(Editor’s Note: Bethany Tanis has authored many great comments on the BJS website, particularly concerning Calvinism and so we asked her to do a little writing for us on the relationship between Calvinism and Evangelicalism. It is a good thing for the Brothers and all our readers to understand the various denominational tag lines out there as we seek to uphold the Lutheran Confessions and distinguish them from false confessions. Bethany has a Ph.D. from Boston College in modern British history and is starting an assistant professorship in modern European history at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI in the fall. This is part four of a five part series.)
In the previous essay, I noted the Calvinists belief the finite cannot contain the infinite. This belief affected Calvin’s Christology, but it also affected his view of the sacraments. For example, if the finite (bread and wine) cannot contain the infinite (Christ’s human and divine body and blood), then the Real Presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood in the sacrament is impossible. Moreover, Calvin believed Christ’s body was present at the right hand of God in heaven, which was conceived of as a physical location. How then could Christ’s body also be present on the altar in thousands of locations at once on Sunday morning?
For the Lutheran, who accepts a real hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures, this is not a problem. Christ’s divine nature communicates its omnipotence and omnipresence (genus maiestaticum) to His human nature, allowing Him to descend to altars around the world simultaneously. But, since Calvin denied the full ability of Christ’s divinity to communicate its attributes to His humanity, he denied the possibility to the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper because Jesus remained seated locally in heaven. Calvin argued instead that we received Christ spiritually, but not in a sacramental oral way, in Communion. How did this happen?
Since the divine was incapable of being conveyed via bread and wine (or water in baptism or the spoken or written Word), the Holy Spirit instead acted directly on the heart of the believer when he received the bread and wine.  Thus, the Holy Spirit acts in a parallel but unconnected way with the reception of the elements, which remain signs of the grace received directly by the heart. (Calvin later argued that the Holy Spirit elevated the believer’s soul to the right hand of God to spiritually commune with Christ’s body in heaven).
Although Calvin did not believe in the substantial Real Presence in the same way as Lutherans, he nevertheless used highly realistic language to describe the spiritual reception of Christ parallel to oral communion. He could even say at times that he believed in the real substantial presence of Christ in Holy Communion! We see the same phenomena today in Evangelical circles. If you were to ask most Evangelicals if they believed Christ’s body and blood were really present in Communion, they would say no, the bread and wine are merely symbols. Despite his complex theology of spiritual eating and communion with Christ, in the end, Calvin shared with Ulrich Zwingli a belief that the bread and wine were merely symbols or signifiers of Christ’s absent body. Nevertheless, there are many Evangelicals who tell you that they do believe in the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in Communion. The problem with admitting such believers to altar fellowship in a Lutheran church is that they are probably not using the terms “Real Presence” in the same way as Lutherans. They are probably using them as Calvin did – they believe Christ is “really present,” but in a spiritual sense as communicated through a direct action of the Holy Spirit on their hearts. This is why our communion statements in LCMS churches need to be extremely specific in order to prevent misunderstanding among Evangelicals influenced by Calvin’s teachings.
- See Heidelberg Catechism (1563), question 78; Internet, Westminster Theological Seminary Resources, available here; accessed 4 February 2009.
- See John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (1541), para. 41; Internet, available here, accessed 4 February 2009; and Heidelberg Catechism (1563), question 76; Internet, Westminster Theological Seminary Resources, available here; accessed 4 February 2009.
- Hermann Sasse, This Is My Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar, Revised Ed. (Adelaide, South Australia: Openbook Publishers, 1977), 262.
- See Jack D. Kilcrease, “Review of Principles of Lutheran Theology by Carl E. Braaten,” Logia 18, issue 1 (Epiphany, 2009): 49.
- Unlike Luther, both Zwingli and Calvin rejected the possibility of God operating through secondary causes. Lutheran historian Martin Noland notes that “the consequence of the denial of secondary causes for Reformed [Dutch Calvinist] theology is that the word of God, the sacraments, and the ministry of the church are not true causes of salvation, but merely empty instruments which require God’s intentional activation by the Spirit” See Martin Noland, “The Lutheran Mind and Its University,” Logia 17, issue 4 (Reformation, 2008): 48. See also John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XVI, 2-3, 8; Internet, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available here; accessed 4 February 2009.
- David P. Scaer, Christology, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics Series Vol. 6 (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Luther Academy, 1989), 28fn.16; see also Sasse, This Is My Body, 262-263; and See Heidelberg Catechism (1563), question 79; Internet, Westminster Theological Seminary Resources, available here; accessed 4 February 2009.
- Sasse, This Is My Body, 263ff. See Calvin’s description from his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (1541), para. 60; Internet, available here, accessed 4 February 2009.
- Sasse, This Is My Body, 264.
- Sasse, This Is My Body, 262, 265-267