14 August 2004

calvinian real presence?

The topic of the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist has surfaced in several recent discussions, particularly whether one could speak of a Calvinian understanding of that presence. After all, it is assumed, the historic catholic teaching of the church is that of the Real Presence and so a Calvinian doctrine of the Real Presence might have important ecumenical implications.

It seems to me that this topic needs some careful thought, along with a significant degree of historical and philosophical awareness. Unfortunately, I lack much of the requisite expertise to address the topic adequately. Still, I have a few initial (and likely controversial) thoughts on the topic.

I think the first thing to note is terminological. Whatever the shape of Patristic and earlier medieval teaching, nobody believed in the "Real Presence" prior to the late middle ages (note the quotation marks). The terminology of "Real Presence" simply was not in use and when it did come into use - particularly the use of the term "real" - it did so in connection with various shifts in ecclesiology and ontology so that what came to be termed "Real Presence" was not in fact identical with the Patristic and earlier medieval understandings of the eucharist, even if there were points of continuity.

Thus, when Calvin avoids using the terminology of "Real Presence" he does so as a humanist theologian, attempting to retrieve what he understands to be more authentic ways of expressing catholic belief regarding the eucharist, with a greater focus on "true partaking" of Christ's flesh and blood in the context of the eucharistic action, though inextricably tied up with partaking of the elements themselves. In this project Augustine and the Eastern Fathers are Calvin's primary sources of reflection.

A number of studies of Calvin's eucharistic doctrine have been published over the years, attempting to explicate his views. In particular J.W. Nevin's The Mystical Presence, B.A. Gerrish's Grace and Gratitude, and Keith Mathison's Given for You come to mind, each providing an important perspective on Calvin's doctrine. On the specific issue of Calvin's use of terminology and rejection of the language of "Real Presence," however, one should consult Joseph N. Tylenda, "Calvin and Christ's Presence in the Supper - True or Real" in Scottish Journal of Theology 27 (1974) 65-75. Tylenda examines all the revelant texts where Calvin uses the term "real" in relation to the partaking of Christ's body in the Supper and demonstrates that Calvin preferred the older terminology of "true" over the more recent introduction of "real" and the ontological baggage that he perceived as coming with it (though "true" has its own history of problems in connection with eucharist as de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum demonstrates).

Moreover, with regard to the notion of the "real" and the shifts in ontology that are behind it, there are a number important texts that need to be taken into account, several from within the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy.

First among these is Catherine Pickstock's After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell 1997), where she sets out how shifts in late medieval ontology from Scotus onward led to a "spatialization" of knowledge and reality (what she terms a "mathesis"). Her work on this builds in important ways upon Michel de Certeau's The Mystic Fable. The idea here is that the "real" requires placement upon a manipulable grid of absolute presence.

A second text is John Milbank and C. Pickstock's Truth in Aquinas (Routledge 2001), particularly the fourth and last chapter, "Truth and Language," which treats eucharistic doctrine and issues of presence and absence in the context of both patristic/medieval theology and postmodern discussions (e.g., Derrida, though there are problems with their account of Derrida, I think). They do a good job of suggesting the ways in which earlier eucharistic theology was grounded in an ecclesial and relational context of human action. This discussion is well-supplemented by Graham Ward's Cities of God (Routledge 2000), where he interacts with Calvin's view in connection with questions of ontology and, especially, the ascension of Christ, which Calvin so emphasizes, though Ward's attempt to build a theology of Christ's ascension is not without problems.

Finally, behind these various discussions still stands Henri de Lubac's Corpus Mysticum (Aubier 1944), though it's still only available in French (though an English translation coming out soon). De Lubac traces the reversals and shifts in the relationship and meaning of the terms "true body" and "mystical body" in medieval theology, particular their reversal as the term "true body" migrates from referring to the gathered ecclesial Body of Christ to the presence of Christ in the eucharist.

The upshot of these writings is that for earlier medieval and Patristic theology, notions such as" substance" and "presence" and "body of Christ" were embedded within an ontology that granted them a certain kind of dynamism and relationality, connected with actions and events (so that "eucharist" was more a liturgical event than a fetishizable thing), and irreducibly attached to signs, without giving into spatialized notions of absolute presence and absence. In the late medieval period, however, and into the early modern, there were shifts in ontology that moved in the direction of defining "real" and "substance" in terms of a spatialized presence, definitively localized, thought of in terms of absolute arrival, more static, and in a different, more problematic relationship with signs.

While these shifts occurred in the west, it is arguable that the Christian East maintained something much closer to the overall shape of various Patristic approaches. Some Eastern Orthodox manuals and theologians, of course, in a polemical response to their western counterparts, did fall into some western patterns (e.g., identifying the epiclesis as the moment of Christ's absolute arrival, in response to the high medieval western identification of specific words of the institution narrative as properly consecratory). Nevertheless, a number of Eastern theologians (e.g., Alexander Schmemman in recent years) still maintained and retrieved a eucharistic doctrine that has more in common with the Fathers than with the problematics of the medieval west.

Returning to the notion of the "Real Presence," one could suggest, of course, that it may be the case that in the past century or so, the terminology of "real" has shifted so as not to be quite so tied up with these kinds of later medieval and early modern notions and, instead, meaning something more like "authentic"or "true" rather than "false" or "illusory." Calvin himself allowed that if by "real" one meant "true" (reali pro vero) in opposition to fallacious or imaginary (fallaci vel imaginario), then that language was permissible (see his first reply to Westphal). On this basis, we might speak of a Calvinian doctrine of the "Real Presence" and perhaps there are good ecumenical reasons for doing so in terms of western theology. But I hardly think the terminology of "Real Presence," given its historical contingency and late origins, is necessary for confessing a common catholic faith.

Calvin himself, however, isn't entirely without problems. Personally, my reading of Calvin is that he was attempting to retrieve a more Patristic understanding of the eucharistic partaking of Christ's flesh and blood, trying to do an end run around his Roman Catholic and Lutheran interlocutors. And I think that, to a large degree, Calvin was successful.

On the other hand, Calvin is a mixed bag. He recognizes the problems of the notion of "Real Presence" that had arisen in his day, but he himself, it seems to me, falls prey to just the kinds of problems that he is objecting to in his opponents. Thus, we find Calvin continually speaking of the ascended Christ, in his humanity, as "far off" or "at great distance from us in space" (and so on) as if the ascension were some kind of spiritual mode of space travel. While at his more reflective moments, Calvin seems to recognize that such language is inadequate, it is still pervasive in the way in which he frames his eucharistic doctrine and, in many regards, strikes me as the equal and opposite error from that which he was opposing (i.e., a notion of Real Presence that seemed to definitively and spatially localize Christ's body as enclosed within the eucharistic elements).

It is just this kind of spatialization within Calvin to which Graham Ward objects in his Cities of God, though, it seems to me, that Ward's own theorization of the ascension is at least as problematic as Calvin's (not to mention what seems to me an implicit gnosticism). To my mind, a helpful correction to both Ward and Calvin is Douglas Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of Ascension (Eerdmans 1999), which looks at the ascension along more eschatological-temporal dimensions and rethinks how we might conceive of the "heaven" to which Christ has ascended in relation to us.

In any case, there's considerable work to be done on this topic by those from within the Reformed tradition as a matter of renewing Calvin's own eucharistic doctrine, placing it in its proper historical context, developing it today, and bringing it into conversation with the wider faith of the church catholic. What I've done here is the merest gesture towards the issues at stake and resources necessary for such a Calvinistic renewal.