Blog 237: 4.19.20 - 4.19.25

Rick Phillips

Calvin continues his diatribe against false sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, wrapping up his denial of the sacrament of final unction.  In paragraphs 19-21, he levels two criticisms: the proof text (James 5:14) does not pertain to the church today but only to the apostolic age with its now-ceased gift of healing; and what the Roman priests actually do in final unction bears little resemblance to what James calls for.  We see in final unction an example of a problem that often shows up in Protestant and Evangelical circles as well: a flimsy appeal to a proof text that does not in fact apply and to which we are not in fact adhering.  If we are going to use proof texts, we could at least actually follow the doctrine or practice proved by the text.  Calvin's summary statement could apply very well to any number of evangelical groups today, not least the "emergent" churches and their highly creative practices: "Lo, how beautifully they profit when they have been allowed freely to abuse James's testimony according to their own whim!"

Calvin then turns to the false sacrament of holy orders, for which he has nothing but complete scorn.  For one thing, this is in practice actually seven different sacraments, one each for doorkeepers, readers, exorcists, acolytes, subdeacons, deacons, and priests, since each order has its own rite with its own meaning, so that the papists actually employ a total of thirteen sacraments.  In sustaining these orders, the bizarre hermeneutics seen throughout Catholic sacramentology continues, as each of these orders is claimed to have been fulfilled by Christ.  For instance, they argue that Christ established the sacramental office of doorkeeper when he cleansed the temple.  This is an instance of yet another problem widely seen among Evangelicals today, namely, starting with a doctrine or practice and then ransacking the Bible for the most spurious justifications.  Calvin confesses to viewing the Roman teaching with laughter, but I am afraid that he would think similarly regarding many ecclesiastical innovations evidenced in the Evangelical movement today.

Experience shows that we will often be tempted to create novel offices or quasi-offices in our churches today in order to meet changing needs.  Calvin's critique of Roman Catholic sacramentology and ecclesiology warns against such innovations.  Rather than structuring our churches and ministries according to our own wisdom, for which we then will seek non-existent biblical justification, we would do much better to devote ourselves to the full embrace of what the Bible teaches.  The biblical pattern of elders and deacons has been seldom really tried and has never proved itself a failure.  The same is true regarding innovative rites and ceremonies that may seem a good idea to us.  Calvin's mocking condemnation of the papal approach, in paragraph 25, reminds us humbly to restrict ourselves from creating our own false ceremonies.  Let ministers and elders remember that as we represent Christ in our offices, we are therefore required to practice his teaching and have not authority to invent our own.