May 5, 2007

Questions for Calvin

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Sinclair Ferguson’s contribution to Serving the Word of God is an essay entitled “Calvin on the Lord’s Supper and Communion with Christ.”  The essay’s okay, though I don’t know if it breaks any new ground.  But it raises two questions I wish I could pose to Calvin:

1.  Ferguson points out that Calvin, together with the Augustinian tradition (so I guess the question may really be for Augustine!), views the sacraments as “visible words” (pp. 204-205).  He says, summarizing Calvin’s view,

The signs display or exhibit Christ to the eyes and to the sense of vision, just as the word displays Christ to the ears and to the sense of hearing as the Spirit takes what belongs to Christ and shows or exhibits it to us (p. 208, emphasis mine)

and later he refers to the function of pictures.

We find something similar in the Heidelberg Catechism,though interestingly enough only in connection with the Lord’s Supper: “As surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me….” (Q&A 75).

My question for Calvin and the whole Calvinian (or Augustinian) tradition is simply this: Why the emphasis on sight?  Why are the sacraments defined primarily as things that we see?

My guess is that it has it has to do with defining the sacraments as signs and symbols.  The progression, I imagine, goes like this: The sacraments are signs, a sign is a picture, a picture is something you see, and therefore the sacraments are something you see.

There are, however, a number of problems with this approach.

First, not everyone sees his own baptism; not everyone sees the Supper.  I’ve baptized babies who had their eyes closed and weren’t watching the baptism take place.  I’ve also baptized adults who were kneeling in front of me, and I can assure you that they didn’t have eyes on the tops of their heads to see the baptism taking place.  Furthermore, some people are blind and cannot see either baptism or the Lord’s Supper.

But that doesn’t matter.  A baby whose eyes are closed is still baptized. A blind man who takes the Supper is still eating the Supper.  The fact that he can’t see the bread doesn’t matter.

Second, the Bible never mentions the importance of seeing the water of baptism being applied or the bread being broken or the cup being given.  The Heidelberg Catechism seems to make seeing these things important, but the Bible doesn’t.  I’m not at all sure why the Catechism doesn’t simply say “As surely as the bread is broken for me and the cup given to me.”

Third, it’s not just that the Bible doesn’t emphasize sight; it’s also that the Bible’s emphasis is elsewhere.  Baptism is simply not something that you gaze on.  Rather, it’s a ritual that happens to you.  What’s important is not whether you can see it happening to you; what’s important is that it happens to you.

It’s the same with the Supper.  It doesn’t matter if you can see the Supper.  It doesn’t matter at all if you see the minister break the bread.  You might be able to see the bread and wine on the Table or in the tray being passed; you might also be able to see your fellow church members jaws working as they chew the bread or their Adam’s apples bobbing as they swallow the wine.  Or you might not.  Who cares?  What’s important is that you eat the bread and drink the wine, and that you do it together.

Is it visible?  Yes, but that’s an unimportant aspect of it.  It’s also audible: if you listen closely enough, you might be able to hear someone chewing; I’ve often heard people cough after they drink the wine.  But the fact that it’s audible is irrelevant to the sacrament, and so is the fact that it’s visible. The bread and wine aren’t just visible; they’re edible, and it’s the eating — and the eating together — that makes the Supper.

In this regard, I suspect that our term “sacrament” may mislead us.  We tend to lump baptism and the Lord’s Supper together into one category which we then turn into a matter of theology and church life, abstracted from real life, and so we forget that baptism is a bath and that the Lord’s Supper is a meal.

Is a bath visible?  Yes.  You can watch a bath taking place.  (“Can,” not “may”: I don’t want you in my bathroom.)  Is a meal visible?  Yes.  You can watch people eating.  But surely the visibility of these things is the least important part.  I’ve bathed my daughter while she’s asleep.  She didn’t see it happening, but that didn’t matter.  She was bathed and now she’s clean.  If the power goes out during dinner and the whole house is dark, you can’t see how beautiful the food and the place settings are, let alone see the others at the meal, but you can still eat together.

And so it is with baptism and the Supper.  Visible?  Yes.  But that isn’t important.  What’s important is the ritual itself: the washing and the eating.

Fourth, I wonder what sort of understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper undergirds this emphasis on sight and what sort of approach to them it leads to.  It appears to me to be a sort of intellectualism.

Sight is the least intimate of our senses.  Taste is the most intimate, of course, because you actually take part of something into your body.  Touch is very intimate.  Smell is quite intimate, but you can smell from a distance without touching.  Hearing is less intimate, since you can hear from a distance.  But sight is the sense that lets you stand farthest away.  You can see farther than you can hear. (How far can you see?  I can see several light years.  I see stars at night, after all.)

The emphasis on sight, then, is an emphasis on something that doesn’t involve physical contact.  Furthermore, sight in the Bible is associated with judgment.  (Think of lines like “right in his own eyes.”)  We stand at a distance and we evaluate.

And when we make the sacraments primarily something to be seen, when we emphasize their visibility, it tends to put us at a critical distance from them.  They become something to think about, something to evaluate.  Small wonder, then, that at least one Reformed tradition taught that the sacraments work on the mind through reasoning:

The signes and visible elements affect the senses outward and inward: the senses convey their object to the mind: the mind directed by the holy Ghost reasoneth on this manner, out of the promise annexed to the Sacrament: He that useth the elements aright, shall receive grace thereby: but I use the elements aright in faith and repentance, saith the mind of the believer: therefore shall I receive from God increase of grace. Thus, then, faith is confirmed not by the worke done, but by a kind of reasoning caused in the mind, the argument or proofe whereof is borrowed from the elements, being signes and pledges of God mercie (William Perkins, cited in E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, p. 53, emphasis Holifield’s).

Against Perkins, Calvin, and this whole tradition, I submit that we need to drop the emphasis on the sacraments as “visible words” and the emphasis on the importance of seeing anything happen to the bread and cup.  Whether you see it or not doesn’t matter.  The Lord’s Supper isn’t something to gaze upon; it’s a meal we eat together.

In keeping with this strange emphasis on sight, I’ve even heard people say that children who aren’t allowed to eat the Lord’s Supper are still partaking of it.  How?  By seeing things.  They get to see the bread broken (though not for them).  They get to see the cup handed out (though not to them).  They get to see the bread and wine being passed and others taking them.  And so, these people say, they get the Lord’s Supper.

The best response may simply be to invite such people over for a meal, to let them look at the table full of food, to pass it around in front of them, but not to let them actually eat any.  After all, by their own theology, they’re partaking of the meal just as much as the rest of us.  That’s nonsense, of course, but it’s nonsense for every meal, including the Lord’s Supper.

2.  My second question for Calvin and the Calvinian tradition is related to the first.  Ferguson sums up Calvin’s view this way:

In the preached word, then, Christ speaks to us and we respond in faith to his living voice.  This in itself is enough for us; but God recognizes that our faith is weak and in need of his strengthening. So he further provides the visible words of baptism and the Lord’s supper where Christ puts his grace on display in order to bring us to a more assured communion with him through the Spirit’s work and our responding faith (p. 205, emphasis mine).

Later, Ferguson adds:

Calvin sees sacraments as appendices to the promise of the gospel, confirming it to faith.  Pictures may display what the weak in faith are not able to read easily in the word.  They thus help us remove our ignorance and doubt of God’s grace toward us, and strengthen our weak faith (p. 208, emphasis mine).

Notice that Calvin links the sacraments with our weakness.  I grant that the sacraments help our weak faith.  But that’s not what Calvin is claiming.  He’s claiming that it’s because of our weakness that we have sacraments.  From Ferguson’s first summary above, it sounds as if Calvin is saying that the Word ought to be enough for us, but, because we’re weak, the Word isn’t enough, and so we need something visible.

Here’s my question for Calvin: Is it really the case biblically that we have sacraments because our faith is weak?  I don’t think so.  I see no biblical support for such a claim.

Perhaps the argument is simply that God speaks and then often adds a sign.  So God establishes His covenant with Abraham and then adds circumcision.  But that doesn’t prove that God added circumcision because Abraham’s faith was weak, does it?

The Tree of Life appears to have been sacramental in some way, and God planted it in the Garden before the Fall. Either that means that we must say that Adam’s faith was weak and that its weakness is not the result of sin (unless we want to say there was sin before the Fall) or we must say that sacraments aren’t given only because we’re weak in faith.

Again, as with the previous question, I wonder what sort of theology flows out of this view of the sacraments.  Perhaps its a sacramental theology like that of the Puritan William Bradshaw, who wrote:

Hence also it appears, that we specially eate the flesh of Christ, and drink his bloud, when with a beleeving heart and mind, we effectually remember and in our remembrance, we seriously meditate of, and in our meditations are religiously affected, and in our affections thoroughly inflamed with the love of Christ, grounded upon that which Christ hath done for us, and which is represented and sealed unto us in this Sacrament (cited Holifield, p. 59).

On Bradshaw’s view, it seems, the real partaking of the sacrament happens in our hearts and minds through our meditation and the feelings that meditation stirs up in us.  That meditation is sparked by what Christ has done for us, which is “represented and sealed unto us in” the Supper.  But do we need the Supper if our real communion with Christ is up in our minds, brought about by our thinking and not by our actual eating of the bread and drinking of the wine?

I’m afraid this Calvinian tradition easily gives rise to the idea that the Supper isn’t really necessary.  After all, Calvin seems to be saying, the Word ought to be enough. Of course, he’d add that none of it is ever strong enough to do without the sacraments.  But we ought to be.  If you understand the story, you don’t need the pictures to help you. And many Reformed churches reinforce this idea by doing without the Supper most Sundays in the year.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:27 pm | Discuss (12)

12 Responses to “Questions for Calvin”

  1. duane vandenberg Says:

    My first question for Calvin would be wether he actually believed it the way you read it (paraphrased) in an essay? I’m not an expert on Calvin, so I’m not going to argue whether this was an accurate portrayal of Calvin or not, but I think any analysis of someone’s beliefs should not be done based on 2nd hand information.
    I’ve always wondered about the timing of the Supper- I always wondered if it wasn’t intended to be annually, at about Easter time as the Passover?
    p.s. please understand, I’m not trying to be critical of your opinions here, but I’d dislike it if people judged me based on what someone else said that I said.

  2. duane vandenberg Says:

    As soon as I clicked send, I remembered my other comment- we were in a Mennonite church on Good Friday, for their communion service, and I can’t remember the exact comment of the pastor, but he suggested that all were participants, whether by passing the plate down the row, by watching, or actually taking part.
    I suppose being a observer, rather than a participant, ought to make one desire to know more.

  3. John Barach Says:

    Your question is valid, Duane: Does Calvin mean what I take him to mean based on Ferguson’s summary?

    I think Ferguson’s summary is accurate. Calvin does approve Augustine’s description of the sacraments as visible words:

    “Augustine calls a sacrament ‘a visible word’ for the reason that it represents God’s promises as painted in a picture and sets them before our sight, portrayed graphically and in the manner of images” (Institutes 4.14.6).

    He also writes this in his section on the sacraments:

    “God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough…. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spirituial, he condescends to lead us to himself, even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. For if we were incorporeal … he would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls engrafted in bodies, he imparts spiritual things under visible ones” (Institutes 4.14.3).

    I don’t know what all this talk is about us creeping on the ground, cleaving to the flesh (whatever that means exactly) and so forth.

    Is Calvin talking about wicked people? I don’t know. But the last sentence seems to indicate that he’s simply talking about physical man. We cleave to the flesh, Calvin says, and that’s why we need sacraments. And, parallel to that, we’re physical, and that’s why we need sacraments.

    But if this cleaving to flesh is sinful and therefore this sinful tendency is the reason we have sacraments, then what about the sacramental trees in the Garden?

    I don’t know if Calvin would really put it this way if he were questioned on it, but it still sounds to me as if he’s saying that the use of the sacraments is a condescension (more than God’s speaking to us is) made necessary because we’re physical and therefore focus on earthly things.

    I don’t believe that a biblical case can be made either for the claim that the sacraments are given because we are sinfully weak or for the claim that sacraments are given because being physical itself constitutes a sort of weakness that God has to condescend to overcome by using physical stuff — as if it would be better not to have use physical stuff but he’s willing to do so to help us.

    Maybe I’m being overly hard on Calvin here. Maybe I’m misunderstanding him. But I do think that some people in history have read Calvin the way I am here and I suspect that such a reading has borne some bad fruit.

    Any Calvin scholars out there?

  4. John Barach Says:

    With regard to the frequency of the Supper, I think we have to conclude that the apostles understood Jesus correctly.

    In Acts 2, they “broke bread” (which refers to the Lord’s Supper) together daily (Acts 2:46). By Acts 20:7, it appears that this ritual happened on the first day of the week: “On the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread.”

    So it apepars by the time of Acts 20, the first day of the week was the time for the Lord’s Supper.

    I think weekly communion is also implied by 1 Corinthians 11. Paul talks about their “coming together as a church” (v. 18), and says, “When you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (v. 20).

    Of course, they thought they were coming together as a church to eat the Lord’s Supper. Paul says they weren’t actually doing that because of the wicked way they were behaving.

    But notice that they were eating bread and drinking wine when they came together as a church. That fits with Acts 20: When the church assembled, they did so for the purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper.

    There are some other lines of argument I could point to, but I do think a strong argument can be made for weekly communion, which was also the practice of the early church and was what Calvin wanted restored to the Reformed church (though he obviously didn’t get his way on that one!).

  5. Kent Will Says:

    No Calvinist expert here, but I found Keith Mathison’s book “Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper” to be an eye-opening explanation of the Supper’s efficacy that clearly separates Calvin’s view from Zwinglians and Puritans. According to Mathison’s analysis, anyway, Calvin saw the Supper as a participation in Christ’s human nature via the Holy Spirit–far cry from the notion of intellectual apprehension. I may not have gotten the whole picture, though.

  6. Jeff Meyers Says:

    John: I think you’re analysis is quite good and I agree. In most Reformed Presbyterian churches the sacrament is something “extra,” sometimes even mainly for people that need something “more” than preaching and teaching.

    I know of a number of Presbyterian churches that have the Lord’s Supper maybe once a year in their main morning service. Instead, they offer people Communion in little “side” services on Sunday afternoon and/or evening, sometimes even during the week.

  7. Lee Says:

    Rev. Barach,

    You raise some very interesting questions. I will not even try to answer #2, but I would like to challenge you on #1, at least in regards to your use of the Heidelberg Catechism. As I read the Catechism I do not see the emphasis placed on sight.
    First, you quote from question 75 which has only to do with the Supper, not Baptism and the Supper. Your post seems to drift back and forth between Baptism and the Supper. The questions on Baptism do not mention sight, so it is unimportant if the baby has his eyes open. In fact question 69 states, “as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water,” which seems to agree with your analogy of a bath. Yet, your bath analogy was meant as a criticism of the Catechism. I think your position is closer to the Catechism than you might think.
    Second, you do not fully quote question 75. It does indeed speak of sight as you quoted, but it also includes touch and taste before the question ends. It goes on to say, “That with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to an everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord”. It seems me that the Catechism is concerned to get all of the senses involved (with the exception of smell, but four out of five is not bad). It mentions sight, touch, taste, and with the Word, hearing. To say the Catechism emphasizes sight does not seem to fit with question 75 or the rest of the Heidelberg.

    Now you may be right regarding the Puritans and Calvin and Augustine. I gladly bow to your knowledge on those subjects, but I do think you may have sold the Heidelberg a bit short.

    Thanks for reading my response and thanks for an interesting post.

  8. John Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Lee. You’re right: I didn’t quote the rest of A. 75, and it does go on to speak of receiving and tasting the bread and cup. I don’t mean to be particularly critical of the Catechism; it is, after all, one of my confessional documents.

    My interest in the Catechism, however, was simply that it includes sight at all, as if seeing the bread broken was somehow an important part of the Supper. That’s the point I wanted to challenge in my blog entry.

  9. John Says:

    Re. # 2: The Belgic Confession, in line with (and likely following) Calvin, says that “our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments…” (Art. 33).

    As with Calvin, so here: It sounds as if the BC is saying that God gave us sacraments because we are weak and insensitive. But is that insensitivity and weakness due to sin? If so, then no sacraments would be necessary prior to man’s fall (and yet the Trees appear to be sacramental).

  10. Steve Says:

    I too have always wondered at the biblical basis for Calvin’s claim, repeated by many Calvinists to this day, that the sacraments are given as an accomodation to our weakness. I tend to think that while the sacraments certainly do minister to our weakness, that is not the sole or primary basis of their institution, and that they participate in a special way in the allusiveness or other-directedness of God’s creation and revelation, perhaps even of God’s being in Trinity.

  11. Kata Iwannhn » Why Sacraments? Says:

    […] On Saturday, I raised a couple questions for Calvin about his theology of the sacraments.  I thought I’d drag a couple items out of the comments on that blog entry and present them here. […]

  12. Davy Durham Says:

    Furguson: “The signs display or exhibit Christ to the eyes and to the sense of vision, just as the word displays Christ to the ears and to the sense of hearing as the Spirit takes what belongs to Christ and shows or exhibits it to us”

    If this is SO true, then WHY!, if we believe this, don’t we sup with our Lord every week just like we hear the sermon every week?!?!

    we=catholic church.. well, at least reformed churches..

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