The Spirit and the Table

As I reflect upon John 6, I'm reminded that from a biblical perspective it's difficult to take a simple "mere memorial" understanding of the Lord's Table. In some ways my Disciples fore bearers tended to take a rather bones approach, but over the last half century or so, especially under the tutelage of British Disciple William Robinson and my friend Keith Watkins -- father of our General Minister -- we have broadened our understanding.

In my sermon I plan to mention John Calvin and his perspective, which is I think a helpful one in this regard. He speaks of the role the Holy Spirit plays in the Sacrament -- so as to build up faith. He makes it clear that the Sacraments don't have any "secret force or other perpetually seated in them by which they are able to promote or confirm faith by themselves." Instead, it is the Spirit that informs and imbues them with the ability to do this work in the life of the faithful recipient. For Calvin, our ability to believe and receive is important to this task.

And so, he writes in the Institutes of Christian Religion:

But the sacraments properly fulfill their office only when the Spirit, the inward teacher, comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in. If the Spirit be lacking the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears. Therefore, I make such a division between Spirit and sacraments that the power to act rests with the former, and the ministry alone is left to the latter -- a ministry empty and trifling, apart from the action of the Spirit, but charged with great effect when the Spirit works within and manifests his power. (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, Ed., Westminster Press, 1960, IV:14:9).

If this is true, then how should we approach the table?


Mystical Seeker said…
Maybe I misinterpret Calvin here, but it sounds like he is saying that a sacrament serves a certain role not because of anything inherent in that particular act but because we approach the sacrament with a certain attitude--in other words, it is kind of self-fulfilling. Whether that is what Calvin is saying or not, I think that there is something to be said for the idea of a sacrament as self-fulfilling mediation into a deeper experience of the Divine. And what is wrong with it being self-fulfilling? Nothing, as far as I can see. It seems to me that just by assigning a sacramental value to a particular act and then carrying through with it, we can become closer to God. We need some way of mediating our relationship with God, because we are finite and God is infinite and ineffable, so we choose one that may have a historical or theological significance to our faith, and then just do it.
John said…
I couldn't agree more.

The physical element is inert and the minister is a mere ritualist. The work is accomplished by the Spirit with whom the recipient cooperates in accepting the grace of the sacrament through the medium of the element under the guidance and in communion with the ritualist.


I'm not sure Calvin would go along with the word ritualist, but I think that Calvin would see the role of the minister as a teaching one. He's clear that Word and Sacrament belong together. As the recipient responds to the Word, they are in a position to receive the seal of the Spirit. This isn't a substance free meditation on elements.
John said…
I have read that for Calvin, in taking the Eucharist we truly partake of Christ, but do so not because his whole person is present to us in the elements, but because the Spirit causes it to happen mysteriously. Calvin suggests that the Spirit causes our soul to ascend to heaven where we then can partake of the whole person of Christ. The reason for our mystery tour of heaven is that Christ cannot yet be present on the earth due to concerns for His personal corruption.

Nevertheless, to be clear, Calvin says “For why should the Lord put in your hand the symbol of his body except to assure you of a true participation in it?”

However, it appears that Calvin's concern about the geographical presence of Christ is rather simplistic. And the suggestion that Christ need be concerned about His personal corruption, which is tantamount to denying the ability of God to resist corruption, is an absurd limitation on the power of God.


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