"Retrieving Calvin’s Theology of the Lord’s Supper:
Prospect and Promise"
Given on November 1, 2011
On November 1, 2011, J. Todd Billings delivered the Meeter Center’s annual Fall Lecture, entitled, “Retrieving Calvin’s Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Prospect and Promise.” Billings, Associate Professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI), argued that when situated properly within its historical and theological context, the Genevan Reformer’s theology of the Supper is a resource that ought not to be ignored in contemporary attempts to attain a modest form of visible unity in the church. He advanced this thesis along three lines. First, as a second generation Reformer, Calvin did not develop his understanding of the Supper in theological or ecclesiastical isolation from his contemporaries. His theology of the Supper was fundamentally derivative rather than novel. In particular, when contending that Jesus Christ, the substance of the sacramental sign, is truly communicated by the Spirit to believers, Calvin was drawing upon various insights from Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Bucer, among other sixteenth-century Protestant theologians. Moreover, while maintaining his own preferred formulations, Calvin nevertheless evidenced a conciliatory spirit by subscribing to Melanchthon’s revised Augsburg Confession (1540) and the distinctly Reformed Consensus Tigurinus (1548). According to Billings, therefore, inasmuch as Calvin demonstrated a concern for a limited form of evangelical unity on the sacraments, his theology of the Supper provides a model for ecumenical discussion today – one that unlike other recent proposals neither ignores nor minimizes but rather draws upon the rich distinctives of the Reformed confessional tradition.
Billings devoted the remainder of his lecture to delimiting two particular accents of Calvin’s theology of the Supper that hold promise for such ecumenical dialogue. Rather than privileging an abstract Word over the sacrament, Calvin maintained that Word and sacrament were complimentary means of grace for the people of God precisely because they promised one and the same Christ. God, according to Calvin, condescends to human weakness, holding forth Christ and his benefits not only in the preached Word but also in the tangible, visible, indeed, edible signs of the Supper. In this way, Billings noted in the third place, the genius of Calvin’s sacramental theology lies in the fact that he placed the gospel and the sacrament in a symmetrical relationship. The complimentarity between the preached Word and the sacramental sign are rooted in the symmetry of the promise of the gospel and the promise of the Supper. Thus the Christ faith receives and rests upon for salvation is the same Christ believers feed upon in the sacrament. For Calvin the Supper exhibits – that is, promises and holds forth – to believers the very substance of salvation: union with Christ by the Spirit, involving the double grace of justification and sanctification, received by faith alone. Because Calvin’s theology of the sacrament is so closely tied to his understanding of the gospel and of salvation in Christ, Billings concluded, it offers a more promising theological and practical basis for recovering in the church today a gospel-centered identity.
Stefan T. Lindblad
Ph.D. Student at Calvin Theological Seminary