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Faith and Eucharist: Aquinas and Calvin In Harmony

April 25, 2008
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I recently presented (in class) a study concerning the placement of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin within Henri de Lubac’s historical scheme (in his Corpus Mysticum). I concluded that they were men of there times but that they both retained a strong ecclesiology.  I also concluded the following:  Neither Thomas nor Calvin believed Christ’s presence to be confined to the Eucharist.  Both men saw the faith of the believer and the unity of the Church through the Holy Spirit to be the reality behind the sacrament.  Both considered Christ’s presence to be beyond comprehension, thus only with spiritual anatomy (i.e. Thomas’ spiritual eyes and Calvin’s spiritual mouth) can believers commune with the divine reality.  Neither affirmed a physical presence or even a local presence, and both adamantly agreed that only through faith can one truly partake of Christ.  The main source of disagreement is the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Calvin understood it as “that fictitious transubstantiation for which today they fight more bitterly than for all the other articles of their faith.” (Institutes, IV.17.13)  However, it remains to be shown that Calvin had the particular teaching of Aquinas in mind or whether he sought an answer to those common beliefs of Medieval Catholics, who were perhaps influenced by the different theories of Scotus and Ockham.  In his Institutes Calvin argues against those “Papists” who hold to a local presence of Christ and the annihilation of the substance of the bread – two ideas that Aquinas believed to be erroneous.  It is also interesting to think what Calvin might judge of Catherine Pickstock’s reading of Aquinas on transubstantiation – that his reliance on the esse/essentia distinction transcends that of substance/accidents.

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