Two recently acclaimed books on Calvin are Herman J. Selderhuis’ John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP, 2009) and Bruce Gordon’s Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009). Selderhuis’ book has the very warm commendations of Frank A.James III, Lyle Bierma and Donald K.McKim. Both Gordon’s meticulous style and his thorough research are widely known.
The following is an extract from Selderhuis’ book on Calvin and Bullinger and the Lord’s Supper:
“…. Here too he was more flexible than the usual image of Calvin would lead us to think. Calvin engaged in an intensive correspondence with Bullinger in which he sought formulas that could satisfy the Swiss and yet also justify the Lutheran standpoint. Thus Calvin arrived at a formula that spoke of Christ as present and not present at the Lord’s Supper. He was not present physically, but he was fully present spiritually. Calvin made use of what he read in the Scriptures especially about the Holy Spirit and ensured that he could both relativize as well as uphold the importance of the external aspects of the Christian faith, such as baptism, preaching and the church. Calvin also understood, however, that the real presence of Christ was of enormous significance and he therefore sought a way to combine the Lutheran and the Swiss views, not merely as a tactical measure, but rather out of his conviction that they were both partly right, and that what was right in each of them could be combined into a complementary whole.” (pp154,155)
Calvin’s efforts with respect to finding unity on the Lord’s Supper needs to understood in the context of Calvin’s attitude to Luther as reflected by Selderhuis:
“At times, however, Calvin also expressed discontentment with Luther’s attitude. He was a great spiritual leader, but also a great problem, and Calvin was one of many who attempted to reckon with both aspects of Luther. To Bullinger, Calvin wrote that his Wittenberg colleague was ‘immoderately ardent and violent in character.’ Luther should have better controlled his temper and been more aware of his shortcomings. To Melanchthon, Calvin wrote that Luther lacked self-control and allowed himself to be worked up into a rage far too quickly. Behaving like this, Luther was a danger to the church, and it appeared that no-one would dare counter this behavior. Respect remained however, and – according to Calvin himself – even if Luther were to call him a devil, Calvin would still show him honor and tell him that he was a most special servant of God. In 1554 the Swiss reformers accused Calvin of being too lenient with Luther. He defended the German’s fierceness by saying that this was simply part of Luther’s character and that malicious men were consciously provoking him. In Calvin’s estimation, Luther remained a superb servant of Christ to whom all ere indebted. His wrongs ought only to be reproached in such a way that room remained for appreciation of his giftedness. Calvin’s defense of Luther’s turbulent character should come as no surprise; he was like that himself.” (p106)
Gordon points out that in Calvin’s 1545 commentary on 1 Corinthians that Calvin displayed “an excellent example of the manner in which he could tacitly support one side without openly saying so. He was emphatic that the Zwinglian teaching on the Lord’s Supper was wrong, but his approach to Luther’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was more nuanced, and his language carefully couched. The doctrine of ubiquity, for which he had no time, was not attributed to Luther or his supporters by name, but rather attacked or his supporters as a false teaching of the medieval scholastics. It was a brilliant tactical manoeuvre. At the same time, his insistence on the reality of Christ’s presence was never referenced to any of Luther’s writings, though a clear similarity is detectable.”
Gordon comments that after Luther published his Short Confession on the Lord’s Supper in September 1544: “Farel believed that Calvin could play a role in calming the Zurchers after this latest assault from Wittenberg, but Calvin himself was skeptical. ‘Already I fear the sort of answer they may return. They will not fail to dwell on the marvelous patience with which they have endeavored to assuage him (Luther). For even Bullinger himself, when he was complaining to me in a letter some months ago about Luther’s unkindness, highly commended his own forbearance and that of his friends.’ Calvin was aware nonetheless, that the aging and increasingly cantankerous Luther was a major part of the problem. ‘For at present the danger arises not so much from them as from Luther.’
Calvin did intervene, however, and wrote to Bullinger in November urging restraint in response to Luther’s Short Confession. ‘I hear that Luther has at length broken forth in fierce invective, not so much against you as against the whole of us.’ Although he referred to the Zwinglians as ‘innocent people’, what followed was an extensive admonition to Bullinger to regard Luther’s greatness as a reformer of the Church.
‘I earnestly desire you to bear in mind in the first place how eminent a man Luther is, and the excellent endowments with which he is gifted, with what strength of mind and resolute constancy, with such great skill, and with what efficiency and power of doctrinal statement he has devoted to his whole energy to overthrow the reign of Antichrist, and, at the same time, to spread far and wide the doctrine of salvation. Often I have declared that even if he were to call me a devil, I should still nonetheless, hold him as an illustrious servant of God. But while he is endowed with rare and excellent virtues, he labors at the same time under serious faults. Would that he worked to curb this restless, uneasy temperament which is so apt to boil over in every direction.’
In acknowledging Luther’s harsh and crude manner, Calvin offered cold comfort to Bullinger on the Lord’s Supper. He refused to condemn Luther’s teaching, confining himself to the issue of peace within the Church. Citing Paul, he admonished Bullinger to look to the greater unity of the Church. Calvin’s evident sympathy with the Lutherans must have made uneasy reading in Zurich.” (pp167-169)
Both Selderhuis and Gordon have written from the perspective of the majority of scholars, who positive to Calvin, view Bullinger through the eyes of Calvin. For balance we should seek to view Calvin through the eyes of Bullinger. The quotations above reveal Calvin’s respect and honour for Luther. To what extent did this influence Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper and terminology he chose to use? In an earlier post we have seen how Bullinger had enormous respect and honour for Zwingli. To what extent did this influence Bullinger’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper? We know that Bullinger was particular about the Latin terms he used. In the correspondence with Calvin leading up to the Consensus Tigurinus this would have been particularly critical as the letters straddled Trent. I am of the opinion that Bullinger chose to use terminology used by the Church Fathers and, therefore, could not be rejected by the Roman Church.
The conclusions of both Selderhuis and Gordon reveal the role of interpretation of historical events. Was Calvin the one taking the initiative to hammer out a agreement with Bullinger re the Lord’s Supper? It may appear to be the case judging by some of Calvins’ comments in his letters concerning the tardiness in Bullinger’s replies in addition to the number of journeys that Calvin made to Zurich (1545, 1547, 1548 and 1549 – twice with Farel) whereas Bullinger never once went to Geneva. Or was it Bullinger who took the initiative to work out a joint statement on the Lord’s Supper with Calvin because he realized that there was no way forward with the German Lutherans, even though he and the Zurchers were deeply suspicious of the influence of Bucer?
We know that some of Bullinger’s friends, such as Kampius warned Bullinger of Calvin’s perceived fickleness. Kampius wrote form the church at Emden on 31 August 1545 with comments on Calvin’s catechism on the Lord’s Supper. Leonard Fry wrote from Biel complaining that Calvin asserted that Christ’s body was in heaven but that believers encountered Christ’s real flesh and blood in the sacrament. These warnings notwithstanding, Bullinger sent Calvin a copy of his Absoluta de Christi Domini et catholicae eius ecclesiae sacramentis tractio.
It is also known that from time to time Calvin was unwise what he put down in writing. He wrote to Viret: “Here you have Bullinger’s letter in which you will observe an astonishing obstinacy. I said to you once that the Zurich people always sing the same tune” (W. Kolfhaus “Der Verkehr Calvins mit Bullinger,” in Calvinstudien: Festschrift zum 400. Geburtstage Johann Calvins, ed. Josef Bohatec (Leipzig, 1909) p56). The reference to ‘obstinacy’ was Calvin’s reference emphasis on using the corrects words and terms. Some of the correspondence from Bullinger to Calvin are to do with terms that Calvin used which was an attempt to remove any ambiguous terms that might indicate a trace of Lutheranism.
In his letter to Calvin dated 15 March 1549 Bullinger wrote: “With your last answer, you have brought me a great step towards you, I know understand your latest letters better than I formerly did. Do not marvel that I wrote to you so bluntly. Today, we have highly educated men who change their opinions more than is good for them. I do not say that you belong to these, but I wanted to hear from you where you stood in plain words. By the way, I have not a bad opinion of you so please excuse my bluntness. I strive to formulate my opinions only in so much as they are true and you do not say that they are false. You say yourself that your disagreement with us is not a disagreement of heart and disposition. I cannot understand why you differ from us at all. When you have read my answer, you will, I trust, find no more disagreements…. I am satisfied that you love us sincerely. May we cease from provoking each other and love each other heartily to the edifying of our churches” (Kolfhaus, p65).
Bullinger explained that he and Calvin could find unity: “In the communion service, the Lord works internally through the power of the Spirit that which he externally seals through the symbol. He gives himself to us to nourish him in our hearts and renews and strengthens our fellowship with him” (Kolfhaus, p65).
The Consensus Tigurinus only had Calvin’s name printed on it. This could be interpreted as a sign of Bullinger’s humility who referred to the work as A Mutual Agreement Concerning the Sacraments between the Servants of the Church of Zurich and John Calvin, Servant of the Church at Geneva.
In earlier work, Gordon made the following comment about the Consensus Tigurinus: “Too much has been made of this agreement, which was, for the most part, a practical arrangement which suited both men. It was a partnership which worked well: Bullinger supported Calvin both openly and tacitly, agreeing not to disagree in public, and together they formed a common front against Lutheran opponents, such as Joachim Westphal, who wrote against the Swiss in the mid 1550’s” (Architect of Reformation p20).
A work that needs to be studied with respect to all this is Emidio Campi and Ruedi Reich (eds.), Consensus Tigurinus: Heinrich Bullinger und Johannes Calvin über das Abendmahl (Zurich: TVZ, 2009).