In 2002, I published a book titled Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Now, twenty years later (has it really been that long already?), I have been asked by the editors of Ad Fontes to consider the question “Has Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper been reclaimed over the last 20 years?” I am honored to be asked to respond to this question, but I have to say that it is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer for several reasons.
First, what exactly would it look like for Calvin’s doctrine to be reclaimed? In other words, in order to know whether or not Calvin’s doctrine has been reclaimed, we would need some kind of objective definition of “reclaimed” by which we could make the measurement necessary to answer the question. We would need to know, for example, whether reclaiming Calvin’s doctrine means a merely theoretical agreement with Calvin or a complete overhaul of the liturgy to conform as closely as possible with the one used by Calvin in his church.
Second, who exactly are we talking about when we ask whether Calvin’s doctrine has been reclaimed? Are we talking about evangelicalism in a broad sense? Are we talking about a specific Reformed denomination or collection of denominations? Are we talking about NAPARC? A local congregation here or there? A few individual Christians? In short, the words “by whom” have to be added to the question “Has Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper been reclaimed over the last 20 years?”
Third, how exactly would we discover whether or not Calvin’s doctrine has been reclaimed even if we had answers to the first two questions? Typically, among those who make the effort to contact me about a book I have written, the vast majority are those who strongly disagree with the content. Apparently anger at the content of a book is a good cure for writer’s block. Those kinds of negative responses tend to distort my opinion of the impact of my books. It seems an extensive survey of a specific group of people would be required to answer this question accurately.
I am not one to let insuperable difficulties stand in my way, however, so I will attempt to answer the question.
“Has Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper been reclaimed over the last 20 years?”
I don’t think so.
Whether we are talking about broad evangelicalism or any specific Reformed denomination, it seems to me that the majority view of the Supper remains largely Zwinglian. I am not aware of any denomination-wide movement to move in a more Calvinian direction regarding the understanding of the sacrament. That does not mean there might not be individual local churches who have moved in that direction. I suspect there are, but I have no way of knowing how many such churches there might be.
I do think that there is a more awareness of Calvin’s doctrine and of the fact that there is a difference between that view and the more prevalent Zwinglian view. Since 2002, I myself have written several additional works related to the subject, including chapters in Matthew Barrett’s Reformation Theology and John Tweeddale and Derek Thomas’s John Calvin: For a New Reformation. I also published a small booklet answering common questions about the Lord’s Supper. In it, I briefly discuss Calvin’s view as well as Zwingli’s view. Other works by other authors on Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper and the sacraments in general continue to be published every year.
In addition, as more and more classic Reformed works of the 16th and 17th century are translated and published, more and more evidence is made available that there is a radical difference in some places between the classic Reformed theology of those centuries and the Reformed theology of the last two centuries. One of those places where the difference is evident is in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. As Reformed Christians and seminarians read these works, they cannot help but become aware that there is a difference. The question then will be whether they become curious about the reasons for the difference and whether the Calvinian view is more solidly grounded in Scripture.
Although there is more and more evidence available every day, my own opinion is that the reclaiming of Calvin’s doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper, if it is going to happen at all, will be a multi-generational task. There are a number of reasons I believe this to be the case.
In order to reclaim Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in any church or denomination, Christians in that church or denomination would have to deeply care about the doctrine. I do not see a lot of evidence that Christians in general give a lot of thought to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. It doesn’t seem to be an important issue in the minds of many contemporary believers. Instead, there seems to be a general apathy about the issue. Of course, this is another instance of radical differences between early Reformed Christians and contemporary Reformed Christians. In the 16th and 17th century, the Lord’s Supper was talked about and written about more than the doctrine of justification. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I am not saying that the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is more important than the doctrine of justification. Nor am I saying that the early Reformed theologians thought it was more important. What I am saying is that it was an important issue during the formative years of the Reformation.
I think part of the reason for the general apathy is the separation of word and sacrament in the liturgies of most modern evangelical and Reformed churches. If we examine the earliest Reformed liturgies, those of Bucer and Calvin, for example, it is evident that both Word and sacrament were intended to be fundamental elements of worship. The preaching of the Word led directly to the observation of the Lord’s Supper. Over time, the observation of the Supper became less frequent. In the modern era, it is often treated as an optional supplement to the real worship connected with the preaching of the Word, singing, and prayer. Of course, the Supper is not to be observed without the Word, but today, the opposite is the norm, and lay Christians have gradually become convinced by this practice that the Lord’s Supper must not really be that important. Until and unless, we put back together what should never have been torn asunder, the apathy will remain.
Another reason I believe that reclaiming Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is a multi-generational project is related to the first. Evangelical and Reformed Christians and churches do not consider the Lord’s Supper a top priority. There are other, more pressing, doctrinal and practical issues. To a certain degree, I understand this one. The doctrine of the Triune God, for example, is more foundational to the Christian faith than the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. When important elements of the doctrine of God are being revised and rejected by men claiming to be confessionally Reformed, that is a pressing theological issue that demands immediate attention. Other issues will naturally end up being pushed to the background. In addition, evangelical Christians are being pressed on every side to be conformed to the ethical standards of the world. When the church cannot seem to figure out whether sodomy is still a sin, or whether a biological woman is a man, arguments about the Lord’s Supper can seem trivial.
Granted, these issues are important and pressing, but they should not dominate our attention to the point that we forget who we are and what we have been called to do as the people of God. I think we recognize this in terms of the preaching of the Word. If a church doesn’t preach the Word, it ceases to be a church, and the question of whether a practicing homosexual should be the minister of that church becomes something of a moot point. I would argue that the same is true of the Supper. The Lord’s Supper is part of the worship of a true church. It’s part of what defines the nature of a church just as the preaching of the Word is part of what defines the nature of a church. Having a false or distorted view of the sacrament is just as detrimental as having a false or distorted view of the Word. Understanding the sacraments is part of understanding who we are as the people of God. Understanding who we are as the people of God is always a priority.
Reclaiming Calvin’s doctrine is also made incredibly difficult because of the lack of understanding on the part of so many Christians about his doctrine. I have read highly intelligent and educated Reformed theologians from the past and the present state that Calvin’s doctrine is incomprehensible, that it is indistinguishable from the Roman Catholic doctrine, that it is a foreign element in the Reformed system of theology. Much of my own effort has been devoted to this aspect of the problem, to an attempt to explain what Calvin is and is not saying.
I can understand the lack of comprehension. I vividly recall the first time I read Calvin’s Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper. I had until very recently been a dispensationalist Baptist. I had discovered John Calvin and was greatly enjoying reading his works, and then I ran across the Short Treatise. I was floored. I couldn’t believe a Protestant was saying the kinds of things he was saying. But there it was in black and white. I started digging more deeply into his writings in an attempt to understand what he meant by the words he was using. This took a lot of time. Given For You was the earliest result of that study, but I have continued to dig for the last twenty years.
Key to understanding Calvin’s view is the basic idea that the signs (bread, wine, ministerial actions) are distinguishable from the things signified (the body and blood of Christ, divine actions), but they are not separable. The things signified are the heavenly realities, and the signs are the shadows of those realities, much in the same way that the earthly temple is a copy of the heavenly tabernacle (Heb. 8:5). The shadows are connected to the reality in a way analogous to the way that a physical object’s shadow is connected to the object that is casting the shadow. Place your hand between a light source and a wall or table. Move your fingers and watch the shadow. The bread and wine are the shadow. The body and blood of Christ are the reality casting the shadow.
A final reason that reclaiming Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper will take time is due to the simple reality of liturgical inertia. “But we’ve always done it this way!” is a perennial cry. Even if a pastor and/or elders become convinced that Calvin’s doctrine and practice is the biblical doctrine and practice, it is not easy to make changes in the worship practices of a church that has been around for any length of time. Members will protest about changes. A period of patient teaching will be required for the entire congregation in order that the congregation can understand the biblical basis for the changes and understand the doctrine itself. The Reformers themselves had to deal with this problem in teaching a generation raised on the Roman Catholic Mass. It is one reason the early Reformed liturgies included extensive instruction on the meaning of the Supper during the worship service itself. They did not merely bring in a new doctrine and practice and assume the people would automatically “get it.” They taught it to the congregation in every worship service. Personally, I do not think it would be a bad idea to re-introduce this older practice into the worship of the church. It is part of the way that the Word and Sacrament went together in traditional Reformed worship.
“Has Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper been reclaimed over the last 20 years?” No.
Is it being reclaimed? We’re going to need a survey to answer that.
Dr. Keith A. Mathison is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College. He earned his Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary in Lakeland, Fla., and his M.A from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. He is author of several books and served as an associate editor for the Reformation Study Bible and as associate editor of Tabletalk magazine.