Sunday, October 24, 2010

Calvin on the Mass, and those other five Sacraments

Lots of Calvin lately. I guess it's like being at the end of a long race. You see the end in sight, so you kick it into gear. There's no reason in particular why I should be reading at a faster pace, except that I did enjoy Calvin on the sacraments, and because I figure, hey, why not finish this whole book before November?

So that brings me to Institutes of the Christian Religion Chapters XVIII and XIX. Some of the most fiery rhetoric in the entire work is in these chapters, which says something about how Calvin views the sacraments.

Let's take a look at the titles:
Chapter XVIII
The Papal Mass, a Sacrilege by Which Christ's Supper Was Not Only Profaned but Annihilated

Chapter XIX
The Five Other Ceremonies, Falsely Termed Sacraments; Although Commonly Considered Sacraments Hitherto, They Are Proved Not to Be Such, and Their Real Nature Is Shown
That pretty much sets the tone for both chapters. Just to make sure you get the point, let's read some choice quotes:
"I am here contending against that opinion with which the Roman Antichrist and his prophets have infected the whole world: namely, that the Mass is a work by which the priest who offers up Christ, and the others who participate in the oblation, merit God's favor, or it is an expiatory victim, by which they reconcile God to themselves." (XVIII.1)

"...in it an unbearable blasphemy and dishonor is inflicted upon Christ." (XVIII.2)

"...it suppresses and buries the cross and Passion of Christ." (XVIII.3)

"...it wipes out the true and unique death of Christ and drives it from the memory of men." (XVIII.5)

"...it robs us of the benefit which was coming to us from Christ's death, while it causes us not to recognize or ponder it." (XVIII.6)

As a modern person dealing with the aftermath of the Reformation, and everything that has come since, passages like these make me ask, is it ever appropriate to use this kind of rhetoric? Are there times when such a harsh stand must be taken on matters of religion? My experience tells me "no," but my experience is surely much different than a 16th century humanist's experience of the Catholic Church. I talk to Catholics now and understand something at least somewhat more nuanced than what Calvin is here criticizing. (Although it is worth noting that polls repeatedly show that as many as half of all American Catholics don't know their Church's teaching on transubstantiation and the Mass.)

But the point I'm making is really more general than that. It is so easy to get stuck in what I call (borrowing in part from Paul Churchland, but I don't remember which of his works) a "false equilibrium." Imagine, if you will, a marble rolling around on smooth surface which has peaks and valleys. The stable equilibrium points are the lowest points of those valleys. If you try to nudge your marble away from a stable equilibrium point, it will just roll back--unless you give it a big push, in which case it might actually make it all the way over one of the surrounding peaks and into another valley. So it is with our attempts to understand. If we are stuck in one equilibrium, we might hear something which nudges us away from our opinion, but natural forces will bring us right back to where we were. This indicates that our opinion is the only logical one within its own "valley"--i.e. the set of general principles we have already accepted. Only occasionally does an idea comes along that shakes us to our very core, and we actually leap out of the valley we are in to explore a new one.

So it is with religious doctrine. Calvin's position is the only logical one within his own accepted framework of general principles. But are those principles the right ones? Some might assert that we can find the right general principles to start with but use of reason, but this is pure rationalism, and I don't buy it. Others might assert that we obtain the right general principles from divine revelation, but this is perhaps even worse than rationalism, in that it makes those principles unassailable, as is perhaps the case with Calvin. To his credit, Calvin is constantly undermining our confidence in human wisdom and ability, which should make us hesitant to insist we are right in our doctrine. Yet at the same he is always contradicting himself by asserting that he has the right doctrine, without more than a tiny grain of humility. Is it a real display of Christian love to blast one's opponents with these words? Can anything be so sacred that it becomes necessary to make words into hateful weapons?

I cannot simply dismiss this as an illustration of how "no one is perfect." Evidently, though Calvin would have confessed himself a sinner, he would not have considered this particular trait a sign of his imperfection. And many in our day would not, either. So I simply have to leave it an open question. Is this kind of rhetoric warranted? It's something to think about, especially as we endure another election cycle this fall.

I don't see any need to go into details about Calvin's critique of the Mass. It is easy to summarize: the Mass is a repeated sacrifice, whereas Christ's sacrifice was once for all; the Mass makes priests the ones offering sacrifice, whereas Christ is our only priest and mediator; the Mass is not biblical and was not known to the early Church. All three of these points are, of course, disputed by Catholic apologists, and as far as I can see not a single bit of progress has ever been made toward achieving a common understanding among Catholics and Protestants on this issue.

Chapter XIX is a bit more interesting to me, since I don't really know much about the seven Sacraments of Catholic theology. Calvin deals with them one by one.

Confirmation: Calvin asserts that this is no sacrament, but that it should be a practice of the church. Children who are baptized as infants ought to be trained up in doctrine so that at the proper age they can profess their own faith in Christ. His method is pretty hard core:
"But the best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in simple manner most of the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers' church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught.
I have heard that not more than a hundred years ago or so young Presbyterians would memorize the Westminster catechism before their confirmation. We have certainly lowered our standards since then.

Penance: Penance is no sacrament according to Calvin. The sacrament of repentance is baptism. For Calvin, sacraments are primarily about God's promises to us, not our work done to earn his favor. Treating penance as a sacrament destroys the promise that is presented to us in baptism, that God has forever wiped away all of our sins.

Extreme unction: Calvin has nothing good to say about oil. Essentially, what he says about the anointing with oil described in James 5:14-15 is that the oil itself was a symbol of a gift of healing given in the apostolic age. Calvin proves himself to be something of a cessationist in this passage, asserting that the gift of healing was for the era of the apostles, and not for modern times. What seems to be motivating him is seeing the use of extreme unction by Catholic priests and finding nothing in it but an empty show.

His argument is kind of clever, you have to admit:
Why do they not appoint some bathing pool of Siloam [John 9:7] into which the sick at certain times may plunge themselves? That, they say, would be done in vain. Surely, no more in vain than anointing. Why not let them lie upon dead men, since Paul raised a dead child by lying upon him [Acts 20:10]? Why is not clay made of spittle and dust [John 9:6] a sacrament? (XIX.19)
This kind of reasoning will appear later, as well.

Holy Orders: Never does Calvin so rip the Catholic Church apart as in this passage. He starts by even making fun of their numbering: "The sacrament of order occupies the fourth place in their list, but it is so fruitful that it breeds of itself seven sacramentlings. But this is quite ridiculous, that, while they affirm that there are seven sacraments, when they set out to count them, they reckon thirteen. And they cannot allege that these constitute one sacrament because all tend to one priesthood and are steps to it. For since it is clear that there are different ceremonies in each, and they say that there are different graces, no one can doubt that they ought to be called seven sacraments, if these men's opinions are accepted." This is in reference to the seven ecclesiastical orders (doorkeepers, readers, exorcists, acolytes, subdeacons, deacons, and priests) which each have their own ceremony of initiation.

For Calvin, this is not a sacrament mainly because it does not pertain to the whole church; a sacrament is communal, not individual. But he says much more than this, trashing each of these seven orders and all the ceremonies associated with them. It's pretty astounding reading. Some quotes:
"For who ever saw either an acolyte or a doorkeeper performing his function in their churches? Rather, he who as a boy did the office of acolyte, when he is taken into the order of acolytes, ceases to be what he has begun to be called; so that they seem to intend deliberately to throw off the office itself when they assume the title. See why they hold it needful to be consecrated by sacraments and to receive the Holy Spirit--just to do nothing!" (XIX.24)

"How long will they mock us with such deception and trickery? By shaving off a few hairs the clerics signify that they have cast away abundance of temporal goods, that they contemplate God's glory, that they have mortified the lust of the ears and eyes. But is there no class of men more greedy, stupid, and lustful? Who do they not manifest holiness rather than make an outward show of it with false and lying signs?" (XIX.25)

(On the ordination ceremony for priests) "If they try to do this, they rival God and all but challenge him to a contest, but are very far from being effective, and by their inept gesture do nothing but mock Christ. Indeed, they are so shameless as to dare affirm that they confer the Holy Spirit. But how true that is, experience teaches, which cries out that all those who are consecrated as priests are turned from horses into asses, from fools into madmen. Nevertheless, it is not over this that I have a quarrel with them. I am only condemning the ceremony itself, which ought not to have been taken as an example, since Christ used it as symbol of a particular miracle--so far is the excuse of following him from being a just defense of their claim!" (XIX.29)

"What is pertinent to say concerning subdeacons? For although of old they were really put in charge of caring for the poor, the papists assign to them some trifling function or other, as to bring the chalice and paten, the cruet with water, and the towel to the altar; to pour water for washing hands, etc. Now in speaking of receiving and bringing in offerings, they mean those which they devour as offerings destined for anathema." (XIX.33)

Marriage: Calvin doesn't deny that marriage is a holy institution given by God, but he does deny that it is a sacrament. His reasoning is best captured in this passage:
But it is, they say, the sign of a sacred thing, that is, of the spiritual joining of Christ with the church. If by the word "sing" they understand a symbol set before us by God to raise up the assurance of our faith, they are wandering far from the mark; if they simply understand "sing" as what is adduced for a comparison, I will show how keenly they reason. Paul says, "As star differs from star in brilliance, so will be the resurrection of the dead." [I Cor. 15:41-42] There you have one sacrament. Christ says, "They Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed." [Matt. 13:31] Here you have another. Again, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven." [Matt. 13:33] Behold a third. Isaiah says, "Behold, the Lord will feed his flock like a shepherd." [Isa. 40:10-11] Behold a fourth. In another place, "The Lord shall go forth as a giant." [Isa. 42:13] Here you have a fifth. Finally, what end or measure will there be? There is nothing that by this reasoning will not be a sacrament. There will be as many sacrament as there are parables and similitudes in Scripture. In fact, theft will be a sacrament, inasmuch as it is written, "The Day of the Lord is like a thief." [I Thess. 5:2] Who can bear these Sophists when they prate so ignorantly? (XIX.34)
There's that word "prate" again.

In XIX.36, Calvin mentions that if marriage is a sacrament instituted by Christ, why are priests not allowed to partake of it? I agree that there is some absurdity in this, but on the other hand, he already pointed out that there is a sacrament (or sacraments?) reserved for clergy and not for laymen. So I suppose there's no inconsistency there....

Now here's something about marriage that I did not know, which makes it somewhat more compelling why Calvin would argue against marriage being considered a sacrament:
Not to have mocked the church simply in one thing, what a long train of errors, lies, frauds, and misdeeds have they attached to this one error? Thus, you may say that they sought nothing but a den of abominations when they made a sacrament out of marriage. For when they once obtained this, they took over the hearings of matrimonial cases; as it was a spiritual matter, it was not to be handled by secular judges. Then they passed laws by which they strengthened their tyranny, laws in part openly impious toward God, in part most unfair toward men. Such are these: That marriages between minors contracted without parental consent should remain firm and valid. That marriages between kinsfolk even to the seventh degree are not lawful, and if contracted, must be dissolved. They forge the very degrees, against the laws of all nations and also against the ordinance of Moses [Lev. 18:6]; that a man who has put away an adulterous wife is not permitted to take another; that godparents may not be coupled in matrimony; that marriages may not be celebrated from Septuagesima to the octave of Easter, and in the three weeks before the nativity of John, and from Advent to Epiphany; and innumerable like regulations which would take too long to recount.
And of course, in classic Calvin fashion, here you have his conclusion:
At length, we must extricate ourselves from their mire, in which our discourse has already stuck longer than I should have liked. Still, I believe that I have accomplished something in that I have partly pulled the lion's skin from these asses.
And there you have it. If you're into fierce diatribes, then Calvin does not disappoint.

Next week is Reformation Day! Of course everyone will be celebrating Halloween (or at least the candy companies will) but I think I'll celebrate the day by posting my final blog post on Calvin's Institutes, which will pertain to his final chapter, entitled, "Civil Government." How appropriate, with elections coming up!

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