Monday, May 05, 2008

Luther and Calvin on the Supper as "Sign"

Phillip Cary has an illuminating discussion here of the difference of how Calvin and Luther differently conceived the Supper as a "sign."

Both understood the Supper to be a sign, but differed on what the sign itself actually is. As Cary writes, "The difference between Luther and Calvin on this point is that Luther thinks of the body of Christ as the sacramental sign, not just the thing signified (see for instance his Babylonian Captivity, in Luther's Works 36:44)."

This difference -- seemingly so slight in expression -- has significant implications. Cary writes:

"Thus in Luther's reckoning when unbelievers receive the sacrament but not the thing it signifies, this means that they receive no grace or spiritual benefit in the sacrament, but they do receive Christ's body. For unbelief separates signum from res, but it cannot prevent the sacrament from being the sign that it is. So long as the sacrament is present, the sign is present, which includes Christ’s body. Thus even in receiving a “mere sign” the unworthy eat Christ’s body, whether they believe it or not. They are partaking of the body to their own harm. (There is no paradox in this, for Christ's bodily presence has always been an occasion not just of blessing and grace but of scandal and unbelief. It was, after all, quite possible to receive Christ's body and nail it to a tree.) "

HT: Confessing Evangelical.

Also, Cary has a great paper here comparing sola fide in Calvin v. Luther. Definitely worth a read no matter which side you're on.


Blogger Wayne said...

Interesting. I wonder if Cary interacts with B.A. Gerrish. I haven't really read much about this since seminary, but I seem to recall Gerrish in one of his articles making a pretty big deal about a closer relationship between Luther and Calvin over their understanding of sign and a larger break appearing with Zwinglie, Bullenger, and Beza.

In general, I think Cary is right. Calvin always insisted that while Christ is truly offered, he could only be received by faith and that prevented him from going all the way with objective reception.

May 05, 2008 1:08 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Hi Wayne,

I think that there's a big difference between objective reception and "faith-only" reception.

That being said, I always thought, based on what little I know, that there was a pretty difference between Calvin's doctrine of the Supper and Zwingli's doctrine.

The irony is that it seems to me that the WCF is closer to Calvin than it is to Zwingli, yet the bulk of PCA ministers and laymen I've met are much more Zwinglian in their teaching.

On sort of a related irony: I once challenged a PCA pastor simply to read the WCF on baptism the next time he baptized a baby. He said he wouldn't do it because it sounded too much like baptismal regeneration!

May 19, 2008 10:20 AM  

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