Charles Hodge, Wrong About Calvin and the Reformed Doctrine of Eucharistic Presence

After beating up on Nevin, it’s only right that I turn some attention to Charles Hodge. While the main edge of his criticism of Nevin had to do with Nevin’s peculiarly German view of human maturation into deity, he does also spend some time on the matter of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This is what most of us suppose the controversy to be all about on the surface, and on this level, nearly all are agreed that Nevin had the stronger position. But what was Hodge’s argument here?

The short answer is that Hodge was arguing for a form of what we think of as Zwinglianism. This is not the caricatured version which says “No presence of Christ at all in the sacrament but only a memory of His work,” but it is nevertheless a sort of Zwinglianism which says only the effects and virtue of Christ are present in the sacrament and not his humanity as such. Hodge adds shades of nuance to this, and he admits that there was diversity among the Reformers in the 16th century, but he nevertheless believes that this is the true “core” of the Reformed view, with all of the other positions representing dispensable alien features which did, in time, fall away.

Hodge lays this out in the conclusion to his review of Nevin’s The Mystical Presence, which can be read online here. Hodge writes:

Christ is really present to his people, in this ordinance, not bodily, but by his Spirit; not in the sense of local nearness, but of efficacious operation. They receive him, not with the mouth, but by faith; they receive his flesh, not as flesh, not as material particles, nor its human life, but his body as broken and his blood as shed. The union thus signified and effected, between him and them is not a corporeal union, nor a mixture of substances, but spiritual and mystical, arising from the indwelling of the Spirit. (pg. 258)

There are several claims in this section, many of them noncontroversial. The key issue is in Hodge’s denial that believers receive Christ’s “flesh” and “human life.” He explains this more when he contrasts what he sees as two different positions present in the early Reformed theologians:

But there are two ways in which this was understood. Some intended by it, not the virtue of Christ’s body and blood as flesh and blood, but their virtue as a body broken and of blood as shed, that is, their sacrificial, atoning efficacay. Others, however, insisted that besides this there was a vivifying efficacy imparted to the body of Christ by its union with the divine nature, and that by the power of the Holy Ghost, the believer in the Lord’s supper and elsewhere, received into his soul and by faith this mysterious and supernatural influence. This was clearly Calvin’s idea, though he often contented himself with the expression of the former of these views. (pg. 249)

Hodge is here discussing what various theologians meant when they said that we feed on Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament. He is not addressing Roman Catholic or Lutheran positions, only differing Reformed ones. He also states several times that all parties were willing to say that we receive Christ’s “body and blood,” but that they meant different things by this. Some meant that “body and blood” were being used figuratively, as a synecdoche for the effects or virtues of Christ’s body and blood as they are sacrificed and offered to God on our behalf. In other words, these theologians believed that we received the benefits of Christ’s body and blood: the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, etc. This is Hodge’s own view. The other position meant the terms “body and blood” more literally, arguing that there was “a vivifying efficacy” in Christ’s actual human body and blood and that believers receive a distinct benefit from the body and blood themselves. This is Calvin’s position, as Nevin had argued and Hodge concedes.

Now, to Hodge’s credit, he does not try to steal Calvin away over to his side. He states Calvin’s view and then says that he disagrees with it. This is honest scholarship, and we can be thankful for Hodge’s plain approach. But then Hodge comes to the question of the “true” Reformed position. This is where things get less inspiring, for Hodge employs his own “development of doctrine” theory. Hodge writes:

The question now arises which of the two views above stated is entitled to be regarded as the real doctrine of the Reformed? The whole church united in saying believers receive the body and blood of Christ. They agreed in explaining this to mean that they received the virtue, efficacy or vigour of his body and blood. But some understood, thereby, the virtue of his body as broken and of his blood as shed, that is, their sacrificial efficacy. Others said that besides this, there was a mysterious virtue in the body of Christ due to its union with the divine nature, which virtue was by the Holy Spirit conveyed to the believer. Which of these views is truly symbolical? The fairest answer to this question probably is, neither to the exclusion of the other. Those who held to the one, expressed their fellowship with those who held the other. Calvin and Bullinger united in the Consensus Tigurinus from which the latter view is excluded. Both views are expressed in the public confessions. Some have the one, some the other. But if a decision must be made between them, the higher authority is certainly due to the doctrine of sacrificial efficacy first mentioned. (pg. 251)

Hodge goes on to give his reasons why Calvin’s view should be regarded as “alien” and non-essential to the Reformed position. These reasons include the fact that Hodge believes Calvin’s view quickly died out, with no serious defenders of it left even within a century of his lifetime. Hodge also states that Calvin’s view does not appear in any of the Reformed confessions. Then he adds the strongest point of all. Hodge believes that Calvin’s view is actually incompatible with the chief features of Reformed theology:

The fundamental principles of Protestantism are the exclusive normal authority of scripture, and justification by faith alone. If that system lives and grows it must throw off every thing incompatible with those principles. It is the fact of this peculiar view of a mysterious influence of the glorified body of Christ, having ceased to live, taken in connection with its obvious incompatibility with other articles of the Reformed faith, that we urge as a collateral argument against its being a genuine portion of that system of doctrine. (pg. 253-254)

So whereas Nevin has a dialectical development that grows from Jewish to Greek to Roman Catholic to Germanic to infinity and beyond, Hodge has a two-pronged core which grows into more and more consistency, throwing off the various incompatible attachments that may have accrued due to history or social and political pressures. Though he does not explain in more detail, Hodge believes that Calvin’s view of the vivifying flesh of Christ present in the Eucharist is somewhat inconsistent with justification by faith alone and so it had to fall away.

It is not “obvious” to me, as it is to Hodge, why Calvin’s view should be incompatible with justification by faith alone, especially if, as Hodge concedes, it easily coexisted with Bullinger’s view in their own lifetimes. And if neither view “to the exclusion of the other” is “truly symbolical,” then things are even less obvious. It seems that Hodge is saying that unclearly-expressed positions and equivocal statements were the status quo for a season, but now we have the freedom to move beyond all of that and prune away the brush. Orthodoxy is clearer now than it was then.

This sort of historiography is the kind that can only been done after the fact. It also runs the risk of finding true and false representatives of the Reformed position in a time when all involved thought of themselves as friends and allies. It’s the sort of history that too often happens, where the preferred contemporary position is seen as the natural end of the 16th cent. movement. This places all contemporary competitors outside the bounds of proper orthodoxy, even if they would have fit within the bounds of 16th century orthodoxy.

Hodge’s historical philosophy is by now quite dated. He is no more able than Nevin to withstand Dr. Muller’s winnowing fan. But beyond the concept of development and boundaries, I would like to try to complicate Hodge’s presentation of the historical material itself. While he says that neither Calvin nor Bullinger’s position was “truly symbolical,” he definitely does insinuate that only Bullinger’s made it into the key Reformed confessions of faith. Calvin’s may have been tolerated, but it was never corporately confessed, or so Hodge hints.

Hodge points to the Consensus Tigurinus as a creedal document which excludes Calvin’s view (even though Calvin helped write it). The decisive line is supposedly the one found in the 23rd Article: “we are not to understand it as if any mingling or transfusion of substance took place, but that we draw life from the flesh once offered in sacrifice and the blood shed in expiation.” This line on its own is insufficient to answer the question, however, as we will see similar statements made in other documents which nevertheless appear to also affirm Calvin’s view of the presence of Christ’s real body and blood, even their substance. Also, it is worth noting that earlier in the Consensus, it was affirmed that Christ infuses his life into us as we are ingrafted into his body (Art. 5). While Calvin is certainly brokering a deal, we should not rush to the conclusion that that his was a deal that he cut himself out of.

But let’s look at some other documents. In 1562, the French Reformed Churches sent a confession of faith to the Imperial Diet at Frankfurt. It was never successfully delivered, sadly, but it has been reprinted in Henry Beveridge’s Treatises on the Sacraments: Tracts by John Calvin. It is not clear to me that Calvin actually was the author of this tract. He would die in 1564, and in 1562 he was not any kind of singular head of the French Reformed churches. Still, the material is certainly Calvinian, whether it was written by Calvin himself or a successor like Beza. In this confession of faith, we read “For there under the symbols of bread and wine our Lord presents us with his body and blood, and we are spiritually fed upon them, provided we do not preclude entrance to his grace by our unbelief” (Art. 32, pg. 158). This confession goes on to deny any local presence of the body and blood in the elements, and it rejects the idea that “the body of Jesus Christ… passes into us as material bread” (Art. 35, pg. 159). It also rejects the language of “under” and “in” and instead argues that the Holy Spirit unites believers to Christ’s body, which remains in heaven. Notably, this confession states, “Still we confess that we are truly united with our Lord Jesus, so that he invigorates us by the proper substance of his body” (pg. 159-160). It then offers this summary statement:

for we confess that however great the distance of space between Jesus Christ and us, he fails not to give us life in himself, to dwell in us, to provide for us and make us partakers of the substance of his body and blood, by the incomprehensible virtue of his Spirit. (pg. 161)

No doubt, Hodge would consider this the language of compromise, seeking to maintain the good graces of the Holy Roman Emperor at Frankfurt. But why should that make it any less authoritative than the compromise with the Zurich party? And isn’t the date significant? This French Reformed statement comes over a decade later.

A slightly earlier French Reformed Confession was written in 1559 and sent to the king of France. Calvin was certainly involved in this one, but commentators believe that Beza and other French leaders played a role as well. In this confession we read, “Although he be in heaven until he come to judge the earth, still we believe that by the secret and incomprehensible power of his Spirit he feeds and strengthens us with the substance of his body and of his blood” (Art. 36, pg. 157 in Arthur Cochrane’s Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century). There it is again, an affirmation of the “substance” of Christ’s body and blood being present by the power of the Spirit in the sacrament.

In 1561, the Belgic Confession of Faith was written, a document which continues to hold confessional authority over the Dutch Reformed Churches. Indeed, it has enjoyed consistent status as an ecclesiastical statement of faith. In its 35th article we are taught, “as certainly as we receive and hold this Sacrament in our hands, and eat and drink the same with our mouths, by which our life is afterwards nourished, we also do as certainly receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Saviour in our souls…” A little later in the same article it says, “In the mean time we err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ.” It is hard to see anything other than “Calvin’s view” here.

The Heidelberg Catechism is also relevant on this point. In its Q&A 76, we are told that the meaning of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is “not only to embrace with a trusting heart the whole passion and death of Christ, and by it to receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life” but also “In addition, it is to be so united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit dwelling both in Christ and in us…” Eating and drinking Christ is “not only” receiving the benefits of his death but also being more and more united to his body. Q& 79 also reasserts the reception of the “true body and blood through the working of the Holy Spirit.” If one were forced to read this as equivocal language, then I suppose they could, but in the context of the earlier Belgic and French confessional statements, the simpler option is to admit that this is indeed Calvin’s position.

I’d like to offer one last instance of a Reformed affirmation of the “real and substantial” presence and true reception of Christ’s body and blood to believers in the Lord’s Supper. This one comes from Archbishop Ussher’s 1615 Irish Articles. These articles were a bridge between the earlier 39 Articles of the Church of England (which have a rather minimal statement concerning the Lord’s Supper, though finalized in 1571, well after the various intra-Reformed controversies made themselves known) and the later 1643 Westminster Confession of Faith. Ussher, being an archbishop, was an Anglican, but he also bordered on being a “Puritan” at the same time. He was undoubtedly Reformed. In the 94th article of his Irish Articles we find:

In the outward part of the Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ is in a most lively manner represented: being no otherwise present with the visible elements than things signified and sealed are present with the signs and seals, that is to say, symbolically and relatively. But in the inward and spiritual part the same Body and Blood is really and substantially presented unto all those who have grace to receive the Son of God, even to all those that believe in his name. And unto such as in this manner do worthily and with faith repair unto the Lord’s table, the Body and Blood of Christ is not only signified and offered, but also truly exhibited and communicated.

Notice that Ussher denies a local presence or a presence in the signs themselves, but he nonetheless affirms that “the same Body and Blood is really and substantially presented unto all those who have to grace to receive” by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the same Calvinian language we have seen earlier. It is not only the effects or virtues of the body and blood of Christ which are present, but indeed their real substance.

The timeline created by these documents is also relevant. Calvin’s Institutes are written over the course of the mid-1530s through 1560. The French Reformed confessions were released in 1559 and 1562. Then we see the 1561 Belgic Confession and the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism. Finally we see the 1615 Irish Articles. Calvin’s view seems to have endured over the course of two generations at least, including two major confessional documents which have stood the test of time to the present. And if Calvin’s view really did “fall away” in the mid-17th century, it did not remain discarded but rather made a powerful comeback in the late 20th century, with some important precursors in the 19th. And for this, we certainly owe thanks John Williamson Nevin, but he was actually not the sole defender of Calvin’s view in his day. The Southern Presbyterian John Adger also did so, in his “Calvin Defended Against Drs. Cunningham and Hodge” (The Southern Presbyterian Review vol. xxvii no. 1, article vi, pgs. 133-166). Importantly, Adger rebuts Hodge’s various attempts to put distance between Calvin and the Reformed confessional documents.

And so it seems that Hodge was wrong about Calvin and the Reformed tradition on the matter of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. While he is no doubt correct that many Zwinglian or Bullingerite advocates continued to be represented in the Reformed tradition, and that Zurich and Geneva’s views overlapped and often did not view themselves as opposing alternatives, he is simply wrong to say that Calvin’s view died out or failed to make it into any of the Reformed confessions. He was also wrong in his estimation as to the development of Reformed history, as what he attempted to prune out of the vine has now been grafted back in.

This too is a warning to us all about theories of historical progress. Hopefully it will also discourage us from reading characters in and out of the “true” Reformed narrative.


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