Wolterstorff on Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

I have a tremendous respect for Nicholas Wolterstorff. Not only for the quantity and the quality of his work, but also for its diversity. He is one of very few philosophers who has been reflecting upon the phenonemon of ‘liturgy’. Besides, he has read a good deal of Calvin. Not only his Institution, but also his commentaries.

He offers some very interesting remarks on Calvin´s liturgy of the Lord´s Supper. According to Wolterstorff, the only way to fully understand his liturgy of the Lord´s Supper is to think of it, not merely in terms of presence, but (also) of action. I´m inclined to agree with him. Calvin does speak of the Lord´s Supper in his sermons in terms of (divine) action. He claims repeatedly for example that the Lord´s Supper is a testimony of the Holy Spirit. He assures and consoles us. However, one of the key terms of Calvin´s thinking about the Lord´s Supper is the word ´substance´. He uses it quite frequently, and (that´s important as well) in key phrases. It´s a difficult word to translate. Calvin obviously doesn´t think of ´substance´ in terms of scholastic definitions. Sometimes it means ´content´ or something like ´the real thing´. One is inclined to translate it in some passages as ´(real) presence´. That’s the point Calvin wants to stress repeatedly: it’s Christ Himself who is present and giving Himself in the Lord’s Supper.

If that, however, is correct, the assertion of Wolterstorff should be reformulated. It´s not a matter of presence or action, but of action through presence. It´s the real presence of Christ, through his Spirit, that consoles and assures us. I don’t think Wolterstorff would disagree with this. He would, I suspect, ask a couple of questions. For example: What kind of presence are we talking about? Is it a kind of ‘deputized action’ (compare Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse, 43vv.)? Or should we think of God ‘appropriating’ our celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Divine Discourse, 51vv.)? I’m not sure Wolterstorff would suggest this line of thought. I’m however quite sure Calvin wouldn’t be satisfied with it. He believed in a stronger notion of presence: both real and spiritual.

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