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.