Frequency of Communion in Geneva

(Andrew Dionne) #1

Before his banishment from Geneva in 1538, Calvin (and the other ministers) presented the magistrates of Geneva with an argument for monthly communion in “Articles concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva proposed by the Ministers at the Council” (Jan. 16, 1537). His often quoted statement about weekly communion is taken from this same document:

It would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday at least as a rule.

Yet, after arguing that the Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus for “a frequent exercise of our faith,” and disparaging the RCC for her perversion of the ordinance which led the people into superstition, he writes,

But because the frailty of the people is still so great, there is danger that this sacred and so excellent mystery be misunderstood if it be celebrated so often. In view of this, it seemed good to us, while hoping that the people who are still so infirm will be the more strengthened, that use be made of this sacred Supper once a month in one of three places where now preaching takes place, viz., St. Pierre, Riue or St. Gervais, in such a way that once a month it take place at St. Pierre, once at Riue, and once at St. Gervais, and then return in this order, having gone the round.

So, his actual proposal is for monthly communion—not weekly—based upon the weakness of the people. He goes on to write,

So that there be no cause for contempt, but this high mystery be treated with the greatest dignity possible, it has seemed to us the more advisable course, that the ministers of the Word, on whom the office of administering all that pertains to the mysteries of God properly belongs, distribute the bread and the wine, the form and sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord. And so that this take place with fitness and without confusion or impropriety, we have proposed to make it our duty to show and indicate such order as the people ought to observe; to advocate one that avoids confusion, and will supply you with means that will be found expedient, that things be well conducted and we come with such particular reverence as Paul commands us.

More important than frequency of communion was the reverent approach to the Table. As we argued in February (at the Shepherds’ Conference on worship), it seems clear that the weakness of the people and their inability to handle or even tolerate the lengthy service necessary for the reverent fencing of the Table led Calvin led the pastors of Geneva to this argument for monthly communion.

Then, after his return to Geneva in 1541, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances were put in place…and here’s its statement on frequency of communion:

Since the Supper was instituted by our Lord to be more often observed by us and also since this was the case in the early Church until such time as the devil upset everything by setting up the mass in its place, the defect ought to be remedied by celebrating it a little more frequently. All the same, for the time being we have agreed and ordained that it should be administered four times a year, i.e. at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the first Sunday in September in the autumn.

If you follow the link, it claims that edits and additions made by the magistrates of Geneva are bracketed. No bracket appears in the above section so it must have been Calvin’s direction that communion take place quarterly. I take it that the “we” of the above statement is the pastors of Geneva.

Not exactly the impression we get when reading moderns write about Geneva, her pastors, and the frequency they proposed for celebrating the Lord’s Table.

(Jason Andersen) #2

Fascinating. Thanks.

(Tim Bayly) #3

So helpful, Andrew. Let’s put this up on Warhorn with some few additional comments improving it even more for the benefit of readers. Love,

(Topher) #4

Thought provoking. The one thing that strikes about each of Calvin’s decisions is the contextual, ad hoc aspect. He doesn’t seem to suggest that anything, regarding the frequency of the Supper, is absolute. Now it’s this, now it’s that. If possible, if logistically possible, do it as much as you can; and, if not for the weakness of some church groups, again, do it frequently. “As often as you drink it” seems to leave the car open for some higher gears when you need them, if that makes sense. Calvin’s freedom seems apostolic.

I’m curious how the Moderns you speak of consider this: as absolute or within the bounds of freedom of conscience?


(Tim Bayly) #5

Better “the pastoral aspect.” Calvin was first a pastor, and his doctrine and exegesis invariably issued from love and care for the souls God called him to shepherd. Love,

(Topher) #6

Sure, sure, I assume being pragmatic on behalf of the people and their needs is a way of expressing love for them. Needs change, people develop or stay put in their suspicions. It’s pastoral to be ad hoc on some issues. The question for me is always “is this one of those issues?” I thought it interesting that Calvin seems to see it that way.

I see some Ministers still call Welches’ the Lord’s Blood, and wonder if Gatorade would pass as well.

(Andrew Dionne) #7

So many today invoke Calvin as the reformer who insisted on weekly communion but had to bend to make the magistrates happy. The situation seems far different when you read the primary sources.

Today, the practitioners of covenant renewal worship insist that communion must be both weekly and the height of the service. In both of those aspects it is way different than and in competition to worship in Geneva and Scotland.

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(Tim Bayly) #8

I guess it depends upon whether one believes sacramentalism is evil and destroys souls. Love,

(Topher) #9

I’m sorry, you lost me. Why does it depend on that question? Sacramentalism being, Roman or Lutheran or… ? Doing what the Lord commands seems always right, “this wine is…”. But, maybe I’m missing something. Can you clarify?

Are you saying that (for the sake of something to play off), what the Westminster Confession 29:vii calls the “outward senses” aren’t that important? So, Gatorade would be OK, because it’s the projection of faith of the believers in the ordinance that matters, not the elements used? Or, are you saying that Gatorade is from the devil? (Which it is, by the way, even if you don’t use it in the Lord’s Supper.) :).

(Topher) #10

Thanks for clarifying. I don’t read many modern historians, so I’m out of the loop on what the current assumptions are regarding these issues. Presbyterian Academics love their history, but there’s a tendency towards a kind of Example Heavy Historicism that gets quite, uh, tedious. I’ve fallen into that hole, on more than one occasion. So yeah, veritas en radice.

I suppose to INSIST on it is the problem; but to desire it, is that a problem? It sounds like Calvin would have liked to do it more frequently, but says he settles for this for now. I like his approach, which seems flexible, like Paul’s. Though, it sounds like there were times, throughout Europe, when weekly communion was practiced. Not as a rule, but because they could. I still wonder at the suspicions that are often placed around the Table, and the reluctance to enjoy it as a means of grace. Like Rabbi Duncan said, “This is for sinners.”

(Joseph Bayly) #11

The point is that some of the only things Calvin et al insisted on are precisely what many today reject while claiming to follow Calvin. Namely, the high point being the preaching, and the careful, intense, long, fencing of the table when the Lord’s supper is celebrated. If something had to be sacrificed, those things were far more important than celebrating it more frequently.

Why? Because of the dangers of sacramentalism.

Desire to celebrate it more often than Calvin? No problem. Insist on the necessity of celebrating it every worship service while simultaneously making it the high point of the service, deemphasizing the sermon, and refusing to fence the table? Remind me again who you claim to be following.

(Topher) #12

I wouldn’t have gathered this Point from the initial post, but OK. You are saying that a more frequent celebration puts people in danger of Sacramentalism? So, “they gave themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, etc” isn’t the model, Geneva is? Because people are susceptible to distorting the good.

Why do you impose the idea that more frequent celebration includes the debasing of other aspects? I never assumed any of that, as I was simply talking of the frequency of the Lord’s Supper.

Up to this point in the conversation, all I’ve done is point out how much I admire Calvin for his magnanimous approach to caring for the people. As far as I can tell, he didn’t Insist on anything regarding the frequency, but expressed a desire to do it more frequently, if I’m reading his words correctly: “for the time being”.

Calvin is a great theologian (perhaps greater than you are allowing) and had wonderful things to say, but even he would balk at your fighting over who gets to claim him as their own (which is why he had himself buried in an unmarked grave). “We are the true followers!” Seems petty. Why go for the throat, regarding who I follow? I haven’t said anything heterodox, I was having a conversation regarding the frequency of eating, something about which Calvin seems to NOT be absolute, one way or another.

(Joseph Bayly) #13

You misunderstand me. I’m not arguing with you. It is abundantly clear that Calvin desires the Lord’s supper to happen more often. You are precisely right that he didn’t make it absolute. The question is why?

The answer is merely that there were competing elements that he found more important. The point is not to claim to be the “true” follower of Calvin. The point is that those who trot Calvin out to justify their own absolutizing of the necessity of it happening weekly are not even in the same ballpark as him.


(Topher) #14

I misunderstood your question regarding who I follow? Was that sincere? If I said “Apollo”, would that make it alright?

It seems to me the weakness of the people, was Calvin’s primary concern, not the issue of Sacramentalism per se. They may have distorted the good, but what if they weren’t distorting the good, as the possibility exists that a church can actually be mature in their understanding of these things and NOT undervalue or put aside the other aspects of worship. I attended a PCA church for many years that expressed this very well.

Why make an issue of Sacramentalism (and even the possibility that some Moderns aren’t actually following Calvin’s EXAMPLE), when given a change in CIRCUMSTANCE, Calvin would have most likely practiced more frequently? Is it possible that the Moderns referenced are actually following Calvin’s MIND more closely than those who read his ad hoc decisions follow his EXAMPLE? If ideas are free (good ones included), they may just require the right TIME.

Historicism is always a tough place for ethical debate.


(Joseph Bayly) #15

Yes, you most certainly misunderstood my question. It was both rhetorical and not addressed to you but to those who make a big deal out of following Calvin’s principles while their practice is nothing like his.

Nor is it hard to see that the things Calvin refused to sacrifice for the sake of weekly communion are precisely the things being sacrificed by many who practice weekly communion today. The change in circumstance you mention has not happened. The people are still too weak to stand for the length of weekly service necessary to accomplish the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in an acceptable manner in Calvin’s principles.

(Jeremy Vander Galien) #16

I was for a season, about 7 or 8 years ago, becoming convinced by the covenant renewal folks, especially their arguments for weekly communion. It is the issue of Calvin’s pastoral care and sense that saved my bacon.

Particularly, in Iain Murray’s, The Old Evangelicalism," in speaking of preaching the law, “‘A man may be held too long under Johns the Baptist’s water,’ Thomas Goodwin once observed, and so may congregations…The needs of no two congregations are identical…wisdom is needed to stop us swinging from one extreme to another.”

While he wasn’t writing about the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, the principle holds. The things commanded by God, like frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper, need wisely applied with pastoral love and wisdom. I have really come to love Calvin for this. He’s a pastor of pastors.

Many (most?) of the sins I’ve committed as pastor, husband, and father have been in applying needed reform too hastily and without needed wisdom and love for those that I am charged to lead. I’m thankful for men like Calvin that are too often lauded as these radical, take-no-prisoners, sort of reformers, when in reality he was just a wise and loving pastor of souls.

(Daniel Meyer) #17

“Slow, steady steps of obedience,” someone once counseled me.

(Topher) #18

I see now that I’ve stepped into a larger, Denominational conversation. My initial reflections were on the freedom of conscience allowed by Calvin, and a recognition of what appears to me to be a personal desire on his part for a more frequent practice.

What the particulars of are of the “moderns” or the local churches you are talking about are, I have no idea. So, you can bang on about them. I’ll move along.

I suppose the conclusion may be that both the moderns AND Calvin are off the mark. Calvin might have been too extreme in Fencing the table and how ever many minutes you are talking regarding the Table time stuff. He may have still been too Roman {Hellenic really} himself.

(Christopher Preston) #19

Perhaps this needs split into a new topic; but I’m curious about the covenant renewal worship discussion. What is it exactly, and what’s wrong with it? (I have a feeling I agree with many here… I’m just seeking to learn more)

(Andrew Dionne) #20

New Warhorn Media post by Andrew Dionne: