Sacrament of Anointing: Yay or Nay? (vs. Calvin #52)

Sacrament of Anointing: Yay or Nay? (vs. Calvin #52) February 7, 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, 19:18-21


Book IV



18. Extreme Unction described. No foundation for it in the words of James.


The third fictitious sacrament is Extreme Unction, which is performed only by a priest, and, as they express it, in extremis, with oil consecrated by the bishop, and with this form of words, “By this holy unction, and his most tender mercy, may God forgive you whatever sin you have committed, by the eye, the ear, the smell, the touch, the taste” (see Calv. Epist. de Fugiend. Illicit. Sac.). They pretend that there are two virtues in it—the forgiveness of sins, and relief of bodily disease, if so expedient; if not expedient, the salvation of the soul. For they say, that the institution was set down by James, whose words are, “Is any sick among you? let him send for the elders of the Church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14). 

That would seem to be a reasonable and sufficient scriptural proof, would it not?

The same account is here to be given of this unction as we lately gave of the laying on of hands; in other words, it is mere hypocritical stage-play, by which, without reason or result, they would resemble the apostles. Mark relates that the apostles, on their first mission, agreeably to the command which they had received of the Lord, raised the dead, cast out devils, cleansed lepers, healed the sick, and, in healing, used oil. He says, they “anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13).

A second plain biblical proof . . .  Calvin either argues that there is no express biblical proof (as he erroneously fancies regarding penance) or if there is clear proof, then he tries to explain it away or rationalize it as of no import. But here he will take a third course: deny that the miraculous happens anymore.

To this James referred when he ordered the presbyters of the Church to be called to anoint the sick. That no deeper mystery lay under this ceremony will easily be perceived by those who consider how great liberty both our Lord and his apostles used in those external things. Our Lord, when about to give sight to the blind man, spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle; some he cured by a touch, others by a word. In like manner the apostles cured some diseases by word only, others by touch, others by anointing.

Yes, the sacramental principle and use of matter to convey grace is a common biblical motif.

But it is probable that neither this anointing nor any of the other things were used at random. I admit this; not, however, that they were instruments of the cure, but only symbols to remind the ignorant whence this great virtue proceeded, and prevent them from ascribing the praise to the apostles.

Of course. Here is the lack of faith and antipathy to matter, and the silly pitting of matter against spirit. Calvin can’t admit that anything actually happens because of matter!

To designate the Holy Spirit and his gifts by oil is trite and common (Ps. 45:8).

It is not so if this is the biblical model and teaching.

But the gift of hearing disappeared with the other miraculous powers which the Lord was pleased to give for a time, that it might render the new preaching of the gospel for ever wonderful. Therefore, even were we to grant that anointing was a sacrament of those powers which were then administered by the hands of the apostles, it pertains not to us, to whom no such powers have been committed.

Thus, in one fell swoop, Calvin dismisses the clear biblical proofs by this ridiculous notion that all such powers have now ceased: an idea that (quite ironically, given Calvin’s professed allegiance to sola Scriptura) has not the slightest shred of biblical proof anywhere. If he takes out an entire huge category, with no reason whatever, then anything that is included within it is also eliminated. But there is no argument for the removal. It is completely arbitrary and groundless: not seen in the Bible at all.

19. No better ground for making this unction a sacrament, than any of the other symbols mentioned in Scripture.

And what better reason have they for making a sacrament of this unction, than of any of the other symbols which are mentioned in Scripture? Why do they not dedicate some pool of Siloam, into which, at certain seasons the sick may plunge themselves? That, they say, were done in vain. Certainly not more in vain than unction. Why do they not lay themselves on the dead, seeing that Paul, in raising up the dead youth, lay upon him? Why is not clay made of dust and spittle a sacrament?

Most of these sorts of things we would regard as sacramentals. What is determined to be a sacrament is, in the end, determined by the Church, based on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. But Calvin rejects that methodology (for no good reason, let alone scriptural one).

The other cases were special, but this is commanded by James. In other words, James spake agreeably to the time when the Church still enjoyed this blessing from God. They affirm, indeed, that there is still the same virtue in their unction, but we experience differently. Let no man now wonder that they have with so much confidence deluded souls which they knew to be stupid and blind, because deprived of the word of God, that is, of his light and life, seeing they blush not to attempt to deceive the bodily perceptions of those who are alive, and have all their senses about them. They make themselves ridiculous, therefore, by pretending that they are endued with the gift of healing. The Lord, doubtless, is present with his people in all ages, and cures their sicknesses as often as there is need, not less than formerly; and yet he does not exert those manifest powers, nor dispense miracles by the hands of apostles, because that gift was temporary, and owing, in some measure, to the ingratitude of men, immediately ceased.

So now Calvin switches tactics and admits that yes, perhaps healings still occur, but then he has to drive a wedge between God as the sole agent, and men as the instrument, as if men were not used precisely as the instruments of healing all the time in Holy Scripture. It’s all completely arbitrary and circular reasoning. It’s no surprise that no Bible passages are adduced in alleged proof.

20. Insult offered by this unction to the Holy Spirit. It cannot be a sacrament, as it was not instituted by Christ, and has no promise annexed to it.

Wherefore, as the apostles, not without cause, openly declared, by the symbol of oil, that the gift of healing committed to them was not their own, but the power of the Holy Spirit; so, on the other hand, these men insult the Holy Spirit by making his power consist in a filthy oil of no efficacy.

More classic false dichotomies. Calvin seems literally unable to comprehend that God uses the oil as a means of the power to heal that comes solely through Him. All men add is faith and obedience. The use of the adjective “filthy” oil gives away his irrational prejudices.

It is just as if one were to say that all oil is the power of the Holy Spirit, because it is called by that name in Scripture, and that every dove is the Holy Spirit, because he appeared in that form.

No sane, conscious person would say that. But it makes a wonderful straw man, doesn’t it?

Let them see to this: it is sufficient for us that we perceive, with absolute certainty, that their unction is no sacrament, as it is neither a ceremony appointed by God, nor has any promise.

Despite the Scripture we have already seen: that Calvin himself cited . . .

For when we require, in a sacrament, these two things, that it be a ceremony appointed by God, and have a promise from God, we at the same time demand that that ceremony be delivered to us, and that that promise have reference to us.

What Calvin demands and what biblical, traditional, developed Christianity requires are two different things.

No man contends that circumcision is now a sacrament of the Christian Church, although it was both an ordinance of God, and had his promise annexed to it, because it was neither commanded to us, nor was the promise annexed to it given us on the same condition.

It was the Church that decided that, in a binding decision (Jerusalem Council of Acts 15): this is precisely the sort of authority that Calvin does not have, to pronounce against a sacrament.

The promise of which they vaunt so much in unction, as we have clearly demonstrated, and they themselves show by experience, has not been given to us. The ceremony behoved to be used only by those who had been endued with the gift of healing, not by those murderers, who do more by slaying and butchering than by curing.

All Calvin can do is deny that no one could ever be healed or helped in their salvation by anointing in this sacrament. He has no proof of that. It is “demolition by arbitrary proclamation of a prior [unproven] impossibility.” This is exactly how atheists argue against Christianity: “miracles can’t possibly happen [premise], therefore they don’t in fact occur, no matter what the claims may be, or how reliable the eyewitnesses.” Categories of thought and possibility are constructed, and then the person subject to those tries to force actual reality into the predetermined categories.

21. No correspondence between the unction enjoined by James and the anointing of the Papists.


Even were it granted that this precept of unction, which has nothing to do with the present age,

It doesn’t? Says who?

were perfectly adapted to it, they will not even thus have advanced much in support of their unction, with which they have hitherto besmeared us. James would have all the sick to be anointed: these men besmear, with their oil, not the sick, but half-dead carcasses, when life is quivering on the lips, or, as they say, in extremis. If they have a present cure in their sacrament, with which they can either alleviate the bitterness of disease, or at least give some solace to the soul, they are cruel in never curing in time.

It is more important in the case of a dying man, so that he can be saved, and that might account for an over-emphasis on such cases in the past. But if so, that is only a just criticism of an abuse, that doesn’t undermine the sacrament itself or its rationale. The Church now emphasizes a wider application of this sacrament.

James would have the sick man to be anointed by the elders of the Church. They admit no anointer but a priestling. When they interpret the elders of James to be priests, and allege that the plural number is used for honour, the thing is absurd; as if the Church had at that time abounded with swarms of priests, so that they could set out in long procession, bearing a dish of sacred oil. James, in ordering simply that the sick be anointed, seems to me to mean no other anointing than that of common oil, nor is any other mentioned in the narrative of Mark. These men deign not to use any oil but that which has been consecrated by a bishop, that is warmed with much breath, charmed by much muttering, and saluted nine times on bended knee, Thrice Hail, holy oil! thrice Hail, holy chrism! thrice Hail, holy balsam!

Not every jot and tittle of everything need be in Scripture (that is not itself a biblical teaching, but rather, a tradition of men). So none of this objection to doctrinal development is of any relevance or force.

From whom did they derive these exorcisms? James says, that when the sick man shall have been anointed with oil, and prayer shall have been made over him, if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him—viz. that his guilt being forgiven, he shall obtain a mitigation of the punishment, not meaning that sins are effaced by oil, but that the prayers by which believers commended their afflicted brother to God would not be in vain.

It’s a distinction without a difference. If the command is anoint and pray, and the result is healing and/or salvation or setting the person on the right course of salvation, at any rate, then how is it different (in result) to say that the oil had nothing to do with it? The oil was commanded for a reason. If it had no place whatever in the chain of causation, then why would God even bother to include it?

In another sense, it is beside the point whether it was the actual instrument or not, since the fact remains that it is part of the process, as commanded in Scripture. If we are obedient to that, we do it, wholly apart from philosophical speculations as to cause and effect. Calvin, like the Pharisees, is hung up on the lesser details and thus misses the essence of the practice. He can’t see the forest for the trees.

These men are impiously false in saying that sins are forgiven by their sacred, that is, abominable unction.

The Bible says they are. That is sufficient. The Bible is authoritative and inspired revelation. Calvin’s writing has neither quality.

See how little they gain, even when they are allowed to abuse the passage of James as they list.

How do we do that? It’s simple enough: we pray for men and use anointing oil.

And to save us the trouble of a laborious proof, their own annals relieve us from all difficulty; for they relate that Pope Innocent, who presided over the church of Rome in the age of Augustine, ordained, that not elders only, but all Christians, should use oil in anointing, in their own necessity, or in that of their friends. Our authority for this is Sigebert, in his Chronicles.

That is an example of something that can legitimately be altered by the Church. In this case, the current canonical law is more in conformity with the Bible, since it was the original disciples (who represent priests) and “elders” who perform the rite.


(originally 12-21-09)

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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