Sacramentalism & “Ex Opere Operato” (vs. Calvin #37)

Sacramentalism & “Ex Opere Operato” (vs. Calvin #37) January 30, 2019

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”)


IV, 14:15


Book IV


15. Refutation confirmed by a passage from Augustine.

Hence the distinction, if properly understood, repeatedly made by Augustine between the sacrament and the matter of the sacrament. For he does not mean merely that the figure and truth are therein contained, but that they do not so cohere as not to be separable, and that in this connection it is always necessary to distinguish the thing from the sign, so as not to transfer to the one what belongs to the other. Augustine speaks of the separation when he says that in the elect alone the sacraments accomplish what they represent (Augustin. de Bapt. Parvul.). Again, when speaking of the Jews, he says, “Though the sacraments were common to all, the grace was not common: yet grace is the virtue of the sacraments. Thus, too, the laver of regeneration is now common to all, but the grace by which the members of Christ are regenerated with their head is not common to all” (August. in Ps. 78). 

Obviously, people have different levels of grace. Catholics don’t quibble with that.

Again, in another place, speaking of the Lord’s Supper, he says, “We also this day receive visible food; but the sacrament is one thing, the virtue of the sacrament another. Why is it that many partake of the altar and die, and die by partaking? For even the cup of the Lord was poison to Judas, not because he received what was evil, but being wicked he wickedly received what was good” (August. in Joann. Hom. 26). 


A little after, he says, “The sacrament of this thing, that is, of the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is in some places prepared every day, in others at certain intervals at the Lord’s table, which is partaken by some unto life, by others unto destruction. But the thing itself, of which there is a sacrament, is life to all, and destruction to none who partake of it.” 

In other words, it is connected to salvation (“life to all”), just as Jesus explained in John 6.

Some time before he had said, “He who may have eaten shall not die, but he must be one who attains to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; who eats inwardly, not outwardly; who eats with the heart, and not with the teeth.” Here you are uniformly told that a sacrament is so separated from the reality by the unworthiness of the partaker, that nothing remains but an empty and useless figure. Now, in order that you may have not a sign devoid of truth, but the thing with the sign, the Word which is included in it must be apprehended by faith. Thus, in so far as by means of the sacraments you will profit in the communion of Christ, will you derive advantage from them.

Calvin, as is his wont, goes too far and denies an underlying Catholic principle: ex opere operato: the notion that the sacraments have inherent power and have effect precisely because God’s power is in them. Catholics agree that the benefits of the sacrament can vary, according to inner disposition, but they also assert ex opere operato, and it is Calvin’s aim to deny that. The Catholic view is Christ-centered, whereas Calvin’s view is too man-centered on the scale of things. He puts relatively more emphasis on the recipient rather than the Lord of the sacraments, Who uses them to accomplish His purposes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts the proper, balanced view:

1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

1128 This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” [footnote: St. Thomas Aquinas, S Th, III, 68, 8] From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

1129 The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. “Sacramental grace” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature [footnote: cf. 2 Peter 1:4] by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.

St. Augustine (virtually Calvin’s chosen “patron saint”) accepted ex opere operato. For example, he wrote:

Baptism consists not in the merits of those by whom it is administered, nor of those to whom it is administered, but in its own sanctity and truth, on account of Him who instituted it. (Cont. Cres., IV)

Whence this great power of water, that it touches the body and cleanses the soul? (Tractate 80 on the Gospel of John)

To my mind it is abundantly clear that in the matter of baptism we have to consider not who he is that gives it, but what it is that he gives; not who he is that receives, but what it is that he receives . . . Wherefore, any one who is on the side of the devil cannot defile the sacrament, which is of Christ . . . When baptism is administered by the words of the gospel, however great the evil of either minister or recipient may be, the sacrament itself is holy on account of the one whose sacrament it is. In the case of people who receive baptism from an evil person, if they do not receive the perverseness of the minister but the holiness of the mystery, being united to the church in good faith and hope and charity, they will receive the forgiveness of their sins. (On Baptism; cited by Protestant historian Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, Wiley-Blackwell, 1998, pp. 77-78)

Elsewhere, Calvin explicitly rejects ex opere operato, and in so doing, shows that he scarcely even understands what it is that he rejects:

To show more fully the agreement between the doctrine of the Papists and that which Paul opposes, it must be observed, that the sacraments, when we partake of them in a sincere manner, are not the works of men, but of God. In baptism or the Lord’s supper, we do nothing but present ourselves to God, in order to receive his grace. Baptism, viewed in regard to us, is a passive work: we bring nothing to it but faith; and all that belongs to it is laid up in Christ. But what are the views of the Papists? They contrive the opus operatum, by which men merit the grace of God; and what is this, but to extinguish utterly the truth of the sacrament? (Commentary on Galatians 5:1-6, section 3; translated by John King)

Calvin scholar David Curtis Steinmetz makes it very clear that Calvin opposed ex opere operato:

From the standpoint of medieval theology, Zwingli and Calvin placed the baptism of Jesus and John on the same level, partly by raising the baptism of John and partly by lowering the baptism of Christ. They elevated the baptism of John by insisting that John preached the gospel and offered the same baptism as the apostles. They lowered the baptism of Christ by arguing that it conferred no grace ex opere operato. (Calvin in Context, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 168)

Reformed Protestant theologian G. C. Berkouwer explains very well, and fairly and objectively (as he usually does), the differences between Catholic and Calvinist thinking regarding the sacraments and ex opere operato:

Why, then, did the Reformers so unanimously reject ex opere operato? . . .

It is striking that so much agreement exists between Lutherans and Reformed precisely in the rejection of ex opere operato. . . . he [Calvin] objects to the ex opere operato not only because it is incorrect but because (as he remarks) it contradicts the very nature of the sacraments. . . .

[Dave: Calvin writes in IV, 14, 26 (cross-reference cited by Berkouwer, but in Latin footnotes):

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.]

. . . we must now recognize that the Roman Catholic not only rejects this reproach of magic, but that he also faces a problem of subjectivity in the sacraments. This is already apparent in the pronouncement of Trent, which not only poses the ex opere operato, but also speaks of the problem of the obstacle. It is impossible, therefore, to speak simplistically of the Roman Catholic sacramental doctrine as “magical.” . . . a subjective disposition is necessary for the working of the sacrament. Rome never intended to rule out this disposition in an objectivistic manner, but only to deny that this necessary disposition is either causal or meritorious. . . . In spite of all the criticism from the Reformed side, Rome wants to defend the gratuity of grace. . . .

This mode does not simply pit objectivity against subjectivism, nor sacrament-magic against human activity. It does not place the absolute gratuity of grace in opposition to the meritoriousness and the preparation of man. It rather synthesizes and connects these contradictory elements, and precisely in so doing it places itself against the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments. . . .

For the Reformation, the objectivity of the sacraments could no longer depend on the efficacy of infused supernatural grace . . . The sacraments are no longer independent new fountains of grace . . .

The sacrament no longer has the function of infusing supernatural grace, but can only be understood in connection with the word of promise. . . . There is a receiving of the sacrament which is altogether different from the receiving of supernatural grace. (Studies in Dogmatics: The Sacraments, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1969, pp. 64-65, 67, 69, 74, 76)

The excellent Catholic Encyclopedia article on Sacraments describes Calvin’s and Protestantism’s errors in this regard and presents the Catholic alternative (paragraphs are my own, for easier reading):

Luther and his early followers rejected this conception of the sacraments. They do not cause grace, but are merely “signs and testimonies of God’s good will towards us” (Augsburg Confessions); they excite faith, and faith (fiduciary) causes justification. Calvinists and Presbyterians hold substantially the same doctrine. Zwinglius lowered still further the dignity of the sacraments, making them signs not of God’s fidelity but of our fidelity. By receiving the sacraments we manifest faith in Christ: they are merely the badges of our profession and the pledges of our fidelity.

Fundamentally all these errors arise from Luther’s newly-invented theory of righteousness, i.e. the doctrine of justification by faith alone (see GRACE). If man is to be sanctified not by an interior renovation through grace which will blot out his sins, but by an extrinsic imputation through the merits of Christ, which will cover his soul as a cloak, there is no place for signs that cause grace, and those used can have no other purpose than to excite faith in the Saviour. . . .

Against all innovators the Council of Trent declared: “If anyone say that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify, or that they do not confer grace on those who place no obstacle to the same, let him be anathema” (Sess. viii, “If anyone say that grace is not conferred by the sacraments ex opere operato but that faith in God’s promises is alone sufficient for obtaining grace, let him be anathema” (ibid., can. viii; cf. can. iv, v, vii).

The phrase “ex opere operato”, for which there is no equivalent in English, probably was used for the first time by Peter of Poitiers (d. 1205), and afterwards by Innocent III (d. 1216; de myst. missae, III, v), and by St. Thomas (d. 1274; IV Sent., dist. 1, Q.i, a.5). It was happily invented to express a truth that had always been taught and had been introduced without objection. . . . “Ex opere operato”, i.e. by virtue of the action, means that the efficacy of the action of the sacraments does not depend on anything human, but solely on the will of God as expressed by Christ’s institution and promise.

“Ex opere operantis”, i.e. by reason of the agent, would mean that the action of the sacraments depended on the worthiness either of the minister or of the recipient . . . It is well known that Catholics teach that the sacraments are only the instrumental, not the principal, causes of grace.

Neither can it be claimed that the phrase adopted by the council does away with all dispositions necessary on the part of the recipient, the sacraments acting like infallible charms causing grace in those who are ill-disposed or in grievous sin. The fathers of the council were careful to note that there must be no obstacle to grace on the part of the recipients, who must receive them rite, i.e. rightly and worthily; and they declare it a calumny to assert that they require no previous dispositions (Sess. XIV, de poenit., cap.4).

Dispositions are required to prepare the subject, but they are a condition (conditio sine qua non), not the causes, of the grace conferred. In this case the sacraments differ from the sacramentals, which may cause grace ex opere operantis, i.e. by reason of the prayers of the Church or the good, pious sentiments of those who use them.


(originally 10-21-09)

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]


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