Calvin’s Counsel on Gentle Reformation

While studying for a recent sermon series on the Lord’s Supper, I read an interesting passage in John Calvin’s 1540 treatise on that sacrament. Toward the end of his treatise (in the extract quoted below), Calvin discusses the controversy between Luther and Zwingli over the nature of the eucharist. As he reviews the unfortunate conflict between these great reformers, Calvin counsels his readers to pursue such matters of doctrinal reformation in a spirit of gentleness. He urges us to “hav[e] the patience to listen to each other in order to follow the truth without passion.”

It sounds like Calvin saw remarkable similarity in the sacramental theology of Zwingli and Luther. According to Calvin, much of the controversy that subsequently overshadowed their positions was due to poorly chosen words, fiery reactions, and a refusal to listen to what opponents actually intended once trenches had been dug. There is much wisdom in Calvin’s assessment of this historic debate. Perhaps if he were alive today, Calvin might himself contribute a post to a blog called “Gentle Reformation” with words like these for us to learn from. 

Here is the extract from Calvin’s treatise to which I refer:

When Luther began to teach [on the Lord's Supper], he took a view of the subject which seemed to imply, that in regard to the corporal presence in the Supper he was willing to leave the generally received opinion untouched; for while condemning transubstantiation, he said that the bread was the body of Christ, inasmuch as it was united with him. Besides, he added similitudes which were somewhat harsh and rude; but he was in a manner compelled to do so, as he could not otherwise explain his meaning. For it is difficult to give an explanation of so high a matter without using some impropriety of speech.

On the other hand arose Zuinglius and Oecolompadius, who, considering the abuse and deceit which the devil had employed in establishing such a carnal presence of Christ as had been taught and held for more than six hundred years, thought it unlawful to disguise their sentiments, since that view implied an execrable idolotry, in that Jesus Christ was worshipped as enclosed in the bread. Now, as it was very difficult to remove this opinion, which had been so long rooted in the hearts of men, they applied all their talents to bring it into discredit, showing how gross an error it was not to recognise what is so clearly declared in Scripture touching the ascension of Jesus Christ, that he has been received in his humanity into heaven, and will remain there until he descend to judge the world. Meantime, while engrossed with this point, they forgot to show what presence of Jesus Christ ought to be believed in the Supper, and what communion of his body and blood is there received.

Luther thought that they meant to leave nothing but bare signs without their spiritual substance. Accordingly he began to resist them to the face, and call them heretics. After the contention was once begun it got more inflamed by time, and has thus continued too bitterly for the space of fifteen years or so without the parties ever listening to each other in a peaceful temper. For though they once had a conference, there was such alienation that they parted without any agreement. Instead of meeting on some good ground, they have always receded more and more, looking to nothing else than to defend their own view and refute the opposite.

We thus see wherein Luther failed on his side, and Zuinglius and Oecolompadius on theirs. It was Luther’s duty first to have given notice that it was not his intention to establish such a local presence as the Papist’s dream; secondly, to protest that he did not mean to have the sacrament adored instead of God; and lastly, to abstain from those similitudes so harsh and difficult to be conceived, or have used them with moderation, interpreting them so that they could not give rise to any scandal. After the debate was moved, he exceeded bounds as well in declaring his opinion, as in blaming others with too much sharpness of speech. For instead of explaining himself in such a way as to make it possible to receive his view, he, with his accustomed vehemence in assailing those who contradicted him, used hyperbolical forms of speech very difficult to be borne by those who otherwise were not much disposed to believe at his nod. The other party also offended, in being so bent on declaiming against the superstitious and fanatical opinion of the Papists, touching the local presence of Jesus Christ within the sacrament, and the perverse adoration consequent upon it, that they laboured more to pull down what was evil than to build up what was good; for though they did not deny the truth, they did not teach it so clearly as they ought to have done. I mean that in their too great anxiety to maintain that the bread and wine are called the body of Christ, because they are signs of them, they did not attend to add, that though they are signs, the reality is conjoined with them, and thus protest, that they had no intention whatever to obscure the true communion which the Lord gives us in his body and blood by this sacrament.

Both parties failed in not having the patience to listen to each other in order to follow the truth without passion, when it would have been found. Nevertheless, let us not lose sight of our duty, which is not to forget the gifts which the Lord bestowed upon them, and the blessings which he has distributed to us by their hands and means. For if we are not ungrateful and forgetful of what we owe them, we shall be well able to pardon that and much more, without blaming and defaming them. In short, since we see that they were, and still are, distinguished for holiness of life, excellent knowledge, and ardent zeal to edify the Church, we ought always to judge and speak of them modestly, and even with reverence; since at last God, after having thus humbled them, has in mercy been pleased to put an end to this unhappy disputation, or at least to calm it preparatory to its final settlement. I speak thus, because no formulary has yet been published in which concord is fixed, as is most expedient. But this will be when God will be pleased to assemble those who are to frame it in one place.

-John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord, in Which is Shown Its True Institution, Benefit, and Utility” (1540), pp195–7. In, John Calvin, Tracts Containing Treatises on the Sacraments, Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Forms of Prayer, and Confessions of Faith. Henry Beveridge, trans.; Calvin Translation Society; Edinburgh, 1859; vol. 2, pp163–98.

One Comment

  1. TimBloedow April 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    We’re discussing this section of I Cor. 11 tomorrow at Men’s Fellowship. This will be a good piece of historical perspective to provide to the discussion.

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