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”)
Scripture has more than sufficient indication that holy water is not foreign to the Christian, biblical worldview at all, and indeed, quite consistent with it. It refers to water that has been blessed (Ex 23:25), “holy water” (Numbers 5:17), “water for impurity” (Num 19:9, 13-20), “healed” (KJV), “purified” (NASB), or “wholesome” (RSV) water (2 Ki 2:19-22). Water is spoken of as being connected to cleansing (Lev 14:8-9, 50-52, 15:5-27, 17:15; Num 8:7, 19:12, 18-19; 2 Ki 5:12; Ps 51:7; Ezek 16:4, 36:25; Eph 5:26; Heb 10:22), purifying (Ex 29:4, 40:12, 30-32; Lev 11:32, 16:4, 24, 26, 28, 22:6; Num 19:7-8, 31:23; Deut 23:10-11; 1 Ki 18:33-34; Jn 2:6; Heb 9:19), and healing (2 Ki 5:14; Is 35:5-7; Jn 5:4; 9:6-7).
For when Augustine says (Ep. 118) that certain churches in his day rejected the formal imitation of Christ in the washing of feet, lest that rite should seem to pertain to baptism, he intimates that there was then no kind of washing which had any resemblance to baptism.
That doesn’t necessarily follow. The Catholic Encyclopedia (“Holy Water”) gives evidences of early patristic use of holy water. St. Augustine lived from 354-430. I’ve inserted the dates of other early figures in brackets:
[I]t is permissible to suppose for the sake of argument that, in the earliest Christian times, water was used for expiatory and purificatory purposes, to a way analogous to its employment under the Jewish Law. As, in many cases, the water used for the Sacrament of Baptism was flowing water, sea or river water, it could not receive the same blessing as that contained in the baptisteries. On this particular point the early liturgy is obscure, but two recent discoveries are of very decided interest. The Pontifical of Scrapion of Thumis, a fourth-century bishop, and likewise the “testamentum Domini”, a Syriac composition dating from the fifth to the sixth century, contain a blessing of oil and water during Mass. The formula in Scrapion’s Pontifical is as follows: “We bless these creatures in the Name of Jesus Christ, Thy only Son; we invoke upon this water and this oil the Name of Him Who suffered, Who was crucified, Who arose from the dead, and Who sits at the right of the Uncreated. Grant unto these creatures the power to heal; may all fevers, every evil spirit, and all maladies be put to flight by him who either drinks these beverages or is anointed with them, and may they be a remedy in the Name of Jesus Christ, Thy only Son.” As early as the fourth century various writings, the authenticity of which is free from suspicion, mention the use of water sanctified either by the liturgical blessing just referred to, or by the individual blessing of some holy person. St. Epiphanius [c. 315-403] (Contra haeres., lib. I, haer. xxx) records that at Tiberias a man named Joseph poured water on a madman, having first made the sign of the cross and pronounced these words over the water: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, crucified, depart from this unhappy one, thou infernal spirit, and let him be healed!” Joseph was converted an subsequently used the same proceeding to overcome witchcraft; yet, he was neither a bishop nor a cleric. Theodoret [c.393-c.466] (Church History V.21) relates that Marcellus, Bishop of Apamea [d. 388], sanctified water by the sign of the cross and that Aphraates [c.280-c.345] cured one of the emperor’s horses by making it drink water blessed by the sign of the cross (“Hist. relig.”, c. viii, in P.G., LXXXII, col. 1244, 1375). In the West similar attestations are made. Gregory of Tours [538-c.594] (De gloria confess., c. 82) tells of a recluse named Eusitius who lived in the sixth century and possessed the power of curing quartan fever by giving its victims to drink of water that he had blessed; we might mention many other instances treasured up by this same Gregory (“De Miraculis S. Martini“, II, xxxix; “Mirac. S. Juliani“, II, iii, xxv, xxvi; “Liber de Passione S. Juliani“; “Vitae Patrum”, c. iv, n. 3). It is known that some of the faithful believed that holy water possessed curative properties for certain diseases, and that this was true in a special manner of baptismal water. In some places it was carefully preserved throughout the year and, by reason of its having been used in baptism, was considered free from all corruption. This belief spread from East to West; and scarcely had baptism been administered, when the people would crown around with all sorts of vessels and take away the water, some keeping it carefully in their homes whilst others watered their fields, vineyards, and gardens with it (“Ordo rom. I”, 42, in “Mus. ital.”, II, 26).
And I attach no importance (though much infamy) to the fact that Calvin attributes many things to the fathers, that they did not teach.
For as he has nothing better than conjecture, it is not sufficient for forming a judgment concerning a matter of so much moment. Lastly, though we should grant that the things which he mentions are derived from the apostolic age, there is a great difference between instituting some exercise of piety, which believers may use with a free conscience, or may abstain from if they think the observance not to be useful, and enacting a law which brings the conscience into bondage.
Catholics were obliged to sprinkle holy water on themselves, with penalties for disobedience? One would like to see that proven. But as we know, Calvin is not renowned for documenting his factual assertions regarding supposed history.
Now, indeed, whoever is the author from whom they are derived, since we see the great abuses to which they have led,
What abuses are those?
there is nothing to prevent us from abrogating them without any imputation on him,
Who is “him”?
since he never recommended them in such a way as to lay us under a fixed and immovable obligation to observe them.
So Calvin argues that we don’t know who started the practice, but nevertheless, that he didn’t recommend the use of holy water in the (unspecified) ways that Calvin detests; therefore, this mysterious originator is freed from blame, even though we don’t know who he is. Compelling reasoning there . . .
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]