Tonsure, Holy Oil, and “Judaizing”? (vs. Calvin #54)

Tonsure, Holy Oil, and “Judaizing”? (vs. Calvin #54) February 8, 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, 19:26, 30-31


Book IV


26. The Judaizing nature of the tonsure. Why Paul shaved his head in consequence of a vow.
Moreover, when they say that the clerical crown has its origin and nature from the Nazarenes, what else do they say than that their mysteries are derived from Jewish ceremonies, or rather are mere Judaism? 

How does development from prior Jewish observances equate to “mere Judaism”? This is absurd reasoning. Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17) and “till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).

Yet Calvin objects to similarity of custom to the Nazarenes as “mere Judaism” as if this is 1) logical, or 2) indicative in the slightest degree of the high respect that the early apostles had for Judaism? Jesus even advised His followers to follow the instructions of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:2-3), and He did so independently of their own moral consistency (“they preach, but do not practice”).

When they add that Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul himself, after they had taken a vow, shaved their head that they might be purified, they betray their gross ignorance. For we nowhere read this of Priscilla, while, with regard to Aquila, it is uncertain, since that tonsure may refer equally well to Paul as to Aquila (Acts 18:18). 

The passage reads: “At Cen’chre-ae he cut his hair, for he had a vow.” This is supposedly a profound argument against the tonsure? Why does Calvin wish to even argue against it? I submit that it is simply because he has to oppose Catholics at every turn: even in the most obvious areas where there is no solid objection to be made.

If it was argued that Priscilla and Aquila also shaved their heads, then it was a deduction based on the association with Paul in Acts 18:18. But the fact remains that Paul did do so, and this is an adequate example of something not unlike the tonsure. Why, then, does Calvin not give up the argument? Why is it so supremely important to him to disagree with almost every jot and tittle of Catholicism?

But not to leave them in possession of what they ask—viz. that they have an example in Paul, it is to be observed, to the more simple, that Paul never shaved his head for any sanctification, but only in subservience to the weakness of brethren. 

Whatever spin Calvin may wish to put on it, he still did it, and it stands as an example that could be emulated. After all, Paul said that we should imitate him (2 Thess 3:7, 9).

Vows of this kind I am accustomed to call vows of charity, not of piety; in other words, vows not undertaken for divine worship, but only in deference to the infirmity of the weak, as he himself says, that to the Jews he became a Jew (1 Cor. 9:20). This, therefore, he did, and that once and for a short time, that he might accommodate himself for a little to the Jews. When these men would, for no end, imitate the purifications of the Nazarenes (Num. 6:18), what else do they than set up a new, while they improperly affect to rival the ancient Judaism? 

Self-purification is a common theme in the New Testament as well, seen especially in Paul. He writes, for example, shortly after Calvin’s cited passage above:

1 Corinthians 9: 23-27 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. [24] Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. [25] Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. [26] Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; [27] but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

If St. Paul is a prominent New Covenant figure, and he urges us to imitate him, and he engages in all sorts of penitential activities, then none of this equates to merely “ancient Judaism.”

In the same spirit the Decretal Epistle was composed, which enjoins the clergy, after the apostle, not to nourish their hair, but to shave it all round (Cap. Prohibitur, Dist. 24); as if the apostle, in showing what is comely for all men, had been solicitous for the spherical tonsure of the clergy. Hence, let my readers consider what kind of force or dignity there can be in the subsequent mysteries, to which this is the introduction.

We consider that Calvin cares not a whit about biblical example. When confronted with it, he plays sophistical games, in order to act as if it has no relevance, when it clearly does, and is completely non-objectionable as a model for Catholics to emulate. But hair is a material thing, and as we have seen again and again, Calvin seems to always have a (rather odd) problem with matter having anything to do with spirituality: a bizarre attitude, in light of the incarnation and Jesus’ crucifixion.

[ . . . ]
30. Absurdity of the anointing employed.
But from whom, pray, did they receive their unction? They answer, that they received it from the sons of Aaron, from whom also their order derived its origin (Sent. Lib. 4 Dist. 14, cap. 8, et in Canon. Dist. 21, cap. 1). Thus they constantly choose to defend themselves by perverse examples, rather than confess that any of their rash practices is of their own devising. 

In other words, Calvin disapproves, seems to have an ongoing animus against Everything Jewish (as seen in his frequent disparaging remarks about the Old Testament, as if it were scarcely even necessary or worthwhile to the Christian), and so has to act as if Catholics have no rationale whatever for anything they do, unless it agrees 100% with him.

We either have none, or if we offer one, Calvin immediately knocks it down by one of his by now patented sophistical subterfuges and verbal, logical sleight-of-hand techniques. Whether he was aware that he does these things constantly, I know not, and don’t care, in charity, to speculate. But the fact that he does them (unaware or not, deliberate or not) quite often is beyond all dispute.

Meanwhile, they observe not that in professing to be the successors of the sons of Aaron, they are injurious to the priesthood of Christ, which alone was adumbrated and typified by all ancient priesthoods. 

More either/or non sequiturs and utterly unnecessary false dichotomies . . .

In him, therefore, they were all concluded and completed, in him they ceased, as we have repeatedly said, and as the Epistle to the Hebrews, unaided by any gloss, declares. But if they are so much delighted with Mosaic ceremonies, 

Here is the anti-Jewish sentiment again. Jesus sure showed none of this. St. Paul showed respect to the Jewish high priest even at his kangaroo court trial. Both worshiped in the Temple and synagogues and observed feasts and rituals, etc.

why do they not hurry oxen, calves, and lambs, to their sacrifices? 

Because we don’t have “sacrifices” — we have the one Sacrifice of Christ made present at Mass.

They have, indeed, a great part of the ancient tabernacle, and of the whole Jewish worship. 

Egads!!! What a horrible thing! How dare Christians draw from the ancient heritage of Jewish spirituality! What an outrageous, unconscionable thing to do . . . Imagine having any sense of history and respecting what came before (qualities that are often absent in Calvin’s pontifical and revolutionary ravings) . . .

The only thing wanted to their religion is, that they do not sacrifice oxen and calves. Who sees not that this practice of unction is much more pernicious than circumcision, especially when to it is added superstition and a Pharisaical opinion of the merit of the work? 

Ah; let’s now use the “criticize ten things at once” approach. How prevalent that is among the anti-Catholics of today: and again we see that it probably was first learned at the feet of Calvin himself (who received it from Luther). After a while, these unworthy rhetorical shortcomings are simply taken in like mother’s milk, without thinking. It becomes a way of life in fighting the Great Beast and Harlot.

The Jews placed their confidence of justification in circumcision, 

This is not true. The consensus today, more and more, in scholarly circles of all stripes (even two anti-Catholic apologists recently stated this back to me), is to hold that the Jews also believed in salvation by God’s grace, through faith, with these various works as signs of obedience. Calvin’s misconception has been passed down in historic Protestantism almost to the present day, when the best scholars are finally seeing the injustice of these cynical perceptions of the ancient Jewish faith.

these men look for spiritual gifts in unction. 

These men look to Jesus, which is what the Mass is all about.

Therefore, in desiring to be rivals of the Levites, they become apostates from Christ, and discard themselves from the pastoral office.

Right. The ridiculous conclusion, based on nothing . . . Calvin shows himself to be a master of that, which is not saying much.

31. Imposition of hands. Absurdity of, in Papistical ordination.
It is, if you please, the sacred oil which impresses an indelible character. As if oil could not be washed away by sand and salt, 

This is completely beside the point. The baptismal water is gone in a few minutes too.

or if it sticks the closer, with soap. But that character is spiritual. What has oil to do with the soul? 

The same thing that the incarnation and virgin birth and the cross and resurrection and ascension have to do with the soul. God uses matter. This seems to be the most inexplicable thing to Calvin, but to me his profound ignorance (and/or rejection) of the sacramental principle everywhere evident in the Bible is far more inexplicable.

Have they forgotten what they quote from Augustine, that if the word be withdrawn from the water, there will be nothing but water, but that it is owing to the word that it is a sacrament? 

No. No one is separating the Word from the ritual (except Calvin, who is often guilty of the opposite error: all Word and no mystery or ceremony or ritual or miracle at all).

What word can they show in their oil? Is it because Moses was commanded to anoint the sons of Aaron? (Exod. 30:30). 

I’ve already highlighted the scriptural uses of oil in past installments.

But he there receives command concerning the tunic, the ephod, the breastplate, the mitre, the crown of holiness with which Aaron was to be adorned; and concerning the tunics, belts, and mitres which his sons were to wear. He receives command about sacrificing the calf, burning its fat, about cutting and burning rams, about sanctifying ear-rings and vestments with the blood of one of the rams, and innumerable other observances. Having passed over all these, I wonder why the unction of oil alone pleases them. 

I wonder why Calvin is so obsessed with running down oil, as if it were as superfluous to biblical thinking as, say, sulfuric acid.

If they delight in being sprinkled, why are they sprinkled with oil rather than with blood? 

Because oil represented being “anointed” in Scripture. That is perfectly appropriate in ordination, just as it was for David and the other Kings.

They are attempting, forsooth, an ingenious device; they are trying, by a kind of patchwork, to make one religion out of Christianity, Judaism, and Paganism. 

No one who proclaims Christ and His crucifixion and redemption can be accused of Judaism Proper; however, Christianity has drawn virtually all of its truths from that religion, and has merely developed them further, by accepting Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The pagan charge makes no sense here, but I take it that Calvin’s huge animus against matter used in any spiritual ceremonies is equated in his mind to paganism. He doesn’t seem to be able to process it any other way. But it doesn’t follow.

Their unction, therefore, is without savour; it wants salt, that is, the word of God. There remains the laying on of hands, which, though I admit it to be a sacrament in true and legitimate ordination, 

Calvin agrees with something! Stop the presses!

I do deny to have any such place in this fable, where they neither obey the command of Christ, nor look to the end to which the promise ought to lead us. If they would not have the sign denied them, they must adapt it to the reality to which it is dedicated.

The usual cynical, non sequitur Calvin conclusion . . .


(originally 12-22-09)

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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