Michael’s overview of Luther’s position on the Lord’s Supper gives me a convenient excuse to reflect a little on what we can learn from the tragic dispute over precisely this issue that drove a wedge between the German and Swiss arms of the Reformation.
I did a bit of work on this a couple of years ago. And the part Calvin played in attempting to resolve this dispute left a distinct impression on me. Almost from the moment he rose to prominence as a Reformer he was swept up in the ongoing international attempt to repair the breach. I’ve distilled the following six ‘lessons’ with illustrations from his efforts at conciliation (first two today, next four tomorrow):
- While we cannot stick our head in the sand and pretend about the reality of conflict, pursuing resolution is not an optional extra for Christian people. The way Calvin avoided the two classic temptations when it comes to conflict resolution — either pretend it’s not a problem or make everything about this one issue — is nicely put by Ronald Wallace when he points out that while Calvin lamented that ‘controversy over this central issue should have shown the Church so tragically rent at the place where her unity should be most openly shown’, he was convinced that the solution did not ‘lie in avoiding frank and frequent discussion of points of controversy’.
- Although it’s right to recognise that there’s probably at least something to be said for the perspective of both sides, truth really matters in the search for resolution. Calvin’s sympathies with both the Lutheran and the Swiss position were undisguised and often repeated. He was also convinced that the distance between them was not so great as some imagined. In his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1541), he highlighted what both parties had in common: ‘We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ’. Yet this certainly didn’t lead to him paper over the very real differences; he insisted that how we partake of ‘the proper substance’ of Christ’s body and blood ‘some may deduce better and explain more clearly than others’. Thus, he wouldn’t settle for deliberate ambiguity — he reacted strongly when that approach was apparently taken by Bucer and Melanchthon at Ratisbon in 1540, saying that ‘this policy does not please me’. Instead, he embraced the strongly realistic language used in Scripture to describe our participation in Christ (as did the Lutherans), while also carefully qualifying and nuancing it (in a similar manner to Zwingli and his followers)