Kevin D. Kennedy on Calvin and Heshusius

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in Historiography


Calvin’s Disagreement with Heshusius

There is one final quotation from Calvin that needs to be addressed. The passage in question comes in his treatise against Tileman Heshusius on the question of the true presence of Christ in the supper. Heshusius, a Lutheran, held to the view of consubstantiation; that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in and with the supper, even when taken by unbelievers. Calvin argued that faith was necessary for a person to receive any spiritual benefit from the supper. The particular section of this treatise which has a bearing on the question of Calvin’s view on the extent of the atonement reads as follow:

But the first thing to be explained is how Christ is present with unbelievers, to be the spiritual food of souls, and in short the life and salvation of the world. And he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh which was not crucifiedfor them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins? (scire velim quomodo Christi carnem edant impii, pro quibus non est cricifixa, et quomodo sanguinem bibant, qui expiandis eorum peccatis not est effusus.) I agree with him that Christ is present as a strict judge when his supper is profaned. But it is one, thing to be eaten, and another to be a judge. . . . Christ, considered as the living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter any human body which is devoid of his spirit.89

What Calvin is arguing against in this passage is the idea that the body and blood of Christ are locally present in the elements of the supper. Calvin objected to a local presence in the supper because it would make all of the participants partakers of Christ even if they were unbelievers. It was the idea that unbelievers partook of Christ in the supper that most disturbed Calvin. This is so because, for Calvin, to be a partaker of Christ is to have salvation. Only believers have salvation in Christ, and therefore, only believers partake of Christ in the supper. Indeed, it is because of their faith that believers partake of Christ in the eucharist. Calvin says that "we eat Christ’s flesh in believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that this eating is the result and effect of faith."90 If unbelievers truly partake of the body of Christ in the supper, then this means that the flesh of Christ is not vivifying. Calvin will not allow this.

The portion of the above quotation that is offered as evidence that Calvin held to particular redemption is where it is asked: "I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?" It is alleged that Calvin’s argument is that unbelievers do not partake of Christ in the supper because Christ did not die for them. Is this truly what is being asserted here or is there perhaps a better interpretation of this passage?

Curt D. Daniel has offered an explanation for this passage which I believe is the best interpretation of Calvin’s intended meaning here. Daniel draws attention to the phrase "I should like to know . . .," which introduces the sentences in question. Daniel compares this phrase to other instances where it occurs. In one such instance Calvin is also discussing the Lord’s supper when he says “I should like to know from them how long they (the wicked) retain it (the true body of Christ) when they have eaten it.”91 Daniel correctly notes that the phrase "I should like to know" introduces an idea that Calvin is clearly rejecting, that the wicked actually eat and retain Christ in the supper. This quotation from the Institutes is a rhetorical device and is clearly not meant to convey Calvin’s position on the issue. To the contrary, the phrase introduces a concept with which he is in disagreement. In the quote from the Institutes, what Calvin is rejecting is the claim that the wicked eat and retain Christ. In the passage from the Treatise, Calvin is rejecting what is presumably the claim by Heshusius, that the wicked “eat the flesh which was not crucified for them.” Yet, it should be noted that Heshusius was a Lutheran and thus did not deny that Christ died for the whole world. How then are we to explain Calvin’s comments given this fact?

Daniel’s explanation for this centers around the fact. that for Calvin, true saving faith consists of the person’s belief that Christ has died for him. I have already discussed Calvin’s understanding of the content of saving faith earlier in this chapter. Yet, it will be beneficial to see some of the quotations to which Daniel appeals in order to make his point. One passage from. one of Calvin’s sermons on Isaiah is a very clear statement that saving faith consists of the belief that Christ died for the person believing:

For it is not enough that Jesus Christ suffered in His person and was made a sacrifice for us; but we must be assured of it by the Gospel; we must receive that testimony and doubt not that_we have righteousness in Him, knowing that He has made satisfaction for our sins.92

Calvin’s comments on Mark 14:24 are even more explicit on this point:

So when we come to the holy table not only should the general idea come to our mind thal the world is redeemed by the blood of Christ, but each should reckon to himself that his own sins are covered.93

Note that in the second quotation Calvin states that Christ has redeemed the whole world. Yet, it is insufficient merely to believe that Christ died for the world. Saving faith is believing that Christ has indeed died for oneself. In this particular passage, true partaking of Christ requires believing that Christ has died for the believer. Calvin’s understanding of saving faith is key to Daniel’s interpretation of the disputed passage from the treatise against Heshusius. Heshusius believed that the wicked partook of the body and blood of Christ even in the absence of saving faith, in the absence of faith that Christ died for them.94 Daniel paraphrases the disputed passage from the Treatise as follows: "I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ if they do not believe that Christ was crucified for them."95 Daniel’s point is that it is Heshusius who holds the belief that a person can truly partake of Christ in the supper in the absence of faith that Christ died for him.

Kevin D. Kennedy, Union with Christ and the Extent of the Atonement in Calvin (New York: Peter Lang: 2002), 53-56. [Some minor reformatting; footnote values and content original; and underlining mine.]


89Calvin, Theological Treatises, trans. J. K. S. Reid, Library of Christian Classics Series no . 22. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 285, CO. 9.482.

90Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.5, 0.5. 5.347.

91Daniel, 821, quoting lllstltlltcs, 4.17.33, O.S. 5.393. Parenthetical phrases are added by Daniel for clarity. Italics are mine. Daniel mentions two other instances where Calvin uses the rhetorical phrase "I should like to know" in relation to the Lord’s Supper. The first reads as follows: "1 should like to know to whilt end Christ invites us to partake of the flesh and blood in the supper, if it be not that he may feed our souls" (Tracts and Treatises, vol. II, p. 378, CO. 9.166). In the second Calvin asks, "I should like to know whether, according to them, this communion belongs indiscriminately to unbelievers as wells as believers" (ibid., p. 415, CO. 9.201).

92Calvin, Sermons on Isaiah ‘s Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, 117, C.O.


93Calvin, Comm., Mark 14:24, N.T.C. 2.316.

94Daniel notes the similarity between Heshusius’ view and the view of the particularists. According to the particularists, it is not necessity for saving faith that a person believe that Christ died for him specifically. It is necessary only that he believe that Christ died for "sinners" or for the "elect." Therefore, according to the particularist, when the believer comes to the Lord’s table he is not required to believe that Christ died for him specifically in order to be a true partaker of Christ. This is the same position as Heshusius’ with regard to the wicked truly partaking of the body and blood of Christ.

95Daniel, "Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill," 822.

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