The sixteenth century was filled with intense debate about the eucharist. By the 1550’s the divisions between Roman Catholics, Lutherans and the Swiss Reformation were largely defined by the difference in opion about the eucharist. The religious dialogues in the late 1530’s and the early 1540’s hadn’t resulted in mutual agreement about the eucharistic doctrine, despite intense efforts from Bucer, Melanchton and Calvin, among others. Neither the doctrine of justification, nor the doctrine of predestination, were the principal stumbling block. However, the eucharist was.
In the 1550’s a second round of the eucharistic debate started. Hence, it’s called the ‘second eucharistic controversy’ (the debate between Luther and Zwingli being the first). It became an intense discussion between Lutheran and Reformed theologians. The Lutheran Joachim Westphal ignited the debate. The discussion between Westphal and Calvin caught the eye, but there were far more theologians involved. It was the ‘trending topíc’ in their correspondence.
Peter Martyr’s letter to John Calvin (Strasbourg, 8 March 1555; Calvini Opera 15, p.492-497) is a fine example of this kind of correspondence. In this long letter Vermigli appears to be an highly original theologian. He proposes his thoughts to Calvin about the communion we have ‘with Christ’s body and the substance of his nature’ (cum corpore Christi, atque substantia ipsius naturae). First of all, he says, we have a very general communion with Christ, because he shares in our fles and blood, ‘by the benefit of his incarnation’ (beneficio incarnationis eius). But because this kind of communion is very general and feeble, there must be another one. In that second kind of communion share the elect, in whom faith is incited, by which they not only are reconciled to God, but also share in the restoring power of the Holy Spirit, by which also our bodies, flesh, blood and nature are ‘made capable for immortality’ (immortalitatis capacia fiunt). In this way, Vermigli says, we become more and more ‘like Christ, as I may say so’ (Christoformia, ut ita dixerim).
According to Vermigli then, there are two kinds of communion with Christ: one is natural, the other spiritual. But, he continues, ‘in between these two (communions) there is a middle one’ (inter has duas mediam esse). This ‘mediating’ communion he calls the communion with the Head, Christ himself. This communion is prior, ‘at least in nature, be it perhaps not in time’ (saltem natura, licet fortasse non tempore). I suspect that what Vermigli is after, broadly corresponds with what Calvin calls the mystical union with Christ. It’s the spiritual bond with Christ through faith. Vermigli then draws a comparison between the human body and the communion with Christ. The point he wants to make, seems to be this: the spiritual bond (mystical union) with Christ opens up the way for another communion with Christ, by which our nature becomes renewed from within. We’re made fit for immortality!
What’s so special about this? Vermigli clearly agrees with Calvin (and many others) about the location of Christ’s body: He is in heaven. But, he seeks a way to prevent that the communion with Him would become mere spiritual. The key to his thinking is Christ’s incarnation. The incarnation is the guarantee for, both the natural and the spiritual communion. But this last way of communion is also a bodily communion. It’s the sharing in the resurrection of Christ in which we share by the Word of God and the sacraments, received by faith. There we are: the sacraments as preparation for our resurrection!