Calvin on the Sacraments

Portrait of John Calvin

Calvin has a fascinating explanation of the sacraments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He introduces the sacraments as signs and seals, as the Reformers usually do. But, he goes on to explain the sacraments as external words which affix our faith and deepen our union with Christ by the Spirit.

Calvin explains it this way:

First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us…We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 14.1)

Calvin speaks of a sacrament of an “external sign” of God’s good will toward us in Christ which he inwardly “seals” on our consciences to sustain us the “weakness of our faith”. It is God showing us visibly the promise of good will to us in the gospel. Baptism, properly speaking then, is God sealing upon our consciences his promise of renewal by the Spirit; the Lord’s Supper, that are welcome to his table.

Calvin goes on to say this:

In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. (14.3).

Calvin says rightly that the “truth of God is in itself sufficient”, but because we are physical beings, God condescends to us by physical means to “prop our faith up on every side”. The sacraments are physical words to us, to accommodate our bodily situation. Sacraments are not properly sacraments without the words or promises contained under the external sign.

In fact, for Calvin, the word and sacrament accomplish the same thing:

Both word and sacraments…confirm our faith, bringing under view the kind intentions of our heavenly Father, in the knowledge of which the whole assurance of our faith depends, and by which its strength is increased; and the Spirit also confirms our faith when by engraving that assurance on our minds, he renders it effectual. (14.11)

So then, sacraments are physical words to us, signs and seals, to bolster our faith, to deepen our union with Christ by the action of the Spirit. They are Spirit wrought instruments to seal to our consciences God’s good promises to us by the gospel.

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How is Christ “Present” in the Lord’s Supper?

I’ve spoken with many who would hold to the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The question that I often ask is: what do you mean that Jesus is really present?

Many, in an attempt to shy away from transubstantiation (the belief that the substance of the elements is “transformed” into the physical body of Christ), articulate that Christ is present only “spiritually”. And what they usually mean by this is that Christ is only present in his spirit or soul, but not his body.

The problem with this is that this articulation comes awfully close to an assortment of christological heresies. If Christ be truly human, then he must have a unity of body and soul. But if, for instance, Christ was only God using a human body as a puppet (something akin to the Apollinarianism heresy), and he can “ditch” his body to be spiritually present, then he is not truly human. So, if by “real presence”, we only mean “spiritual presence”, we are veering the wrong way.

So then, how is Christ “truly”, “really”, “actually” present in the Lord’s Supper? Calvin, in his Institutes, tried to articulate this in such a way that (1) did not align with the doctrine of transubstantiation, but (2) did not fall to the other ditch of “spiritual” presence.

Calvin explains:

I am… not satisfied with those people who, having confessed that we have some kind of communion in the body of Christ, want to show that the sacrament makes us participants only of His Spirit, abandoning all memory of His flesh and blood. As if these things were said for nothing: that “His flesh is food, His blood is drinl”‘; that “no one will have life except the one who has eaten this flesh and drunk this blood;’ and other similar sentences [Jn. 6:53-56]…

Nevertheless we must not imagine this communication to be the way [transubstantiation]: as if the body of Christ descended onto the table and were set there in local presence to be touched with hands, chewed with teeth, and swallowed up in the stomach. For we do not doubt that it has its own (finite) limits as the nature of a human body requires, and that body is contained in heaven where it was received until He will come for judgment. So we also believe that it is not lawful to bring Him down among the corruptible elements or to imagine that He is present everywhere. (John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition. Kindle Locations 9316-9319, 9276-9279. Kindle Edition)

This is such an important passage. Calvin does away with two dichotomies in this passage. On the one hand, Christ cannot simply be present by way of his soul. This cannot be so, if Christ is truly human! But also, Christ cannot be present by way of transubstantiation. If Christ has risen and is seated at the right hand of the Father, then his physical presence is limited to that location. He cannot be in the elements, because he is seated in the heavenly places! For Calvin, Christ’s humanity limits him to this location.

The question then becomes: how can Christ be truly and actually present, if he is at the right hand of God the Father?

Calvin explains:

Indeed that (transubstantiation) is not necessary, in order for us to participate in His body, since the Lord Jesus richly pours out by His Spirit the benefit that we are made one with Him in body, spirit, and soul. Therefore the bond of this joining is the Holy Spirit, by whom we are united together, and He is like a canal or channel by which all that Christ is and possesses comes down to us.3 For if with our eyes we perceive that when the sun shines on the earth it somehow sends its substance by its rays to engender, nourish, and bring to life the earth’s fruits, why would the light and brilliance of the Spirit of Jesus Christ be less able to bring us the communication of His flesh and blood? That is why when scripture speaks of the participation which we have with Christ it brings all the power of that participation back to His Spirit. However, one passage will suffice for all the others. In the eighth chapter of Romans St. Paul declares that Christ dwells in us in no other way than by His Spirit (Rom. 8 [9] ). Nevertheless in doing that he does not destroy this communication with Jesus Christ’s body and blood which is the question we are discussing now, but he shows that the Spirit is the sole means by which we possess Christ and have Him living in us. In the Supper the Lord testifies to us such a communication of His body and blood. Indeed, He offers it to all who receive this spiritual banquet, even though it is only the faithful who participate in it because they make themselves worthy of such a benefit by true faith. That is the reason the apostle says that the bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ, the cup which we sanctify by the words of the gospel and by prayers is the communion of His blood (i Cor. io[16]). (Kindle Locations 9321-9330)

So, how is Christ present in this sacrament? What Calvin says, is that Christ’s entire person is readily united to us and us to him by the Holy Spirit. Now, just to clarify, when Calvin says “Spirit”, he does not mean Jesus’ soul — what he means is the Holy Spirit, third person of the Trinity. And so, in the Lord’s Supper — rather than Christ descending to the elements — we are, as it were, brought up to him by the Spirit, and united to his body and blood.

What Calvin also says is that this union is not limited to the Lord’s Supper — this happens at the point of salvation. Rather, in the Lord’s Supper, this mysterious union is strengthened. It is ratified. It is solidified by the Spirit. As we visually encounter the elements, and by faith partake, our union with Christ is further strengthened. The Lord’s Supper is an intimate, climactic, deep and real union with the risen Christ! It is when the bride comes into union with her Husband.

Calvin says this of the purpose of the sacrament:

We call it either the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, because in this we are spiritually fed and nourished by the kindness of our Lord, and on our part we give Him thanks for His beneficence. The promise which is given to us in the Supper shows clearly for what purpose it has been instituted and what its goal is, that is, it assures and confirms for us that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for us once in such a way that it is now ours and it will be so perpetually; and that His blood was poured out for us once so that it is and always will be ours. (Kindle Locations 9146-9149)

Evangelicalism’s “Missing” Doctrine: Union with Christ

I am currently reading a massively important work entitled: One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation by Marcus Johnson.

In his introduction, Johnson says that the doctrine of union with Christ — which was a common doctrine not only in the early patristic fathers, but also in the Reformation theologians — is much neglected in today’s evangelical circles.

Johnson says,

In textbooks, sermons , and classrooms, salvation is often conceived of as the reception of something Christ has acquired for us rather than as the reception of the living Christ. In other words, salvation is described as a gift to be apprehended rather than the apprehension of the Giver himself. To put it yet another way, the gospel is portrayed as the offer of a depersonalized benefit (e.g., grace, justification, or eternal life) rather than the offer of the very person of Christ (who is himself the grace of God, our justification, and our eternal life). (p 17-18)

For Johnson, much of evangelicalism has articulated the gospel, and the benefits therein, in distinction or even isolation to the believer’s union with Christ. For instance, many churches today emphasize the doctrine of imputation — that a believer is declared righteous through the gospel — without at the same time stressing that this righteousness comes from being in Christ. For Johnson, this is a huge misstep. And Johnson brings in the Reformers to underline that this Protestant doctrine is indeed connected to union with Christ:

He quotes Calvin, who says,

[W]e must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share in what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us . . . for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. (p 23)

He also quotes Luther:

[F]aith must be taught correctly, namely that by it you are so cemented to Christ that He and you are as one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to Him forever and declares: “I am as Christ .” And Christ, in turn, says: “I am as the sinner who is attached to me and I to him. For by faith we are joined together into one flesh and bone.” Thus Eph. 5: 30 says: “We are members of the body of Christ , of his flesh and bones,” in such a way that faith couples Christ and me more intimately than a husband is coupled to his wife. (p 22)

The Reformers had a deep and robust doctrine of salvation. But it was a salvation found in Christ. The believer is in Christ, and thus receives all that is his: his righteousness, his Spirit, his justification and vindication, his resurrection, etc.

Johnson also surveys the NT, specifically the Johannine and Pauline corpus, to argue that union with Christ is central to biblical soteriology.

Johnson cites the many times that Paul explains salvation in terms of being “in Christ”:

[We are] justified in Christ (8: 1); glorified in Christ (Rom. 8: 30; 2 Cor. 3: 18); sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1: 2); called in Christ (v. 9); made alive in Christ (15: 22; Eph. 2: 5); created anew in Christ (2 Cor. 5: 17); adopted as children of God in Christ (Gal. 3: 26); elected in Christ (Eph 1:4) (p 19)

He also gives examples of the frequent metaphorical imagery found in John’s writing that convey union with Christ:

Jesus is the living water (John 4, 7), the bread of life (John 6: 33, 48), and the one whose flesh and blood are to be consumed for eternal life (John 6: 53– 57); we have eternal life only if we have the Son (1 John 5: 11– 12), we are in the Son— who is true God and eternal life (1 John 5: 20)— and we live through him (1 John 4: 9). Jesus abides in us and we in him (John 6: 56; 15 :4– 7), and God abides in us and we in him through Jesus and the Spirit (1 John 3: 24; 4: 12– 16). We are one with Christ and the Father (John 14: 20; 17: 21– 23). Jesus is the true vine in whom we abide and apart from whom we can do nothing (John 15: 1–5), and he is the resurrection and life in himself (John 11: 25; cf. John 1: 4). (p 20)

Of course we can find this doctrine all across the pages of the NT. But we do find that both Paul and John see salvation in terms of being conjoined to Christ, and receiving his life as our own. We are nothing apart from Christ.

Johnson finishes this introduction, saying this important truth:

The premise of this book is that the primary, central, and fundamental reality of salvation is our union with Jesus Christ, because of which union all the benefits of the Savior flow to us, and through which union all these benefits are to be understood. (p 29)

I will write more on this work; but suffice to say, I think that this book is extremely important. And, I think that evangelical theology is indeed missing this doctrine, especially when we think about the ramifications of this doctrine in connection to justification, sanctification and sacraments.

I remember reading both Luther and Calvin on this subject. It is hard to count how many times Luther compared salvation to that of a marital union between the believer and Christ. All that is ours is His, and all that is His or ours. He would often quote Song of Solomon 6:3: I am my beloved’s and he is mine. As long as we are joined to Christ, we are righteous as he is. We are alive as his is.

Calvin often spoke of union with Christ as “being spiritual” in nature. And what he didn’t mean was that we are only grafted into Christ’s soul; instead, what Calvin meant was that by the Spirit, the believer is mysterious conjoined to Christ. Calvin would later connect this doctrine to the Lord’s Supper. In the Supper, the believer is mysteriously taken up by the Spirit into heaven to feed upon Christ. Union with Christ colored everything that Calvin taught.

This is a wonderful doctrine, and one to which we should pay more attention!

Why I won’t convert to Roman Catholicism

In the past 6 months, I’ve read more Catholic theology than I have in my entire life. Now, why did I do that? Well, I did it because, to a large extent, I realized I knew nothing about Roman Catholicism except for the common stereotypes. I only really knew the common Protestant objections: pope, tradition, priests, works, Mary, icons, etc. But I had never really dug into the theology. And so, I bought some works by major Catholic theologians.

I have to say, I really enjoyed reading them. At the end of the day, I value theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Scott Hahn, Thomas Aquinas, Robert Barron, et al. For all my differences, these guys really center on the big picture stuff. So I really enjoyed them.

I also really enjoyed getting to know the distinctives. Papal authority, priesthood, sacerdotalism, infused (vs imputed) righteousness, etc. This was an area which I had simply never studied. I feel better off for having studied these theologians.

With that said: I really don’t plan on converting to Roman Catholicism. I could never convert in good conscience. I want to list 3 reasons why I wouldn’t ever convert:

Exclusivity: 

The first reason I could not convert is because of how exclusive Roman Catholicism is. I’ve read of a number of stories from Roman converts, and the stories are all relatively similar. These people are happy Protestants, until one day, they realize the wide history of the Catholic church. They realize the size, the teaching, the rich theology. And they realize that their thinly-veiled Protestantism just can’t stand up to it. And so they switch. But what most if any of those converts do not realize, is that when they switch, they are saying something very negative about their past experience as Protestants: namely, that it wasn’t a valid or true Christian experience. Peter Leithart explains it this way:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that. (source)

For a Protestant to make the move, they must by definition invalidate everything they had experienced before. That is simply not catholic in the real sense of the word: that is exclusivism. Peter Leithart goes so far to say that it is nothing else than sectarianism. To convert would be to say that my prior conversion was sub-biblical, that my baptism invalid, that my whole life was in some form out of the will of God. There is really nothing “Catholic” about that.

History: 

Of all that I’ve read, the main reason people convert is because of the deep history of the Catholic church. Put simply, Protestants do not understand the history of the church, and they are shocked by the long history of the Roman Catholic church. And for them, when they are exposed to this history, and the relatively shorter history of Protestantism, they opt for the older church.

The problem here is two-fold:

First, the history of the church is much less clear than Roman Catholics would like us to realize. The reality is that the early church did look different from the Protestantism of today; but it also looked different from the Roman Catholic church of today! Anyone who claims that the early church was the same, or even similar, to what it is today, is oversimplifying things. Many people convert because they feel that history is settled: the church of the apostles was Catholic. Not true. It is a historic fact that the Roman bishop (pope) did not have supremacy until the 3-4th century (link). It is a historic fact that transubstantiation was not dogmatically formulated until the medieval period. To make any claim on the early church is to muddy the water.

Second, and more important, many look to the early church as if they had it all figured out. The early church fathers were closer to the apostles, yes, but they did not have everything figured out. For instance, there was no formulated atonement theory until Anselm. The Trinity was not articulated until the 5th century. For goodness sake, it wasn’t until the reformation period that the church really began to think about and formulate the doctrine of justification!

My point here is that while we owe much to the early church, we shouldn’t glorify the period as if they had it all figured out. There was much more to be understood in terms of doctrine and practice. Both Calvin and Luther quoted the early church fathers frequently, and saw themselves in historical continuity to them. They wanted to reform and develop the Catholic churchnot brake from it. They wanted to be a voice in line with saints before them. This is why I see my Protestantism as connected to that wide history of the early church. You should too.

Theology:

Lastly, I am not a Catholic because of the theological distinctives which make up Roman Catholicism. This should be no surprise. I do not believe that their theology, particularly of church authority and justification, is correct. By church authority, I mean papal authority. Their claim that the bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction is, in my book, historically inaccurate, and biblically unfounded. More particularly, papal infallibility is unsafe, because it binds the consciences of the laity to one man.

Also, I believe their theology of infusion conflates justification and sanctification. What this means is that justification, for Rome, is the infusion of grace into the soul, which can ebb and flow, and can ultimately be lost by mortal sin. I think this is a grave error. This robs the believer of assurance, which is a biblical concept (Rom 8:15). And it places the believer’s final justification on their own shoulders rather than Christ’s. This, to me, is a huge deal.

Carl Trueman says this of Roman Catholicism:

The insight of the Reformation on assurance is key, theologically and pastorally. And… that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose…That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires (The Creedal Imperative, 125)

Trueman is right on. The owness in Roman Catholicism is on the person, not on Christ. That, to me, is not only unbiblical, but simply devastating. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.

I love much in the Roman Catholic tradition. However, with these reasons in place, I simply couldn’t convert.

If you want further study on this, please read these links, HERE, HERE

Sola Scriptura and Tradition

As a Protestant, I hold to the conviction that scripture is the only infallible authority for church and practice. This principle is commonly known as sola scriptura.

Scott Swain and Michael Allen say in their Reformed Catholicity that sola scriptura means that scripture “is the norm that norms all other norms and that is not itself normed” (p 42). They explain further, saying, “the process of receiving and transmitting apostolic truth has a terminus a quo, Holy Scripture, from which it flows and to which it is accountable.” (p 43)

What sola scriptura means, is that scripture is the only source of authority that is both infallible and unchangeable. It is the unique “norm” of churchly authority in that it is the only infallible authority.

The necessary corollary of sola scriptura is that the articulation of theology, creeds, ecclesial tradition, liturgy, et al, is necessarily not infallible. In other words, fallible men are attempting to express the truths found in the infallible scriptures. Swain and Allen explain this:

The various products and processes of church tradition are certainly fallible, and their existence and exercise are certainly accountable to their prophetic and apostolic foundation. (p 45-46)

In other words, because tradition or theological exercise is fallible, it is always subject to “chapter and verse” to validate their point. The Bible must be at the foundation.

Swain and Allen go on to explain that because the Spirit dwells in the church, she can and does have renewed reason to interpret scripture. Through the act of regeneration, the

‘gracious, sovereign movement of Word and Spirit outbids the fall.’ In its rescue and renewal by God, reason is raised and restored to its proper function within the economy of divine teaching. In terms of the present discussion, this means that everything that the Spirit does in us to illumine Holy Scripture, he does by us, by the instrumentality of created reason in its social and historical expression (p 37)

So theology and tradition is not a wasted effort. The Spirit does enable the church to interpret and explain the scriptures. However,

because [the church] has not yet received… the beatific vision (glorification), reason’s vocation is “inseparable from ongoing enquiry, from reformulating old questions, testing established beliefs, asking new questions, and so providing new resources for teaching.” Reason’s vocation is inseparable from a lively tradition of debate about what does and does not count as the faithful extension of tradition toward its goal, the knowledge and love of the Triune God (p 38)

What Swain and Allen are meaning to communicate here, is that the Spirit, as the church’s aid, produces real and meaningful tradition rooted in the scriptures. However, because the church is not yet glorified, not yet experiencing the beatific vision, the activity of the church in theologizing and traditioning is an ongoing, fallible process, as she grows up into maturity by the ongoing help of the Spirit.

Suffice to say, Protestants are pro-tradition. We see this in the articulation of creeds and confessions from the time of the church’s conception. However, we realize that the church has yet to experience her fulness, and is in the process of sanctification. Insomuch as she submits to the Spirit, she is able to articulate the theology of scripture in an accurate manner. Although, theology and tradition are subject to error because of the reality of sin.

Sola scriptura is this attempt to “ride the line” in an appreciation of historic creeds and tradition, while at the same time realizing that scripture alone is infallible, and that the church at times can “get it wrong”.

Unfortunately, there are two common reaction to the principle of sola scriptura. First, many reject sola scriptura because of its affirmation that scripture alone is infallible. The Roman and Eastern church chide sola scriptura because they feel it undermines historic tradition. Still others — usually from the evangelical side — misapply sola scriptura, and reject tradition or theology in any form, thinking it unhelpful and distraction.

Swain and Allen explain these two overreactions to the principle of sola scriptura:

We will suggest that two classic errors are evident in sola Scriptura as described by [many]. We might identify these targets as a theology at once both Donatist and deist.

First, there is a Donatist shift… [I]n the fourth and fifth centuries the Donatists believed that the church was pure, and, therefore, they opposed the return of those who had caved in to pressure during periods of persecution. They insisted that such disloyal church members could not be restored to good standing, precisely because they had a very elevated sense of the church’s holiness. A Donatist tendency can be seen in purist approaches to the church’s faith and practice. Here theological reflection cannot be helped by a flawed and fallen church. The church is divided, sinful, and marred by deformities. Thus, the call is to reflect critically and individually upon the practices of the church from outside those practices, rather than from within them… [Many] certainly describe a sola Scriptura Protestantism that is Donatist in style—wherein tradition can only be valid if perfectly aligned and generated by the Holy Scriptures. In so doing, zeal for biblical purity may well lead to overlooking the fullness of God’s involvements in ecclesial history and even his providential and spiritual leading of an imperfect but genuine church; her traditions, creeds, liturgies, practices, and spiritual authority may be dismissed because they are not hand-delivered in immaculate and resplendent glory.

Second, the modern era also births a deistic approach. Here theological practice is entirely and exclusively human activity with divine agency bracketed off to the past. Mark Bowald has argued that “most contemporary accounts of biblical hermeneutics are deistic.” 20 Nothing remains but a divine deposit left for the pious Christian or, perhaps, the objective scholar, to unearth and appreciate. The involvement of God is entirely described in the past tense: God did reveal, God did speak, God did give us an inscripturated Word. The present tense is entirely immanent, however, and involves only our own activities: receiving, reading, studying, questioning, critiquing, and so on. Method becomes important—whether historical or practical, hermeneutical or rhetorical. Because God is presumed not to be involved in the present horizon of communication, everything hangs on negotiating the text wisely and objectively. (p 56-57)

This explanation is incredibly helpful. On “donatist” side (usually an argument from Roman or Eastern churches), if tradition is fallible in any way, it is to be rejected. Tradition must either be infallibly declared, or rejected altogether. On the “deist” side, God has spoken, and does not speak any longer. And so traditioning or theologizing is a wasted effort. The only way to engage God is to “objectively” interpret the Bible. “No creed but Christ” mentality.

Both misunderstand sola scriptura. As Swain and Allen explain, sola scriptura

was not intended by its original advocates in the time of the Reformation as an absolute rebuke to tradition or a denial of genuine ecclesial authority. It was a spiritual characterization of the nature of that authority and the role of that tradition. (p 49)

Sola scriptura places a context to tradition and scripture, and how they relate together. Put simply, tradition, while good and important in regards to the maturity and growth of the church, is not infallible and always subject to the authority of scripture.

Calvin on the Papacy

Calvin’s section on ecclesiology is his longest of the four section in his Institutes. In his ecclesiology section, Calvin has a long discourse on the illegitimacy of the papacy as a church authority. He covers both the theology and the history of the papacy. I want to overview Calvin’s theological arguments against the papacy.

Calvin first introduces the claim that Peter was designated the first pope in Matthew 16. His response is two-fold.

In speaking of Peter’s office, Calvin firstly addresses how Matthew 16 should be interpreted: “you are Peter, and on the rock I will build my church”. Calvin’s response here is that the authority given to Peter at that moment is elsewhere later given to the rest of the apostles. In this way, Christ is giving authority to the entire church figuratively in the person of Peter.

Calvin says,

Christ, they say, appointed Peter as prince of the whole church when he promised that the keys would be given him. But what he then promised to the one, he elsewhere confers at the same time upon all the rest and, so to speak, delivers it into their hands [Matt 18:18; John 20:23]. If the same right was granted to all that was promised to the one, in what respect will Peter be superior to his colleagues?… For speaks Cyprian: “In the person of one man the Lord gave the keys to all, to signify the unity of all; the rest were the same as Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honor and of power…” …Augustine says: “If the mystery of the church had not been in Peter, the Lord would not have said to him, ‘I shall give you the keys’; for if this was said to Peter alone, the church does not have them. But if the church has them, Peter, when he received the keys, was a symbol of the whole church” (Institutes, 1106)

So Peter embodies the church in this passage. It is interesting that Calvin cites both Augustine and Cyprian as proponents of this interpretation. Calvin also points out that Jesus gives Peter this authority only after he makes a faith claim: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Calvin says that “Peter, in his own and his brethren’s name, had confessed Christ was the Son of God [Matt 16:16]. Upon this rock Christ builds his church” (ibid, 1107). In this way, Jesus confers his authority to all who make that same confession. So then we are all given this authority.

Calvin’s second argument against the establishment of Peter as pope, is the fact that in the biblical accounts, Peter had no more authority than the rest of the apostles. Calvin points out that Peter was nowhere treated in a special light.

Calvin says,

[I]f we gather all the passages where it teaches what office and power Peter had among the apostles, how he conducted himself, and also how he was received by them… you will find nothing but that he was one of the Twelve, the equal of the rest… (ibid, 1108)

Calvin then references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, over which Peter does not preside; rather James does. Also, in 1 Peter 5:1 ff, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder”, not as the universal bishop. Calvin refers to several instances in Acts where Peter is subordinate, not superior, to other leaders (ref ibid, 1108).

Calvin also references Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, where Paul both recognizes Peter as one of several leaders — not the leader — and rebukes him!

Calvin says,

But if none of these passages existed, still the letter to the Galatians alone can easily banish all doubt from us. There for almost two chapters Paul contends solely that he is Peter’s equal in the office of apostle. Hence, he recalls that he came to Peter, not to profess subjection, but only to attest their agreement in doctrine before all; that Peter also demanded no such thing, but gave him the right hand of fellowship so that they might labor together in the Lord’s vineyard; that no less grace was conferred upon him among the Gentiles than upon Peter among the Jews [Gal 1:18, 2:8]. Finally, he recalls that when Peter did not act faithfully, he corrected him, and Peter obeyed his reproof [Gal 2:11-14]. (ibid, 1108-09)

Calvin is right. The entire introduction of Galatians centers on proof of Paul’s equal authority as an apostle among the others.

Moving on from Peter, Calvin then addresses NT ecclesiology. Calvin rightly points out two things: first, that in all of the passages which speak of a “head of the church”, it is Christ which is given, not Peter. Secondly, in all the passages which speak of church authority, the papacy is left out!

Calvin first addresses Christ as the head of the church. He says,

[The church] has Christ as its sole Head, under whose sway all of us cleave to one another, according to that order and that form of polity which he has laid down. They do signal injury to Christ when they would have one man set over the church universal, on the pretext that the church cannot be without a head. For Christ is the Head, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit through every bond of mutual ministry (insofar as each member functions) achieves its growth” [Eph 4:15-16]… (ibid, 1110)

Calvin is right on this one: Ephesians and Colossians describe Jesus as that one unity of the church, the Head of the church. Calvin next describes the positions given in the church, and notices the the papacy is not included.

He says:

By his ascension Christ took away from us his visible presence; yet he ascended to fill all things [Eph 4:10]. Now, therefore, the church still has, and always will have, him present. When Paul wishes to show the way in which he manifests himself, he calls us back to the ministries in which he uses. The Lord (he says) is in us all, according to the measure of grace which he has bestowed upon each member [Eph 4:7]. For that reason, “he appointed some to be apostles… others pastors, others evangelists, still others teachers, “etc [Eph 4:11]. Why does Paul not say that Christ has set one over all to act as his vicegerent? For that the occasion especially demanded, and it ought in no way to have been omitted, if it had been true. Christ (he says) is present with us. How? By the ministry of men, whom he has set over the governing of the church. Why not, rather, through the ministerial head, to whom he has entrusted his functions? (ibid, 1111)

So then, Paul nowhere mentions the papal authority. And I think Calvin is right to interject that had the papacy been established, it would surely have been present in lists of ministerial authority like Ephesians 4.

With this, then, Calvin theologically denies the legitimacy of the papacy. And I think for good reason. While I appreciate and even love much about Catholicism, I believe arguments for the papacy on biblical grounds is difficult sustain.

Calvin and the New Perspective on Paul

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The New Perspective on Paul, as put forward by several Protestant theologians (Wright, Sanders, Dunn et al), is the thought that when Paul speaks of justification not being by “works of the law”, he is only speaking of the ceremonial and civil laws, not the moral laws.

What this translates to, is that when Paul says: “one is not justified by works of the law”, he is exclusively speaking of the Jewish aspects of the Mosaic Law. So one cannot be justified through the Mosaic laws. The moral law, however, is still in play. Hence, one is justified by faith in Christ plus cooperation with God’s grace in obedience to the moral law. Works done in grace play into justification, however that may look.

James Dunn explains:

[D]enial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos. We may justifiably deduce, therefore, that by ‘works of law’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws. (New Perspective on Paul, 191)

In this way, Paul is not doing away with all works, but rather works of the ceremonial and civil type. One is not justified by being a “good Jew”; rather one is justified in the last day by being “in Christ” and cooperating in good works through grace. This means that justification is a process, worked in the now, but finished at the final day in harmony with our works in Christ. Essentially, this conflates justification, and sanctification, making them one action of God and man.

What some may not know, is that this interpretation is not new. In fact, Calvin dealt with this argument in his dialogue with Roman Catholics of his day.

There are two basic arguments that Calvin dealt with in his time: the first was what is commonly known as the New Perspective — that works of the ceremonial and civil law were what Paul was arguing against; not works done in the context of the New Covenant. Another argument he dealt with, was that the works Paul was so set against were works done outside of grace: i.e. before one is regenerated. So, works done in a natural state could not justify; after regeneration, however, one can cooperate with grace and grow in justification after being in Christ. In his Institutes, Calvin denied both stances.

He said:

[Catholics] explain “works” as meaning those which men not yet reborn do only according to the letter by the effort of their own free will, apart from Christ’s grace. But they deny that these [works of the law] refer to spiritual works. For, according to them, man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration. For they say that Paul so spoke for no other reason than to convince the Jews, who were relying upon their own strength, that they were foolish to arrogate righteousness to themselves, since the Spirit of Christ alone bestows it upon us not through any effort arising from our own nature…[They also argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works. (Institutes, 744)

So we can see that this issue of “works” came up long before the New Perspective. How does Calvin respond to this charge? And how to works and salvation relate?

Calvin says:

[These theologians] do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them [Gal 3:11-12]. For he teaches that this is the righteousness of the law, that he who has fulfilled what the law commands should obtain salvation; but this is the righteousness of faith, to believe that Christ died and rose again [Rom 10:5, 9]… (ibid, 744)

In other words, in the NT, there is a hard line between faith and works in general. Works in general are said to be one way of justification, while faith is said to be another.

Calvin continues:

[They argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works… Do they think that the Apostle was raving when he brought forward these passages to prove his opinion? “The man who does these things will live by them” [Gal 3:12], and, “Cursed be every one who does not fulfill all things written in the book of the law” [Gal 3:10]. Unless they have gone mad they will not say that life was promised to keepers of ceremonies. If these passages to be understood of the moral law, there is no doubt that moral works are also excluded from the power of justifying. (ibid, 749)

Calvin puts forward the verse: “cursed by everyone who does not fulfill all things written…”. What he proposes is that “all things” necessarily include the moral tenets of the law. What this means for him, is that works and faith are not and cannot be united together in justification. Justification and sanctification must be separated.

Calvin explains:

[I]n its proper place,.. the benefits of Christ — sanctification and righteousness — are different. From this it follows that not even spiritual works [works done out of regeneration] come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith… From this it is also evident that we are justified before God solely on the intercession of Christ’s righteousness. This is equivalent to saying that man is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation (ibid, 744, 753)

In other words, imputation of righteousness and regeneration or sanctification are distinguished, separated. Sanctification is something that flows from imputation, but is not the same thing. New Perspective (and Romans Catholics) place together the work of justification and sanctification, such that one can participate in his final justification through works done in grace.