Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Editor's note: We are pleased to present this essay as the first of an occasional series of essays exploring the Reformed tradition from the point of view of theologians outside the tradition. The series is entitled"Ecumenical Partners."
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.1 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.”2 This is the goal of knowledge of Godnot 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.”3 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.4
On the negative side, I critiqued Calvin for being too sure of himself on a lot of issuesprecisely 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.
In fairness to both sides, I should note that in those days truth tended to be seen as univocaltruth was “one,” so that if Geneva was right on something, Rome had to be wrong, and vice-versa. There was little appreciation of how truth could be multifaceted or perspectival. Today, in our age of ecumenical dialogue, it is easier to see how the Reformed and Catholic churches have each preserved certain emphases that can serve as a corrective to one another. This is not to say that all of our differences are simply a matter of perspective, but certainly some of them are.
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.”5 We see it in Schleiermacher’s relating everything in his dogmatics to the redemption accomplished by Jesus.6 And we see it in modern documents such as “Towards a Common Understanding of the Church,” the fruit of the second phase of Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogue, which states: “We . . . confess together that Christ, established as mediator, achieves our reconciliation in all its dimensions: God reconciling humanity; human beings reconciled with each other; and humanity reconciled with God.”7
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 Institutes 3.16.1:
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 has suggested that Calvin’s doctrine of the twofold grace of Christ can make another distinctive contribution to contemporary dialogue on justification. Commenting on the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Statement on Justification, she notes that Lutheran theology has tended to emphasize the forgiveness of sins (justification), while Catholic theology has stressed the renewal of life (sanctification). Calvin’s doctrine gives “more equally balanced attention” to both:
She suggests yet another point that could be a “distinctive contribution” of the Reformed tradition:
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:
Calvin’s teaching on union with Christ thus parallels his teaching on the twofold grace.
Calvin’s theology of union is a teaching that has often been neglected by the Reformed tradition. Calvin has commonly been presented as a dogmatic theologian, with little attention given to his intense interest in Christian experience. But union with Christ was one of his foremost concerns, and it appears in numerous contexts in his writings.11 This is reinforced by his emphasis on piety, not theoretical knowledge of God, as the goal of theology. Nevertheless, as recently as eight years ago, several reviewers of my published dissertation, Union with Christ, dismissed my study of Calvin’s spirituality as having nothing to do with the real Calvin.
As an outsider to the Reformed tradition, I must confess that it puzzles me how the obsession with the dogmatic Calvin has “died hard.” One of the strange ironies of Reformation thought is that it fell fairly quickly into the same trap to which it accused the Roman church of falling prey: a rigid dogmatism. One has only to review the sad history of Reformers fighting among themselves to confirm this. A particularly poignant example is the Eucharistic controversies of the sixteenth century, which have been very capably summarized and analyzed by Jill Raitt.12 No doubt we are all familiar with the term “Protestant Scholasticism”an oxymoron that became a historical reality in both Lutheran and Reformed circles.
This is an area in which I, a committed Roman Catholic, would criticize Rome and Geneva alike. While dogmatic formulations can be helpful and even necessary, they also can reflect a tragic flaw in our religion. I am convinced that Christianity is more properly about orthopraxis than orthodoxya fancy way of saying that it is more about doing than talking or intellectualizing. Yet over the centuries, we have often tolerated breaches of morality and silence in the face of injustice far more than we have tolerated heterodox opinions. In this connection, I find it interesting that the word “doctrine” only appears about six times in the Bible, while words for “love” appear over five hundred times. This should be a reminder to all of us of where our priorities should lie.
Although I would not argue that Calvin himself had absolutely no tendency towards dogmatism, his focus on piety shows that his heart was in the right place. It should also be noted that Calvin saw himself not as a dogmatician, but as a biblical theologian.
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.”13
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.14 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.15 Calvin himself followed Augustine in referring to the Eucharist as “the bond of love” that inspires compassion and care for one another.16 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 that
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.”18
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 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 new 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 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.”19 Similarly, he spoke of the Holy Spirit bringing us through faith to union with Christ,20 and of the Holy Spirit as effecting the bond we experience with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.21 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.”22
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 proclaimed:
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 Sadolet,” where he argues that preoccupation with one’s own salvation is theologically unsound:
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.”25
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.26 This is perhaps the most practical contribution of the Reformed tradition to the everyday life of Christian believers.
1 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 Publishing Company, 2002), pp. 77-87.
2 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 Institutes 1.2.2.
4 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 [iv](New York: Paulist, 2002).
5 Institutes 3.2.25.
6 B. A. Gerrish offers a superb introduction to Schleiermacher’s Christology in A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), especially pp. 35-50. Gerrish later nuances this by pointing out that strictly speaking, Schleiermacher’s theology is not Christo-centric but Christo-morphic. “Christology . . . is not the absolute center of the system, but the system as a whole is shaped or formed by Christology” (p. 53). In this he follows Richard R. Niebuhr in Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion: A New Introduction (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), p. 212.
7 “Towards a Common Understanding of the Church,” in Growth in Agreement II: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level 1982-1998, ed. Jeffrey Gros et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 796.
8 Institutes 3.16.1.
9 Anna Case-Winters, “Joint Declaration on Justification: Reformed Comments,” in Concord Makes Strength, pp. 91-92.
10 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), p. 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), pp. 86-87, 100-101.
11 See Union with Christ, especially pp. 84-101, and the appendix on pp. 111-113.
12 See her book, The Colloquy of Montbéliard: Religion and Politics in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). In describing this controversy between Lutherans and Calvinists, Raitt points out that it did not take long for positions to become “firmly entrenched” (p. 74). In fairness, she also notes that during the colloquy, Theodore Beza and his Reformed colleauges sought reconciliation and a stress on what was held in common (see pp. 99, 122).
13 “The Presence of Christ in Church and World,” in Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, ed. Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), p. 456.
14 See especially Institutes 4.17.16 and 4.17.33.
15 See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (United States Catholic Conference, Inc.Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994) par. 1397.
16 Institutes 4.17.38.
17 Institutes 4.17.44.
18 Institutes 4.17.46. Emphasis added.
19 Institutes 3.2.7.
20 Institutes 3.1.3.
21 Institutes 4.17.33.
22 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 574.
23 “Presence of Christ in Church and World,” p. 445.
24 J. K. S. Reid, ed., Calvin: Theological Treatises, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 228.
25 Institutes 1.2.1.
26 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, pp. 100-101. See also B. A. Gerrish’s excellent study, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, WINTER 2004, VOL. 4, #1.
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