John Calvin’s Radical Beliefs Regarding Eucharistic theology

Agnus Deo

The Christian church should united around the Lord’s Table; the Church catholic is guilty of airing its grievances at and about the Lord’s Table in a way that prevents it being the unifying symbol it should. John Calvin’s beliefs about Eucharistic theology tried to build a middle way between all the paths.

According to Ralph P. Martin, emeritus Professor of Fuller Seminary, modern opinions trace to a prevailing attitude of sharp antipathy during the sixteenth century and for many traditions little has changed.[1] John Calvin, Martin Luther, Zwingly, and the Catholic church all came to representative the four main camps.

This essay explores John Calvin’s beliefs on the Lord’s Supper, and his view of the Eucharist as sacrament.

Setting the scene

Eucharist, circa 1775, image courtesy LACMA

Transubstantiation arose during the medieval era as the official view of the Roman Catholic Church. This doctrine was never fully accepted among professional theologians or certain lay groups. Early opponents are found in Gottschalk, the Waldensians, Catholic scholars (some saints even), up to the Hutterites in the Century before the reformation.  

It was truly assailed by all sides during the Reformation.

The reformation doubled down on the dislike of the Aristotelian explanation. People who still believed Jesus’ physical corpse was present in the elements rejected it. Those who believed that the “ordinance” was merely memorial not only disagreed with transubstantiation but deemed the official Roman dogma, practice, and idea as idolatry.

Luther and Zwingli were polar

Zwingli and Luther were two early representatives of these dissenting polar views. Luther promoted “real” corporal presence in consubstantiation. The German reformers main complaint was that Rome “over-explained” the issue. Zwingli instead promoted an almost non-sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper. He declared a communion meal instituted by Christ; confessed it was in no special way a means of grace. It was a sacrament only as far as it symbolized something abstractly.

The three Western views of Communion before Calvin

he Miraculous Communion of Saint Catherine of Siena, about 1513 - 1515
The Miraculous Communion of Saint Catherine of Siena, about 1513 – 1515, image courtesy Getty Open project


Transubstantiation is the view that the elements change into the body and blood of Jesus at a substance level but the accidents of the bread and wine remain. In Aristotelian terms, there are two parts of everything. The “stuff” or real substance of the universe/ things and accidents the physical properties stuff displays.

(Atoms as we use them today come from a rival school of philosophy. It is best to think of them as a loose replacement for substance. In our minds we have physical properties arise from atom’s properties. In Aquinas’ mind, the properties are not quite so bound up with the stuff; that’s it’s own essay.)

Trans -stuff- itution

This view held that the bread and wines substance “transfered” with Jesus’ substance. The physical properties of bread and wine remained as if it was the original “stuff” still there. The “stuff” though in the realm of philosophical “forms” / invisible reality was now Jesus “stuff.”

This has a few odd issues – they think it is permanent, so once changed it stays changed. This lead to wider practices like adoration of the host, etc. spreading


Luther’s view was the High Medieval Catholic view, minus Aquinas.

Basically the Bread substance remains (why the accidents do). For Luther, Jesus’ stuff comes in “mysteriously”  and only during the sacramental act.

For the reformer, the biggest win was such a mechanic renders the host as Jesus’ body only during the ceremony. No adoration, tramped Jesus bread, or other abuses he hoped to correct.



Zwingli’s view as stated was more radical. He said communion was all memorial. Taking scripture in the simplest light versus like “Do this in memory of me” guided his reflection. In fact, he just kept telling Luther during their debate on the topic, “The Flesh Profits nothing.”

He figured it really didn’t do any good to have Jesus magically appear in the bread at all. He did not see a point in that. And it didn’t matter to him that Luther carved “this is my body” into the very table around which they sat.

The Last Supper, about 1030 - 1040
The Last Supper, about 1030 – 1040, image courtesy Getty Open project

John Calvin, the next generation

John Calvin
Portrait of John Calvin, no known restrictions

Calvin was first instructed in traditional Roman dogma, and his acclimation to reformed principles was gradual. Two biographical details are important to address before delving into the theology.

Raised in a time of conflict

According to Williston Walker’s biography, John Calvin: the organizer of Reformed Protestantism, before 1529 young Calvin had ‘come across Aecolampadius’ and Zwingli’s views by way of Luther and at first expressed his dislike for them all.’[3]  Still, John Calvin’s beliefs even this early showed a growing distrust of “man-made” Catholic institutions.

For example, in Calvin’s early publication, Reply to Jacopo Sadoleto[4] he seems to give allegiance to none young John Calvin comes across as a youth dissatisfied with transubstantiation, dissatisfied with Luther, and dissatisfied with Zwingli.

His views developed in a time of debate, when no horse held the lead.

Calvin did not feel any position really answered Zwingli’s complaint, “Why does it matter if Jesus body is there?” Still, he agreed with the Catholic/ Lutheran insistence that Eucharist was not meaningless.  

Perhaps that is why Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, put forward what I hold to be a middle way between the opposing views of his day.

Calvin’s eventual conclusion held the Lord’s Supper was indeed a sacrament while also denying Jesus’ corpse in the elements. 

But it is not a purely abstract thought process. His life’s work, and a conversion to Protestantism that came despite his early misgivings about protestant theologies on the issue of communion and other doctrines[5] inform his conclusions. 

Calvin’s cryptic relation to Zwingli’s views.

Zwingli statue
Statue of the early reformer Zwingli. Image has no known restrictions

Later in Calvin’s life, due to political machinations that need not be elaborated, French Geneva was politically subjugated to German Bern. To make matters perhaps worse, In 1538 the city of Bern had officially adopted Zwingli’s views and pressed the city of Geneva to adapt to Bern’s ceremonial traditions.[6] This event provides the second important biographical detail in addressing Calvin’s Eucharistic beliefs.

Calvin, a preacher in the city, refused Zwingli’s views and stopped giving communion.

Walker contends Calvin dissented not for theological reasons, but rather because he felt “to administer the Supper in Circumstances of such popular tumult would be to profane so holy a mystery.”[7] He even posits it might have been French pride, wounded by German victory.

If a Reformer was dissenting from Zwingli’s view, but with no desire to break from Bern’s protestants over it, blaming events provided a convenient out.

The Reformed Theological show-down that never was

Calvin never really weighed in on the subject. In his Institutes, it appears at times Calvin still tiptoes around the Zwinglian views of his neighbors.

It could be he felt the issue was of minor importance.

However, Calvin wrote from a geopolitical position where to attack and distance himself from Roman views was far more politically savvy and more important to his movement, than to openly attack Bern’s views.

This is more than fun speculation. The Reformed Churches today hold mostly Bern’s views. Yet, more often  they look to Geneva’s personality for a role-model. And as a result, they often balk at exploring Eucharistic theology beyond a basic inquiry… there’s tension in the Cantons.

Calvin's views of communion
image courtesy pixabay, no known restrictions.

Calvin’s Defining of Sacraments

We turn now to Calvin’s actual written works and espoused views.

Though the present discussion the subject is only one sacrament, it is important that we first discuss the significance Calvin gives the general term sacrament throughout his Institutes.  

Calvin felt that a loose definition of sacraments can lead to an infinite number of sacraments.[9] So he took great pains being very strict with the term. He was sensitive to the need to not stand on his own authority as he drew such distinctions, so he constantly appeals to Augustine’s works concerning sacraments such as In Johann, De Doctrina Christiana, etc.

From this synthesizing, Calvin came to define a sacrament as “[a] visible sign of a sacred thing, or a visible form of an invisible grace.”[10] 

When he drops the definition into his institutes, Calvin still immediately comments on the ambiguity of this statement. Yet he defends the statement as a commonality between all western branches of the church and its antiquity[11]. He finds in Augustine an agreed upon base from which to build.

STILL he keeps it “ambiguous” and does not deny a mysterious aspect to the act; what follows are his main streams of thought, not full on definitions

Word and Sacrament

Calvin’s basic idea that sacraments are rites that assume deeper meaning than is readily apparent in his work.[12] However, he takes pains to avoid resting on such a position without giving a biblical basis and opening him to the charge of being nostalgic for Catholic views. 

The question becomes how can he do so when the catholic view seems magical and non-scriptural, and it appeared in his day the view that nothing happens was the most biblical?

Going super “Gospel.” Distinguishing written Scripture, Kerygma, and the core Gospel.

St. Matthew Writing His Gospel, about 1670s
St. Matthew Writing His Gospel, about 1670s, Image Courtesy Getty Open project


Calvin’s wider theology stresses the importance of the biblical Word of God or the Gospel (not in the sense of the Divine Logos). He elsewhere maintains that for an act to be considered proper worship it needs to have a firm biblical basis or it is merely a human institution and idolatry.[13]

 He feels naturally that sacraments have a biblical basis as the words of institution are scripture verbatim; however, he innovates by claiming it is exactly to this biblical basis that sacraments owe their power.[14] He thus strips them of any power to stand alone, than binds them to scripture to “re-energize” them.

Stripping away the ritual aspects

So “sacraments” in action alone to Calvin are: “nothing in themselves, just as seals of a diploma or a public deed are nothing in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment.”[15] 

He therefore agrees with the Zwinglians as far as the statement that the elements and the motions of the sacraments do not of themselves contain any power. Therefore, he rejects claiming there is an “ex opere operato” power in motions or operation of the rite.[16]  

John Calvin’s belief that The Gospel has the Real Power

For Calvin, a sacrament is only an augment to the preaching of and general acceptance of the gospel’s own saving power and authority. Using the same metaphor, he concludes sacraments are like seals on a document.

They let the receiver know it is official, but they do not change the contents. Both a warrant and birth certificate can have seals attached.  Thus, it is only from the more general scriptural promises and effectual covenant of God that sacraments derive their ability to give power/grace.[17] But it is the entirely the power of the Gospel itself.

Martin comments, “[For Calvin] to see only the outward symbol is to partake in an unworthy manner; the communion is an inward experience… but still a most real communication.”[18] Meaning that a sacrament exists primarily to let us know the validity and authenticity of God’s gospel and disposition towards us, but it is a preexisting fact that is not changed but validated as already known from the biblical witness.

Moses Striking Water from the Rock
Moses Striking Water from the Rock, about 1645 – 1650, Image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Why not Just use the Bible/Word/Gospel alone?

Because he makes sacraments so dependent on biblical testimony and more general aspects of the salvation by faith, Calvin raises and answers the question, “why do sacraments deserve any special recognition?”

 Calvin explains:

[Sacraments, therefore, are exercises which confirm our faith in the word of God; and because we are carnal, they are exhibited under carnal objects, that thus they may train us in accommodation to our sluggish capacity, just as nurses lead children by the hand…For Just as faith leans on the word of God as its proper foundation, and yet when sacraments are added leans more firmly, as resting on pillars][19]

John Calvin’s Believed sacraments are a support for a faith and grace that are already there. It is towards faith that already exist that, “They, by sealing us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith.”[20]  Calvin so equates the scripture and sacrament, that Martin concludes that ‘Calvin holds the grace we receive through a sacrament is the selfsame grace given us by the gospel.’[21] 

The idea of a special sacramental grace or event Calvin denies, but equally so is denied the idea that no grace comes from the sacrament. Calvin even counters such a view stating that to deny that sacraments confer grace is to deny that God is always perfecting faith through his gospel.[22]

Sacrament of the Lord's Supper
Image courtesy of pixabay, no known restrictions

Calvin uses strong sacramental language as he “re-energizes” the sacraments

If one did not know of his views of Sacraments, Calvin’s initial description of the Lord’s Supper shares a suspicious level of similarity with his opponents. According to Calvin, Communion is “invisible food by which we receive the body and blood of Christ.”[23] Calvin utilizes often language one would expect in accordance with Roman and Lutheran views. He is adamant that, “The body which was once offered for our salvation we are enjoined to take and eat.”[24] 

Nevertheless, the differences are subtly apparent as well. Those familiar with Lutheran or Roman terminology upon careful reading of the Institutes can note how familiar phrases are spliced. Words such as “in appearance” or “by analogy” are injected quite often into otherwise Roman figures of speech. Calvin linguistically weaves Luther’s and Zwingli’s polarized views together as he tries to dismount both the opinions as too extreme.

The Language he uses is Particularly Augustine’s

Calvin echoes Augustine strongly throughout his whole commentary on communion. While he does not cite it directly, I believe one of the strongest sentiments influencing him is from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. There the old saint claims that Jesus left towards heaven to entice us to follow upward towards the father and not become stuck in idolatry towards Christ earthly flesh.

Baptism of Saint Augustine
The Baptism of Saint Augustine, about 1430, image courtesy of Getty Open project

This upward movement had to have shaped Calvin’s sacramental paradigm as he returns to it multiple times;

{The apostle yet says:

“Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more.”

… And hence we may learn how essential it is that nothing should detain us on the way, when not even our Lord Himself, so far as He has condescended to be our way, is willing to detain us, but wishes us rather to press on; and, instead of weakly clinging to temporal things, even though these have been put on and worn by Him for our salvation,

…to pass over them quickly, and to struggle to attain unto Himself, who has freed our nature from the bondage of temporal things, and has set it down at the right hand of His Father.}[25]

The goal of exegesis, in Augustine’s view, was to reveal how earthly realities and events are analogous to the spiritual realities and events that drive them. For Augustine, heavenly truth and movements may lay behind everyday actions, but the particular events recorded in scripture are for a “higher meditation” than just historical interest. The goal of the spiritual life was to seek this out.

Calvin get’s Mystic

Calvin at least winks at this Augustinian ideal when he defines the goal of a communicant during the Eucharist, “It is not the principle part of a sacrament simply to hold forth the body of Christ without any higher consideration, but rather to seal and confirm [his] promise.”[26] That is to say the movement of the mind towards the realities of the Gospel, beyond the act itself is meant.

Predestination and Judgement
The Last Judgment, illumination about 1190; written about 1490,image Courtesy of Getty Open Project

In some ways, this insistence on faith in communion is not novel.

Roman scholars had claimed that it is taken on faith that Christ’s body is contained in the elements, despite the senses telling us otherwise.[27] Such meditation they indeed subscribed to as the most fruitful and the basis of most Catholic mysticism. This made receiving the sacrament an end in and of itself.

It drove exegesis, piety, and liturgy to center around only Communion as an unknowable mystery.

Calvin rejects this and proffers the explanation that God condescends to “exhibit [the mystery’s] figure and image in visible signs adapted to our capacity.”[28] For Calvin, the supper has “upward purpose.” That is a purpose of enabling feeble human minds to comprehend our mystical union with Christ in terms they understand, physical, but with an aim to go beyond that very sticking point. 

Like hearing preaching, Calvin felt it only benefits us if we accept the invitation and follow Christ towards the spiritual. He insists the communicant need to look beyond the physical act of eating and what they are eating in this world with this mouth and instead search for a deeper heavenly meaning of Jesus’ coming beyond just his human body.

Calvin as the practical thinker

In Calvin’s Eucharistic theology, the Lord’s supper is sacramental that gets its power from rendering the Gospel dynamically. Like the Word of God in scripture generally, it is useless if only heard.

It must be acted upon.

Therefore, for Calvin sacraments gives grace because in it performing the right we not only apply the gospel promises but act out the faith in obedience.[29] This application goes far beyond simply remembering or acquiescing to belief in Jesus or his supper, but applied as living faith that obeys. And taking the sacrament is right belief, right faith, and obedience itself. There is a pragmatic and ethical element that grounds even Calvin’s most esoteric statements:

We are quickened by the true partaking of him, which he designated by the terms eating and drinking, lest anyone suppose that the life which we obtain from him is obtained by simple knowledge.”[30] or elsewhere,

“The Lord was pleased, by calling himself the Bread of Life, not only to teach that our salvation is treasured up in his death and resurrection, but also, by virtue of true communication with him, his life passes into us and becomes ours, just as bread when taken for food gives vigor to the body.”[31]

Calvin uses the analogy of food giving energy to state that the Eucharist is a spiritual food that allows our souls to live as Christ lives, by nature producing Christ spiritual fruit.

It is a mystic, active, union in Calvin’s thinking. Unlike the notion of “eating the flesh” so as to share substance, Calvin leans towards almost “eating the Spirit in Flesh” so as to share Spirit in a Christological sense that leans more towards the mystery of the Incarnation than its physicality. In that sense, he could state he believed in “real presence,” satisfy Zwingli’s complaint, and avoid the philosophical issues of the corporal views.

Image courtesy pixabay, no known restrictions

Calvin in contrast

Calvin’s theology weaves by synthesis and critically contrasting his opponents’ views. Therefore, it is important to explore his rejections and counter arguments of them almost as if they are positive statements of his own doctrine. Calvin dedicates the bulk of his exposition upon Eucharistic theology to rebuttals. This is in a large part because while he sees sacraments through an Augustinian lens, he favors the Greek term, Mystery, as a theological driver. A joke among Reformed theologians is “something happens.”

For Calvin, a sacrament is not a mystery we force ourselves to believe the mechanics of, but rather a mystery we do not intellectually grasp.

By investigating these various ways in which he shoots down existing explanations, many indicators of the finer points of his doctrine are best distilled from between the press of his rhetoric and intellectual sparing.

Real Presence

Calvin does not flatly reject that Christ’s body and blood are truly received in communion. What he rejects are the modes in which his opponents say Christ’s body is present.

The Self-Flagellation of Saint Hedwig
Saint Hedwig Leaving Bloody Footprints in the Snow; The Self-Flagellation of Saint Hedwig, 1353, image courtesy of Getty Open project

His rejections of both transubstantiation and consubstantiation citing verses that place Jesus’ human body is in heaven.[32] Calvin’s main logic in these arguments is that bringing back the physical body of Jesus is unnecessary. He bases it on Trinity, “The Lord by his Spirit bestows upon us the blessing of being one with him in soul, body, and spirit.”[33] 

The idea of focusing on a physical Jesus runs contrary to the normative influence of Augustine in Calvin’s thinking; as slightly discussed above, the church father held Christ’s assumption should always lead us to follow him heavenward. Ideologically, perhaps more than in any way else, Calvin’s thought process is against real presence as Rome understands it because he generally finds it over-complicated and unnecessary.

Where he really gets brutal

Not stopping at a purely ideological level, Calvin viciously mauls the vitals of his opponents’ thesis theologically because he not only finds it irrelevant but theologically dangerous to core doctrines.

Calvin counters his opponents claims that the words of institution are literal by getting extremely literal himself. He asks how a literal reading of “this bread” in the words of institution means that Jesus is holding the “appearance of bread” and not actual bread.[34] Calvin then states that the words said over the cup in the Lucian and Pauline traditions, “This cup is the new testament,” further complicate the matter, because we know that “is” here does not mean “is transformed into.”[37] (Oddly, he does not retouch this position which would greatly enhance his “sacrament is Gospel” argument)

Continuing on, Calvin then points out that the water in the sacrament of baptism is still simply water,[35] so he states that logically his opponents must themselves explain away his difficulty in understanding how the term “is” means “converted to something else” in communion only.[36] Both are sacraments, and in his “Gospel Mechanics” of them it is hard to rectify them having opposite modes of effectiveness if the act of the rite is not imparting “magical” powers.

Picking and Choosing what is literal

Calvin goes so far with a literal reading to prove his point, “Assuming the body and blood of Christ are attached to the bread and wine, and then one must necessarily be dissevered from the other.”[38] In regards to transubstantiation, where the Catholic Church had insisted against the Hutterites that taking one “kind” (just the wafer) was the same as both kinds (bread and wine) Calvin here makes it sufficiently clear that his opponent’s doctrine is not possible from a plain reading of the text itself.

But he is pointing out something deeper. His opponents cannot simply shield themselves behind the words of institution, because they themselves are in-fact reading the word “is” two different ways to suit their needs. They are arguing “this is my body” is turning it to bread and wine but the cup is not pulling the same. Or worse, that if one kind indeed holds both… How can they prefer one to the other and withhold the cup from laity?

The Punishment of a Heretic, about 1400 - 1410,
The Punishment of a Heretic, about 1400 – 1410, image courtesy of Getty Open project

His point is not just to argue the mechanics, but the core Gnostic/ Monophysite beliefs

The door open, Calvin philosophically blitzes what he considers the gnostic doctrines of his opponents.[39] Calvin’s own usage of the term here is very acculturated, and he collapses into the term gnostic multiple heresies like a monophysite view. But it does not seriously detract from his positions core relevance/ claim.

Lutherans had tried to explain the presence of Christ’s body in the elements by promoting a doctrine called ubiquity. They claimed that after Jesus’ resurrection, his human body could take on the principles of the divine.[40] The Catholics likewise referred to Christ’s divine omnipotence to defend their own views.

Calvin strikes through so much smoke. He points out that placing Jesus physically in the elements using a post-resurrection transfer of divinity ignores the actual pre-resurrection last supper or degrades its authenticity. If he meant a transformative “is” why would he the one time it couldn’t work?

“What did Christ give to his disciples the day before he suffered?” Calvin asks, “What a door was left open to Marcion (Note: A famous gnostic), if the body of Christ was seen humble and mortal in one place, glorious and immortal in another.”[41] 

Chalcedon must stand before any Eucharistic doctrine

The Elevation of the Host
The Elevation of the Host; Initial T: A Putto Between the Sun and the Moon, between 1389 and 1404

Calvin sees Christ’s full humanity at the last supper irreconcilable with a view of corporal real presence. For if we hold the last supper as valid a Eucharistic celebration as authentic as ours today, someone in the Lutheran or Roman camps is in effect saying Jesus was not really “all there” like a normal human. His body would be in the bread as well as where he stood. His blood in his veins and his cup.

If the first communion was invalidated by their rendering, their scriptural exegesis establishing such becomes suspect.

The gnostic (per Calvin a catchall) concepts that Christ did not suffer, was a phantom, or did not really die except in appearance are given a tacit nod by his opponent’s ideas.  

Christ’s human nature is far too vital to sacrifice on the altar of sacraments, and Calvin sees no justification in deviating from Chalcedon and its soterioogy for the sake of Eucharistic theology.

Moreover, it establishes him upon an ancient and firm orthodoxy all his opponents claim agreement to as a fortress from which to deny antiquity and tradition to the contemporary Roman and Lutheran views.[42]

I wish this was stronger

Often when I discuss all this, I get a “so what?” when I talk about Jesus’ humanity being threatened by real presence views of the Catholic/ Lutheran type.

Calvin in my opinion should have gone even stronger here, and relies to much on his audience guessing the stakes of the debate. Calvin is making a core level objection to his opponents citing the base tradition of the Eastern and Western churches that Jesus is 100% human. This was a non-negotiable because Jesus’ assumption of our totally human flesh is the basis of all salvation. As Gregory of Nazianzus stated so eloquatly:

[that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.]

We often talk of denying the God in man as the threat; the very opposite destroys all our hope.

John felt this so completely he had to write:

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the Antichrist. (2 John 1:7)

Calvin still establishes a “real presence”

Though he destroyed how his opponents had hoped to establish a real presence, Calvin at the same time moves strongly to establish its reality.

He states, “I am not satisfied with those who only make us partakers of the spirit… omitting all mention of flesh and blood.”[43] Calvin still wants to do justice to the biblical terminology that drove his opponents’ expositions.  For Calvin the crux of the issue is that the word of God took on human flesh so that God’s life may flow into sinful man.[44] Yet he is very sensitive to the phrasing of his argument, because he does not want to say Jesus’ humanity itself gives us eternal life, “[Christ’s body] even now, endued with immortality, lives not by itself.”[45] 

Calvin understands John 5:26 to mean that Jesus’ resurrected humanity draws its life straight from God.[46] He then uses the Pauline metaphor that Christ is the head of the Church to state that the life of God in Jesus is transmitted to us. Calvin concludes that this process really gives us Christ’s blood and flesh in that his life force, the Holy Spirit, is actually communicated into believers.[47] That said, he does not totally close the issue as he stated he was unhappy with a solely pneumatological understanding.

He leaves it open in respect for a presence that is both real and mysterious


Calvin seems to want moderation between two views that he holds as too extreme. He faults those that say the elements transform into Christ’s living corpse attempting, through philosophy, to explain a mystery.[48]Likewise, he equally faults those that say communion is not spiritual as tossing out the mystery altogether.[49] 

Saint Augustine, Image Courtesy of Yale Un. Museum

In his seeking of a middle way, he exposes greatly on Augustine’s ideal that physical things can lead us towards the spiritual as shown in the Christ’s very own incarnation.[50]

Calvin also utilized Augustine’s methods of exegesis; Augustine held that difficult passages should be explained by simpler .[51] Calvin used simpler doctrines such as our union with Christ spiritually as exposed by the apostle Paul,[52] as well as the orthodox ideal of Christ’s full humanity to explain the mystery of holy communion.  Throughout Calvin often uses simpler agreed upon doctrines to explain why some have erred in exceedingly explaining a mystery that he is adamant we must leave mysterious.[53] 

However, he still is sensitive to what motivated those who overreached. He maintains that the ideas of a sacrament, real presence, and a rejection of certain traditions do not need to so firmly polarize the issue of the Lord’s Supper, but a synthesis arises from careful exposition of the shared traditions that all sides of the debate profess.

Calvin’s stance came from a time of big debates, and is defined by the spirit of his times. But he was first and foremost a Pastor

The Mass of Saint Gregory
The Mass of Saint Gregory, about 1535 – 1540, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

For Trent and Luther the sacrament’s mystery is that Christ’s body is present despite what our senses tell us. For scholars in these schools, it was to be taken as an item of faith that Christ’s body is contained in the elements. Even though the senses tell us otherwise, they would have us fight to believe that they cease to be bread and wine. [54] 

Calvin read the mystery of the sacraments in a different light ̶  that they are God communicating to humans through earthly elements to raise us above their natural weakness and preoccupation with worldly things[55] by a mystical union with Christ’s own humanity. In this aspect, Calvin sees Jesus working as stated in the Gospel of John, “You believe not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”[56] Calvin makes it imperative that we eat the spiritual bread of Jesus, because for worldly humans that builds the faith more than even signs or revelations.

While Calvin maintained that the meal is a memorial in that Jesus died only once, he does not see the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples as having only one purpose to just be remembered.

Calvin grasped firmly onto the fact that Jesus’ bodily ministry and its communication to us is real and vital to the healthy Christian life. Moreover, he managed to do so without recourse to degrading the authenticity of Jesus humanity.[58] 

My own reactions to Calvin

The Israelites Collecting Manna from Heaven
The Israelites Collecting Manna from Heaven, about 1510 – 1520

According to Professor Martin, the ongoing debates about the Eucharist have largely been framed along the original lines drawn during the reformation.[59] As such, Calvin’s importance in the field of Eucharistic studies remains of interest for any who refuse to follow the opinion that the meal is purely memorial. Because he systematically worked between two dynamic poles, Calvin’s Institutes would also offer any who would read them a solid basis for ecumenical reform that stays true to a biblical understanding while listening to the early church.

I can only criticize that while Calvin exegetes the New Testament thoroughly, Old Testament voices are not given their full impact in his Institutes.[60] Calvin was comfortable joining Pauline thought and the thoughts of Hebrews’ author in expounding that the manna and the water from the rock in the wilderness prefigure the spiritual food of the Church,[61] yet he never picks up the vital key metaphor of the Passover from Exodus.

Given his motif of a journey heavenwards, it is interesting he allowed the metaphors of the river crossings, wanderings, angels of death, and taking of the promise land to lie fallow while stating that so much of the power of the Eucharist lies in the Gospel promises. By this Calvin neglected major parts of the important historical task of expounding the Last Supper within the Jewish social continuum in which Jesus ministered, and the connection between the exodus and Christian redemption.


The Core Difference

However, Calvin for the most part is excellent in promoting the reality of our redemption throughout his whole exposition on holy communion. In Roman Catholicism, one can only receive the Eucharist having first confessed mortal sins to a priest, splashed oneself with holy water to remove venial sins, fully believes Jesus is present, and have a Priest who says the Mass properly.[62] 

Only a Catholic who is in a perfect state of grace can approach the sacrament.

 Calvin, however, reminds us that Jesus is a doctor who is sent only to the sick.[63] In my opinion, Calvin overturns this whole Catholic sacramental system in a few sentences:

{It were to stupid, not to say idiotical, to require a perfection which would render the sacrament vain and superfluous, because it was not instituted for the perfect, but for the infirm and weak, to stir up, excite, stimulate, exercise the feeling of faith and charity and at the same time correct the deficiency of both.} [64]

Reminds of a man who once said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17).

It is not a sacrament that requires faith, but one that grants it

The Healing of the Blind; The Healed Man before the Israelites
The Healing of the Blind; The Healed Man before the Israelites, about 1400 – 1410, Courtesy of Getty Open Project

Wrapping up

Because Calvin so relates the word and the sacrament, he makes the focus of the sacrament the good news itself. Calvin strove to return to the Church the sense that at the Lord’s Table we are experiencing anew how Jesus took our burdens upon himself and bore our sin. Interestingly enough, Calvin’s views have not had a big impact of Calvinist Churches like the Presbyterians and trend more Zwinglian despite the Westminster confession

In the end though, Calvin wanted most of all to free the faithful from having to attempt to accumulate Christ’s holiness by their own actions. It was for Calvin a core element of the gospel that they could rely instead on the Holy Spirit renewing and sanctifying them apart from their failures.[65] This was a radical notion in Calvin’s day and even today offers what so many believers constantly seek in repeated altar calls. The communion calls all of us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and to approach him anew.


Works Cited

Augustine. On Christian Doctrine In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed. Phillip Schaff. Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion trans. Henry Beveridge, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011.

Johnson, William S. John Calvin, Reformer for the 21st Century. Louisville: Westminster, 2009.

Martin, Ralph P. The Worship of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. “John Calvin and the Prophetic Criticism of Worship,” In John Calvin and the Church, ed. by Timothy George. Louisville; Westminster, 1990.

The Catechism of Trent, trans. by Very Rev. Jeremiah Donovan. New York: Catholic Pub. Society, 1914, accessed 15 March 2013)

“The Formula of Concord,” In Concordia Triglota, ed. F. Bente. St. Louise: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

Walker, Williston.  John Calvin: the organizer of Reformed Protestantism, New York, London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906,

Wallace, Ronald S. Calvin’s doctrine of the Word and sacrament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.

End Notes

[1] Ralph P. Martin. The Worship of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 164.
[3] Williston Walker. John Calvin: the organizer of Reformed Protestantism (New York, London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906, accessed 15 March 2013); available from Internet.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Walker
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 2011), Book IV, Chapter IXX, Section. II.
[10] Ibid. IV, XIV, I.
[11] Ibid. IV, XIV, I –IV.
[12] Calvin, Institutes. IV, IXX, II.
[13] Ibid. I, XI
[14] Ibid. I, XI
[15] Calvin, Institutes. IV, XIV, IV.
[16] Hughes Oliphant Old. “John Calvin and the Prophetic Criticism of Worship,” in John Calvin and the Church, ed. by Timothy George (Louisville; Westminster 1990), 235-7.
[17] Ronald S Wallace. Calvin’s doctrine of the Word and sacrament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 137-8.
[18] Martin. The Worship of God, (164).
[19] Calvin, Institutes. IV, XIV, VI.
[20] Ibid. IV, XIV, VII.
[21] Ibid. IV, XII, VI; IV, XIV,VI; VII; XXVII.
[22]Calvin, Institutes. Loc. cit.
[23] Ibid. IV, XVII, I.
[24] Ibid. Loc. cit.
[25]Augustine. On Christian Doctrine in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed. Phillip Schaff (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010), Book I, Chapter XXXIV.
[26] Calvin. Institutes, IV, XXVII, IV.
[27] The Catechism of Trent, trans. by Very Rev. Jeremiah Donovan, (New York: Catholic Pub. Society, 1914, accessed 15 March 2013); available from Internet, Part II, Chapter III, Section X.
[28] Calvin. Institutes, IV, I, I.
[29] Calvin, Institutes. IV, XXVII, V.
[30] Ibid. Loc. cit.
[31] Ibid. Loc. cit.
[32] Calvin, Institutes. IV, XXVII, XII.
[33] Ibid. Loc. cit.
[34] Ibid. IV, XXVII, XX – XXII.
[35] Calvin, Institutes. IV, XXVII, XIV.
[36] Ibid. IV, XXVII, XX.
[37] Luke 22:20;1 Cor 11:25.
[38] Calvin. Institutes, IV, XXVII; XVIII.
[39] Ibid. IV, XXVII, XVII.
[40] “The Formula of Concord,” in Concordia Triglota, ed. F. Bente (St. Louise: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), Epitome VII, affirmation 5.
[41] Calvin, Institutes. Loc. cit.
[42] Ibid. IV, XXVII, IX.
[43] Ibid. IV, XXVII, VII.
[44] Calvin, Institutes. IV, XXVII, VIII.
[45] Ibid. IV, XXVII, IX.
[46] Ibid. Loc. cit.
[47] Calvin, Institutes. IV, XXVII, X.
[48]Calvin, Institutes. IV, XXVII, XXXII, XXXV.
[49] Ibid. IV, XXVII, VIII.
[50] Ibid. IV, XXVII, XXXIV.
[51] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Bk. II.
[52] Martin. The Worship of God, 160-4.
[53] Calvin. Institutes, IV, XVII, I.
[54] The Catechism of Trent, Part II, Chapter III, Section X.
[55] John 12:30.
[56] John 6:26.
[57] The Catechism of Trent, Part II, Chapter III, Section VI.
[58] 1 John 4:2.NIV
[59] Martin. The Worship of God, 161.

[61] Calvin. Institutes, IV, XIV, XVII. See also 1 Cor 10; 1-13.
[62] The Catechism of Trent, Part II, Chapter III.
[63] Matt 9:12.
[64] Calvin, Institutes, IV, XVII, XLII.
[65] Romans 5.

Post Author

Paul is the founder of and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.

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