Volume 47 - Issue 1

John Calvin’s Eucharistic Theology: A Pentecostal Analysis Geoffrey Butler

By Geoffrey Butler


Within the Reformed tradition John Calvin has previously earned the label “Theologian of the Holy Spirit,” with the Lord’s Supper standing out as one aspect of his theology which places a particularly heavy emphasis on the Spirit’s activity. Despite his robust pneumatology, however, Pentecostal engagement with Calvin remains quite limited on this matter, despite the young movement’s insistent desire to highlight the Holy Spirit’s work. This paper, therefore, addresses this question by discussing the historical context in which Calvin lived and outlining his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. It discusses what makes Calvin’s position unique, and how his robustly pneumatological position may help Pentecostals recover the sacramental roots of their own movement and contribute to the development of a truly Spirit-filled theology of the Eucharist.

Few doctrines have evoked more passionate debate than the Lord’s Supper; while virtually all Christian traditions have a theology of the Eucharist, intense debate persists over its meaning, nature, and proper administration. During Reformation era, one only need look at the polemical interactions of Martin Luther, not only with the Roman Catholic Church,1 but even with other Protestants over the presence of Christ in the Supper to get a sense of this tension.2 In his treatise against the Zwinglian position, he labels it a heresy concocted by Satan, claiming that its proponents had made a mockery of the sacrament and were therefore responsible for the ongoing division within Protestantism.3 It was in this highly polarized environment that John Calvin articulated his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, which represented a mediating path between Luther and Zwingli.4 For Calvin, the presence of Christ in the Supper is not physical, but is nevertheless true; his body remains in heaven, yet through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, his followers are united with him and partake of his body and blood.5 As John Hesselink explains, the Spirit “unites that which is separated by time and space … and in the action of the sacrament feeds the believer with the flesh and blood of Christ.”6 He is really present, albeit in a spiritual sense, which Calvin declared a mystery beyond comprehension.

That Calvin describes Christ’s presence as beyond the understanding of humanity was not lost on many later Reformed theologians, some of whom flatly rejected Calvin’s position as overly mystical, incomprehensible even.7 While this element of mystery has made some Reformed evangelicals skeptical, the emphasis Calvin places on the Spirit may prove relevant to a contemporary discussion in a different subset of evangelicalism,8 the Supper in Pentecostal theology. Most classical Pentecostal bodies have historically held to a strictly memorial view of the Supper. Stanley Horton and William Menzies, both of the Assemblies of God USA, describe communion as “commemorative,” explicitly denying transubstantiation as well as Protestant views of real/true presence.9 Yet, given the highly pneumatological emphasis that permeates Calvin’s understanding, a strong case can be made that he is solid resource to whom Pentecostals should look in further developing their theology of the Lord’s Supper. As Julie Canlis asserts, “The radical—even watershed—role that Calvin gave to the Spirit in the Lord’s Supper cannot be overstated,”10 an assessment that would be true of Pentecostal theology more broadly. This paper will therefore outline Calvin’s theology of the sacrament, detailing the historical context in which his position developed. It will also detail the alternatives within the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions that Calvin rejected, and how his pneumatology played a key role. Finally, it will analyze the ways in which his theology of communion holds the potential to contribute to the development of a more pneumatologically robust theology of the Lord’s Supper within the Pentecostal tradition. While Calvin has attracted little attention from Pentecostals as a dialogue partner thus far, common ground on this topic might encourage the movement toward sustained interaction with this “theologian of the Holy Spirit.”11

1. Pentecostalism: Recovering Real Presence?

The Lord’s Supper is a topic ripe for further dialogue within classical Pentecostalism; numerous scholars have expressed interest in furthering their tradition’s theology of the Supper beyond the commemorative position, and see the Eucharist as a prime area for dialogue with other Christian traditions.12 Chris Green, for example, has argued that “the earliest Pentecostals prominently celebrated the sacraments” and lauds the return “to the idea that Pentecostal theology is already inherently sacramental.”13 Moreover, Daniel Tomberlin also appeals to early Pentecostalism’s sacramental instincts:

It seems that early Pentecostal leaders intuitively knew that there is a “presence” inherent in the holy meal. Baptism in the Holy Spirit brought into their lives a real presence, an active presence, that anointed the sacred acts of worship. This understanding of real presence became associated with the Lord’s Supper. It is evident that Pentecostals understood that at the Table, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is present.14

Pentecostals scholars thus argue that their movement is already sacramental by its very nature, claiming that its founders held to a form of real presence via the Spirit’s work.15

This raises a crucial point. Much has been made of the fact Pentecostal theological method places a high premium on the believer’s experience of the Holy Spirit.16 Amos Yong, in his work on theological hermeneutics, asserts, “Christian theological reflection in a postmodern world starts with the experience of the Holy Spirit,” and that, “it is time for the West to consciously resist the subordination” of the Spirit in its approach to theology.17 It would appear, then, that if theological reflection within the Pentecostal tradition is thoroughly pneumatological, a distinctly Pentecostal theology of the Lord’s Supper ought to be as well. It is on this point that John Calvin’s eucharistic theology, with its unrelenting emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s work, holds fascinating potential. This has been hinted at in the past; as Simon Chan proposes, “The fact that in the eucharist we celebrate, as Calvin believed, the ‘spiritual presence’ of Christ is itself a reminder that salvation history and world history have not yet converged.”18 Although the conversation with Calvin has advanced little further as of yet, the potential seems clear. To help facilitate this conversation, it will be necessary to first explain the reformer’s position, including the medieval context which gave rise to Reformation controversies surrounding the Eucharist.

2. Calvin in Context: The Historical Background

Of central importance in Roman Catholicism, visible daily within the local church, the Mass quickly came under fire from the Reformers as a distortion of the Lord’s Supper to be adamantly rejected. To some observers their relentless attack on the Catholic sacramental system might seem like a strange obsession. However, as Alister McGrath notes, “the sacraments represented the publicly visible face of the church. For most laypersons the main point of contact with the church, as well as the wider world, was through church services on Sundays.”19 Thus, to reform the sacramental system meant nothing less than to reform the church in the eyes of the laity. This not only meant reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two—baptism and communion—but offering an alternative understanding of them. It also meant wading into a debate fraught with serious pastoral implications;20 if the meaning of the Lord’s Supper were reimagined, the salvation it represented would also have to be reconsidered. Calvin was keenly aware of this; rejecting the Catholic position that participating in the Mass is vital for the forgiveness of one’s sins, he inquires:

Who can think he has been redeemed by the death of Christ if he sees a new redemption in the Mass? Who can feel confident that his sins have been remitted when he sees a new remission? It will not do to say that the only ground on which we obtain the forgiveness of sins is in the Mass is, because we have already been purchased by the death of Christ.21

In other words, one cannot hold that believers are saved by Christ’s once for all sacrifice while simultaneously affirming the salvific efficacy of the Mass; nor can one be assured of the forgiveness of their sins if they place their hope of remission in the sacrament, which must be administered to them repeatedly. Further detailing his position in his nearly 200-page treatise on the Supper and baptism, he declared that, contra the medieval Roman Catholic position, the “bread and wine are signs, which represent unto us the invisible food which we receive of the flesh and blood of Christ.”22 For a pastor like Calvin, who was responsible for administering the Supper, the theological implications of such a statement are many—as are the questions that could arise from the congregation. How exactly do the elements function as a sign? How often should they be administered? And when they are, who should participate?

One of the first Protestant polemics against the Roman Catholic Mass was Martin Luther’s 1520 work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation, the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice, and withholding the cup from members of the congregation.23 Yet, due to his claim that the elements contained the body and blood of Christ “in, with, and under” them, some Protestants did not believe that he sufficiently distanced himself from transubstantiation. Just five years later Huldrych Zwingli penned his Commentary on True and False Religion in which he claimed that the Lord’s Table did not entail the actual consumption of his body and blood, but that to feed on Christ simply meant to exercise faith.24 In Zwingli’s estimation, the notion Christ’s body and blood could be orally consumed in any sense, “smacked of cannibalism on the one hand and of the pagan mystery religions on the other.”25 Moreover, Luther’s tendency to connect salvation with participation in the Supper caused Zwingli to fear his position implicitly endangered justification by faith alone.

Born in 1509, a generation later than Luther and Zwingli, Calvin was not a part of this first-generation Protestant controversy. His own view, in fact, was formed as a mediating position in response to earlier division,26 and was later adopted by various Reformed confessions such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith.27 His statements concerning the real presence28 make clear he was no Zwinglian; Calvin, again according to Hesselink, “had a high view of the sacraments, as high in most respects as Luther’s.”29 In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11, he charges that the Christian should “not doubt that the Lord accomplishes what his words intimate—that the body, which thou dost not at all behold, is given to thee, as a spiritual repast. It seems incredible, that we should be nourished by Christ’s flesh, which is at so great a distance from us.”30 Yet, as previously discussed, he also took great pains to distance himself from Roman Catholic and Lutheran positions; in the very same commentary, addressing the same text, Calvin explicitly denies transubstantiation. On such a view, he charges, there is “no correspondence between the visible sign and the spiritual reality,” and thus the notion of the Supper being a sign becomes meaningless—a deception, even.31 Having briefly demonstrated the major alternatives to Calvin’s position, and given his historical context, we turn our attention to what made Calvin’s view of the Supper unique, and how he distinguished his position from his contemporaries.

3. Calvin in Contrast: Objections to Roman Catholic and Protestant Alternatives

Not one to shy away from controversy, Calvin’s differences with both the Roman Catholic Church of his day, in addition to various strands of Protestantism, are well documented. In Catholicism, so entrenched was the belief that the elements of bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ during the Mass that the 16th century Council of Trent declared,

If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and therefore the whole Christ are really, truly, and substantially contained, but says that he only as in a sign or figure or by his power, let him be anathema.32

Thomas Baima, explaining the Council’s response to Protestant theologies of the Supper, notes the delegates were attempting to correct three major errors, each characteristic of a major Protestant position. The Zwinglian error was that Christ is present in the Eucharist “only as a sign or figure”; the Lutheran error that his presence in the Eucharist was limited simply to the sacrament itself with no continued presence after participants had partaken; and Calvin’s error that the “Lord was present only by his power.”33 Yet, while Calvin may have vehemently denied transubstantiation, it seems that the claim that Christ is present “only by his power” is misleading in light of his statements strongly affirming that believers truly feed on Christ in the sacrament and, even more importantly, that the mediating presence of the Holy Spirit allows the Christian to be nourished by his flesh and blood.34 Calvin wrote that he was “not satisfied with those who, while acknowledging that we have some kind of communion with Christ, only make us partakers of the Spirit, omitting all mention of flesh and blood.”35 The distance between the people of God and Christ’s physical body, located in heaven, was of little consequence in light of the ministry of the Holy Spirit; his activity in the Eucharist transforms it from the mere consumption of bread and wine into one where Christ “transfuses his life into us.”36 Understanding the connection between Calvin’s pneumatology and sacramentality is key; he had no problem with the idea of Christ’s presence in the Supper per se, but rather the Catholic interpretation of it. The key link in Calvin’s theology of the Supper—the presence of the Holy Spirit—is a theme virtually absent from the medieval Catholic conception of the Mass. There was no need; why leave room for the mystery of the Spirit’s work if the elements are miraculously changed into the body and blood prior to being consumed? For Calvin, the presence of Christ in the Supper was a “great mystery” that he was “unable to comprehend with [his] mind.”37 This is no small admission for an intellect of Calvin’s stature; but perhaps this, too, points to the wonder of the sacrament itself.

While in some ways his position on the Supper may appear similar to that of Luther, the Calvin’s first edition of the Institutes strongly challenged Luther’s understanding, with some sensing he was more favourable toward Zwingli’s.38 Whether or not this was due to a fear Luther had not made a clean enough break with the Catholic Church, from Calvin’s earliest editions of his Institutes and his treatises on the Supper, he often makes statements that appear critical of both Lutheran and Zwinglian positions.39 On the other hand, Calvin’s 1541 treatise on the Supper, intended to mediate between their positions, was so well received by Luther that he claimed had Zwingli wrote in the same manner as Calvin much of the intense dispute over the sacrament could have been averted.40 Again, however, the Genevan did not hesitate to criticize Luther. Of particular concern was Luther’s view that the elements ought to be worshipped when elevated during the Supper; after all, he argued, if Christ were physically present within them, how could this be an inappropriate response?41 For Calvin, however, this was another grave error which stemmed from the faulty doctrine of corporeal presence. The disagreement with Luther and his followers thus was not the reality of Christ’s presence, but the nature of it. The former insisted, as their Catholic counterparts, that Christ was present in a corporeal sense. Calvin insisted his presence was spiritual; no less real, but also not physical.42 Indeed, from a Roman Catholic or Lutheran perspective, it may be tempting to equate Calvin with Zwingli. Yet, while some have tried to find a place in the latter’s Eucharistic theology for Christ’s presence in the meal, his own statements—such as his adamance that the elements were signs and the Supper a memorial—make his and Calvin’s position irreconcilable.43 Thus, Calvin’s rejection of transubstantiation and consubstantiation should not be taken as an endorsement of Zwingli.

In short, Calvin’s position on Christ’s presence in the Supper asserts that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, yet not in the sense that the elements either become his physical body and blood nor contain the body and blood “in, with, and under” the elements. If this seems somewhat mystical, this is because it does, in fact, in intentionally leave room for mystery. One must recall Calvin’s admission that the matter was too great for human comprehension. Thus, to adopt Calvin’s view is to live with a degree of unresolved tension regarding Christ’s presence—and to allow for a thoroughly pneumatological conception of the sacrament, in which the secret operation of the Spirit remains a primary focus. In his own words,

Hence, the bread is Christ’s body, because it assuredly testifies, that the body which it represents is held forth to us, or because the Lord, by holding out to us that symbol, gives us at the same time his own body; for Christ is not a deceiver, to mock us with empty representations…. We do not less truly become participants in Christ’s body in respect of spiritual efficacy, than we partake of the bread.44

For Calvin, that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ need not entail an actual transformation of the elements, but simply that the partaker of the sacrament be nourished by the body through this “spiritual efficacy”; this, he asserts, can be true only by the work of the Holy Spirit, who allows the believer to receive the benefits of such an action through faith.45

Yet, the distinctiveness of Calvin’s position extends beyond Christ’s presence; also significant are his statements regarding who ought to partake of the Supper, and how this is intrinsically linked to the way it is made effective. The exclusivity of the medieval Mass is highlighted in the fact that the liturgy was performed in Latin—a language incomprehensible to the vast majority of the laity.46 While the congregation may have been present during the event, the chances of them comprehending it were virtually non-existent. It is for this reason that Calvin’s contemporary Zwingli, for example, would either write on the subject in German or have his works quickly translated from Latin.47 Calvin, for his part, substituted the traditional words of the Latin Mass with prayers in the vernacular French, a practice that would later influence Reformed churches across Europe who followed suit in their languages.48 In Calvin’s view, the Supper is intended to strengthen the faith of those that the medieval church often overlooked. The knowledge of one’s sin and need of salvation is highlighted by the preaching of the gospel; receiving the body and blood of Christ, therefore, reminds the recipient of their hope in Jesus.49 For Calvin, the Supper should bring “knowledge and assurance to those who have been justified by God’s Word.”50 His 1541 Short Treatise lists three major reasons why the Lord instituted the Supper. The first, to serve as a “sign and seal” to remind believers of the promises of Christ; the second, to encourage believers to recognize the goodness of God so they worship him wholeheartedly; and, finally, to “exhort” believers toward unity, charity, and holiness.51 Such purposes are obscured in the Mass, he claimed, which is not a reaffirmation of the promises of God to the believer, but a sacrifice offered to God by the people. Moreover, the purposes of the Supper—all related to growth in Christ—as outlined by Calvin explain his conviction that only those professing faith in Christ should partake. Again, in his 1541 Short Treatise he notes,

For whoever approaches this holy sacrament with contempt or indifference, not caring much about following where our Lord calls him, perversely misuses it and thus contaminates it. Now to pollute and contaminate what God has so sanctified is intolerable sacrilege. It is, then, not without reason that Paul passes such grave condemnation on those who take it unworthily. For if there is nothing in heaven or earth of greater value and dignity than the body and blood of our Lord, it is no small fault to take it inconsiderately and without being well prepared. Therefore he exhorts us to examine ourselves well, in order to use it properly. When we understand what kind of examination this should be, we shall know the use for which we seek.52

Calvin is not demanding perfection of those who partake of the sacrament; the very fact that he speaks of the sacrament’s design to strengthen the believer in faith and help the grow in holiness assumes a degree of weakness. He goes so far as to declare that a knowledge of one’s flaws should only encourage them to desire the Lord’s Supper, as it reminds God’s people how he helps them in their weakness.53 While maintaining that all believers must examine themselves prior to receiving the elements, and that in so doing one “cannot be too diligent,” he also blasts “sophistical doctors” who trouble the consciences of individuals so that they fear receiving the sacrament, lest they inadvertently take it in an unworthy manner. For Calvin, herein lies the heart of the matter: Do you possess repentance and faith? Do you trust in the promises of Christ? Are you willing to forsake your sins and exercise faith in him alone for salvation? If so, the Supper is for you. All who come “must renounce all that is our own,”54 and while no believer possesses a perfect repentance, this basic disposition is a prerequisite without which no one ought to partake of Christ’s body and blood. In short, perhaps it is best to let Calvin summarize in his own words:

If we would worthily communicate in the Lord’s Supper, we must with firm heart-felt reliance regard the Lord Jesus as our only righteousness, life, and salvation, receiving and accepting the promises which are given us by him as sure and certain, and renouncing all other confidence, so that distrusting ourselves and all creatures, we may rest fully in him, and be contented with his grace alone.55

It is also worth noting that, unlike in some other Christian traditions—and again, owing a great deal to his pneumatology—the benefits of the sacrament may only be apprehended through faith, in Calvin’s view. Thus, in common with Zwingli and in opposition to proponents of the Lutheran and Catholic positions, Calvin held that unbelievers who partake of the Supper do not “feed” on Christ at all, because in order for one to be nourished by his body and blood, it must be received in faith.56 Herein lies a crucial distinction between affirming the true presence and the physical presence; to insist on the latter means that, if an unbeliever takes the sacrament, they have consumed in vain the flesh and blood of the Lord. For Calvin, the benefits of the Supper are procured through faith and the work of the Spirit; thus, it is impossible for unbelievers to truly partake of the body and blood of Christ. Indeed, the importance of faith in making the sacrament effective is one primary reason for Calvin’s adamance that only believers ought to participate. In his chapter on the Supper in his Institutes, Calvin explains that what are “separated by space”—the body and blood of Christ in heaven and his church on earth—are nevertheless united by the Spirit, encouraging his readers to grasp this truth by faith if they cannot do so by reason.57 The sacrament, according to Calvin, is a “mystical blessing,” and thus we should not be taken aback if Spirit’s work therein may seem incomprehensible at times.58 Faith, then, is key to this position. It is impossible to receive the benefits of the sacrament without it, and it is essential when human explanation fails to grasp the complexities of it. Calvin himself provides a succinct summary of the relationship between the body, blood, and work of the Spirit at the end of his Short Treatise, explaining his view of Christ’s presence and in doing so concludes,

Be this as it may, on the one hand, in order to exclude all carnal fancies, we must raise our hearts upwards to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus is so debased as to be enclosed under some corruptible elements; and, on the other hand, not to impair the efficacy of this holy ordinance, we must hold that it is made effectual by the secret and miraculous power of God, and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation, this being the reason why it is called spiritual.59

Finally, if there is a way Calvin and his Roman Catholic contemporaries could have reached common ground relatively quickly, it is on the frequency of celebration. In Calvin’s view, the Supper should be celebrated often; it is indeed noteworthy that in his strongly worded rebuke of the Council of Trent, particularly its conclusions regarding the Mass, he does not disagree with its claim that the Supper should be celebrated weekly.60 Indeed, had it not been for the resistance he faced from the Geneva City Council, he would have served his congregation the Supper every Sunday.61 His proposition rejected by the council, Calvin eventually agreed to the compromise of once per month. It is clear, however, that had Calvin gotten his way, the Supper would have been given such a place of prominence in the local church that each time the people of God assembled they would have participated. Indeed, a number of later Reformed theologians lament this compromise in light of the sound argument that Calvin offered in favor of its weekly practice, and suggest that more congregations ought to follow his original directive.62 While this may sound excessive to believers today, it underscores the fact that evangelical convictions and a commitment to biblical preaching as the centre of church life are not at all incompatible with a high view of the sacraments—a reality with far reaching implications for the most rapidly growing segment of the evangelical church in the modern era, the Pentecostal movement.

4. Calvin in Conversation: Pentecostalism and the Supper

Though little support for a high sacramental theology remains in many classical Pentecostal circles, Green has repeatedly demonstrated that in the early stages of the movement a sacramental view of the Eucharist—including a belief in the real presence—was not unheard of.63 The widespread popularity of bare memorialism in contemporary Pentecostalism hardly represents the unanimous, historical consensus. This bears asking: if early Pentecostalism included among its adherents those with deeply sacramental convictions, could there not be a place for such a view of the Supper to be retrieved within contemporary Pentecostal theology? And if so, would not a theology of the Supper which places such a high premium on the work of the Holy Spirit, as does Calvin’s, be a natural fit in such a pneumatologically driven movement? Larry Siekawitch points this out in his 2009 article “Calvin, Spirit, Communion and the Supper”:

Calvin could not be considered a Pentecostal, but his experiential doctrine of the Supper should be seen as a resource for further encounter with the Spirit. Pentecostal churches have excelled in highlighting the work of the Spirit in experiential encounter with Christ in the worship service, especially during the singing of praises and practice of the spiritual gifts. Promoting another avenue for intimate communion with Christ as experienced in the Lord’s Supper would seem to be a natural fit for the Pentecostal movement.64

If the worship service and practice of gifts are expected to serve as powerful experiences with Christ via the power of the Spirit, why not the Supper as well? Though Pentecostalism may not primarily lie in the vein of the continental Reformation that Calvin shaped so profoundly, his theology of the Lord’s Supper may be much more at home within the context of a Pentecostal systematic than either the Reformed or Pentecostal traditions may have previously imagined.

The most obvious reason Calvin’s position holds the potential for further conversation with Pentecostalism has already been noted in detail: his emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. The section in his Institutes devoted to the Lord’s Supper makes this clear:

The sacraments duly perform their office only when accompanied by the Spirit, the internal Master, whose energy alone penetrates the heart, stirs up the affections, and procures access for the sacraments into our souls. If he is wanting, the sacraments can avail us no more than the sun shining on the eyeballs of the blind, of sounds uttered in the ears of the deaf.65

Unlike some other Christian traditions, Pentecostalism has never shied away from accepting that doing theology requires learning to live with a degree of tension; whether or not believers will have to be satisfied with a measure of mystery concerning the things of God is not so much a question as a foregone conclusion for a movement that so cherishes the power of experience. For example, in an article calling for a deeper Pentecostal reflection on the Supper, Green notes that the fact Jesus is not physically present with the church on earth during the Supper should not lead believers to jump to the conclusion that he is absent from the event.66 On the contrary, just as Christ appeared to his disciples in a different form after his resurrection than he did prior, so he appears to us differently after the ascension than he did prior—including in the Supper. Green refers to this as “Christ’s sacramental presence” and, in true Pentecostal form, notes that the mystery or “strangeness” of this reality does not make it any less real. Here, Green sounds little different from Calvin in his discussion of Christ’s presence. The Spirit’s work is highlighted; the presence is no less real because it is not physical; and the sacrament, in a mysterious way, unites the Lord Jesus with his people. Indeed, apart from their respective denominations and historical contexts, there seems to be little separating them. Green also quotes Church of God scholar French Arrington as an example of a Pentecostal whose perspective seems to leave room for some view of the real presence: according to Arrington, Christ is “present to give us the spiritual blessings signified by the bread and cup.”67 Calvin would not employ the term “ordinance” as Arrington does to describe the Supper, yet Green repeatedly demonstrates that the seeds for a Pentecostal conversation on the matter beyond the memorial view have been planted long ago.

Also of interest are the eschatological implications inherent in the link Calvin draws between the Supper and the presence of Christ. Pentecostalism has been an eschatologically driven movement from its inception.68 If pneumatology has been its defining characteristic, eschatology must be considered a close second, as since the days of the Azusa Street Revival Pentecostals have interpreted their experience in light of Joel 2:28—the last days in which the Lord promised to pour out his Spirit on his people.69 While overall classical Pentecostalism, particularly in North America, has closely aligned itself with a dispensational eschatology for the better part of its history, an emerging generation of Pentecostal scholars has demonstrated a willingness to move beyond traditional debates such as the timing of the rapture or the nature of the millennium and into a broader eschatological conversation that dialogues with other aspects of theology as well—including sacramentality.70 At this point, Calvin’s position on the true presence may serve to induce a fascinating dialogue. In response to the problem of how Christ can be present with his people during the Supper while his physical body remains in heaven, Calvin posits that in the Eucharist the people of God are, by the power of the Spirit, “lifted up to heaven with our eyes and minds, to seek Christ there in the glory of his Kingdom.”71 Thus, every time the Supper is served, the second coming is foreshadowed as the people of God are gathered to him. Christ communes with them as they share a meal in his presence, and believers, by faith, behold the glorious kingdom which has been promised. Given its nature as an eschatologically driven movement, Pentecostals would appear well positioned to further highlight this in their own theology of the Supper—perhaps drawing on Calvin’s views in so doing.

The emphasis Calvin places on the Holy Spirit, coupled with the eschatological vision inherent in his view of the Supper, also appears to be a natural fit within the communal ethos of Pentecostal spirituality.72 Particularly in the West, where consumerism and individualism run rampant in society—and, all too often, the church—an approach to the Lord’s Supper that emphasizes the corporate unity of believers would not only be faithful to Scripture but would also serve as a timely antidote to this individualistic sentiment. Pentecostal scholar Daniela Augustine, lamenting the Western church’s often uncritical support of the neoliberal economic system, asserts,

[The Eucharist] instructs us toward disciplining our desires in prioritization of the well-being of others and points us to the practice of liturgical asceticism of reverent consumption (1 Cor 11:27–34). Indeed, the Eucharist detoxifies us from the dehumanizing poisons of unrestrained consumerism and helps us build immunity toward its seductive lure. It cultivates the community of faith as a dissident force of resistance against the commodification of market logic and forms it as an incarnated critique of the utilitarian objectification of God’s creation.73

If the aim is a eucharistic theology which emphasizes the unity of believers, one would struggle to find a view more robust than Calvin’s. His position is resistant to individualism due to his sustained emphasis on the believer’s union with Christ; a full section of his Institutes is given to this subject, including how the sacraments of baptism and the Supper are an expression of this union.74 “The concept of union with Christ,” Keith Mathison says, “is crucial to Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Unless the connection is understood, very little of what the says about the Supper will make sense.”75 Just as baptism signifies the believer’s ingrafting into Christ’s body, the Supper signifies continued communion with him. Calvin himself explains,

But as this mystery of the secret union with Christ with believers is incomprehensible by nature, he exhibits its figure and image in visible signs adapted to our capacity, nay, by giving, as it were, earnests and badges, he makes it is certain to us as if it were seen by the eye…. The body which was once offered for our salvation we are enjoined to take and eat, that, while we see ourselves made partakers of it, we may safely conclude that the virtue of that death will be efficacious in us.76

Recall, once again, Calvin’s assertion that as it partakes of the Supper, the church of Christ is lifted up into heaven for the purpose of communion with him. It seems that a movement such as Pentecostalism, whose spirituality is not only eschatological but communal, would be a natural home for such a view; it “cultivates the community of faith” to borrow Augustine’s description, and is quite resistant to the individualism that characterizes far too many contemporary churches.

Remarkably, Calvin’s theology of the Supper, if taken to its logical conclusion, may even hold the potential to inject fresh insight into the cherished Pentecostal distinctive of divine healing.77 Rubén Arjona, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, has documented how he believes Calvin’s theology of the Supper could hold significant potential to “contribute to the healing of traumatized persons.”78 Claiming the Reformer’s position provides “an adequate theological and pastoral framework” for this end, he asserts that the emphasis Calvin placed on the nourishing power of the Supper, and the ministry of the Spirit therein, provides a means by which those struggling with past traumatic experiences may find restoration. The Supper, after all, reminds believers not only of the suffering of Christ on their behalf, but their responsibility to care for fellow believers.79 Given the place of prominence Pentecostals have granted to divine healing since its earliest days, it seems they, of all people, would be open to dialogue on this point,80 particularly given its pastoral implications.

5. Conclusion

It is indeed ironic that Calvin’s mystical view on the Supper, which has been flatly rejected by many adherents of his own tradition, might hold great potential for dialogue with those who, on the surface, would seem to hold relatively little in common with him. When one reads those portions of the Institutes in which Calvin considers the work of the Spirit in the Supper and the nourishment believers receive as they remember the sacrifice made on their behalf at Calvary, one can almost imagine him as a modern Pentecostal speaking of his own dynamic spiritual life. When the eschatological implications of his doctrine of the Eucharist are brought to light, there is no question many Pentecostals could offer a hearty “amen” to his statements. And, when he appeals to mystery and admits to the limitations of his own intellect, Calvin is simply offering a frank admission as many Pentecostals are quick to do when discussing their own encounter with the living God. Therefore, the Pentecostal movement, in constructing their own theology of the Supper, would do well to draw on the wisdom of this ancient voice to strengthen its own.

[1] Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church-Part I,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. William R. Russell (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012).

[2] See Amy Nelson Burnett, ed., “That These Words of Christ, ‘This Is My Body,’ etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, 1527,” in The Annotated Luther: Volume 3, Church and Sacraments, ed. Paul W. Robinson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 163–274.

[3] Burnett, “That These Words of Christ,” 170–79.

[4] See Anthony N. S. Lane, “Was Calvin a Crypto-Zwinglian?,” in Adaptations of Calvinism in Reformation Europe: Essays in Honour of Brian G. Armstrong, ed. Mack P. Holt, St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 21–24.

[5] Henri A. G. Blocher, “Calvin on the Lord’s Supper: Revisiting an Intriguing Diversity, Part 2,” WTJ 76 (2014), 416–17.

[6] John I. Hesselink, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Sacraments,” AcT 3 (2002): 66.

[7] Blocher, “Calvin on the Lord’s Supper,” 415.

[8] Engaging Calvin on this point may remind Pentecostals and other evangelicals of their common roots; as Robert Menzies notes, “At its heart, the Pentecostal movement is not Spirit-centered, but rather Christ centered. The work of the Spirit, as Pentecostals understand it, centers on exalting and bearing witness to the Lordship of Christ.” This framework, wherein the Holy Spirit’s work is integral to the believer’s encounter with the living Christ, appears to be fertile ground for a pneumatological view of the Supper like Calvin’s. See Robert P. Menzies, Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), xix.

[9] William W. Menzies and Stanley M. Horton, Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective (Springfield, MO: Logion, 2015), 116.

[10] See Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 239.

[11] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1956), 484–85.

[12] “I contend,” says Johnathan Alvarado for example, “that the greatest opportunity for dialogue between Pentecostals and liturgical theologians of other traditions exists within the context of the Eucharist” (Johnathan E. Alvarado, “Pentecostal Epiclesis: A Model for Teaching and Learning,” in Pentecostal Ecclesiology: A Reader, ed. Chris E. W. Green [Leiden: Brill, 2016], 178).

[13] Chris E. W. Green, “Sacraments: Rites in the Spirit in the Spirit for the Presence of Christ,” in The Routledge Handbook of Pentecostal Theology, ed. Wolfgang Vondey (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), 311.

[14] Daniel Tomberlin, Pentecostal Sacraments: Encountering God at the Altar, revised ed. (Cleveland: Cherohala, 2015), 195.

[15] As will be discussed in depth at a later point, using the term “real presence” when describing Calvin’s approach is potentially misleading. Joseph Tylenda contends that Calvin believed real presence “involves the following: Christ’s body must leave heaven and be enclosed in the bread so that the bread is said to be the body of Christ; if Christ’s body be so enclosed, it follows that it is corporeally present, and if the body is present, it is locally present” (Joseph N. Tylenda, “Calvin and Christ’s Presence in the Supper—True or Real?” SJT 27 [1974]: 71). Thus, if one uses the term “real presence” to refer to Calvin’s view, it must be noted that he did not believe in a physical or corporeal presence in the Roman Catholic or Lutheran sense as detailed above.

[16] See, for example, Mark. J. Cartledge, “Pentecostal Theological Method and Intercultural Theology,” in Intercultural Theology: Approaches and Themes, ed. Mark. J. Cartledge and David Cheetham (London: SCM, 2011), 62–74. Scholars within the tradition, Cartledge asserts, “have argued for a method of doing theology that works with a triad of sources: the text of Scripture, the community of the Church and the person of the Holy Spirit.”

[17] Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 18.

[18] Simon Chan, “Mother Church: Toward a Pentecostal Ecclesiology,” in Pentecostal Ecclesiology: A Reader, ed. Chris E. W. Green (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 39.

[19] Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought, 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 164.

[20] For a brief overview of Calvin’s vocation as a pastor, all too often overlooked in favor of his accomplishments as a theologian, see Victor A. Shepherd, A Ministry Dearer Than Life: The Pastoral Legacy of John Calvin (Toronto: Clements, 2009).

[21] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. Henry Beveridge, reprint ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017), 4.18.6.

[22] John Calvin, A Treatise on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh: John Johnstone, 1837), 108.

[23] Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “Eucharist.”

[24] Hillerbrand, s.v. “Eucharist.”

[25] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, revised ed. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2013), 156.

[26] Wim Janse, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” Perichoresis 10 (2012): 139.

[27] John I. Hesselink, “Reformed View: The Real Presence of Christ,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, ed. Paul Armstrong and Paul Engle, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 59.

[28] “As Calvin stated repeatedly,” Keith Mathison notes, “his argument with the Roman Catholics and the Lutheran’s was over the mode of Christ’s presence, not the fact of that presence” (Keith A. Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002], 27).

[29] Hesselink, “Reformed View,” 60.

[30] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 380.

[31] Calvin, Corinthians, 378.

[32] Thomas A. Baima, “Roman Catholic View: Christ’s Real, True, and Substantial Presence,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, ed. Paul Armstrong and Paul Engle, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 126.

[33] Baima, “Roman Catholic View,” 127.

[34] Calvin, Institutes 4.17.7.

[35] Calvin, Institutes 4.17.7.

[36] Calvin, Institutes 4.17.10.

[37] Calvin, Institutes 4.17.7.

[38] Larry Daniel Siekawitch, “Calvin, Spirit, Communion and the Supper,” Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 29.2 (2009): 17.

[39] Siekawitch, “Calvin, Spirit, Communion and the Supper,” 17.

[40] John I. Hesselink, “A Reformed Response,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, ed. Paul Armstrong and Paul Engle, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 106.

[41] Kilian McDonnell, John Calvin, the Church, and the Eucharist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 66.

[42] Hesselink, “A Reformed Response,” 106–7.

[43] Siekawitch, “Calvin, Spirit, Communion and the Supper,” 16–17.

[44] Calvin, Corinthians, 378.

[45] McGrath, Reformation Thought, 187.

[46] McGrath, Reformation Thought, 164.

[47] Martin Luther, The Annotated Luther: Volume 3, Church and Sacraments, ed. Paul W Robinson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 165–68.

[48] Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 53.

[49] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 166. In his 1543 edition of the Institutes, Gordon writes, Calvin “wrote more fully on the relationship between Word and sacrament. Both are forms of God’s accommodation to humanity, but the Lord’s Supper appeals to the human need for visible, sensible symbols…. The Eucharist brings knowledge and assurance to those who have been justified by God’s Word.”

[50] Gordon, Calvin, 167.

[51] John Calvin, Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J. K. S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), 149.

[52] Calvin, John Calvin: Selections, 518.

[53] Calvin, John Calvin: Selections, 522.

[54] Calvin, John Calvin: Selections, 519.

[55] Calvin, John Calvin: Selections, 519.

[56] McDonnell, John Calvin, 92.

[57] Calvin, Institutes 4.17.10.

[58] Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 153–54.

[59] Calvin, John Calvin: Selections, 541.

[60] Calvin, John Calvin: Selections, 143. See also Leonard Vander Zee, “The Loss and Renewal of Calvin’s Eucharistic Theology in Reformed Churches,” CTJ 55 ( 2020): 77: “Returning to Calvin, he consistently advocated for weekly communion. This desire was not merely to imitate the practice of the Early Church, but from his own sense of the complementary relationship of Word and sacrament.”

[61] Hesselink, “Reformed View,” 67–68. See also Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, 53, as he notes, “Calvin was not able to persuade the Council of Geneva to celebrate Holy Communion more than four times a year,” despite this desire for much greater frequency.

[62] Hesselink, “Reformed View,” 68.

[63] Chris E. W. Green, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom (Cleveland: CPT Press, 2012). See especially Green’s analysis of primary sources in chapter 3, “(Re)Discovering the Sacramentality of Early Pentecostalism: An Exploration of the Early Periodical Literature,” which argues convincingly that not all of the early Pentecostals articulated a strictly commemorative view of the Supper.

[64] Siekawitch, “Calvin, Spirit, Communion and the Supper,” 35.

[65] Calvin, Institutes 4.17.8.

[66] Chris E. W. Green, “Then Their Eyes Were Opened: Pentecostal Reflections on the Church’s Scripture and the Lord’s Supper,” Pneuma 35 (2013): 233.

[67] Green, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper, 27.

[68] Glenn Balfour, “Pentecostal Eschatology Revisited,” Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 31 (2011): 127–28.

[69] Balfour, “Pentecostal Eschatology Revisited,” 129.

[70] Peter Althouse and Robby Waddell, eds., Perspectives in Pentecostal Eschatologies: World Without End (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2010).

[71] Hesselink, “Reformed View,” 66.

[72] Yong’s work is once again helpful on this point as he stresses, “The Church is not just the collective expression of individuals around a common purpose or vision. Rather, the Church is constituted by the new birth of the Spirit which re-establishes the body of Christ precisely as communal mutuality of its members” (Yong, Spirit-Word-Community, 111).

[73] Daniela Christova Augustine, The Spirit and the Common Good: Shared Flourishing in the Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 147.

[74] See Todd J. Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 69–70.

[75] Mathison, Given for You, 16.

[76] Calvin, Institutes 4.17.1.

[77] Rubén Arjona, “John Calvin on the Lord’s Supper: Food, Rest, and Healing for Shivering Souls,” Pastoral Psychology 66.2 (2017): 179.

[78] Arjona, “John Calvin on the Lord’s Supper,” 180.

[79] Arjona, “John Calvin on the Lord’s Supper,” 182.

[80] This is especially true given Chris Green’s observation that certain 20th century Pentecostal figures such as C. E. Bowen, in fact, made an explicit connection between participation in the Supper and divine healing (see Green, Toward a Pentecostal, 8–9).

Geoffrey Butler

Geoffrey Butler is a graduate of Tyndale Seminary and a current PhD candidate at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario.

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