might respond. I'm learning a lot, and I thank Josh for an excellent exchange. Alastair Roberts has said he will join in, too, in a few more days. Josh's words will be in green, Michael S. Horton's in red, and John Calvin's in blue.

* * * * *

Hi Josh,

Calvin . . . affirmed with Rome and Wittenberg that Jesus is fully and really present in the Eucharist (in His whole Person), and that He is received through the bread and wine by those who eat in faith (eating is the means of reception, but an eating in faith); He denied that the Body of Christ was locally enclosed within the elements, or that the elements were converted into the historical body of Jesus; and thought this to be unnecessary because of the work of the Spirit (a real miracle!).

This makes little sense to me. Either Jesus' body and blood are substantially present or not. If they are, then they are really there! You can't deny that the elements are transformed (Catholic view) or joined by the true body and blood (Lutheranism) and still hold that there is substantial or "real" presence. Why? Because this is an internal contradiction. Calvin is saying that Jesus is simultaneously there and not there. Even God is bound to that sort of elementary logical distinction. God can't be and not be at the same time. And He can't be "here" and "not here" at the same time.

So you appeal to "a real miracle!"? That won't do, because miracles are not irrational. The supernatural is not irrational; it simply transcends natural laws governing matter or is outside of it (as spirit, since science and naturalism deals with matter). It will do no good to simply say, "it is above our understanding, and so we will construct irrational scenarios and not try to make them coherent. It's a mystery . . . "

The bottom line is my original criticism about this "mystical view" of Calvin: if Jesus is really there it seems that he must adopt either a Catholic or Lutheran position. If He isn't really (substantially?) there, then the Calvinist Eucharist is scarcely distinguishable fro the omnipresence of God or Zwinglianism. So God is there but is not "really" or "substantially" there. So what? How is that particularly special or unique? It still appears to me to be a "mystical Zwinglianism." I don't understand how saying Jesus is "mystically" (but not substantially) present is logically distinguishable from pure Zwinglian symbolism, or how this is a miracle at all, because Jesus is already "mystically present" at all times and even lives within us. What sense does it make to say that "He is always here spiritually and now He is here 'in Spirit 'more" than He was"? Spirits have no spatial or quantitative qualities. It reminds me of the Jehovah's Witness "invisible" return of Jesus in 1914. No one saw anything, but it really happened!

Against Zwingli and the Baptists, He maintained that the Eucharist, while partly consisting in signs (the elements), consisted of signs that pointed to and were means of receiving the reality.

That may be, but I don't see the logical distinction. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the position. Certainly you would agree that it is not all that easy to understand, no?

Simple contrast with transub.: no conversion of element into body and blood; no local or enclosed presence.

That's what I am saying: if you take away these things, the distinctiveness and "sacramentality" of the miracle is abolished, thus you deprive the rite of its very essence. Unless something physical is there, it can't be a sacrament, by definition, because a sacrament is the conveying of grace by physical means.

Affirmations with transub.: Real presence; body and blood truly received by those who eat in faith; body and blood objectively offered to all; sacrament means of receiving Christ.

But not substantially? Not body, blood, soul, and divinity? Again, if it is indeed a substantial presence, I don't see any rational explanations besides transubstantiation and consubstantiation (though I am quite open to further suggestions). If it isn't substantial, it reduces to symbolism, because (at least in my analysis, for what it's worth), why should we receive a spiritual presence that we already have through omnipresence and the indwelling? So it strikes me as betwixt and between; neither fish nor fowl.

Thanks for your thoughts, and I hope I have not been offensive. I'm just being open and honest and frankly sharing my theological opinion. No disrespect at all is intended.

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In his article, "Mysteries of God and Means of Grace" , Michael S. Horton touches upon the themes which concern me in this discussion (with my interjections):

From the Reformed perspective, the "already" and "not-yet" of redemptive history bars us from a realized eschatology of Christ's physical presence on earth before the eschaton, marking our difference with Rome and Lutherans . . . While Calvinists ask Lutherans how Christ can be physically present at every altar and still be said in any sense to have a human body

That's simple: it is a miraculous sacramental substantial presence, not literally His human body, which would be a crass cannibalistic view.

Lutherans ask Calvinists how they can honestly say that they are really feeding on the true body and blood of Christ in heaven, without identifying this with a physical mode of eating . . .


. . . Although the signs (bread and wine) remain what they are, and Christ is received by faith and not by the mouth, the thing signified (Christ and his benefits) is so united to these earthly elements by Word and Spirit that I can raise my eyes to heaven and receive the food and drink of eternal life.

This is subject to my criticisms above. This seems like merely abstract playing with words rather than a real miracle.

Reformed people are sometimes unfairly regarded by Lutherans as holding that Christ is only spiritually present in the Supper. But in fact, the confessional Reformed position is that Christ is physically present in the Supper, at the right hand of God in his ascended body.

This is nonsensical, as I wrote last time. It's a self-contradiction:
1. Jesus is physically present in the Supper.

2. But He is physically present at the right hand of God.

3. We are physically present with Christ in the Supper.

4. But we are physically present with Christ at the right hand of God.

Contradictions: 1 vs. 2, 3 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3, and 1 vs. 4.
Why take this view but oppose the view that Jesus is sacramentally present in the Supper? God can perform miracles but He can't transcend the laws of logic. If we want to restrict ourselves solely to the literal post-Resurrection body of Christ, then we can't say that is "physically present" in the Supper while simultaneously at the right hand of God, because that is a contradiction, as much as it would be a contradiction to say that Jesus was physically present in Jerusalem during His crucifixion, but simultaneously at the Sea of Galilee.

But the Catholic view is not contradictory because the miracle of transubstantiation is an additional mode of presence of Jesus that is physical in a way approximating spiritual omnipresence (similar in a sense to His post-Resurrection body when He appeared to His disciples and seemed to walk through walls). We are not with Jesus in heaven yet but He is sacramentally and eucharistically with us, by the miracle of the transformation of the elements. In other words, one has to posit the additional miracle of transubstantiation (or at least consubstantiation) in order to have the physical presence.

Who are we to pull Christ down or, by an act of will, climb up to him? This is Paul's rhetorical question in Romans 10.

Indeed, but He (being God) can choose to make Himself present to us: body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Eucharist.

For Christ is brought near to us by the preached Word, he says, although Paul surely did not believe that he was brought bodily to us in the sermon.

Then why talk of "physical presence" when it is not really literally what the Reformed believe? A "spiritual presence" is indistinguishable from a symbolic presence. It is the physicality which makes this sacrament miraculous.

Instead, the Reformed maintain that the Holy Spirit, in this Sacrament, raises us to Christ where, mysteriously, we feed on his true body and blood.

If you can believe that we are actually transported to heaven to meet Jesus there, why is it so difficult to believe that He can substantially be present here under the appearances of bread and wine? Both scenarios involve something which transcends our senses, and must be believed on faith. But I think one involves a logical contradiction and the other does not.

It is not a spiritual or symbolic presence of Christ, as if he were only spirit and no longer flesh, but the manner of eating is spiritual rather than physical. This is a key difference from the caricature. It is the mode, not the substance, that is spiritual.

We say it is the accidents which are spiritual and not what they appear to be. So Reformed say, "He is truly here physically, but you are not physically eating His body." Catholics say, "He is truly here physically, and you are physically eating His body, even though it appears to be merely bread and wine." I do see a certain symmetry between the two views because both are saying that you have to deny the evidence of your senses and believe that something miraculous is taking place. The difference is that we cannot yet be in heaven with Jesus because we are not yet glorified bodies and spirits as He is. He can make Himself physically present with us because He is God and can do anything. We can't literally be with Jesus in heaven until we die and go there or unless we have some miraculous experience like Paul, being taken up to the third heaven.

Sure, we must all admit that God could conceivably perform a miracle like that, too, but I see no reason to believe that He in fact does, because there is no indication in Scripture that such a thing occurs at every Eucharist. Thus, I would say that the Reformed view fails the tests both of Scripture and patristic belief.

It is not that Christ is only present in the Supper according to his divine omnipresence, but that he is truly and really present according to both natures (even physically present) in the Supper, but not in the bread.

This makes no sense, and is contradictory:
1. Jesus is physically present in the Supper.

2. Jesus is not physically present in the bread and wine.

3. But the Supper and the bread and wine are synonymous.

4. Therefore, it follows that Jesus is somehow physically present and not physically present at the same time, which is a contradiction and impossible.
So as far as I can tell, it is a less biblical position, far less in harmony with the patristic position, and logically contradictory as well. Three strikes and you're out . . .

Dr. Horton has certainly not explained how this can be, to my satisfaction. I still await cogent explanations for what I see as clear contradictions.

Historically, the Reformed have emphasized this line in the ancient liturgy of the Eucharist, the so-called sursum corda. It is the invitation to be lifted mystically into the presence of our faithful heavenly Shepherd.

This is yet another contradiction. If you want to stress the literal human body of Jesus in heaven (and the counter-charge is that we are somehow minimizing this in our view, and obliterating Chalcedonian Christology), and want to make the Eucharist dependent on, or limited by that, then it is strange to make Jesus "physical" in the Eucharist (but not in the bread) and to hold that "the Holy Spirit, in this Sacrament, raises us to Christ where, mysteriously, we feed on his true body and blood." It's this constant irrational shifting between "mystical" and "physical" which is the problem. The last quote implied a literal feeding on Christ, but He is in heaven, etc. . . . But now we are told that it is a "mystical" presence. So which is it? And how is any of this less difficult to believe than transubstantiation?

And even though he is ascended, to return physically in glory at the end of the age, he invites us now to come boldly into his Most Holy Place through his body and blood, the Temple's torn curtain.

I see little (if any) indication in either Scripture or the history of doctrine prior to Calvin and Zwingli that we somehow meet Jesus in heaven ("physically") during the Eucharist before we actually arrive there after death.

* * *

Hi Josh,

Thanks again for your comments. This is fascinating stuff. I had never heard before the notion that we actually go up to heaven when receiving the Eucharist. It's intriguing and interesting, but I don't believe it! And the reason I don't is because I don't find it in Scripture and I continue to find it illogical and contradictory.

Transubstantiation is not self-contradictory. It is a difficult concept, unusual, a profound miracle which requires exceptional faith, but involves no logical inconsistency. God can do any miracle He so chooses. He can transform the bread and wine into His Body and Blood. That makes sense to me because if God could become a Man He can make Himself substantially present in consecrated elements that were formerly bread and wine.

But the view you describe strikes me as quite incoherent. God became a Man, and He is omnipresent. But neither men nor heaven are omnipresent nor able to be transformed in a second. Jesus has a real body in heaven, and heaven is a place. We will go there one day if we are among the elect, or we will go to hell.

So why should we believe that we literally visit heaven when we receive the Eucharist? This sounds more like "beam me up Scotty" than biblical Christianity! Are you saying that we cease to be in the location we are worshiping in when we receive communion? We are then in heaven with the literal body of Jesus? How long do we stay there? How do we know when we have returned? Since heaven is distinct from the earth, we can't be here and there at the same time. So your position means we must leave the earth during communion. Apparently it has to be literal because you are saying we truly receive Jesus' body substantially, and you (following Calvin) restrict His literal body to heaven.

This requires a transformation of physics to the extent that a contradiction is involved. Why should I believe I am in heaven during this time when there is no outward evidence of it whatsoever? I suspect the comeback would be, "What's the essential difference? Why should we believe bread and wine have become transformed into body and blood?" It is true that transubstantiation goes beyond the senses too, but it involves God becoming bodily present to us here on earth. We know that is both plausible and entirely possible because of the Incarnation. Even before the Incarnation God appeared as a man, in theophanies.

But in the Calvinist view as you describe it, it is not God who miraculously appears; rather it is heaven and earth and man which are involved. Since heaven and earth are distinguishable, we can't say we are in both at the same time. Men are not like God. We have no attributes like omnipresence or bilocation. And I see no compelling reason to believe that God performs these super-extraordinary miracles every time we receive the Eucharist.

What is also curious to me is the comparison in this thinking between the concern that Jesus' body is in heaven (and if we allow His body to also be here on earth we are supposedly denying Chalcedon), with the simultaneous belief that mere men's bodies can be taken up to heaven while we are looking at them ostensibly remaining here in a church. One idea is replaced with another (in my opinion) far more implausible and a priori unlikely one.

The same serious problem remains: if you say we can only receive Jesus' body substantially in heaven, then we have to go there to receive Him, and this defies all outward appearances. It would require a miraculous transformation of our bodies, and some strange reversal of the location of heaven and earth. Calvin wrote in his Institutes (IV, 17, 12):

For as we 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, so we deem it utterly unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it to be present everywhere.

This is the incoherence and implausibility of your view (as I see it) in a nutshell: Calvin limits Christ's body to heaven, as if it is unthinkable and a priori impossible ("utterly unlawful") for God to choose to make Himself present in the matter of bread and wine, just as He became Man. But then he turns around and grants these remarkable qualities to men, so that we can somehow go to heaven to receive Jesus' body which can only be localized there (as if it is more likely for God to let men have these qualities rather than Himself). Is this not strange?

While denying that Jesus can perform miracles with His body and become substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine, Calvin prefers to give the miraculous, spectacular qualities to men's bodies. But we're not the ones who walked on water, who walked through walls, who were resurrected from the dead (not yet) or who ascended to heaven (and came down from heaven also). Why is it "unlawful" for Jesus to become eucharistically present on earth, but totally believable for us to become present in heaven to worship God and receive Him? This makes no sense.

Furthermore, Calvin caricatures the Catholic and Lutheran Eucharist in saying that those positions require that Christ's body is "present everywhere," rather than the Holy Spirit. Omnipresence refers to spirit, not matter. Being present bodily in many places is not being present everywhere. If Jesus could multiply the loaves and fishes, why could He not multiply His body and blood, to be sacramentally and physically present in consecrated elements? I see (contra Calvin) no reason to believe why He could or would not do so. Calvin reiterates in IV, 17, 30:

Unless the body of Christ can be everywhere at once [same category mistake repeated], without limitation of place, it will not be credible that he lies hidden under bread in the Supper.


. . . placing the body itself in the bread, they assign to it a ubiquity contrary to its nature . . .

(IV, 17, 16)

So Christ Himself (Who is omnipotent; and Calvin accepts that, last time I checked) is limited by place, but we are not? God makes us somehow go to heaven to receive the Eucharist? If we can only receive Jesus substantially there, then we need to go there. But then we have characteristics which Calvin curiously denies even to Jesus' body. That is odd enough. If, on the other hand, we don't go to heaven to receive Him, then we do not receive His literal body, since Calvin (by some incomprehensible reasoning known only to himself) restricts it to heaven. Either way, it is implausible and illogical.

Calvin specifically restricts Christ's body to heaven. But he says that we go up to heaven only "with our eyes and minds":

But if we are lifted up to heaven with our eyes and minds, to seek Christ there in the glory of his Kingdom, as the symbols invite us to him in his wholeness, so under the symbol of bread we shall be fed his body . . .

(IV, 17, 18)

So here he denies that we literally go to heaven. Therefore, how can we receive Jesus' body substantially since Calvin has already limited Jesus to heaven? It can only (given simple logic) be symbolic, thus we are back to Zwingli again. Calvin keeps contradicting himself over and over:

This 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.

(IV, 17, 18)

Huh??? Why, then, does Calvin rule out a local bodily presence on earth in the Eucharist, and rail against transubstantiation as if it were the devil himself?:

. . . we do not think it is lawful for us to drag him from heaven.

(IV, 17, 31)

Yet Calvin thinks his view:

. . . contains nothing either absurd or obscure or ambiguous . . .

(IV, 17, 19)

I beg to differ. Calvin rails against the Catholic view, yet when it comes time to explain the incoherence and contradictions in his own view, he conveniently appeals to mystery:

Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare . . .

Those who are carried beyond this by their own exaggerations do nothing but obscure simple and plain truth . . . we are now discussing a sacrament the whole of which must be referred to faith.

(IV, 17, 32)

I'm sure Calvin can't fully explain himself, but in any event, the presence of demonstrated logical contradiction would rule out a view, no matter how much or how little we understand it. And that is my present critique. Moreover, if his view requires faith, why can't Catholics hold to their beliefs in faith without being accused of a host of ridiculous things by Calvin?

But then I don't know how much Calvin's view developed after the Institutes. Perhaps these contradictions were alleviated. It doesn't seem like it, from what you are telling me.

Nor do I see such a thing in Scripture. God can make the Cross become present to us again in the Sacrifice of the Mass because He is outside of time and everything is "present" or "now" to Him. And so we see reference to a "Lamb slain" in heaven. But I see no indication that the Eucharist involves this "heavenly transplantation" that you speak of.

You gave a few biblical passages: Hebrews 6:4-8 is not about the Eucharist, but about apostasy. You can hardly deduce a heavenly eucharistic service from the phrase "tasted of the heavenly gift." Nor is it clear that "partakers of the Holy Spirit" refers to more than the Indwelling and the Spirit's guidance as the Paraclete.

As for Hebrews 10:19-25, Calvin himself relegates the passage to allegory, in his Commentary on Hebrews (dated 1549):

10:19: . . . he allegorically describes the access which Christ has opened to us.

He does, however, also state:

. . not only symbolically, but in reality an entrance into heaven is made open to us . . .

But he doesn't elaborate as to how this occurs. Nor does he seem to apply this interpretation to Hebrews 12:18-24, in the same Commentary.

That should be enough for now . . .

Your brother in Christ,


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