Athanasius and Calvin on the Holy Supper

  Here’s a helpful section from an interesting book: Worshiping With The Church Fathers by Christopher Hall.

“Athanasius’s understanding of the Eucharist is remarkably similar to that of John Calvin, the sixteenth-century reformer.  Calvin believed Christ was spiritually present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist after the invocation (epiklesis) of the Holy Spirit, though not physically present.  After Christ’s ascension his physical body remained at the right hand of the Father.  Through the Spirit, though, Christ was genuinely present in the eucharistic elements.”

“In like manner, Athanasius focuses on the ascension of Christ, commenting that the ascension points us away from a ‘material notion’ of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.  Christ is indeed present, but in a spiritual fashion.  [Athanasius wrote:]  ‘The reason for his mention of the ascension into heaven of the Son of Man (cf. John 6:61ff) was in order to draw them away from the material notion; that thenceforth they might learn that the flesh he spoke of was heavenly food from above and spiritual nourishment from him.  For, he says, “What I have spoken to you is spirit and life,” which is as much to say, “What is displayed and given for the world’s salvation is the flesh which I wear: but this flesh and its blood will be given to you by me spiritually as nourishment, so that this may be bestowed spiritually on each, and may become for individuals a safeguard to ensure resurrection to eternal life”’” (p. 72-3).

Christopher Hall, Worshiping With The Church Fathers (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

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The Lord’s Supper and Assurance

Heaven on Earth (Puritan Paperbacks) The Lord’s Supper is a holy sacrament that Jesus gave to his church to help strengthen us in the Christian faith.  If you’re a Christian who is weak, weary, full of doubts, and in need of God’s love and grace, don’t avoid the table – go to it with repentant faith.  Thomas Brooks put it this way.

“[Assurance] was the principle end of Christ’s institution of the sacrament of the Supper that he might assure them of his love, and that he might seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptance of their persons, and the salvation of their souls (Matt. 26:27-28).  The nature of a seal is to make things sure and firm among men; so the Supper of the Lord is Christ’s broad seal, it is Christ’s privy-seal, whereby he seals and assures his people that they are happy here, that they shall be more happy hereafter, that they are everlastingly beloved of God, that his heart is set upon them, that their names are written in the book of life, that there is laid up for them a crown of righteousness, and that nothing shall be able to separate them from him who is their light, their crown, their all in all.”

“In this sacrament Christ comes forth and shows his love, his heart…his blood, that his children may no longer say, ‘Does the Lord Jesus love us?  Does he delight in us?’ but that they may say with the spouse, ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is towards me’ (Songs 7:10).”

Thomas Brooks, Heaven on Earth, 27.

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Holy Communion: Rome v Reformed

While studying the historical and theological background of the Lord’s Supper (part of which I posted a few days back), I came across this helpful summary of the differences between Rome’s understanding of the Mass and the Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  It is found in Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (vol. 3, page 523).  I’ve edited it slightly to make it easier to read.

1) In the Lord’s Supper God gives and believers receive.  In the Mass the priest gives and God receives.

2) In the Lord’s Supper Christ instituted a monument and remembrance of his sacrifice and death.  In the Mass the priest offers Christ to God as a victim for sins.

3) In the Lord’s Supper Christ gave the bread to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat’ but he did not offer anything to the Father nor did he sacrifice himself in it.  In the papal Mass they teach that Christ offers himself as a sacrifice to the Father.

4) In the Lord’s Supper Christ said ‘This do,’ which means, ‘eat and drink.’  In the Mass the Romanists teach ‘This do’ means ‘sacrifice this.’

5) In the Lord’s Supper Christ commanded his disciples to take and eat the bread which he gave them.  But in the solitary Mass the priest doesn’t give anything to the people and when no one is present he still says,”Take.’

6) The Lord’s Supper is a commemoration of Christ absent and sitting in heaven at the right hand of God.  The Mass is a sacrifice of Christ under the species of the bread and wine.

7) The Supper was instituted in memory of Christ alone and those who can show forth his death.  The Mass is celebrated in memory of the saints and for the dead, who cannot do what Christ requires.

More differences could be given, but this is a good starting list.  One main point to mention is that in the Lord’s Supper, the focus is primarily on the God-to-man aspect (he feeds and serves us); in the Mass it is primarily a man-to-God movement (the priest offers the sacrifice on the altar).  This is one reason the Reformers were so critical of the Mass as being a denial of Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross.

Furthermore,  is important to note also that Turretin wasn’t playing around with straw men here.  You can read the Council and Canons of Trent and the modern-day Roman Catholic Catechism to see what they still teach and see that Turretin understood what Rome taught.  In this section of his Institutes, he refuted the papal Mass quite well using biblical, theological, historical, and reasonable arguments.  Turretin is a great place to go to get an in-depth discussion and refutation of Rome’s unbiblical teaching of the Mass from a Reformation point of view.

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The Lord’s Table (Not Altar)

One of the many deep, theological, biblical, and practical differences between Roman Catholic churches and Reformed churches is the understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Rome teaches that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine become Christ’s actual body and blood which are then offered on the altar as a sacrifice.  “The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice. …In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 2, Article 3, various sections).

The entire discussion would fill a book, but suffice it to say here that the confessional Reformed response completely resists the ideas of “sacrifice” and “altar” when it comes to the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  The Heidelberg Catechism shows how Rome’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper throws a dark fog over the gospel:

“…the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered  for them daily by the priests. It also teaches that Christ is bodily present in the form of bread and wine where Christ is therefore to be worshiped.  Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry” (Q/A 80).

I like how Herman Bavinck talks about the altar, the sacrifice, and the Lord’s Supper based on Hebrews.  (The quote at the end of Bavinck’s paragraph is from Calvin’s Institutes.)

“The difference between the worship of the Lord and that of the New Testament consists…in the fact that temple and altar, priest and sacrifice, are no longer in earth but in heaven.  The Jerusalem that is above is the mother of us all (Gal. 4.26).  This is where Christ, our eternal high priest, has entered on our behalf (Heb. 6.20) after having by one sacrifice accomplished an external redemption (9.12), to appear before the face of God for us (9.24).  There Christians have their sanctuary, into which they enter with boldness through the blood of Jesus (4.16, 10.19, 12.22).  Here on earth we merely meet among ourselves, a meeting in which there is no room for sacrifice (10.25).  The only altar Christians have is the cross on which Christ brought his sacrifice (13.10; cf 7.27, 10.10).  From that altar, that is, from the sacrifice brought on it, they eat when by faith they have communion with Christ and his benefits.  Believers have to bring no sacrifice other than the sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that praise his name (13.15).  The Lord’s Supper is a sacrificial meal, a meal of believers with Christ on the basis of his sacrifice and therefore one that must be served on a table, not an altar.  ‘This is indeed very certain: that the cross of Christ is overthrown, as soon as the altar is set up.”

Well said.  Based on that summary of Hebrews, I also agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith (29.2) which says that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not an offering or real sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  Rather it is a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice he offered, once for all, on the cross as well as a spiritual act of thanksgiving and praise.  “The Popish sacrifice of the mass is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.”

The above quote by Bavinck is found in volume four of Reformed Dogmatics (p. 566).

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Christ’s Precious Blood

Peter calls the redeeming blood of Jesus “precious” (timios; 1 Pet. 1.19).  Thomas Watson discusses that precious blood of Christ of which the communion cup is a sign.   Why is it so precious?  It is precious because…

1) It is a reconciling blood (Col 1.21).  Sin rent us off from God; Christ’s blood cements us to God.

2) It is a quickening blood (John 6.54).  The life of our soul is in the blood of Christ.

3) It is a cleansing blood (Heb 9.14).  As the merit of Christ’s blood pacifies God, so the virtue of it purifies us.  It is a laver to wash in (1 John 1.7).

4) It is a softening blood.  There is nothing so hard but may be softened by this blood.  It will soften a stone.  It turns a flint into a spring…the heart becomes soft and the waters of repentance flow from it.

5) It cools the heart.  The heart naturally is hot, it burns in lust and passion, but Christ’s blood allays this heart and quenches the inflammation of sin.  Christ’s blood cools the heat of sin like water to the fire.

6) It comforts the soul.  Christ’s blood cures the trembling of the heart.  The blood of Christ can make a prison become a palace.

7) It procures heaven (Heb 10.19).  Our sins shut heaven; Christ’s blood is the key which opens the gate of paradise for us.

Watson also says, “Let us prize Christ’s blood in the sacrament.  It is drink indeed (John 6.55).”  These are great things to meditate on while looking forward to Holy Communion.

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