God’s Fatherly Nourishment:
An Analysis and Critique of B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude
At the retirement celebration for the renowned historical theologian B. A. Gerrish, medievalist Bernard McGinn playfully accused Gerrish of thinking there are no flies on Calvin. In his response, Gerrish exclaimed, “It’s not that I don’t think there are any flies on Calvin; I just want to be the one who decides where the flies are!”[i] Gerrish’s witty defense is apt shorthand for his method in Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin. He desires to read John Calvin in the best light without glossing over any real problems. And such a rearranging of the flies on Calvin leads to both tremendous contributions and a partially flawed reading of Calvin.
Gerrish’s purpose in Grace and Gratitude is to understand Calvin in light of the eucharistic character of his theology. The book is therefore more than an account of Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. It is also a description of his whole theology in eucharistic categories of God’s grace and human gratitude. This description of the whole is then turned to illumine Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, instead of trying to locate Calvin within preconceived sacramental categories. Thus Gerrish’s strategy is to transfer our attention away from traditional controversies in order to allow Calvin’s own pervasive themes to guide the discussion. That this strategy of transference occasionally degenerates into a displacement of Calvin’s other themes will be the critical focus of this paper. I propose that this displacing procedure mitigates but does not undermine Gerrish’s overall thesis that God’s fatherly nourishment stands at the center of Calvin’s theology.
In order to grasp Gerrish’s strategy of transference, an outline of the book is needed. Gerrish begins his account of Calvin with a short review of the eucharistic controversies in which Calvinism first took shape (ch. 1). He then shrewdly transfers attention away from such a controversial context in order to trace eucharistic themes through Calvin’s whole theology. The next two chapters deal with Calvin’s theology in general, first with creation (ch. 2) and then redemption (ch. 3). While this procedure mirrors Calvin’s own arrangement of topics in the Institutes, it also serves Gerrish’s purpose well by placing his discussion of the Eucharist after his survey of Calvin’s eucharistic theology. This survey is followed by a chapter on regeneration and baptism (ch. 4), which both begins Gerrish’s account of Calvin’s theology of the sacraments and sets the stage for his treatment of the Lord’s Supper. The last two chapters deal directly with Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist, first by describing it on its own terms (ch. 5), then by returning to the controversial questions of efficacy and presence (ch. 6).
One can see from this outline of the content of Grace and Gratitude that Gerrish is approaching the general by means of the particular, while at the same time moving from general to particular. On the one hand, the Eucharist is the particular doctrine that illumines the whole. On the other hand, the Eucharist is a particular doctrine that must be understood within the context of the whole. This double structure serves Gerrish’s strategy of transference, for he intends to change the way we read Calvin both generally and particularly in reference to the Eucharist.
John Calvin’s Sacramental Theology (ch. 1-3)
As Gerrish is arguing for a systematic center and shape of Calvin’s theology, one might ask whether the proposed center is the actual center. Secondarily, if the proposed center is the actual center, does the presentation of this proposal function to illumine other themes or displace and suppress them? These questions, of course, must be answered via an analysis of Gerrish’s entire book. Yet the way he sets up his thesis in the first chapter is indicative of his approach throughout the remainder. Thus a preliminary answer can be given.
According to Gerrish, “Calvinism actually began its existence in the Reformation era as a distinct variety of sacramental theology, more particularly as a distinct interpretation of the central Christian mystery of the Eucharist.”[ii] This is certainly an accurate historical judgment. Calvin and his circle were working in the second stage of the Reformation, during which the divided churches began to consolidate their positions. The critical divisive issue within the churches of the Reformation was the doctrine of the Eucharist. Calvin took his place within this debate, offering his own irenic account. Thus, in response to the first critical question of whether the proposed center is the actual center, Gerrish makes a strong historical case.
Despite such a positive response to the first question, the secondary question is immediately pressing: does this characterization displace other Calvinist distinctives? This question is especially apt regarding alternative candidates for the center of Calvin’s theology. Gerrish himself makes the above statement in direct opposition to the typical association of Calvin with predestination (2). If eucharistic patterns are so central to Calvin’s theology, then they will surely illumine and possibly explain Calvin’s other powerful theme of sovereignty. Yet Gerrish offers no such discussion, but merely displaces sovereignty by repeatedly marginalizing issues of predestination, providence, and suffering (cf. 24, 29, 39). When he finally does turn to the doctrine of predestination, Gerrish becomes highly critical (169-173). Could it be that his otherwise corrective strategy of transference has been used here as a slight-of-hand?
Gerrish makes brilliant use of this same strategy of transference with regard to the Lord’s Supper itself. Gerrish turns our attention away from the question of how the Eucharist does what it does to the question of “why, or to what end, there is a Lord’s Supper at all” (13). Gerrish’s answer is that for Calvin the Lord’s Supper signifies life-giving nourishment, pointing us to the focal image of God’s banquet. This shift from how to why allows Gerrish to delay his discussion of the traditional problems of instrumentality and presence to the last chapter of his book. Insofar as this delay reflects Calvin’s own irenic point of entry, such a move is commendable. But the question remains whether the language of nourishment is the controlling motif of Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, and if it is, whether Gerrish has not reduced all other motifs under it. The very fact (which Gerrish admits) that banquet language diminishes after the 1536 Institutes should give one pause regarding a wholesale acceptance of Gerrish’s proposal (or at least his presentation of it).
Lastly, Gerrish lifts up the nourishment theme as the central theme of Calvin’s whole theology (19). Gerrish notes that only his book as a whole can substantiate this claim. The question is whether his explication of Calvin’s entire theology in a eucharistic key does justice to Calvin’s texts, or leaves to one side essential components of Calvin’s theology. Gerrish is correct in emphasizing the eucharistic structure of Calvin’s theology, but his exposition manages to exclude rather than include these other themes, as the subsequent analysis will demonstrate.
Gerrish begins his discussion of Calvin’s theology in general with a treatment of his doctrine of creation. His thesis is that Calvin understands God in terms of the images of fountain and father. He begins by sidelining misinterpretations of Calvin’s God as an absolute monarch (21-24). Gerrish moves away from such readings by explaining how pious language functions in Calvin (24-25). Theological language is not as much metaphysical as rhetorical. Calvin carefully picks words that best serve the piety of his readers. Although edification and proposition are not as mutually exclusive as Gerrish implies, he is right that Calvin repeatedly exemplifies an edifying thrust to his language.
Following this discussion of theological language, Gerrish gives ample evidence that “fountain” and “father” are dominant motifs in Calvin’s doctrine of creation (26-30). These are “eucharistic” categories in that both point to the gift-giving character God. He provides a learned excursus on the philosophical background of this language in Seneca, Plato and Aristotle (31-41). Gerrish then turns to Calvin’s understanding of human nature to show that it too has eucharistic shape. Humanity was created to thankfully receive God’s gifts. Humanity therefore mirrors the goodness of God (43-45). The same eucharistic categories are at work in fallen humanity, except now they take on the opposite form of ingratitude (46-49). Thus by the end of this chapter on creation, Gerrish has firmly put in place the twin eucharistic themes of divine grace and human gratitude.
How does Gerrish’s account of Calvin’s doctrine of creation measure up to Calvin’s texts? Gerrish makes a strong case that Calvin’s pictures of God as fountain and father are dominant motifs. Just a quantitative count of the use of these images in the first book of the Institutes would suffice to defend this claim. Inasmuch as interpreters have neglected these metaphors, Gerrish has performed a great service.
However, Gerrish fails to incorporate conflicting metaphors of God as Lord and Judge. He mentions these themes only to set them aside. He states that Calvin’s purpose in his doctrine of providence is to point us away from God as judge to God as father (28-29). Although this is certainly the trajectory of Calvin’s argument, Calvin never leaves the justice of God behind in his account of providence.[iii] Gerrish leaves the impression that Calvin only brings up judgment in order to turn us to grace. But judgment remains an indispensable part of the whole picture for Calvin. The continued suffering of the Christian as a form of judgment serves as just one example of the complex interconnection between God as Judge and God as Father (Institutes 713). God is certainly primarily our father, but as our father he is also our judge. Gerrish’s proper transference of emphasis from judge to father has here been reduced to a displacement of the judge by the father. Perhaps the perspectival parallelism of Mary Potter Engel (a Gerrish student) would be a more subtle way of relating these themes.[iv]
In correspondence to God’s fatherly care, Gerrish discusses humanity in terms of gratitude. It is in this subsection that Gerrish’s larger thesis about the eucharistic shape of Calvin’s theology bears the clearest expositional fruit. Calvin indeed describes Edenic piety in terms of gratitude and attributes Adam’s sin to ingratitude. Calvin states, “Unfaithfulness, then, was the root of the Fall. But thereafter ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam by seeking more than was granted to him shamefully spurned God’s great bounty, which had been lavished upon him” (Institutes 245). One can see here how Calvin describes the Fall as Adam’s shift from being a grateful recipient of God’s gifts to an ungrateful snatching at what he could not have. Gerrish is right that Calvin’s understanding of human nature is illumined by eucharistic categories.
The only critical question here is whether Gerrish’s actualistic description of the image of God is fair to Calvin. Is the soul only the mirror, and the image the reflection (43)? The quote Gerrish supplies does not appear to substantiate this claim; it merely uses the language of a mirror. But the mirror metaphor could mean a number of things. The image may be more substantial than Gerrish admits. Although this is a finer point, it indicates once again how Gerrish’s well-placed emphasis can slip into misplaced suppression of Calvin’s actual views. Fortunately, his account of Calvin’s anthropology is otherwise free of the overemphasis found in his treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of God.
Following Calvin’s own presentation, Gerrish moves from creation to redemption. In order to display the eucharistic character of redemption in Calvin, Gerrish treats three crucial topics in a eucharistic key: atonement, faith, and the Word of God. In each case he tries to strike a balance between the propositional and the personally edifying. Both aspects are described in terms of God’s fatherly feeding of humanity.
In his discussion of the atonement, Gerrish surveys debates regarding Christ’s person and work (52-56). He avers that these debates cannot be settled definitively because of the tensions in Calvin’s own work. Gerrish notes specifically the “tension between substitutionary and participatory categories” (56). Although he intends to strike a balance, Gerrish clearly favors the latter. Gerrish ultimately defines Christ’s work as opening up access to God the fountain and father (56-62). This notion of access ties the atonement to God’s fatherly nourishment.
Gerrish’s discussion of faith attempts to strike a balance between the nature of faith as piety and the effect of faith as union. The nature of faith is defined as pious knowledge of God as father (63-70). Here, it is the object of this pious knowledge that provides the eucharistic element, for one does not know God in the abstract, but rather God as the father who gives every good thing. The effect of faith is defined as union with Christ by spiritual eating (70-75). Here, the eating imagery provides the eucharistic element, as our relationship with Christ by faith is understood as a continuous reliance on what he provides.
Gerrish completes his chapter on redemption with a discussion of the Word in Calvin. Gerrish succinctly describes the Word as a means of grace. The Word of God is a means of grace both as doctrine and as sacrament. As doctrine, the Word teaches that God is Father through Jesus Christ (76-82). Here, the content of the doctrine provides the eucharistic element. As sacrament, the Word is an effective means of communion with Christ (82-85). The Word truly presents Christ to the hearer, edifying her and bringing her into relationship with Christ. Thus the Word works in a eucharistic manner, giving Christ to the hearer.
How does this account of Calvin’s doctrine of redemption measure up to Calvin himself? It is within this chapter on redemption that Gerrish makes his most explicit moves toward displacement. In each of its three subsections (atonement, faith, and the Word), Gerrish lays out a pair of aspects. In each case the second aspect, though it initially complements the first, ultimately displaces it. When comparing two components, he uses strong categorical terms, such as “x is not simply y; it is z” (cf. 76, 85). A more subtle relationship would be “x is not only y, but is also z,” or, better yet, “as x is y, it is also z.” But Gerrish allows his emphasis on eucharistic categories to suppress other aspects of Calvin’s thought, to the point that he sometimes implies that “x is not y; it is z.”
Regarding the person and work of Christ, Gerrish sets aside the controversies surrounding Calvin’s views. Gerrish considers these controversies to be concerned with the question of how Christ is our savior, whereas he believes Calvin is concerned with what end Christ is our savior (56). As shown above, this preference for ends over processes is the constitutive basis for Gerrish’s strategy of transference (13). But does Calvin really care so little for “how” the atonement works? Calvin begins his discussion of the atonement with the heading “How Christ has fulfilled the function of redeemer to acquire salvation for us” (Institutes 503, emphasis added). He goes on to describe in detail how the atonement works by means of a host of cultic and juridical categories (Institutes 503-34). Gerrish is certainly right that Calvin would not be satisfied with a mere academic exposition of the “how” of Christ’s work without any consideration of its purpose “for us.” Yet he does not leave behind the “how” when expounding this edifying purpose.
Although he avoids a definitive statement of how the atonement works in Calvin, Gerrish does clearly define the result of Christ’s work: it opens up access to God as our fountain and father. This emphasis is correct. But Gerrish explicitly sets the language of access up against any consideration of expiation and satisfaction. Ironically, Gerrish has grabbed onto a key word for Calvin (“access”), yet he interprets it without any mention of its cultic valence. By correctly transferring emphasis from how to what end, Gerrish has incorrectly displaced Calvin’s own way of describing how the atonement works. Calvin makes ample use of the categories of expiation and satisfaction. Substitution is the condition for the possibility of access. It is not an interpretive advance to replace an undue emphasis on the condition (substitution) with an undue emphasis on the result (access). What is needed is an account that includes both in their full interrelated sense.[v]
Gerrish’s account of the relation between forensic and familial categories makes this same mistake. Whereas Gerrish claims that familial language ultimately “supplants” the forensic (61), Calvin keeps the two united throughout. Calvin speaks freely of fatherhood and condemnation in the same paragraphs (cf. Institutes 506). Gerrish is once again completely right about what should be emphasized, but he has allowed this emphasis to suppress requisite aspects of the whole.
The same pattern of displacement is at work with regard to faith. Gerrish defines faith first as pious knowledge of God the father. He then brings in the effect of faith as union with Christ by spiritual eating. The first element must be supplemented by the second, and Gerrish does a wonderful job of describing Calvin at this point. By the end, however, union has so overshadowed knowledge that he says, “Calvin’s alleged intellectualism vanishes into a devotion of the heart that is repelled by rationalism” (76, emphasis added). Does the strong intellectual nature of Calvin’s definition of faith ever vanish into its effect as union with Christ? Does Gerrish’s otherwise correct emphasis here become a one-sidedness that misrepresents the tensions in Calvin’s theology? Calvin himself is much more balanced: “In understanding faith it is not merely a question of knowing that God exists, but also – and this especially – of knowing what is his will toward us” (Institutes 549). Calvin desires more than intellectual assent, but he also never rejects assent as a necessary precursor to union with Christ.
Finally, with regard to the Word, Gerrish lays out its function as doctrine as well as an instrument for communicating grace. He notes that these two aspects parallel the distinction between faith and its effects in the previous subsection (76). Accordingly, his procedure is also parallel, as the first aspect is displaced by the second. Gerrish states that the vision of God’s fatherly face is “the point” of Reformed worship, which is unfortunately overshadowed by the “heavy didacticism” (82). No one would argue with this complaint. Yet the didacticism reveals the importance of correct doctrine for Calvin that can be lost in a turn to the word as sacrament. As above, Gerrish intends to keep the two united. But his unrelenting preference for the second supplants the first. He notes critically that the word is “not simply a dogmatic norm” (85). Would it not be better to say that the word as doctrine is sacramental, instead of setting them in a constant contrast foreign to Calvin? For Gerrish, the word as means rises while the word as testimony sets. Gerrish’s emphasis is accurate to Calvin and a helpful corrective to the tradition. Yet his rhetorical overstatement belies an undercurrent of one-sidedness in his interpretation of Calvin’s systematic thought.
John Calvin’s Theology of the Sacraments (ch. 4-6)
Having analyzed and critiqued Gerrish’s account of Calvin’s theology in general, we can now study his treatment of Calvin’s theology of the sacraments. The second half of the book is more careful to balance different aspects of Calvin’s thought. This may be accounted for by the decline in emphasis on the broad systematic coherence of fatherhood and fountain images, as Gerrish moves to the more wiry matters of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The resultant closer readings are more accurate to the complexities of Calvin’s thought on the issues under discussion. However, the aspects that were earlier underemphasized (e.g., the doctrine of predestination and the perfect tense substitution of Christ) come back to haunt these otherwise careful expositions. The common denominator in the following three chapters is an unrelenting emphasis on the present tense of salvation to the neglect of the perfect. How this emphasis twists Calvin’s own understanding will be explored in conjunction with a descriptive summary of each chapter.
Children of Grace: Regeneration and Baptism (ch. 4)
Gerrish treats Calvin’s understandings of regeneration and baptism together. The common theme in both topics is their familial categories. In regeneration, we are freely adopted by God as his children. In baptism we find the sign of adoption into God’s family. By treating these two topics together, Gerrish is able to lift up the eucharistic themes of both.
Gerrish begins this chapter by arguing that Calvin regarded free adoption as the “sum of the gospel” (87-90). This central familial metaphor is able to do critical work against Roman Catholics on the one side and Anabaptists on the other. Gerrish structures this chapter in accordance with these two fronts.
On the Roman front, Gerrish shows that for Calvin free adoption is gospel, or good news, against the system of penance and merit. If adoption is free, then it must be declared as such, not withheld until certain conditions are met. Free adoption has two different aspects, each of which counters a part of the Roman system. First, since free adoption means death and new birth, the penitential system is rendered redundant (91-95). We do not need to create new life in ourselves, for our new life is given to us as a gift. Second, since free adoption means a relationship of freedom with God as our father, the merit system is ruled out (95-101). If we are freely adopted, then our works do not function to merit an already existing relationship. We are no longer servants, but sons. In both cases, Calvin critiques the Roman system by means of a familial understanding of regeneration.
On the Anabaptist front, Gerrish demonstrates that Calvin’s understanding of baptism as the sacrament of free adoption counters their rejection of infant baptism. Gerrish begins with a discussion of Calvin’s account of sacraments in general. A sacrament for Calvin is a visible word (102-109). As such, a sacrament functions to communicate a reality by means of a sign for the eyes rather than a sound for the ears. Just as the word is sacramental, so also the sacraments are verbal in their purpose. Armed with this understanding of sacraments in general, Calvin offers a patchwork doctrine of baptism. Calvin allows for adoption occurring before, during and after baptism (109-116). Gerrish admits that this patchwork is vulnerable to criticism, yet he transfers attention to Calvin’s symbolic understanding of baptism (116-123). If baptism is the symbol of God’s adoption of his children, then when better to administer this symbol that at childhood? For Calvin, infant baptism provides the most potent symbol of adoption. That Calvin even makes this argument shows how central adoption is to his understanding of baptism.
Does Gerrish’s account of free adoption in regeneration line up with Calvin’s own theology? Gerrish’s application of the fatherhood theme to Calvin’s criticism of penance and merit is illuminating. It shows clearly how Calvin’s reformation position is worked out within the context of his own theological themes. However, there is one instance of overemphasis. Gerrish is right that Calvin excises merit from the Christian life. However, Calvin does not remove merit entirely from his soteriology. Although we cannot be said to merit God’s favor, Christ certainly did. The sufficiency of Christ’s merit is precisely why we cannot acquire merit of our own. Merit is not the only theme in Calvin’s discussion of the atonement, but it is certainly a significance part (Institutes 528-534). Furthermore, Calvin’s unique doctrine of Christ’s “acquired righteousness” (Institutes 507f) rests on the idea of merit in certain respects. Although he mentions the merits of Christ once (99), Gerrish has sidelined merit to focus on fatherhood. Certainly Gerrish is right that Calvin’s “entire theological vocabulary … is colored by father-son language” (89). But the father who forgives does so justly by means of Christ’s meritorious work. The familial does not supplant the meritorious; rather, the meritorious serves the familial. Once again, the logic of Gerrish’s argument creates an overemphasis where a balanced account would suffice. In this case, the displacement of merit is created by a previous avoidance of the question of “how” the atonement works.
How does Gerrish’s account of baptism fare against Calvin’s own thought? As noted, Gerrish describes Calvin’s doctrine of baptism as a patchwork of ideas that simultaneously point us in different temporal directions (110f). Calvin interestingly speaks of adoption as occurring before, during, and after baptism. Gerrish does not see Calvin as coherently holding these three tenses together, and is determined to keep Calvin from falling into a Zwinglian mode of thinking that separates the sign from salvation (cf. 115). Gerrish puts the emphasis on the present tense to bring out the sacramental character of baptism. Yet might this miss the point of Calvin’s three tenses? What if Calvin’s doctrine of baptism is not merely a patchwork? What if Calvin’s sacramental present tense is built on a historical perfect tense (one that reaches further back than the moment of faith, but rather to the acquired righteousness of Christ)? Once again, Gerrish’s preceding neglect of the perfect tense work of Christ has come home to roost. He wonderfully describes the subtleties of Calvin’s doctrine, but sees problems in places that would not trouble Calvin.
Eucharistic Offering: Grace and Gratitude in the Lord’s Supper (ch. 5)
Having traced the eucharistic patterns in Calvin’s theology in general and his doctrine of baptism, Gerrish finally turns to Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist itself. Gerrish’s definition of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament is instructive: it is the pledge of mystical union (127-33). The genius of this phrase is that it embraces both the divine action of offering Christ to be united to believers and the human action of offering a pledge to God. Thus the Lord’s Supper embodies the double offering of grace and gratitude. Gerrish sets each of these aspects in contrast to Calvin’s theological adversaries: the grace of mystical union against Zwingli and the gratuitous pledge against Rome.
Gerrish argues that Calvin, by affirming the gracious offer of Christ in the Eucharist, stands close to Luther in opposition to Zwingli. Gerrish first makes his case by means of six Calvinist propositions: (1) The Lord’s Supper is a gift, (2) the gift is Jesus Christ himself, (3) the gift is given with the signs, (4) the gift is given by the Holy Spirit, (5) the gift is given to all who communicate, and (6) the gift is to be received by faith (135-39). Gerrish rightly notes the concord of these theses with Luther. He goes on to point out that although some disagreement over the mode of eating remains, Calvin and Luther share the same priorities regarding the gift character of this sacrament (139-145).
But Calvin does not stop with the Lord’s Supper as a gracious gift. He equally opposes the Roman Catholic understanding of the sacrifice of the mass with his notion of an offering of gratitude (146-56). Christ is offered to the church, but the church does not offer Christ to God. Rather, the church offers itself, pledging itself in faith to God. Thus the focus is on community (150-51). Calvin speaks of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice of praise (152-56). Therefore, the human agent does make an offering, but only as a response of gratitude to the gift being given by God. By embracing both the grace and the gratitude of the Eucharist, Calvin is identified by Gerrish as occupying a balanced center space between Roman Catholicism and Zwinglian radicalism.
Does this crucial chapter accurately describe Calvin’s position on the Lord’s Supper? Gerrish’s historical and textual argument at this point is nearly airtight. His subtle placement of Calvin among his contemporaries is fair and illuminating. One can certainly see the double pattern of grace and gratitude at work in the appropriate chapters of the Institutes. The structure of Calvin’s argument is perfectly aligned with Gerrish’s treatment: first he describes what is offered in the Lord’s Supper (Institutes IV.17), then he describes the true offering of praise in contrast to the Roman Mass (Institutes IV.18). Gerrish has shown grace and gratitude to be adequate categories for understanding Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
The only concern emerges with the persistent absence of the perfect tense. The pattern of three tenses at work in baptism continues into Gerrish’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper. He notes Calvin’s distinction between the daily self-giving of Christ and the “one and only giving that took place on the cross” (131). He states that the “two givings are inseparable and mutually dependent” (131). This way of putting the matter is correct, provided that the first remains logically prior to the second. Unfortunately for Gerrish, the present tense eventually overshadows the perfect. Gerrish states that “faith does not see Christ in the distance but embraces him. The Supper is a gift; it does not merely remind us of a gift” (136). Would it be more adequate to say that faith does not only see Christ at a distance? Is there not some kind of fides historica in Calvin, even if it is never separated from the unio mystica? Certainly Calvin’s emphasis on the present tense is apparent in his discussion of the sacraments in Book IV of the Institutes. But once we begin to systematically connect the sacraments to salvation, as Gerrish does, the perfect tense of Book II must not be forgotten. Yet Gerrish has done so repeatedly, and his otherwise excellent description of Calvin suffers from this mistaken overemphasis.
Mystical Presence: Problems of Efficacy and Presence (ch. 6)
In his final chapter, Gerrish turns again to the problems of efficacy and presence mentioned at the beginning of the book. Regarding the problem of efficacy, Gerrish defends Calvin’s account of sacramental instrumentality against six objections (160-73). The first two are of a Roman Catholic variety, the last four are Lutheran. In each case he grants the problems but shows that Calvin is quite capable of affirming sacramental instrumentality, though he conceives of it differently than his Catholic and Lutheran critics.
Regarding the problem of real presence, Gerrish explains the nebulous phrase “spiritual presence” (173-76). The term “spiritual” should not be understood dualistically, but rather as an explicit reference to the Holy Spirit. Christ is “spiritually present” because he is present by “the secret power of the Holy Spirit” (175). Gerrish goes on to explain that through this spiritual agency we are still encountering the body of Christ, since it is the embodied Christ who is powerfully exerting an influence upon us (177). For Calvin, to experience the power of Christ is to experience him substantially. So, spiritual presence is a form of real presence.
Does Gerrish’s final chapter adequately interpret Calvin in light of his critics? Gerrish certainly offers a robust account of efficacy and presence in Calvin. The standard criticisms of Calvin only indicate the uniqueness of Calvin’s conception of instrumental efficacy. And there is ample evidence that Calvin desired to affirm some sort of real presence. For instance, Calvin asserts that “Christ is the matter (Latin: res) or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments” (Institutes 1291). For Calvin, Christ is certainly present, though in a way that differs from Lutheran and Catholic accounts of presence. Gerrish concludes with a systematic critique of Calvin’s account of presence.
Whereas Gerrish’s interpretation of Calvin at this point is correct, the relationship of this chapter to the rest of the book remains mysterious. At the beginning of the book, Gerrish set aside these two controversial problems in order to read Calvin on his own terms and according to his own themes. The question that one must put to this chapter is whether this commendable strategy of transference bears the promised fruit? Does this reordering of the material shed light on these perennial debates? Unfortunately, it does not, for here Gerrish drops his emphasis on God’s fatherly nourishment. Furthermore, he becomes the most critical of Calvin on these very topics. In rapid fashion, Gerrish manages to undermine his own contributions to Calvin interpretation. He concludes that although Calvin’s views on these matters are not as bad as his critics think, they are fatally flawed. The odd result is that the eucharistic themes of Calvin’s theology serve to illumine everything except the eucharistic controversies themselves.
The two main lines of Gerrish’s criticism line up with the two crucial problems of the Eucharist: sacramental efficacy and real presence. During his treatment of the first, Gerrish responds to the Lutheran criticism that the doctrine of predestination undermines the efficacy of the Supper. He rightly counters this objection, noting that it merely limits but does not undermine sacramental efficacy (172). But he is sure to point out that the doctrine is flawed and must be altered (171). The question is whether the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper is so easily removed from its ground in the election of God. Is not the word “efficacious” found as often in Calvin’s loci on predestination as it is here in Book IV (cf. Institutes 965). Is not “effectual calling” the ground of effective word and sacrament? Gerrish’s criticisms may very well be correct, but the problem may not be so easily excised.
Gerrish’s criticism of predestination here is symptomatic of his hopeful yet dangerous procedure of transference. Gerrish admits that he intentionally delayed any discussion of predestination to the end of his book (170). He defends this strategy by claiming that double predestination is only a “defensive outwork” (170). Whether or not this is an adequate claim, Gerrish’s strategy of transference once again displaces a significant portion of Calvin’s thought. The tragedy is that Gerrish’s helpful transfer of emphasis from predestinarian to eucharistic categories is threatened when the eucharistic categories are not able to double-back for the sake of illuminating predestination. Instead, predestination is lopped off. And in the wake of this sort of criticism, eucharistic categories are vulnerable to the criticism of being a procrustean bed. A more careful incorporation of predestination at this point would better serve Gerrish’s purpose of commending Calvin’s eucharistic theology.
Gerrish’s second line of criticism regards the local embodiment of Christ. He accuses both Luther and Calvin of being stuck in spatial categories regarding Christ’s body. In place of Calvin’s “puzzling” (183) notion of the presence of Christ in heaven, Gerrish offers Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology as interpreted by Troeltsch, wherein the historical Christ is embodied in the community upon whom he exerts influence (188-89). Gerrish argues that something like this can be found in Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, though it is admittedly a minor theme (184-87). It is intriguing that here at the conclusion of a book arguing for a robust sacramental Calvinism, Gerrish makes an appeal to the church’s agency to solve this crucial eucharistic conundrum. If Christ’s body is exclusively the church, then a singular agent is posited, and thus the offering is no longer twofold. Grace and gratitude become one and the same thing. Under these conditions, the differences between Luther and Zwingli are rendered irrelevant, as is Gerrish’s careful work of locating Calvin between them. Gerrish of course admits that these critical alternatives move beyond Calvin. The tragedy is that something essential to Calvin is lost in the process: the sovereignty of Christ as head over the church.
Conclusion: Reading Calvin After Gerrish
Gerrish has done a great service for readers of John Calvin. By interpreting Calvin in light of his own eucharistic themes, a more edifying appropriation is made possible. Gerrish blocks any dismissal of Calvin’s theology as dismal. For Calvin, God is not only a just judge, but also a giving father; salvation is not only a juridical system, but also God’s gracious adoption of children; sacraments are not only human acts of faithfulness, but also divine offerings of grace. The danger in reading Calvin after Gerrish is that it is so easy to neglect the first half of each of these statements.[vi] The antidote to this displacing effect is to keep in mind the complex relationship between the perfect and present tense of salvation. We must perpetually recall that the present goods offered to us in word and sacrament are grounded in the substitutionary work of Christ. Only then will grace and gratitude be properly differentiated and therefore useful categories for interpreting Calvin. Provided this caution is heeded, reading Calvin after Gerrish will be the way forward in the contemporary appropriation of John Calvin’s eucharistic theology.
[i] Anecdote relayed by Bruce McCormack in personal conversation December 18th, 2005.
[ii] B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1993; reprinted: Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002) 2. Hereafter cited in-text.
[iii] Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Translated by F. L. Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 204, 223. Hereafter cited in-text as Institutes.
[iv] Mary Potter Engel, John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology (Missoula, Montana: Scholar’s Press, 1988).
[v] For an account of Calvin that attempts to balance substitution and incorporation, see Paul van Buren, Christ in Our Place: The Substitutionary Character of Calvin’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1957).
[vi] One might wonder how to account for Gerrish’s procedure of displacement. As stated, all these themes are in Calvin and are ordered as he orders them. But why is it that Gerrish repeatedly suppresses some aspects? Could it have anything to do with his relationship to Schleiermacher and his “Schleiermacherian’s Calvin” (cf. x, 16, 25, 37, 51)?