Monday, September 26, 2011

Clarification Regarding John Calvin's Remarks on Public Repentance and "Symbolic" Absolution

By Dave Armstrong (8-7-15)

[John Calvin] 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, and the Church was admonished to lay aside the remembrance of the offence, and kindly receive him into favour. . . . I consider that ancient observance of which Cyprian speaks to have been holy and salutary to the Church, and I could wish it restored in the present day. (Institutes, IV, 19:14)
[found in my paper, The "Catholic" John Calvin: 50 Areas Where His Views Are Harmonious With Catholic Teaching,  #49, and in my book, Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin, p. 388]

I simply presented this as evidence of common ground, as far as it goes. Perhaps it is necessary to look at the larger context in my own papers and books, to clarify what I was doing here. Note the title of the paper where I used this quotation (and especially the use of quotation marks): "The 'Catholic' John Calvin: 50 Areas Where His Views Are Harmonious With Catholic Teaching".

The quotation in question is #49 (of 50). The title I used to describe it was: "Approximation of the Catholic Sacrament of Penance." That gives a big indication of what was in my head. The paper includes a disclaimer at the beginning (after giving the source info. on the version of the Institutes I used, and providing the link to the entire online version -- so people can check any quote in full context):

Note: I don't intend to imply that Calvin agrees with Catholics in every jot and tittle of all the following categories. What is agreed-upon is what is actually stated in these particular comments, which may be just a part of a doctrine or practice, not all of it. Two parties can agree, for example, on the basic fundamentals of a question, and then go on to differ on more minute particulars that each feels are a logical extension of the premises.

That said, the areas of agreement are voluminous and extraordinary, and my hope is that this compendium will give both Catholics and Calvinists a feel for how close we really are in many respects, despite our many honest, serious differences.

All the citations below were included in the extensive, 66-page compilation at the end of my book, Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin. That section thus accounts for about 18% of the 388 pages (minus the introductory sections).

This should be quite sufficient to clear up any misconceptions regarding the quote (that were brought up by an anti-Catholic apologist). I posted the entirety of my replies to Calvin's Institutes, Book IV (listed at the top of my John Calvin: a Catholic Appraisal web page). I made very little comment on the section where this quotation occurred. All I stated was: "We can be thankful, however, that Calvin retains some remote notion of formal penance and absolution." Obviously I wasn't equating his notion with the Catholic one at all.

Furthermore, I have a section in my book on Calvin, entitled, "Absolution and Forgiveness of Sins by the Clergy" (pp. 164-167).  In it I stated, concerning Calvin's conception of these notions (p. 166):

Calvin intends more or less a preaching function (which is classic "low church" Protestantism): tell people the message of reconciliation and they (by God's grace and His will) will receive it of their own accord without need of sacramental absolution or even baptismal regeneration.

Calvin neglects to also include the transactional element of forgiveness of sins, through a priest, acting as the representative of God, as opposed to a mere declaration of the same (the preaching of the gospel of forgiveness). Calvin wants to spiritualize all this away, just as he (largely) does with baptism and the Eucharist. Binding and loosing are not merely the equivalent to the gospel: another way of saying "gospel."

The priest does not only, merely declare (by preaching or evangelizing) the availability of forgiveness and reconciliation through God's grace, to be subjectively appropriated by the individual; he also brings it about as a sacramental agent. Calvin apparently rejects this latter element.

I am quite aware that Calvin believed in two sacraments. That's why I described his citation in my book and a paper based on it, "Approximation of the Catholic Sacrament of Penance."

Laying on of hands was a sacramental gesture. Calvin lies about what the early Church believed. For them, it was not merely a "symbol," but an actual transactional absolution: granting of forgiveness by God through the priest. I was well aware of all this, and wrote about it; nevertheless the similarities at least in outward form and general concept, remain, and that was all I was highlighting, per the disclaimer in the paper.

There is outward similarity in the laying on of hands, having to do with some semblance of absolution for sin (which is merely symbolic for Calvin). It's why I called it  an "approximation" in my book and "'Catholic' Calvin" paper, and "some remote notion of formal penance and absolution" in my critique-paper for this section of the Institutes. I never argued for more than limited, qualified similarity and harmony: in some respects, not all.


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