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