Sacraments in Space and Time

lord's supperFollowing Paul’s argument first letter against the licentious Corinthians (10:1-13), Calvin makes an interesting comment on the work of the Holy Spirit worth briefly exploring.

Apparently many were hiding behind the efficacy of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a sort of prophylactic against judgment, or temptation to sin in spiritually dangerous situations like eating meat in pagan temples. Paul challenges their comfortable assumptions by reminding them that the Israelites had those same sacraments in their own Old Covenant form as well. Just as the Christians were baptized into the name of Christ with the Spirit, Israelites were baptized into Moses through the cloud and sea. Just as Christians ate spiritual food in the Supper, the Lord fed the Israelites with spiritual food of manna and drank water from the Rock that is Christ. And yet, as Paul will go on to point out, through their sin, the Lord became displeased with them and many of them were struck down in the desert. In which case, Corinthians ought not sit too easily in their lax approach toward temple idolatry.

Towards the end of his comment on verse four, Calvin takes up an interesting objection:

There remains another question. “Seeing that we now in the Supper eat the body of Christ, and drink his blood, how could the Jews be partakers of the same spiritual meat and drink, when there was as yet no flesh of Christ that they could eat?” I answer, that though his flesh did not as yet exist, it was, nevertheless, food for them. Nor is this an empty or sophistical subtilty, for their salvation depended on the benefit of his death and resurrection. Hence, they required to receive the flesh and the blood of Christ, that they might participate in the benefit of redemption. This reception of it was the secret work of the Holy Spirit, who wrought in them in such a manner, that Christ’s flesh, though not yet created, was made efficacious in them. He means, however, that they ate in their own way, which was different from ours, and this is what I have previously stated, that Christ is now presented to us more fully, according to the measure of the revelation. For, in the present day, the eating is substantial, which it could not have been then — that is, Christ feeds us with his flesh, which has been sacrificed for us, and appointed as our food, and from this we derive life.

Assuming the relationship of type to antitype between Old Testament and New Testament, Calvin says that believers in both are partakers of the same spiritual meat and drink, the flesh of Christ. That they drank from the rock that was Christ, means they participated in the sacraments of Christ. But the problem is that Christ wasn’t incarnate, sacrificed, risen, and ascended in the time of the Exodus. So how can that relationship hold? Here we get an interesting glimpse into the all-important role the Holy Spirit plays in Calvin’s view of the sacraments.

It’s more commonly known that Calvin’s view of the sacraments is a “spiritual” one, in that the Spirit is the one who makes Christ present to believers in the Supper, or rather, makes believers present to Christ. Lutherans leaned on the idea of Christ’s ubiquity, or the idea that even Christ’s physical nature became omnipresent because of its hypostatic union with the divine nature. Calvin, however, emphasized the importance of the ascension of Christ’s physical, glorified body that has occupies a particular space as a body, seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenlies (wherever that happened to be). In other words, “where is Christ?” is a question that can legitimately asked.

If they were to be present to the Risen Lord, it would be by the action of the Holy Spirit who “makes things which are widely separated by space to be united with each other, and accordingly causes life from the flesh of Christ to reach us from heaven” (Calvin, quoted by Michael Horton in The Christian Faith,  pg. 814). So the Spirit unites things in space, bridging the distance between the Ascended Lord and his people who depend on him for heavenly life.

What is so fascinating about this passages is that apparently the Eternal Spirit also bridges the distance between the ages and unites them across times. For Calvin, believers in the Old Testament were fed and sustained by the benefits of Christ’s future life, death, and resurrection as the Spirit miraculously applied it to them then. There was an eschatological dimension to the sacraments for Old Testament believers then, just as there is one now.

Remember, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim his death until he comes again. And not only that, we must also remember that the Christ who is present to us now through the power of the Holy Spirit is the Risen Christ. We participate by faith in the receiving the life of the age to come now, but also by entering into communion with the Lord who is the age to come in his own person.

Soli Deo Gloria

6 thoughts on “Sacraments in Space and Time

  1. The temporality of the Scripture (the dualism of ‘This Age/World’ and ‘The Age/World to Come” can be smothered by a generally Greek philosophical notion of time as something to only be escaped, not to be mastered (Humanity’s viceroyalty). The Spirit blowing here-and-there ought to unlock our perceptions of time, not as a cage but as a stage.

    I really liked this post, it was a helpful addition to our understanding of the Sacraments, not as Magic nor as funny rituals. I am heartily with Calvin in this. It also would be interesting to think these things in light of Pannenberg’s insistence that God, as God of the Future, looms His shadow over the present age, drawing us to His Eschaton, not to ones we devise.

  2. With we love to spiritualize things, Christ came to us in the flesh.

    So…He gives us Himself, truly present in the meal (how? – we do not know, unlike the Catholics) So that we do not need to go into the spirituality business.

    We can have real assurance…totally apart from any feelings, or apart from any of our actions or thoughts. A real external Word that comes to us from outside of ourselves in tangible form, that we can actually sink our teeth into.

    This understanding gives us powerful assurance and comfort, while at the same time keeping our feet planted firmly on the ground where our real work is. No religious ascendency/spirituality project needed. In fact it is discouraged.


    • Dude, you know that “spiritual presence” does not mean allegorize, reduce to spirituality, or whatever, right? It means a unique presence mediated by the Holy Spirit. It is a trinitarian concept. Yes, absolutely, the Word comes to us from outside ourselves, but we have to take account the form in which he came (humanity) and its current risen form. It’s no less real to say he is present by the Spirit, than physically present through ubitiquity.

  3. Derek, this was great. Thanks. I have been learning more and more about the sacraments lately; more than the fact that they are a “memorial,” and it’s be blowing my mind. 🙂 Thanks for aiding in it with this post. Great observations!

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