This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
Related reading from yours truly:
Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)
A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)
Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)
Brevity is preferred where error is concerned, not only for the patience of the reader, but also for the spiritual sake of the writer . . .
I say that Christ is the matter, or, if you rather choose it, the substance of all the sacraments, since in him they have their whole solidity, and out of him promise nothing.
How ironic that Calvin states this, while at the same time denying that Christ is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity (i.e., physically and substantially) in the Holy Eucharist.
Hence the less toleration is due to the error of Peter Lombard, who distinctly makes them causes of the righteousness and salvation of which they are parts (Sent. Lib. 4 Dist. 1). Bidding adieu to all other causes of righteousness which the wit of man devises, our duty is to hold by this only. In so far, therefore, as we are assisted by their instrumentality in cherishing, confirming, and increasing the true knowledge of Christ, so as both to possess him more fully, and enjoy him in all his richness, so far are they effectual in regard to us. This is the case when that which is there offered is received by us in true faith. Therefore, you will ask, Do the wicked, by their ingratitude, make the ordinance of God fruitless and void? I answer, that what I have said is not to be understood as if the power and truth of the sacrament depended on the condition or pleasure of him who receives it.
To a large extent, this (particularly the final sentence) is in agreement with the Catholic position, as explicated in the previous several sections. Other errors here are very subtle, and so we’ll let them pass for the moment. A Catholic feels a bit like a mosquito on a nude beach when dealing with Calvin: the errors (like flesh in the analogy) are so all-pervasive and multitudinous, one scarcely knows where to go — what to refute — first.
That which God instituted continues firm, and retains its nature, however men may vary; but since it is one thing to offer, and another to receive, there is nothing to prevent a symbol, consecrated by the word of the Lord, from being truly what it is said to be, and preserving its power, though it may at the same time confer no benefit on the wicked and ungodly.
Again, we see significant resemblance to ex opere operato, though Calvin strongly rejects the latter. It is probably the case, once again, that Calvin is rejecting (at least partially) a straw man, so that he fails to see the similarities.
This question is well solved by Augustine in a few words: “If you receive carnally, it ceases not to be spiritual, but it is not spiritual to you” (August. Hom. in Joann. 26). But as Augustine shows in the above passages that a sacrament is a thing of no value if separated from its truth; so also, when the two are conjoined, he reminds us that it is necessary to distinguish, in order that we may not cleave too much to the external sign. “As it is servile weakness to follow the latter, and take the signs for the thing signified, so to interpret the signs as of no use is an extravagant error” (August. de Doct. Christ. Lib. 3 c. 9). He mentions two faults which are here to be avoided; the one when we receive the signs as if they had been given in vain, and by malignantly destroying or impairing their secret meanings, prevent them from yielding any fruit—the other, when by not raising our minds beyond the visible sign, we attribute to it blessings which are conferred upon us by Christ alone, and that by means of the Holy Spirit, who makes us to be partakers of Christ, external signs assisting if they invite us to Christ; whereas, when wrested to any other purpose, their whole utility is overthrown.
As always, when reading St. Augustine the Neo-Platonist talking about signs, we need to understand that it is not in such a fashion as to exclude the physical presence in the Holy Eucharist of the Body and Blood of Christ. In other words, the terminology of sign is not antithetical to literalness and physicality.
In some sense, then, Calvin agrees that grace is conveyed. But in other places he seems to deny this; so there is a certain internal tension and contradiction in his sacramentology that is often observed.
When the vessel is not open, though it may be sprinkled all over, it will nevertheless remain entirely empty. We must be aware of being led into a kindred error by the terms, somewhat too extravagant, which ancient Christian writers have employed in extolling the dignity of the sacraments.
In English, he is saying, “the fathers were wrong en masse; the Catholic Church of the centuries is wrong, and I am right.” When we realize exactly what Calvin’s departures from precedent entail, it sounds rather silly and arrogant, in roughly equal measure.
We must not suppose that there is some latent virtue inherent in the sacraments by which they, in themselves, confer the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon us, in the same way in which wine is drunk out of a cup, since the only office divinely assigned them is to attest and ratify the benevolence of the Lord towards us; and they avail no farther than accompanied by the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts, and make us capable of receiving this testimony, in which various distinguished graces are clearly manifested. For the sacraments, as we lately observed (chap. 13 sec. 6; and 14 sec. 6, 7), are to us what messengers of good news are to men, or earnests in ratifying pactions. They do not of themselves bestow any grace,
Here we have the other strain of Calvin’s thought, which is “anti-sacramental” from a Catholic perspective, insofar as he denies ex opere operato and the bestowal of grace. He takes the aspect of the individual disposition too far.
but they announce and manifest it, and, like earnests and badges, give a ratification of the gifts which the divine liberality has bestowed upon us. The Holy Spirit, whom the sacraments do not bring promiscuously to all, but whom the Lord specially confers on his people, brings the gifts of God along with him, makes way for the sacraments, and causes them to bear fruit. But though we deny not that God, by the immediate agency of his Spirit, countenances his own ordinance, preventing the administration of the sacraments which he has instituted from being fruitless and vain, still we maintain that the internal grace of the Spirit, as it is distinct from the external ministration, ought to be viewed and considered separately. God, therefore, truly performs whatever he promises and figures by signs; nor are the signs without effect, for they prove that he is their true and faithful author. The only question here is, whether the Lord works by proper and intrinsic virtue (as it is called), or resigns his office to external symbols? We maintain, that whatever organs he employs detract nothing from his primary operation. In this doctrine of the sacraments, their dignity is highly extolled, their use plainly shown, their utility sufficiently proclaimed, and moderation in all things duly maintained; so that nothing is attributed to them which ought not to be attributed, and nothing denied them which they ought to possess. Meanwhile, we get rid of that fiction by which the cause of justification and the power of the Holy Spirit are included in elements as vessels and vehicles,
In other words, he is denying intrinsic sacramental grace and ex opere operato . . .
and the special power which was overlooked is distinctly explained. Here, also, we ought to observe, that what the minister figures and attests by outward action, God performs inwardly, lest that which God claims for himself alone should be ascribed to mortal man.
The men are merely instruments of God’s grace, as Catholics understand perfectly well. But Calvin’s either/or mentality and anti-sacerdotalism has to inevitably set the instrument (man) over against the Ultimate Cause and Source (God).
This Augustine is careful to observe: “How does both God and Moses sanctify? Not Moses for God, but Moses by visible sacraments through his ministry, God by invisible grace through the Holy Spirit. Herein is the whole fruit of visible sacraments; for what do these visible sacraments avail without that sanctification of invisible grace? ”
And now Calvin sounds traditional again (back and forth; back and forth). The end result of his heretical novelties is anti-traditional, for the most part. The aspects of Calvin’s thought that are essentially anti-Catholic tend to prevail in the long run in his followers. This is almost sociologically inevitable when one group deliberately, consciously sets itself against another, as an antithesis. The elements that are most different and innovative become more and more prominent as time goes by, whereas traditional elements become less and less prominent or emphasized.
. . . whereas for Catholics, they are seven in number. Sacramentals extend the concept further, though they essentially depend on internal disposition, whereas sacraments have an intrinsic power from God.
These he was pleased sometimes to place in natural objects—sometimes to exhibit in miracles. Of the former class we have an example, in his giving the tree of life to Adam and Eve, as an earnest of immortality, that they might feel confident of the promise as often as they ate of the fruit. Another example was, when he gave the bow in the cloud to Noah and his posterity, as a memorial that he would not again destroy the earth by a flood. These were to Adam and Noah as sacraments: not that the tree could give Adam and Eve the immortality which it could not give to itself; or the bow (which is only a reflection of the solar rays on the opposite clouds) could have the effect of confining the waters; but they had a mark engraven on them by the word of God, to be proofs and seals of his covenant. The tree was previously a tree, and the bow a bow; but when they were inscribed with the word of God, a new form was given to them: they began to be what they previously were not. Lest any one suppose that these things were said in vain, the bow is even in the present day a witness to us of the covenant which God made with Noah (Calv. in Gen. 9:6). As often as we look upon it, we read this promise from God, that the earth will never be destroyed by a flood. Wherefore, if any philosophaster, to deride the simplicity of our faith, shall contend that the variety of colours arises naturally from the rays reflected by the opposite cloud, let us admit the fact; but, at the same time, deride his stupidity in not recognising God as the Lord and governor of nature, who, at his pleasure, makes all the elements subservient to his glory. If he had impressed memorials of this description on the sun, the stars, the earth, and stones, they would all have been to us as sacraments. For why is the shapeless and the coined silver not of the same value, seeing they are the same metal? Just because the former has nothing but its own nature, whereas the latter, impressed with the public stamp, becomes money, and receives a new value. And shall the Lord not be able to stamp his creatures with his word, that things which were formerly bare elements may become sacraments? Examples of the second class were given when he showed light to Abraham in the smoking furnace (Gen. 15:17), when he covered the fleece with dew while the ground was dry; and, on the other hand, when the dew covered the ground while the fleece was untouched, to assure Gideon of victory (Judges 6:37); also, when he made the shadow go back ten degrees on the dial, to assure Hezekiah of his recovery (2 Kings 20:9; Isa. 38:7). These things, which were done to assist and establish their faith, were also sacraments.
Note how St. Peter draws a deliberate analogy from the physically saving of Noah and his family “by water” and the spiritual saving (regeneration) of the baptized:
1 Peter 3:20-21 who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
This is how the Old Testament word pictures and events are often portrayed in the New Testament: they illustrated physical salvation or deliverance (such as being saved from a fire or flood or battlefield), whereas the New Covenant emphasizes spiritual salvation and eternal life: and in this case, by the direct instrumentality of the sacrament.
Calvin assumes (as usual) that this essential corruption has happened, without making any sort of argument to prove that it has indeed occurred. Note that he doesn’t even seem to allow for the possibility of reform of the five Catholic sacraments besides baptism and the Eucharist. He simply assumes they are hopeless and ditches them. Needless to say, this is outrageous and unjustifiable. Even the two sacraments he retains are gutted of much of their power, by the denial of baptismal regeneration and transubstantiation.
And they consist not of simple signs, like the rainbow and the tree of life, but of ceremonies, or (if you prefer it) the signs here employed are ceremonies.
Who says ceremonies (arbitrarily pitted against “simple signs”) are a bad thing? This is assumed and not proven. Christianity is not a kindergarten religion, such that no one but the simple-minded can comprehend it, and that by means of “simple signs” — as if ceremony and ritual are to be feared and disdained.
But since, as has been said above, they are testimonies of grace and salvation from the Lord,
Calvin keeps up this droning theme of sacraments as signs or “testimonies” of things already accomplished rather than instruments of these same things. If that were the case, then how can the following passages be squared with his “signs” approach, since the sacrament is specifically said to be the cause of the thing (i.e., salvation and/or remission of sins), not a mere sign of the thing already present?:
Mark 16:16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved . . . [disputed biblical manuscript, but still indicative of apostolic belief]
John 6:50-51 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:53-58 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;  he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”
Acts 2:38, 40 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . .  And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
Acts 22:16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
Romans 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Galatians 3:27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
Titus 3:5 he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,
1 Peter 3:21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
Now, since Holy Scripture is not enough for Calvin, and not agreeable to his taste and preferences in the matter of sacraments, we must modify it (Thomas Jefferson-style) in order to be consistent with his theology. Fortunately, we have the Revised Calvin Version (RCV) of the Bible for this purpose:
Mark 16:16 (RCV) He who believes and is baptized shows that he is already saved . . . [disputed biblical manuscript, but still indicative of apostolic belief]
John 6:50-51 (RCV) This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and signify that he is already in a state in which he would not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he proves that that he is already in a state in which he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:53-58 (RCV) So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you can’t give testimony that you already have life in you;  he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shows that he already had eternal life, and that I was already going to raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood signifies that he already had been abiding in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me was already living because of me.  This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread gives testimony that he already was living for ever.”
Acts 2:38, 40 (RCV) And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, in order to show forth a seal of the already existing forgiveness of your sins; and your prior gift of the Holy Spirit. . . .  And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Give sign and testimony by baptism that you have already saved yourselves from this crooked generation.”
Acts 22:16 (RCV) And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and show that you have already washed away your sins, calling on his name.’
Romans 6:4 (RCV) We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too signify that we already walk in newness of life, which is why we are being baptized.
Galatians 3:27 (RCV) For as many of you as were baptized into Christ as a seal to prove that you put on Christ before you were baptized.
Titus 3:5 (RCV) he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, and not by the washing of regeneration, but by the renewal in the Holy Spirit,
1 Peter 3:21 (RCV) Baptism, which corresponds to this, now proves that you are already saved, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as a seal and an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
so, in regard to us, they are marks of profession by which we openly swear by the name of God, binding ourselves to be faithful to him.
As the RCV above amply proves . . .
Hence Chrysostom somewhere shrewdly gives them the name of pactions, by which God enters into covenant with us, and we become bound to holiness and purity of life, because a mutual stipulation is here interposed between God and us. For as God there promises to cover and efface any guilt and penalty which we may have incurred by transgression, and reconciles us to himself in his only begotten Son, so we, in our turn, oblige ourselves by this profession to the study of piety and righteousness. And hence it may be justly said, that such sacraments are ceremonies, by which God is pleased to train his people, first, to excite, cherish, and strengthen faith within; and, secondly, to testify our religion to men.
That’s not what the Bible teaches (at least not in the versions other than RCV), but that doesn’t seem to trouble Calvin in the slightest.
Calvin ignores the other five sacraments. In this he largely follows the thought of John Wycliffe, though the latter’s thinking was somewhat less radical.
I speak of those which were instituted for the use of the whole Church. For the laying on of hands, by which the ministers of the Church are initiated into their office, though I have no objection to its being called a sacrament, I do not number among ordinary sacraments.
So ordination is possibly a sacrament, but not an ordinary one. Huh?
The place to be assigned to the other commonly reputed sacraments we shall see by-and-by.
Note that they are common and Calvin’s derogatory language of “reputed” as if the case were cut-and-dried.
Still the ancient sacraments had the same end in view as our own
Interesting juxtaposition of “ancient” practice vs. Calvin’s . . .
—viz. to direct and almost lead us by the hand to Christ, or rather, were like images to represent him and hold him forth to our knowledge. But as we have already shown that sacraments are a kind of seals of the promises of God,
The RCV (unlike every other Bible version) makes that very clear . . .
so let us hold it as a most certain truth, that no divine promise has ever been offered to man except in Christ, and that hence when they remind us of any divine promise, they must of necessity exhibit Christ. Hence that heavenly pattern of the tabernacle and legal worship which was shown to Moses in the mount. There is only this difference, that while the former shadowed forth a promised Christ while he was still expected, the latter bear testimony to him as already come and manifested.
And sacraments give grace as well.
There is indeed a biblical parallel drawn by St. Paul between circumcision and baptism, but Calvin takes it too far if he consigns baptism to being only a sign of accomplished election or salvation.
Their washings and purifications placed under their eye the uncleanness, defilement, and pollution with which they were naturally contaminated, and promised another laver in which all their impurities might be wiped and washed away. This laver was Christ, washed by whose blood we bring his purity into the sight of God, that he may cover all our defilements. The sacrifices convicted them of their unrighteousness, and at the same time taught that there was a necessity for paying some satisfaction to the justice of God; and that, therefore, there must be some high priest, some mediator between God and man, to satisfy God by the shedding of blood, and the immolation of a victim which might suffice for the remission of sins. The high priest was Christ: he shed his own blood, he was himself the victim: for in obedience to the Father, he offered himself to death, and by this obedience abolished the disobedience by which man had provoked the indignation of God (Phil. 2:8; Rom. 5:19).
Catholics agree with this general soteriology, since it is not yet getting into disputed issues of sola fide, imputation, etc.
No; it brings about the washing and purification. This is quite clear in Holy Scripture. But if a person insists on reading his peculiar anti-traditional theology into that same Scripture, then nothing can be done except to point out that this is taking place and object to it.
the Supper of the Eucharist that we are redeemed.
Again, it helps cause the redemption; not only signify its prior presence.
Ablution is figured by water, satisfaction by blood. Both are found in Christ, who, as John says, “came by water and blood;” that is, to purify and redeem. Of this the Spirit of God also is a witness. Nay, there are three witnesses in one, water, Spirit, and blood. In the water and blood we have an evidence of purification and redemption, but the Spirit is the primary witness who gives us a full assurance of this testimony. This sublime mystery was illustriously displayed on the cross of Christ, when water and blood flowed from his sacred side (John 19:34); which, for this reason, Augustine justly termed the fountain of our sacraments (August. Hom. in Joann. 26). Of these we shall shortly treat at greater length. There is no doubt that, it you compare time with time, the grace of the Spirit is now more abundantly displayed. For this forms part of the glory of the kingdom of Christ, as we gather from several passages, and especially from the seventh chapter of John. In this sense are we to understand the words of Paul, that the law was “a shadow of good things to come, but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:17). His purpose is not to declare the inefficacy of those manifestations of grace in which God was pleased to prove his truth to the patriarchs, just as he proves it to us in the present day in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but to contrast the two, and show the great value of what is given to us, that no one may think it strange that by the advent of Christ the ceremonies of the law have been abolished.
No particular objections beyond those already expressed . . .
. . . which is more than the usual miniscule or nonexistent attention Calvin gives to existing Catholic theological reasoning . . .
by which the difference between the sacraments of the old and the new dispensation is made so great, that the former did nothing but shadow forth the grace of God, while the latter actually confer that it, must be altogether exploded. Since the apostle speaks in no higher terms of the one than of the other, when he says that the fathers ate of the same spiritual food, and explains that that food was Christ (1 Cor. 10:3), who will presume to regard as an empty sign that which gave a manifestation to the Jews of true communion with Christ?
But we have only Calvin’s jaded report of what the Scholastics taught, to go by, and I certainly don’t trust that, from what we have seen previously.
And the state of the case which the apostle is there treating militates strongly for our view. For to guard against confiding in a frigid knowledge of Christ, an empty title of Christianity and external observances, and thereby daring to contemn the judgment of God, he exhibits signal examples of divine severity in the Jews, to make us aware that if we indulge in the same vices, the same punishments which they suffered are impending over us. Now, to make the comparison appropriate, it was necessary to show that there is no inequality between us and them in those blessings in which he forbade us to glory. Therefore, he first makes them equal to us in the sacraments, and leaves us not one iota of privilege which could give us hopes of impunity. Nor can we justly attribute more to our baptism than he elsewhere attributes to circumcision, when he terms it a seal of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11).
This is where Calvin errs, and ignores several Pauline indications of baptismal regeneration (seen above).
Whatever, therefore, is now exhibited to us in the sacraments, the Jews formerly received in theirs—viz. Christ, with his spiritual riches. The same efficacy which ours possess they experienced in theirs—viz. that they were seals of the divine favour toward them in regard to the hope of eternal salvation.
It is in reducing sacraments to mere seals and signs that an equality is thereby conferred between Old and New Covenant sacraments. Catholics think that the New Covenant is a significant improvement in terms of outpouring of grace, and our sacramentology reflects that.
Had the objectors been sound expounders of the Epistle to the Hebrews, they would not have been so deluded, but reading therein that sins were not expiated by legal ceremonies, nay, that the ancient shadows were of no importance to justification, they overlooked the contrast which is there drawn, and fastening on the single point, that the law in itself was of no avail to the worshipper, thought that they were mere figures, devoid of truth. The purpose of the apostle is to show that there is nothing in the ceremonial law until we arrive at Christ, on whom alone the whole efficacy depends.
No particular disagreement . . .
Calvin’s nameless, undocumented “scholastics” teach this way? I don’t know who they are. He gives no hard evidence. I do know, however, of one famous “scholastic”: St. Thomas Aquinas. And what he says is scarcely distinguishable from Calvin’s own argument concerning the parallel between circumcision and baptism:
The Apostle says (Colossians 2:11-12): “You are circumcised with circumcision, not made by hand in despoiling the body of the flesh, but in the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in Baptism.”. . . Baptism is called the Sacrament of Faith; in so far, to wit, as in Baptism man makes a profession of faith, and by Baptism is aggregated to the congregation of the faithful. Now our faith is the same as that of the Fathers of old, according to the Apostle (2 Corinthians 4:13): “Having the same spirit of faith . . . we . . . believe.” But circumcision was a protestation of faith; wherefore by circumcision also men of old were aggregated to the body of the faithful. Consequently, it is manifest that circumcision was a preparation for Baptism and a figure thereof, forasmuch as “all things happened” to the Fathers of old “in figure” (1 Corinthians 10:11); just as their faith regarded things to come.
. . . Circumcision was like Baptism as to the spiritual effect of the latter. For just as circumcision removed a carnal pellicule, so Baptism despoils man of carnal behavior.
. . . The protecting pillar of cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea were indeed figures of our Baptism, whereby we are born again of water, signified by the Red Sea; and of the Holy Ghost, signified by the pillar of cloud: yet man did not make, by means of these, a profession of faith, as by circumcision; so that these two things were figures but not sacraments. But circumcision was a sacrament, and a preparation for Baptism; although less clearly figurative of Baptism, as to externals, than the aforesaid. And for this reason the Apostle mentions them rather than circumcision. (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Q 70: Circumcision; Article 1. Whether circumcision was a preparation for, and a figure of Baptism?)
But by no means. For the very same thing might justly be said of baptism. Indeed, it is said; first by Paul himself, when he shows that God regards not the external ablution by which we are initiated into religion, unless the mind is purified inwardly, and maintains its purity to the end;
It’s easy to slant a person’s teaching if only one aspect of it is mentioned. As we have seen already, St. Paul taught that the baptized “have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27) and states that God “saved us, . . . by the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). He reported with obvious agreement what Ananias said to him: “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16).
and, secondly, by Peter, when he declares that the reality of baptism consists not in external ablution, but in the testimony of a good conscience.
And in the same passage (1 Pet 3:21) he also says that “Baptism, . . . now saves you.” The same Peter preached after the first Pentecost: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Calvin conveniently decided to bypass both portions. They aren’t part of the “sign and seal” playbook, and don’t exactly fit into that schema. So they didn’t make the “cut.”
But it seems that in another passage he speaks with the greatest contempt of circumcision made with hands, when he contrasts it with the circumcision made by Christ. I answer, that not even in that passage is there anything derogatory to its dignity. Paul is there disputing against those who insisted upon it as necessary, after it had been abrogated. He therefore admonishes believers to lay aside ancient shadows, and cleave to truth. These teachers, he says, insist that your bodies shall be circumcised. But you have been spiritually circumcised both in soul and body. You have, therefore, a manifestation of the reality, and this is far better than the shadow. Still any one might have answered, that the figure was not to be despised because they had the reality, since among the fathers also was exemplified that putting off of the old man of which he was speaking, and yet to them external circumcision was not superfluous. This objection he anticipates, when he immediately adds, that the Colossians were buried together with Christ by baptism, thereby intimating that baptism is now to Christians what circumcision was to those of ancient times; and that the latter, therefore, could not be imposed on Christians without injury to the former.
That much is true. But Paul wasn’t utterly opposed to circumcision, even in the New Covenant. We know this from Acts 16:3:
Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
Some have argued that this was hypocritical on Paul’s part in much the same way as Peter was acting hypocritically in the famous incident where Paul rebuked him (Gal 2:11). How great an irony, if in fact that is true!
I guess these may be some of the reasons why St. Thomas wrote: “circumcision was a sacrament, and a preparation for Baptism.”
For until Christ was manifested in the flesh, all signs shadowed him as absent, however he might inwardly exert the presence of his power, and consequently of his person on believers. But the most important observation is, that in all these passages Paul does not speak simply but by way of reply. He was contending with false apostles, who maintained that piety consisted in mere ceremonies, without any respect to Christ; for their refutation it was sufficient merely to consider what effect ceremonies have in themselves. This, too, was the scope of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Let us remember, therefore, that he is here treating of ceremonies not taken in their true and native signification, but when wrested to a false and vicious interpretation, not of the legitimate use, but of the superstitious abuse of them. What wonder, then, if ceremonies, when separated from Christ, are devoid of all virtue? All signs become null when the thing signified is taken away. Thus Christ, when addressing those who thought that manna was nothing more than food for the body, accommodates his language to their gross opinion, and says, that he furnished a better food, one which fed souls for immortality. But if you require a clearer solution, the substance comes to this: First, the whole apparatus of ceremonies under the Mosaic law, unless directed to Christ, is evanescent and null. Secondly, these ceremonies had such respect to Christ, that they had their fulfilment only when Christ was manifested in the flesh. Lastly, at his advent they behoved to disappear, just as the shadow vanishes in the clear light of the sun. But I now touch more briefly on the point, because I defer the future consideration of it till I come to the place where I intend to compare baptism with circumcision.
It’s not at all clear that the above is necessarily contrary to Catholic teaching. But Calvin is blissfully unaware of this.
Much like St. Thomas . . .
Moreover, with regard to the mode of signifying, he says, as he also elsewhere indicates, “The Law and the Prophets had sacraments foretelling a thing future, the sacraments of our time attest that what they foretold as to come has come” (Cont. Liter. Petil. Lib. 2 c. 37). His sentiments concerning the reality and efficacy, he explains in several passages, as when he says, “The sacraments of the Jews were different in the signs, alike in the things signified; different in the visible appearance, alike in spiritual power” (Hom. in Joann. 26). Again, “In different signs there was the same faith: it was thus in different signs as in different words, because the words change the sound according to times, and yet words are nothing else than signs. The fathers drank of the same spiritual drink, but not of the same corporeal drink. See then, how, while faith remains, signs vary. There the rock was Christ; to us that is Christ which is placed on the altar. They as a great sacrament drank of the water flowing from the rock: believers know what we drink. If you look at the visible appearance there was a difference; if at the intelligible signification, they drank of the same spiritual drink.” Again, “In this mystery their food and drink are the same as ours; the same in meaning, not in form, for the same Christ was figured to them in the rock; to us he has been manifested in the flesh” (in Ps. 77). Though we grant that in this respect also there is some difference. Both testify that the paternal kindness of God, and the graces of the Spirit, are offered us in Christ, but ours more clearly and splendidly. In both there is an exhibition of Christ, but in ours it is more full and complete, in accordance with that distinction between the Old and New Testaments of which we have discoursed above. And this is the meaning of Augustine (whom we quote more frequently, as being the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity),
Yet St. Augustine was not by any stretch of the imagination closer to Calvin in thought than to the Catholic Church’s teaching. For this reason Calvin appears to always be extremely selective in citing him. He denied “faith alone” (sola fide). He denied sola Scriptura, which was an unknown concept among the fathers. He believed in the Real, Substantial Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in purgatory. He was thoroughly Catholic all down the line.
where he says that after Christ was revealed, sacraments were instituted, fewer in number, but of more august significancy and more excellent power (De Doct. Christ. Lib. 3; et Ep. ad Janur.).
In any event, Augustine believed in seven sacraments, not two.
It is here proper to remind the reader, that all the trifling talk of the sophists concerning the opus operatum, is not only false. but repugnant to the very nature of sacraments, which God appointed in order that believers, who are void and in want of all good, might bring nothing of their own, but simply beg. Hence it follows, that in receiving them they do nothing which deserves praise, and that in this action (which in respect of them is merely passive) no work can be ascribed to them.
Ex opere operato was dealt with previously.
Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]