Eucharist in Catholicism and Calvinism Essay

Eucharist in Catholicism and Calvinism

Our word “Eucharist” is derived directly from the Greek of the New Testament: etymologically, it derives from the word for grace (charis) with a prefix (eu) meaning “good” or “well,” but the original Greek word “eucharistia” means, simply enough, “thanksgiving” — like our word “thanksgiving” it is a noun that derives originally from an equivalent verb describing the action involved (i.e., the giving of thanks). The Eucharist is intended as a sort of commemoration of Christ’s Last Supper. The story of the Last Supper is attested to in three of the four canonical Gospels: Matthew 26:26 — 28; Mark 14:22 — 24; Luke 22:17 — 20. (John’s Gospel lacks a similar account but does include relevant statements that become important to later Eucharistic practice, such as John 3:36, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”) Yet it is the fourth mention of the Last Supper in the New Testament that is most important for our understanding of why Christians include this ritual commemoration as part of their religious observances. This is to be found in the epistles of Paul, who gives what is supposed to be the first account of the actual Eucharist in his first letter to the Corinthians:

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For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:23-4).

It is Paul’s reference there to the blessing performed by Christ before breaking the bread — the Greek word for “he had given thanks” is, of course, the very word from which the term “Eucharist” is derived. Other references in the Pauline epistles seem to trace a tradition of having a large communal feast as part of early Christian religious observances — a sort of “Sunday dinner” avant-la-lettre — but the actual ritual commemoration with bread and wine of the meal in Gethsemane, with some recollection of Christ’s benison on that occasion, has been seen as central to Christian practice from the earliest apostolic testimony. The Roman Catholic Church of course claims a direct and unbroken chain of descent of clerical hierarchy from the apostle Peter himself, and with the Eucharist as with much else Catholicism therefore holds that its ritual practices derive ultimately from an oral tradition which has the weight of scriptural authority. The quarrel over whether or not this sort of received tradition could ever rest on the same secure theological foundation as something derived from solid Biblical exegesis is, of course, central to the arguments put forth in the seventeenth century by the major figures of the Reformation — by Luther and early Lutherans like Philipp Melanchthon or Jakob Schegk, and by Zwingli and John Calvin, among others — which insisted that so much of Catholic ritual and doctrine was a needless or corrupt overelaboration with no scriptural justification. (Of course the Roman Catholic Church offers its own scriptural justification for their notion of oral tradition, with Christ’s words in Matthew 16:18 serving as the text upon which such authority is regarded as valid.) But I would like to examine some of the doctrinal differences between Catholic dogma on the Eucharist and Calvin’s reponse to it, in order to establish some common ground toward what purpose the Eucharist serves today for Christians of any and all denominations.

I would like to begin, however, with a historical look at the early Christian view of the Eucharist independent of later doctrinal refinements. Long after the fiercest doctrinal battles of the Reformation in the sixteenth century had long since settled into denominational differences, though, the remarkable discovery in 1873 of an early Christian document known as the Didache (again, a Biblical Greek word meaning “teachings”) or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles by a Greek Orthodox cleric and scholar, Philotheos Bryennios, would actually provide an independent historical confirmation of the notion that the celebration of the Eucharist was central and codified as early in Christian worship as the actual apostolic missions of both Peter and Paul. The exact dating of the Didache is a manner of fierce scholarly debate but internal textual references, the actual dialect of Greek used in the document, and identification of the Didache with a similar document discussed by early patristic writers such as Eusebius (who regarded it as “spurious”) and Athanasius, but it is widely supposed to be late first century and no later than 120 A.D (Roberts-Donaldson, “Introduction”). The Didache is very short and broken down into individual chapters, but it is worth noting that at least two chapters of the document (i.e., a sizable and central portion) are devoted to a discussion of Eucharistic practice. Outside of the canonical books of the New Testament, the Didache provides the most solid proof that the early Christians considered the Eucharist to be the very heart of their religious observances. Chapter 9 of the Didache specifies the ritual prayers to be spoken over the wine and “broken bread” — indicating that, as in Paul’s citation of the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians, the actual breaking of the bread was central to the Eucharistic concept of thanksgiving as early as the first century, although the Didache offers an exegetical gloss which Paul does not: “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom” (Roberts-Donaldson 9). The ninth chapter then concludes with a stern injunction about the eligibility of early congregants to take part in the Eucharistic celebration:

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.” (Roberts-Donaldson 9)

The subsequent chapter gives a text for the prayer after communion, but also allows for a more general expression of praise or testimony, concluding with the instruction “permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire” (Roberts-Donaldson 10). I offer the evidence of the Didache towards early Christian Eucharistic practice because the very late discovery and publication of the document means that it stands outside the doctrinal and theological arguments of the Reformation period — it was unknown to Luther and Calvin and played no part in the great debate over Roman Catholic Eucharistic practice conducted in the seventeenth century, but proves that the thing shared by all partisans in these doctrinal debates — a conception of the Eucharist as absolutely central to Christian worship — can be established documentarily outside of the evidence of Scripture.

Between the first century Didache and the seventeenth century Reformation debates, however, comes the long period of time in which the Roman Catholic church codified and solidified its own theological and ritual practices concerning the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Catechism derives ultimately from Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica represented an attempt to codify Christian doctrine according to the logic and natural order of the universe that were laid out by the Pagan philospher Aristotle. By the time of Aquinas in the middle ages, Aristotle had come to be seen as the major intellectual authority on all ‘scientific’ matters (although our modern concept of ‘science’ did not emerge until a much later time period). Aquinas handles the issue of the Eucharist in the Third Part of his Summa, in Question 75 which handles the doctrine of Transubstantiation and Question 76 handles the Real Presence. Aquinas approaches both from the Catholic theology of Sacraments. The Catholic Catechism acknowledges the existence of seven separate Sacraments, which are defined overall as efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. (Catechism 1131).

But of the seven Sacraments in Catholicism, only the Eucharist and Penance (the confession of sins) are repeatedly enacted: the others (Baptism, Confirmation, Extreme Unction, Matrimony, Holy Orders) can be undergone only once. Yet the Cathechism is strict in requiring the parishoner to be in a “state of grace” with no sins on his conscience which have not been confessed and forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance: to take communion while not in this state of grace is itself a sin. These heavy strictures on who is and is not permitted to take part in the Eucharist are a natural result, though, of the tremendous theological importance placed by Aquinas upon the Eucharistic act. The doctrine of Transubstantiation as outlined by Aquinas holds that the bread or wafer and the wine in the chalice utilized in the communion is literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Aquinas answers the objection “whether bread can be converted into the body of Christ” by stating that:

this is done by Divine power in this sacrament; for the whole substance of the bread is changed into the whole substance of Christ’s body, and the whole substance of the wine into the whole substance of Christ’s blood. Hence this is not a formal, but a substantial conversion; nor is it a kind of natural movement: but, with a name of its own, it can be called “transubstantiation.” (Summa III.75 Article 4)

As to what this actually means — surely each Eucharistic wafer cannot individually be transformed into the totality of Christ’s actual body — Aquinas propounds the doctrine of the Real Presence, which

For the body of Christ is indeed present under the species of bread by the power of the sacrament, while the blood is there from real concomitance, as stated above (1, ad 1) in regard to the soul and Godhead of Christ; and under the species of wine the blood is present by the power of the sacrament, and His body by real concomitance, as is also His soul and Godhead: because now Christ’s blood is not separated from His body, as it was at the time of His Passion and death. Hence if this sacrament had been celebrated then, the body of Christ would have been under the species of the bread, but without the blood; and, under the species of the wine, the blood would have been present without the body, as it was then, in fact. (Summa III.76 Article 2)

The question of scriptural justification is very far from Aquinas’ mind here. But it is worth noting how the Catholic Eucharist works in practice — in Aquinas’ or Calvin’s day, and in our own. Until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Roman Catholic liturgy was conducted in ecclesiastical Latin: the refusal of the Vatican to permit vernacular translation of Holy Writ and liturgical texts was central to the Reformation complaints about the church. But it is worth noting, without any intention to offend Catholic sensibilities, that the Latin liturgical words spoken at the moment of Transubstantiation — “hoc est corpus meum,” or “this is my body,” a Latin translation of the words of Christ spoken in the Gospels and quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians — is the origin of the English term “hocus-pocus” (as a corruption of “hoc est corpus”). Scholars link this directly to the doctrine of Transubstantiation; an Anglican cleric called Tillotson in the eighteenth century would state that “In all probability these common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of ‘hoc est corpus’, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.” (quoted in “Abracadabra; Hocus-Pocus”). This is merely a natural consequence of the centrality of the Eucharist within the Catholic Mass — at the moment of saying “this is my body” and “do this in memory of me” (whether in the Latin Tridentine rite or in the ), the Priest raises the Eucharistic wafer and bows his head in silence, the congregation bows their heads too, and an altar-server rings a bell. The bell-ringing serves to remind us, though, that when the Catholic Mass was conducted in Latin, the congregation — who presumably were not fluent in this dead language — needed a reminder of the most sacred moment in the proceedings.

But for a Reformation thinker like Calvin, this demonstrates an appallingly cavalier attitude towards sacred matters, and Aquinas’ dependence on the formal logic of Aristotle represents an inappropriate contamination of things which can be proven exegetically by reference to the text of the Bible and later traditions which introduce extraneous corruption. In point of fact, Calvin is not far off from the dismissive attitude towards the supposedly miraculous nature of Transubstantiation that lurks behind the etymology of “hocus-pocus”: Calvin’s biographer William Bouwsma notes that Calvin in his Sermon Number 19 on I Corinthians — which, outside the Institutes represents some of Calvin’s most comprehensive thinking on Eucharistic practice — “compared the almost inaudible ‘muttering’ of the celebrant of a mass to the spell of a sorcerer” (Bouwsma 217). For Calvin these were questions of real salvation or damnation and not to be handled lightly. Again Bouwsma is helpful in understanding Calvin’s attitude:

The seriousness with which [Calvin] took his responsibility in administering communion, as in everything else, helps to explain the importance he attached to excommunication. The possibility of some negligence on his part, he confessed, haunted him whenever the Lord’s Supper had to be distributed because of his ignorance about the spiritual condition of communicants. The power to excommunicate might at least protect a few of these from eternal damnation. (Bouwsma 29)

Calvin’s views on the Eucharist are summed up in Chapters 18 and 19 of the Fourth Book of the Institutes, which present his own doctrinal teaching on the matter in opposition to Roman Catholicism. This hinges on the idea of commemorating Christ’s sacrifice within the Eucharistic act. For Calvin, the doctrine of Transubstantiation makes no sense as it requires the shedding of Christ’s blood to be perpetually re-enacted, whereas his view of that sacrifice is that Christ died for the redemption of our sins once, and finally, and that the Eucharistic commemoration of the act is one which “seal[s] and confirm[s] the promise” made by that sacrifice:

We now, therefore, understand the end which this mystical benediction has in view — viz. To assure us that the body of Christ was once sacrificed for us, so that we may now eat it, and, eating, feel within ourselves the efficacy of that one sacrifice, — that his blood was once shed for us so as to be our perpetual drink. This is the force of the promise which is added, “Take, eat; this is my body, which is broken for you” (Mt. 26:26, & c.). The body which was once offered for our salvation we are enjoined to take and eat, that, while we see ourselves made partakers of it, we may safely conclude that the virtue of that death will be efficacious in us. Hence he terms the cup the covenant in his blood. For the covenant which he once sanctioned by his blood he in a manner renews, or rather continues, in so far as regards the confirmation of our faith, as often as he stretches forth his sacred blood as drink to us. (Institutes 2557-8).

This is much in line with Calvin’s theology as a whole, which stresses the omnipotence and omnipresence of God, such that Calvin felt the need to point out exegetically that when Scripture refers to “God in Heaven” it is only doing so rhetorically, since God is of course always and everywhere at all times. By doing away with both Transubstantiation and the Real Presence, Calvin falls back upon the idea of the Holy Spirit, which takes the place of any actual presence of Christ but is, of course, to be identified with Christ as well through the doctrine of the Trinity, which Calvin upheld alongside those Catholics he otherwise disagreed with, in a mutual stand against Arianism (Insitutes Book I, 13, 16-20). Calvinist practice follows the iconoclastic streak that marked Calvin’s sharpest critiques of Catholicism, and is followed to this day in churches which could be termed Calvinist, such as the Presbyterian. Presbyterian and other reformed churches do celebrate the Eucharist with bread and wine but in sharp distinction to Catholic practice do not require communicants to approach the altar, which smacks of idolatry — the bread is distributed centrally among the congregation in the most customary practice.

In conclusion, the furor of the Reformation debate in the seventeenth century obscures the doctrinal similarities between Catholics and Calvinists on the question of the Eucharist. They are agreed upon its centrality to Christian practice but disagree about the actual Sacramental character of the act. I am inclined to agree with Richard Cross, who sees “grounds for rapprochement” on the various doctrinal differences here, which he thinks have more in common than they do to divide them: Cross claims “the force of controversy to some extent hardened the various positions in such a way that their adherents were rendered more or less incapable of seeing the extent to which the positions coincided” (Cross 318). But after the Vatican II reforms to Catholic practice — which remove the objection Calvin had that the parishoners could not even understand the service — it seems like the more ecumenical position Cross advocates is also the best.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011 at:

The Holy Bible. Print.

Bouwsma, William. John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988 Print.

Calvin, John. Institues of the Christian Religion. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011 at:

Catechism of the Catholic Church. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011 at:

Cross, Richard. “Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran Doctines of Eucharistic Presence: A Brief Note towards a Rapprochement.” International Journal of Systematic Theology. Volume 4 Number 3 November 2002. 301-18.

“Random House Words @ Random: The Mavens’ Word of the Day: Abracadra; Hocus-Pocus.” Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011 at:

Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James (translators). The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011 at: http://www.earlychristianwritings..html

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