Week 46 of 50 in the Institutes: The Definition of “Is”

Reading this week’s assignment reminded me of a bit of parsing a former American President did with the English language when giving testimony under oath: “It all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”.

Calvin went to some length to show that the Lord’s assertion that “this is my body” (Mt. 26:26; Mk 14:22 1 Cor. 11:24) must rightly be understood as a figure of speech, namely, a metonymy.  Any failure to recognize the expression as such results in the absurdity of the literal (4.17.21):

I say that the expression which is uniformly used in Scripture, when the sacred mysteries are treated of, is metonymical. For you cannot otherwise understand the expressions, that circumcision is a “covenant”—that the lamb is the Lord’s “passover”—that the sacrifices of the law are expiations—that the rock from which the water flowed in the desert was Christ,—unless you interpret them metonymically.  Nor is the name merely transferred from the superior to the inferior, but, on the contrary, the name of the visible sign is given to the thing signified, as when God is said to have appeared to Moses in the bush; the ark of the covenant is called God, and the face of God, and the dove is called the Holy Spirit.  For although the sign differs essentially from the thing signified, the latter being spiritual and heavenly, the former corporeal and visible,—yet, as it not only figures the thing which it is employed to represent as a naked and empty badge, but also truly exhibits it, why should not its name be justly applied to the thing? But if symbols humanly devised, which are rather the images of absent than the marks of present things, and of which they are very often most fallacious types, are sometimes honoured with their names,—with much greater reason do the institutions of God borrow the names of things, of which they always bear a sure, and by no means fallacious signification, and have the reality annexed to them.

Dr. Derek Thomas did a nice job describing the literary nature of Scripture in the blog for Nov. 18th.  Many exegetical fallacies would be avoided if these literary devices occurring throughout Scripture were taken into account routinely.

As for Calvin’s own view of the Lord’s Supper, he takes the reader to sacred ground which consists of the very presence of Christ himself, rooted in the believer’s union and communion with Him. Rather than thinking that Christ comes down to us (either in transubstantiation or consubstantiation), we must realize that believers are lifted up to him through the working of the Spirit which unites us to Christ, as Calvin put it.  How this happens, he says, is mystery which is more to be experienced than fully comprehended or declared (4.17.32):

Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than understand it. The truth of God, therefore, in which I can safely rest, I here embrace without controversy. He declares that his flesh is the meat, his blood the drink, of my soul; I give my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I have no doubt that he will truly give and I receive.

In his book, The Lord’s Supper, Thomas Watson noted how carnal persons fail to “discern the Lord’s body”, being totally oblivious to what Calvin described above:

“The manna lay round about Israel’s camp, and they knew it now: ‘They wist not what it was’ (Exod. 16:15).  So carnal persons see the external elements, but Christ is not known to them in his saving virtues: there is honey in the Spiritual Rock, which they never taste.  They feed on the bread, but not Christ in the bread: ‘They eat the bread of the Lord, but not the Bread which is the Lord.’  Isaac ate the kid, when he thought it had been venison (Gen. 27:25).  Unbelievers go away with the shadow of the sacrament; they have the rind and the husk, not the marrow.  They eat the kid, not the venison.” 

Until we put off this flesh, may we truly know and experience often the blessed truth of our Lord’s command: “Take, eat, this is my body.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 16: 4.17.12 – 4.17.15

Nov. 17: 4.17.16 – 4.17.20

Nov. 18: 4.17.21 – 4.17.24

Nov. 19: 4.17.25 – 4.17.28

Nov. 20: 4.17.29 – 4.17.32

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