Given for You (Mathison)

Review of Keith Mathison’s Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Thesis: The modern Reformed church has lost sight of Calvin’s robust view of the Supper leading to a neglect of the Supper in general.

Exposition of Calvin’s view of the Supper: Calvin defined sacraments as “visible words from God” (7); the offer in the sacrament is objective, but can only be received by faith. The sign and seal of a sacrament must be distinguished but can never be separated. It is a seal of the promise that believers who truly partake of it partake of the body and blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the bond of the mystical union between the believer and Christ. We are united to Christ in baptism and grow in this union in participation in the Lord’s Supper (19).

How Is Christ Present? Christ is bodily in heaven and the reality and benefits of Christ are channeled to us by means of the Holy Spirit. The flesh, indeed the whole Christ, is given to us by means of the Holy Spirit (29):

  1. The body of Christ remains in heaven and retains all its properties.
  2. The Holy Spirit lifts our souls to heaven whereby we partake of the body of Christ.
  3. Eating Christ is a heavenly action in a spiritual [read Holy Spirit] manner.
  4. The presence of Christ is a real presence and a real descent effected by the Holy Spirit.

Historical and Biblical Surveys

Mathison then surveys the field of church history and the Old and New Testaments to bolster his thesis that Calvin’s view is the biblical view.  This is where the real money of the book is.   The heart of this section is the Nevin-Hodge debate, and on Mathison’s reading Nevin was the winner (as far as church history goes).

Hodge’s view: Hodge’s view in his ST hovers around Calvin’s view, as he uses language like “believers receive the body and blood of Christ” (Hodge III: 622). At the end of the day, he rejects Calvin’s view and says it is “peculiar” (630).  Indeed, Christ is present to us by our “intellectual cognition” as “the body and blood fill our thoughts” (641-642).

Nevin’s view: by the power of the Holy Spirit, the obstacle of distance, of Christ’s body being in heaven, is overcome (Nevin, Mystical Presence 60-61).

Hodge’s review: Hodge doubles down on his position that Christ is present to the mind and it is a presence of virtue and efficacy (Hodge. “Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper, Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 20 (1848): 227-228. Hodge ends his review critiquing Nevin’s soteriology, and this is probably the only part where Hodge might be right.

Nevin’s response: Nevin doubled down on his historical analysis, which was a smart move as Nevin had the high ground on this point.  What is the positive import of 16th century sacramental language?  For Nevin the real presence is neither carnal location nor a mere object of thought.

The rest of this chapter surveys Reformed theologians’ views on the Supper.  It’s quite interesting, but it doesn’t compare to the Nevin-Hodge debate.

Practical Conclusions

Mathison critiques inadequate views of the Supper (Zwingli, Lutheran, and Roman) and ends with a call for: 1) using real wine; 2) having the supper weekly or frequently and 3) and the problem of paedocommunion.

Per (1), real wine is preferable to grape juice but it is still close enough that it functions as a sign and it can be performed by the same actions.  This is my response, not Mathison’s.

Per (2), I no longer argue for weekly communion.  I think monthly is better than quarterly, and quarterly better than a few times a year, which is just sad. I am more concerned that we don’t use terrible reasons for rejecting eating often with Jesus.  If your view is that too much of the Supper with Jesus would make it lose its “specialness” or that it feels too “Roman Catholicky,” then….well, that’s just sad.

Per (3), he dodged the issue.