Book 4 - Chapter 18 (Parts 1-3)
In the previous chapter Calvin spent a great deal of time explaining his view that the sacrament of communion was one in which Christ was spiritually present, made real and applied the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection (forgiveness and salvation), and offered encouragement and support for Christ-like living. In this chapter, he describes why he believes that the Roman Mass is an inappropriate expression of the sacrament of communion. To understand his arguments, we need to remember that in Medieval Roman Catholicism, the bread (the host) and wine, when consecrated become the real body and blood of Christ, the person who performs the mass is a priest (someone who sacrifices), when the host is broken, it is understood to be Christ being sacrificed once again for the people and finally when people participate in the mass they earn “merit” which helps assure their entry into heaven.
Summary: It does not take long in this chapter to begin to get a sense of Calvin’s disdain for the mass. Even so, he wants his readers to know that he objects strenuously to the mass not simply to be argumentative, but because he finds no scriptural support for it. He lays out his objections as follows:
First, Jesus Christ is the only priest that is needed. Speaking of Jesus, Calvin writes, “For he was consecrated priest and pontiff by his Father, not for a time, in the way in which we read of priests being appointed in the Old Testament. Their priesthood could not be immortal because their life was mortal” (pg. 1430). Calvin continues that since Christ is the eternal priest, any priests appointed in his place “…not only deprive Christ of his honor but snatch from him the prerogative of that eternal priesthood, (and) try and cast him down from the right hand of his Father…” (pg. 1430). Calvin’s comments here rely heavily on the book of Hebrews which implies that Christ needs no partners in his work of forgiveness and salvation.
Second, the Mass “suppresses and buries the cross and Passion of Christ” (pg. 1431). Calvin believes this because his understanding is that Christ’s death on the cross was a sufficient sacrifice for all people, in all places and for all of time. He puts it this way then in terms of the Mass. “Therefore, we shall have to confess either that Christ’s sacrifice, which he fulfilled upon the cross lacked the power to cleanse eternally, or that Christ carried out one sacrifice, once for all unto the ages” (pg. 1431). To be clear, this argument arises out of the Roman Catholic belief that the Mass offers a sacrifice equal to the sacrifice on the cross.
Third, the Mass “…wipes out the true and unique death of Christ and drives it from the memory of men” (pg. 1433). This is an interesting argument based in the idea of a “testament”; a testament being a person’s last will and testament where they bequeath their goods to another. In this case Jesus, by his death on the cross, bequeathed to humanity forgiveness of sins and eternal life. By having new forgiveness and new righteousness (meaning a new right relationship with God) offered every time the Mass is offered, it is as if a new testament is replacing the old one. Thus, people forget the original testament and the death that made it possible.
Fourth, the Mass “…robs us of the benefit of Christ’s death” (pg. 1434). This argument can be summed up as follows. “For who can think himself redeemed by Christ’s death, when he has seen new redemption in the mass? Who can trust that his sins are forgiven, when he sees new forgiveness?” (pg. 1434-35).
Reflections: Over the past fifty years or so, the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches have worked diligently to rebuild the relationship that was broken during the Reformation, and remained broken until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in which the Roman Church stated that, while the Roman Church was the only true church, truth could be found in other churches (such as the Presbyterian Church). Since that time, we have recognized each other’s baptisms and have engaged in mutual worship and work. Even so, one area in which there will always be disagreement is in the mass, because we cling to Calvin’s arguments and focus our understanding of the sacrament of communion on Christ being spiritually and not physically present.
In the first article, we examined four reasons Calvin objected to the Mass. In this article, we take up the rest of his objections.
Summary: Fifth, the Mass is “a...nullification of the Lord’s Supper” (pg. 1435). Calvin writes, “The Sacrament promised that by Christ’s death we are not merely once restored to life, but are continually received, for all parts of our salvation have been fulfilled” (pg. 1435). In other words, the nature of the Lord’s Supper is that it causes us to remember what Christ has done for us, once and for all; meaning offering to us forgiveness and salvation. By the Mass’ focus on continual sacrifice, we forget the original purpose of the sacrament.
Sixth, the Mass can be offered in private to individuals. Calvin objects to this because, in the scriptures, the Lord’s Supper is always offered to the church entire body of believers (think of the Last Supper where all are invited to eat and drink). In addition, Paul is very clear that the meal is to be shared. “But because Christ’s and Paul’s words are clear enough, we may briefly conclude that wherever there is not this breaking of the bread for the communion of believers, it is not the Lord’s Supper” (pg. 1437).
Seventh, the Mass was not part of the practice of the early church. Calvin argues that even though some of the early church Fathers used the term sacrifice, they “…meant nothing else than the remembrance of that one true sacrifice which Christ, our sole-Priest…made upon the cross.... Augustine (354-430 CE) himself, in many passages, interprets it as nothing but a sacrifice of praise…a memorial, an image, and a testimony of that singular, true and unique sacrifice by which Christ atoned for us” (pg. 1438-39).
Eighth, there is a significant difference between the use of Sacrifices in the Old Testament and the Lord’s Supper. Calvin argues that the Levitical Priests “…were commanded (by sacrificing on an altar) to prefigure the sacrifice that Christ was to perform)…but after Christ’s sacrifice was accomplished, the Lord instituted another method for us, that is, to transmit to believing folk the benefit of the sacrifice offered to himself by his Son. Therefore, he has given us a table at which to feast, not an altar upon which to offer victims; he has not consecrated priests to offer sacrifice, but ministers to distribute the sacred banquet…” (pg. 1440).
Reflections: When my wife Cindy and I married, we wanted to have communion at our wedding. Being completely ignorant of either the theology or polity of the matter, we thought that perhaps just we, or our bridal party could receive communion. The pastor in charge explained to us that this was not possible, that everyone would have to be serviced because communion was a “communal” meal to be shared by all present. I was and continue to be grateful for that instruction, because it was the beginning of my discovering a deeper meaning to the Lord’s Supper.
In the first two articles, we examined eight reasons Calvin objected to the Mass. In this article, we take up the rest of his discussion about the Mass, sacrifice and a short summary of sacraments.
Summary: Having offered his eight reasons for objecting to the theology of the Mass, Calvin takes a bit of time to examine the nature of sacrifice. He begins by noting that the scriptures offer a wide variety of words that are translated as sacrifice; each however, carrying a different meaning. “Generally understood, this (meaning all those words translated as sacrifice) includes every sort of thing offered to God…(so)…although these were of various forms…they can be (put into) two classes” (pg. 1441). Those two classes are sacrifices for forgiveness and thanksgiving. The sacrifice for forgiveness, Calvin states, has been replaced by the sacrifice of Christ, who died once for all people, for all time. Therefore, the sacrifice in the Mass is unnecessary. Sacrifices of thanksgiving however ought to still be practiced. These sacrifices can be offered in this way. “…all that is ours ought to be consecrated and dedicated to him (Christ), so that all that is in us may serve his glory and…aspire to increase it” (pg. 1444).
Calvin also takes a quick look at the sale of Masses. This was the practice of priests who, without a parish, would make their living by offering Masses for a price; the purpose being that the individual for whom the mass was said, would earn merit, thus helping to insure their entry into eternal life. Calvin objects to this in these words. “We also deny that they are priests in the sense that they by (offering these personal Masses) before God and for people (have) appeased God (and) obtained atonement for sins. For Christ is the sole…Priest” (pg. 1442). These Masses are thus not needed because they don’t accomplish anything.
This chapter is summed up with a reminder that there are only two sacraments (which also sets up the next chapter in which Calvin examines the other rites which are referred to as sacraments by the Roman Church). These two sacraments are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Apart from these two, no other sacrament has been instituted; by God, so the church of believers ought to recognize no other; for erecting and establishing new sacraments is not a matter of human choice…let the Christian church be satisfied with these two sacraments, therefore” (pg. 1446-47).
Reflections: Having been reared in the old PCUS (Southern Presbyterian Church) the celebration of the sacraments was done in a plain and straightforward manner. Over the years I have seen the “ceremony” aspect become more and more elaborate. I tend to agree with Calvin when he says that “…there is too much processions, ceremonies, and mimes” (pg. 1448), meaning the form has become more important than the function. My hope is that as we celebrate the sacraments we will, through what we say, read and do, always bring ourselves back to the promises of forgiveness and salvation which they make real in all our lives, in order that they nourish our faith and hope.