Fundamental to Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. But how this actually plays out in time and space became a point of debate and division during the Reformation.
Dr. KJ Drake, sessional assistant professor of history, has spent the last six years digging into this doctrine, coined the extra Calvinisticum, culminating with the release of his book The Flesh of the Word: the extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy.
“To be divine is to be everywhere,” says Drake. “God is not bound by time or space. He is eternal and omnipresent. But human beings are local, we’re finite, we’re limited. Christ took on everything it was to be a human being as well. So how does that work out?”
God is not bound by time or space. He is eternal and omnipresent. But human beings are local, we’re finite, we’re limited.
This question became an important one during the Reformation as the Lutheran and Reformed branches of Protestantism debated how Christ could be present in the Eucharist. What appeared to be a debate about the Lord’s Supper was actually more about the very nature of Jesus. Drake explores this deep debate in his book.
“What the Reformed are arguing is that Christ is simultaneously present in his human body as a man, and at the same time, present everywhere in his divine nature as the eternal Son. And this is important because certain positions of Lutheranism argue that Christ’s human body becomes omnipresent so that he can be at all the altars bodily throughout the world,” he says.
The topic, though foundational to the Christian faith, is not one that has been extensively researched or written about, particularly prior to 2010. Drake’s book, a high-level academic work meant mostly for specialists, is the most comprehensive on the 16th-century history of the topic that exists.
“The name extra Calvinisticum can trick us into thinking this is just about Calvin. Calvin actually doesn’t talk much about the doctrine because he relied on other figures to explain it more fully,” says Drake. “I expand the discussion beyond Calvin to look at its origination in Zwingli, who was one of the first Protestant Reformers outside of Germany, and then other figures throughout the Reformed tradition, to show that this wasn’t a peculiar doctrine of Calvin that he kind of mentioned offhand, but that it’s a developed doctrine throughout the entire 16th century.”
The book was made part of the prestigious series, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, devoted to the history of Christian thought from its early and medieval beginnings to its later development in the modern period. But despite the academic and historical nature of his book, Drake says the topic holds significance for all Christians today.
“The extra is guaranteeing that Christ is present,” he says. “This reflection is not about a past event (yes, we’re reflecting on historical theology), but the question is really: How do we relate to Jesus? Jesus is not just a historical figure or one who will come in the future, but our contemporary. Christ, by ascending, is currently present with us by his spirit, but his body is absent, and understanding that when we come to things like the Lord’s Table, there is a celebration of the fact that he is being made present to us through the elements, not in a bodily manner, but by us being lifted up. That’s a foretaste. We long for the day when Christ will return and be with us bodily, just as we will be with him in the resurrection.”
For Drake, efforts to research and write this work of technical historical theology have also had a personal impact. “It is a point of constant remembrance,” he says, adding that he has relied on prayer to gain understanding. “There’s a humbling aspect of this. The doctrine is not saying this is Christ nailed down. It’s saying this is how best to understand the mystery, and it remains a mystery. I’m content with that.”
The Flesh of the Word: the extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy is available in store and online at 21Five.