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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 117. The Lord’s Supper. The Consensus of Zuerich.


I. Inst. IV. chs. XVII. and XVIII. Comp. the first ed., cap. IV., in Opera, I. 118 sqq.—Petit traicté de la sainte cène de nostre Seigneur Jesus-Christ. Auquel est demontré la vraye institution, profit et utilité d’icelle, Genève, 1541, 1542, 1549. Opera, V. 429–460. Latin version by Nicholas des Gallars: Libellus de Coena Domini, a Ioanne Calvino pridem Gallica lingua scriptus, nunc vero in Latinum sermonem conversus, Gen., 1545. Also translated into English. Remarkably moderate.—The two catechisms of Calvin. — Consensio mutua in re sacramentaria Tigurinae Ecclesiae et D. Calvini ministri Genevensis Ecclesiae jam nunc ab ipsis authoribus edita (usually called Consensus Tigurinus), simultaneously published at Geneva and Zuerich, 1551; French ed. L’accord passé, etc., Gen., 1551. In Opera, VII. 689–748. The Latin text also in Niemeyer’s Collectio Conf, pp. 191–217. A German translation (Die Zuericher Uebereinkunft) in Bickel’s Bekenntnissschriften der evang. reform. Kirche, pp. 173–181. Comp. the correspondence of Calvin with Bullinger, Farel, etc., concerning the Consensus.—Calvin’s polemical writings against Joachim Westphal, namely, Defensio sanae et orthodoxae doctrinae de sacramentis, Geneva, 1554, Zuerich, 1555; Secunda Defensio ... contra Westphali calumnias, Gen., 1556; and Ultima Admonitio ad Westphalum, Gen., 1557. In Opera, IX. 1–120, 137–252. Lastly, his book against Tilemann Hesshus (Hesshusen), Dilucida Explicatio sanae doctrinae de vera participatione carnis et sanguinis Christi in sacra Coena, ad discutiendas Heshusii nebulas, Gen., 1561. In Opera, IX. 457–524. (In the Amsterdam ed., Tom. IX. 648–723.) Klebiz of Heidelberg, Beza, and Pierre Boquin also took part in the controversy with Hesshus.

II. For a comparative statement of the eucharistic views of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, see this History, vol. VI. 669–682; and Creeds of Christendom, I. 455 sqq.; 471 sqq. Calvin’s doctrine has been fully set forth by Ebrard in fils Dogma v. heil. Abendmahl, II. 402–525, and by Nevin in his Mystical Presence, Philad., 1846, pp. 54–67; and in the "Mercersburg Review" for September, 1850, pp. 421–548 (against Dr. Hodge in the "Princeton Review" for 1848). Comp. also §§ 132–134 below; Henry, P. I. ch. XIII.; and Staehelin, II. 189 sqq.


In the eucharistic controversy, which raged with such fury in the age of the Reformation, and was the chief cause of separation in its ranks, Calvin consistently occupied from the beginning to the end the position of a mediator and peacemaker between the Lutherans and Zwinglians, between Wittenberg and Zuerich.

The way for a middle theory was prepared by the Tetrapolitan or Swabian Confession, drawn up by Martin Bucer, a born compromiser, during the Diet of Augsburg, 1530,863863    Ch. XVIII. See vol. VI. 720. and by the Wittenberg Concordia, 1536, which for a while satisfied the Lutherans, but was justly rejected by the Swiss.

Calvin published his theory in its essential features in the first edition of the Institutes (1536), more fully in the second edition (1539), then in a special tract written at Strassburg. He defended it in various publications, and adhered to it with his usual firmness. It was accepted by the Reformed Churches, and never rejected by Luther; on the contrary, he is reported to have spoken highly of Calvin’s tract,—De Coena Domini, when he got hold of a Latin copy in 1545, a year before his death.864864    See vol. VI. 660. But Luther never gave up his dislike of Zwingli; and in one of his last letters, in which he describes himself as "infelicissimus omnium hominum," he wrote: "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the Sacramentarians, nor standeth in the way of the Zwinglians, nor sitteth in the seat of the Zuerichers." De Wette, V. 778.

Calvin approached the subject with a strong sense of the mystery of the vital union of Christ with the believer, which is celebrated in the eucharist. "I exhort my readers," he says, in the last edition of his Institutes, "to rise much higher than I am able to conduct them; for as to myself, whenever I handle this subject, after having endeavored to say everything, I am conscious of having said but very little in comparison with its excellence. And though the conceptions of the mind can far exceed the expressions of the tongue; yet, with the magnitude of the subject, the mind itself is oppressed and overwhelmed. Nothing remains for me, therefore, but to break forth in admiration of that mystery, which the mind is unable clearly to understand, or the tongue to express."865865    Inst. IV. ch. XVII. 7.

He aimed to combine the spiritualism of Zwingli with the realism of Luther, and to avoid the errors of both. And he succeeded as well as the case will admit. He agreed with Zwingli in the figurative interpretation of the words of institution, which is now approved by the best Protestant exegetes, and rejected the idea of a corporal presence and oral participation in the way of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, which implies either a miracle or an omnipresence of the body of Christ. But he was not satisfied with a purely commemorative or symbolical theory, and laid the chief stress on the positive side of an actual communion with the ever-living Christ. He expressed in private letters the opinion that Zwingli had been so much absorbed with overturning the superstition of a carnal presence that he denied or obscured the true efficacy of the sacrament.866866    He wrote from Strassburg, May 19, 1539, to André Zébédée, a minister at Orbe: "Nihil fuisse asperitatis in Zwinglii doctrina, tibi minime concedo. Siquidem videre promptum est, ut nimium occupatus in evertenda carnalis praesentiae superstitione, veram communicationis vim ut simul disjecerit, aut certe obscurarit." Herminjard, V. 318. In the same letter he characterizes Zwingli’s view as falsa et perniciosa. In a letter to Farel, Feb. 27, 1540, he disapproves Zébédée’s extravagant eulogy of Zwingli, and expresses his preference for Luther: "Nam si inter se comparantur, scis ipse, quanto intervallo Lutherus excellat." But he disowns any intention to dishonor his memory. Herminjard, V. 191. In a letter to Richard du Bois, from Strassburg, 1540 (ibid. VI. 425), he says, with evident allusion to Zwingli and Oecolampadius, that be never liked the view of those who in "evertenda localis praesentiae superstitione nimis occupati, verae praesentiae virtutem vel elevabant extenuando, vel subticendo ex hominum memoria quodammodo delebant. Sed est aliquid medium," etc. In a letter to Viret (Sept. 3, 1542, in Opera, XI. 438) he remarks that he never read all of Zwingli’s works, and hoped that towards the end of his life he retracted and corrected what first had escaped him carelessly, but "I remember, in his earlier writings how profane his doctrine of the sacraments is (quam profana sit ejus de sacramentis doctrina)." He acknowledged the mystery of the real presence and real participation, but understood them spiritually and dynamically. He confined the participation of the body and blood of Christ to believers, since faith is the only means of communion with Christ; while Luther extended it to all communicants, only with opposite effects.

The following is a brief summary of his view from the last edition of the Institutes (1559): —


After receiving us into his family by baptism, God undertakes to sustain and to nourish us as long as we live, and gives us a pledge of his gracious intention in the sacrament of the holy communion. This is a spiritual banquet, in which Christ testifies himself to be the bread of life, to feed our souls for a true and blessed immortality. The signs of bread and wine represent to us the invisible nourishment which we receive from the body and blood of Christ. They are exhibited in a figure and image, adapted to our feeble capacity, and rendered certain by visible tokens and pledges, which the dullest minds can understand. This mystical benediction, then, is designed to assure us that the body of the Lord was once offered as a sacrifice for us upon which we may now feed, and that his blood was once shed for us and is our perpetual drink. "His flesh is true meat, and his blood is true drink" (John 6:55). "We are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" (Eph. 5:30). "This is a great mystery" (5:32), which can be admired rather than expressed. Our souls are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ, just as our corporal life is preserved and sustained by bread and wine. Otherwise there would be no propriety in the analogy of the sign. The breaking of the bread is indeed symbolical, yet significant; for God is not a deceiver who sets before us an empty sign. The symbol of the body assures us of the donation of the invisible substance, so that in receiving the sign we receive the thing itself. The thing signified is exhibited and offered to all who come to that spiritual banquet, but it is advantageously enjoyed only by those who receive it with true faith and gratitude.


Calvin lays great stress on the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit in the communion. This was ignored by Luther and Zwingli. The Spirit raises our hearts from earth to heaven, as he does in every act of devotion (sursum corda), and he brings down the life-giving power of the exalted Redeemer in heaven, and thus unites what is, according to our imperfect notions, separated by local distance.867867    See the passages quoted in vol. VI. 679, note 1. The medium of communication is faith. Calvin might have sustained his view by the old liturgies of the Oriental Church, which have a special prayer invoking the Holy Spirit at the consecration of the eucharistic elements.868868    The ἐπίκλησις πνεύματος ἁγίου. The Latin liturgies ascribe the power of consecration to Christ’s words of institution. See vol. III. 513.

He quotes several passages from Augustin in favor of the spiritual real presence. Ratramnus in the ninth, and Berengar in the eleventh, century had likewise appealed to Augustin against the advocates of a carnal presence and participation.869869    See vol. IV. 549) sqq. and 564 sqq. Calvin refers to the Berengar controversy.

When Luther reopened the eucharistic controversy by a fierce attack upon the Zwinglians (1545), who defended their martyred Reformer in a sharp reply, Calvin was displeased with both parties, and labored to bring about a reconciliation.870870    See his letter to Bullinger, quoted in vol. VI. 661. He corresponded with Bullinger (the Melanchthon of the Swiss Church), and, on his invitation, he went to Zuerich with Farel (May, 1549). The delicate negotiations were carried on by both parties with admirable frankness, moderation, wisdom, and patience. The result was the "Consensus Tigurinus," in which Calvin states his doctrine as nearly as possible in agreement with Zwingli. This document was published in 1551, and adopted by all the Reformed Cantons, except Bern, which cherished a strong dislike to Calvin’s rigorism. It was also favorably received in France, England, and in parts of Germany. Melanchthon declared to Lavater (Bullinger’s son-in-law) that he then for the first time understood the Swiss, and would never again oppose them; but he struck out the clause of the "Consensus" which confined the efficacy of the sacrament to the elect.

But while the "Consensus" brought peace to the Swiss Churches, and satisfied the Melanchthonians, it was assailed by Westphal and Hesshus, who out-luthered Luther in zeal and violence, and disturbed the last years of Melanchthon and Calvin. We shall discuss this controversy in the next chapter.

The Calvinistic theory of the Eucharist passed into all the Reformed Confessions, and is very strongly stated in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the chief symbol of the German and Dutch Reformed Churches.871871    Questions 76, 78, 79. Comp. Westminster Confession, ch. XXIX. 7, and Westminster Larger Catechism, qu. 170. In practice, however, it has, among Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, largely given way to the Zwinglian view, which is more plain and intelligible, but ignores the mystical element in the holy communion.




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