Calvinism and Eucharistic Sacrifice

Anyone who reads the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc.), knows that they used the language of ‘sacrifice’ to describe the Eucharist. The Protestant Reformers also read the fathers, and read them more thoroughly than most of us today. As recent scholarship in Post-Reformation Reformed theology has shown, for all the confessional agreement among the Reformers, there was some diversity of opinion on a number of important issues (see this volume for example). One of these areas of diversity is the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.

If you are familiar with the influence of continental Reformers on the English Reformation, you will have heard of Peter Martyr Vermigli. An Florentine by birth, Vermigli was a former Augustinian monk and abbot, trained in the via Thomæ at the University of Padua. He was one of the leading figures in church reform in Rome, being appointed by the Pope along with Reginald Pole and Gasparo Contarini to an ecclesiastical commission with the duty to bring about moral reform among the clergy. After reading Luther, Bucer, Calvin and others Vermigli began teaching Reformation theology to the monks under his cure at the monastery of San Frediano in Lucca, and after the failure of the Regensburg Colloquy to bring about unity between Lutherans and Catholics, he was forced to abscond north of the Alps with the Inquisition in hot pursuit. He eventually made it to England, where his mark on the English Reformation was made on the Prayer Book, most explicitly in his authorship of the second exhortation (third in the 1928 BCP). One of Vermigli’s students, Girolamo Zanchi, would remain in Lucca, but after ten years also made the journey to Protestant lands. The two of them would become two of the leading Reformed scholastics, modeling much of their theology on the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas.

In light of the close relationship between teacher and former student, it is interesting to note one difference in their theology of Eucharistic sacrifice. Luther famously rejected the language of sacrifice from his German Mass due to what he perceived as the abuse of ‘sacrificing priests’ among Roman Catholics. The English and continental Reformers retained this language to some extent, but many were still hesitant to use it.

Vermigli discusses the nature of sacrifice in one of the loci of his commentary on the book of Judges, published in 1561. In it he agrees with the early church fathers that the Eucharist is both a sacrament and a sacrifice, even admitting that it is a proper sacrifice. He says:

Insofar as by the same act [i.e., the Eucharist] we celebrate the memory of Christ’s death, give him thanks for gifts received, and consecrate and offer ourselves to God, it is and may be called proper sacrifice by which we give most acceptable oblations to God himself (‘Of Sacrifice’ in McLelland and Duffield, Peter Martyr, 313.)

So, the Eucharist may be termed a ‘sacrifice’ because of the ‘acceptable oblations’ that are offered to God within it, and the commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, though Vermigli insists that Christ Himself is not offered in the Supper. He says there are four oblations in the sacrament. (1) The bread and wine and other alms, as he notes are mentioned by Irenaeus and Cyprian as sacrifices. (2) The giving of thanks, which is a sacrifice of praise. (3) The offering of ourselves, both soul and body, to God, which is a sacrifice mentioned by St. Paul. And lastly, (4) the Eucharist is a commemorative sacrifice.

Though he admits that these are sound reasons for using the term ‘sacrifice’ of the Eucharist, in the end he rejects the term. He says, “I would not use [the terms ‘sacrifice’ and ‘immolation’], since holy scripture does not call it so, and we should not rashly depart from its phraseology” (ibid., 314). In other words, though Scripture mentions sacrifice in the four ways Vermigli notes above, it does not explicitly tie those four ways to the administration of the Eucharist itself. Nor, Vermigli notes in passing, does it refer to the ministers as ‘priests.’

Though the prophet Malachi prophesied concerning the sacrifice (Minchah) that would be made “in every place” in the New Covenant, Vermigli sees contradictions in the church fathers’ interpretation of this passage. He says that Irenaeus refers to the sacrifice as Eucharistic, applying it to the bread and wine. Whereas Tertullian and Jerome see it as a description of the Christian life itself as a universal sacrifice. So, he concludes, there is no explicit biblical warrant for applying the term ‘sacrifice’ to the Eucharist. It may be used generally of all Christian praise, thanksgiving, and remembrance of Christ, but not specifically of the Eucharist itself. One might quickly point out here that the term ‘sacrament’ is also not explicitly used in Scripture in reference to the Eucharist, and so Vermigli’s reference to the Eucharist as a ‘sacrament’ but not a ‘sacrifice’ would appear to reveal an inconsistency on his part.

Zanchi takes a different approach to the word ‘sacrifice’ than his former teacher. Though he mentions Vermigli in his writings – always in a positive light – Zanchi advocates for the Eucharist as a ‘sacrifice’. In the locus De sacrificio Christi in his commentary on Ephesians, Zanchi says it is an error to say that in the Eucharist a true propitiating sacrifice is made, nor does the minister offer up Christ in any real way. For, Christ offered up Himself once for all, and His sacrifice is perfectly sufficient, not needing any additional offering to provide an atonement for the sins of the whole world. If the fathers speak of offering up Christ, this is not to be taken literally, but mystically and sacramentally. That is, Christ is offered up through the consecrated symbols of bread and wine, but not physically – nor is He offered ‘really,’ a term that for Vermigli, Zanchi, and Cranmer denoted ‘physically’ and ‘corporeally’ because it was used to describe a physical body.

When it comes to the interpretation of Malachi chapter three, Zanchi does not see a contradiction between Irenaeus and Tertullian, as Vermigli had. Rather, he believes that the prophesy refers to both Eucharistic sacrifice and general sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, because the Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving. So, “the whole of this sacrifice is truly unbloody,” that is, Zanchi sees the whole action of consecration and offering, not only of the minister, but the whole church as constituting the whole of Eucharistic sacrifice. So, ‘sacrifice’ does not properly refer either to the offering of bread and wine, or thanksgiving, but both.

Then Zanchi, like Vermigli, refers to the Eucharist as a four-fold sacrifice of thanksgiving and alms, self, and commemoration, adding one more, that of participation. He says “we rightly judge that it is best to call the Supper the unbloody sacrifice of Christ, even though the true body of Christ is not really offered in itself.” Why, then, if the real body of Christ is not offered, is it a true sacrifice? For this point, Zanchi quotes a large portion from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, q. 83, art. 1., to argue with Thomas, that the Eucharist is an image of Christ’s true sacrifice, one that becomes a true sacrifice itself because the image participates in the reality. For, “the images are called by the names of the things of which they are the images.” And, so by means of this sacramental participation of image within reality (signum et res), the Eucharist may rightly be called a ‘sacrifice.’ Zanchi says that “everything here [in St. Thomas’ argument] is purer than those [arguments] handed down by the Council of Trent.”

Though Zanchi does not believe that Christ is truly offered up in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, he does believe that the image of Christ, which truly participates in the true offering of Christ on Calvary, is offered up. So, by the communication of properties between image and reality, it is not improper to speak of offering up Christ, as long as the distinction between image and reality is made clear by way of explanation. He says:

What if someone should say that this sacrifice [of the Eucharist], which has been termed a propitiating one, is offered to God by the whole church, or even by the priest (as they say) himself in the name of the whole church in the public assembly. [If it is said] in this sense, of course, that each person, content with the sacrifice of Christ alone, once offered to the Father for our sins, yields the whole [sacrifice] to it, and so implores the Father, that He might acknowledge Himself contented with [Christ’s] single sacrifice, by the public commemoration of which is celebrated in the Lord’s Supper, both with words and rites, in place of all the oblations, satisfactions, works, and lastly of all of the things that can be thought by humanity to be for the expiation of our sins and necessary for eternal salvation. [If someone should say] this, we will in no way dispute with them. For is anyone that attends to the matter itself able to disapprove of this? Indeed, the whole of Christian piety consists in the offering [oblatione] of this kind of sacrifice.”

Here we see how far Zanchi is willing to go to accommodate the traditional language of Eucharistic sacrifice handed down by the church fathers. Zanchi does not disapprove of calling the Eucharist a propitiating sacrifice, as long, that is, as it is made perfectly clear that this is spoken figuratively, because of the relationship between the image and the reality, so that nothing is detracted from the one true sacrifice of Christ that needs no repetition. The whole congregation, including the minister who makes the offering on its behalf, offers the image of Christ’s propitiating sacrifice by pleading the Father that He would see all of our offerings of thanksgiving (or whatever else we think to offer for our salvation) in the light of Christ’s one true sacrifice.

As he says elsewhere, in his treatise on Christian sacrifice, “[The Eucahrist is an] unbloody sacrifice for sins, for sins I say, not by propitiation, but by means of the propitiation performed by Christ being represented, is a sacrifice of penance to God, and of faith in Christ with prayer for pardon by means of Christ.” In this way, Zanchi’s opinion agrees less with Vermigli, and more with the English Reformer, John Jewel (another student of Vermigli’s), who said, “Thus we offer up Christ, that is to say, an example, a commemoration, a remembrance of the death of Christ. This kind of sacrifice was never denied; but M. Harding’s real sacrifice was yet never proved.” (Jewel, Reply to Harding, 1565).

Fr. Eric is the Rector of St. Paul's Anglican Church in Lexington, VA. A native of southern Mississippi, he holds an M.A. in Theology from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Religion from McGill University. He has co-authored a book on Nicholas of Cusa and authored various academic and online articles. He is married to Aubrey and they have three lovely children.

'Calvinism and Eucharistic Sacrifice' have 5 comments

  1. August 24, 2019 @ 1:50 pm Kenneth Howes

    The Lutheran Reformers rejected the idea of a propitiatory sacrifice in the Eucharist. However, they never held that there was not a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to him in the Communion service. The sacrament itself–the giving and receiving of Christ’s Body and Blood–is not a sacrifice, but a sacrament, in that we are not giving God anything; we are receiving his Body and Blood which he has given us.


    • July 8, 2020 @ 5:57 pm Aaron

      And yet, the actions surrounding the sacrament are ‘sacrificial’. As St. Paul teaches us that even his preaching of the Gospel (i.e., word and sacrament) is a priestly ‘work’ offered to God (sacrifice) — indicating that perhaps Luther’s insistence that there be a “sharp” distinction between the two is misplaced. It is true that the Eucharist is at all times, both/and Sacrament and Sacrifice… but only when we look at it from two-different angles and do not confuse the perspectives.

      > The Eucharist as Body and Blood shed and broken for us is The Sacrifice of Calvary, made present for us to eat and drink, The Sacrifice that makes all other sacrifices possible. (The only God-to-us direction in the Eucharist, and thus the most important.)
      > The Eucharist as bread and wine brought forth from us to be offered to God (a gift which originated from Him) for such a holy purpose as fellowship with Him and with one-another is a sacrifice.
      > The Eucharist as the prayers and praise offered in Thanksgiving for the Mighty works God has done in Christ (through the Holy Spirit) for our Salvation is our responsory sacrifice.

      All of these things are “Sacrifice”, all of them Eucharistic, and all of them soldily Lutheran.


  2. October 7, 2019 @ 12:01 pm Dr. John

    “The Lutheran Reformers rejected the idea of a propitiatory sacrifice in the Eucharist.”

    And yet, the Communion Liturgy’s ‘comfortable words’ (1928 BCP, sadly lacking in the ’79) state that Christ is the ‘propitiation for our sins.’ All of what Christ does, and continues to do, (even as propitiatory sacrifice) even in the Eucharistic Sacrifice ‘of praise and thanksgiving,’ cannot be bound by philosophical terms from the 16th Century, no matter what version of ‘Romeaphobia’ someone might have been taught. Just saying.


  3. May 25, 2021 @ 2:27 pm Dr. Dom

    Missing is the Catholic “plus” that what is offered at the Eucharistic sacrifice is the very Christ laying on the altar, at the time of the celebration. This prevents putting the lie to the words of Christ since he said what was in the chalice is “my blood of the covenant” (sacrificial offered body and blood). Thus the “this” the Apostles must carry out is precisely and properly that Eucharistic sacrifice, and you might have mentioned the importance of the Didache in confirming the Eucharistic sacrifice is the one foretold by Yahweh at Mal. 1:11 which alone — I hasten to add — pleases Him.


  4. May 31, 2021 @ 3:13 am Bruce Bridgewood

    The title of this article is somewhat misleading. It tells us nothing about what either Calvin or any of his followers believed about the Holy Sacrifice !!


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