Christ at the Center

Dennis E. Tamburello
Thursday, June 11th 2009
Jun/Jul 2009

When I was preparing for ministry as a Catholic priest in the late 1970s, one of the professors in our theology program announced that he would be teaching a course in "Calvin's Sacramental Theology." At the time I remember thinking, "What could Calvin possibly have to say to Catholics about the Sacraments?" Needless to say, I didn't take the course. Years later, as luck would have it, I became a serious student of Calvin's thought. The more I learned about Calvin, the more I grew in appreciation of him, and the more embarrassed I was by the ignorance and arrogance of my earlier judgment. I came to realize that if I had been smart, I would have taken that course.

In this essay, I will reflect on the significance of the Reformed tradition for the Christian church, focusing mainly on the contributions of John Calvin. I speak as an outsider to the tradition, but also as an admirer. In our own day, thank God, we have been able to build bridges of understanding where there were once only walls of hatred and division. This is not to say that the walls have all come tumbling down. As recently as a few years ago, the Roman Catholic church released a statement, Dominus Iesus, that in my view represented a major step backwards in ecumenical and interfaith relations. This only makes it more important for a Catholic to engage in this kind of reflection.

I once had the opportunity to speak to a class at the London Bible College about what I liked and disliked about Calvin. It was interesting to discover that everything I had to say about Calvin corresponded to parallel things that I liked or disliked in Roman Catholicism. For example, I liked Calvin's emphasis on piety, which he defined as "that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of [God's] benefits induces." This is the goal of knowledge of God-not to know God theoretically or intellectually, but to give glory and praise to God, whom Calvin described as the "fountainhead and source of every good." I saw Calvin's focus on piety as a point of contact with my own tradition's approach to spirituality. Indeed, in recent times, scholars have begun to speak without embarrassment of a spirituality in Calvin.

On the negative side, I critiqued Calvin for being too sure of himself on a lot of issues-precisely a criticism I would also lay at the door of the Catholic Church at that time. In the sixteenth century, arrogance and pig-headedness were in ample supply, and Calvin's conviction about the absolute rightness of his own views was no more (or less!) obnoxious than that of his Roman opponents.

The exercise of compiling a list of likes and dislikes about Calvin was a helpful reminder of how much our traditions have in common even in their differences. With this in mind, I offer the following reflections on the contributions of the Reformed tradition to theology and to the life of the church.

The Grace of Christ

Perhaps the most common thread that I see running through the teachings of the Reformed tradition, from Calvin's time to today, is the centrality of Christ. We see this in Calvin's own description of faith as engrafting us into Christ: "Christ, when he illumines us into faith by the power of his Spirit, at the same time so engrafts us into his body that we become partakers of every good." One of the foundations for this christological accent in Reformed theology is surely Calvin's teaching on the twofold grace of Christ. This teaching is laid out with particular clarity in the Institutes 3.16.1, where Calvin argues that we have both justification and sanctification in Christ.

This articulation of the work of grace in human beings is one of the most significant contributions of Reformed theology to the church. It is debatable whether the Scriptures themselves posit such a clear distinction between the graces of justification and sanctification. Thus, Roman Catholic theology traditionally considered justification to include sanctification, i.e., the transformation of the believer. Calvin's formulation preserved the Roman emphasis on the importance of works, but placed them completely under the rubric of sanctification, thus avoiding any danger of slipping into the language of works-righteousness. The Council of Trent was not receptive to such a formulation. Today it is easier to see that Calvin's conception of the twofold grace was a healthy corrective to a theology (and more important, a piety) that had sometimes veered into Pelagianism.

Anna Case-Winters suggests yet another point that could be a "distinctive contribution" of the Reformed tradition:

For Calvin…sanctification is not primarily about good works, but about "union with Christ." We do not attain or even approach sinless perfection, but "with a wonderful communion, day by day, he (Christ) grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us" (Inst. 3.2.24).

I would go further than this and point out that justification too is about union with Christ. Calvin explicitly makes this connection in his commentary on Galatians 2:20:

Christ lives in us in two ways. The one consists in His governing us by his Spirit and directing all our actions. The other is what He grants us by participation in His righteousness, that, since we can do nothing of ourselves, we are accepted in Him by God. The first relates to regeneration [sanctification], the second to the free acceptance of righteousness [justification].

Sacramental Theology

Another major contribution of Reformed theology has been Calvin's teaching on the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Contrary to what many Catholics have supposed, it is not true that Protestants in general deny the "real presence." In fact, in the Reformed-Roman Catholic joint statement on "The Presence of Christ in Church and World," the dialogue commission stated: "We gratefully acknowledge that both traditions, Reformed and Roman Catholic, hold to the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist."

Of course, there are some significant differences here. Calvin rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, believing that it was a wrongheaded way of understanding the Eucharist. In his mind, it made no sense to speak of Christ becoming attached to the elements of bread and wine. Rather, he believed that in receiving the Eucharist, the believer was drawn up into the life of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Calvin insisted that this communion was both spiritual and real.

Although I struggle with the teaching on transubstantiation, tied as it is to the archaic Aristotelian categories of substance and accident, as a Catholic I believe that in a real sense the bread and the wine do become "different" than they were before the consecration. But Calvin was absolutely right in stressing that what was most important in the theology of the Eucharist was not what happens to the bread and wine, but what happens to us who receive the Eucharist in faith.

All too often in Catholicism, Eucharistic piety has centered around adoration of the sacred species. This focus misses the crucial point that Calvin grasped: that we are the most important "tabernacles" where Christ dwells. The union with Christ that we experience in the Eucharist should have a transformative effect in our lives. This was hardly a new idea in the sixteenth century. Several centuries before Calvin, John Chrysostom described Christians who came to receive at the Lord's Table, yet would not give food or show mercy to their brothers and sisters who were poor, as missing the point of the Eucharist. Calvin himself followed Augustine in referring to the Eucharist as "the bond of love" that inspires compassion and care for one another. Thus, Calvin can be seen as an important resource in current discussions of the Eucharist and social justice.

It seems to me that Calvin's rich theology of the Eucharist should have led historically to the Lord's Supper having a more prominent and more frequent place in Reformed worship. Calvin himself says in the Institutes:

[The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper] was not ordained to be received only once a year….Rather, it was ordained to be frequently used among all Christians in order that they might frequently return in memory to Christ's Passion, by such remembrance to sustain and strengthen their faith, and urge themselves to sing thanksgiving to God and to proclaim his goodness; finally, by it to nourish mutual love, and among themselves give witness to this love, and discern its bond in the unity of Christ's body.

Calvin's argument here is directed against the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which required that Catholics receive Communion at least once a year. Note that Calvin is misrepresenting the council when he says that it decreed that Communion be received only once a year. This was the minimum, not the maximum requirement.

Be that as it may, Calvin's words can be turned against his own tradition, inasmuch as many Reformed churches celebrate the Lord's Supper somewhat infrequently. Calvin goes on to say in the Institutes that "the Lord's Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually."

This is one area where I frankly think Catholicism has been more on target with its practice, at least until recently. The tradition of celebrating the Eucharist on a weekly basis is an ancient one that the Catholic Church has consistently upheld as important. On this point, Calvin seems to be in agreement. Why, then, did the Lord's Supper come to be neglected in Reformed practice? Is it possible that the Sacrament was celebrated less frequently partly as an overreaction against the perceived shortcomings of the Catholic Mass? The good news is, there does seem to be some positive movement on this question in recent Reformed thinking. A good example would be the book by Keith A. Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper (P & R Press, 2002), which raises many of the issues touched on above.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is currently in no position to gloat over the priority it gives to the Eucharist. While proclaiming the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life, our institutional leadership has allowed an intolerable situation to develop, whereby many Catholics are deprived of a weekly Eucharist because of narrow and outdated requirements for priestly ordination. Thus, in our own day, some Catholics end up having access to the Lord's Supper even less frequently than their Reformed sisters and brothers. Clearly, we Catholics have as much work to do in this area as the Reformed.

The Holy Spirit

Whenever Calvin talked about Christ, mention of the Holy Spirit was not far behind. This brings us to another contribution of Reformed theology: its pneumatology. Calvin's awareness of the role of the Holy Spirit pervaded every aspect of his thought. He defined faith, for example, as "a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit." Similarly, he spoke of the Holy Spirit bringing us through faith to union with Christ, and of the Holy Spirit as effecting the bond we experience with Christ in the Lord's Supper. Following Calvin's lead, Schleiermacher theorized that "every regenerate person partakes of the Holy Spirit, so that there is no living fellowship with Christ without an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and vice versa."

This focus on the Spirit continues to pervade Reformed thought today. For example, in "The Presence of Christ in Church and World," Reformed and Catholic theologians proclaim:

It is through the Spirit that Christ is at work in creation and redemption. As the presence in the world of the risen Lord, the Spirit affirms and manifests the resurrection and effects the new creation. Christ who is Lord of all and active in creation points to God the Father who, in the Spirit, leads and guides history where there is no unplanned development.

In our own day, much attention has been given to the Spirit's role in salvation and in the church. But historically, pneumatology has often taken a back seat to Christology. The Reformed tradition's emphasis on the Spirit has been a good corrective to this tendency. How much this emphasis has filtered into the everyday life of Reformed Christians is a question that I am not qualified to answer.

Religion as Thankfulness

I would not want to leave the impression that the Reformed tradition has only contributed to our understanding of God. It has also enriched the church's understanding of the Christian life in myriad ways. In closing, I would like to focus on a key element of piety that is rooted in the thought of John Calvin: the notion of thankfulness.

We have mentioned that Calvin defines God as the fountainhead of all goodness. For Calvin, the only proper response to God's gifts of creation and redemption is a life filled with gratitude, giving thanks and praise to God. Calvin expresses this point with particular poignancy in his famous "Reply to Sadoleto," where he argues that preoccupation with one's own salvation is theologically unsound:

It is not very sound theology to confine a man's thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him as the prime motive of his existence zeal to show forth the glory of God….I therefore believe that there is no man imbued with true piety, who will not regard as in poor taste that long and detailed exhortation to a zeal for heavenly life, which occupies a man entirely concerned with himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God.

This point is echoed in the Institutes' definition of piety as "that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of [God's] benefits induces."

It is not hard to see how religion can degenerate into self-interest or fear. Even the most ardent believer in justification by grace through faith can fall into the trap of becoming preoccupied with his or her salvation. Calvin was accused of presumption for daring to assert that believers could have certitude of salvation; but he thought it obvious that if salvation is in fact God's gift, we should not worry about earning it. Rather, we should simply trust in God's promises and live our lives in thankful praise and love of God, expressing that gratitude in our love of neighbor. This is perhaps the most practical contribution of the Reformed tradition to the everyday life of Christian believers.

This abridged article is reprinted here by kind permission of Fr. Tamburello and the Institute for Reformed Theology. It was first published in The Bulletin of the Institute for Reformed Theology (Winter 2004, Vol. 4, No. 1).

1 [ Back ] See Dennis E. Tamburello, "Dominus Iesus: A Stumbling Block to Reformed-Catholic Dialogue?" in Concord Makes Strength: Essays in Reformed Ecumenism, ed. John W. Coakley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 77-87.
2 [ Back ] Institutes 1.2.1. Translations of the Institutes are taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20 and 21 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
3 [ Back ] Institutes 1.2.2.
4 [ Back ] For example, a Calvin volume was recently added to Paulist Press's Classics of Western Spirituality series: Elsie Anne McKee, ed., John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (New York: Paulist, 2002).
5 [ Back ] Institutes 3.2.25.
6 [ Back ] Anna Case-Winters, "Joint Declaration on Justification: Reformed Comments," in Concord Makes Strength, 91-92.
7 [ Back ] David and Thomas Torrance, eds., Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, vol. 11, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 43. For a more complete treatment of this topic, see my Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard, Columbia Series in Reformed Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 86-87, 100-01.
8 [ Back ] "The Presence of Christ in Church and World," in Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, eds. Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 456.
9 [ Back ] See especially Institutes 4.17.16 and 4.17.33.
10 [ Back ] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (United States Catholic Conference, Inc.-Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), par. 1397.
11 [ Back ] Institutes 4.17.38.
12 [ Back ] Institutes 4.17.44.
13 [ Back ] Institutes 4.17.46. Emphasis added.
14 [ Back ] Institutes 3.2.7.
15 [ Back ] Institutes 3.1.3.
16 [ Back ] Institutes 4.17.33.
17 [ Back ] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, eds. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Steward (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 574.
18 [ Back ] "Presence of Christ in Church and World," 445.
19 [ Back ] J. K. S. Reid, ed., Calvin: Theological Treatises, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 228.
20 [ Back ] Institutes 1.2.1.
21 [ Back ] Calvin makes this point with particular clarity in his commentary on Galatians 5:14, where he describes love of neighbor as proof of our love of God. Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, vol. 11, 100-01. See also B. A. Gerrish's excellent study, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
Thursday, June 11th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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