"Grace and Gratitude" by B.A. Gerrish - a Review

Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin
B.A. Gerrish
Fortress Press
(Reprinted by: Wipf and Stock
199 West 8th Avenue, Suite 3
Eugene, OR 97401-2960
(Old ISBN: 978-0800625689) New ISBN: 978-1-59244-013-9; (May 1993) August 2002; $25.00

Clarifies Calvin
5 stars out of 5

There are very few books that I read more than once, outside of the Scriptures, the Book of Common Prayer, or C.S. Lewis. Therefore, it is quite phenomenal that B.A. Gerrish’s “Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin” has so soundly captured my attention. I first read this book in 1998 at the recommendation of one of my seminary professors at the time. Since then I have come back to it in 2000, 2005 and now in 2014. Gerrish, John Nuveen Professor Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, states his agenda clearly and masterfully sticks to it, “I am ( . . .) concerned to show that the theme of grace and gratitude, presented in the words and actions of the Eucharist, shapes [Calvin’s] entire theology and makes it from beginning to end a eucharistic theology” (vii), and that “”John Calvin was a good interpreter of plain Christianity” (x). The work is, as should be obvious, primarily a plunge into historical theology, while being very warm and pastoral.

In the first chapter of “Grace and Gratitude” the author peals away the academic and theological obsessions over Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, as well as the heat of Calvin’s polemical rhetoric, to draw the reader into what he sees as the governing or guiding framework of Calvin’s theology, “Calvin was determined to do theology within the limits of piety alone. ( . . . ) In itself, the meal is a gift of God, but – like every gift – it is also an invitation to give thanks. ( . . . ) The cardinal role of grace and gratitude is not surprising, since piety or godliness, as Calvin understands it, is grateful acknowledgment of the father’s gifts. Piety and its renewal as faith in Christ – this is the subject of Calvin’s pietatis summa. The holy banquet is simply the liturgical enactment of the theme of grace and gratitude that lies at the heart of Calvin’s entire theology, ( . . . )” (18-20).

Gerrish then hikes his way through the mountainous territory of Calvin’s descriptions of God as Father (and in places, as motherly), “in the Reformation era Calvin was preeminently the theologian of divine fatherhood” (27). As the author notes, this is not an image of power or authority, but a father-image reflecting “devoted affectionate care” (28). The fatherliness of God is demonstrated in creation as an act of his pure goodness; in his providence where he tends the world with the same loving care with which he made it; and in that humanity was placed into this world to be the favored inheritors of the Father’s special care (30). Therefore part and parcel with being made in the image of God, humankind was created to be thankful for God’s multiple, parental, loving goodnesses, and the fall with its destructive, multi-generational consequences, is characterized by thanklessness (41), “by seeking more than was granted to him, Adam shamefully spurned the great bounty of God that had been lavished upon him. ( . . . ) In this sense, the divine image was lost: the reflection is no longer there” (46).

In the third chapter of “Grace and Gratitude” the author hammers out God’s remedy to the fall of Adam by showing that, if “the first step to piety is to recognize God as father and to live in thankful devotion to him, it must be added next that, to Calvin’s mind, there is no way for fallen humanity to take this step except through faith in Jesus Christ. Authentic, eucharistic humanity is a real possibility only through the grace of reconciliation” (51). Christ is the Father’s true Son, and so to be unattached to Christ – or apart from Christ – is to find God opposed to us, while being united to Christ – in Christ alone – is to find God favorably disposed toward us (53). Further, to be reconciled to God is to be drawn, through Christ, into the Father’s delight, for “Christ holds the name of “son” by right, but he shares this honor with us, and God will recognize as his sons and daughters those who have received his only-begotten Son, ( . . . ) Whatever is his by nature then becomes ours  by grace” (61). Men and women enter into this favorable disposal of God by faith, where we “place our confidence in God only when we are convinced (by faith) that he loves us and wants to be our father, which means, only as we know him in Christ” (65-6). But as we look to Christ, we should not think of him as standing far off. Instead, by being united to Christ through faith, we are to grasp that he “dwells within us, makes us participate not only in the good things that are his but in his very self, so that his righteousness overwhelms our sins, and by a wonderful communion that is more than just fellowship (societas) he grows into a single body with ourselves” (73-4). In other words, by this participation in Christ we borrow life from him (ibid.). And the instrument that God uses to impart grace, bring this faith into being and affect our union with Christ is through his word, for the “word of God, in Calvin’s thinking, assumes the function that medieval theology ascribed to the sacraments. In this sense, it is the sacramental word” (76). The word of God, for Calvin, is not simply an authoritarian standard by which God says, “do this, don’t do that,” but rather, has in it “a vital efficacy, and it is the appointed instrument by which the Spirit imparts illumination, faith, awakening, regeneration, purification, and so on” (85).

Beginning in the fourth chapter, Gerrish draws us to the first of the two dominical sacraments: Baptism, the visible sign of our adoption into the family of God. As he pointed out early on, a “sacrament is first and foremost an act of God or Christ rather than of the candidate, the communicant, or the church” (8). Therefore, in this fourth chapter Gerrish exhibits Calvin’s meaty sacramental theology, for through “the instrumentality of the symbols God truly fulfills (praestat) what he promises, but without resigning to them the primary operation, which remains his” (106). The word of God verbalized (preaching) is an instrument of grace in the same way as the word of God visualized (sacrament); “Justification rests in Christ alone, and is communicated to us no less by the preaching of the gospel than by the seal of the sacraments. The difference between word and sacrament is simply that the sacraments picture what the word declares; namely, the content of the promises in Jesus Christ, or simply Christ himself, who is the matter or substance of the sacraments” (106-7). The function of the sacraments, just like the function of the word of God, for Calvin, are no different: they both offer and present Christ to us and the inexhaustible grace of God found only in him; yet neither confers anything or is of use, unless Christ is received by faith through them (Ibid.). The author then pushes to lay out Calvin’s defense of infant baptism. Whether the reader accepts or rejects infant baptism, the point with regard to baptism becomes clear and poignant, that Calvin affirmed unambiguously “that God is the agent of Baptism, addressing us through the sign” (112). Baptism is primarily about grace, not the baptizand’s faith.

The final two chapters of “Grace and Gratitude” focus solely on the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Gerrish is at great pains to describe how, for Calvin, nothing new is offered with the sacramental banquet. We are already united to Christ, participating in him through the word of God received by faith. But because our communion with Christ is not whole or perfect presently, but grows, shrinks, waivers and at times feels watery thin, the Supper is “a matter of nourishing, sustaining, and increasing a communion with Christ to which the word and baptism have initiated the children of God” (134). For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper (1) is a gift; (2) the gift is Jesus Christ himself; (3) the gift (Jesus) is given with the signs; (4) the gift is given by the Holy Spirit; (5) it is given to all who communicate; (6) and the gift is received by faith (135-8). The author describes the differences between Calvin and Zwingli, Calvin and Luther, and Calvin and Rome. What becomes clear is that Calvin, Luther and Rome where closer together than were Zwingli and Calvin. To put it simply, Zwingli’s position seems to have hammered out the real absence of Christ in the Supper, whereas Calvin, Luther and Rome held to Christ’s real presence; with the debate being more about how he is present. In Calvin’s mind “it cannot be doubted that for him a sign is the guarantee of a present reality” (168). Just as the sun and the sun’s rays are distinct, yet they cannot be divorced; in the same way, the sign and the substance it promises, are given together (177-8). And because the sacrament comes as the gift of God, then the proper sacrifice offered in the Supper, by the worshippers, is the oblation of thanksgiving (145-56).

Gerrish also makes a helpful distinction between the differing parties within the Reformed camp. For Zwingli, and those who follow him closely, the conception of sacramental sign is that it is symbolic memorialism. For Bullinger, and those who follow him closely (like the Heidelberg Catechism), it is symbolic parallelism. Finally, for Calvin, and those sticking close to him, it is symbolic instrumentalism (167). I have found these distinctions extremely helpful over the years, but the reader will be forced to look in another of Gerrish’s writings for these three distinctions to be fully explained (“The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage”).

“Grace and Gratitude” is an advantageous book, not just for the historical theologian, but for pastors and thoughtful readers. Whether or not a reader agrees with Calvin – or Gerrish for that matter – they will be deepened and affected by Calvin’s warm piety. It just may be that after reading through this book you will come to the Supper with a whole new appreciation for God’s goodness. It just may be that while receiving the bread and wine your heart will become strangely warmed, and you will find yourself grateful for the grace of God given to you: Jesus Christ. Echoing a voice that once spoke to someone else long ago, I say tolle lege, take and read.

[Feel free to publish, republish or re-post this review. But as always, please give credit where credit is due. Mike]


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