Charles Bell on Calvin and Heshusius

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in Historiography


We are still left with Calvin’s statement concerning Christ’s flesh not crucified for the wicked. Again, we must refer to the context. In this context, Calvin is refuting certain arguments of Heshusius. The main differences centre around Heshusius’ claim that Christ is spatially present in the sacrament and that not only believers eat of his flesh, but also the wicked eat of Christ’s corporeal flesh ‘by the mouth bodily without faith’.Calvin rejects these ideas and teaches instead that Christ can spatially be in one place at one time and he is now seated in heaven at the Father’s right hand. Nevertheless, he is spiritually and really present in the sacraments so that by faith and ‘the secret virtue of the Spirit we are united into one body with him’.37 It is absurd, writes Calvin, to think that ‘Christ is swallowed by the mouth so that he passes bodily into the stomach’.38

Calvin argues that Heshusius has failed to see that the sacrament is a matter for faith. ‘Only those who are united by faith’ benefit from the sacrament; they alone ‘truly or in realitycan be said to eat Christ’s flesh.39 It is a matter of the work of the Spirit, and therefore, of faith. The idea that the ‘unworthy’ or the ‘wicked’ or ‘unbelievers’40 can’ eat Christ’ is ‘unworthy of refutation’.41 Calvin does not mean that only believers partake of the sacrament, that is, that it is only offered to believers. It is, indeed offered to all, even the wicked.42 However, unbelievers do not truly eat Christ, rather they receive only a ‘visible sign’ and so ‘eat only sacramentally’.43

Calvin stresses continually the spiritual nature of the sacrament and the fact that only by faith does one benefit from it. Only through the Spirit can one eat Christ’s flesh. In this context, he notes Heshesius’ statement that ‘Christ is present to his creatures in many ways’, and then in rapid succession counters with his own questions: How can Christ be with unbelievers? How can he be ‘spiritual food’ for their souls? How can the wicked eat Christ’s flesh which’ was not crucified for them? Then he concludes with ‘my axiom, that Christ, considered as the living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter a human body devoid of his Spirit’.44

It is readily seen that throughout this debate, Calvin is not discussing the atonement, but rather, the necessity of the presence of the Spirit and faith for the efficacy of the sacrament. He definitely is not making a statement on the extent of the atonement. Rather he is maintaining that when faith is absent, there is no benefit for the one partaking of the bread and wine. If we accept Calvin’s statement concerning the wicked eating Christ’s flesh which was not crucified for them as a statement on the extent of the atonement, and that, therefore, not only the atonement but

the sacrament as well is only for the elect, then Calvin is, indeed, inconsistent in his thinking. For earlier, in this same discussion, he stated that the sacrament is offered to the wicked, but they reject it and so insult Christ’s body.45 However, Calvin is not inconsistent in his thought. He has simply resorted to the use of hyperbole in his discussion of the spiritual nature of the sacrament. The series of questions posed by Calvin are rhetorical and actually represent views which Calvin himself A rejects.46

Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1985), 16-17.   [Underlining mine; original footnote values retained; and square brackets in footnotes mine.]


37Ibid, 270, 276. [c.f. Theological Treatises, 270, 277.]

38Ibid, 278.

39Ibid. 281.

40All three terms are used interchangeably by Calvin in this discussion.

41Theological Treatises, 282.

42Ibid, 283, ‘. . . They insult the body of Christ, inasmuch as they reject the inestimable boon which is offered them.’

43Ibid, 281.

44Ibid. 285.

45bid; 283.

46Cf. Curt Daniel’s excellent discussion of this difficult passage, op.cit., 817-23.

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