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Understanding Calvin's argument against Heshusius

February 12, 2008

Understanding Calvin’s argument against Heshusius

Stephen L. Costley, (c) 2007

In the Calvin v. the Calvinists dispute, the issue is this: did Calvin teach limited atonement? That is the question. For those who argue that Calvin did teach limited atonement, the evidence with the strongest prima facie appeal is the statement Calvin made in his tract against Heshusius. Here is the statement:

But the first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world. And as he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?

Calvin, Theological Treatises, 285. (You can also find the tract against Heshusius online. All quotations in this article, unless otherwise noted, are taken from this tract.)

The person who insists that Calvin taught limited atonement sees vindication for his position in Calvin’s questions: “I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?” Clearly here, they say, if nowhere else, Calvin is telling us that there are some men for whom Christ was not crucified.

Many take this statement to be such a clear and forceful statement of Calvin’s doctrine of the extent of the atonement that they interpret all of Calvin’s other statements on the question in light of this “clear” statement.

I put “clear” in quotes above because I don’t wish to be misunderstood as suggesting that the limited atonement advocates have accurately interpreted Calvin’s statement. In fact, they have horribly misinterpreted it. The limited atonement supporter sees Calvin’s question as rhetorically teaching that there are some men, viz., the wicked, for whom Christ did not die. His flesh was “not crucified for them” and his blood was “not shed to expiate their sins.”

But the question is not as simple as it is normally presented.

This paper consists of three parts. In the first part I will give six reasons why I reject the idea that Calvin was teaching the doctrine of limited atonement in the famous Heshusius statement. In the second part I will provide an alternative for understanding Calvin’s statement. This alternative provides a fully satisfying explanation of Calvin’s statement, an explanation which takes into account the context of Calvin’s theology as a whole, his theology of the Lord’s Supper, and his particular argument against Heshusius. In the third part I will suggest that the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper revealed in the Heshusius tract is actually a forceful argument against the idea that Calvin could have held to the doctrine of limited atonement.

Part I – Six reasons why the Heshusius quote does not teach limited atonement

In this section, I give six reasons why the idea that Calvin taught limited atonement in the famous statement cannot be true.

1) The Context of Calvin’s Work

First, the comment is out of keeping with Calvin’s theology. As far as I know, this comment is not repeated in any other place in Calvin’s corpus. In fact, Calvin contradicts this idea in many places. For example:

Wherever the faithful are dispersed throughout the world, John extends to them the expiation wrought by Christ’s death. But this does not alter the fact that the reprobate are mixed up with the elect in the world. It is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the world. But the solution lies close at hand, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life (Jn 3:15). For the present question is not how great the power of Christ is or what efficacy it has in itself, but to whom he gives Himself to be enjoyed. If possession lies in faith and faith emanates from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that only he is reckoned in the number of God’s children who will be partakers of Christ. The evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ as nothing else than by His death to gather the children of God into one (Jn 11:52). Hence we conclude that the reconciliation is offered to all through Him, yet the benefit is peculiar to the elect, that they may be gathered into the society of life.

Calvin, The Eternal Predestination of God, 148-9. Emphasis added.

According to this quote from Calvin, Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the world, a world that has the elect and the reprobate mixed up together in it. And this reconciliation is offered to all, though benefitting only the elect. This idea runs throughout Calvin’s theology and throughout his works. For Calvin to say seriously in response to Heshusius that Christ was not crucified for the wicked would be simply fantastic; it is completely out of keeping with the mass of his statements on the subject.


2) The Immediate Context

My second reason for rejecting this interpretation of Calvin’s words is that it is out of keeping with what Calvin said in the tract against Heshusius itself. Consider this statement from the tract where Calvin defends himself against a charge from Heshusius:

Still he insists, and exclaims that nothing can be clearer than the declaration, that the wicked do not discern the Lord’s body, and that darkness is violently and intentionally thrown on the clearest truth by all who refuse to admit that the body of Christ is taken by the unworthy.

He might have some color for this, if I denied that the body of Christ is given to the unworthy; but as they impiously reject what is liberally offered to them, they are deservedly condemned for profane and brutish contempt, inasmuch as they set at nought that victim by which the sins of the world were expiated, and men reconciled to God.

There are two points here. First, Calvin makes the obvious statement that “the sins of the world were expiated.” Limited atonement advocates will balk at this and insist that by “world” here Calvin does not mean every man. But there is no reason to suppose this.

The second point is that Calvin admits here that in the Lord’s Supper, Christ is given to the unworthy, and asserts that these unbelievers are justly condemned for rejecting Christ’s sacrifice. The unworthy are given Christ, but they earn a deserved condemnation for rejecting Christ’s sacrifice. This second point throws light on the meaning of Calvin’s statement that “the sins of the world were expiated.” The unworthy are condemned because they reject the sacrifice that was for them.


3) “Wicked” doesn’t mean “non-elect”

Look at Calvin’s statement again. Does Calvin say that he would like to know how the non-elect (or the reprobate) eat the flesh of Christ offered in the Lord’s Supper?

No. He asks how the wicked eat the flesh of Christ. Calvin does not here distinguish between elect and reprobate, but between believers and unbelievers, between worthy and unworthy partakers. There is no hint of Calvin’s argument treating of the unworthiness of the non-elect. Rather Calvin argues of the unworthiness of unbelievers.

It will eventually be pointed out that the end of the same paragraph in which the famous quote is found contains a distinction between elect and reprobate:

When he afterwards says that the Holy Spirit dwelt in Saul, we must send him to his rudiments, that he may learn how to discriminate between the sanctification which is proper only to the elect and the children of God, and the general power which even the reprobate possess. These quibbles, therefore, do not in the slightest degree affect my axiom, that Christ, considered as the living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter any human body which is devoid of his Spirit.

“Clearly,” the limited atonement advocate will say, “Calvin has the distinction between elect and reprobate in his mind.”

But this is a sloppy approach. Careless readers often will look simply for the proximity of words rather than a connection of meaning and argument. The words “elect” and “reprobate” appear on the same page, and all analysis is at an end. “Context,” they will cry. They eagerly stamp their presuppositions on any mention of right-sounding words regardless of grammar and reason.

But any sensible reader will see that in the sentence about Saul, Calvin speaks of the difference between elect and reprobate with respect to the presence of the Holy Spirit, not with respect to who is a worthy partaker and who not. That such is the case is conclusively proved by the last part of the concluding sentence: “Christ, considered as the living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter any human body which is devoid of his Spirit.” The unbelieving (even if elect) have not Christ’s Spirit and therefore cannot participate in the spiritual benefits of the Lord’s Supper.


4) The Limited Atonement Argument is Out of Place

The limited atonement advocates are representing Calvin as saying something like this: “since Christ has died only for the elect, I should like to know how the non-elect can spiritually participate in the Lord’s Supper.” But this argument would mean less than nothing to Heshusius, since Heshusius would have denied limited atonement.

As Curt Daniel points out, the introductory phrase, “I should like to know” is a flourish by Calvin indicating a rhetorical question. It poses a problem for his opponent, a question to which Heshusius ought to give a satisfactory answer. Calvin is essentially demanding an accounting of Heshusius. Obviously then, Calvin is, by these words, introducing an argument based on principles espoused by Heshusius himself. If Calvin is arguing from a limited intention in the atonement to a limited spiritual partaking of the Lord’s Supper, then the argument would be meaningless to Heshusius. Under the limited atonement presupposition, Heshusius would feel no obligation to answer.

Rather than feeling an obligation to answer, the argument would itself have provided a strong refuge for Heshusius. Since, as is conceded by all concerned, Heshusius did not hold to limited atonement, using limited atonement as an argument against his darling doctrine of Christ’s bodily presence in the bread and wine would have done more to confirm him in his belief than to move him from it. A limited atonement argument would have been like red meat to him. He would have attacked Calvin mercilessly on the point. We can imagine him saying, “Of course you have a defective view of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, for you have a defective view of Christ’s work on the cross! Your corrupt doctrine of the atonement corrupts your view of the Supper.”

I will go a step further. If — hypothetically speaking — Calvin were using limited atonement as an argument against Heshusius’s view of the Supper, he would certainly have expounded on it fully. We would have more than just a passing reference in a rhetorical question (which is itself ironic in tone). No, the dispute would have been heated. Heshusius certainly would have goaded Calvin on the point (probably in strongly ironic language), which would have provoked Calvin to respond at length (and in kind). The fact that no such dispute appears in the tract — that limited atonement makes no appearance anywhere else in the dispute — itself indicates that this is not the basis on which Calvin makes his challenge.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Roger Nicole says that Calvin’s argument is out of place here, but believes this is in favor of the limited atonement advocate.

Cunningham appears to be the first who referred to the following text of Calvin as reflecting a presumption of definite atonement. “I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins.”

This passage, found in a treatise on the Lord’s Supper destined to refute the fiery Lutheran Tilemann Heshusius, is rendered stronger by the fact that Heshusius, in good Lutheran fashion, did believe in universal atonement and therefore would not find Calvin’s argument persuasive at this point. But Calvin was so strongly oriented here that he appears to have forgotten that Heshusius would not share his presuppositions!

Roger Nicole, “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,” Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall 1985).

But Nicole is just wrong-headed here. Calvin’s statement interpreted as an assertion of limited atonement is out of place. That ought to make Nicole question his interpretation of Calvin rather than confirm him in it. Instead Nicole has decided that Calvin “appears to have forgotten” the position of his opponent.

Important digression on Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s SupperImportant digression on Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Before I can go into reasons five and six, we must delve into Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper as revealed in his argument with Heshusius.

The argument that Calvin had with Heshusius related almost exclusively to the Lutheran doctrine that Christ’s body is present in the elements of the Eucharist. Any other differences (e.g., the ubiquity of Christ’s body and whether unbelievers partake of Christ in the observance of the Supper) are directly related to that fundamental difference. Apart from this difference, Calvin and Heshusius have a great deal in common.

For example, Calvin believed that worthy partakers do indeed partake of Christ’s body in the Eucharist. (All the quotes that follow in this section are taken from the tract against Heshusius.)

[I]t is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ….

Unbelievers who partake of the Lord’s Supper are eating damnation to themselves.

It is indeed true, that contumely is offered to the flesh of Christ by those who with impious disdain and contempt reject it when it is held forth for food….

And later in the tract, speaking of the condemnation due to unbelievers who partake unworthily of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin answers Heshusius as follows:

[A]s they impiously reject what is liberally offered to them, they are deservedly condemned for profane and brutish contempt, inasmuch as they set at nought that victim by which the sins of the world were expiated, and men reconciled to God.

It seems natural, then, for Calvin to hold that as unbelievers eat damnation to themselves in their unworthy eating, Christ’s body is actually offered to them in the Supper.

[W]e maintain, that in the Supper Christ holds forth his body to reprobates as well as to believers….”


* * *

he is certainly offered in common to all, to unbelievers as well as to believers.

Indeed, Christ is given to unbelievers in the Supper.

[Heshusius] might have some color for this, if I denied that the body of Christ is given to the unworthy….

On all these points Heshusius and Calvin are in agreement. (These same sentiments can be found in the Institutes as well.) For now it is important to notice in summary that Calvin and Heshusius agree on this point, that Christ is offered — nay, given — to unbelievers in the Lord’s Supper.

And now, having seen that much of Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, I offer my fifth reason for rejecting the idea that Calvin used limited atonement as an argument against Heshusius.


5) The Limited Atonement Argument Refutes Calvin’s Theology of the Lord’s Supper

The limited atonement proponents have Calvin saying the following: since Christ did not die for the wicked, how could they eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ which was not crucified and shed for them? It isn’t for them, so they can’t partake of it.

But if Calvin is really using limited atonement to refute Heshusius’s theology, then his is a Pyrrhic victory, for his own theology of the Lord’s Supper is refuted at the same time.

Keep in mind that Calvin holds that the flesh of Christ is offered and given to unbelievers in the Lord’s Supper. If Calvin were actually using limited atonement as an argument against Heshusius, the very question that Calvin posed to Heshusius could be posed to Calvin himself. How could Christ’s flesh be offered or given to the reprobate (as Calvin believed) when his flesh was not crucified for them? How could Christ’s blood be given to them to drink if it were not shed for them? Calvin did not miss such an obvious point as this.

It seems clear to me that this is not at all what Calvin had in mind. Calvin is not using limited atonement as an argument, whatever else he might mean by his statement.


6) Calvin argued against Christ’s local bodily presence in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, not against unlimited atonement

The dispute between Calvin and Heshusius was not the atonement, it was Christ’s local bodily presence in the Eucharistic elements. Calvin himself states the matter in contention as follows:

Hence it follows, that our dispute relates neither to presence nor to substantial eating, but only as to the mode of both. We neither admit a local presence, nor that gross or rather brutish eating of which Heshusius talks so absurdly when he says, that Christ in respect of his human nature is present on the earth in the substance of his body and blood, so that he is not only eaten in faith by his saints, but also by the mouth bodily without faith by the wicked.

For the sake of clarity, I should point out that Calvin does not dispute Christ’s presence in the elements, but the mode of His presence in the elements. The local bodily presence of Christ in the elements brings up two other issues, viz., Christ’s bodily presence on earth and the wicked’s partaking of Christ by physical ingestion. These are the issues that Calvin addresses in the tract, and that is the dispute; it is not the extent of the atonement. Naturally we would expect Calvin’s arguments to address the issue of Christ’s bodily presence, not the irrelevant (to the dispute) issue of the extent of the atonement.

Then what does the quote mean? What is really going on here?

Part II – How to understand the Heshusius quote

The problem with the high Calvinists’ understanding of Calvin’s tract against Heshusius is that — given their understanding of it — the quote they rely on is so jarringly out of place. It doesn’t fit with Calvin’s theology or with his argument against Heshusius. Here is the quote again, along with a larger portion of the context.

It is worth while to observe in passing, with what acuteness he disposes of my objection, that Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit. His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them. Does he mean to astonish us by a miracle when he tells us that the blind see it? It has been clearly enough shown that nothing of the kind is to be seen in the words of Paul. He endeavors to disentangle himself by saying, that Christ is present with his creatures in many ways. But the first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world. And as he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins? I agree with him, that Christ is present as a strict judge when his Supper is profaned. But it is one thing to be eaten, and another to be a judge.

I am going to review this passage to illustrate the substance and method of Calvin’s argument against Heshusius. In so doing we will (if I attain my objectives) have a brief survey of the entire tract.

Calvin’s Irony

To begin the review of the passage, note the irony Calvin used in addressing Heshusius and his arguments.

It is worth while to observe in passing, with what acuteness he disposes of my objection, that Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit. His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them. Does he mean to astonish us by a miracle when he tells us that the blind see it?

Notice the heavy-handed irony of Calvin here. He suggests that for Heshusius to see the words of Paul clearly would be akin to the blind seeing. But “blind” is one of the kindest adjectives Calvin used of Heshusius in the entire tract! In the very first line of the tract Calvin calls him “petulant, dishonest, rabid.” Later in the very same first paragraph he addresses Heshusius’s arguments as coming “from another sink.” Further on, Calvin accuses him of seeking “fame by advancing paradoxes and absurd opinions.” One could go on at further and more humorous lengths. Calvin certainly was not above making Heshusius the object of obloquy. (One wonders if Calvin were not inspired by the spirit of Luther in answering the Lutherans!)

Besides mocking Heshusius himself at every turn, Calvin shows Heshusius’s doctrine in the most unfavorable light. At one point he says, “If Christ is in the bread, he should be worshipped under the bread.” He compares Heshusius’s doctrine of the Eucharist unfavorably to the Roman Catholic doctrine. Calvin says:

[Heshusius] vindicates himself and the churches of his party from the error of transubstantiation with which he falsely alleges that we charge them. For though they have many things in common with the Papists, we do not therefore confound them together and leave no distinction. I should rather say, it is long since I showed that the Papists in their dreams are considerably more modest and more sober.

Early on in the tract, Calvin engages Heshusius at some length on whether Christ’s flesh is bitten by teeth. Calvin asks, “Why should he be so afraid of the touch of the palate or throat, while he ventures to assert that it is absorbed by the bowels?”

I point all of this out to show that in making his challenge to Heshusius regarding the wicked eating the flesh of Christ that was not sacrificed for them, Calvin intended to show Heshusius in the worst possible light. He was not engaging in irenic philosophical dispute. He was charging Heshusius with gross absurdities and inconsistencies. We should not be surprised at Calvin’s calling up grotesque images and ideas in his criticism of Heshusius — the more grotesque the better, one imagines. What comic irony would there be in charging Heshusius with violating a principal that he did not hold?

Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit.

Going back to the paragraph we’re analyzing, Calvin makes this objection:

It is worth while to observe in passing, with what acuteness he disposes of my objection, that Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit.

Calvin makes this objection in response to the idea that the wicked partake of Christ’s flesh in the Lord’s Supper. Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit, Calvin says, and thus merely eating the flesh of Christ apart from the Spirit of Christ is impossible. The reader should keep in mind that Calvin did hold that Christ’s flesh, or His body, is present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. The difference between Calvin and Heshusius on this point is that Heshusius held to a physical presence, whereas Calvin held that this presence, though substantial, is spiritual and mysterious. Calvin says in this tract,

it is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ….

Heshusius relies on wooden literalism

The substance of Heshusius’s argument — as related by Calvin — is summed up in the next sentence:

His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them.

Heshusius relies on a strictly literal reading of 1Corinthians 11:24, “this is my body.” For Heshusius, the literal meaning of the words answers all objections. It is important to recognize his heavy-handed literalism to understand both the issue in dispute and Calvin’s arguments. This is why Calvin asked questions of Heshusius throughout the tract regarding the physical nature of the flesh of Christ in the elements: is the flesh chewed with the teeth? how long is it retained in the body? and such like.

It is also important to understand that Heshusius insists on the literal meaning of the words. We will come to this again later.

The benefits of the Supper enjoyed only by faith

The next section of this passage contains the part of the dispute between Calvin and Heshusius related to the spiritual benefits of the Lord’s Supper and how one might partake of those benefits:

His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them. Does he mean to astonish us by a miracle when he tells us that the blind see it? It has been clearly enough shown that nothing of the kind is to be seen in the words of Paul. He endeavors to disentangle himself by saying, that Christ is present with his creatures in many ways. But the first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world.

Emphasis added. In these sentences, Calvin focuses on the difference between the literal presence of Christ’s body in the elements and the spiritual benefits that must be enjoyed by faith. And that is how we can understand the italicized sentence above. Since, by Heshusius’s own principles, the wicked do not benefit by Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, Calvin drives home the point that faith is required to enjoy the benefits promised in the Eucharist. This is Calvin’s main thrust. Faith is required to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice offered in the Eucharist, not Christ’s bodily presence. Thus, though unbelievers are offered these benefits, they do not receive them because they have no faith.

On this point Calvin has reduced Heshusius to an absurdity using principles that Heshusius himself espouses. Heshusius believes that the wicked do partake of the flesh of Christ, but receive no spiritual benefit from this partaking. That being the case, Heshusius has oddly separated the flesh of Christ from His Spirit. Calvin’s argument in this paragraph is about Heshusius’s strange doctrine regarding the flesh of Christ; it has nothing to do with the extent of the atonement.

The critical sentenceThe critical sentence

And now, at last, we come to the critical sentence. But this time we come to it fully prepared. Here it is.

And as he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?

First we note the reference to Heshusius’s literalism: “as he adheres so doggedly to the words….” Calvin is setting us up for another reductio ad absurdum relying on Heshusius’s clumsy dependence on the literal meaning of words.

I should like to know….” Calvin uses these words to introduce his challenge to Heshusius. As I noted previously (reason four), this challenge must be on principles Heshusius would agree to or Calvin’s argument would be meaningless.

how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ….” Clearly Calvin is speaking of the local bodily presence of Christ’s flesh in the bread, as opposed to the spiritual benefits. Calvin has already posed the question related to the spiritual benefits of the Lord’s Supper in the previous sentence. Now he passes to the physical eating. This is the main point in dispute. It should not surprise us to see the bodily presence of Christ in the elements as the subject of a reductio ad absurdum when the bodily presence is the principal bone of contention between the two men.

which was not crucified for them?” And here we are. In what respect does Calvin see Christ as not crucified for the wicked? The point is, that Calvin is saying Heshusius believes this. As Curt Daniel has pointed out, Calvin often used this rhetorical form beginning with the phrase “I should like to know” in other places in his corpus. Calvin is not saying that he holds this position. He is saying that Heshusius holds this position and challenges him to produce a reason for holding this absurdity.

What Calvin refers to here is the Lutheran opposition to the Roman Catholic Mass, in which Christ’s flesh is indeed seen as crucified. (Calvin shares Heshusius’s opinion on this point, of course, but he has a reasonable explanation for it in his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.)

In Lutheran theology, this point is referred to in at least two of their confessional documents. In Luther’s Large Catechism, in the section titled “The Sacrament of the Altar,” we find this statement:

Therefore also it is vain talk when they say that the body and blood of Christ are not given and shed for us in the Lord’s Supper, hence we could not have forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. For although the work is accomplished and the forgiveness of sins acquired on the cross, yet it cannot come to us in any other way than through the Word.

“They say,” that is, the Roman Catholics say. Lutheran doctrine explicitly denies that the body and blood of Christ are “given and shed for us in the Lord’s Supper….” The work, the Lutherans hold, was accomplished on the cross, not in the Eucharist. This is further reinforced in the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV, where private masses are condemned and Christ’s once sacrifice for sin is asserted.

For Christ’s passion was an oblation and satisfaction, not for guilt only, but also for all other sins, as it is written to the Hebrews, 10:10: ‘We are sanctificed through the offering of Jesus Christ once for all.’

Augsburg Confession XXIV

Thus Lutheran theology specifically denies that the body of Christ, though locally and bodily present in the Eucharist, is sacrificed in the Eucharist. I suggest that it is this that Calvin refers to in his famous challenge. Calvin is asking how the wicked eat the flesh of Christ, which, though physically present in the bread, has not been sacrificed.

To reinforce this, we may also recall Paul’s words in 1Corinthians, which Heshusius insists upon so doggedly: “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you….” Notice that Paul’s formula refers both to Christ’s presence in the elements and his crucifixion. Since Heshusius insists so strongly on a literal meaning of the words “this is my body,” how can he account for his retreat from the literal meaning of “which is broken for you”? If Heshusius were consistent in his literal interpretation, Christ’s flesh must be offered as a sacrifice as in the Catholic Mass. He insists upon “this is my body,” but doesn’t insist on “which is broken for you.” As Calvin suggested earlier in the tract, the Catholics are “considerably more modest and more sober.”

Thus we have come to a satisfactory understanding of Calvin’s challenge, which involves no contradiction to his own theology, uses Heshusius’s accepted principles for a reductio ad absurdum argument, is in keeping with the tone of the dispute between the two men, and addresses the matter that is actually being debated between them. Whereas the limited atonement argument, as suggested by the high Calvinists, meets none of those criteria.


Part III – The Heshusius tract proves Calvin didn’t teach limited atonement

In Part III, I wish to consider whether the Heshusius tract can answer for us the question of Calvin’s doctrine of the extent of the atonement. Consider the question of the sincerity of the offer of the gospel to sinners. The sincerity of the gospel offer is tied by some (myself included) to the universality of the atonement. If Christ’s sacrifice were not for all, then the gospel is not for all and could not be offered to all.

If we understand Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, we surely think of an offer of the gospel. For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper was the best picture of the gospel, and the sacrament was, he said, offered or given to believer and unbeliever alike. How would this doctrine be affected by a doctrine of limited atonement? Keep that question in mind as we review some important concepts from Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper.

The substantial presence of Christ in the elements

As we saw in examining the Heshusius tract, Calvin believed that Christ is substantially present in the elements of the Eucharist.

[I]t is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ….

One should note that Calvin says not only that Christ is given to us in the Supper, but that Christ’s flesh — his body and blood — is given to us in the Supper. Such is the mystery that Calvin treats of in his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper: the substantial — but not material and local — presence of Christ’s flesh in the elements.

I do not restrict this union to the divine essence, but affirm that it belongs to the flesh and blood, inasmuch as it was not simply said, My Spirit, but, My flesh is meat indeed; nor was it simply said, My Divinity, but, My blood is drink indeed.

The offer of Christ in the elements

This presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements is an offer to believers and unbelievers alike to partake of the benefits of his atonement. I have three quotations from the tract to that effect. Quote number one:

Still [Heshusius] insists, and exclaims that nothing can be clearer than the declaration, that the wicked do not discern the Lord’s body, and that darkness is violently and intentionally thrown on the clearest truth by all who refuse to admit that the body of Christ is taken by the unworthy.

He might have some color for this, if I denied that the body of Christ is given to the unworthy….

Quotation number two:

It is indeed true, that contumely is offered to the flesh of Christ by those who with impious disdain and contempt reject it when it is held forth for food; for we maintain, that in the Supper Christ holds forth his body to reprobates as well as to believers….

And number three:

[I]n [the sacraments] accordingly we obtain possession of Christ, and spiritually receive him with his gifts: nay, he is certainly offered in common to all, to unbelievers as well as to believers.


In the Lord’s Supper, Christ is presented as the life-giving sacrifice for sins

The third point in my argument is that according to Calvin, the Supper presents Christ as the lamb slain for our sins. The observance is not merely a memorial or a duty to be performed, but a picture of the gospel and an offer of the benefits of it. Because of the sacrifice that the Supper portrays, the sacrament gives life to all who partake in faith.

Calvin shows that by partaking, believers are given spiritual life and are substantially fed through the elements. He says:

But it is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ….

But Calvin opposes Heshusius’s insistence on the physical presence of Christ’s body in the elements:

[Heshusius’s] expression is, that the very substance of the flesh and blood must be taken by the mouth; whereas I define the mode of communication without ambiguity, by saying, that Christ by his boundless and wondrous power unites us into the same life with himself, and not only applies the fruit of his passion to us, but becomes truly ours by communicating his blessings to us, and accordingly conjoins us to himself in the same way in which head and members unite to form one body.

Note carefully in this quote that Calvin makes a close connection between the observance of the Eucharist and the application of the benefits of the atonement. According to Calvin, the benefits of Christ’s passion are applied through participation in the Supper. The communion observance communicates Christ’s life to us. (How fearful, then, the consequences of the neglect of or the exclusion from this observance. And is that not the point of church discipline —excommunication — which is named for the exclusion from the Lord’s Supper?)

Next, let’s return to a quote already given above in part. Here Calvin answers Heshusius’s charge that Calvin’s doctrine fails to take into account that the unworthy are condemned for their failure to discern the Lord’s body in the Supper:

He might have some color for this, if I denied that the body of Christ is given to the unworthy; but as they impiously reject what is liberally offered to them, they are deservedly condemned for profane and brutish contempt, inasmuch as they set at nought that victim by which the sins of the world were expiated, and men reconciled to God.

Again take note that in their contempt for the Supper, the wicked set at nought the lamb of God. Also note that in rejecting the offer of the Supper, unbelievers set at nought the atoning work of Christ. So close is the connection between Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and his doctrine of the atonement.

The Supper is not a sham offer

Here I have only one quote from the tract:

In our Agreement it is twice or thrice, distinctly stated, that since the testimonies and seals which the Lord has given us of his grace are true, he, without doubt, inwardly performs that which the sacraments figure to the eye, and in them accordingly we obtain possession of Christ, and spiritually receive him with his gifts….

This idea is not popular in the reformed community in America. It is certainly not popular among the Baptists and apparently not so popular among most Presbyterians. But Calvin plainly taught that the promises of the sacraments are more than merely signs or symbols.

In this article I have limited myself to quotations from the tract against Heshusius, but all of the arguments here could have been sustained from sentiments expressed in the Institutes or Commentaries. The reader might consult Book 4 of the Institutes, chapter 17. Or take a look at Calvin’s commentary on 1Corinthians 11.

Limited atonement antithetical to Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s SupperLimited atonement antithetical to Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Let me state this in a somewhat controversial manner, noting that, ironically, I am myself a Baptist. Apart from the Federal Vision sympathizers, most Presbyterians have a Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. They certainly don’t have Calvin’s view. This may be due, in part, to the incongruity between the common doctrine of limited atonement and Calvin’s view of the Supper. How could one hold to Calvin’s view of the Supper and seriously preach limited atonement as it is commonly preached? (It is also interesting to me that the Federal Vision men hold to a strict version of limited atonement.)

Imagine a church service on a Sunday when the Supper is to be observed. Imagine this particular Sunday coinciding with a sermon on limited atonement. Imagine the irony, then, when the minister presents Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper: that Christ’s crucified flesh is substantially present in the Supper; that in offering the elements Christ offers himself to all; that those who by faith feed on the elements feed on Christ; that in partaking of the Lord’s Supper, “by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ.”

It just doesn’t fit.


Concluding thoughts

I take my final quote from Calvin’s Institutes:

For these are words which can never lie nor deceive – Take, eat, drink. This is my body, which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. In bidding us take, he intimates that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation. And we ought carefully to observe, that the chief, and almost the whole energy at the sacrament consists in these words, It is broken for you; it is shed for you.

Institutes 4.17.3

The idea that there must be a universal expiation behind a universal gospel offer is appealing at an intellectual level, but it is also susceptible to evasions. Evasion is not really possible (at least it becomes more difficult) when the doctrine is given tangible expression in the Lord’s Supper. Here is Christ really; here is a real offer, an offer to believer and unbeliever alike; here is the application of the benefits of the atonement; here is the reality of a table set, a feast spread; here is the banquet to which all are invited. Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper seems utterly incompatible with the kind of limited atonement often held in Calvinistic circles today.

Stephen L. Costley, stevelco@aol.com
Posted with permission

See also Calvin on the unlimited expiation and redemption of Christ.

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