I do not believe that I am overstating things when I say that the Lord's Supper is not taken very seriously in many churches today. Most Christians have only the vaguest understanding of what they are doing and why when they partake of the bread and wine (or, more likely, the mini-crackers and grape juice). Even among those who think they have some grasp of the meaning of the Supper, there are many who view it as a tedious burden or boring ritual, indicating that they too have no real understanding of it. Ignorance and apathy are the two adjectives that describe the contemporary church's view of the Lord's Supper.
Ignorance also characterized the sixteenth-century church's view of the Supper, but apathy? Hardly! Many Christians may have misunderstood the Sacrament, but few denied its importance.
Among those who wrote extensively on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, or Eucharist, were the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. The views of both men are sometimes oversimplified, but continuing research is helping us to gain a clearer understanding of the issues that united and divided the two. An important recent contribution is the book This is My Body by Thomas J. Davis, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. Most of the chapters of this work have been previously published in scholarly journals, and one chapter was a paper presented at a conference in 2006; that is, this book is not a single sustained argument but a collection of essays on various topics related to the main theme.
The first two chapters are devoted to exploring some aspects of the Eucharistic thought of Martin Luther. Chapter 1 looks at Luther's developing view of the role of faith in relation to the Sacrament, while chapter 2 looks at the centrality of the Word to Luther's Eucharistic teaching. Most of the remaining chapters focus on various aspects of Calvin's teaching. Davis looks, for example, at the importance of the words of institution, the role of Christ's human body in salvation, the presence of Christ in preaching, and the ascension, among other things.
Two of the most helpful chapters in the book are chapter 3, dealing with the words of institution in Calvin's Eucharistic theology, and chapter 7, dealing with Calvin's exegesis of the ascension and its relation to the Eucharist. As Davis explains in chapter 3, if there is one thing that is certain about Calvin's view of the Eucharist, it is that "without the words of institution, the rite makes no sense" (65). But for Calvin, this does not mean the mere repetition of the words of institution. Instead, it means that these words must be both proclaimed and interpreted. This is evident from an examination of Calvin's liturgies in which the minister first reads the words from 1 Corinthians and then expounds them in some detail. In other words, if the communicant is to benefit from the Supper, he or she must hear the words of institution and understand them.
Davis's reflections on the ascension in chapter 7 are also very helpful. Here he begins to unravel the relationship in Calvin's mind between Christ's absence and presence. Calvin insisted that Christ's body was removed from earth to heaven in the ascension and that it is corporally absent from believers. Yet Calvin also taught that in the Supper Christians somehow have access to Christ's body, which is in heaven. Davis argues that resolution to this tension may be found if we understand that when Calvin spoke of the "distance" of Christ's body, he was speaking metaphorically of separation, since heaven itself is not a place in the sky but is instead a different dimension of reality (136-37). What this means for Davis is that Calvin was somewhat closer to Luther than is usually granted.
The one weakness in the book, in my opinion, is found in chapter 8 where Davis repeats the thesis of his earlier book The Clearest Promises of God (AMS Press, 1995). Here, as before, Davis argues that Calvin's doctrine of the Eucharist underwent significant development between 1536 and 1559 (see 142, note 4). I would argue to the contrary that while Calvin's doctrine underwent significant development between 1536 and 1541, it was essentially settled at that point and that remaining changes were merely refinements and clarifications.
It is not clear to me that Davis supports his thesis unambiguously. In The Clearest Promises, for example, Davis states: "The foundations, then, of Calvin's Eucharistic theology are in place at the end of the Strasbourg period" (128). He continues,
What remains is for Calvin to implement his Eucharistic theology as he serves as pastor in the city of Geneva; to fine-tune his concept of Eucharistic instrumentality in his biblical commentaries as it relates to how God has always used secondary instruments to reveal knowledge of himself to his people; and, finally, to refine his notion of how Christ communicates his body and blood to the believer as he engages Westphal in debate. (129, emphasis added)
Regarding other aspects of Calvin's doctrine, Davis writes, "Before 1541, he [Calvin] established that he believed these topics to be essential to correct Eucharistic doctrine; after 1541, he provides a rationale why this is the case" (184). A rationale, however, is not the same as significant development. Implementing, fine-tuning, and refining are not the same as extensive theological development. The significant development occurred between 1536 and 1541. By 1541, the essentials of Calvin's doctrine of the Supper were settled. After 1541, in the midst of various controversies, Calvin further clarified his doctrine, but he did not substantially alter it.
This is My Body is a fascinating and important book, and chapter 3 is invaluable. Davis offers insight on a number of issues rarely addressed by theologians and historians. Despite some reservations in connection with Davis's understanding of the development of Calvin's views, I enthusiastically recommend this book to all those who seek to understand the Reformed doctrine and to partake of the Supper with understanding.