Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Resurrection and the Lord's Supper

Speaking of the resurrection, did you know that your understanding of the resurrection affects your understanding of the Lord's Supper--and vice versa? This was brought home to me as I was reading Calvin's Institutes with a grad student last semester. So, is there anything in faith and life that this doctrine doesn't touch?

Here's the issue... Jesus said of the bread, "Take, eat; this is my body," and of the cup, "This is my blood of the covenant." In what sense is that true in communion? Do Christians partake of the body and blood of Christ quite literally and objectively? Or is Jesus speaking only figuratively? Or something else?

Calvin took the "something else" route. It was important to him that the Lord's Supper be more than merely symbolic, that Christians truly partake of his flesh and blood in some sense:
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; my emphasis).
On the other hand, he was emphatic that this partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ could not be understood as actually eating the resurrection body of Christ (somehow present in the elements). Why not? Because a real human body, such as Christ has in his resurrection, simply can't be distributed throughout time and space every time someone celebrates holy communion. Such a body isn't recognizably human:
What is the nature of our flesh? Is it not something that has its own fixed dimension, is contained in a place, is touched, is seen? And why (they say) cannot God make the same flesh occupy many and divers places, be contained in no place, so as to lack measure and form? Madmen, why do you demand that God's power make flesh to be and not to be flesh at the same time!... (IV.17.24)
Good point, if perhaps lacking in subtlety. From Calvin's perspective, it's nuts (paraphrasing here) to speak of Christ having a real human resurrection body and then demand that bits of it appear wherever bread and wine is consecrated and received. Human bodies simply don't work that way. Never have. Never will.
Flesh must therefore be flesh; spirit, spirit--each thing in the state and condition wherein God created it. But such is the condition of flesh that it must subsist in one definite place, with its own size and form. With this condition Christ took flesh, giving to it, as Augustine attests, incorruption and glory, and not taking away from it nature and truth (IV.17.24).
Think about what this means! When Christ was glorified, he didn't somehow become less human. It was all addition (incorruption and glory), no subtraction (of distinctive time-and-space bodily attributes). And, of course, what is true of Christ's glorified body will be true of ours as well. So, when we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we do indeed proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26). It can also be an occasion to remember the nature of his resurrection--and ours.

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At 11:03 PM, Blogger Steven W said...

Good stuff. Have you read Doug Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia? He relates the Supper to the doctrine of Christ's ascension.


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