Blog 221: 4.17.6 - 4.17.11
Calvin's great concern is that Christians should "rightly use the Lord's Supper." He is, from beginning to end, a pastoral theologian (surely any other kind is guilty of a category mistake?).
In seeking to serve the church he wants to be sensitive to two things: (i) the mystery of the Lord's Supper, and (ii) the nature of communion with Christ..
With respect to (i) he urges those who can to go beyond him. With respect to (ii) a number of reformed writers have felt that he has already gone too far! Statements such as his words in Institutes 4.17.8-9 are typical: "Whoever has partaken of his flesh and blood may . . . enjoy participation in life . . . The flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself."
These words need to be read in context. Calvin's logic here is:
• The Father gave life to the incarnate Son so that he might give us life.
• This life is in the incarnate Son. It is not a commodity extraneous to him.
• In order to enjoy this life we must be united to the incarnate Son.
• This union with the incarnate Son is realized through the Holy Spirit
In a word--our salvation and eternal life are resourced in Christ, incarnate, crucified, buried, raised, exalted, ascended, reigning, and returning. Our experience of salvation comes only from Spiritual union and communion with his still-incarnated Person. There is no other source of salvation and life than this incarnate Person. The life he received from the Father he now gives to us.
In our Table communion with Christ, we share his life--just as we share that life in all communion with him. What is unique about the Supper, therefore, is not so much the mysterious nature of the communion, but the focus in that communion on the bodily Christ specifically as crucified and now risen.
For Calvin, therefore, the communion of the Table is not a communion with the Spirit, but a communion with Christ in and through the Spirit. But there is no other Christ with whom we can have communion than the embodied Son of God.
Sometimes Calvin's view is described as "spiritual." Indeed it is Spiritual (through the Spirit). But it is so because it is Christological. The Spirit glorifies the incarnate Son in our eyes. In this way, in our Table communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, we "feel his power in partaking of all his benefits" (Institutes 4.17.9).