After some delay, we continue with Calvin on Galatians 3.26-7. In the first installment, we saw the central importance to Calvin of union in the consideration of what it means to be sons of God. But Paul seems to say that this comes about by baptism. So: is it the case that “being baptized” is equivalent (simpliciter) to “putting on Christ”? Isn’t that disproven both be Scripture and experience?
Text and Translation
Quantum enim abest quin baptismus sit in omnibus efficax? Est etiam hoc absurdum, quod ita alligaretur signo externo gratia spiritus sancti. Ergo tam perpetua scripturae doctrina, quam experientia redargui posse videtur hoc dictum. Respondeo, Paulum de sacramentis bifariam solere loqui. Dum negotium est cum hypocritis, qui nudis signis superbiunt, tum concionatur quam inanis ac nihili res sit externum signum: et in praeposteram fiduciam fortiter invehitur. Quare? non respicit Dei institutionem sed impiorum corruptelam. Quum autem fideles alloquitur, qui rite utuntur signis, illa tunc coniungit cum sua veritate, quam figurant. Quare? neque enim fallacem pompam ostentat in sacramentis, sed quae externa caeremonia figurat, exhibet simul re ipsa. Hinc fit ut veritas secundum Dei institutum coniuncta sit cum signis.
For isn’t it quite obvious that baptism is not efficacious in all? Indeed, it is absurd that the grace of the Holy Spirit should be so bound to the external sign. Therefore, this saying [i.e., “Whoever of you have been baptized have put on Christ”] seems able to be disproved both by the constant teaching of Scripture and by experience. I answer that Paul is accustomed to speak about the sacraments in a twofold way. When he is dealing with hypocrites, who take pride in the bare signs, he then proclaims how empty and worthless a thing is the external sign, and he vigorously attacks a preposterous confidence [in it]. Why? He is speaking with reference not to the institution of God but to the corruption of the wicked. When, however, he addresses believers who use the signs in the appointed way, he then joins them together with their own truth that they figure. Why? He does not, indeed, make a vain display of deceptive pomp in the sacraments, but the things that the external rite figures he at the same time exhibits in reality. Hence it happens that the truth according to the institution of God is conjoined with the signs.
- Calvin rejects the possibility that the sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato–that is, automatically or mechanistically–on the grounds of both Scripture and experience. This is really pretty straightforward: not everyone believes. What then?
- He thus realizes that Paul has a double way of talking (bifariam) about the sacraments, depending on his audience. When people trust in the signs themselves, Paul makes the sacraments worthless–full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, as it were. Why? Because they need to be led away from “preposterous confidence” in externals to faith in Jesus Christ.
- But such people are corrupters of the sacraments, not using them as they are intended. And this is a key point: sacraments do have an intention behind them; there is an “appointed way” to use them, which is to say, they are to be used in faith. Thus when Paul has believers (fideles) in view, he speaks of them as fundamentally connected with the reality that they signify. Calvin says that Paul “exhibits” this reality. This verb (exhibere), here connected to Paul himself, is often used of how the sacraments “work” in Protestant discussions: cf. here on Calvin and here on the Augsburg Variata, as well as here on the Wittenberg Concord.
- The connection Calvin makes here between sign and signified is a strong one, as shown by the phrase he uses to speak of what is “exhibited,” re ipsa, which means “in fact, really, in truth, indeed, in reality.” For believers, the substance of the sacraments is really “there” and efficacious. This is because it is by God’s own institution that the sacraments are administered, and when used as God has appointed they are powerful. “The truth…is conjoined with the signs,” Calvin says–which is much stronger than what the existing English translation says, which reads, “…the truth comes to be associated with the symbols.” Calvin does not say that the truth “comes to be associated” with the signs; he says it is conjoined with them.
- Calvin’s position about Paul’s double way of speaking helps us make sense of apparently inconsistent statements in Paul’s letters: thus he can tell the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1 that he did not come to baptize but to preach the gospel, and he can also tell the Galatians that as many as have been baptized have put on Christ.