Sunday, October 17, 2010

Calvin on the Sacraments

With the help of two reading days this week, which I actually managed to spend reading, I have made a ton of progress on the Institutes. It also doesn't hurt that what I've been reading on the sacraments has been some of the most fascinating material in all of Calvin's work. Truly, there are some rather astonishing passages in these chapters that one could not expect from Calvin if one were judging only on the popular perception of him. From general cultural impressions I seem to have this latent image of Calvin as something of a machine, coldly calculating the true doctrines of Christianity, without regard for feeling or mystery. These chapters on the sacraments, more than any others in the Institutes, completely obliterate this image of Calvin. Instead, we find a picture of Calvin as overcome with the mysteries of God, and wholly inclined toward a direct personal experience of Christ. It is nothing short of a tragedy that this image has been lost in popular Christian consciousness.

So let me see if I can knock out Chapters XIV-XVII of Book IV with one post. It turns out I've already written a little bit on these chapters before. I was there interested in how Calvin's sacramental view of the world related to science. Here I'll stress the theological issues more.

If I'm going to get through this whole segment, I'm going to have to be organized! So I think I'll try to organize into headings the main ideas I thought were most profound and outline what I remember of each idea.

Sacraments: General to Particular

What is a sacrament? "It seems to me that a simple and proper definition would be to say that it is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men." (XIV.1) Calvin's view of the sacraments starts more generally than the two ordinances more specifically called sacraments (which are baptism and the Lord's supper). This is crucial to Calvin's thought. Much of what he says about baptism and the Lord's supper in particular hinges on the fact that he is applying a more general theory of what a sacrament is. The language in the definition derives from such Scripture as Romans 4:11, "He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised."

For Calvin, then, lots of things are sacraments in the general sense. The rainbow after the flood, the sacrifices of the Jewish law, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire in the wilderness, even the tree of life in the Garden of Eden--all of these, he says, were signs used by God to communicate his promises to his people. Indeed, divine communication is an important part of what sacraments are all about. The written word is not everything for Calvin. While Scripture, both written and spoken, cannot be separated from the sacraments, nevertheless God does communicate in other ways--sacraments are words you can touch, smell, and taste. We can imagine, then, that things which exist in our world can be sacramental in nature, in that they communicate to us something about God. Insofar as something communicates a particular promise of God, it is a sacrament.

Calvin's general view of sacraments moderates between two opposite views. One view is that we don't need any physical signs to seal God's promises to us. God's promises are heavenly, so as long as we lift our minds up to heaven, we have his promises, right? Characteristically, Calvin rejects this presumptuous attitude, noting that our faith is never so strong as that. Being physical beings ourselves, we will always need God's physical stamp to validate the spiritual reality he promises us. Sacraments don't cause our salvation, but they do seal it, in the sense that a king's seal on a written document in some sense validates the document. The other view that Calvin rejects is that sacraments have some magical power in themselves, that God has somehow infused grace into them (as if grace is a mysterious substance which fills things). The tie between a sacrament and the thing it signifies is always a mystery for Calvin, and always a work of the Holy Spirit. It is never direct or mechanical. Sacraments might be seals of God's promises, but they never actually offer those promises in themselves.

It is worth reinforcing one point I just made there. Sacraments have no effect apart from the Holy Spirit. This is what allows Calvin to navigate between the two extremes he utterly rejects. It is not enough for us to have mere signs without the work of the Spirit, because the point is that God personally interacts with us through those signs. It is also a horrible error to think that the signs contain some power in themselves, because this too negates the personal interaction between God and his children.

Calvin has a general way of dealing with sacraments received by non-believers. In all sacraments, God's promise is truly presented to everyone. Non-believers, however, by the hardness of their hearts, fail to receive what is truly presented. The image he uses to explain this is that of rain falling on rock. God does not stop the rain from falling, but it is still true that the rain will not penetrate the rock, but will roll off of it. So it is with all who partake of a sacrament unworthily. Those receive with faith, however--and for Calvin every sacrament is about growing in faith--really do receive the benefits God is promising.

Sacraments have a general meaning for Calvin, but when speaking of the sacraments proper to the Christian Church, he insists there are just two: baptism and the Lord's supper.


"Baptism is the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God's children." (XV.1) Recalling what we said about applying the general theory of sacraments to the particulars, everything Calvin says about baptism makes sense. Baptism does not cause us to be regenerated per se, but it is tied to that regeneration in a sacramental way. One can be baptized and not truly regenerated, but this is due to the hardness of a person's heart, and not the absence of God's promise in baptism.

Baptism is a sign of the washing away of all sin, not just those committed before baptism. That is, a believer who sins (and no one will be perfect in this life) can look back to his baptism as a reminder that God's promise is sure. On the other hand, someone who has been baptized but is totally unrepentant of sin cannot rely on baptism to save him. Again, the key is faith, and the one who provides the real benefit is the Holy Spirit. Baptism is meant as an assurance to those who believe, not to those who arrogantly disregard their own sins.

"Infant baptism best accords with Christs institution and the nature of the sign," as the title of Chapter XVI says. This is because baptism replaces circumcision for Christians. Because baptism is an expression of God's covenant relationship with his people, those who have entered into that covenant also bring their children into the covenant with them. This accords with the Old Testament, and Calvin finds no reason to overthrow that principle. It would be useless and beyond my purposes to flesh out this argument in detail, although I know that it is still a hotly debated issues among many Christians. I will say this: Calvin's defense of infant baptism is not the best I've seen, and there are much more relevant arguments given today by Reformed thinkers.

The Lord's Supper

Chapter XVII, on the Lord's Supper, is possibly my favorite chapter thus far in all of the Institutes, and as I only have three chapters left, it is likely to remain so. Here you will find amazing applications of Calvin's view of the sacraments to this most celebrated of Christian sacraments.

We can already guess, to some degree, what his position will be on transubstantiation (Catholic) and consubstantiation (Lutheran). He rejects them both. He rejects both because he insists that the ubiquity of Christ's flesh is a highly flawed doctrine. Christ's body is in heaven. It is a real, human body, therefore possessing limits. Therefore it cannot extend infinitely.

But Calvin also rejects the view of Zwingli, which is that the Lord's supper is merely a reminder of Christ's sacrifice. For Calvin, we really do eat of the flesh and drink of the blood of Christ--once again, by the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit. And this is the only place I know where Calvin ceases to explain and simply calls the reader to seek a higher understanding than he can possibly give:
I urge my readers not to confine their mental interest within these too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher than I can lead them. For, whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said as little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express. (XVII.7)
So much for Calvin the machine! For you never heard anyone speak so passionately about finding Christ in the Eucharist:
Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place [how Christ feeds us with his flesh and blood], I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [John 6:53 ff.]. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them. (XVII.32)
And perhaps greatest of all is Calvin's emphasis on love in the Lord's supper.
Thirdly, the Lord also intended the Supper to be a kind of exhortation for us, which can more forcefully than any other means quicken and inspire us both to purity and holiness of life, and to love, peace, and concord. For the Lord so communicates his body to us there that he is made completely one with us and we with him. Now, since he has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation. ... Accordingly, Augustine with good reason frequently calls this Sacrament "the bond of love."
It is noteworthy that Calvin recommends taking the Eucharist at least once a week. It should always be a communal meal, never for individuals. In this way, Calvin would have us practice love, in this simple yet profound ceremony.

If I had to make one complaint (aside from the harsh polemics present in these chapters as everywhere else) it would be that Calvin tends to focus on lifting our minds up to heaven and away from earth a little too much, perhaps. He says that these sacraments are gifts to us because as mere physical beings we are so limited that we need all the help we can to understand heavenly things. I don't know. Somehow there has to be a way to affirm the genuine goodness of creation a little more than that. Yes, the signs point to something heavenly; but physical reality is not for that reason less desirable than some ethereal spirit realm. Part of it is that when Calvin talks about "heavenly" reality, it is not totally clear what he means. As Calvin has illustrated a sense of mystery beyond understanding, I can only guess that he has in mind something far beyond what he is able to express. The other part is context, of course. He had to lift up people's minds from gross superstitions that had accumulated. What other way to do that is there than to point people toward heaven and away from what is seen? But alas, we have taken that too far, I think...

I originally intended to finish the Institutes in a year; now I think I will finish it by shortly after the beginning of November, if not before then. My next post will probably be the last of my Calvin posts. It's been quite an adventure.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!