John Calvin as Confused over Substance and the EucharistJun 30th, 2009 | By Taylor Marshall | Category: Blog Posts
Several years ago when I was once a Calvinist, I remember reading this quote by John Calvin and being impressed by it:
We must confess, then, that if the representation which God gives us in the Supper is true, the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs; and as the bread is distributed to us by the hand, so the body of Christ is communicated to us in order that we may be made partakers of it (John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, 17).
The interesting thing is that Calvin here discusses the presence of Christ in terms of “substance.” Not only that, Calvin speaks of the “internal substance” being “conjoined with the visible signs.” This comes close to consubstantiation, where the substance of Christ is conjoined to the substance of bread and wine. Quite remarkable.
In the same treatise, Calvin later refers to transubstantiation as “the devil’s doctrine”. In this context, it seems that Calvin assumes that the Catholic Church teaches that the substances of bread and wine are “annihilated.” However, this is not exactly what the Church teaches. Grace perfects nature – it doesn’t destroy it. As a representative voice of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that the substance of bread and wine are not annihilated but transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. In Summa theologiae III, q. 75, a. 3, ad. 1, Saint Thomas writes:
“The substance of the bread or wine after the consecration remains neither under the sacramental species nor anywhere else. However it does not follow that it is annihilated–for it is changed into the Body of Christ. Similarly, if the air, from which fire is generated, be not there or somewhere else, it does not follow that it has been annihilated” (ST III, q. 75, a. 3, ad. 1. Translation mine).
It seems that Calvin is working with a confused philosophical concept of “internal substance”. He isn’t familiar with the classical metaphysical terminology, because he never received a formal philosophical or theological education. He’s a lawyer by training, and it comes out in the Institutes. He’s shooting from the hip. From the Catholic point of view, Calvin’s error stems from his inability to grasp the meaning of substance. It’s no wonder he doesn’t understand transubstantiation and even worse, calls it “the devil’s doctrine.”