In a book entitled Serving the Word of God, Sinclair Ferguson has an essay entitled “Calvin on the Lord’s Supper and Communion with Christ.” The essay’s okay, though I don’t know if it breaks any new ground. But it raises two questions I wish I could pose to Calvin:
1. Ferguson points out that Calvin, together with the Augustinian tradition (so the question may really be for Augustine!), views the sacraments as “visible words” (pp. 204-205). He says, summarizing Calvin’s view,
The signs display or exhibit Christ to the eyes and to the sense of vision, just as the word displays Christ to the ears and to the sense of hearing as the Spirit takes what belongs to Christ and shows or exhibits it to us (p. 208, emphasis mine)
and later he refers to the function of pictures.
We find something similar in the Heidelberg Catechism,though interestingly enough only in connection with the Lord’s Supper: “As surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me….” (Q&A 75). The Catechism goes on to mention receiving and tasting, which is good, but it begins by stressing that we see the bread broken and the cup given.
My question for Calvin and the whole Calvinian (or Augustinian) tradition is this: Why the emphasis on sight? Why are the sacraments defined primarily as things that we see?
My guess is that it has it has to do with defining the sacraments as signs and symbols. The argument, I suspect, goes something like this: The sacraments are signs, a sign is a picture, a picture is something you see, and therefore the sacraments are things you see.
There are, however, a number of problems with this approach.
First, not everyone sees his own baptism; not everyone sees the Supper. I’ve baptized babies who had their eyes closed and weren’t watching the baptism take place. I’ve also baptized adults who were kneeling in front of me, and they didn’t have eyes on the tops of their heads to see the baptism taking place. Furthermore, some people are blind and cannot see either baptism or the Lord’s Supper.
But that doesn’t matter. A baby whose eyes are closed is still baptized, even if that baby is asleep at the time. A blind man who takes the Supper is still genuinely eating the Supper and partaking of Christ. The fact that he can’t see the bread doesn’t matter.
Second, the Bible never mentions the importance of seeing the water of baptism being applied or the bread being broken or the cup being given. The Heidelberg Catechism seems to make seeing these things important, but the Bible doesn’t. I’m not at all sure why the Catechism doesn’t simply say “As surely as the bread is broken for me and the cup given to me.”
Third, it’s not just that the Bible doesn’t emphasize sight; it’s also that the Bible’s emphasis is elsewhere. Baptism is simply not something that you gaze on. Rather, it’s a ritual that happens to you. What’s important is not whether you can see it happening to you; what’s important is that it happens to you.
It’s the same with the Supper. It doesn’t matter if you can see the Supper. It doesn’t matter at all if you see the minister break the bread. You might be able to see the bread and wine on the Table or in the tray being passed; you might also be able to see your fellow church members jaws working as they chew the bread or their Adam’s apples bobbing as they swallow the wine. Or you might not. Who cares? What’s important is that you eat the bread and drink the wine, and that you do it together.
Is it visible? Yes, of course. But that’s an unimportant aspect of it. It’s also audible: if you listen closely enough, you might be able to hear someone chewing; I have often heard people cough after they drink the wine. But the fact that it’s audible is irrelevant to the sacrament, and so is the fact that it’s visible. The bread and wine aren’t just visible; they’re edible, and it’s the eating — and the eating together — that makes the Supper.
In this regard, I suspect that our term “sacrament” may mislead us. We tend to lump baptism and the Lord’s Supper together into one category (“sacraments”) which we then turn into a matter of theology and church life, abstracted from real life, and so we forget that baptism is a bath and that the Lord’s Supper is a meal.
Is a bath visible? Yes. You can watch a bath taking place. (“Can,” not “may”: I don’t want you in my bathroom.) Is a meal visible? Yes. You can watch people eating. But surely the visibility of these things is the least important part. I’ve bathed my daughter while she’s asleep. She didn’t see it happening, but that didn’t matter. She was bathed and now she’s clean. If the power goes out during dinner and the whole house is dark, you can’t see how beautiful the food and the place settings are, let alone see the others at the meal, but you can still eat together.
And so it is with baptism and the Supper. Visible? Yes. But that isn’t important. What’s important is the ritual itself: the washing and the eating.
Fourth, I wonder what sort of understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper undergirds this emphasis on sight and what sort of approach to them it leads to. It appears to me to be a sort of intellectualism.
Sight is the least intimate of our senses. Taste is the most intimate, of course, because you actually take part of what you’re tasting into your body. Touch is very intimate. Smell is quite intimate, but you can smell from a distance without touching. Hearing is less intimate, since you can hear from a distance. But sight is the sense that lets you stand farthest away. You can see farther than you can hear. (How far can you see? I can see things that I’m told are several light years away if they’re big enough and bright enough. I see stars at night, after all.)
The emphasis on sight, then, is an emphasis on something that doesn’t involve physical contact. Furthermore, sight in the Bible is associated with judgment (think of how God sees things and then judges them in Genesis 1, or of lines in the Bible like “doing what is right in his own eyes.”) We stand at a distance and we evaluate.
And when we make the sacraments primarily something to be seen, when we emphasize their visibility, it tends to put us at a critical distance from them. They become something to think about, something to evaluate. Small wonder, then, that at least one Reformed tradition taught that the sacraments work on the mind through reasoning:
The signes and visible elements affect the senses outward and inward: the senses convey their object to the mind: the mind directed by the holy Ghost reasoneth on this manner, out of the promise annexed to the Sacrament: He that useth the elements aright, shall receive grace thereby: but I use the elements aright in faith and repentance, saith the mind of the believer: therefore shall I receive from God increase of grace. Thus, then, faith is confirmed not by the worke done, but by a kind of reasoning caused in the mind, the argument or proofe whereof is borrowed from the elements, being signes and pledges of God mercie (William Perkins, cited in E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, p. 53, emphasis Holifield’s).
Against Perkins, Calvin, and this whole tradition, I submit that we need to drop the emphasis on the sacraments as “visible words” and the emphasis on the importance of seeing anything happen to the bread and cup. Whether you see it or not doesn’t matter. The Lord’s Supper isn’t something to gaze upon; it’s a meal we eat together.
In keeping with this strange emphasis on sight, I’ve even heard people say that children who aren’t allowed to eat the Lord’s Supper are still partaking of it. How? By sight. They get to see the break broken (though not for them). They get to see the cup handed out (though not to them). They get to see the bread and wine being passed and others taking them. And so, these people say, they get the Lord’s Supper.
The best response may simply be to invite such people over for a meal, to let them look at the table full of food, to pass it around in front of them, but not to let them actually eat any. Then you can ask them how much they’re enjoying partaking of the meal. After all, by their own theology, they’re partaking of the meal just as much as the rest of us. That’s nonsense, of course, but it’s nonsense for every meal, including the Lord’s Supper.
2. My second question for Calvin and the Calvinian tradition is related to the first. Ferguson sums up Calvin’s view this way:
In the preached word, then, Christ speaks to us and we respond in faith to his living voice. This in itself is enough for us; but God recognizes that our faith is weak and in need of his strengthening. So he further provides the visible words of baptism and the Lord’s supper where Christ puts his grace on display in order to bring us to a more assured communion with him through the Spirit’s work and our responding faith (p. 205, emphasis mine).
Later, Ferguson adds:
Calvin sees sacraments as appendices to the promise of the gospel, confirming it to faith. Pictures may display what the weak in faith are not able to read easily in the word. They thus help us remove our ignorance and doubt of God’s grace toward us, and strengthen our weak faith (p. 208, emphasis mine).
Notice that Calvin links the sacraments with our weakness. I grant that the sacraments help our weak faith. But that’s not what Calvin is claiming. He’s claiming that it’s because of our weakness that we have sacraments. From Ferguson’s first summary above, it sounds as if Calvin is saying that the Word ought to be enough for us, but, because we’re weak, the Word isn’t enough, and so we need something visible.
Here’s my question for Calvin: Is it really the case biblically that we have sacraments because our faith is weak? I don’t think so. I see no biblical support for such a claim.
Perhaps the argument is simply that God speaks and then often adds a sign. So God establishes His covenant with Abraham and then adds circumcision. But that doesn’t prove that God added circumcision because Abraham’s faith was weak, does it?
The Tree of Life appears to have been sacramental in some way, and God planted it in the Garden before the Fall. Either that means that we must say that Adam’s faith was weak and that its weakness is not the result of sin (unless we want to say there was sin before the Fall) or we must say that sacraments aren’t given only because we’re weak in faith.
Again, as with the previous question, I wonder what sort of theology flows out of this view of the sacraments. Perhaps its a sacramental theology like that of the Puritan William Bradshaw, who wrote:
Hence also it appears, that we specially eate the flesh of Christ, and drink his bloud, when with a beleeving heart and mind, we effectually remember and in our remembrance, we seriously meditate of, and in our meditations are religiously affected, and in our affections thoroughly inflamed with the love of Christ, grounded upon that which Christ hath done for us, and which is represented and sealed unto us in this Sacrament (cited in Holifield, p. 59).
On Bradshaw’s view, it seems, the real partaking of the sacrament happens in our hearts and minds through our meditation and the feelings that meditation stirs up in us. That meditation is sparked by what Christ has done for us, which is “represented and sealed unto us in” the Supper. But do we need the Supper if our real communion with Christ is up in our minds, brought about by our thinking and not by our actual eating of the bread and drinking of the wine?
I’m afraid this Calvinian tradition easily gives rise to the idea that the Supper isn’t really necessary. After all, Calvin seems to be saying, the Word ought to be enough. Of course, he’d add that none of it is ever strong enough to do without the sacraments. But we ought to be. If you understand the story, you don’t need the pictures to help you. And many Reformed churches reinforce this idea by doing without the Supper most Sundays in the year.