Robert Bruce and the Mystery of the Lord’s Supper

Recently, I bought and read The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper from Robert Bruce (1554-1631). I had two reasons for buying this book. My first, and main, reason was the introduction of Thomas Torrance. He translated and edited the book in 1957. And because I’m fond of Torrance, I wanted to read his Introduction in the first place. However, my second reason was my expectation of the book itself. So far I didn’t read anything from Bruce, nor did I know who the man was (Torrance’s Introduction however is most helpful in this respect), but the fact that he was a contemporary of John Craig made me look on expectantly. And indeed, these sermons of Robert Bruce are fantastic! Here we find a concise reformed eucharistic theology. For the moment I’ll postpone the exploration of his theology and limit myself to three impressions:

1. I’m fairly acquainted with Calvin’s sermons and his preaching style. The sermons of Robert Bruce are about three or four decades younger than Calvin’s, but the difference in style is enormous. It surprised me that Thomas Torrance, who happened to be an expert on Calvin’s theology, didn’t mention the difference in his Introduction. It would be unfair to characterize the style of Bruce as ‘scholastic’, but there is undeniably a scholastic touch in these sermons. Calvin’s sermons are much more exegetical, moving from passage to passage. He sometimes makes use of distinctions as well, but not to the sophisticated degree Bruce does. It seems however, that these sermons are intended somewhat more generally than Calvin’s Genevan sermons. Anyway, Robert Bruce was an outstanding theologian, so much is sure. Let me give an example. It’s a passage in which Bruce discusses an objection of his opponents, ‘that God by His omnipotence can make the Body of Christ be both in heaven and in the bread at the same time’. Bruce says that the question at stake is not whether God can do a thing or not, but whether He will do it or not or whether He may will it or not:

“These things are of two kinds: First, He may not will those things which are contrary to His nature, such as to be changeable, to decay, and so on (…); Secondly, God may not will some things, because He has already decreed the contrary. This is the kind of thing we are now discussing (…).” (p.129,130).

2. There is another point in his sermons that striked me. It was something I hoped for. Let me call it the ‘Scottish flavour’ in the theology of the Lord’s Supper. I wrote about this some time ago, in relation to the Catechism of John Craig [link]. With ‘Scottish flavour’ I mean an emphasis on at least two things: on the empirical reality of Christ’s body and on the resurrection of Christ. Again a quote, by way of illustration:

“I prove my proposition (about the visibility and palpability of Christ’s body [AT]) by Christ’s own words, taken from Luke 24;24,39. In order to persuade the apostles of the reality of His Body, and to prove clearly that it was not a phantom, he uses the argument taken from these two qualities (…), as if He would say, ‘If I am visible and palpable, you may cease to doubt that I have a true body’. For as the poet says, whom Tertullian cites also for this same purpose: “Tangere enim et tani, nisi corpus, nulla potest res” (For nothing can touch or be touched exepct a body).” (p.125)

3. There is another remarkable feature in these sermons. Torrance points to it in his Introduction: ‘the doctrine of union with Christ and of our participation in his saving and sanctifying humanity‘ (p.23). Those familiar with the work of Thomas Torrance himself, will immediately recognize this theme, which was so important to him. Here we see a part of the roots of this theme of Torrance (the other part being the patristic tradition). Torrance claims this trait as distinctive for both John Calvin and the early Scottish Reformation. A quote once again:

“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, in the time appointed took true Flesh from the womb of the virgin, and united Himself with our nature, in a personal union, to the end that our nature, which fell altogether from its integrity in the first Adam, might recover the same in the second Adam – yes, not only the same, but much greater, as much as our second Adam in every way excels the first.” (p.123)

So, these sermons prove to be a treasure of reformed eucharistic theology. Or, to use the words of Thomas Torrance: “[T]he very marrow of our sacramental tradition in the Church of Scotland.”