In my blog entry yesterday, I raised a couple questions for Calvin about his theology of the sacraments. It seemed to me, at least from Sinclair Ferguson’s summary, that Calvin talks as if we shouldn’t need sacraments. The Word ought to be sufficient for us; the sacraments were added because of our weakness. I wanted to follow up on that today.
Ferguson’s summary of Calvin’s view appears to me to be accurate. Calvin approves of Augustine’s description of the sacraments as visible words: “Augustine calls a sacrament ‘a visible word’ for the reason that it represents God’s promises as painted in a picture and sets them before our sight, portrayed graphically and in the manner of images” (Institutes 4.14.6).
More disturbingly, he also writes this in his section on the sacraments:
God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough…. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself, even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. For if we were incorporeal … he would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls engrafted in bodies, he imparts spiritual things under visible ones (Institutes 4.14.3).
I have to admit that this statement puzzles me. Is Calvin talking about post-fall man, weakened by sin? That’s possible. If so, he’s part of a long tradition. As Peter Leithart pointed out to me,
The notion that sacraments are a result of sin comes up in Hugh of St. Victor’s De Sacramentis and is probably earlier than that. It seems connected with the notion that original sin is essentially about our obsession with carnality and materiality, along with the notion that Adam in the garden had a purely “inward” communion with God — come to think of it, I believe that Augustine says that kind of thing. The movement of redemptive history from a inner communion (Adam) through various sorts of accommodated outward forms of communion (from garden to consummation) but leading to a final restoration of purely inner communion.
In a blog entry, Leithart also notes that “Thomas … denies that sacraments were necessary in Eden, since there was no need to remedy sin (ST 61, 2).” So if this is what Calvin is thinking, then he’s in line with many theologians before him.
But if Calvin wants to say that sacraments became necessary because of our sinful (or at least, sin-induced) weakness, then what about those trees in the Garden of Eden? Before the Fall, God didn’t simply bestow life and the knowledge of good and evil on man apart from tangible means. Nor did He act by His Word alone. Instead, He determined to use food, the fruit of two trees. Those trees were as sacramental as the Lord’s Supper, and yet they were present in the Garden before Adam’s rebellion.
I’m not sure, however, that Calvin really is saying that it’s sin that weakened man. He might be, but the last two sentences in the long quotation above seem to indicate that he’s simply talking about physical man, even apart from the Fall. We need sacraments, Calvin says, because we “cleave to the flesh.” But then he says that the reason God “imparts spiritual things under visible ones” is “because we have souls engrafted in bodies.” According to Calvin, then, we need sacraments, not because we are impaired and weakened by sin, but rather because our souls are engrafted in bodies.
On the other hand, perhaps Calvin is still speaking about a weakness brought about by sin but is trying to say that because we’re embodied God uses earthly things to strengthen our faith. It’s not as if God sees that in our weakness and sin we “cleave to the flesh,” and so He cures that by using non-earthly, non-physical means. After all, we are embodied. We are physical. And so God uses physical means to bring about the cure and to strengthen our weak faith. That’s the best I can do with this passage, but it seems like a stretch to me.
So the worst interpretation is that Calvin thinks God uses sacraments because being physical itself constitutes a sort of weakness. I can certainly see how someone might conclude that from this paragraph. But the best interpretation, it seems to me, is that Calvin thinks sin has brought about our weakness, so that we don’t properly cling to the Word, which ought to be enough, and so God strengthens our faith by physical things because we are ourselves physical.
(Even on this reading, though, I still get a sense from the last two sentences that Calvin thinks there’s something “condescending” about God’s use of physical things, as if it might have been better to be non-physical and not to need physical sacraments. Physical sacraments are second-best; the Word alone would be best. That’s just a sense, and I can’t prove it.)
As I’ve indicated above, I don’t buy Calvin’s view. I don’t believe that the sacraments are in any sense the result of sin or the weakness resulting from sin. In part, I don’t believe that because there appear to have been sacraments before the Fall. But my rejection of his view also stems from my embrace of the goodness and physicality of the creation.
For God to use physical means — and speech, by the way, is no less physical than food, since it involves physical vibrations in the atmosphere and in the ear — is not condescension and certainly not condescension in the sense of “lowering oneself,” as if it’s somehow beneath God’s proper dignity to involve himself with physical stuff. As C. S. Lewis says somewhere in Mere Christianity (I’m paraphrasing): God likes matter; He invented it.
That’s why we have sacraments. God made us physical creatures. He likes us as physical creatures. He wants us to have bodies for all eternity.
And so He gives us physical food. He could, of course, simply zap us and give us, by His Spirit, all the energy and strength we need to live. Food doesn’t have power in itself to give life. We eat things that aren’t alive (like plants); we even eat things that are dead (like steak). Life comes from the Spirit. But God gives us life as we eat physical food.
So it is with the sacraments. The question “Why sacraments?” is no harder to answer than the question “Why baths?” and “Why food?”
Just as food isn’t the result of the Fall, so the sacraments aren’t the result of the Fall. Just as God gave life through all the fruit of all the trees of the Garden, God would give special life through the fruit of the Tree of Life. Just as God gives you life through your dinner every day, so God also gives you life — the life of Christ — through the Lord’s Supper.
Having said all of that, I do want to add this. Understood in a pastoral way, there is something to be salvaged from Calvin’s approach and from the approach of, for instance, the Belgic Confession, Article 33, which says that ”our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments….” That “insensitivity and weakness” is not the ultimate reason for the sacraments, but it is a pastoral occasion for the assurance that the sacraments give.
It’s not wrong, therefore, for a pastor — following the lead of Calvin and the Belgic Confession — to say something like this to a guy who is struggling with his faith, struggling perhaps to believe that his sins are really forgiven:
Look, God proclaims Sunday after Sunday that your sins are forgiven. He tells you again and again that He loves you. He says it in one way or another in virtually every sermon.But He doesn’t just say it to you. That ought to give you comfort in itself. But God is so good that He’s done more than that. He also had you baptized into Christ. Maybe you think God isn’t really speaking to you in the sermon or in the declaration that your sins are forgiven. Well, what about your baptism? Do you think that water was meant for someone else? No! He called you by name. He had that water administered to you. You don’t need to doubt Him. His love and His forgiveness and His grace are as real as your baptism.
And as if that isn’t enough, what about the Lord’s Supper? Every Sunday, that bread and that cup are passed to you personally. That’s Jesus’ love right there. He’s giving you His body. He’s giving you His blood. Take it. Don’t doubt but eat and drink. Yes, your faith is weak. But God gave you not only His Word but also baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a host of other things, including your pastor and your fellow brothers and sisters, to strengthens your faith.
That’s how I read the Belgic Confession’s use of that “insensitivity and weakness” language: It’s not best understood as an explanation for why God gave sacraments in the first place, but it’s pastorally pointing to the comfort of having not only the Word but also the sacraments for the assurance of our faith.
Why sacraments alongside the Word? Because there’s a problem that needs to be overcome, namely our weakness that isn’t satisfied with the Word? No! Because God is Triune and so He always delights in “two or three witnesses,” as Jim Jordan pointed out in the comments in my previous entry.
And why sacraments at all? Not because of our weakness, whether it’s the weakness induced by sin or some weakness that comes from being physical creatures, but because God, who created matter and who made us as physical creatures, delights in matter, in physicality, in stuff. And so He delights in making waves in the air that vibrate the bones in our ears. He delights in washing us with water and feeding us with bread and quenching our thirst and setting our tongues and throats and blood on fire with wine. And He delights, in these ways, to communicate with us, to join us to Christ’s body, the church, to nourish us with Christ’s life, to assure us of His love and faithfulness toward us, to give us all the riches we have in Christ Jesus.