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”)
34. Marriage not a sacrament.
The last of all is marriage, which, while all admit it to be an institution of God, no man ever saw to be a sacrament, until the time of Gregory.
This is untrue. St. Augustine (as I noted previously) referred to it as a sacrament (bolding added):
Undoubtedly the substance of the sacrament is of this bond, so that when man and woman have been joined in marriage they must continue inseparably as long as they live, nor is it allowed for one spouse to be separated from the other except for cause of fornication. For this is preserved in the case of Christ and the Church, so that, as a living one with a living one, there is no divorce, no separation forever. (Marriage and Concupiscence 1:10:11 [A.D. 419] )
In marriage, however, let the blessings of marriage be loved: offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond. Offspring, not so much because it may be born, but because it can be reborn; for it is born to punishment unless it be reborn to life. Fidelity, but not such as even the unbelievers have among themselves, ardent as they are for the flesh. . . . The sacramental bond, which they lose neither through separation nor through adultery, this the spouses should guard chastely and harmoniously. (Ibid., 1:17:19)
So did St. Ambrose:
Scarcely less clear is the testimony of St. Ambrose. In his letter to Siricius (Ep. xlii, 3, in P.L., XVI, 1124), he states: “We also do not deny that marriage was sanctified by Christ”; and to Vigilius he writes (Ep. xix, 7, in P.L., XVI, 984): “Since the contracting of marriage must be sanctified by the veiling and the blessing of the priest, how can there be any mention of a marriage, when unity of faith is wanting?” Of what kind this sanctification is, the saint tells us clearly in his work “De Abraham” (I, vii, in P.L., XIV, 443): “We know that God is the Head and Protector, who does not permit that another’s marriage-bed be defiled; and further that one guilty of such a crime sins against God, whose command he contravenes and whose bond of grace he loosens. Therefore, since he has sinned against God, he now loses his participation in the heavenly sacrament.” According to Ambrose, therefore, Christian marriage is a heavenly sacrament, which binds one with God by the bonds of grace until these bonds are sundered by subsequent sin that is, it is a sacrament in the strict and complete sense of the word. The value of this testimony might be weakened only by supposing that Ambrose, in referring to the “participation in the heavenly sacrament” which he declares forfeited by adulterers, was really thinking of Holy Communion. But of the latter there is in the present instance not the slightest question; consequently, he must here mean the loss of all share in the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage. (Catholic Encyclopedia: “Sacrament of Marriage”)
So did Pope Innocent I (d. 417):
This production of grace through marriage, and therefore its character as a perfect sacrament, was emphasized also by Innocent I in his letter to Probus (Ep. ix, in P.L., XX, 602). He declares a second marriage during the lifetime of the first partner invalid, and adds: “Supported by the Catholic Faith, we declare that the true marriage is that which is originally founded on Divine grace.” (Ibid.)
So did Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225):
As early as the second century we have the valuable testimony of Tertullian. While still a Catholic, he writes (“Ad Uxorem”): “If therefore such a marriage is pleasing to God, wherefore should it not turn out happily, so that it will not be troubled by afflictions and needs and obstacles and contaminations, since it enjoys the protection of the Divine grace?” But if Divine grace and its protection are, as Tertullian asserts, given with marriage, we have therein the distinctive moment which constitutes a religious action (already known for other reasons as a sign of Divine grace) an efficacious sign of grace, that is, a true Sacrament of the New Dispensation. It is only on this hypothesis that we can rightly understand another passage from the same work of Tertullian (II, ix, in P.L., I, 1302): “How can we describe the happiness of those marriages which the Church ratifies, the sacrifice strengthens, the blessing seals, the angels publish, the Heavenly Father propitiously beholds?” (Ibid.)
And would it ever have occurred to the mind of any sober man?
Apparently, Augustine and Ambrose and other prominent early Christian figures were quite the irrational drunks . . . I find it virtually self-evident to believe that marriage brings grace to the couple and helps them insofar as marriage is a picture of Christ and His Church.
It is a good and holy ordinance of God.
Then why wrangle over whether it is a sacrament? Baptists even call the Eucharist and baptism ordinances. Just because Protestants can’t agree amongst themselves what a sacrament is and what it confers, doesn’t mean that we all must be uncertain. This is why God ordained and set up His Church: to be our Guide.
And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving, are lawful ordinances of God; but they are not sacraments. For in a sacrament, the thing required is not only that it be a work of God, but that it be an external ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise. That there is nothing of the kind in marriage, even children can judge.
Is there not a marriage ceremony?
But it is a sign, they say, of a sacred thing, that is, of the spiritual union of Christ with the Church. If by the term sign they understand a symbol set before us by God to assure us of our faith, they wander widely from the mark. If they mean merely a sign because it has been employed as a similitude, I will show how acutely they reason. Paul says, “One star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:41, 42). Here is one sacrament. Christ says, “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard-seed” (Mt. 13:31). Here is another sacrament. Again, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven” (Mt. 13:33). Here is a third sacrament. Isaiah says, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:11). Here is a fourth sacrament. In another passage he says, “The Lord shall go forth as a mighty man” (Isaiah 42:13). Here is a fifth sacrament. And where will be the end or limit? Everything in this way will be a sacrament.
No; only those seven things that the Church, under her divinely protected mandate, determines to be so. It is not for Calvin to decide these things, but for the Church. But there is a more profound analogy, with far more realism, in marriage, than in these other instances, as will be shown below, from Holy Scripture.
All the parables and similitudes in Scripture will be so many sacraments. Nay, even theft will be a sacrament, seeing it is written, “The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Who can tolerate the ignorant garrulity of these sophists?
Who can tolerate the revolutionary anti-traditional attitude of Calvin?
I admit, indeed, that whenever we see a vine, the best thing is to call to mind what our Saviour says, “I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman.” “ I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:1, 5). And whenever we meet a shepherd with his flock, it is good also to remember, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine” (John 10:14). But any man who would class such similitudes with sacraments should be sent to bedlam.
Indeed, but that is neither here nor there. It is merely a failed reductio ad absurdum. Matrimony, like most of the other sacraments, had a great deal of development. The Catholic Encyclopedia (“Sacrament of Marriage”) explains this:
With regard to the several religious rites designated as “Sacraments of the New Law”, there was always in the Church a profound conviction that they conferred interior Divine grace. But the grouping of them into one and the same category was left for a later period, when the dogmas of faith in general began to be scientifically examined and systematically arranged. Furthermore, that the seven sacraments should be grouped in one category was by no means self-evident. For, though it was accepted that each of these rites conferred interior grace, yet, in contrast to their common invisible effect, the difference in external ceremony and even in the immediate purpose of the production of grace was so great that, for a long time, it hindered a uniform classification. Thus, there is a radical difference between the external form under which baptism, confirmation, and orders, on the one hand are administered, and, on the other hand, those that characterize penance and marriage. For while marriage is in the nature of a contract, and penance in the nature of a judicial process, the three first-mentioned take the form of a religious consecration of the recipients.
In the proof of Apostolicity of the doctrine that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law, it will suffice to show that the Church has in fact always taught concerning marriage what belongs to the essence of a sacrament. The name sacrament cannot be cited as satisfactory evidence, since it did not acquire until a late period the exclusively technical meaning it has today; both in pre-Christian times and in the first centuries of the Christian Era it had a much broader and more indefinite signification. . . .
The love of Christian spouses for each other should be modelled on the love between Christ and the Church, because Christian marriage, as a copy and token of the union of Christ with the Church, is a great mystery or sacrament. It would not be a solemn, mysterious symbol of the union of Christ with the Church, which takes concrete form in the individual members of the Church, unless it efficaciously represented this union, i.e. not merely by signifying the supernatural life-union of Christ with the Church, but also by causing that union to be realized in the individual members; or, in other words, by conferring the supernatural life of grace. . . .
In fact, it would be entirely out of keeping with the economy of the New Testament if we possessed a sign of grace and salvation instituted by God which was only an empty sign, and not an efficacious one. Elsewhere (Galatians 4:9), St. Paul emphasizes in a most significant fashion the difference between the Old and the New Testament, when he calls the religious rites of the former “weak and needy elements” which could not of themselves confer true sanctity, the effect of true justice and sanctity being reserved for the New Testament and its religious rites. If, therefore, he terms Christian marriage, as a religious act, a great sacrament, he means not to reduce it to the low plane of the Old Testament rites, to the plane of a “weak and needy element”, but rather to show its importance as a sign of the life of grace, and, like the other sacraments, an efficacious sign. St. Paul, then, does not speak of marriage as a true sacrament in explicit and immediately apparent fashion, but only in such wise that the doctrine must be deduced from his words. . . .
Weightier, if anything, than the testimony of the Fathers as to the sacramental character of Christian marriage is that of the liturgical books and sacramentaries of the different Churches, Eastern and Western, recording the liturgical prayers and rites handed down from the very earliest times. These, it is true, differ in many unimportant details, but their essential features must be traced back to Apostolic ordinances. In all these rituals and liturgical collections, marriage, contracted before the priest during the celebration of Mass, is accompanied by ceremonies and prayers similar to those used in connection with the other sacraments; in fact several of these rituals expressly call marriage a sacrament, and, because it is a “sacrament of the living”, require contrition for sin and the reception of the Sacrament of Penance before marriage is contracted (cf. Martène, “De antiquis ecclesiæ ritibus”, I, ix). But the venerable age, in fact the apostolicity, of the ecclesiastical tradition concerning marriage is still more clearly revealed by the circumstance that the rituals or liturgical books of the Oriental Churches and sects, even of those that separated from the Catholic Church in the first centuries, treat the contracting of marriage as a sacrament, and surround it with significant and impressive ceremonies and prayers. The Nestorians, Monophysites, Copts, Jacobites etc., all agree in this point (cf. J.S. Assemani, “Bibliotheca orientalis”, III, i, 356; ii, 319 sqq.; Schelstrate, “Acta oriental. eccl.”, I, 150 sqq.; Denzinger, “Ritus orientalium”, I, 150 sqq.; II, 364 sqq.). The numerous prayers which are used throughout the ceremony refer to a special grace which is to be granted to the newly-married persons, and occasional commentaries show that this gracewas regarded as sacramental. Thus, the Nestorian patriarch, Timotheus II, in his work “De septem causis sacramentorum” mentioned in Assemani (III, i, 579), deals with marriage among the other sacraments, and enumerates several religious ceremonies without which marriage is invalid. Evidently, therefore, he includes marriage among the sacraments, and considers the grace resulting from it a sacramental grace.
They adduce the words of Paul, by which they say that the name of a sacrament is given to marriage, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:28, 32).
How this has relevance to sacramentality has been explained above, and will to a greater extent below, as we proceed.To treat Scripture thus is to confound heaven and earth. Paul, in order to show husbands how they ought to love their wives, sets Christ before them as an example. As he shed his bowels of affection for the Church, which he has espoused to himself, so he would have every one to feel affected toward his wife. Then he adds, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself,” “even as the Lord the Church.” Moreover, to show how Christ loved the Church as himself, nay, how he made himself one with his spouse the Church, he applies to her what Moses relates that Adam said of himself. For after Eve was brought into his presence, knowing that she had been formed out of his side, he exclaimed, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). That all this was spiritually fulfilled in Christ, and in us, Paul declares, when he says, that we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones, and so one flesh with him. At length he breaks out into the exclamation, “This is a great mystery;”
The Latin word for “mystery” is sacramentum. So Paul makes a reference to this here, though no one argues that it was in as formulated a sense as the later developed doctrine exhibited.
and lest any one should be misled by the ambiguity, he says, that he is not speaking of the connection between husband and wife, but of the spiritual marriage of Christ and the Church. And truly it is a great mystery that Christ allowed a rib to be taken from himself, of which we might be formed; that is, that when he was strong, he was pleased to become weak, that we might be strengthened by his strength, and should no longer live ourselves, but he live in us (Gal. 2:20).
Certainly Calvin would not deny that salvation itself is conferred as a result of grace (for that is sola gratia). Scripture tells us that people can sometimes be saved as a direct result of their spouse:
1 Peter 3:1-2 Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives,  when they see your reverent and chaste behavior.
The Greek word for “won” is kerdaino (Strong’s word #2770). It can and does have implications for the salvation of others, as in its use in the following passage:
1 Corinthians 9:19-22 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
If even grace unto salvation is obtained within marriage, then what objection could there be to marriage as a sacrament, which is precisely a means to obtain grace? Likewise, St. Paul stated that women could be saved by bearing children (which can only properly occur in marriage):
1 Timothy 2:15 Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Both of these passages suggest that grace is imparted through marriage itself, which is the essence of a sacrament. Even if one partner is an unbeliever, Paul says that they are “consecrated” by the believing partner; indeed, that may even be “saved” in this fashion:
1 Corinthians 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. [KJV: “sanctified”]
1 Corinthians 7:16 Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?
“Consecrated” in 1 Corinthians 7:14 is hagiazo (Strong’s word #37); often translated as “sanctify” or “sanctified” — as in the KJV. This comes, of course, ultimately from God, but the wife or husband can be a vessel for that sanctification: and that is grace, and it is sacramental. Here are some other uses of hagiazo in Scripture:
John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.
Acts 20:32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Acts 26:18 . . . those who are sanctified by faith in me.
1 Corinthians 1:2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus . . .
1 Corinthians 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Ephesians 5:24-26 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.  Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
[Thus, the same word used by Paul — hagiazo — to refer to Jesus sanctifying the Church, in the context of a marriage and Church and Christ analogy, is used by him in reference to a husband or wife with regard to the sanctification or consecration of an unbelieving spouse. This shows the realism of the comparison that goes beyond just any biblical analogy: as Calvin had mocked above, using the example of “vines,” etc. The same profound realism is exhibited in 5:29-30: “For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” ]
1 Thessalonians 5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly . . .
Hebrews 10:10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Hebrews 10:14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
Hebrews 13:12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.
The thing which misled them was the term sacrament. But, was it right that the whole Church should be punished for the ignorance of these men? Paul called it a mystery. When the Latin interpreter might have abandoned this mode of expression as uncommon to Latin ears, or converted it into “secret,” he preferred calling it sacramentum, but in no other sense than the Greek term μυστηπιον was used by Paul. Let them go now and clamour against skill in languages, their ignorance of which leads them most shamefully astray in a matter easy and obvious to every one. But why do they so strongly urge the term sacrament in this one passage, and in others pass it by with neglect? For both in the First Epistle to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:9, 16), and also in the Epistle to the Ephesians, it is used by the Vulgate interpreter, and in every instance, for mystery.
As I stated above, the Catholic Church does not claim much for Paul’s mere use of “mystery” (Gk., mysterion / Lat., sacramentum). It is the way in which Paul and Peter described marriage as a means of sanctification and even salvation (thus of grace) — as just shown above — that is the far stronger scriptural argument than this one term, which can have various meanings. Thus, Calvin has concentrated on the lesser argument and ignored all the other biblical indications. He shows himself yet again relatively shallow in his biblical understanding.
Let us, however, pardon them this lapsus, though liars ought to have good memories.
How gracious of him., And we shall pardon him for his biblical illiteracy, or whatever it is that causes him to ignore wholesale, large portions of relevant Scripture: germane to any given topic. We have seen examples of this time and again, throughout this critique of The Institutes.
Marriage being thus recommended by the title of a sacrament, can it be anything but vertiginous levity afterwards to call it uncleanness, and pollution, and carnal defilement?
When, pray tell, do Catholics ever call sacramental marriage that?
How absurd is it to debar priests from a sacrament! If they say that they debar not from a sacrament but from carnal connection, they will not thus escape me. They say that this connection is part of the sacrament, and thereby figures the union which we have with Christ in conformity of nature, inasmuch as it is by this connection that husband and wife become one flesh; although some have here found two sacraments, the one of God and the soul, in bridegroom and bride, another of Christ and the Church, in husband and wife. Be this as it may, this connection is a sacrament from which no Christian can lawfully be debarred, unless, indeed, the sacraments of Christians accord so ill that they cannot stand together.
How is something (celibacy) “absurd”: if it is expressly sanctioned by Jesus and Paul?:
Matthew 19:10-12 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.”  But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
1 Corinthians 7:8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.
1 Corinthians 7:17 Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:20 Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.
1 Corinthians 7:24 So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;  but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife,  and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.  I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. Calvin’s beef is not with Catholics, but with Jesus and Paul. So why isn’t he honest enough to frame it in those terms? He disagrees with the express sanction of the Bible for celibacy, if one is called to it.
1 Corinthians 7:38 So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
There is also another absurdity in these dogmas. They affirm that in a sacrament the gift of the Holy Spirit is conferred; this connection they hold to be a sacrament, and yet they deny that in it the Holy Spirit is ever present.
I have no idea what he is talking about here, so I can’t offer any reply.
And, that they might not delude the Church in this matter merely, what a long series of errors, lies, frauds, and iniquities have they appended to one error?
As usual . . . what would Catholics be without all the lies and subterfuges we have willingly perpetrated on millions?
So that you may say they sought nothing but a hiding-place for abominations when they converted marriage into a sacrament.
What other possible rationale could we conceivable have?
When once they obtained this, they appropriated to themselves the cognisance of conjugal causes: as the thing was spiritual, it was not to be intermeddled with by profane judges.
What we see today is clearly a great improvement over the late medieval situation: free divorce (freely granted by the great majority of Protestant churches and even Orthodoxy) and rampant remarriages, and the broken homes and lives that go along with that. But Calvin must argue against sacramental, lifelong, indissoluble marriage, as if that were a horrendous thing.
Then they enacted laws by which they confirmed their tyranny,—laws partly impious toward God, partly fraught with injustice toward men; such as, that marriages contracted between minors, without the consent of their parents, should be valid; that no lawful marriages can be contracted between relations within the seventh degree, and that such marriages, if contracted, should be dissolved.
Annulment has scriptural warrant (as does the prohibition of divorce), and is even present in the civil laws of most countries.
Moreover, they frame degrees of kindred contrary to the laws of all nations, and even the polity of Moses, and enact that a husband who has repudiated an adulteress may not marry again—
It was virtually unanimous in the fathers and early Church, that marriage was indissoluble and remarriage thus impermissible.
that spiritual kindred cannot be joined in marriage—that marriage cannot be celebrated from Septuagesimo to the Octaves of Easter, three weeks before the nativity of John, nor from Advent to Epiphany, and innumerable others, which it were too tedious to mention.
The Church has the jurisdiction to preside over the application of sacraments.
We must now get out of their mire, in which our discourse has stuck longer than our inclination.
If anything has accurately described my own eight-month experience in giving answer to Calvin, it is this line: ironically the second-to-last that I have to deal with.
Methinks, however, that much has been gained if I have, in some measure, deprived these asses of their lion’s skin.
I thank Calvin for all the food for thought: the stimulation to produce further biblical and patristic arguments (I was greatly blessed by discovering some heretofore unthought-of ones even in this very installment), and the opportunity to allow readers of all stripes to compare Catholicism and Calvinism and decide for themselves which is more biblical, in accordance with legitimate apostolic tradition and the Church fathers, the doctors of the Church, and in the final analysis more worthy of allegiance.
Happy 500th birthday to John Calvin [this series was originally completed in 2009]. I hope and pray for his salvation, and that of his followers. I don’t deny his (or his followers’) sincerity or good intentions or desire to serve God (they are fellow validly baptized Christians), though I obviously and repeatedly question Calvin’s reasoning, methods, and judgments. Thanks to all for reading (especially those who actually read all 55 installments!).
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]