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Sacraments as Visible Words: The Patristic Roots of the Reformation (4)

The Protestant Reformers regularly referred to the sacraments as visible words–that is, they communicate the same gospel and promises as the written word, but in a different form, one that could be handled, touched, tasted. And yet the sacramental elements are not self-explanatory. For that reason, they must be joined with the Word, such that what makes a sacrament is the joining of the element with the Word (without which the elements remain common and mute), to be received in faith. Without understanding and faith, the sacraments can’t “preach.”

That position is an Augustinian one. Thus in his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper 48, Calvin calls on Augustine as patristic support for his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. He believes that the Reformed alterations to the celebration of the Supper restore this Augustinian emphasis, in contradistinction to its effacement, in his view, in the non-vernacular and barely audible Mass. Rhetorically, this position turns the tables on his opponents, who would claim that Protestants lack the true substance of the Supper, because it is not the Roman Mass. Not so, says Calvin; without a “clear statement of the promises” attached to the sacraments–a statement that is intelligible to the hearers–“the proper and principal substance (la propre et principale substance) of the Supper is wanting.” He writes:

The principal thing recommended by our Lord is to celebrate the ordinance with true understanding. From this it follows that the essential part lies in the doctrine. This being taken away, it is only a frigid unavailing ceremony. This is not only shown by Scripture, but attested by the canons of the Pope, (Can. Detrahe. i. 4,1,) in a passage quoted from St. Augustine, (Tract 80, in Joan.) in which he asks— “What is the water of baptism without the word but just a corruptible element? The word (he immediately adds) not as pronounced, but as understood.” By this he means, that the sacraments derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligibly. Without this they deserve not the name of sacraments. Now so far is there from being any intelligible doctrine in the Mass, that, on the contrary, the whole mystery is considered spoiled if every thing be not said and done in whispers, so that nothing is understood. Hence their consecration is only a species of sorcery, seeing that by muttering and gesticulating like sorcerers, they think to constrain Jesus to come down into their hands. We thus see how the Mass, being thus arranged, is an evident profanation of the Supper of Christ, rather than an observance of it, as the proper and principal substance of the Supper is wanting, viz., full explanation of the ordinance and clear statement of the promises, instead of the priest standing apart and muttering to himself without sense or reason. I call it buffoonery, also, because of mimicry and gestures, better adapted to a farce than to such an ordinance as the sacred Supper of our Lord.

As he also did in the passage discussed in the previous post, Calvin again refers to Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John, though in this instance the reference is correct: Tractates 80, a short discussion of John 15.1-3. I quote the passage in full, so that one can see how Augustine treats the relationship between the elements, the Word, and faith.

3. Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Why does He not say, You are clean through the baptism wherewith you have been washed, but through the word which I have spoken unto you, save only that in the water also it is the word that cleanses? Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word. For He had said also to the same effect, when washing the disciples’ feet, He that is washed needs not, save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit. And whence has water so great an efficacy, as in touching the body to cleanse the soul, save by the operation of the word; and that not because it is uttered, but because it is believed? For even in the word itself the passing sound is one thing, the abiding efficacy another. This is the word of faith which we preach, says the apostle, that if you shall confess with your mouth that Jesus is the Lord, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. For with the heart man believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. Romans 10:10 Accordingly, we read in the Acts of the Apostles, Purifying their hearts by faith; Acts 15:9 and, says the blessed Peter in his epistle, Even as baptism does also now save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience. This is the word of faith which we preach, whereby baptism, doubtless, is also consecrated, in order to its possession of the power to cleanse. For Christ, who is the vine with us, and the husbandman with the Father, loved the Church, and gave Himself for it. And then read the apostle, and see what he adds: That He might sanctify it, cleansing it with the washing of water by the word. Ephesians 5:25-26 The cleansing, therefore, would on no account be attributed to the fleeting and perishable element, were it not for that which is added, by the word. This word of faith possesses such virtue in the Church of God, that through the medium of him who in faith presents, and blesses, and sprinkles it, He cleanses even the tiny infant, although itself unable as yet with the heart to believe unto righteousness, and to make confession with the mouth unto salvation. All this is done by means of the word, whereof the Lord says, Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

One reply on “Sacraments as Visible Words: The Patristic Roots of the Reformation (4)”

[…] I refer to Summa theologiae III, Q. 66, A. 1, “Whether Baptism if the mere washing?” The question with which Thomas is dealing is whether the sacrament is to be identified with the element itself, or the action performed via the element. Thomas affirms the latter and denies the former. (Interestingly, one of the objections raised comes from the very passage in Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 80.3, used by Calvin for a defense of his views–legitimately, in my view, given what he wants to prove in that passage–discussed recently here.) […]

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