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«Calvin’s Controversial Vivifying Flesh Doctrine By Dan Jensen An Integrative Thesis Submitted to the faculty Of Reformed Theological Seminary In ...»

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Calvin’s Controversial Vivifying Flesh Doctrine


Dan Jensen

An Integrative Thesis

Submitted to the faculty

Of Reformed Theological Seminary

In fulfillment of the requirements

For the degree of

Master of Arts in Religion


Thesis Advisor: ______________________________________

Don Fortson, Ph.D.

RTS/Virtual President: _________________________________

Andrew J. Peterson, Ph.D.

October 2009



Calvin’s Controversial Vivifying Flesh Doctrine Dan Jensen John Calvin taught that by virtue of the incarnation and hypostatic union of Christ, our Lord’s flesh was enabled to be a channel for the divine life from the Godhead, that we as Christians need for salvation, to flow through and then be given to us by the power and agency of the Holy Spirit. Since Christ’s flesh was so enabled it can rightfully be called “life-giving” and not just in the sense that this flesh is united to the Logos or because the second person of the Trinity did His work of accomplishing redemption in that very flesh. No, the flesh of Christ can be called life-giving chiefly because it functions as a channel of divine life that is given to us when we are united to Christ by faith and it is this life that regenerates us, sanctifies us, and eventually brings us to glorification. Calvin often uses the word “vivify” or its derivates to describe the flesh of Christ and its specific efficacy.

This doctrine for Calvin applies to both the gospel and the sacraments. Its primary application is to the gospel, but due to historical circumstances Calvin was forced for polemical reasons to focus and explain this doctrine primarily in connection with the Eucharist, and for this reason this thesis will primarily detail Calvin’s doctrine as it pertains to the Lord’s Supper. For Calvin, the Eucharistic elements symbolize this partaking of Christ’s flesh and so we can say that in a very real way we eat and drink from the Lord’s body and that He is present with us, in His flesh, in a very genuine and iii special way during the second sacrament of the New Covenant.

This thesis argues that Calvin did clearly articulate the vivifying flesh doctrine, that his doctrine is in error, that the fact that the Reformed community in large part abandoned his doctrine was a good thing, and all calls for a return to Calvin on this point are misguided.

–  –  –

Despite John Calvin’s unquestioned greatness, his vivifying flesh teaching is very problematic and has been very controversial. Thankfully, the Reformed community for the most part abandoned Calvin’s thought on this point. At the same time, all is not well today. The unfortunate reality is that the bulk of the Reformed laity is unaware of Calvin’s error and furthermore Keith A. Mathison, an excellent and prominent Reformed

theologian, is calling for a return to Calvin’s doctrine in his book Given for You:

Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.1 If we are to maintain a correct understanding of the Lord’s Supper, as well as a consistent Reformed witness, this situation must be remedied. In order to accomplish this remedy we must explain Calvin’s doctrine, prove that he did teach it, and clearly demonstrate some of its shortcomings.

Presupposed in all of this on the part of the reader is a thorough background in all areas of theological inquiry. The reader should also keep in mind a few other crucial factors. The first factor is that this work is not intended to personally attack anyone, only to give needed critique. The second factor has to do with originality. I understand that many others have discussed this issue in the past, but with the present resurgence the subject must be addressed afresh. Finally, this is a work dealing with the history of doctrine and therefore while it is my hope that the person with a solid grasp of theology will find my theological arguments compelling, direct interaction with specific biblical texts is not to be expected. However, this not intended to be a mere historical survey.

See Keith A. Mathison, Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg:

Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2002).

After presenting all of my research I will in the conclusion be making strong theological assertions that have deep practical and pastoral implications.

–  –  –

As a disclaimer I need to say here that in this explanation section I will not be providing footnotes or quotes directing the reader to where Calvin did in fact teach the things I am going to attribute to him. That will come in the body of the work. This section is simply to provide the reader with background information so that he will know where I am going and can test my assertions here by the body of this work and through his own research. The same will be true of the material dealing with Ligon Duncan on the question of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Supper.

Calvin’s vivifying flesh doctrine teaches that in the Lord’s Supper the believing recipient feeds on the flesh of Christ and not merely in a figurative manner. Calvin says that while this feeding is not done in an overly literal crassly corporeal manner, it is still a real feeding nonetheless. This feeding does not simply refer to a strengthening of faith, or of the spiritual life within us, or a further filling of the Spirit, all of which are grounded in the work Christ did in His flesh and is continuing to do at the right hand of God the Father. While Calvin recognizes those truths, he is adamant that when the Scriptures speak of us feeding upon the flesh of Christ in the Lord’s Supper that it primarily refers to the life that is channeled through Christ’s flesh which He through the Spirit gives to us.

All of this is symbolized in the Lord’s Supper in that the bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ and the nourishment from them symbolizes the life we receive from Christ’s flesh. Calvin explains that the way this takes place is due to the fact that Christ’s flesh functions as a conduit for the divine life of God to travel through in its route to us.

Calvin says that the way this life is taken from the flesh of Christ and is then transmitted to us is through the power and agency of the Holy Spirit. Calvin even calls the Spirit a second channel in that it is He that takes the life from the flesh of Christ and brings it to believers. But Calvin is not using the channel analogy in the same way with the Spirit as he is with the flesh of Christ. The Spirit is called a channel merely because He functions as the means by which the life is taken from Christ and is brought to Christians, whereas with the flesh of Christ, Calvin uses the term “channel” in a more substantial way. For Calvin the flesh of Christ is a channel or a conduit because the life of God is literally poured into it and is ready to be taken by the Holy Spirit when believers are in a position to receive it.

Calvin carefully avoids any magical conception of the sacramental elements. He maintains that they do not in themselves bring this life to us. They are symbols of the body and blood of Christ, but they are not naked symbols. By them our faith is lifted up to Christ and through the Spirit we feed upon Christ’s flesh as we receive the life that has been poured into it. It may seem odd to continually see Calvin referring to eating or feeding on Christ’s flesh and not in a purely figurative way when it should be clear by now to the reader that Calvin rejects any overtly literal feeding upon the flesh and blood of Christ. For Calvin though, to partake of this life from the flesh of Christ is to eat of that flesh and blood in a real and not merely figurative way, although not in a purely literal corporeal way either.

While for Calvin this doctrine is primarily discussed under the topic of the Lord’s Supper, it by no means is limited to the Eucharist. Calvin explains that this life was given to the flesh of Christ as part of the incarnation and hypostatic union. This life is then given to believers only when they are united to Christ in faith. However, Calvin is adamant that faith should not be symbolically equated with eating or partaking of Christ’s flesh. While one is united to Christ by faith and one receives the life that is given at the Supper only by first coming to the Supper in faith, the actual partaking of Christ’s flesh is a subsequent act where the believer freely takes the life that is offered to him and this symbolically corresponds to eating and drinking.

This life is what regenerates believers, what sanctifies them, and what brings them to final glorification. This life is given without ceasing throughout the Christian life both directly and through means, especially through the means of the word and the sacraments.

As far as the sacraments are concerned, baptism is the ordinary initiation into this life and in the Supper this life is continually given.

It is important to note here that the life that is given in the Lord’s Supper is not qualitatively different from the life that is given to believers in the gospel in general. It is the same life, but the reason it becomes so prominent in discussions over the Lord’s Supper is because the Lord’s Supper so vividly symbolizes the body and blood of Christ which is where this life is taken.

According to Calvin then, a real partaking of Christ takes place in the Supper and because of this Christ can be said to be present in the Supper in a very special way because He is bringing His life to us in the Supper. This presence is very different from the Catholic or Lutheran “Real Presence” wherein Christ’s flesh is literally and physically present in the Eucharist. However, Calvin’s conception is not to be confused with those who would advocate a presence of Christ only to our minds and hearts. While Calvin recognizes those elements, Christ according to Calvin can still be spoken of as being present in a way that is beyond this in that the power of His flesh is being brought to us in the Lord’s Supper.

In Calvin’s thought there is a twofold element to this presence. In one sense Christ can be said to be coming down to us through the power of the Holy Spirit via the life that is given to us from His flesh. But there is also a sense in which we can be said to be lifted up to heaven to be present with Christ in that the Holy Spirit lifts our minds and hearts to contemplate Christ in heaven while we partake of His life from His flesh. Both of these aspects are great mysteries that are not to be overly explained as is the case with the entire vivifying flesh of Christ concept and our union with Him.

All of this can be very confusing, therefore, I think an analogy is in order.

Mathison gives one of the best analogies summarizing Calvin’s thought in print. We

would do well to read it in full. He explains:

It is difficult to find a good illustration of Calvin’s doctrine because, as he himself argues, there is no analogy in the natural world to what happens in the Lord’s Supper. With that in mind, I would suggest that certain elements of Calvin’s doctrine may at least be roughly ill-ustrated using the concept of electricity.

Calvin himself speaks of the human nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit as “conduits” of divine life, so the analogy may not be too far afield.

If we approach Calvin’s thought using this analogy, we can say that the body of Christ, which is locally present in heaven, is analogous to the power plant or electrical generator. God is analogous to the source that powers the generator.

The divine life of God is analogous to the electricity. The Holy Spirit is analogous to the power lines that transmit the electricity and connect the power plant to millions of individual homes, while the sacramental signs are analogous to the individual light switches in these homes. The individual communicants in the church are analogous to the millions of light bulbs that receive the electricity from the plant, and the individual communicant’s faith (or lack thereof) is analogous to the filament in the light bulb (either broken or whole).2

–  –  –

It is my contention that Calvin did in fact teach what I have just ascribed to him, that this doctrine is very unsound for a number of reasons, although this does not mean that I believe every element of Calvin’s thought here is mistaken, and, therefore, the fact that the Reformed community by and large abandoned his doctrine was advancement and all calls for a return to his teaching are misguided. In order to demonstrate this contention, I must prove that Calvin taught the vivifying flesh doctrine as this is denied by some (chapter two), examine the way in which Calvin’s doctrine fits into the history of doctrine (chapter three), and in the conclusion (chapter four) provide some very specific critique of Calvin.

In order to prove that Calvin did teach this doctrine, we will examine his Institutes, some of his other works besides the Institutes and his commentary on John 6, and finally his specific commentary on John 6 itself. In chapter three we will place Calvin’s doctrine within the broader scope of the history of theology. This will include how his doctrine applies to the very controversial question of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Supper, how the Reformed world reacted to Calvin’s teaching, which will include examinations of the Reformed Confessions, Reformed theologians, and the infamous debate between John Williamson Nevin and Charles Hodge.

In the section on the question of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, we will use Ligon Duncan’s assessment of this historical question as a grid by which to discuss Calvin’s doctrine in relation to how other Christian theologies have Ibid., 285-286.

answered this crucial theological and pastoral dilemma. Whether or not Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper is of the utmost importance to any believing Christian. If Christ is in fact present, how He is present also then becomes a question of extreme interest to those who love their Savior. Duncan lays out what he sees as five primary positions that have had the largest followings throughout Christian history.

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