10 August 2003

calvin and bucer on eucharist and unbelief

As I noted in the previous post, Calvin and Bucer appear to differ--at least linguistically--with regard to what unbelievers receive, should a unbeliever partake of the eucharist. While Bucer was willing to say that "to the unworthy the body and blood of Christ are truly offered, and the unworthy truly receive them," Calvin more closely followed what he took to be Augustine's view.

In his Homilies on John, Augustine writes, "the person who doesn't dwell in Christ and in whom Christ does not dwell, without doubt neither eats his flesh nor drinks his blood, but rather he only eats or drinks the sacrament of such a great thing unto his own judgment" (26.18). And so, as Augustine says later, the bread that the Eleven ate at the Last Supper "was the Lord himself" but the bread Judas ate was merely "the Lord's bread" (59.1).

Calvin similarly writes, that while this matter of what unbelievers receive in the Supper is "not an essential one," he says that he maintains that "Christ cannot be disjoined from his Spirit" and so "his body is not receieved as dead, or even inactive, disjoined from the grace and power of his Spirit" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27). Calvin cannot see how a partaker of the eucharist "who is altogether destitute of a living faith and repentance, having nothing of the Spirit of Christ" could, in fact, receive Christ in the sacrament. While Calvin is willing to admit that those who are "weak" in their faith do "receive Christ truly in the Supper" though "unworthily," those who come to the Supper without a true faith do not "receive anything but the sign."

Nonetheless, Calvin is also quite aware of the danger of reducing the efficacy and reality of Christ's presence in the Supper to a merely subjective one, dependent upon the faith of the receiver.

Thus, Calvin insists that "the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the worthiness of men, and that nothing is taken away from the promises of God, or falls to the ground, through the wickedness of men" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27). And so, he says, "Christ's body is presented to the wicked no less than to the good" so that unbelief does nothing to "impair to alter anything as to the nature of the sacrament." In the Institutes Calvin similarly says that "the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given to the unworthy than to God's elect believers" but that unbelievers reject the proffered gift (4.17.33).

Returning, then, to Bucer's view, while Bucer is willing to speak of unbelievers "truly receiving" the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament, one wonders to what degree this language is meant as a mediating position between Calvin and Luther. Elsewhere in his writings, Bucer is clear that he doesn't accept that unbelievers receive Christ in the sacrament in the same manner as believers, since Christ is not received to the intended effect by unbelievers, but to condemnation--akin perhaps to receiving a letter that one never opens or reads. But Calvin compares the experience of the Supper for unbelievers to the blessing of rain as it falls upon a hard rock and runs off when no opening in the rock presents itself.

In any case, I'm not going to figure out all the nuances of Bucer's views and his differences with Calvin, if any beyond the merely linguistic. At least not tonight.