Both Luther and Calvin were clear on the solas of the Reformation. That is, they both believed in the biblical teaching that we are saved by grace alone (in Latin: sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria), and that the ultimate authority for Christians is Scripture alone (sola scriptura). The main disagreement between Lutherans and Reformed Christians (Calvin was only one of a number of Reformed leaders) was about the Lord’s Supper. The Lutheran doctrine held that when Christ said “This is my body” at the Last Supper, his physical human body truly was there somehow, in, with, and under the bread – and it is so today whenever the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.
Reformed theologians demurred at this, because for them it was vital that Christ’s physical body is now located in only one place, in heaven at the right hand of God (as the Bible and the Creeds state). If it was not there but everywhere, on every altar at every moment when the Supper is consumed, then Christ’s body is not like our body. We cannot be in two places at once, never mind in thousands! And if Christ is not in possession of a truly human body, but one which has been somehow “souped-up” by being in contact with his divinity, this not only affects our understanding of the Supper but also our understanding of who Jesus is. And, Calvin would say, it means he cannot be our Saviour and Representative, because he is not truly God and truly man.
So, the differences between Lutherans and Reformed theologians such as Calvin on this issue were not just small matters, but could go to the very heart of salvation. Interestingly, Anglicanism follows Calvin and the Reformed on this subject, as the Book of Common Prayer shows. Many English Reformers went to the stake during the Reformation not for justification by faith alone, but because they said that the bread and wine in communion are bread and wine alone; and that in the Lord’s Supper we feed on Christ only in our hearts by faith, not literally and physically.
Dr Lee Gatiss, lecturer in church history at Union School of Theology,
and author of the recent book Light After Darkness: How the Reformers Regained,
Retold, and Relied on the Gospel of Grace (Christian Focus)