Thursday, September 22, 2011

Calvin and Penance

Here's a quote which is supposed to be an example of a way in which Calvin and Romanism are in some sort of harmony:

"I will speak briefly of the rite of the early Church, ... By the order observed in public repentance, those who had performed the satisfactions imposed upon them were reconciled by the formal laying on of hands. This was the symbol of absolution by which the sinner himself regained his confidence of pardon before God, ... I consider that ancient observance ... to have been holy and salutary to the Church, and I could wish it restored in the present day." ("Institutes," IV, 19:14)

The quote in this exact form has since disappeared from the Facebook page I first saw it on a few weeks ago (or I simply can't find it). Other versions of the quote are floating around as well that are slightly longer, but don't add anything more to the point being made.

If all that's being asserted is that both Rome's teaching and Calvin both admit that the early church practiced public repentance, then indeed Calvin and Romanism are both in harmony on the facts of history. Then again, any historical source that mentions this tidbit could be said to be in harmony with Romanism.  On the other hand, if a Romanist were arguing that Calvin was some way in harmony with Rome's sacrament of penance or that Calvin's view of penance was somewhat like Rome's sacrament of penance, then that would simply be an error.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Rome teaches the following about penance (in part):

1446 Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace."

1447 Over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably. During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this "order of penitents" (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime. During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the "private" practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day.

1448 Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned. It comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God's action through the intervention of the Church. The Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion. 

Calvin argues in IV, 19:3 that the notion of seven sacraments was unknown in the early church.  He then goes on to argue that penance doesn't qualify as a sacrament (IV, 19:14-17).  In 19:14, Calvin notes the papists falsely use the history of the ancient church as the origin of the sacrament of penance: "I shall first say something briefly of the rite of the ancient church, which they have wrongly used as a pretext to establish their fiction." Ford Lewis Battles outlines Calvin's four points here:

1) originally after public confession and satisfaction for sin, the penitent was reconciled by a solemn laying on of hands
(2) to avoid excessive leniency, the responsibility came to be laid upon the bishops, although usually in concert with the other clergy
(3) after the rite of reconciliation the person was restored to communion
(4) later this practice deteriorated and the rite also came to be used for private absolutions as well

Source: Ford Lewis Battles, Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin (Phillipsburg: P and R Publishing, 2001), p. 405

Calvin then gives the following opinion:

I judge the ancient observance, which Cyprian mentions, to have been holy and wholesome for the church; and I would like to see it restored today. This more recent practice, although I dare not disallow it or speak too sharply against it, I nevertheless deem less necessary. However it may be, we still see that the laying on of hands in penance is a ceremony ordained by men, not by God, one that ought to be classed among things indifferent and outward exercises — things that are indeed not to be despised, but that ought to occupy a lower place than those commended to us by the Lord’s word.

Calvin then goes on to argue that penance isn't a sacrament (IV, 19:15). If there's any similarity between Calvin and Romanism here, it isn't at all related to penance being a sacrament. True, Calvin here states he would be in favor of the ancient observance of public penance. To my knowledge though, Romanism isn't interested in reviving the practice in the form Calvin outlines. As to the "more recent practice" of penance, Calvin deems it "less necessary." Of that practice he states "the matter deteriorated to the point that, apart from public penance, they also used this rite in private absolutions. Hence arose that distinction in Gratian between public and private reconciliation." For Calvin, the recent practice was a deterioration. This would hardly be similar to what Rome believes about the positive development of doctrine.

In the Romanist version above of IV, 19:14, the selective citation appears to place an emphasis on "the formal laying on of hands" as "the symbol of absolution by which the sinner himself regained his confidence of pardon before God." The Romanist selective citation process chooses this as that which Calvin wishes restored. Is this the way in which Calvin and Romanism are similar? Note what Calvin says of the formal laying on of hands:
  "...the laying on of hands in penance is a ceremony ordained by men, not by God, one that ought to be classed among things indifferent and outward exercises — things that are indeed not to be despised, but that ought to occupy a lower place than those commended to us by the Lord’s word."

As I read Calvin here, he doesn't appear to think the laying on of hands is crucial to the practice of public penance, even if it were restored. He classifies it as "things indifferent and outward exercises." As I've searched around a bit, I couldn't find anything in current Romanism that typically says a penitent has to have hands laid on him. Perhaps then Calvin and Romanism share some similarities here as neither appears to think the laying on of hands in public penance is essential.

One other point of difference as well: According to this section from the Institutes, Calvin understood that "symbol of absolution" to be just that, a symbol. Calvin says:
The ancients observed this order in public repentance, that those who had discharged the satisfactions enjoined upon them were reconciled by the solemn laying on of hands. That was a sign of absolution by which the sinner himself was raised up before God with assurance of pardon, and the church admonished to expunge the memory of his offense and receive him kindly into favor. Cyprian very often calls this “giving peace.”(IV, 19:14).
Calvin also mentions that it wasn't simply the bishop who did this: "Cyprian, in another passage, shows that not only the bishop laid on hands but the entire clergy as well." As I understand Calvin,  he denies the Bishop is forgiving the sin, only Christ can do that. A clergyman only proclaims the forgivness of sins. Calvin says, 

To impart to us this benefit, the keys of the church have been given. When Christ gave the command to the apostles and conferred upon them the power to forgive sins [Matthew 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23], he did not so much desire that the apostles absolve from sins those who might be converted from ungodliness to the faith of Christ, as that they should perpetually discharge this office among believers. Paul teaches this when he writes that the mission of reconciliation has been entrusted to the ministers of the church and that by it they are repeatedly to exhort the people to be reconciled to God in Christ’s name [2 Corinthians 5:18,20]. Therefore, in the communion of saints, our sins are continually forgiven us by the ministry of the church itself when the presbyters or bishops to whom this office has been committed strengthen godly consciences by the gospel promises in the hope of pardon and forgiveness. This they do both publicly and privately as need requires. For very many,on account of their weakness, need personal consolation. And Paul mentions that not only in public preaching, but from house to house as well, he has attested his faith in Christ, and has individually admonished each man concerning the doctrine of salvation [Acts 20:20-21]. (IV, 1:22)

Contrast this with the Catholic Catechism:

1444 In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ's solemn words to Simon Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." "The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head."
I've gone through this little exercise of compare / contrast not in any effort to prove the dishonesty of the quote being put forth on Facebook. Rather, I think the quote as selectively cited shows how a particular worldview, in this case, a Romanist worldview, sees what it wants to. It begins by presupposing the truth of Roman Catholicism, and then applies that template to Calvin. Calvin's words are put forth in some sort of ecumenical attempt to demonstrate Calvin's agreement with a distinctive of Roman Catholicism.  When one reads Calvin in context though, his entire presentation at this point is to distinguish the Christian faith from Romanism.

4 comments:

natamllc said...

James,

I am edified by this! Thanks.

Heb 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
Heb 6:2 and of instruction about washings,
the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Clearly when Hebrews was written, the topic of the laying on of hands was relevant. It is therefore relevant today!

Something you wrote above I want to highlight after a highlight of something Calvin wrote that you cited above:

Calvin:

<"...Therefore, in the communion of saints, our sins are continually forgiven us by the ministry of the church itself when the presbyters or bishops to whom this office has been committed strengthen godly consciences by the gospel promises in the hope of pardon and forgiveness. This they do both publicly and privately as need requires. For very many,on account of their weakness, need personal consolation. ...".

You wrote this:

"...For Calvin, the recent practice was a deterioration. This would hardly be similar to what Rome believes about the positive development of doctrine. "

What you have done essentially is establish the "nature" of the True Church and her mission to edify and exhort and working with Christ, labor to see a weak member obtain the Grace of God.

Rome's practices continually deteriorate that "Life giving reality" inherited from the "Life Giving Spirit, Christ, when one is conjoined to Him!

Here are a couple of places where we see the reality of edification being addressed by an early Apostle:


1Co 15:45 Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

...

Eph 4:15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
Eph 4:16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.


Yes, there was a need for "Church fathers of the Faith once delivered to the Saints", then. And there is as much, and, even more so, a need for Church fathers today making plain the simplicity of the Gospel's work of edification by the hands of the Bride of Christ, now!

Your hands in my view are very edifying!

thanks!!
:)

Paul Hoffer said...

Natamllc, you are greatly overreaching here.

All Mr. Swan established here is that Atty. Calvin did not share the view of the Catholic Church that reconciliation/penance is a sacrament which certainly is in accord with his widely known view that there are only two sacraments: baptism and communion. Our host did not lay out any ad fontes evidence that any of the Early Church Fathers actually agreed with Calvin's view or for that matter that they agreed with the view of the Catholic Church.

Thus, if someone used this quote to make Atty. Calvin out to be some sort of closet Catholic, Mr. Swan would be certainly warranted in taking the quote-giver to task which he did here.

On the other hand, I have seen the Catholic-apologist-who-may-not-be-named-on-this-blog use this quote in a far more reasonable, responsible manner to show that there are areas of harmony between the Church and the Reformers that could be used as starting points of discussion between Catholics and Protestants. If our gracious host allows it, I could offer a link to that situs or folks can just go out and buy Lord Armovalidus' book, "Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin".

Mr. Swan,

I much appreciate your efforts to actually put before your audience what the Church teaches by referencing the Catechism.

God bless you both!

natamllc said...

Paul,

well that's not the sort of comment I was expecting; nor was I even expecting a comment about what I said there?

You commented:

"Natamllc, you are greatly overreaching here."

Pardon me, but what follows that seems to me like one pounding a square peg in a round hole?

For instance, you write this:

"... Our host did not lay out any ad fontes evidence that any of the Early Church Fathers actually agreed with Calvin's view or for that matter that they agreed with the view of the Catholic Church. "

Hmmmmm? Let me see if I am figuring out correctly what you wrote there by way of a question or two?

Who historically came first, ad fontes? Was it Calvin or the ECF's? As for agreeing with the Catholic Church, I'm not!

I see the Catholic Church by way of their religious faith and practice harming the Saints not building them up so what you have said doesn't follow?

I see two views of the doctrine of laying on of hands being laid out by Mr. Swan, one as expressed by the writer of the book of Hebrews and the other by the religious practice of the RCC.

I believe Calvin, Swan and me and most likely any reformational thinker are on the right side of the interpretation of the doctrine of the laying on of hands. It is something that edifies and builds up the one having hands laid upon them.

That does not seem to be the cause the RCC practices the laying on of hands, rather it's a way of penance.

Is there something you can share to help me follow your reasoning more carefully, then?

thanks

James Swan said...

Careful Mr. Hoffer,

Please don't feed the trolls, even in Latin.