29 June 2008

If by the breaking of bread

(The return of “Wisdom Sunday”)

One frequently hears Calvinists referred to as rationalists. Usually Calvin himself gets the blame for this, sometimes by Calvinists themselves, but mostly by non-Calvinists. This doesn’t sound like a rationalist to me:

[T]he flesh and blood of Christ feed our souls just as bread and wine maintain and support our corporeal life. For there would be no attitude in the sign, did not our souls find their nourishment in Christ. This could not be, did not Christ truly form one with us, and refresh us by the eating of his flesh, and the drinking of his blood. But though it seems an incredible thing that the flesh of Christ, while at such a distance from us in respect of place, should be food to us, let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive — viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space. That sacred communion of flesh and blood by which Christ transfuses his life into us, just as if it penetrated our bones and marrow, he testifies and seals in the Supper, and that not by presenting a vain or empty sign, but by there exerting an efficacy of the Spirit by which he fulfills what he promises. And truly the thing there signified he exhibits and offers to all who sit down at that spiritual feast, although it is beneficially received by believers only who receive this great benefit with true faith and heartfelt gratitude. For this reason the apostle said, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ”? (1 Corinthians 10:16.) There is no ground to object that the expression is figurative, and gives the sign the name of the thing signified. I admit, indeed, that the breaking of bread is a symbol, not the reality. But this being admitted, we duly infer from the exhibition of the symbol that the thing itself is exhibited. For unless we would charge God with deceit, we will never presume to say that he holds forth an empty symbol. Therefore, if by the breaking of bread the Lord truly represents the partaking of his body, there ought to be no doubt whatever that he truly exhibits and performs it. The rule which the pious ought always to observe is whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. IV, Ch. 17, para. 10.
No rationalist could have written that. A rationalist, looking at bread and wine and trying to understand them as body and blood, never sees anything but bread and wine, never touches anything but bread and wine, never eats and drinks anything but bread and wine. Christ’s body and blood are in heaven, so bread and wine on earth are simply bread and wine. Consequently, most Christians who are not Calvinistic see the elements as purely symbolic.

Calvin does not. In the Communion, Christ is truly given to us by the Holy Spirit, who is, as he puts it, more than able to unite things “separated by space.” Unlike too many of his theological descendants, Calvin was willing and able to accept a great deal of mystery.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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