Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Calvin's View of the Atonement - Part VII

The Spiritual v. the Physical Presence of Christ

Continuing the discourse of previous essay, I resume the review of the passage in Calvin's tract against Heshusius that contains the famous, vaunted, and (if I am correct) much misunderstood "limited atonement" quotation. The reader may need to go back to that previous blog post to pick up the threads of my argument. In the first sentence of the passage I quoted, Calvin makes this objection:

Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit.

Calvin makes this objection in response to the idea that the wicked partake of Christ's flesh in the Lord's Supper. Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit, Calvin says, and thus merely eating the flesh of Christ apart from the Spirit of Christ is impossible. The reader should keep in mind that Calvin did hold that Christ's flesh, or His body, is present in the elements of the Lord's Supper. The difference between Calvin and Heshusius on this point is that Heshusius held to a physical presence, whereas Calvin held that this presence, though substantial, is spiritual and mysterious. Calvin says in this tract,

it is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ....

Heshusius relies on wooden literalism

The substance of Heshusius's argument — as related by Calvin — is summed up in the next sentence:

His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them.

Heshusius relies on a strictly literal reading of 1Corinthians 11:24, "this is my body." For Heshusius, the literal meaning of the words answers all objections. It is important to recognize his heavy-handed literalism to understand both the issue in dispute and Calvin's arguments. This is why Calvin asked questions of Heshusius throughout the tract regarding the physical nature of the flesh of Christ in the elements: is the flesh chewed with the teeth? how long is it retained in the body? and such like.

It is also important to understand that Heshusius insists on the literal meaning of the words. We will come to this again later.

The benefits of the Supper enjoyed only by faith

The next section of this passage contains the part of the dispute between Calvin and Heshusius related to the spiritual benefits of the Lord's Supper and how one might partake of those benefits. I begin this next quotation with the sentence already given above that relates Heshusius's inelegant literalism:

His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them. Does he mean to astonish us by a miracle when he tells us that the blind see it? It has been clearly enough shown that nothing of the kind is to be seen in the words of Paul. He endeavors to disentangle himself by saying, that Christ is present with his creatures in many ways. But the first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world.

Emphasis added. In these sentences, Calvin focuses on the difference between the literal presence of Christ's body in the elements and the spiritual benefits that must be enjoyed by faith. And that is how we can understand the emphasized sentence at the end of the passage. Since, by Heshusius's own principles, the wicked do not benefit by Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper, Calvin drives home the point that faith is required to enjoy the benefits promised in the Eucharist. This is Calvin's main thrust. Faith is required to enjoy the benefits of Christ's sacrifice offered in the Eucharist, not Christ's bodily presence. Thus, though unbelievers are offered these benefits, they do not receive them because they have no faith. On this point Calvin has reduced Heshusius to an absurdity using principles that Heshusius himself espouses.

The critical sentence

And now, at last, we come to the critical sentence. But this time we come to it fully prepared. Here it is.

And as he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?

First we note the reference to Heshusius's literalism: "as he adheres so doggedly to the words...." Calvin is setting us up for another reductio relying on Heshusius's clumsy dependence on the literal meaning of words.

"I should like to know...." Calvin uses these words to introduce his challenge to Heshusius. As I noted previously (reason four), this challenge must be on principles Heshusius would agree to or Calvin's argument would be meaningless.

"how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ...." Clearly Calvin is speaking of the local bodily presence of Christ's flesh in the bread, as opposed to the spiritual benefits. Calvin has already posed the question related to the spiritual benefits of the Lord's Supper in the previous sentence. Now he passes to the physical eating. This is the main point in dispute. It should not surprise us to see the bodily presence of Christ in the elements as the subject of a reductio ad absurdum when the bodily presence is the principal bone of contention.

"which was not crucified for them?" In Lutheran theology, this point is referred to in at least two of their confessional documents. In Luther's Large Catechism, in the section titled "The Sacrament of the Altar," we find this statement:

Therefore also it is vain talk when they say that the body and blood of Christ are not given and shed for us in the Lord's Supper, hence we could not have forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. For although the work is accomplished and the forgiveness of sins acquired on the cross, yet it cannot come to us in any other way than through the Word.

Notice that Lutheran doctrine explicitly denies that the body and blood of Christ are "given and shed for us in the Lord's Supper...." The work, the Lutherans hold, was accomplished on the cross, not in the Eucharist. This is further reinforced in the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV, where private masses are condemned and Christ's once sacrifice for sin is asserted.

For Christ's passion was an oblation and satisfaction, not for guilt only, but also for all other sins, as it is written to the Hebrews, 10:10: 'We are sanctificed through the offering of Jesus Christ once for all.'

Augsburg Confession XXIV

Thus Lutheran theology specifically denies that the body of Christ, though present in the Eucharist, is sacrificed in the Eucharist. I suggest that it is this that Calvin refers to in his famous challenge. Calvin is asking how the wicked eat the flesh of Christ, which, though it is physically present in the bread, has not been sacrificed?

To reinforce this, we may also recall Paul's words in 1Corinthians, which Heshusius insists upon so doggedly: "Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you...." Since Heshusius relies so strongly on the words for the physical ingestion of Christ's flesh, how can he account for the flesh not being offered as a sacrifice as in the Catholic Mass? He insists upon "this is my body," but is not so reliant on the words "which is broken for you." As Calvin suggested earlier, the Catholics are "considerably more modest and more sober."

Thus we have come to a satisfactory understanding of Calvin's challenge, which involves no contradiction to his own theology, uses Heshusius's accepted principles for a reductio ad absurdum argument, is in keeping with the tone of the dispute between the two men, and addresses the matter that is actually being debated between them. Whereas the limited atonement argument, as suggested by the high Calvinists, meets none of those criteria.

(I must credit my friend Terry West for suggesting the comparison to the Catholic Mass. I was struggling with Calvin's argument about the physical presence of Christ's flesh in the bread and how that could relate to the sacrifice of Christ, when Terry suggested, quite brilliantly as is his wont, the parallel to the Catholic Mass. The idea proved more fertile the more I pursued it. Thanks Terry!)

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