Towards the end of the last millennium, Peter Leithart writes:
One of the lesser-known works of John Calvin is a tract whose short title is “An Inventory of Relics.” It is predominantly a sharp attack on the extremes of medieval Catholic piety-practices that I imagine many Catholics would today dismiss as empty superstitions. Samples of Christ’s hair, teeth, even his foreskin were distributed across Europe, and so much of Jesus’ blood had been preserved as to “be diffused over the whole world.” Calvin complained that “had the most Holy Virgin yielded a more copious supply [of milk] than is given by a cow, or had she continued to nurse during her whole lifetime, she scarcely could have furnished the quantity which is exhibited.” The complaint could have been written by Voltaire.
Calvin’s attack on relic veneration, however, was grounded in an evangelical insight that lies at the heart of the Reformation. “The first abuse,” Calvin wrote, “and, as it were, the beginning of the evil, was that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory.” In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin offered a similar critique of the liturgical tradition of the medieval Church. Formally, Calvin’s argument is that many medieval ceremonies were human inventions, unwarranted by Scripture. It would be a mistake, however, to reduce his argument to a trivial quarrel over the warrant for this vestment or that gesture. Calvin’s principal concern was evangelical and pastoral; he wished to direct sinners to that “place” where they could encounter the living God. Ceremonies, he argued, “to be exercises of piety, ought to lead us straight to Christ.” Ceremonies and devotional practices that fail this test are best removed from the Church.
For Calvin, then, sola Scriptura was inseparable from solus Christus. Solus Christusand sola Scriptura were the Reformation’s answers to two fundamental religious questions. Solus Christus answered the question, How can I have communion with God? Sola Scriptura answered the logically prior epistemological question, From what source do I learn how I can commune with God? Solus Christus means Jesus alone can bring sinners into true life, the life of fellowship with the Triune God. Sola Scriptura means the Scriptures are Christ’s unique revelation of the way to life; it means that Scripture alone, being the Word of God, identifies where the living and life-giving Christ can be found. The Reformers found in Scripture that Christ had promised to meet with His gathered people through His Spirit, His Word, and the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. To see Him elsewhere is to search in vain.
Read the whole thing here.
Matthew N. Petersen says
Two comments: First, exactly the same argument holds against Evangelicals. But it isn’t apostasy to be Evangelical. We can be real and true allies with evangelicals, and not just allies like the cold war allies, East and West Germany.
Second “The Reformers found in Scripture that Christ had promised to meet with His gathered people through His Spirit, His Word, and the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. To see Him elsewhere is to search in vain.” This is *exactly* what is wrong with your recent claims that we must have Christ *first* before the Sacraments. We seek Christ in the Sacraments, and Christ there saves us. We do not come to the Sacraments having found Christ elsewhere. To attempt to do so is to search for Him in vain.
On your second point, I actually agree with what PJL writes but you seem to be changing what he actually wrote in your summary of the quotation. Christ meets with His people through “His Spirit, His Word, and the Sacraments…” You go on to insist that Jesus meets us in the Sacraments, but you leave out the first two: His Spirit and His Word. Of course His Spirit and Word are not opposed to the Sacraments, but the point I’ve wanted to make in recent posts is that we do not/cannot receive Christ in the Word or Sacraments except Christ first fill us with His Spirit. In other words, it’s not that we find Christ elsewhere; it’s that Christ must first find us so that we can find Him there. And in real time, it could be entirely simultaneous, but we always insist that we love Him because He first loved us. We find Him because He first found us.
Does that help at all?
Matthew N. Petersen says
Thank you for the reply, but unfortunately, I don’t think you’re addressing my concerns.
You’re right I probably should have not just said Sacraments. I was focusing on the Sacraments, but not intending to exclude everything else.
My point isn’t that we can find Christ before Christ finds us. Rather, I want to know what it looks like for Christ to find us. My answer is that it looks like baptism, the Eucharist, the Scriptures, etc. Christ, actually present in the Sacraments finds us and converts us. The sacraments etc. are not empty signs that require us to to be good before we find Christ. Rather, the Sacraments etc. are Christ, and act objectively on us converting us.
My question for you is: Why would Christ have to find us before Christ can find us? Or is the Sacrament etc. not actually Christ?
Matthew N. Petersen says
I think I articulated this well in a comment on this post: https://www.tobyjsumpter.com/word-sacraments-hogwarts/ that I believe you missed. (Anyway, it’s still awaiting moderation.)
Thanks, Matt. That was a helpful comment that got lost in the comment traffic (just approved it).
You said: “The Word comes to us in the Sacrament. We are able to resist or ignore the Word, but the Word is objectively there, causing regeneration, not contingent on regeneration. The sacrament is grace, regardless of the condition of the recipient. But a faithless reception of the sacrament is to mock the grace actually given and thus destroy the grace. So it would be more appropriate to say that if we receive the Sacrament and don’t thereby pursue Christ, God is speaking to us, and we are tuning Him out as irrelevant, or are spitting his Word back at him.
It’s an important distinction because if the Sacrament is only grace if I am in a correct state, God’s grace becomes dependent on me, and the gospel is therefore made dependent on me. Which is works righteousness.”
Here’s the thing: what’s the difference between a “faithless reception” and a “faithful reception”? I’m totally good with your point about the sacraments *being* grace to us/for us. But this is the real nub: what enables us to faithfully receive that grace?
What’s the difference between the guy who receives Jesus and the guy who spits in His face? What’s the difference between the guy who hears the gospel and believes and the guy who hears the gospel and scorns? Same gospel, same Jesus, same grace… what’s the difference?
You want to protect us from saying it’s “dependent on me” — and that’s exactly what I want to protect us from too, by insisting that the Holy Spirit must be both the communicator of the grace to us and the faithful recipient of the grace in us.
I’m wanting to preserve both a high view of the sacraments as ordinary means of grace where Jesus meets us, and insist that the Holy Spirit is at work above, beyond, before, and after the Word and Sacraments.
What do you think?
Matthew N. Petersen says
Sorry a response has taken so long–the internet ate my first attempt, and I haven’t had the patience to try again yet.
You ask what enables us to receive the grace in the sacrament. You want to answer this question by reference to a necessary change in us. You are right that if God needs us to be a particular way before He can speak to us, that change in us must be worked by the Spirit. But I want to question whether God needs us to be anything before he can speak to us. He spoke to the light before there was light, and thereby, light.
Likewise Romans 4:17, God speaks to things that are not as if they were–and thereby they are. God does not need to have some preexisting good thing to speak to, it is precisely His speaking to us that makes us good. (Indeed, I wonder if there aren’t parallels between the Evangelical system and the Catholic one with both claiming that grace must produce works before conversion.)
This does not leave out the Spirit, because the Spirit comes on and with the Logos–the Word. We can distinguish between the two, but we cannot separate them. (Though again, it seems that the Evangelical system not only distinguishes them, but separates them, claiming that the Spirit’s action must be prior to the action of the Logos, rather than coocuring with it.)
You ask how it is that some are not saved. I think that’s a good question, and I’m not sure that it’s one we can possibly answer. But what we must say is: the mystery is how some people who hear the Logos (whether with their ears or their mouth)–and thus receive the Spirit of the Word–but ultimately fall away. The mystery is not how some can be made good enough that they can hear God’s address. God’s address creates the thing addressed. God does not create light, and then speak of it, God speaks of it, and thereby it is. Likewise God does not create righteousness, and then speak of it; rather God speaks of my righteousness, and thereby it is.
The Scriptures perhaps offer a few hints of how it could be that God’s speech sometimes does return void. The parable of the sower suggests that other words can choke God’s word out–as if this explains anything. And perhaps we could say that God’s Logos and Spirit create the one addressed, but because the one addressed is a person, the address creates the ability to respond. And thus by grace we have the power to reject God’s Eternal Logos. But that doesn’t quite answer anything either.
Matthew N. Petersen says
I should be clear that I don’t intend my critique as an Orthodox critique or anything like that. Maybe a Lutheran critique, but mostly an “oatmeal stout federal vision critique.”
Pr. Wilson said that, over against men like Leithart, Jordan, Lusk, and Meyers, who he described as oatmeal stout, he’s amber ale. And the chief difference between the two is the doctrine of the new birth. Recently, you have been coming down hard on Pr. Wilson’s side, and though you’re free to do that, you should expect some objection from those who follow Leithart et al. on this matter. And knowing that may also help you situate the criticisms better. There’s a reason we keep accusing you of christianity. It’s because you sound like Pr. Wilson in his rejection of the stronger versions of the federal vision found in Leithart et al.