Sunday, March 13, 2011

Richard Muller on Calvin’s Early Eucharistic Thought

Richard Muller has recently written an article on the early eucharistic thought in Calvin’s early period: “From Zurich or from Wittenberg? An Examination of Calvin’s Early Eucharistic Thought”, Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 45 (n0.2), 2010, pp243-255.

Muller specifically studied the first edition of Calvin’s Institutio (1536), the French and Latin catechism and confession of 1537-1538 and the early Confessio fidei de Eucharistia (1537). He pays attention to Calvin’s use of key terms such as substantia, exhibere, adesse, corpus.

Muller argues for the influence of Melanchthon on the early Calvin. The following is part of his conclusions:

“Four conclusions can be drawn from these usages. Arguably, first, Calvin evidences two connotations of substantia. One is a looser construction not drawing on the technical philosophical meaning associated with individual things, which is to say, not primary substance in the Aristolean sense, and the other is a strict use of the technical sense of the term. According to the looser usage, Christ’s body becomes one substance with believers in a spiritual sense – in the sense of the presence and influence of Christ that are held forth in sacramental signs. Indeed, there is a positive association between the use of exhibere and this understanding of substantia. Second, in his denial of the substantial presence of Christ’s body, Calvin appears to use the standard philosophical sense of substantia as the primary substance or individual. This reading is confirmed by his pairing of substantial with real, the realis having here, certainly, the technical connotation of ‘thingish’ or substantial implied by its etymological root, res. Here, moreover, Calvin explicitly distances the notion of Christ exhibited from the language of substance: that which is exhibited is not the corporeal presence of Christ. Third, if Calvin’s denial of a substantial presence in the strict sense can be identified as a Zwinglian accent, his use of exhibere indicates a distancing from Zwingli already in 1536. The Christological understanding of a presence is coupled with the use of exhibere and with Calvin’s language of true, effective presence (eg vere, efficaciter, praesens, adest) in a manner that resonates more with Melanchthon and points rather clearly to a Lutheran referent of Calvin’s argumentation. Fourth, Calvin’s recognition that Christ’s ascension undermined a local, corporeal presence, coupled with is insistence that the sesio Christi ad dexteram Patris, rendered Christ present in a powerful sense that could be understood eucharistically and points more probably toward concord with the Lutherans based on largely Melanchthonian language.”

Muller ends his article with the following conclusion:

“Some conclusions are in order,Calvin’s earliest thought ought not to be described either as ambiguous or as Zwinglian. Nor is it taken from Luther. Rather, it is distinctly Melanchthonian. Of great interest here is that the 1536 Institutio, despite its denial of a substantial presence of Christ’s natural body, does not develop anything like his later doctrine of Christ’s eucharistic presence as a sursum corda, namely as a work of the Holy Spirit raising the heart of the believer and joining together in heavenly places things otherwise disparate. Instead, Calvin argues, that, given Christ’s ascension to heaven, he cannot be corporeally present on earth; but, inasmuch as he now sits at the right hand of God, his kingdom and power extend everywhere, and he can hold forth his body and blood to believers. Calvin’s focus is on a presence understood christologically, not pneumatologically. Not only does Calvin’s use of exhibere, verum and adsum lean toward a Melanchthonian doctrine, so also does the way that he understands a local ascension to a non local divine right hand. Significantly also, Calvin’s denial of a real presence of the substance of Christ is not yet a denial of any Lutheran teaching. The Lutheran confessional documents to which he was party had not used the term, and the other language Calvin uses to explain Christ’s presence is not only Melanchthonian but evidences a close relationship to the apology of the Augsburg Confession and the Wittenberg Concord. The positive elements of this early teaching, moreover, carry over into the catechisms of 1537 and 1538 and, to a certain extent, the Confessio fidei de Eucharistia (1537) in which the denial of substantial presence has dropped out. Inasmuch, moreover, as Bucer and Capito had signed the Wittenberg Concord, Calvin’s Melanchthonian language also pointed him toward agreement with Strasbourg.”

Muller has provided us with a stimulating study of the early Calvin vis-à-vis his understanding of the Eucharist. However, it is appropriate to ask a few questions.

1. Although at this early stage Calvin had not yet moved to Strasbourg he had, nonetheless, presumably, read some of Bucer’s works as so we might ask – to what extent was Calvin’s thought influenced by that of Bucer?

2. Since the use of Latin terms in this period of the 16th century would have been somewhat fluid – what lexicological studies have been done that might throw some light on the debate?

3. To what extent was Calvin writing in reaction to the Roman understanding of the Mass rather than on an a priori basis explaining the sacraments from Scripture?

4. Muller may have done a study on Calvin’s early understanding of the Eucharist but the bottom line is – what light does this shed on what Scripture teaches? Ie how faithful is Calvin to Scripture?

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