Calvin on the Necessary Relation of Word and Spirit to the Eucharist

John Calvin and many of the Reformers were strong advocates of weekly communion. But as Keith Mathison laments in his excellent book Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,

The practice of the church, as described in the New Testament, was regular, weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This practice continued for the first several centuries of the church’s existence. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church gradually moved away from a weekly celebration in which everyone participated. During the sixteenth century, many of the Reformers called for a return to the practice of the apostolic church. For a variety of reasons, they often had to settle for less than the ideal, and unfortunately what they settled for, rather than what they preferred, often became part of the received tradition in Reformed churches. In fact, this ingrained tradition is the only thing preventing the Reformed churches from finally achieving the goal of such early Reformers as Calvin by returning to the ancient Christian practice of weekly communion. (GFY, 297).

As Mathison points out and handily refutes, there are the standard issue objections by those who desire to continue the “ingrained tradition” of infrequency: It is not specifically commanded anywhere in the NT, it is a Roman Catholic practice, it would obscure the centrality of the preaching of the word, and, according to Mathison, perhaps most unreasonable of all that it would make the Supper too routine and boring (as if routine were a four-letter word or that the final value of a thing is based upon it’s ability to be, what, fun?).

But engage one who advocates against frequency long enough and, after these objections, eventually one will be confronted with the odd notion that frequency entails some sort of sacramental magic where Word and Spirit are negligible in relation to the visible signs and seals that confirm faith. Anecdotal evidence of people getting up during the words of institution to use the restroom, or folks scrambling into the service to receive the sacraments after the preached, sung and prayed Word will be offered to buttress what arguably amounts to fear-mongering against frequency. But Mathison offers up the frequenter Calvin in a way that helpfully demonstrates that frequency has no desire to create empty symbols of the bread and wine. In point of fact, it is the precise opposite:

“Calvin takes great pains to distance himself from any ‘magical’ understanding of the sacraments. He insists that there is no force or power that resides inherently in the elements themselves. What power they have comes from the working of the Holy Spirit:

The sacraments properly fulfill their office only when the Spirit, that inward teacher, comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in. If the Spirit be lacking, the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears. Therefore, I make such a division between Spirit and sacraments that the power to act rests with the former, and the ministry alone is left to the latter—a ministry empty and trifling, apart from the action of the Spirit, but charged with great effect when the Spirit works within and manifests his power. (ICR, 4.14.9, GFY, pgs. 10-11)

“It is a grave error, according to Calvin, to treat the sacraments as if they were optional elements to be observed or ignored at our discretion. Wallace provides a helpful summary of the main points in Calvin’s view of the celebration of the sacraments in the church (Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine, 239). First, according to Calvin, the sacraments are subordinate to the word:

The right administering of the Sacrament cannot stand apart from the Word. For whatever benefit may come to us from the Supper requires the Word: whether we are to be confirmed in faith, or exercised in confession, or aroused to duty, there is need of preaching. Therefore, nothing more preposterous could happen in the Supper than for it to be turned into a silent action, as has happened under the pope’s tyranny…Silence involves abuse and fault. If the promises are recited and the mystery declared, so that they who are about to receive it may receive it with benefit, there is no reason to doubt that this is a true consecration. (ICR, 4.17.39)

“According to Calvin, the word and sacraments are inseparably joined, and this means that both are necessary” (ICR, 4.14.3-4, GFY, pgs. 43-44).

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27 Responses to Calvin on the Necessary Relation of Word and Spirit to the Eucharist

  1. Todd says:

    Round and round we go:

    Weekly communion is not clear from the New Testament – maybe the Corinthians practiced it – but if you want to go that route – they did not serve communion during a worship service – so I don’t know how far (The NT is our weekly example) you are willing to go with that.

    And when Calvin writes that the Word and sacrament are inseparable, that does not touch on frequency. Calvin did not believe the Word preached must be followed by the Supper to be effectual, and he basically dropped it once montly won the day. All Reformed have believed that Word and sacrament are inseparable, our confessions teach such.

  2. Zrim says:

    …where she stops, nobody knows.

    Weekly communion is not clear from the New Testament…

    I’ll use Mathison’s words on this objection: “It is true that there is no explicit NT command to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis. But there is also no explicit command anywhere in the NT to preach, teach, pray or sing on a weekly basis. There is simply no NT version of the book of Leviticus that prescribes each element of new covenant worship. Instead, what we find in the NT are descriptive texts telling us what the early church actually did, and in these descriptive texts the Lord’s Supper is considered to be as much a part of regular worship as preaching, teaching, or praying [Acts 2:42; 20:7]. Secondly, the NT does provide explicit teaching on the nature of the Lord’s Supper. The frequency of observance is a natural extension of the church’s understanding of the nature of this sacrament” (GFY, 296).

    And when Calvin writes that the Word and sacrament are inseparable, that does not touch on frequency.

    I don’t follow. If a husband and wife are inseparable, doesn’t that touch on how often they are together (or contrariwise, how often they are not together)? More below.

    Calvin did not believe the Word preached must be followed by the Supper to be effectual….

    And like Calvin, neither do modern advocates of frequency believe that the efficacy of the audible Word depends on the administration of the visible Word.

    All Reformed have believed that Word and sacrament are inseparable, our confessions teach such.

    Agreed. So if they are inseparable why separate them three times a month? Why rent asunder what the Lord has brought together?

  3. Lacie says:

    Todd’s spot-on concerning weekly communion not being clear from NT. Also, it would be more edifying if Zrim (and Mathison) used Scripture back-up, not history, Calvin, and “the Reformed” (and please specify which “Reformed” you mean. Certainly not the Scots!).

    But while we’re on to Calvin, note that he was satisfied with less than weekly (i.e., in your terms, infrequent) administration of the Lord’s Supper. Was Calvin himself involved in “grave error”? Perhaps he should have excommunicated himself! But while the Supper is holy and important, it is not necessary to have it each week in order to be biblical. I suspect that the quote from Calvin is used to try to make us think that we must have weekly communion or we’re…well, I don’t know what!!

  4. Todd says:

    “and in these descriptive texts the Lord’s Supper is considered to be as much a part of regular worship as preaching, teaching, or praying [Acts 2:42; 20:7].”

    Matthison cites Acts but ignores that in I Cor the Supper is not part of the worship service, something Paul does not feel the need to correct by the way, opposed to the statement above.

    “I don’t follow. If a husband and wife are inseparable, doesn’t that touch on how often they are together (or contrariwise, how often they are not together)?”

    That is a different use of the term inseparable. The Passover and sacrifices were inseparable from the Word which explained them, the Word recieved by faith, but that didn’t mean every Sabbath when the Word was read there needed to be a sacrament. It means that when there is a sacrament the Word must be joined with it.

  5. Zrim says:

    Lacie,

    Re the demand for Scripture, you may have missed it in my response to Todd above, but the usual texts are Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” and 20:7: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.”

    Mathison’s point here is that we see the usual elements of weekly, public and corporate worship such as preaching, teaching and prayer which nobody seems to take issue with being done every week. But also there is the Eucharist, which many do take issue with. Why not say that prayer will be done once a month, or teaching or preaching? But this side of the table (pun intended) thinks all of it should ahppen every week.

    But my hunch is that no matter how much Scripture one comes up with it will never be enough since the presupposition is that it shouldn’t be weekly. What Scripture would you offer to make the case that a stated worship should be devoid the Table?

    I understand the Scots celebrate once a year. One anti-frequency objection is that weekly is “too Catholic.” Well, not that I’m much for an argument that uses latent religious bigotry, but during the sixteenth century it was once a year, so now who’s being “too Catholic”?

    No, the quote isn’t intended to imply impiety at all. It is meant simply to press your side to explain why any stated worship should be devoid of the Table. I mean, I assume you’d have reason to have it the first of the month (or quarter or year, etc.), but what positive argument do you have to refrain from the Table the second, third and fourth?

  6. Zrim says:

    Todd, could you be more specific about the absence of the Supper in the worship in 1 Cor.? I guess I’m not sure what you mean.

    Yes, like the post means to say, I understand that when there is a sacrament the word must be joined with it. My question is why should the two be separated more often than not?

  7. Todd says:

    Zrim,

    In Corinthians 11 the church was celebrating the Supper in the context of a meal together, not a formal worship service, probably after the service.

  8. RubeRad says:

    ?? Why don’t you think that v18 “When you come together as a church” means worship service? What do you think of 14:23 “the whole church comes together”?

  9. Todd says:

    Rube,

    In that context they were coming together to eat. (11:20-22)

  10. cath says:

    No they don’t! The Scots. How many times do i have to tell you? It’s at least twice.

  11. Zrim says:

    Cath, sorry for not listening better. My highlands Scottish pastor tells me once. But twice a year, eh? Seems as good as once, in which case, everything I am saying.

    Todd,

    I can’t say that I’ve ever heard this objection before. But my understanding of what is going on in 1 Cor 11 has always been that this wasn’t a common meal they were eating but the holy meal, and that this was a church that had a diverse socio-economic make-up, and the rich were depising the poor. They were following worldly rules about social divisions, demanding that they go first with eating and drinking (as well as making the poor actually partake in another section of the home church in which they were assembled). Paul is saying that if you want to get fat and drunk do it at home instead of church (not an approval of drunkenness and gluttony, of course, but to make a larger point about unholy divisions).

    So, like Rube I’m a little puzzled at your notion that this wasn’t a formal worship setting. In fact, the point of the text is how to behave properly when coming together to partake of the Supper, which obviously assumes the Supper was part of the worship service. The worldly rules were not only causing drunkeness and gluttony, but worse, divisions amongst the brethren. And the whole thing, contrary to your assertions here, assumes the Supper was being observed.

  12. RubeRad says:

    In that context they were coming together to eat. (11:20-22)

    Yes, coming together to eat as a church, i.e. communion. The rhetorical question in v22 indicates emphatically that they were not coming together just to eat a regular meal, and Paul faults them in vv20-21 for treating communion as if it were just a regular meal.

    Do you read v20 as “I’m not talking about the Lord’s supper here, I’m talking about your potlucks”? I read v20 as “you might think you’re eating the Lord’s supper, but from what I hear about your behavior, it sounds like some of you can’t tell the difference between dinner at home, and the Lord’s Supper when you come together as a church”

  13. Lacie says:

    Zrim:
    You make a hard and fast case for 2 stated services a week, but I don’t think you can do that from the Bible. In fact Donald Macleod says the Lord’s Supper was administered “virtually every day (Acts. 2:46)”, so you see there’s a bit of uncertainty, even among the Reformed as to what was happening. If Macleod is right, then I suppose you (Zrim) would say, therefore we must do it every day, and presumably in a stated worship service, which is how you believe they invariably did it. I think you were the one saying in another post that more is not better: We should be satisfied with two worship services each Lord’s Day, and forget about all this other stuff (Bible studies, women’s groups, youth meetings).
    Assuming your congregation has two services each Lord’s Day, why does your congregation not administer communion on both occasions? “Would you offer to make a case that a stated worship service should be devoid the Table?” (your question to me above).

    I never (nor did the other posters here) ever mention that frequency is “too Catholic” so there’s no need to bring it up, unless you are running out of objections to counter.

    You’ve not answered my suggestion that *perhaps* Calvin should have excommunicated himself for “grave error”. Was he pragmatic? About so grave a matter? More likely he didn’t think one can make a hard and fast biblical case for weekly communion.

    That last statement being my reason (to answer your question above) as to why the weekly service may be devoid of the Supper.

  14. Zrim says:

    If Macleod is right, then I suppose you (Zrim) would say, therefore we must do it every day, and presumably in a stated worship service, which is how you believe they invariably did it. I think you were the one saying in another post that more is not better: We should be satisfied with two worship services each Lord’s Day, and forget about all this other stuff (Bible studies, women’s groups, youth meetings).

    Lacie, you seem to assume a rather literal way of reading the NT, as if everything that happened there should happen now. But I’m a cessationist: they performed miracles, raised people from the dead and spoke in tongues. All that has ceased. So if they were meeting each day I don’t think that it follows that we should as well, anymore than just because their pastors were raising the dead ours should too. And, what I said was that the emphasis should be placed on Sabbath day activities instead of six-day ones. I didn’t say we should “forget about” six-day worship activities like family worship.

    Assuming your congregation has two services each Lord’s Day, why does your congregation not administer communion on both occasions? “Would you offer to make a case that a stated worship service should be devoid the Table?” (your question to me above).

    First, my congregation doesn’t do what I tell them, lowly private pleeb that I am. Second, while I don’t see any problem having it in both services, I understand that’s way too much to expect in the era of infrequency to begin with, so I’d settle for once a week in either stated service. But you still haven’t answered me as to why on the second, third or fourth Sunday the audible and visible word should be separated.

    I never (nor did the other posters here) ever mention that frequency is “too Catholic” so there’s no need to bring it up, unless you are running out of objections to counter.

    Sorry, you’re right, I didn’t mean to say that you did. It’s just that most objectors invoke that one at some point, as Mathison points out in his list of objections.

    You’ve not answered my suggestion that *perhaps* Calvin should have excommunicated himself for “grave error”. Was he pragmatic? About so grave a matter? More likely he didn’t think one can make a hard and fast biblical case for weekly communion.

    Sorry, I thought you were being hyperbolic to show how silly weekly argumentation is, since it seemed such a silly question of excommunicating oneself. I still do. I don’t see the point. Contra the prevailing popular philosophy, there are such things as bad questions. But if Calvin didn’t think he could make a biblical case for weekly then why was the only that stopped him the (medieval) Genevan City Council?

    That last statement being my reason (to answer your question above) as to why the weekly service may be devoid of the Supper.

    So, because someone can’t make an argument for why the visible and audible words should be separated because you presuppose they shouldn’t always be joined is why they should be separated? Huh? Got any Scripture proofs for that?

  15. Todd says:

    Zrim and Rube,

    The context of I Cor 11:17-22 is a meal where the Lord’s Supper was also celebrated, much like the Last Supper, where there was both a meal and communion. V. 21 speaks of each eating his own food, and others getting drunk, obviously not from a sip of wine. All the commentators I know see this as a meal, even Calvin sees it as a meal but thinks the meal along with the Supper was out of place.

  16. Zrim says:

    Lacie,

    You make a hard and fast case for 2 stated services a week, but I don’t think you can do that from the Bible.

    I wanted to add that I’m not trying to make a “hard and fast rule” about weekly communion, just an argument for it. Actually, I don’t make a hard and fast case for the second service, I just think it makes good biblical sense, and I think that is how the Reformed have usually understood the second service. In the same way, I think weekly tabling makes good biblical sense.

    I think in the previous thread you have said that you attend the second servcie even though you don’t see it directly stipulated in Scripture. So why couldn’t you do the same here? I mean, if you don’t see explicit NT command for the second service, why don’t you oppose it like you do weekly communion?

  17. Zrim says:

    Todd, even so, I don’t see how this makes a particularly compelling case against weekly communion. The take away from the text seems to be not to divide the body in an unholy manner, not that the visible and audible word should be separated sometimes (a case which I’m still waiting to hear you infrequenters make).

  18. Todd says:

    Zrim,

    The point was – Mathison argued that communion in the NT was celebrated in the worship service weekly. I was pointing out that this is not true, at least concerning the Corinthians, and possibly in Acts also. Calvin sees the Acts 20:7 passage, not as evidence for weekly, but that it was celebrated because of the special occasion. He wrote, “Therefore, I come to the conclusion that a solemn day, that was going to be more convenient for all, was appointed among them for celebrating the Holy Supper of the Lord.” (Acts commentary)

  19. Todd says:

    “So, because someone can’t make an argument for why the visible and audible words should be separated because you presuppose they shouldn’t always be joined is why they should be separated? Huh? Got any Scripture proofs for that?”

    Because throughout the Bible Word and Sacrament were never joined in the way you are suggesting. When God instituted the OT sacraments, it was never thought these must be administered each time the Word is ministered. That is a new idea.

    When the Word was read each Sabbath in Israel (Luke 4:16), it was never even a thought that there was something wrong or lacking because a sacrament did not accompany the Word read and preached that Sabbath. That synagogue tradition began in I Chron. 17:9, Jehoshaphat sending the Levites city by city to teach the Word. If you are going to suggest that in the NT this has changed, that the sacrament should always follow the Word taught on the Sabbath, that is for you to prove that God changed this, not for us to prove he did not.

  20. Zrim says:

    Todd, consider the other sacrament, baptism. In the OT only males were circumcized. I don’t know of any NT text that tells us that explicitly this has changed and our daughters are now to be baptized. If we include female children in baptism without demanding “proof” for this radical change then why demand it for the regular conjoining of audible and visible word?

  21. Todd says:

    “I don’t know of any NT text that tells us that explicitly this has changed and our daughters are now to be baptized.”

    How about Acts 16:15, Matt 28:19 & Gal 3:28 for starters

  22. Lacie says:

    Zrim:
    Yes, I think Scripture should be read literally. English majors (as well as others) know the literary devices of metaphor, simile, parable, hyperbole, etc. Wasn’t it a bit of a jump for you to assume a literal reading of Scripture means I believe in continuing miracles and raisings from the dead? That was a flight of fancy.

    So other activities can take place on the other 6 days, notably, family worship (why? because you agree with it and don’t agree with youth studies, Women’s bible studies)? Still don’t get that.

    The point about Calvin was indeed intended to point up the silliness of appealing to Calvin for something Calvin never did. The proof is in the pudding.

    I do not think the NT invariably joins the audible and the visible word, as you obviously think. If I did I’d attend a church that did it at each and every worship service. I doubt if even Horton takes Communion twice each Lord’s Day, though reading his work, he certainly says we ought to (again, am I being too literal?).

    The Bible says, without specifying how often, “as often as you eat and drink…” In order words, whether you commune, do it in this manner.

    Finally, I do not think that the way the large majority of churches “do” communion bears much resemblance to its original or Apostolic practice. I doubt that we’ll get close to it until we get to heaven.

  23. Zrim says:

    Todd, none of those texts say about female baptism what you seem to demand texts should say about weekly communion, as in “You used to circumcize males only. Now you must baptize your daughters as well.” What you guys seem to want Scripture to say is, “You used to put word and sacrament together sometimes, but now you must do it all the time.” Those texts don’t exist. Female baptism seems a pretty clear implication, and so does weekly communion.

  24. Zrim says:

    The point about Calvin was indeed intended to point up the silliness of appealing to Calvin for something Calvin never did. The proof is in the pudding.

    I’m not pointing to what he did but what he taught. Those are two different things. He couldn’t do what he taught because the city council denied him.

    I do not think the NT invariably joins the audible and the visible word, as you obviously think. If I did I’d attend a church that did it at each and every worship service.

    Well, I think the Scripture does join the two, and I attend one that doesn’t practice that. I know of a Reformed church in town that practices what I believe sacramentally, but we don’t attend because there’s more to Christian church membership and practice than weekly communion and this one is unacceptable. So much for weekly advocates making too much out of this “novelty.”

  25. Lacie says:

    “One anti-frequency objection is that weekly is “too Catholic.” Well, not that I’m much for an argument that uses latent religious bigotry, but during the sixteenth century it was once a year, so now who’s being “too Catholic”?”

    Tell me about it. Literally. I’d like to see evidence. And while you’re at it, don’t forget that there’s a difference between how often people receive it personally, and how often it is administered. Remember. a good RC had to go to confession before taking communion.

    Now please give your back-up for the 1500’s being an age of once-a-year eucharist.

  26. Zrim says:

    Lacie,

    That once a year was the medieval rule is fairly uncontroversial as an historical fact.

    But quoting Mathison:

    “Infrequency communion became the normal practice of the Roman Catholic Church later in the Middle Ages. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) required that the faithful partake of the sacrament only once a year. In other words, frequent communion was the practice of the early church, and infrequent communion was the later RCC innovation” (he then cites Horton in the Mid-American Journal of Theology).

    He then cites Calvin in ICR 4.17.44-46 where Calvin makes his arguments for weekly communion.

  27. Lacie says:

    The RCC was administering it daily, even at that time. It was not being received daily, in fact it was being neglected. As it is no doubt today by many RC’s. “Holy days of obligation” and all that.

    Infrequent communion would not be called “an innovation” as if the RCC decided daily was too much. It was a requirement for people to confess sins to their parish priest, to do penance (if required) and unless advised against it by said priest, to take communion at least on Easter under threat of excommunication.

    Partaking of communion was being neglected by many and this was the RCC’s way of requiring people to take it at least annually.

    Calvin says it was probably Pope Zephryrinus (A.D. 199-217) who first introduced it!

    I certainly don’t agree with the 4th Lateran or any other kind of RCC council, nor do I agree with the horrible distortions of the Supper by the RCC.

    To make a case for more frequent communion, it’s probably best to leave the RCC out of it.

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