Does the Mass “Overthrow the Cross of Christ”? Part 1 of a Series on Calvin’s Institutes IV.18

Does the Mass “Overthrow the Cross of Christ”? Part 1 of a Series on Calvin’s Institutes IV.18 December 26, 2014

Pontifical Mass, 15th century (public domain)
Pontifical Mass, 15th century (public domain)

In the combox of this post over on Out of His Mind (a blog that makes John Bugay look like a marvel—an absolute marvel—of intellectual depth), the loopy Mr. Kevin Failoni quotes from this most pleasant bit of propaganda in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Another iniquity chargeable on the mass is, that it sinks and buries the cross and passion of Christ. This much, indeed, is most certain—the cross of Christ is overthrown the moment an altar is erected. For if, on the cross, he offered himself in sacrifice that he might sanctify us for ever, and purchase eternal redemption for us (Heb. 9:12), undoubtedly the power and efficacy of his sacrifice continues without end. Otherwise, we should not think more honourably of Christ than of the oxen and calves which were sacrificed under the law, the offering of which is proved to have been weak and inefficacious because often repeated. Wherefore, it must be admitted, either that the sacrifice which Christ offered on the cross wanted the power of eternal cleansing, or that he performed this once for ever by his one sacrifice.

The Mass “sinks and buries” the cross? The cross is overthrown by the Mass? That’s a wild claim for Calvin to make. Do people really still quote this garbage as though it’s true? “We Catholics,” I replied to F., “sure have a lot of power to overthrow Christ. Guess he isn’t all that omnipotent, according to Calvin.” F., rather than say something like “Yeah, that Johnny C, what a card, he sure could let the old hyperbole fly,” thought it a better tack to say that I just didn’t understand Calvin.

Scott, I think you misunderstand his quote. [Quotation. And technically it’s F.’s quotation of Calvin, but these points are probably lost in this dangerous and ungrammatical age.] When the Catholic altar goes up, it is a complete denial [Oh, it’s “denial” now, not “overthrow”!] of His perfect, one[-]time sacrifice, at the consummation of the ages, that put sin away, perfected us, and obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:22). He didn’t obtain 6 months of redemption or 6 days, but eternal redemption. There are no more sacrifices for sin (Hebrews 10:18).

Yes, yes. Well, we can stop the poor man here and not allow him to blather on (as he does on The Celebrated Mr. K.’s blog) about Melchizidek; Malachi; Adam; Scott Hahn; Christ remaining sacramentally present in a communicant for fifteen minutes; pantheism; Aristotle’s “pagan categories”; Aquinas’s observation about how grace occurs as substance in God but accident in the soul (which he ineptly paraphrased as though Aquinas had said that grace occurs in the soul as something like a car crash); the Greek word κοινωνία as used by Peter (actually, Peter never uses this word, Paul does, and Paul uses it in variable senses); the Council of Trent; and on and on and on. F. seems to suffer from ADD, and there’s no need to follow him down all these Ritalin-free rabbit trails, or we shall never get back home again. Each rabbit trail will inevitably branch out into a thousand more.

So let all that detritis go; what concerns me here is—well, two things. The first of them is that F. cites Heb. 9:22 for the assertion that Christ’s “one-time sacrifice” obtained “eternal redemption.” Except that Heb. 9:22 says no such thing. What it says is this: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.” F. does at least get Heb. 10:18 right, but one has to step back ten whole verses earlier than Heb. 9:22 to find the part about Christ obtaining eternal redemption. That’s in Heb. 9:12; Calvin gets the citation right, F. gets it wrong. His sloppiness on this point makes me very dubious about his scholarly merits.

The second, and more important, concern is that F. (and John Calvin) misrepresent both the Catholic teaching about the Mass and the argument of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is the one of the books Calvinists most love to get wrong. But we’ll get to that in Part 2. In Part 1, I want to look a little more closely at Calvin’s overwrought panic attack about the Mass.


Here is what I said, in my response, on Out of His Mind, to the loopy Mr. Kevin Failoni.

I’m sure I understand perfectly well what he meant, it’s just that the way he says it is not how he ostensibly means it. He says “overthrown” where he means “denied.” Now, unless this is a mistranslation [I’ll get to this presently, dear reader], it’s an extreme of hyperbole to imagine that a denial (so-called) of the cross amounts to an overthrow of it. Not even Christopher Hitchens, who (unlike Catholics) really did deny the cross, had one minor scratch on an iota of an ability to “overthrow” the cross, even if he had done nothing else in his life but utter blasphemies from dawn to dusk. In other words, Calvin was so wrought up about the Church that he unwittingly ascribed to her a fictitious power she could not have even if she had sought it. Whether it’s what he meant or not, it’s what he said. (Again, unless that’s a mistranslation.) “Overthrow” and “deny” are two completely different things. This is hyperbole gone mad.

As blithe about the dictionary as he was about the calendar, F. responded in the following clear and highly literate fashion.

Overthrow is the perfect word. The Catholic church and there [sic] faulty axioms of nature grace inner connection and the church as a continuation of incarnation and atonement (altar) synergistic atomenent thru [sic] the acts of the church, seeking to overthrow the finished work of Christ on the cross [We “seek to overthrow the finished work of Christ”? This is our intent?] that put sin away, and accomplished eternal redemption. Please see my post above on the God passed over the Jews and not infused them at the passover.

Passing over F.’s deep difficulties with coherence, I pressed him on Calvin’s hyperbolic use of “overthrow.”

If “overthrow” is the perfect word, then you need to show one of two things:

(1) That the word “overthrow” and “deny” mean the same thing. Do you have any lexical sources you can direct me to which would establish this?

(2) That the Catholic Church has the power to overthrow the cross—that is to say, that the Catholic Church is more powerful than God.

Which of these two are you arguing?

F. replied by calling me “petty” and a “hypocrite” and suggesting that I—I, Scott Eric Alt—buy a lexicon so that I can look up the difference between “one” and “many.” Well, that’s one answer. Case closed!

(Incidentally, dear reader, the reason I write about F. here is because he has a long history of making a blithering spectacle of himself across the apologetics blogosphere, from Out of His Mind to Jolly Green Baggins, Called to Communion to Creed Code Cult to Nick’s Catholic Blog. Should he spread his propaganda unanswered? Let him come here and defend his rantings, if he can. He should show they can hold up under cross-examination. The combox is open. But I digress.)

I replied:

Very well, you tell me nothing. Probably because you can’t. Incidentally, I agreed with you about what Calvin meant. I merely said that he was either using gross and impossible hyperbole, or this was a mistranslation. Insisting that words mean things is not being “petty,” it’s called knowing how to use the language—a concept that obviously is too vast for you to comprehend.

From this point, the exchange trailed off into the truly bizarre, so we can leave F. alone to sputter in folly while we take up the serious issues. And I want to look at this possibility I floated—that the expression “overthrow the cross of Christ” in the Institutes is a mistranslation. It’s good to know we can check these things out. The Internet is a marvel. The Institutes was written in Latin, and we can find the original text of IV.18.3 here. The Latin reads:

Hoc quidem certissimum est, everti Christi crucem, simulac erigitur altare.

Now, the word translated “overthrow” is “everti.” It sure sounds like it might be translated “avert”; and if Calvin had said that the Mass “averts the cross of Christ,” that would at least—though false—sound more calm and rational. It would be closer to what he seems to have had in mind. But in fact, the English word “avert” comes from the Latin ab vertere through the Old French avertir. If you look up “everti” in Morwood’s Latin Grammar (here), you’ll find that the range of meanings is nearly identical to the range of meanings associated with the English word “overthrow.” So it would be the right translation.

The only real alternative would be the word “reverse,” which might carry a meaning something like “make the cross of none effect,” in the sense that St. Paul meant that in 1 Cor. 1:17. Back in the combox on Out of His Mind, the philosophically-minded Eric W, who accused me of having a “feigned devotion to Christ,” floated this very possibility himself. “The Bible,” EW informs the world—or at least that part of it that reads Mr. K below the post—“acknowledges a possible ‘made void’ situation.” Yes, well. Let’s look at that, since it is 1 Corinthians rather than Hebrews that is now being appealed to. Here is what Paul says in the text:

For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.

The Greek words that the KJV translates “wisdom of words” are σοφίᾳ λόγου, sophia logou. The NIV more clearly translates them “wisdom and eloquence.” Reformed commentator John Gill discusses this passage:

This [preaching the Gospel] was what he was rather sent to do than the other [baptism], and this “not with wisdom of words.” Scholastic divinity, or the art of disputation, is by the Karaites, a sect among the Jews, called “wisdom of words”: this the apostle seems to refer to, and signifies he was not sent with, or to preach, with words of man’s wisdom, with human eloquence and oratory, with great swelling words of vanity, but in a plain, humble, modest manner; on which account the false teachers despised him, and endeavoured to bring his ministry into contempt with others: but this way and manner of preaching he chose for this reason, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect; that is, either lest men’s ears and fancies should be so tickled and pleased with the eloquence of speech, the elegancy of diction, and accuracy of expression, the cadency of words, and beauty of the oration, with the manner, and not with the matter of preaching, and so the true use, end, and design of the doctrine of a crucified Christ be defeated; or lest the success of the ministry should be attributed to the force of enticing words, and the strength and persuasion of oratory, and not to the energy of divine power attending the doctrine of the cross.

So to allude to 1 Corinthians 1:17 (Gill is most correct in his exposition) as support for the view that the Mass “overthrows” or somehow makes the cross “void” is sleight-of-hand. In truth, 1 Corinthians 1:17 is very inconvenient for Reformed Christians, who got rid of the sacrifice of the Mass as the center of worship and replaced it with just that sort of eloquent preaching that Paul condemns. I mean, have you ever listened to the high rhetorical wind that blows and kills in a sermon by John MacArthur or R.C. Sproul? According to Paul, it may very well be they who are “making void” the Cross. They do it by attracting people to their eloquence (and demagoguery) more than to Christ. Or what about Charles Spurgeon? See what Spurgeon has to say about the Catholic Church, and how he says it, here:

It is all very well with that Church when it is separated from her heretical sons, and a great gulf fixed, but all that helps to bridge that gulf must mar her glory and destroy her power. We must have no truce, no treaty with Rome. War! war to the knife with her! Peace there cannot be. She cannot have peace with us—we cannot have peace with her. She hates the true Church, and we can only say that the hatred is reciprocated. We would not lay a hand upon her priests; we would not touch a hair of their heads. Let them be free; but their doctrine we would destroy from the face of the earth as the doctrine of devils. So let it perish, O God, and let that evil thing become as the fat of lambs. Into smoke let it consume: yea into smoke let it consume away.

Wow. Just wow. “You can just hear him preaching that in the tabernacle in London,” John MacArthur says with envy and approval, after quoting this passage in a raving sermon of his own. You would think the center of worship—the very thing people went to church for—was Spurgeon’s hot dash of words. And it is this that Paul was warning about when he alluded to making the Cross “of none effect.” He was not talking about the sacrifice of the Mass. For indeed the priest can’t stir us into a pitch of froth. The words are fixed; he must not improve on the liturgical text with his improv. The Mass is not about the priest; it is about Christ. It doesn’t “avert” or “overthrow” the cross; it renders the cross—not wild words, but the cross itself—present.

And that is why it is of great concern to me when demagogues like Calvin say that the sacrifice of the Mass “overthrows the cross of Christ.” You can fall down laughing at such words, and I often do. But the point of them is to stir an audience to an irrational pitch of wild fear of the Catholic Church. The Church has no power—none—to “overthrow the cross of Christ,” not even if she meant to do so. (And she does not. Please. Get a grip.) God is not so weak.

But suppose you believed that some church could “overthrow the cross of Christ”? Would that not cause you grave concern, if it had power where you lived? I know it would me. And that is what Calvin wants his readers to believe. That is why his words overstate his meaning. It is deliberate; it is of ill intent. It is of ill intent when men do so today. (And men do.) This is the expression of an anti-Catholic demagogue who does not want to oppose Church teachings as much as he wants to wipe the Church from the earth. That is why Spurgeon says “into smoke let her consume away” and why John MacArthur quotes the same line with such relish even today. This has not gone away.

Look you, dear reader, how Calvin titles Chapter 18 of Book 4 of the Institutes:




And watch how the chapter begins:

By these and similar inventions, Satan has attempted to adulterate and envelop the sacred Supper of Christ as with thick darkness, that its purity might not be preserved in the Church. But the head of this horrid abomination was, when he raised a sign by which it was not only obscured and perverted, but altogether obliterated and abolished, vanished away and disappeared from the memory of man; namely, when, with most pestilential error, he blinded almost the whole world into the belief that the Mass was a sacrifice and oblation for obtaining the remission of sins.

Well. No bias at work here? This is not simply the careful analytical and exegetical work of a dispassionate scholar. You may say, “Well, this was just the rhetorical fever of the age, we must put it in historical context.” You may say, “This is just the rantings of some blowhard in a combox on a blog.” Really? Just that? No more? Well, go to the sermon series by John MacArthur I linked to above. He’s not some fringe kook putting out videos on YouTube or ranting below the post; he’s a popular and influential preacher with a doctoral degree. This kind of stuff has not gone away. There are people who, like Calvin, salt their theological objections to the Church with a manic and demagogic hate meant to stir people’s passions, not their reason. It is ugly. It is full of long-since-refuted untruths, half truths, myths, and outright lies. It is why I call it out for what it is. There are people who still follow Calvin, even the wild parts.


In Part 2, I will begin to take up Calvin’s actual argument against the Mass, which he derives from the Book of Hebrews. I will show not only how it was answered by the Council of Trent (a quarter century after the Institutes), but how it had already been answered—one thousand two hundred years earlier—by St. John Chrysostom. As the series continues, I will also look at what the Church Fathers believed about the prophecy of Malachi 1:11, as it relates to the Mass.


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