Friday, November 11, 2011

The Politics of Baptism

This is the manuscript for the speech I gave last night at our parish's 4th "Christ and Culture Dinner." The topic for the evening was "A Christian Role in American Politics." The speech went quite well, better than the last one I gave (on Islam), but some people have asked for a written version. Here it is.

When meeting with the “Christ and Culture” committee, I was asked for a “young person’s” perspective on politics. I told them that I’d be a horrible person to represent “my generation” on the whole topic. I explained how warped and confused my approach to the political process is: They were discussing the problem of voter apathy, of people simply not voting because they felt like their votes were insignificant in the political process (which I think is absurd – voting is absolutely significant – the act of voting is absolutely effective – I don’t see how anyone could ever think that it’s not) – but I shared with them, I simply don’t take it for granted that because voting is effective and powerful that, therefore, Christians have a responsibility to vote in elections. That might be true. But it’s not obvious to me that it is.

Now, to be clear, I have voted before. To memory, I’ve voted in every presidential election since I’ve been legally able. I remember riding my bike up to my local voting precinct and did my part in bringing President George W. Bush into power in 2000. Last election, after having a few years of college to further distort my thinking, I started writing-in people.

I’ve long been registered as NPA – no party affiliation – but I re-registered as a Republican just long enough to vote in the primaries for my favorite candidate, Ron Paul. When he didn’t win the nomination, I changed back to NPA, and wrote him in for the general election, voting by conscience rather than following party lines. Apparently, there weren’t a lot of other people who wrote him in, so he ended up not becoming president. I don’t know if I’ll vote for him in 2012. He seems like a good man – a lot of integrity. That’s what I like about him. That’s why I’d vote for him, if I do. Who knows? But my point is I’m not overly worried about the whole thing.

I don’t get too stressed worrying about elections. This is because, to a certain extent, I’m not overly convinced there necessary. Especially for presidents. I don’t take for granted, for example, that the democratic model of government is obviously the best model. It might be, but I couldn’t prove it you without borrowing from the anti-authoritarian rhetoric against monarchy that I’ve grown up with. I understand the reasoning, of course, for constitutions and rebelling against tyranny and a government that represents the intentions of the people rather than the whims of a fallible individual. I’m duly familiar with the meaning of phrases like “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So I have some idea of why people like democracy. I certainly understand its merits. But that doesn’t sway me. Why?

What could be so wrong with me that I could be so dense about the basic assumptions of Western Civilization? What could have happened to me to make me so oblivious to what seems obvious to any run-of-the-mill American citizen? After being forced to think about it, the only thing I can think of to explain how I could have become so culturally absurd was that, in August of 1998, I underwent Christian Baptism.

“I underwent Christian Baptism.” That’s a strange thing to say, I think, for two reasons: One: It’s simply a fact that most American Christians, especially Protestants, don’t understand how important baptism is. Whereas, I believe it’s essential to our entire faith, the historic trends in the post-Reformation West have led to a devaluing of material things like sacraments, in favor of more “spiritual” things like “emotional states” or “personal relationships with Jesus.” This is so much the case that many Christians have to hold their breath at the part of the Nicene Creed (once considered the outline of genuine Christian Orthodoxy) where we altogether confess our belief in “one baptism for the remission of sins.”

Secondly, it’s strange to comment that Christian Baptism could have anything to do with separating one from American and Western Tradition since, being Christian and being Baptized are fairly commonplace in our country. It might even be weird to say that you are an American and that you have not been baptized. Maybe not anymore, but at least at one point that was true. Especially, here, in the Bible Belt.

But I stand by what I said. I can’t think of anything else that might have been more influential on my adult life than being baptized. In fact, it was not until after I was baptized that I started reading to learn. Baptism marks the beginning of education for me. I mean, obviously, I had read books before – I was in school, good schools. But it wasn’t until I was baptized that I started reading books, large amounts of books, because I wanted to learn what they had to say.

The 39 Articles describe baptism as something which we “receive” (that’s the language, “receive,” like a gift) – something we passively undergo. It is the gateway into Christ’s mystical body, the Church. For this reason our articles say that baptism is our guarantee that our sins are forgiven, and that we are made sons of God through adoption. This is remarkable. Think about it. Not only are our sins forgiven, but the upshot of this is that we are each, individually, adopted by “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all this is seen and unseen.”

Stop for a second and really think about that. Once somebody has been baptized, they can look at the wonder and majesty of the entire universe and say, “You know who made that? That’s my dad.”

Now, it’s obviously important to distinguish between the way the Father is our father and the way the Father is the father of the Eternal Son. Christ is the Son by nature. He is “eternally begotten,” “not made” – unlike us, who are created. We are made. The glory of the cross, however, is that God has made a way for us to share in the life of the Son. The Holy Spirit goes out from the Father to unite all things to Christ. The Spirit joins us to the Son, in such a way that both the Anglican Divines and the Bible describe what happens as “adoption.”

Reflect for a moment what it means to be “adopted.” When someone is adopted, they receive more than just a change of custody from, say, the State, or maybe an abusive parent. Adoption is far more than a pledge to care for someone. Adoption is to make them a part of your family, to make them your kin. An adopted son or daughter is not legally understood to be an “adopted son” or an “adopted daughter.” Rather to be adopted is to become a son or daughter in a very real and binding sense. To be adopted is to receive a new identity. Who you are actually changes.

And this is what it means to be baptized.

In being baptized we receive a new answer to the question,” Who am I?” When we are born from our mother we receive a name. We are born into a world of death and violence, covered in blood and other bodily fluids. (Being born is itself is a fairly violent act. Ask a mother. ) We live a life of a mixture of pleasures and pains, enduring losses of various sorts that remind us at the end of the day that our grandest successes are finally dust and ashes, vanity. Our naming into this world is the naming of our death as much as our life. But in baptism we receive a new name, being born into a new world.

Of course, baptism is not something so naïve as to ignore death and violence. Rather, in baptism, we are united to death – or specifically to one death, Christ’s death. We lose our own death and instead receive the death of Christ. Why is this special? Because sharing in Christ’s death, we also share in his endless life, the life that brought death to its end, the death that made futility futile. In sharing Christ’s death through baptism, we equally share in his Resurrection, the second birth, the birth from above, the heavenly birth, the birth of the Spirit, the birth of peace. Christ’s Resurrection signals the death of death and so it signals the death of the world of death and violence. This is the gospel: that death is dead and where it isn’t, it will be destroyed.

We, Christians, believe this. The work of the Spirit is the work of disarming the world of its fondness for death. This is why we celebrate Pentecost, right? Remember the tower of Babel – that time when men came together to build their own Holy City of Man, a city of blood. If you know the story at all, you remember that Yahweh destroyed their work by confusing their languages, causing hatred and discord and division among them (Babel, by the way, means “Confusion”). But the moment of Pentecost, Acts 2, when the Spirit is poured out on all humanity, remember what happened there? Everybody was speaking in different languages, but who was confused? It wasn’t the disciples. No, at Pentecost, God took the languages and people from all the world (I mean, Jewish people, but still Jews from all over the world), and brought them together. Instead of reaping confusion, these tongues of fire were reaping unity. A new tower of Babel was birthed at Pentecost, a new city, but this city wasn’t forged in the tradition of blood and violence. Rather, this was the city of God, a new Jerusalem from above – we call it “the Church.”

If you are baptized, then this is where you live. This is where you’re from. This is who you are. You might have been born American or Mexican – or somehow Canadian – but by the grace of God, you died in those waters. That’s no longer who you are. You have born in the womb of Mary, because you have been united to the eternal Son of God, who was himself conceived there. This is why Jesus is so dismissive, at times, of domestic concerns. “Call no man ‘father’” and “Who are my brothers and sisters?” Because he understands the radical meaning of baptism.

You’ve probably heard at some point the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water.” It’s a way to express how important family ties are. For the Christian, though, the opposite is true, “Water is thicker than blood.” The waters of baptism create a deeper bond between Christians, then, any amount of genetic relationships. This is a hard saying. It’s not one that we all necessarily believe or practice. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

On another matter, there is also power in Christ’s words “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This isn’t some ridiculous preview of future American political theory about the separation of Church and State. This is an attack on imperial cult, right? You understand that in this context in history there weren’t clean divisions between religion and politics. To be emperor was, in Rome, to be a sort of demigod. Jesus is being a “dualist” here (in the best sense of the word). God is over here, Caesar is over there. He’s looking at claims of Caesar and saying, “Nope.” You are not God, you are only Caesar. Your image might be stamped on the money, but the image of the infinite God – however skewed – is stamped on you. You are a man. You are clay. You are dirt. You are dust and ash. You serve me.

Not only do our family ties get relativized by Christ, but even the political realm gets reoriented.

Now, baptism isn’t just the joining of individuals to Christ’s death. Because people are the subjects of baptism, human culture is also the subject of baptism. As much as our old selves are drowned in those waters, the same can be said of our world, our culture. This is why it even makes sense for these “Christ and Culture” discussions to happen. We’re exploring what our baptisms mean for all of life. This particular evening is about politics, and when they asked me what I thought about politics, I said, “I wouldn’t even know how to begin to talk about politics without discussing baptism.” Hopefully, by now, it’s kind of clear why that is. Baptism is the beginning of politics because it’s the foundation of the City of God, the city to which we all belong.

Alright, now that we know what city we live in, let’s talk about how we run things here. That’s what politics is, right? Managing, ordering the city? Here’s how we do things in the Church. First of all, we require very little to become a citizen in this city. We ask that you “repent and believe” and then we get you wet. After that you’re in. That’s it. We just want faith. That’s the lifeblood of everything we do here. Once you’re baptized you’re welcome to participate in the most important thing we do. You might even say it’s the core of everything we do: the Eucharist.

This is a grave scandal. Or at least it was in Ancient Rome. To understand how baptism posed a problem for the Romans, you have to understand some things about their politics. For them, the city was, fundamentally, a religious order. Like Judaism, sanctity took the form of a duality between priest and non-priest, holy and common. At the center of political life were the “patricians.” “Patricians” were the exclusive ruling class who lived in the city proper. These people were able to worship in the temple at the top of the hill (You’ve probably heard of the “acropolis,” right? This is that). These are the “priests” of Roman civic order and that’s where they’d meet.

This priest-class literally “marginalized” those outside of the aristocracy. The people on the “outside” were “literally marginalized” because they were geographically outside the acropolis. They were in the foothills of the temple mount. They are known as “plebeians.” These are the common folk. They were not only in the margins of the landscape, but they were also excluded from cititzenship. (Remember that “citizenship” literally means being a part of a “city.”) These people were not allowed to partake in the religious worship of the national gods, so they were not allowed to partake in the political life of the city. If you compared this to the current “Occupy” movements, you might say these guys are the “99%.”

As you might expect, a good bit of tension existed between the “priestly patricians” and the “plebeian commoners.” A number of violent revolutions took place in Rome’s history. Plebeians, apparently, were dissatisfied with their exclusion and fought for a place at the center of the city. They finally got what they wanted, but at the price of a lot of bloodshed.

Now, picture Christianity showing up on this scene. Here is this world that, on one front, Rome, you have this violent city built on a conflict between an exclusive priestly citizenship and an excluded, you could call them ,“lay” population with no political voice. On the other front, you have Judaism and all it entails. And while priests and people don’t seem to have an antagonistic relationship, that tension does exist. (The antagonism could be subdued by the fact that, even for lay folk, a certain holiness is ascribed to them by virtue of their mere Jewishness. So, for the Jew, while the offerings were largely communal meals for the priests, there was still some sense in which the “common” Jew shared in those priests’ holiness.) Nonetheless, in front of this violent world of Jews and Gentiles, the apostles’ preached a gospel that said this holy-common tension doesn’t exist within the kingdom of God.

After you get baptized, you are pulled out of the violence of your old city and you are made into a priest. Everybody becomes a “patrician” you could say. What’s so great about that?

This is a hard question to answer because a lot of us have this idea that the job of priests is to do things, like slaughter animals, so that God forgives our sins. That’s only a tiny bit true. The problem with that idea is it kind of ignores that the joy of being a priest was you actually got to eat some of the sacrificed meat with God himself. The temple sacrifices, many of them, weren’t as much intended for absolution as they were intended for eating. To be a priest meant you got to share in a holy meal. This is what the Eucharist is. It’s our holy meal of Communion with God, and it’s what our baptisms entitle us to do.

The Roman “patricians” also had a communion meal with the gods of their respective city. An important part of being “politically active” in Rome was participating in these cultic meals. The Christian Church, acting in this world, understood the political impact of this act and acted against it. How did the Church act against Roman paganism? By being itself. Every celebration of the Eucharist was a treacherous slap in the face of Rome – treacherous for several reasons:
  1. It was a participation in the cultural rites of an alternate city, a rival city.
  2. It was worship of another god of a different city (Jesus).
  3. It was blasphemous worship in which patrician and pleb, Jew and Gentile, parents and children were all welcomed and considered equal in holiness before God.
These are the politics of baptism. Baptism tells us who we are. It also proclaims who we are not and to whom we no longer belong. It calls into question every political process, asking which God or gods are being served in practice. Finally, it calls us to realize that simplicity of being a Christian, of being baptized into the Church, and of celebrating the Eucharist is already the most extreme form of political activism, and calls into question the meaning of all other political processes.

Thank you.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Nature of Grace

Here's the text of my paper (sans footnotes and such) for PMR 2011.

I. Sacraments as the Crux of Nature and Grace

Transubstantiation, for Calvin, is – among many other things – a cosmological heresy. In transforming the substance of the bread and the wine to make way for the substance of Christ’s body and blood, transubstantiation places the created cosmos at odds with the redemptive purposes of God. Grace annihilates nature.

Sacraments, then, being material tokens of creation and spiritual tokens of redemption, seem to provide a remarkable locus of theological reflection on the relationship between “nature” and “grace.” Because of their overlapping character, sacraments represent microcosms of larger theological concerns regarding the universe, humanity, atonement, and eschatology. Therefore, the careful outline of their nature is not irrelevant to every other question of theology – making them structurally figurative for many other topics.

In many ways and forms, sacraments are roundly understood by the Church catholic as signs or symbols. Whatever else one may one want to add about the event of, say, the Eucharist, all parties agree that questions of metaphysics aside, some aspect of the event must be accounted for in terms of its symbolic function. Questions about the presence (or absence) of Christ in the bread of Communion – however much they may speculate into ontology – take for granted the symbolic nature of the act. Thus, the primary discussion in sacramental theology regards semiotics. A genuine sacramentology relocates itself into a discussion about the relationship of symbols to reality. What I intend to demonstrate here is that, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, albeit excellent in many respects, frames its discussion of the sacraments in such a way that symbol and reality represent an unhelpful tension between grace and nature.

II. Calvin’s Economy of Sacramental Words

Without doing too much reductive violence, we can summarize the latter half of the Institutes as an outline of, first, the internal and, second, the external work of God in redemption. Book III details what has classically been called the ordo salutis and Book IV identifies the created means by which the ordo is accomplished. To Calvin’s credit, this scheme implies that the created universe is not only relevant to the gracious work of the redemption of men, but also that it is instrumental in it. On a superficial level, this places nature and grace in harmony.

The divine works which fill the third book are the internal works of the Holy Spirit. Book IV identifies the normative means of this divine work, naming the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Sacraments as the two primary means, working alongside each other under the direction of divinely appointed ministers.

Despite identifying Word and Sacrament as twin vessels of the Spirit’s work, Calvin identifies the priority of one over the other, noting that they differ in function: the Word as message, the Sacrament as seal. Thus, the presence of the Sacrament serves to confirm, to assure, to guarantee the validity and significance of the Word itself. Yet, for Calvin, there is such a closeness of import between Word and Sacrament that he at times speaks of a “sacramental word” and speaks of the “truth” of the sacrament, speaking frequently of the sacraments as containers of truth, enveloped messages.

This brings us to our first problem: for Calvin, sacraments are dispensable signs, signs that deliver and fade as the mind elevates beyond them. The dissection of sacraments as containers bleeds as well into his understanding of words. A water sign (baptism) is no less transient than any spoken verbal sign.

Calvin’s attention to the provisional nature of the created means correlates to his alignment of both Word and Sacrament with the senses. Word corresponds to the ear, while Sacrament corresponds to the eye. This equivocation of “created” means with “sensible” means is instructive. It suggests that whatever can be said of Calvin’s treatment of the “senses” in soteriology can be said of his treatment of “creation” in eschatology.

Additionally, his treatment of the means as two moments of the sensible makes sense of the Augustinian reduction of the two means into different kinds of words, one audible, one visible. Calvin’s (Augustine’s) definition of sacraments as “visible words” exposes a slippage in his distinction between Word and Sacrament. On the one hand, the means of grace are Word and Visible Word. On the other hand, the means of grace are Sacramental Word and Sacrament. For Calvin’s sacramentology, Word and Sacrament, while distinct, extend into one another. Hence Calvin, “the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God.” All this is meet and right, as far as it goes. But for Calvin, the model of Word and Visible Word (Sacramental Word and Sacrament) is weighted heavy on the side of Word. Even Calvin’s figure of sacraments as “seals” refers to seals upon letters. By no means uniquely, Calvin sees the work of the Spirit as fundamentally linguistic and logical (in the sense of λογος). Thus, illumination is the act by which God allows the carnal man to discard sensible signs for their spiritual (intellectual) meaning. Is Calvin, too, given to an heretical cosmology? If sensible nature is discarded for the sake of intellectual grace, then does not grace annihilate nature?

III. Sacramental Sensibilities and Cosmology

Calvin’s trivializing of the sensible sign indicates something of cosmological proportions: that signs are finally arbitrary and external means to intellectual ends. This is problematic for the nature-grace relationship because it implies that the grace of signs is a layer placed atop a more fundamental surface of being. Against this, I am arguing that the natural state is always already encoded in an economy of signs. If symbols are not to be rendered as so much dross, put away to yield a pure spirituality, then symbolic orientation must be the texture of what it means to be “spiritual.” If grace does not annihilate nature, then the Spirit must not excise man from a symbolic order – rather, he must transform man from an Adamic symbolic order of death to the new symbolic order of Christ.

That Calvin fails to see this is most evident in his description of sacraments as “appendix.” Naming them such indicates their place. Prior to the Sacrament is the more pressing matter of the Word. The essence of God’s means, then, is merely communicating “spiritual truth,” under the form of propositions and, for the sake of emphasis, illustrations. This is problematic because, under this rubric, “[w]e are able to understand the Word without the help of the appendix, as we can read many books with profit without reading the appendix. So long as baptism and the Supper are seen as ‘appendixes,’ they will be seen as expendable.”

More troubling than naming sacraments appendices is the logic underwriting it. In the Institutes, Calvin identifies the function of sacraments as a condescending movement of God to accommodate to our creaturely lowliness. Calvin is fairly explicit on this point:
Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. For if we were incorporeal (as Chrysostom says), he would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls engrafted in bodies, he imparts spiritual things under visible ones. Not that the gifts set before us in the sacraments are bestowed with the natures of the things, but that they have been marked with this signification by God.
Noting the plain opposition of visible, earthly, bodily existence to spirituality, Calvin describes sacraments as a twofold accommodation: first to our depravity (like the Word), but secondly to our human nature (much unlike the Word), in all its bodily finitude.

The creation narrative of Genesis is the driving force behind the theological project of reconciling nature and grace. God explicitly names the protological cosmos “good.” Yet we understand that the Gospel of grace represents the eschatological inbreaking of a new cosmological order, the kingdom of God. The heavenly kingdom is both continuous and discontinuous with the protological “earthly” kingdom. Mapping out the ways in which the new kingdom preserves the good of the original, and the ways the old and the new kingdom differ is precisely the undertaking of a theologian of nature.

The natural man is created visibly, earthly, and bodily finite. This prelapsarian state, called “very good,” cannot be understood as spiritually privative. Yet Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation contradicts this. What God calls good, Calvin calls weakness. For Calvin, the introduction of “visible forms of invisible graces” stems, not from anything proper to those invisible graces – rather, the opposite is true: Calvin teaches that sacraments exist despite invisible grace.

Accommodation is problematic because it implies that sacraments add something to the (more spiritual) Word that is not already implicit in the Word. That is, the gospel of grace uses nature as a prop to itself, then disposes of nature. The Word accomplishes its purpose through sacraments, but sacraments are ontologically alien to the Word.

What is the solution here? Calvin is by no means the only theologian guilty of “the primacy of the intellect” and all its implications. To be sure, he’s certainly closer to the mark than, say, Zwingli. What fundamental lack in Calvin opens him to criticism as a spiritualiser of religion? I suggest that Calvin has a sacramentology in search of a cosmology. If he understands the sacraments as fundamentally symbolic rites, then he is in need of a universe that is fundamentally symbolic, a sacramental cosmos.

IV. Who do you say that I am?

This brings us to the center of the universe, the cosmic mystery of Jesus Christ. According to Maximus the Confessor, the Incarnation is exactly not an accommodation to bodily existence. On the contrary, the Incarnation is the eschatological telos of, not only human nature, but all nature. As “the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of created things,” the Incarnation is the eternal “Yes! Let it be so!” of all corporeality as such.

For Maximus, the Incarnation is not only a momentary co-incidence of the divine and human natures. Rather, it was according to an eternal plan to unite all things into himself, raising them up to share (and rest) in the divine nature. “This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time, and in itself brings God’s foreknowledge to fulfillment, in order that naturally mobile creatures might secure themselves around God’s total and essential immobility.” The bringing together of the divine and human in the person of Jesus Christ, for Maximus, is the ground of the deification of the cosmos, the joining of heaven and earth, the harmonization of grace and nature. In fact, many of the questions that we bring to Calvin’s Insitutes (for example) are simply moot on account of Maximus’ privileging of nature as the logic and grammar of grace. Corporeality can hardly be described in any way as an “appendix,” any more than the Incarnation can be seen as an appendix to the Trinity.

In keeping with this trajectory, Maximus overturns the primacy of the intellect (and thus, all its woes). Distinguishing between two types of divine knowledge, which can crudely be distinguished as ‘knowledge about’ and ‘knowledge of,’ Maximus believes that the latter eventually displaces the former due to the relative authenticity found in the experience (αἴσθησις) of participation. This ‘knowledge of’ or ‘mystical knowledge’ is the means of our deification.

The primacy of αἴσθησις makes way for a double affirmation of the visible and invisible in his Mystagogia. In his explication of the symbolism of the Eucharistic liturgy, Maximus expresses this affirmation in terms of mutuality.
[T]he whole spiritual world seems mystically imprinted on the whole sensible world in symbolic forms … and conversely the whole sensible world is spiritually explained in the mind in the principles which it contains… Indeed the symbolic contemplation of intelligible things by means of visible realities is spiritual knowledge... For it is necessary that things which manifest each other bear a mutual reflection in an altogether true and clear manner and keep their relationship intact.
Thus for Maximus, the tension between the sensible and the intellectual is resolved by an analogy inherent in created being. The book of nature and the book of grace mutually reveal one another because of an analogical relationship that finds its deeper analogy in the bond between Creator and creature.

This cosmology frees Maximus to interpret Scripture and the world in terms of one another. For Maximus, the Church (as the image of God ) images the World, and Man, and Man images the World. So the symbolic acts of Man in synactic rite are simultaneously the movements of the Church and the World. This idea of Man as a microcosm, holding symbol and reality together, place anthropology at the center of cosmology, and thus vest the ritual acts of Man collectively as “cosmic liturgy.”

V. Maximus’ Cosmic Liturgy and the Redemption of Calvinist Sacramentology

One of the more remarkable features of the Mystagogia is the absence of any clear comment on the Eucharist itself in the midst of the synaxis. One of the plainer points on the matter is that Maximus seems to defer to Dionysius the Areopagite, the “truly divine interpreter,” who covered the topic extensively in his Ecclessiastical Hierarchy. Maximus comments, “it should be known that the present work will not repeat these same things nor will it proceed in the same manner.”

Calvin has no lack of things to say about the Mystical Supper, but not without his own amount deference. “Whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth.” For Calvin, the Eucharist is the Sacrament of sacraments. Reading from left to right, one gets the initial impression from the Institutes that Calvin has a univocal definition of the “means of grace,” the preaching of the Word, the baptism of water, and eating and drinking of the Lord’s Supper, all neatly existing as parallel vessels of the Spirit’s work. But Calvin’s chapter on the Lord’s Supper explodes this idea.

Calvin’s sacramental treatment contradicts two poles. Though, Barth observes, this is never manifest “as a mediating path either here or elsewhere.” Rather, (in the case of the Eucharist) Calvin plainly affirmed both ‘Lutheran’ objectivity of the sacrament and ‘Zwinglian’ subjectivity and relatedness. This is to say, Calvin unflinchingly claims on the one hand, “I am not satisfied with those persons who … make us partakers of the Spirit only, omitting mention of flesh and blood.” Against them, Calvin locates the Eucharistic presence square in the body and blood of the historical Christ, ascended to the right hand of the Father. What sets Calvin apart from the papists and the Lutherans is that he refuses to allow for the Incarnation to leave the side of the Father in heaven.

Calvin’s reasoning here marks out his most important theological contribution: the doctrine of ‘illocal presence.’ Calvin roundly rejects any Eucharistic theology that removes Christ from his heavenly throne, yet he repeatedly insists that Christ’s flesh and blood are to be our sustenance and means of deification. How so? Not by bringing Christ down from heaven – but through the lifting up of our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

In Calvin’s Eucharistic theology, the Spirit transcends the space between sign and signified, uniting the sensible symbol with a heavenly reality. Yet Calvin stutters in his most passionate affirmation: as much as he intends to proclaim that the Spirit crosses the distance between the heavenly and the sensible, apparently “truly” uniting Christ’s members to his body, he shows his presence “as if” he were present in the body – which is to say that Christ is not “really” present, only symbolically, visibly. For Calvin, Christ’s Eucharistic presence lies in the presence of “visibility,” which according to his universe has the presence of a shadow – a trace of lack, an absence of light. Until Calvinist Sacramentology can close up this distance between visibility and being, until it can account for symbol as a natural cosmological phenomenon, it cannot account for the sacraments in any way that lends them credence as tokens of grace.

The Confessor takes us a long way there. In the universe according to Maximus the Confessor, plundering the Incarnation under the rubric of Chalcedon, all the λογοι of creation are, in accordance with the Scriptures, comprehended in the union of two natures, the eternal and the corruptible, in the single existence of the incarnate Λογος, the perfect image of the Father. In Christ, image and being are not discontinuous, but coextensive. As all λογοι find their origin and end in Christ the icon, the icon of Christ, namely the Eucharist, can begin to be explored not as a reduction of the infinite, but rather it marks the opening of the finite to the eternal economy of the life of the Triune God.