Calvin’s Understanding of the Communication of Properties -- By: Joseph N. Tylenda

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 38:1 (Fall 1975)
Article: Calvin’s Understanding of the Communication of Properties
Author: Joseph N. Tylenda

Calvin’s Understanding of the Communication of Properties

Joseph N. Tylenda

Calvin speaks of the communication of properties or idioms,1 in two areas of his theology: (a) in his christology, when he treats the two natures of Christ united in the one person, and (b) in his teaching on the Eucharist, when he answers the Lutheran claim of ubiquity for the body of Christ. It is not the purpose of this brief article to discuss the theological background to the origin, meaning, and use of the communication of properties;2 rather, its scope is very limited, namely, to see how Calvin understood this communication. Calvin, in fact, says very little about it; he seems to mention communicatio idiomatum only in passing,3 but what we have is sufficient to achieve our goal. There is also a practical reason

in undertaking this short study. A quick (and therefore unreflective) reading of Calvin may lead one to ask, “Since, Calvin and Luther held the same principles in this matter, how did they arrive at such diverse conclusions?” This article, then, is intended to offer some light on Calvin’s position.

In the definitive edition of the Institutes (1559) Calvin wrote: “Thus…the Scriptures speak of Christ: they sometimes attribute to him what must be referred solely to his humanity, sometimes what belongs uniquely to his divinity: and sometimes what embraces both natures but fits neither alone. And they so earnestly express this union of the two natures that is in Christ as sometimes to interchange them. This figure of speech is called by the ancient writers ‘the communicating of properties.’“4 Even in the earliest edition of the Institutes (1536) we find the same teaching, though its expression is slightly different: “sometimes they attribute to him that which can refer only to the humanity, sometimes that which belongs particularly to the divinity; sometimes that which is appropriate to the two natures and not to one alone. Finally, and by the communication of properties, they assign to the divinity that which is proper to the humanity, and to the humanity that which concerns the divinity.”5 In both passages Calvin has four points, but of these, only the fourth deals with the communication of idioms. A brief explanation of the first three points is given to help better understand the fourth.

Calvin recalls in the first place, that the Scriptures at times attribute to Christ properties which refer solely to his humani...

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