The Lord’s Supper, the Hungry and John Calvin’s Commentary
Many Reformed churches and organizations are commemorating the 500th birthday of John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed branch of the Christian Church. Presbyterian Women have placed a liturgical insert in the new November/December Horizons issue, celebrating both women and Calvin’s birthday.
Dale Lindsay Morgan, the author of the liturgy, has written a dialogue between Calvin and several women. Taking Calvin’s words from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Lindsay Morgan allows Calvin to say, “just as old and bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision … can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles … will begin to read distinctly: so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds …clearly shows us the true God (1.6.1).”
Lindsay Morgan has the woman answer Calvin, “Put simply, the Bible expresses the word and will of God?” Of course Calvin, in this particular text, was not explaining that the Bible expresses the word and will of God, but rather he was explaining that since the Bible is the word of God, God uses it to clarify our various views about the divine and bring us to a true understanding of the Lord.
Just as the Presbyterian Women have allowed Calvin to make his appearance in their magazine, his commentary will untangle, for the reader of this review, several troubling knots existing in this issue of Horizons.
This newest issue is subtitled “Food: Understanding Hunger and Global Poverty.” The beginning devotional piece, “Breaking Bread, Sharing Meals, Giving Thanks,” taken from PC(USA)’s adult and high school curriculum, points toward the Lord’s Supper as the foundation for the coming articles on poverty and feeding the hungry. The devotional, theologically, is very problematic.
The main problem is the author’s attempts to tie all of the many meals shared by Jesus to the Lord’s Supper, thus opening communion to even those who do not have faith in Christ. The curriculum states, “The bread and wine is a shorthand for the many meals that Jesus shared with his followers—meals with Pharisees, meals with tax collectors, the feeding of the five thousand, the wedding at Cana, and the resurrection breakfast on the shore of Lake Galilee.” It should be pointed out that here the word “followers” is used rather loosely.
The curriculum goes on to explain that “Jesus taught us how to share the fundamental necessities of life …” But the author has missed the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and therefore the true reason the church seeks justice for the poor and hungry.
Two complementary views on communion offered by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion speak to the problem of serving communion to those who come without faith. One view is that those who come must be those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Calvin refers to communion as a sign of that spiritual food the believer is nourished with in their union with Christ. He explains that if a person comes having no faith in Christ, the spiritual food is “converted into the most noxious poison.”1
Calvin goes on to explain that the one taking communion must:
…descend into himself, and consider, first, whether, with inward confidence of heart, he leans on the salvation obtained by Christ, and with confession of the mouth, acknowledge it; and, secondly whether with zeal for purity and holiness he aspires to imitate Christ; whether, after his example, he is prepared to give himself to his brethren, and to hold himself in common with those whom he has Christ in common; whether, as he himself is regarded by Christ, he in turn regards all his brethren as members of his body, or, like his members, desires to cherish, defend, and assist them … (book IV, Chap. XVII., (40)
On the other hand, Calvin, with great care, insists that believers who come to the Lord’s Supper can only bring their sinful selves. Calvin writes:
Wherefore, the best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our vileness, and, if I may so speak, unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy; to despond in ourselves, that we may be consoled in him; to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him; to accuse ourselves that we may be justified by him; to aspire, moreover to the unity which he recommends in the Supper; and, as he makes us all one in himself, to desire to have all one soul, one heart, one tongue. (42)
Rather than a continuation of a community meal, the Supper is unique; it images Jesus’ gift of salvation. It is not a meal extended to all peoples no matter their relationship to or faith in Christ, but is a sacrament, a sign of Christ’s gracious redemption bought with his blood. Infinite mercy towards the believer calls for mercy. Out of this sense of God’s gracious gift to us, we are motivated to care for the needs of others including the hungry.
The first major article, “Eating with Jesus,” by Shannon Jung, has both helpful features and troubling features. The troubling features are theological, the helpful practical. Jung mentions both Kiva, “person-to-person loans for developing country cottage industries and farm-related sources,” as well as Heifer International. These are both good organizations. They help people earn their way to a better economic existence, thus giving them dignity as well as a helping hand.
Theologically, here the Lord’s Supper is understood as outreach to those who are not yet believers. Using scholar John Koenig, Jung writes that for the early church communion “was understood not as an internal, fellowship-oriented practice in isolation from its outward-looking and welcoming components.” Although there is a debate in the PC(USA) about allowing non-believers to receive communion, the idea is both unbiblical and un-Reformed.
Also, Jung uses a poor word choice when referring to the incarnation. He writes, “God adopts incarnate form in Jesus, knows our needs and provides for them.” Rather than adopting human flesh, God takes it on; human flesh becomes God. While one might understand Jung to mean God is adopting human form, still Jung says ‘incarnate form,’ unintentionally implying that God adopts Jesus.
The two articles following Jung’s are interesting in their contrast. The first, “Understanding the Global Food Crisis,” by Andrew Kang Bartlett, while compassionate and informative, is slanted toward the radical left’s economic and political views. The other article, “Another Look at Hunger: What Faithfulness Requires of Us,” by Hunter Farrell, is very balanced in its political outlook.
Bartlett’s article is meant to give an account of why the world is experiencing a food crisis at the moment. He writes that the global community needs “a complete overhaul of the food system.” Bartlett adds that “Changing the food system will take a transformation of ourselves, our power structures and democracy itself.” After naming all of the contributing factors, including over population, the use of food crops for biofuel, climate change and “speculation,” he points toward solutions.2
The term Bartlett uses as an overall solution is ‘food sovereignty.’ This term is in place of food security and has a wider meaning. On the web site of La Via Campesina  , a people’s movement commended by Bartlett, there is a very long statement about food sovereignty and La Via Campesina called the Declaration of Nyeleni  . Some of their definitions include this:
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
This all sounds good and some of it is. However if one looks at what La Via Campesina is against a different picture emerges. Their ideological outlook is radical socialism which includes the rejection of private ownership of property. The list of what they are against includes:
Imperialism, neo-liberalism, neo-colonialism and patriarchy, and all systems that impoverish life, resources and eco-systems, and the agents that promote the above such as international financial institutions, the World Trade Organisation, free trade agreements, transnational corporations, and governments that are antagonistic to their peoples …
The privatisation and commodification of food, basic and public services, knowledge, land, water, seeds, livestock and our natural heritage;
For a good alternative to Bartlett’s article see Michael Kruse’s series, “Cycle of Prosperity  ” at Kruse Kronicle: Commentary and Refection on ministry and culture In the twilight of Western Christendom  . Kruse is a member of General Assembly Council and serves “as the vice-chair of the denominational board for the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
Coming from a more balanced view, Hunter Farrell, in his article “Another Look at Hunger: What Faithfulness Requires of Us,” points at both the Communist regime that kept the people of Ethiopia from receiving much needed aid in the 1980’s, and the United States Government when “Central American policies increased hunger in the rural villages of Nicaragua.”
Farrell’s statement about missionaries William and Lucy Sheppard and Samuel Lapsley finding that “faithfulness to Jesus Christ” required a voice against corruption rings true because his views are not politically motivated toward either the right or left. Instead he seems concerned about faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and standing against unrighteousness in any form of government or institution.
There are other good articles in this Issue of Horizons. Anitra Kitts’s article, “Turning Over More Than Dirt: Gardening for the Future,” and “Give Them Something to Eat: Presbyterian Women Following Jesus’ Mandate” by Cleda Locey, are two interesting, compassionate, and helpful articles. However, they, and all other contributions to this magazine, are overshadowed by a major problem with the theology of the liturgical insert I have mentioned above.
The new “Celebrate the Gifts of Women: Sunday March 8, 2009,” resource is entitled “Celebrating Women During This Year of Calvin’s Jubilee.” The foremost problem is with the Bible translation used by Lindsay Morgan. It is the Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures, Volume III: The Writings. It is a gross misuse of the biblical text from a Hebrew or Christian point of view.
The text is Psalm 22:23-31. Using the NRSV I will show the differences in translations. Rather then the words, “You who fear the Lord, praise him,” are the words, “You who worship our God, give praise!” Instead of “From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him,” is “I will fulfill my vows in the presence of your worshipers.”
In place of “For dominion (translated kingdom in NAS) belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations,” is, “For yours is the kindom, You ruler of nations!” Rather than, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it,” is “But my children will be faithful to you, and they will be told about our God for generations to come. They will come and proclaim your justice to a people yet unborn: ‘All this our God has done!’”
Morgan, using this translation, directs the Women’s Celebration completely away from Jesus Christ. But this Psalm is reflective of Christ’s work of salvation and the Church’s generational praise of his deliverance not only from institutional bondage but from their own sin. This is a Psalm of David, which, in its first part, pictures the crucifixion.
Derek Kidner, author of Psalms 1-72: An Introduction & Commentary in the Tyndale series, writes of this Psalm, “No Christian can read this without being vividly confronted with the crucifixion. It is not only a matter of prophecy minutely fulfilled, but of the sufferer’s humility—there is no plea for vengeance—and his vision of a world-wide ingathering of the Gentiles. The Gelineau  translation entitles it ‘The suffering servant wins the deliverance of the nations.’”
Calvin agrees, writing, “Thus the psalm, in the two parts of which it consists, explains that prophecy of Isaiah, (Isaiah 53:8) ‘He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation?’”
The inclusive translation’s use of the generic word ‘God’ replaces Yahweh (Lord) and in verse 30 Adonai, (also Lord) thus eliminating the connection between the Lord of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus in the New Testament. 3 Jesus is referred to as Kyrios (Lord) in the New Testament, which is the word used in the Greek translation (LXX) of the Hebrew Bible in its reference to Yahweh and Adonai.
Adding to this gross neglect of the Hebrew and Christian understanding of the Lord’s name is the failure to use the word ‘fear.’ The failure eliminates a great deal of the meaning of the text. Calvin, explaining the reason for the line “You who fear the Lord, praise him!” in his commentary on the Psalms, writes:
But as hypocrites commonly thrust themselves into the church, and as on the barn-floor of the Lord the chaff is mingled with the wheat, he addresses himself expressly to the godly, and those who fear God. Impure and wicked men may sing the praises of God with open mouth, but assuredly, they do nothing else than pollute and profane his holy name. It were, indeed, an object much to be desired, that men of all conditions in the world would, with one accord, join in holy melody to the Lord. But as the chief and most essential part of this harmony proceeds from a sincere and pure affection of heart, none will ever, in a right manner, celebrate the glory of God, except the man who worships him under the influence of holy fear.
The elimination of the word ‘dominion’ for ‘kindom’ is seemingly an attempt to not only do away with the kingdom but to eliminate the King of Kings. Calvin is very conscious of the meaning of this text. He writes:
This passage, I have no doubt, agrees with many other prophecies which represent the throne of God as erected, on which Christ may sit to superintend and govern the world. Although, therefore, the providence of God is extended to the whole world, without any part of it being excepted; yet let us remember that he then, in very deed, exercises his authority, when having dispelled the darkness of ignorance, and diffused the light of his word, he appears conspicuous on his throne. We have such a description of his kingdom by the prophet Isaiah, “He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people.” (Isaiah 2:4)
In the Women’s Celebration service and the dialogue between Calvin and several women, Calvin and the women appear rather dull and uninteresting. This is because it is not really much of a dialogue, and in reality Calvin is dishonored because what he has to say is not taken seriously, or is twisted to fit the women’s conversation. As Dorothy Sayers, the late author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and of Christian plays, once wrote, “The Drama is in the dogma.”
It would be more nourishing and interesting if the great truths of Holy Scripture were presented and Calvin’s excellent commentary were used to help women belonging to the Presbyterian Church (USA) understand them. To do so would bring honor to faithful women, Calvin, and more importantly the Lord of the Church.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Trans, Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
2 Bartlett, in his footnote on “Speculation”, refers to a report before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs about the rise in oil and food prices, found here: http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/_files/052008Masters.pdf. The interesting thing about this testimony is that it is not just about speculation, but is about institutional investors or index speculation, and as a matter of fact is given by someone who didn’t want his investments in high energy uses hurt. For several other views and a lot of interesting graphs, see http://seekingalpha.com/article/79277-index-speculators-responsible-for-commodity-prices?source=side_bar_editors_picks, and http://themessthatgreenspanmade.blogspot.com/2008/05/fun-with-michael-masters-report.html.
3 See Calvin at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.xxviii.viii.html.
4 A helpful reference on the use of these words is B. Witherington III, “Lord,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, Editors Joel B. Green, Scit McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1992), 484-492.