Ironically, on something as central to the Christian life as the Eucharist, many Protestants would find Calvin's views sound surprisingly un-Protestant. As noted in an earlier post, Escaping Zurich, many evangelicals, actually hold views of the Eucharist consistent with Ulrich Zwingli (a reformer from Zurich a generation before Calvin), rather than Calvin. As such, this Zwinglian approach to Communion, one that is neither biblical nor consistent with the understanding of John Calvin, has come to be widely accepted as both biblical and Reformed.
Zwingli favored removing Communion from regular Christian worship, reducing it to only an occasional observance. He also insisted the meal is simply a memorial. Actions to prompt memories. The bread and the cup are meant to bring Jesus more clearly into our memory.
Calvin, unlike Zwingli, was convinced that the Eucharist should be celebrated weekly (Institutes, IV.XVII.46). Unfortunately, the practice in Geneva had already been well established, based on that done in Zurich, years before Calvin came to the city. The city leaders simply turned a deaf ear to Calvin's teaching that the Eucharist should be observed weekly.
More importantly, however, Calvin absolutely rejected Zwingli's rather lame explanation of the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. Here is an example of how Zwingli, in his own words, explained the meaning of the phrase this is my body:
And this he signified by the words: "This is (that is, represents) my body," just as a wife may say: "This is my late husband," when she shows her husband's ring. And when we poor creatures observe this act of thanksgiving amongst ourselves, we all confess that we are of those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and seeing this confession is demanded of us all, all who keep the remembrance or thanksgiving are one body with all other Christians. Therefore if we are the members of his body, it is most necessary that we should live together as Christians, otherwise we are guilty of the body and blood of Christ, as Paul says.
So, a widow holds up her wedding ring and declares, "Here (holding it up), this is my husband." Jack Cottrell recently expressed some criticisms of my contention that we ought to avoid calling the Eucharist a "memorial." [see Is the Lord's Supper More than a "Memorial"] Zwingli's analogy of the widow's ring is what many people assume when they hear Communion described as a memorial. I've been to the Lincoln Memorial. It was powerful. Moving. It prompted me to think a good deal about the slain President. But, I did not spend any time with him. He was dead.
Although a case can be made for the use of "memorial" applied to the Eucharist, it requires an understanding of the word somewhat different from its use in conversational English. Cottrell pointed to the Greek term and its typical spectrum of meaning within Greek culture. But, as he knows, both the Septuagint and the New Testament frequently employ Greek words, like christos, with a primarily Aramaic/Hebrew meaning (meshiach) in mind. And, as is also beyond question, when Jesus said those words in the upper room it was in Aramaic, not in Koine Greek. Thus, the strong Semetic linkage between "remember" and "act" or "participate" should be assumed.
Calvin saw through Zwingli's sophistry and remained unconvinced. Viewing the purpose of the Eucharist as actions for prompting our memory fails to reflect the biblical witness. It is also rooted in a false dualism in which the visible and physical is robbed of any significance and the unseen inner spirit becomes the sole locus of Christian worship.
While finding Luther's explanation of the physical body of Christ universally present throughout all creation absurd, Calvin refused to abandon the truth of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Calvin insisted this is my body meant exactly that. Here is how he, at least in part, explained his understanding:
Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ's flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure . . .
Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [John 6:53‐56]. I offer 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 do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them. [emphasis mine]
The "Sage of Geneva," of course, is not inerrant. But, on this important issue related to Christian worship, Zwingli was wrong and Calvin was right.