When Calvin speaks of sharing the Lord’s Supper with Christ, covenantal concepts naturally arise, most notable when Calvin is discussing 1 Corinthians 10-11. Throughout his commentaries, Calvin frequently emphasizes that in the Supper we enjoy both the presence and the benefits of Christ. These are distinctly different lines of thoughts and they represent two different dimensions of Calvin’s theology of the Supper. Whereas the motif regarding the presence of Christ involves Pauline themes and images, the motif regarding the benefits of Christ involves Johannine themes and images. When Calvin deals with passages about feeding on Christ, we discover the influence of the Wisdom School. In particular, John 6, which presents Christ as the bread of life, is filled with sapiential themes so typical of the wisdom writers of the Old Testament.
Central to the development of the ideas found in John 6 is Proverbs 9:1-6 where Wisdom invites the faithful to a feast. The wisdom theology understood this banquet as a figure for the delight of sacred learn. Wisdom, according to this passage, has built her house, set up her seven pillars, arranged her table and now invites all to come and eat of her bread and drink of her wine. The Bread of Life Discourse picks up on this figure to show that Jesus is the Word of God upon whom the Christian feasts. However, a passage of Scripture that may have been more important for Calvin would have been Isaiah 55:1-3:
“Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in fatness.“
Calvin explained that references to eating and drinking are taken as figures for receiving divine teaching and thereby entering into an everlasting covenant. The idea that the Word of God should be understood as spiritual food and that the bread and wine were signs of that spiritual food is embedded in the biblical wisdom tradition. Near the beginning of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin says that its simple meaning is “our souls are fed by the teaching of the Gospel, the inner work of the Holy Spirit, and all other gifts of Christ.” If it is true that the Word of God is a sacred food and drink which nourishes unto eternal life, it is also true that this food is given both in the reading and preaching of Scripture and in the celebration of the Supper. In fact, according to Calvin, the Supper is a sign and seal that Christ is the Bread of Life for us today, just as it was a sign for the multitude of Galileans whom Jesus fed with loaves and fishes.
Even more important to the Bread of Life Discourse in the story of the feeding of the manna. The rabbis of New Testament times had richly elaborated and augmented the story of the feeding of the children of Israel with manna in the wilderness. We already find this in the Old Testament itself where manna is called the grain of heaven and the bread of angels (cf. Psalm 78:24-25) and in Deuteronomy the manna is understood sacramentally as a sign of the Word of God delivered on Mt. Sinai. God fed Israel with manna to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). The Law of Moses came down from heaven as a gracious gift from God to enlighten the people of Israel with sacred wisdom. Of this, the manna was the divinely given sign. However, the soul is fed now with earthly things, but God’s Word from heaven. Thus, a sapiential interpretation of the story of the manna demonstrates that the Word of God is clearly a heavenly or spiritual food. In the Bread of Life discourse, John contrasts the manna (which fed the bellies of the murmuring children of Israel) with the spiritual food believers receive from Christ in the ministry of Word and sacrament.
The last central theme of the Bread of Life Discourse is the Feast of Passover. At the beginning of John 6, John indicates that the event took place around the time of Passover. If we are to understand the sacrifice of Jesus in terms of Passover imagery, speaking of feeding on the Passover lamb comes quite naturally. Toward the end of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin recognizes the paschal theme and stated: “It would be of no use to us that the sacrifice was once offered, if we did not now feed upon that sacred feast.”
This should make it clear that Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper had a place for feeding on Christ. At the Supper, as Calvin sees it, we feed on the paschal lamb whose sacrifice atoned for the sin of the world. Hence, the Word of God is the Lamb of God, who by His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world. The paschal themes alluded to in the story of the feeding of the multitude and the Bread of Life Discourse becomes patent in John 6:51-58. The Supper reveals that the wisdom which nourishes to eternal life is the cross.
Here, the Passover imagery is essential for an understanding of this passage. The vicarious suffering of the Lamb of God is the sacred food which enable those who believe to pass from death to life. Hence, the proclamation that the Lamb of God who died for the sin of the world and is alive forevermore is the Gospel of salvation, the divine wisdom which unmasks the wisdom of this world. When this Word is received by faith, it is a sacred food that nourishes unto eternal life. This is the great feast of the children of God – to feed upon the Lamb of God. It is a feast kept in faith and by faith, for it is faith that feeds upon the divine Word, the holy Wisdom from on High.
The Lord’s Supper is not only a symbol of this truth. It is, to use Calvin’s words, “actually presented;” it is promised and sealed. When the bread and wine of the sacrament is offered, Christ is truly offered for salvation. When we accept it, the promise is sealed. The sermon and the Supper both proclaim the Lord’s death until Christ comes, and yet they are two distinct moments in our receiving God’s gracious gift of salvation. In the sermon, it is presented; in the Supper it is sealed. Thus, Calvin understands the Bread of Life Discourse to mean that in the worship of the Church, both in the sermon and the Supper, we feast upon the divine Wisdom – the wisdom revealed in the cross.
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.