The Spirit and the Supper

One of the most characteristic features of Calvin’s teaching on the Supper is the way in which he understood the Lord’s Supper to be “spiritual food." It is here where we find the most obvious influence of biblical wisdom theology.

The Supper as Empowering Food

The first theme of Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper, which is derived from wisdom theology, is that feeding on Christ in the Supper empowers the Christian to live the Christian life. The Lord’s Supper is spiritual nourishment promised by the sign of bread and wine and realized by the Holy Spirit. If this empowering is the work of the Holy Spirit, it must also be said that the Spirit works through faith. In other words, this empowering comes through believing the Gospel, both as it is preached and as it is offered to us in the sacraments. What the empowering does, as the Prologue to John makes clear, is enable believers to live the life of the children of God (cf. John 1:12). Calvin made this point very clear in the Instituteswhen he wrote:

“For though He has taken His flesh away from us, and in the body has ascended into heaven, yet He sits at the right hand of the Father – that is, He reigns in the Father’s power and majesty and glory. This Kingdom is neither bounded by location in space nor circumscribed by any limit. Thus, Christ is not prevented from exerting His power wherever He pleases, in heaven and on earth. He shows His presence in power and strength, is always among His own people, and breathes His life upon them, and lives in them, sustaining them, strengthening, quickening, keeping them unharmed, as if He were present in the body. In short, He feeds His people with His own body, the communion of which He bestows upon them by the power of His Spirit. In this manner, the body and blood of Christ are shown to us in the Sacrament.” Institutes, IV, xvii, 18.

This makes the point that the sort of local presence experienced by the disciples is transcended by another kind of presence experienced by believers after the ascension. This is an experience of the glorified Christ who dwells in us through the Holy Spirit. It is not a presence simply to aid but a presence to transform so that we are empowered to live as children of God. In this passage, Calvin is following the Apostle John’s line of thought regarding the ascension of Jesus as a necessary step in Christ being able to live within the hearts of His disciples (cf. John 14:12). The crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension, and out-pouring of the Spirit were all necessary for our redemption. Hence Christ’s presence with us after the ascension is experienced in the spiritual power of bearing fruit (cf. John 12:24).

This is a particularly important point because it demonstrates that the presence of Christ is experienced in His sanctifying power. In other words, we feel His presence as we are transformed into His likeness, as we are made holy as He is holy. This indicates that the power of God as experienced at the Table is to the end of holiness. 

The Supper as Enlightening Food

Enlightenment for those who participate in the Lord’s Supper is a frequent them found in Calvin’s writings in the Institutes

“There, Word and sacraments confirm our faith when they set before our eyes the good will of our Heavenly Father toward us, by the knowledge of whom the whole firmness of our faith stands fast and increases in strength. The Spirit confirms it when, by engraving this confirmation in our minds, He makes it effective. Meanwhile, the Father of Lights cannot be hindered from illuminating our minds” Institutes, IV, xiv, 10.

The Word being known to the eyes as well as to the ears is a persistent theme of the wisdom literature. To know God is to know His Word, and yet the Word can be seen as well as heard. We can see the Word in the glory of the heavens (cf. Psalm 19:1); the Apostles saw the Word in the incarnate Christ (cf. John 1:14; 1 John 1:1-3); and we can see the Word in the sacraments. In this sense, the sacraments are the visible Word.

Calvin’s allusion to James 1:17 also demonstrates His understanding of biblical wisdom theology. Calvin understands this title in a manner similar to how the wisdom writers understood it – namely that God, by His very nature, is one who enlightens and the one who reveals Himself through Law and Gospel. The Word is of His very essence. In this way, the Word of the Father is both the light of the world and the bread of life. Thus, to have communion with God necessarily involves being enlightened. In the end, however, it is neither the sense of hearing nor the sense of sight that enlightens us; it is the work of the Holy Spirit which opens our minds and hearts to hear, or to see, the Word. It is the Holy Spirit who works faith in us to that what we hear and what we see is received by faith. When the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, we feed upon Christ in both Word and sacrament so that we are nourished unto eternal life.

The enlightening nature of the Word is discussed most clearly in Calvin’s commentary on the Bread of Life discourse. Christ is presented as the bread of life which the Father has given to us as food for eternal life. As Israel fed on the manna, so the Church now feeds on Christ presented to use in both Word and sacrament. Primarily, the Bread of Life discourse reveals Christ as the teacher. The bread the Father gives us to feed on is the Word. As Calvin notes, the “teaching of God is the inward illumination of the heart.” Here, the didactic nature of the Calvin’s devotion is clearly seen. From Calvin’s perspective, the teaching received by those who learn from God is the saving Lordship of Christ. Those who are taught by God accept Christ. This is the enlightenment and wisdom they receive. This enlightenment is more than the mere absorbing of information. It’s the opening of our hearts to divine Wisdom, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. By receiving Christ, we acquire the divine Wisdom and Calvin has learned from the biblical wisdom tradition that this is what it means to feed on Christ.

Gabriel Williams