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The Great Divide: The Lord's Supper

The Great Divide: The Lord's Supper


This post will conclude my look into Jordan Cooper's The Great Divide. Though there are still two chapters left, I will finish my interaction now and leave my remaining thoughts for my formal review. Look for that at the turn of the new year. In this final post, I would like to interact with Cooper's chapter dealing with the Lord's Supper.

The Reformational Landscape

Historically it can be shown that the Lord's Supper was the doctrine that drove factions of the Reformation away from each other. Whether drunk or sober (I kid I kid), Luther drew the final line of Christology and Sacramentology at the expression and doctrine of the Lord's Supper. The seriousness of this decision is carried forward among Lutherans today, and Cooper certainly does not minimize the differences.

Cooper does a fine job describing the landscape of the Reformed world on the Lord's Supper. The positions of Zwingli and Calvin are thorough depictions. Cooper's defense of the Lutheran perspective was unconvincing, but I do not want to use this time to address that. The Great Divide is intended as an "evaluation of Reformed Theology," so I'd like to get picky with Cooper's reflection on Calvin's understanding of the Supper.

I would like to draw specific emphasis to the objectivity of Calvin's doctrine of the sacraments. Retaining almost all of Cooper's depiction of Calvin's position, I would like to amplify and correct it slightly. Cooper concludes with some practical thoughts on the presence of Christ in the sacrament. He says,

"In Luther's view, Christ's presence in the sacrament was not tied to the faith of the person partaking of the Supper. The validity of the sacrament depends upon the proclaimed word, not on the faith of the administrator or recipient. The unbeliever who receives the Eucharist does partake of Christ true body and blood. However, in contradistinction to the blessing received by the believer, judgment instead is being communicated. Calvin denied this approach to the supper...In Calvin's view, faith is necessary to give the Sacrament validity. Without faith, there is no sacrament, but an empty sign." (The Great Divide, 140-141)

My main contention is that Calvin's objective view of the sacraments is being lost here. There is a difference between Christ's presence being objective and deciding every participant receives Him. This is slightly convoluted because Calvin's muddy position sat between Luther and Zwingli. Calvin could assert that the very real presence of Christ is mediated to those who partake. But this mediation is done through the work and Holy Spirit. This presents the Reformed community with an interesting question concerning the presence of Christ to those who do not have faith. If Christ is not present with faith, would that not mean the Lord's Supper is a sacrament only for the elect?

Cooper quotes Calvin in the Institutes saying, "all those who are devoid of Christ's Spirit can no more eat Christ's flesh than drink wine that has no taste" (Institutes, 4.17.33). I'm not convinced that Calvin is saying "there is no sacrament, but an empty sign" however true this depiction might be of the Reformed Confessions.

The Westminster Confession of Faith seems to insinuate this position when it says,

"They receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation" (WCF XXIX.VIII).

So also, the Belgic Confessions seems to support Coopers depiction when it says,

"Though the sacraments and what they signify are joined together, not all receive both of them. The wicked certainly take the sacrament, to their condemnation, but do not receive the truth of the sacrament, just as Judas and Simon the Sorcerer both indeed received the sacrament, but not Christ, who was signified by it. He is communicated only to believers" (BC Article 35)

Calvin's Objectivity

It is clear that the confessions teach Christ is not received without faith. Instead, judgment and damnation are received. In this regard, both Reformed and Lutheran understandings are in agreement. For Lutherans, the judgment occurs because they have received Christ. For Calvin, it is because they have rejected the offer of Christ in the Sacrament. So is Christ present or presented to those without faith? On this Calvin has a couple things to say about the objective reality of the Sacrament. Shortly after the quotation given by Cooper Calvin says,

"I deny that men carry away more from the sacrament then they collect in the vessel of faith. Thus nothing is detracted from the sacrament, no, it's reality and efficacy remain unimpaired, although the wicked, after externally partaking of it, go away empty...The integrity of the sacrament, and integrity which the whole world cannot violate, lies here, but the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy as to the elect believers of God." (Institutes, 4.17.33)

It is unquestionably true that Calvin believed the non-believer never "received anything but the sign" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27). Yet, Calvin also could say,

"That Christ body is presented to the wicked no less than to the good, and this is enough so far as concerns the efficacy of the sacrament and the faithfulness of God. For God does not there represent in a delusive manner, to the wicked, the body of his Son, but presents it in reality; nor is the bread a bear sign to them, but a faithful pledge. As to their rejection of it, that does not impair or alter anything as to the nature of the Sacrament" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27).

This should suffice to show that Calvin's sacramental theology is fundamentally objective in a different manner from Luther's. Cooper's summary is accurate in what divides them over judgments, but not concerning faith as a mitigating factor of the sacramental nature. Within Lutheranism, the objectivity of justification, the atonement, and the sacraments is emphasized — God is objectively the performer and gives Himself objectively to all men. For Calvin, the objectivity resides in the offer — God is objectively promised to all men through the ratified covenant of His Son and this promise lies behind all sacramental theology. Thus, rejection does not nullify God's genuine offer.

The two traditions are vastly divided on this particular issue. For my part, I believe the objectivity of Calvin's sacramental theology goes under-stressed in Cooper's work much like it does in many modern Reformed circles. This would not close the gap between the two traditions. But it would help return the focus of the Reformed world to their rightful stressing of the sacraments. Some influential fountains of modern Reformed thinking have become crypto-baptistic in their sacramentology. When this is the case both Lutherans and Reformed individuals should stand together in opposition.

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