Keith Mathison’s book revolutionized the way I think about the Table years ago. It’s an excellent read. I highly recommend it. It’s called Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
For Calvin (and I believe the biblical view as well), the Table was not just a memorial, but it was the gift of Christ’s actual Body and Blood. As Mathison rightly notes, throughout Christian history, there were disputes over the *nature* of the Lord’s presence in the Table, but that presence was never denied until Zwingli in the Reformation.
The apostle calls the Table a “participation in the Body and Blood of Christ”. He also argues that we are to be in unity with one another as we partake. I see the Table as very much connected to the Word, in the same way that, when a husband and wife take their marriage vows (analogous to the Word), their vows are sealed and renewed every time they join in physical union in the act of making love (analogous to the Lord’s Table).
The Table, therefore, Calvin rightly saw as very much connected to our union with Christ. It strengthens our union with Christ, and, since we are the Body of Christ, with each other as fellow believers. It would hardly make sense to partake of the Table with someone we are at odds with, even as it would hardly make sense to partake of the act of making love with our spouse if we were at odds with him/her.
So, to neglect this great and mysterious sacrament is also to neglect one’s soul. Imagine if a husband and a wife hung out all the time, talked, enjoyed one another’s company, but only made love once a year. Or once a quarter. Or once every 2 months. Or even once a month. They are missing out on a great blessing…the blessing of a stronger and closer union and unity with one another.
Although Calvin believed that the elements remain bread and wine, he also truly believed that we receive the real and proper and natural Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Belgic Confession of Faith, I believe, does well in wording this mysterious truth as well. It is also found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (although not as developed), as well as the London Baptist Confession of Faith, as well as the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.
So, Calvin’s view of the real and spiritual presence of Christ in the Table won the day at the Reformation. Luther’s view differed from his, but it would be wrong to think that Calvin was closer to Zwingli than to Luther. Calvin, along with Luther, condemned Zwingli’s view. He was much closer to Luther than to Zwingli. It is not quite correct to say that Calvin was a “middle road” between Luther and Zwingli. ***In fact, Calvin and the other Reformers believed that Zwingli was no different than Rome, in that, for Zwingli, the Table was something that *we did* to “remind” ourselves of what Christ had done to obey God, just like in Rome it is something the people do for God.*** But both Luther and Calvin rightly saw the Table as a gift–as something that *God* does for us in Christ.
And all of the above is only a quick glimpse into the riches of Calvin’s view! I am convinced that Calvin’s view was the biblical view as well. I highly suggest Mathison’s book, and Robert Letham’s quick book as well called The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread.
Thanks for bringing this excellent discussion up! I hope you are blessed as you see the gift of the Lord’s Supper for what it is.