It’s been a while since Tiber Jumper’s Crossed The Tiber has been in the spotlight. Every so often, this Catholic convert provides quotes from the Reformers. It amazes me how Catholic converts become so seemingly fluent in Reformation history and writings (I do wonder, though, how much of the Reformers writings actually are read prior to Catholic conversion). This time, John Calvin gets center stage as a supporter of the Roman Catholic view of baptism. Calvin’s position is said to be so similar to the Catholic Catechism that he could have written this:
“The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. Sacramental grace is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1129).
Rome’s view holds sacraments infuse grace into a person: “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131). Now, whether or not you agree with Calvin’s view of the sacraments, his view definitely was not that of the Roman Church. Tiber Jumper says, “We Sacramentalists in agreement with the writings of the Early Church and Sacred Scripture insist that a little water does indeed regenerate a person.” Well, Calvin does not agree. Calvin says,
“The schools of the Sophists have taught with remarkable agreement that the sacraments of the new law (those now used in the Christian church) justify and confer grace, provided we do not set up a barrier of mortal sin. How deadly and pestilential this notion is cannot be expressed and the more so because for many centuries it has been a current claim in a good part of the world, to the great loss of the church. Of a certainty it is diabolical. For in promising a righteousness apart from faith, it hurls souls headlong to destruction. Secondly, because it draws the cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it binds mens pitiable minds (of themselves more than enough inclined to earth) in this superstition, so that they repose in the appearance of a physical thing rather than in God himself” (Institutes IV:14:14).
“Now, it is clear how false is the teaching, long propagated by some and still persisted in by others, that through baptism we are released and made exempt from original sin, and from the corruption that descended from Adam into all his posterity; and are restored into that same righteousness and purity of nature which Adam would have obtained if he had remained upright as he was first created. For teachers of this type never understood what original sin, what original righteousness, or what the grace of baptism was” (Institutes IV: 15:10).
Crossed The Tiber used an obscure Calvin quote to base his comparison. The quote is from Calvin’s 200th Sermon on Deuteronomy 34, preached July 15, 1556. My copy is in old English, and I don’t think a contemporary English version exists. What amazes me about Roman Catholics is their ability to locate obscure quotes, rather than simply reading major available works. Calvin wrote many pages on the sacraments. Rather than citing a rare book few have, citing him from the Institutes would be my chosen method. The quote is filled with theology, and unless one does the work to understand Calvin, it could be easily misconstrued. Tiber’s obscure Calvin quote is as follows (emphasis his):
“So then we must ever come to this point, that the Sacraments are effectual and that they are not trifling signs that vanish away in the air, but that the truth is always matched with them, because God who is faithful shows that he has not ordained anything in vain. And that is the reason why in Baptism we truly receive the forgiveness of sins, we are washed and cleansed with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are renewed by the operation of his Holy Spirit. And how so? Does a little water have such power when it is cast upon the head of a child? No. But because it is the will of our Lord Jesus Christ that the water should be a visible sign of his blood and of the Holy Spirit. Therefore baptism has that power and whatsoever is there set forth to the eye is forthwith accomplished in very deed.” John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, p. 1244
Note the bolded words this Catholic convert picked out. This is a perfect example of seeing what one wants to in a text, and not having any idea of what Calvin is talking about. In context, the quote is not saying grace is dispensed through the sacrament. Rather, Calvin held that spiritually we are washed and cleansed with the blood of Jesus. The water serves as a visible sign of a heavenly reality.
Calvin goes on to discuss the Lord’s Supper, saying, “When we come to that holy table, we must assure ourselves that our souls are nourished with the spiritual food which we see not, and that our faith must mount up unto heaven, there to be joined with our Lord Jesus Christ. Here we have to note that when the Scriptures speak unto us of the signs which we have in us according to God’s ordinance, the very truth of them is present with them. That is, the sacraments are signs of a spiritual reality.” For Calvin, somehow in the mystery of the Lord’s Supper by the power of the Spirit, Christ does not come down from Heaven but we are taken up to heaven, and there we commune with our ascended Lord himself. Similarly in baptism, the sign points to the actual spiritual reality of our mortification and renewal in Christ, as well as being symbolic of all our sins being washed away, even those committed after baptism.
In Sermon 200, Calvin goes on to criticize the Roman practice of baptism. He points out that the practice of “charming” the water before baptism is meaningless and an invention of men. In the Institutes, Calvin says that the water itself is not what is important: .”..[B]aptism promises us no other purification than through the sprinkling of Christ’s blood, which is represented by means of water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing. Who, therefore, may say that we are cleansed by this water which attests with certainty that Christ’s blood is our true and only laver? Thus, the surest argument to refute the self-deception of those who attribute everything to the power of the water can be sought in the meaning of baptism itself, which draws us away, not only from the visible element which meets our eyes, but from all other means, that it may fasten our minds upon Christ alone” (Institutes IV:15:2).