Review ‘The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh’ by Robert J. Stamps

Robert J. Stamps, The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh (Wipf and Stock 2013); $ 39,- ($ 31,20 [web price])

In his book The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh, Robert J. Stamps engages with the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. It was his doctoral dissertation at the University of Nottingham, coStamp - Word made Fleshmpleted in 1986. It remained unpublished until 2007, when it was included in the Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology. And finally, in 2013 it was released in the USA by Wipf and Stock. The delayed date of publication seems not completely coïncidental, as the sacramental theology of T.F. Torrance didn’t catch much attention until the first decade of the 21th century. George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism (2008), preceded by his important essay ‘The Dimension of Depth’ (2001), is dedicated to the memory of T.F. Torrance and Hunsinger’s sacramental theology is deeply influenced by Torrance. Paul Molnar wrote about the same subject in 2005, in an essay (‘The Eucharist and the Mind of Christ. Some Trinitarian Implications of T.F. Torrance’s Sacramental Theology’) and, to mention just one more example, Myk Habets devotes several pages to the same topic as part of his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (2009). These and other recent publications are not mentioned in Stamps’ book, as its conception predates these books and articles.

Stamps starts his study with an outline of ‘the theological and cosmological framework’ for Torrance’s eucharistic theology. This first chapter functions as a very concise introduction of Thomas Torrance’s view on theology in relation with (modern) science and its epistemological implications. Not surprisingly then, we find in this chapter much interaction between the positions of Torrance and Barth. Stamps does a good job in his exposition of Torrance’s emphasis on God’s self-revelation, his aversion of dualism, and so forth.

The second chapter starts with a brief ‘rationale’ for the subsequent outline of the discussion of Torrance’s sacramental theology. Stamps chooses here for a revision of Calvin’s approach in the Institutes (IV,XVII,1): Signification; Substance of Matter; Effect or Action. In my view this approach is not completely satisfactory. Of course, especially in his early writings, Torrance often refers to Calvin’s sacramental theology and he employed Calvin’s outline himself, ‘though with considerable difficulty’ (60). However, as Stamps rightly remarks, Torrance offers an incisive reinterpretation of the material. Stamps consciously indicates these reinterpretations in the subsequent chapters. But they don’t become structurally visible in this way. And that’s a pity. To be fair, the strength of Stamp’s approach is that the points of divergence can be marked, step by step.

Chapter 3 ‘Sacramental Matter and Action: the Objective Christological Ground and Potential for the Sacrament’ maps the interconnections between Torrance’s christology and sacramental theology. The key to this is found in his most comprehensive treatment of eucharistic theology: “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’. His christological emphasis on the homo-ousios is the key for the interpretation of his sacramental theology. That has deep epistemological implications: ‘for God cannot be known in the revelatory ‘sacramental relation’, either in word or formal sacrament, except from the integrity of his incarnation.” (99). Moreover: “the worship of Christ is the ground for the Church’s worhsip. We can also understand why the Eucharist in his theology, answering as it does the worship of Christ, should be central to the life of a reconstituted, new humanity.” (109). It is this position that makes Torrance’s contribution unique, pointing to, what George Hunsinger rightly called, the ‘dimension of depth’.

While chapter 3 is the heart of the book, in my opinion, chapter 4 is less convincing: ‘Sacramental Effect: the Subjectification of the Objective Christological Reality’. The subtitle indicates the problem already. According to Stamps “Calvin dealt with sacramental action and effect together in his outline, whereas Torrance’s sacramental theology separates the effect from the action” (144). I don’t think so. In Conflict and Agreement (1960) he makes the distinction between the ‘action of Christ’ and ‘its effect in our reception of it’. But, as Stamps rightly says, “[t]his does nog designate two distinct actions” (ibid.). But then he adds “but [it designates, AT] the difference between Christ’s formal action and its subjectification within the Church” (ibid.). To be sure, Stamps is a very careful ‘exegete’ of Torrance. For a few lines later he writes that Torrance elsewhere (in his shorter article ‘The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’ in The Liturgical Review (1976) “treats these two aspects of our sacramental communion specifically as the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Therefore, we shall discuss Sacramental Effect under these two headings” (145). Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the tension between the title of this chapter and the subheadings. The chapter offers for that matter brief comparisons with Luther’s and Calvin’s sacramental theologies (partly in the footnotes) that are right on target.

The last chapter is called: “An Appraisal of Torrance’s Eucharistic Theology with Open Questions”. Stamps refers in the beginning of this chapter to an personal interview he had with Thomas Torrance.

“When asked in 1985 what he would change if his earlier works on the Eucharist could be rewritten, Torrance stated that he would like to alter their context, i.e. not to discuss the issues so much from the perspective of the Reformation, as from that of the Eastern Fathers.” (240-241)

In the light of this quote, it becomes even more puzzling why Stamps chose to make Calvin’s approach leading for the outline of Torrance’s sacramental theology. He gives the answer by arguing that – in the end – Torrance’s eucharistic theology “finally ought not to be judged by what it aspires to be, but by what it actually is, a Eucharist [sic!] in the Reformed tradition operating from a highly developed christology richly informed by patristic sources” (244). Stamps notes in T.F. Torrance (lecturing)passing that (especially the early) Torrance is in some respects heavily indebted to Karl Barth (“an ‘actualist conception of God’s Word” (250)), but in the end, his analysis of Torrance’s sacramental theology boils down to the dilemma: either Calvin or Eastern Orthodoxy. That seems to me a serious flaw in his analysis. Torrance’s sacramental theology certainly isn’t purely Barthian, but can’t be properly understood by omitting the Barthian ‘overtones’ in the thought of Tom Torrance.

This is not to deny that Stamps offers in his book a thorough study of the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. As indicated, its strenght lies in the ‘exegetical’ reading of all the relevant texts of Torrance’s work. Its weakness is its systematic presentation and evaluation. But for sure: anyone who is on his way to study Torrance on the sacraments, will have to read this book and will definitely find it useful.

I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing the review copy!

New Avenues in Calvin Research

This week the 11th International Congress on Calvin Research is held in Zurich. The program shows an impressive variety in speakers and papers. While I’m not attending the Congress, I wondered what I’m been missing. Moreover, I looked for a common trend John Calvin logoin the research on Calvin. From a distance, it seems to me that there is serious attention to church discipline in Geneva and in Calvin’s works. Furthermore, a lot of comparisons of Calvin with the Church Fathers or contemporaries in the sixteenth century on doctrinal or exegetical issues. And finally, there seems to be quite a bit of attention to the ongoing business of editing and researching Calvin’s works in a digital era.

It is of course very difficult to form a sound opinion from a distance, but I’ve been wondering to which new directions in Calvin research this congress will point. I have to wait until the book will be published. But in the program we can easily recognize important trends of the last two decades: more attention to the exegetical and homiletic works, more research on the details of Calvin’s life and work (for example the exact dating of his sermons), and so forth. These are for sure worthwile projects. But my question, not in the least about my own research, is: where will the increasing attention to detail lead to? It reminded me of a remark of Eberhard Busch. He wrote:

“It is striking that in many recent works, half of the text consists of footnotes that often refer to a large number of other single investigations which are unfortunately often not available to the reader. Furthermore, there is no lack of studies with such specific theses that they cannot be substantiated except by appealing to hypotheses.” (Reformed World 57,4 (2007), p.242).

This is quite a thing to say, of course. But I can catch the drift of his worries. Let me explain in terms of my own research. I’ve been working for quite some time on Calvin’s sermons on the Lord’s Supper. It is perfectly possible to investigate these sermons on a very detailed level. Questions like the dating of the sermons, similarities on the level of words and expressions, and so forth. But my question is: how can I manage to keep an eye on the thread in the whole of his sermons? One way to find such a thread, is to look for promising approaches in Calvin research. To give my thoughts fresh impulses, I’ve been reading recent articles and book chapters about Calvin’s eucharistic theology. I will mention two of them here, both written by non-theologians.

The first article I read was Nicholas Wolterstorff’s contribution on John Calvin in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Brill's Companion to the Eucharist in the ReformationReformation (Brill 2013), edited by Lee Palmer Wandel. I might be biased with regard to Wolterstorff, as loyal readers of this blog may know. But his contribution appears to me as a very lucid and accurate account of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, I regard it as one of the best short introductions to the topic on a systematic level, although from a historical perspective it is wanting.  Nonetheless, it is a very illuminating contribution, thanks to the precise way of analysing what it is going on in Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. Wolterstorff follows Calvin in his division between ‘the signification, the matter that depends on it, and the power or effect that follows from both’ (Inst.IV,xii,11). Wolterstorff, however, expresses his astonishment with regard to the latter category, because it seems Calvin continuously blurrs the distinction between what is constitutive of the performance of the Eucharist and what are the effects of participation by the faithful.

“Why did Calvin not expand his understanding of what is constitutive of the Eucharist to include its being a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, its being a memorial, and its incorporating an exhortation to charity? I do not know.” (p.113).

I’m not sure whether I grasp Wolterstorff’s point fully here, but it seems that he didn’t consider to possibility of it being both true. Praise, being a memorial, exhortation to charity being constitutive for the Lord’s Supper and at the same time being an effect of it. That seems to me Calvin’s position.

The second article I read, was ‘Things That Matter’, a contribution on Calvin’s eucharistic theology of Ernst van den Hemel in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality (Fordham University Press 2012), edited by Dick Houtman and Birgit Meyer. Van den Hemel is a Calvin specialist from the perspective of Literary Studies although the book as a whole  is concerned with the question of religion and mThings – Religion and the Question of Materialityateriality (Religious Studies). Van den Hemel’s approaches Calvin’s eucharistic theology from a semiotic angle. That seems to me a very promising route. At the same time, Van den Hemel turns out to be theologically well informed, acquainted with the books of Paul Helm, Heiko Oberman, David Willis and Alister McGrath. He highlights the ‘extra-calvinisticum’ as an important interpretive key to Calvin’s semiotics of the Lord’s Supper. Rightly so, I think. In fact, Van den Hemel’s contribution is part of a larger picture. It strikes me that there is a lot of attention in Literary Studies for Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. The amount of references to his sacramental theology in English Renaissance Studies (Shakespeare, John Bale, etc.) for example is amazing. But the interest is one-sided. So far, there seems to be hardly any readiness within Calvin research to learn from the field of Literary Studies. That is a pity, according to me. In fact, it gives me food for thought that some of the most promising recent contributions I read about Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper stem from non-theologians. It might open new avenues in Calvin research.



Wolterstorff’s Kantzer Lectures

Wolterstorff-Kanzter LecturesThose who follow the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff will have been looking forward to his Kantzer Lectures (October, 1-7). I was one of those, listening and watching at distance (thanks to the superb video-connection, still to be found here). In my opinion, it was a great series with references and excursions to theologians as Alexander Schmemann, Jean-Jaques von Allmen, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. And those familiar with Wolterstorff’s own writings recognized hints from his earlier work (such as Divine Discourse (1995), derived from his Wilde Lectures in Oxford, 1993).The outline of his Kantzer Lectures looks like this:

Lecture 1: The Project: Liturgical Theology Lecture 2. God as Worthy of Worship Lecture 3. God as One Who Listens and Speaks Lecture 4. God as Listener Lecture 5. What Are We Saying When We Say that God Listens? Lecture 6. God as One Who Hears Favorably Lecture 7. God as One Who Speaks Lecture 8. The Understanding of God Implicit in the Eucharist

Those who have visited this blog before, won’t be surprised to hear that his last lecture aroused my interest most of all. I have to admit however that my expectations were somewhat ambiguous. Wolterstorff’s earlier writings on the subject emphasized that the Lord’s Supper is best understood in terms of action, rather than presence. And he offered a thorough analysis of ‘remembrance’ as practised in the liturgy. His take on these liturgical questions seemed to me indeed calvinistic, but, so I wondered, didn’t it have a zwinglian overtone? Could an analysis of the Lord’s Supper that is true to Calvin’s intentions be put merely in terms of action and remembrance? I didn’t and still don’t think so.

It did turn out in his Kantzer Lectures, that Wolterstorff doesn’t think so either. I had underestimated him as a careful interpreter of Calvin. In fact, he picked up the concept of ‘participation’ from Calvin’s writings about the Lord’s Supper in order to make it pivotal in his own analysis. By doing that he offered a ‘high’ interpretation of what is happening in the Lord’s Supper. With the conceptual tool of a theory of double action he interprets the distribution of bread and wine as counting as the offering of Christ’s body and blood. And he interprets our eating of the bread and drinking of the wine as counting as the receiving of his offering. Wolterstorff insisted – rightly so, I think – that for Calvin the sacrament is not to be regarded in terms of proclamation, be it as a kind of proclamation or as confirmation of proclamation. The eucharist is to be understood in terms of Christ’s offering of himself to us. There is much more to say about this lecture, but you really should listen yourself!

In the discussion afterwards, three questions striked me as remarkable:

  1. The first question asked whether Wolterstorff’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper in terms of a double action theory is fully adequate. Isn’t Calvin’s opinion different, in the sense that for him the eating and drinking doesn’t count as receiving Christ’s offering his flesh and blood, but as the occasion for God, by the Spirit, to do his work in us. Wolterstorff answered to this by pointing out that there are two double actions are going on in the Lord’s Supper, one action performed by God, the other performed by us. The question reminded me to his discussion of Calvin’s alleged occasionalism in his article ‘Sacrament as Action, not Presence’ (in: David Brown & Ann Loades, Christ: the Sacramental Word (1996)). In this article Wolterstorff is very emphatic in denying that Calvin was an occasionalist (p.107-108).
  2. A second question asked what exactly the difference was between instrumentalism, the view that is often ascribed to Calvin (f.ex. B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude (1993), p.167), and Wolterstorff’s own view. It appeared to be not easy to put this difference into words. Calvin does not say, according to Wolterstorff, that the bread and the wine effect the participation in Christ. Nor does he want to say that the presider’s offering bread and wine effects participation. Wolterstorff came forward with the term ‘relentlessly performative’, in order to specify that the bread and the wine are by no means arbitrary, but that they in the context of the liturgy enable the celebrants to partake in Christ.
  3. The second last question referred to Wolterstorff’s second lecture, where he spoke of the church actualizing itself in the enactment of the liturgy. In so far as the Eucharist is the climax of that liturgical enactment, how could this actualization be ‘fleshed out’ (think of De Lubac’s maxim). Characteristically, Wolterstorff admitted he hadn’t worked out his thoughts in this direction. But, he said, why don’t you flesh it out? And then he made a note for himself. I liked that answer for two reasons. First, Wolterstorff doesn’t hesitate to admit he hasn’t thought out all implications. That is, he is not pretending he’s got all the answers. And secondly, he challenges students and other scholars to take up the job of engaging with the project of the philosophical analysis of what is going on in the liturgy.

There is much more to say about this particular lecture and about the complete series. What to think for example of the closing section of this last lecture, in which he posed a couple of intriguing questions. What does it mean to think of God as the One Who not only acts ands speaks, but listens as well? Doesn’t that thought affect our understanding of God’s immutability and of his aseitas, for example? I have my doubts whether Wolterstorff interprets the theological tradition here correctly. But these questions have to wait for another day. Maybe the day that his book appears. I’m very much looking forward to it!

Melanchthon’s change of eucharistic opinions

A few months ago I wrote here about Melanchthon and his remarkable change of opinion with regard to the questions of contingency and determinism. It’s not entirely clear when he changed his mind, but the years 1527-1528 have been suggested. Recently I bought W.H. Neuser’s, Die Abendmahlslehre Melanchthons in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung 1519-1530 (Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968). While reading some parts of it, I was struck by the fact that Neuser describes a parallel change of opinion, in this case with regard to eucharistic theology. In his book Neuser Luther and Melanchthonelaborates on the eucharistic controversy between Luther and his followers on the one hand and Zwingli, Oeculampedius, but also ‘Schwärmer’ like Karlstadt on the other hand. Matters were, of course, far more complex than a division along one line of demarcation. While Luther tended to be blunt in eucharistic matters, Melanchthon striked a more nuanced note. Both men, however, were basically in agreement about Christ’s real presence.

In 1527 Melanchthon carried out, with three others, a visitation in Thüringen. There were considerable worries about this area, because of the obstruction against the Reformation in the monasteries on the one hand and of Karlstadt’s influence on the other hand. Melanchthon himself wrote the instruction for the visitation (July 1527). He locates the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in pane et in calice” (in the bread and in the cup). In the Articuli visitationis, the report Melanchthon made after the visitation, which was cut short on the 13th of August, he writes something different: “cum pane et cum calice” (with the bread and with the cup”). That’s more than a play upon words. It means that Melanchthon changed his mind with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. A couple of questions arise from this observation of Neuser.

(1) What caused this change of mind of Melanchthon? Neuser suggests (p.276) – and I’m inclined to believe him – that the visitation confronted him with a massive heritage of roman catholicism, in particular the magic realism of the old opus operatum theology. In order to combat this, Melanchthon changed his own formulations with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence.

(2) Can we date the change more precisely? Yes, we can, to a certain extent. The terminus a quo must be the date already mentioned, when the visitation was terminated temporarily: August 13. The terminus ante quem is the 26/27th of September. At that time Melanchthon had a consultation with Luther about the visitation. We only know of the conversation between the two men from Melanchthon’s letters, but it is clear that Melanchthon felt uncertain about his eucharistic opinions. Initially, he was relieved about Luther’s reaction, but a month later his tone is bitter. “I don’t want to be involved with this question anymore”, he writes to Joachim Camerarius.

(3) Is there a link between his change of opinion with regard to the mode Christ’s presence in the eucharist and with regard to contingency and free will? That is of course a question that is not easy to answer. Both changes are dated in or close to 1527. That makes it worthwile to give the suggestion a serious look. To establish the connection precise textual research for the date of Melanchthon’s change with regard to contingency needs to be done.  However, if – for the moment – we suppose that there is a connection, it seems plausible that the change of opinion has been initiated by the experiences of the visitation. Is that conceivable? Yes, I think so. It would for example mean that Melanchthon found out that the emphasis on God’s sovereignty made people indifferent. So, yes it is conceivable. But, is it probable? So far, I’m not convinced, although – I have to admit – I’m certainly intrigued by these two changes of opinion.

Eucharist and suffering

Six years ago, in 2006, Marilyn McCord Adams, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, published her book Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge University Press). The book is based on her Gifford Lectures from 1998-1999 and is rich and provocative. In this book McCord Adams pleads for an understanding of the eucharist, which does justice to the intense suffering in this world. This understanding is part of her larger project to provide a christological answer, not only to the problem of sin, but principally to the ‘more fundamental problem of horrors’. In short, in her proposal, Christ is our horror-defeater. His suffering and resurrection are the guarantee that in God’s future ‘the plot will resolve for everyone’.

But what about the meantime? That’s where the eucharist comes in. McCord Adams argues for a very strong notion of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. Because we, human beings, are embodied persons, we are in need of embodied encounters. Christ shares the table with us and gives Himself to us. But, ‘because we are horror-participants, He sets a specific agenda: all conflicts out on the table, immediately!’ (294).

“God in Christ crucified offers us His Flesh to chomp and bite and tear with our teeth, invites us to get even, horror for horror, urges us to fragment God’s own Body in return for the way God has allowed horrors to shred the fabric of our lives.” (294)

It should be evident by now that McCord Adams needs a stronger notion of eucharistic presence than Calvin’s. Indeed, while she is fairly critical about Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, calling it ‘philosophically underdeveloped’ (299). Luther’s notion of ubiquity won’t do either, because it’s ‘philosophically incoherent and un-Chalcedonian, insofar as it confuses the Divine and human natures’ (303). Her own proposal is an analogy with the incarnation, namely ‘impanation’: “Christ’s Body is present on the altar without being extended according to its human nature, but present and extended according to its bread nature” (305).

As I said, her book is rich and provocative. It raises quite a few questions and objections, but I’ll leave them aside for the moment. Instead, I will point to a counter-proposal from Nicholas Wolterstorff. Like McCord Adams, he both sacrifices the doctrine of divine impassibility and links God’s suffering love to the Lord’s Supper. Unlike McCord Adams however, he thinks that Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is especially valuable in this regard. In one of the articles in his recent book Hearing the Call, Wolterstorff shows that Calvin repeatedly speaks of the wounds of God in the context of people being wronged by others. He cites Calvin’s comments on Genesis 9:5-6 and Habakkuk 2:5-6 in support of this view. It is not an isolated thought in Calvin, but firmly rooted in his conceptions of human nature, the way to deal with suffering, and so forth. Then Wolterstorff writes:

“Though I do not propose to develop it here, it is worth noting that this theme of the wounding of God is also given a specifically christological and sacramental development in Calvin. At one point in his discussion of the Eucharist he says: “We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; … that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren… (Institutes IV,xvii,38).”

What is happening here? Wolterstorff’s approach provides us with a notion of divine suffering that is in a sense even stronger than McCord Adams’s. He makes God not the opponent of the horror-participant (like McCord Adams does), but her companion in her suffering. And the Eucharist is no longer the place to deal with our conflicts with God, but a place of consolation and sharing of Christ’s ‘shalom’. In the Lord’s Supper we are assured by Christ that He participates in our brokenness (cf. Lament for a Son, 39,40).

While McCord Adams’s approach suggests that our suffering could – at least to a certain degree – be compensated by ‘biting and chomping’ God, Wolterstorff’s proposal is more modest. There is no solution, no real answer to  the problem of suffering. He simply claims that Christ is there, participating in our brokenness, in our suffering. Do we really need more than that?

Vermigli, Incarnation and our Resurrection

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!

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.”