I’ve spoken with many who would hold to the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The question that I often ask is: what do you mean that Jesus is really present?
Many, in an attempt to shy away from transubstantiation (the belief that the substance of the elements is “transformed” into the physical body of Christ), articulate that Christ is present only “spiritually”. And what they usually mean by this is that Christ is only present in his spirit or soul, but not his body.
The problem with this is that this articulation comes awfully close to an assortment of christological heresies. If Christ be truly human, then he must have a unity of body and soul. But if, for instance, Christ was only God using a human body as a puppet (something akin to the Apollinarianism heresy), and he can “ditch” his body to be spiritually present, then he is not truly human. So, if by “real presence”, we only mean “spiritual presence”, we are veering the wrong way.
So then, how is Christ “truly”, “really”, “actually” present in the Lord’s Supper? Calvin, in his Institutes, tried to articulate this in such a way that (1) did not align with the doctrine of transubstantiation, but (2) did not fall to the other ditch of “spiritual” presence.
I am… not satisfied with those people who, having confessed that we have some kind of communion in the body of Christ, want to show that the sacrament makes us participants only of His Spirit, abandoning all memory of His flesh and blood. As if these things were said for nothing: that “His flesh is food, His blood is drinl”‘; that “no one will have life except the one who has eaten this flesh and drunk this blood;’ and other similar sentences [Jn. 6:53-56]…
Nevertheless we must not imagine this communication to be the way [transubstantiation]: as if the body of Christ descended onto the table and were set there in local presence to be touched with hands, chewed with teeth, and swallowed up in the stomach. For we do not doubt that it has its own (finite) limits as the nature of a human body requires, and that body is contained in heaven where it was received until He will come for judgment. So we also believe that it is not lawful to bring Him down among the corruptible elements or to imagine that He is present everywhere. (John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition. Kindle Locations 9316-9319, 9276-9279. Kindle Edition)
This is such an important passage. Calvin does away with two dichotomies in this passage. On the one hand, Christ cannot simply be present by way of his soul. This cannot be so, if Christ is truly human! But also, Christ cannot be present by way of transubstantiation. If Christ has risen and is seated at the right hand of the Father, then his physical presence is limited to that location. He cannot be in the elements, because he is seated in the heavenly places! For Calvin, Christ’s humanity limits him to this location.
The question then becomes: how can Christ be truly and actually present, if he is at the right hand of God the Father?
Indeed that (transubstantiation) is not necessary, in order for us to participate in His body, since the Lord Jesus richly pours out by His Spirit the benefit that we are made one with Him in body, spirit, and soul. Therefore the bond of this joining is the Holy Spirit, by whom we are united together, and He is like a canal or channel by which all that Christ is and possesses comes down to us.3 For if with our eyes we perceive that when the sun shines on the earth it somehow sends its substance by its rays to engender, nourish, and bring to life the earth’s fruits, why would the light and brilliance of the Spirit of Jesus Christ be less able to bring us the communication of His flesh and blood? That is why when scripture speaks of the participation which we have with Christ it brings all the power of that participation back to His Spirit. However, one passage will suffice for all the others. In the eighth chapter of Romans St. Paul declares that Christ dwells in us in no other way than by His Spirit (Rom. 8  ). Nevertheless in doing that he does not destroy this communication with Jesus Christ’s body and blood which is the question we are discussing now, but he shows that the Spirit is the sole means by which we possess Christ and have Him living in us. In the Supper the Lord testifies to us such a communication of His body and blood. Indeed, He offers it to all who receive this spiritual banquet, even though it is only the faithful who participate in it because they make themselves worthy of such a benefit by true faith. That is the reason the apostle says that the bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ, the cup which we sanctify by the words of the gospel and by prayers is the communion of His blood (i Cor. io). (Kindle Locations 9321-9330)
So, how is Christ present in this sacrament? What Calvin says, is that Christ’s entire person is readily united to us and us to him by the Holy Spirit. Now, just to clarify, when Calvin says “Spirit”, he does not mean Jesus’ soul — what he means is the Holy Spirit, third person of the Trinity. And so, in the Lord’s Supper — rather than Christ descending to the elements — we are, as it were, brought up to him by the Spirit, and united to his body and blood.
What Calvin also says is that this union is not limited to the Lord’s Supper — this happens at the point of salvation. Rather, in the Lord’s Supper, this mysterious union is strengthened. It is ratified. It is solidified by the Spirit. As we visually encounter the elements, and by faith partake, our union with Christ is further strengthened. The Lord’s Supper is an intimate, climactic, deep and real union with the risen Christ! It is when the bride comes into union with her Husband.
Calvin says this of the purpose of the sacrament:
We call it either the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, because in this we are spiritually fed and nourished by the kindness of our Lord, and on our part we give Him thanks for His beneficence. The promise which is given to us in the Supper shows clearly for what purpose it has been instituted and what its goal is, that is, it assures and confirms for us that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for us once in such a way that it is now ours and it will be so perpetually; and that His blood was poured out for us once so that it is and always will be ours. (Kindle Locations 9146-9149)