I’ve been reading through Keith Mathison’s excellent volume, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. This is a fine study of this topic, looking at Calvin’s approach to the Lord’s Supper from historical-theological, biblical/exegetical, and systematic-theological angles.
I found this section to be very helpful. First, Mathison quotes Calvin:
The sharing in the Lord’s body, which, I maintain, is offered to us in the Supper, demands neither a local presence, nor the descent of Christ, nor an infinite extension of His body, nor anything of that sort; for, in view of the fact that the Suupper is a heavenly act, there is nothing absurd about saying that Christ remains in heaven and is yet received by us. For the way in which He imparts Himself to us is by the secret power of the Holy Spirit, a power which is able not only to bring together, but also to join together, things which are separated by distance, and by a great distance at that.
Mathison then comments:
Calvin is convinced that the main problem with most explanations of the Eucharist is that they assume that a local, corporeal presence is necessary in order for believers to truly partake of the flesh and blood of Christ. He believes that this assumption is false, and that it gave rise to theories such as transubstantiation and the ubiquity of Christ’s body. He is convinced that many of these controversies could be avoided if this unnecessary assumption were rejected. Calvin is convinced that believers may truly partake of the body of Christ and that such partaking does not require the local, corporeal presence of Christ’s body because the Holy Spirit is able to unite the believer with Christ regardless of the physical space between them.
At this point, however, another complicated question arises, having to do with the relationship between our faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. [I. John] Hesselink outlines the basic question:
“Do we then only lift up our hearts (sursum corda!) to the ascended Christ and somehow feed on him there? Or, is there a sense in which the risen Christ by his Spirit descends to us and nourishes us spiritually through the partaking of the elements? Both are true, but the accent is on the former.”
Christ’s physical body does not descend, but Calvin does sometimes use the language of descent to describe what occurs in the Supper by the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, Hesselink provides some clues to Calvin’s meaning:
“Calvin can also speak figuratively of Christ’s coming down to us in order to nourish us in the Supper. For ‘in order to be present with us, he does not change his place, but from heaven he sends down the efficacy of his flesh to be present in us’ (Comm. 1 Cor. 11:24, emphasis added). ‘We say Christ descends to us both by the outward symbol and by his Spirit, that he may truly quicken our souls by the substance of his flesh and blood’ (IV.17.24).”
It is not the physical body of Christ that descends; instead, it is the “efficacy of his flesh” that descends by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Mathison’s historical survey is, at this point, my favorite section of the book. His description of the disagreement between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin is stellar. Anyone seeking to understand better the historic Reformed approach to the Lord’s supper will do well to work through this book. It is not light reading; it is rich and substantial and definitely worth the time!