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CB064066John Calvin had definite ideas about the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. 

He first ran into opposition in Geneva in 1537 when he and his mentor, William Farel, disagreed with the city council on the correct form that the Supper should take.  At that time, Geneva co-operated with the city of Bern on setting standards of Reformed worship.  Bern proposed using only unleavened bread.  Calvin and Farel were unwilling to use unleavened bread until a synod in Zurich could be convened to settle the matter.  Geneva’s city counsellors were unhappy with the opposition, particularly since Bern was an ecclesiastical ally.  They were also becoming increasingly suspicious of Calvin and Farel, who were both French.  The city council ordered the two to use unleavened bread on Easter Sunday 1538.  The two Reformers refused to distribute the Sacrament that day.  This resulted in a riot during the service.  On Easter Monday, the city councillors asked Calvin and Farel to leave Geneva.  Farel never returned.  Geneva invited Calvin back in 1541.

It’s difficult to imagine a riot in church over the Lord’s Supper, especially today.  However, what this disagreement illustrates is Calvin’s determination to shape Reformed theology just the way he thought it should be.  Calvinism must be the most legalistic form of Christianity today.  It’s more than faith and worship — it’s a way of life.  The best illustration of Calvinism, for better or worse, are the Puritans and the Pilgrims.  Everything for them was regulated.  Some Calvinists pursue a similar lifestyle today.  A five-point (sola) Calvinist believes that no part of life exists separately from Christ.  Christ is part of everything we do.  Therefore, everything we do relates to Him.

Calvin strongly disagreed with the Catholic teaching that the consecration came about as the result of the sacrifice of the Mass: Communion is ‘the Sacrament not a sacrifice’. He maintained that Christ died once — therefore, His sacrifice occurred only once. As such, ‘its efficacy endures forever’. To believe otherwise, he said, was ‘an abomination’.  He also disagreed that Mass needed to be said in order to ‘merit grace and righteousness before God’. Nor did he like the idea that the priest should ‘keep himself apart’ from the congregation.  Remember, in those days, a rood screen separated the priest from the people by a considerable physical distance.  It was only in later centuries that openings had been carved into them allowing the congregation to catch a distant glimpse of what the priest was doing.  Many of the prayers of the Mass were also silent, as anyone who attends the Tridentine Rite will know.  One man’s contemplative beauty is another’s contemptible abomination.

We have only to receive in faith the grace which is there presented to us, and which resides not in the sacrament, but refers us to the cross of Jesus Christ as proceeding therefrom. Hence there is nothing more contrary to the true meaning of the Supper, than to make a sacrifice of it. The effect of so doing is to lead us off from recognising the death of Christ as the only sacrifice, whose virtue endures for ever … The Lord did not order that a single priest, after making his sacrifice, should keep himself apart, but that the sacrament should be distributed in the assembly after the manner of the first Supper, which he made with his apostles.

He also disagreed with the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, finding no basis for it either in Scripture or the teachings of the early Church:

Now to maintain that, it must be confessed either that the body of Christ is without limit, or that it may be in different places. In saying this we are brought at last to the point, that it is a mere phantom … For Scripture everywhere teaches us,’ that as the Lord on earth took our humanity, so he has exalted it to heaven, withdrawing it from mortal condition, but not changing its nature …

But he was at odds with Martin Luther on the idea of sacramental union — consubstantiation — where Christ is ‘in, with and under’ the elements of bread and wine.

I only wished to observe, in passing, that to fancy Jesus Christ enclosed under the bread and wine, or so to conjoin him with it as to amuse our understanding there without looking up to heaven, is a diabolical reverie.

On the other end of the spectrum, he disputed the notion of Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer, that the Supper was purely symbolic:

Hence when we see the visible sign we must consider what it represents, and by whom it has been given us. The bread is given us to figure the body of Jesus Christ, with command to eat it, and it is given us of God, who is certain and immutable truth. If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that it accomplishes all which it signifies. We must then truly receive in the Supper the body and blood of Jesus Christ, since the Lord there represents to us the communion of both. Were it otherwise, what could be meant by saying, that we eat the bread and drink the wine as a sign that his body is our meat and his blood our drink? If he gaveus only bread and wine, leaving the spiritual reality behind, would it not be under false colours that this ordinance’ had been instituted?

Calvin said that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the Sacrament of the Last Supper was ‘a secret too sublime for my mind to understand or express.  I experience it rather than understand it.’  That seems so unlike John Calvin — who normally framed a reasoned argument for all things Reformed.  However, he also wrote:

Our Lord, wishing to give a visible appearance to his Spirit at the baptism of Christ, presented him under the form of a dove. St. John the Baptist, narrating the fact, says, that he saw the Spirit of God descending. If we look more closely, we shall find that he saw nothing but the dove, in respect that the Holy Spirit is in his essence invisible.

Therefore, to a Calvinist, the bread and wine are symbols.  Yet, when partaking of the Sacrament, Christ comes to the communicant and is truly present in them thanks to the gift of faith.

We must confess, then, that if the representation which God gives us in the Supper is true, the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs; and as the bread is distributed to us by the hand, so the body of Christ is communicated to us in order that we may be made partakers of it. Though there should be nothing more, we have good cause to be satisfied, when we understand that Jesus Christ gives us in the Supper the proper substance of his body and blood, in order that we may possess it fully, and possessing it have part in all his blessings.

As far as the Adoration or Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was concerned, Calvin said Catholics were making ‘an idol’ of it rather than a Sacrament:

The command given us is not to adore, but to take and eat … From the same source have proceeded other superstitious practices, as carrying the sacrament in procession through the streets once a year; at another time making a tabernacle for it, and keeping it to the year’s end in a cupboard to amuse the people with it, as if it were a god. As all that has not only been invented without authority from the word of God, but is also directly opposed to the institution of the Supper, it ought to be rejected by Christians.

He strongly objected to Catholics receiving only bread and not wine:

Our Lord having commanded his disciples to eat the bread sanctified in his body, when he comes to the cup, does not say simply, ‘drink’, but he adds expressly, that all are to drink. Would we have any thing clearer than this? He says that we are to eat the bread without using an universal term. He says that we are all to drink of the cup … Moreover, he objects to dangers which might happen if the cup were given in common to all. Some drop of it might occasionally be spilt; as if our Lord had not foreseen that. Is not this to accuse God quite openly of having confounded the order which he ought to have observed, and exposed his people to danger without cause?   

Finally, he urged frequent Communion — more frequent than that of the Catholics of the day, some of whom received it only once a year. (They did not believe they needed to receive it often.) Calvin wrote:

However, if we duly consider the end which our Lord has in view, we shall perceive that the use should be more frequent than many make it: for the more infirmity presses, the more necessary is it frequently to have recourse to what may and will serve to confirm our faith, and advance us in purity of life; and, therefore, the practice of all well ordered churches should be to celebrate the Supper frequently, so far as the capacity of the people will admit. 

In order to receive the Supper properly, the communicant must:

  • Have ‘a desire and an ardent longing to be fed’
  • Conform his life to ‘the example of Jesus Christ’
  • Be united with one’s neighbour in ‘indissoluable friendship’
  • Recognise that our imperfections should encourage him to frequent Communion.

For more information, please read ‘A Short Treatise on the Supper of Our Lord’.  (WARNING: Not for the faint of heart!)

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