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Monday, January 31, 2011

A Debate: Reformation Insights

Continuing our look at the relationship of Word and Table through the history of the church, today we discuss the Reformation era. The difficult part of brief overviews in church history is that you can’t look at everything. Once you arrive at the Reformation this especially becomes difficult. Belief, practice, and doctrine begin to diversify depending upon theologian and/or denomination. Thus, there is much disagreement over each. As in the medieval era, my purpose here is not to point out what went wrong or what developments I disagree with in the Reformation. Likewise, I do not wish to try and give an exhaustive account of Word and Table practice throughout the Reformation. Instead, this post will look at two famous reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, and what insight they give us to the relationship of Word and Table.
Let us begin with the man who began the Protestant movement, Martin Luther. Recognizing that the word Protestant comes from the root “protest,” it can be easy to think Luther was nothing more than a reactionary, especially when so much of unease in the church today has followed such a model. However, Luther had deep love for the Catholic church and wanted to bring it back to a more biblical and theological grounding from which he believed they had diverted. Of course, much of this dealt specifically with the worship practice of Word and Table, since that was the norm for services in his day.
Differing from the medieval mindset when approaching the Table, Martin Luther denied the Lord’s Supper as an act of sacrifice. Luther wrote, “It is quite certain that Christ cannot be sacrificed over and above the one single time he sacrificed himself…”[1] For Luther, Table fellowship was something more than a re-sacrificing of Christ. The Table instead was a place where one experienced the living Christ. However, Luther also disagreed from the Catholic mindset that the bread and wine at the Table were turned into the literal body and blood of Christ.
Although he disagreed with the mindset over the mode of Christ’s presence, Luther did insist that Christ was still somehow manifest bodily at the Table. Thus, Luther believed at the Lord’s Supper that Christ was “just as near to us physically as he was to those who touched him during his earthly life.”[2] This being the case, Luther maintained that both a physical and spiritual “consuming” must take place in worship, which can only be done by faith. Since faith comes by hearing the Word of God, Word and Table are necessary in worship in order to both physically and spiritually meet Christ. 
            It is important to note that although Luther had problems with the theological abuse of the Catholic practice of Word and Table in his day, he did not think the liturgy itself was something to be dismissed. Instead, he promoted the idea that both sermon and Table were to be understood as community acts. Thus, one of the most significant changes Luther made in the early Reformation was to put the liturgy of the service (sermons, prayers, hymns) in the vernacular of the people. Similarly, instead of making the practice of the Table something to be visualized and adored by the people, Luther began to allow lay participation at the Table in every Sunday service. Liturgy and practice were communal and was done in worship through both Word and Table.

Another great influential Reformer was John Calvin. Though often known more for his theological developments in other areas, Calvin had much to say about the practice of Word and Table in worship. Calvin understood the Lord’s Supper as “an aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel…an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his goodwill toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety towards him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.”[3]
There are some noteworthy things to point out regarding Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper.  First, the Lord’s Supper must be related to the preaching of the gospel. He writes, “a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix.”[4]  When joined to the Word, the Lord’s Supper has “the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.”[5] The primary direction of the Lord’s Supper is therefore God to us, not us to God. 
Secondly, as an outward sign and seal the Lord’s Supper assures us that God’s promises are reliable.  It is not that the Word is insufficient. However, we are weak, and so God in his grace provides seals to assure us of the truth of his promises. The Lord’s Supper does what the Word does, but better, because it also contains a visible component. He writes, “The sacraments bring the clearest promises; and they have this characteristic over and above the word because they represent them for us as painted in a picture from life.”[6]  Thus, they make the Word “more vivid and sure.”[7] 
Thirdly, the Lord’s Supper must be received by faith. Calvin states, “This is the God-ward movement as, in response to his promises, we attest our piety.”[8]  However, even this God-ward movement is dependent on God’s prior, gracious activity.  The Spirit must work through the Lord’s Supper to confirm our faith. He says the Lord’s Supper properly fulfills its office “only when the Spirit comes… by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our soul opened for the sacraments to enter in.[9]
Within this context, Calvin views the Table in worship as a banquet whereby we feed on Christ. Christ himself is “the only true food of our soul,” but God gives “visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.”[10] So, for Calvin, the Lord’s Supper is thus a covenant sign and seal, annexed to God’s Word.

[1] Martin Luther, “That These Words of Christ, ‘This Is My Body,’ etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, 1527,” Luther’s Works Volume 37: Word and Sacrament III Robert H Fischer ed and trans, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 143.
[2] Ibid, 94.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), IV.xiv.1.
[4] Ibid, IV.xiv.3.
[5] Ibid, IV.xiv.17.
[6] Ibid, IV.xiv.5.
[7] Ronald S Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1995), 133.
[8] Calvin, IV.xiv.7.
[9] Ibid, IV.xiv.9.
[10] Ibid, V.xvii.1

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