Significant differences

Very interesting essay by Phillip Cary on Eucharistic Presence in Calvin, explaining the difference between the Calvinist and Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

Part of the question revolves around whether Christ’s body is “objectively present” in the sacrament. As Dr Cary observes, “objective” is a “slippery and ambiguous word”, but more explicit definition helps make the question clearer:

For suppose we define “objectively present” as meaning “present independent of anyone’s state of mind,” where “state of mind” includes things like belief. Then Christ’s body is not objectively present in the sacrament in Calvin’s view but is objectively present in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views.

For Lutherans (and Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), “Christ’s body is objectively present in the mouth of all who partake in the sacrament, whether they believe it or not”. Calvin “explicitly and repeatedly denies” this, and indeed identifies it as “the key point on which he differs from the Lutherans”.

What I found particularly illuminating in Dr Cary’s essay was his use of the Augustinian distinction between the signum (i.e. the “outward and visible sign”) and the res (the thing signified, i.e. the “inward and invisible grace”). Lutherans, Calvinists and others are agreed that all who partake in the Supper receive the signum, the sign, but only those who eat and drink in faith receive the res, the thing signified.

This is where the difference then lies. For Calvin, the signum in the Lord’s Supper is the bread and wine, and the res is the body and blood of Christ. Hence all who partake in the Supper receive the bread and wine, but only those who eat and drink in faith receive the body and blood of Christ.

However, Cary continues, “Luther thinks of the body of Christ as the sacramental sign, not just the thing signified”. In other words, for Lutherans, the signum in the Lord’s Supper is the body and blood of Christ (in, with and under the bread and wine), and the res is the spiritual benefit of the Supper (“forgiveness, life and salvation” as Luther summarises this in the Small Catechism). Hence all who partake in the Supper receive Christ’s body and blood, but only those who eat and drink in faith receive forgiveness, life and salvation.

This explains why the difference between Lutherans and Calvinists on the Supper is one of those differences between us which, as Cary has put it elsewhere, “can be described as narrow but deep, like a small crack that goes a long way down”. It’s not just that we disagree as to what the benefits of the Supper are or the precise mechanism by which we receive them, as if we agreed on what the Supper is but simply disagreed as to its meaning. We don’t even agree on what the Supper is at its most basic level: its outward and visible sign.

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One Response to Significant differences

  1. Jim says:

    Thanks for posting about Cary’s essay — I hadn’t seen it.

    Cary has a real knack for finding the nub of disagreement, and explaining it in an amazingly understandable fashion.

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