Friday, July 10, 2009

Calvin on the Lord's Supper

Originally published in The Churchman, Matt Mason's articulation of evangelical Anglican appropriation of Calvin's eucharistic theology makes me proud to stand in both the Presbyterian and Anglican stream of the reform of the Church.

This'll whet your appetite:

Before considering his view of the Supper, it will be helpful to grasp his theology of the sacraments generally. For Calvin, sacraments are

an aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel…an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his goodwill toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety towards him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.[30]

Three things are noteworthy. Firstly, sacraments are related to the preaching of the gospel: ‘a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix.’[31] But, when joined to the Word, they ‘have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.’[32] Their primary direction is therefore God to us, not us to God, in contrast to the Roman Mass. Secondly, as an outward sign and seal the sacraments assure us that God’s promises are reliable. It is not that the Word is insufficient; nevertheless we are weak, and so God in his grace provides seals, like those on government documents, to assure us of the truth of his promises.[33]

The sacraments do what the Word does, but better, because they also contain a visible component:[34] ‘The sacraments bring the clearest promises; and they have this characteristic over and above the word because they represent them for us as painted in a picture from life.’[35] Thus, they make the Word ‘more vivid and sure.’[36] Thirdly, sacraments do not, contra Rome, work ex opere operato. They must be received by faith: this is the God-ward movement as, in response to his promises, we attest our piety.[37] However, even this God-ward movement is dependent on God’s prior, gracious activity. The Spirit must work through the sacraments to confirm our faith. They

properly fulfil their office only when the Spirit…comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our soul opened for the sacraments to enter in.[38]

Within this context, Calvin views the Supper as a banquet, whereby we feed on Christ.[39] Christ himself is ‘the only true food of our soul,’[40] but God gives ‘visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.’[41] The Supper is thus a covenant sign and seal, annexed to God’s Word.[42] Hence, Calvin agrees with Luther and Zwingli, against Rome, that the Word of God is indispensable to right administration.

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