Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Calvin’s Sacraments (Again)

When I posted on “Calvin’s Augsburg,” I said I might return to the letter to Schallingius whence the statement in question1 came (see also here on this subject). I do so here with a passage on Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper that immediately precedes that statement on Augsburg (he is responding to Lutheran critics). I think, though I do not know for certain, that this is the first time this passage has appeared in English (it is not in the 19th c. translation of his letters).


Indeed, I see that all of you with one accord assert the following: whoever approaches the sacred table, whether impious or a believer, eats the flesh of Christ and drinks his blood substantially. But I do not deny that believers are truly and substantially nourished by the flesh and blood of Christ in the Supper, if only the mode [of this true and substantial nourishment] should be defined as coming about by the secret power of the Spirit, such that the flesh and blood of Christ transfuse their own energy into us.

I do not see why you wish me to treat the matter at greater length; but as to why I do not admit of another kind of communication, I am held back by the best reasoning: because the position that we swallow the flesh of Christ and that it is mixed together with our corruptible flesh would be an invention excessively crass. If you should only deny that the mystery ought to be judged by the sense of the flesh, I agree; nor indeed do I reject anything other than what faith itself declares to be out of accord with the glory of Christ.

Add to this the fact that the body of Christ will not be able to be eaten in this substantial mode, unless we should pretend that it is of a boundless extent, which is not less consistent with the whole teaching of Scripture than with the testimonies of the ancient church. But as to what some of you allege under the name of “dispensation,” in order to persuade [us] that the body of Christ was at once mortal on the cross and glorious in heaven–these men slip up because of their ignorance, nor have they ever grasped what “dispensation” was for the doctors of the ancient church.

You too, my exceptional man–I mean no offense in saying so–while you think that you confound us as to what is given to us in the Supper and how it is given, are somewhat mistaken. For I expressly assert, in very many places, that the benefits of Christ are not ours until he himself is ours. And I seem to myself to have spoken sufficiently clearly in my Institutes, where I call the matter [materiam] or substance of the Supper Christ himself crucified: I teach that the power, the effect, or the fruit is whatever we obtain from his death, just as from it we have gratuitous reconciliation, newness of life, and heavenly beatitude. But I use the word “efficacy” for this end: not in order to confound things that ought to be distinguished, but in order to exclude the transfusion of substance. I therefore say that we efficaciously feed on the substance of the flesh and blood of Christ, because Christ, by the wondrous and incomprehensible power of his own Spirit, brings it about that we are one with him; that his flesh is life-giving for us; in short, that his life penetrates into our souls.

Now, I am amazed that in your second chapter you do not attend with more consideration to so many absurdities in which this invention–viz., that the worthy and the unworthy without distinction together eat the flesh of Christ–is entangled. For just as your opinion concerning the substantial mode of eating separates the flesh of Christ from his blood, so this eating in common [of the worthy and the unworthy] deprives his body of his Spirit, torn away from his life and all its power.2 Indeed, what kind of a receiving will this be, such that the dead body of Christ hides in the stomach of the impious?

As to the objection that the words “This is my body” were said to all in common, it3 is with no difficulty shown to be false: for nothing hinders Christ from truly exhibiting4 himself to all, and yet no others receive him except for those who are capable of it [capaces]. God is for me the best witness that it is not because of stubbornness that I hold onto this form of teaching, but because I am held bound by the authority of Scripture.

The consent of the ancient church also supports [my position]. In proving this, because it is not my purpose to insist at too great a length, let one passage of Augustine suffice, [where he says that] while the other disciples were eating the bread as the Lord, Judas did not eat anything except the bread of the Lord (Tractates on John 19).5 I therefore long for true and sincere agreement as much as anyone, provided that God himself confirms it by his own Word.6

  1. “Nor indeed do I reject the Augsburg Confession, which long ago I willingly and gladly subscribed, as the author himself interpreted it.”
  2. “Torn away” modifies “body.”
  3. “It” refers to the objection.
  4. A key term, one used in the Variata version of the Augsburg Confession.
  5. I’ve printed the reference as it appears in Corpus Reformatorum, but the reference is wrong. Calvin is referring to Tractate 59.1 on John 13.16-20, where Augustine says: Illi manducabant panem Dominum, ille panem Domini contra Dominum: illi vitam, ille poenam (“They were eating the bread as the Lord, he was eating the bread of the Lord in opposition to the Lord; they [were eating] life, he [was eating] punishment”).
  6. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.