Book Review: This Is My Body, by Thomas J. Davis
If there is one symptom that serves better than any other to reveal the discrepancy between the first Reformers and their Protestant heirs today, when it comes to their respective theological emphases, practical piety, and just what is of central concern to the Christian faith, it may well be the question of the Eucharist. In very few Protestant circles today could it be said of the Lord's Supper that it obviously stands at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian and pursue a Christian life; in it's stead, all sorts of other, peripheral means of grace are sought, which usually involve a sort of individualism, and a personal, subjective element quite out of keeping with the objective reality of Christ's authoritative pronouncement, â€œThis is my bodyâ€. The famous (or infamous) unyielding severity with which the Eucharistic wars were waged among the magisterial Reformers, and the fact that the papal mass unexceptionally drew some of the sternest denouncements from all of them, tells us at least this, that the matter was absolutely vital to them, to a degree that the average Evangelical would not understand today. But the question is, Why? What did they see in the Eucharist that was of such vast importance to all of them, regardless of how differently they may have viewed the matter?
In his examination of the Reformer's eucharistic thought, This Is My Body, Thomas J. Davis has done an excellent job of analyzing what Luther, Zwingli, and especially Calvin really had to say about the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper; and along the way, he has uncovered just why it was so crucial a topic to them. What he has to say about Calvin's understanding in particular (to whom he devotes the bulk of the book) is meticulously-researched, well-reasoned and certain to shake up the common conception. His somewhat surprising, but probably right, assessment is that Calvin's doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist actually had more in common, and on more important points, with Luther's doctrine than it did with Zwingli's. In fact, it would perhaps not be too much to say that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was as vital a point for Calvin as it was for Luther. And in addition, the bodily presence of Christ, although explained differently and fiercely rejecting any idea of ubiquity, had an immensely important role in Calvin's thought.
Undergirding much of Davis's analysis is his research into the importance of sign and thing-signified in sixteenth-century Europe (his concluding chapter is a penetrating discussion of sign and reality in Renaissance art, and the effects that this cultural paradigm may have had on the hermeneutics of the Reformers); and this information is helpful in unpacking Calvin's treatment of the Eucharist. Although Calvin, against Luther, was willing to talk of the Eucharistic elements as â€œsigns,â€ the meaning of which must be made plain by the Word of institution, properly understood, he nevertheless considered the signs utterly necessary for the communication of grace. Against those who argued that the signs are unnecessary, since they build up the believer's mind through the Word, which in terms of mere understanding could be just as easily done by the Word alone (a fairly common perception today, as well!), Davis argues that â€œCalvin, however, considered the signs essential....it is the special function of the signs to imprint on the believer's heart one's communion with Christ. The imprinting process requires that physical signs accompany the word for two reasons: the necessity of God's condescension because of human weakness and the requirement that Christians follow God's commands.â€ In fact, in a later discussion, Davis suggests that, to Calvin, â€œsacraments convey a better understanding of salvation to the Christian than the Word alone, because the sacraments appeal to all of the bodily senses: taste, feel, smell, sight, and (with the adding of the Word to the sacramental sign) hearingâ€ (emphasis added).
The importance of signs as instruments of grace reaches all the way to Calvin's Christology. God is never unmediated in our sight of him; and the ultimate instrument by which he revealed himself is the truly human body of Christ. Therefore, â€œSince Calvin's theology of God is instrumental, to speak of things as instruments is not to denigrate them: it is to put them in their proper place in relation to God. God remains the efficient cause of all good things, but those good things are carried by instruments of grace. As such, to say that Christ's body is instrumental in conferring salvation on the Christian and that the body and its senses are instrumental in appropriating knowledge and understanding of that salvation is not to denigrate the instruments but to understand their roleâ€ (emphasis added).
But even so, is not the fact that Calvin spoke of the elements as signs, in and of itself an indication of the great divide between himself and Luther? Without minimizing the differences, the two perspectives were perhaps not quite so antagonistic to each other as has often been made out. Although Calvin could never agree to the ubiquity of Christ's human body, simply because he clung so tenaciously to the ongoing fullness of Christ's humanity, including that physical element of a human body localized in space, he nevertheless attached a vital significance to the Christian's being made to partake of the human body of Christ â€“ although, true to Calvin's custom, he was willing to let the mechanics of that union remain shrouded in a divine mystery beyond which he did not dare to penetrate â€“ â€œCalvin was never able to fully comprehend, much less explain to others, the details of the mode of unionâ€.
But he did consider the union essential: â€œThe body of Christ is the sine qua non of Christian life. The Christian experience is nothing more and nothing less than participation in that body. And that, for John Calvin, is how God is to be known. Scripture, Sacrament, and preaching point to that body and present it; the Holy Spirit joins the Christian to it.â€ In this, to substantiate Davis's suggestion, Calvin really does seem closer to Luther than to Zwingli.
Davis hits upon a helpful truth when he is analyzing Calvin's hermeneutics, and particularly, his frequent use of (as well as finding of) the literary device of â€œsynecdocheâ€ (using a part for the whole), which enables him to give a compelling, brief description of Calvin's Eucharistic thought, which shows both the essential similarity and the greatest discontinuity with Luther's:
Calvin's insistence that we are saved by our participation in Christ's body and that we are fed by Christ's body can be read as drawing life from Christ's humanity. This is not to dispel the notion that when Calvin spoke of Christ's body he did not mean only Christ's body: he meant at least that. Did he mean more? I think so. Being human demands having a human body; we see Calvin as insistent on this in his eucharistic teaching, and one can read at length about this in his commentary on the ascension in Acts. But the reason Calvin demanded that Christ's body remain in heaven, even in the eucharistic celebrationâ€”hence the requirement of the Christian being lifted up to heaven in mind and spirit to be joined with Christ thereâ€”was because he thought the body, with its limitations, to be requisite for true humanity. And for Calvin, Christ must retain full humanity even after resurrection because the humanity of Christ is the mediatorial principle in Calvin's theology. In the humanity of Christ, the Christian sees incarnated the will of God. It is the humanity of Christ to which the Christian has access.
As the foregoing excerpts demonstrate, Davis exhibits both a detailed knowledge of Calvin's thought, not just from the Institutes, but from the entire body of his writings; and he is exceptionally adept at bringing all the various emphases and motifs of the great Genevan into a coherent and self-interpreting whole, which has some eye-opening effects on just how he really viewed the sacrament of communication with the body of Christ. This fresh understanding may well prove fruitful in the coming years in paving the way for a greater recognition of commonality between Lutheran and Reformed Eucharistic doctrine.