The Who Not the What
Throughout time, humanity has highlighted certain objects, dates, and people--all of whom are deemed as holy (hieros/agios/sacrum). A “holy” thing could range from “that which is set aside for a special purpose” to “that which is perfected” to “that which participates in the energies of the supernatural/uncreated/divine.” Within Christianity specifically, encountering holy objects, people and events is inevitable: Saints, feast days, the Bible, and the Sacraments. The sacraments (or Holy Mysteries) stand as a central focus of many, if not all, Christian traditions. However, the Holy Mysteries themselves have been defined and handled very differently since the beginning of the Church. Out of the varying perspectives on these Mysteries, the two most prominent and perhaps influential are those of the Eastern and Western Churches--more specifically, in the context of this paper, Calvin and Eastern Orthodoxy. Where much of the West defines the Holy Mysteries as signs, symbols and covenants, the Eastern Orthodox Church approaches them as “mysteries” of which we cannot totally define, but can participate within. Calvin is sorely misrepresented and misunderstood by many inside and outside of Calvinism today. Given these things, the Eastern Orthodox “phronema” and John Calvin’s contribution has been examined via textual evidence in order to explore the “spermatikos logos” found in Calvin’s sacramental theology and to introduce Orthodox sacramental theology as being a full and communal “phronema” on the Holy Mysteries.
Calvin offers two similar definitions for a “sacrament” in its most general sense. One is that a Holy Mystery is “an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of His good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men (Bk. IV, Ch. XIV, pg. 1277).” On a more condensed note, he also says that a Holy Mystery is simply “a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward Him (pg. 1277).” In general, Calvin looks upon the Holy Mysteries as indicative of Salvation and agents of the Holy Spirit, but not entirely necessary for Salvation. For he says of the Bible, “God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself (pg. 1278).” Many people interpret Calvin’s words to mean that the Holy Mysteries are merely signs, but this is far from what Calvin truly believed. Although he did perceive them as outward signs (which can appear lifeless), they also were characteristically mystical due to the communication of God’s grace through them. In addition to this, he firmly believed in sacraments as covenantal things. Like the covenants in the Old Testament, the sacraments “point to Christ.” Yet, Calvin was insightful enough to go beyond even this to say that “Christ is the matter or substance of all the sacraments, for in him they have all their firmness and they do not promise anything apart from him.” In essence, the sacraments from Calvin’s perspective can be divided into two categories--the outward sign and the inward mystery: each being distinct from the other, but capable of being united under the preaching of the Word of God, through faith and by grace.
According to the Orthodox, Calvin is close to the truth, but not entirely there. He has all the pieces of a mirror shattered by Catholicism, but he does not have the tools to put that mirror back together to gain a full reflection of the truth. He has the sandy ground of the Enlightenment and the untrustworthy glue of rationalism (orthologistis), not the rock of Holy Tradition and the superglue of communion. In the Orthodox Church, “sacraments” and “mysteries” are considered synonymous terms. However, in contrast to Calvin, “mystery” is preferred due to the depth of meaning which accompanies it. For a “mystery,” in Orthodoxy, is considered something outside our realm of understanding--that is, outside of time--and yet it has managed to pierce time and space in a way that causes us to acknowledge it. Christ’s Incarnation is considered the greatest “mystery” or sacrament due to the phenomenal act of the Creator of time entering time itself as 100% man and 100% God. Either “Christ is the only Holy Mystery, for all Mysteries are Him, or all things are Holy Mysteries, for He is in all places” and according to this paradox, Mysteries take on a different identity in Orthodoxy compared to Calvinism. They are no longer events or things isolated to merely the Church, but part of a lifestyle and a “cadence” of living in Christ, who is present through these Mysteries, as the focus of one’s life. As to whether or not the Holy Mysteries are necessary for salvation, if our ultimate goal is to become Christ-like and the Holy Mysteries are specifically given to us in the Bible as things done in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19) and His life, then why not use them? How can they not be salvific, if they were instituted by the One who is salvation? Anything which brings us closer in communion with Christ is necessary for salvation. Thus, the Holy Mysteries are necessary for salvation for those who are capable of receiving them. There are natural exceptions for those who are incapable. After all, if we are dealing with a Holy Mystery--something outside of time--we cannot put restraints on it as Calvin did. For the Mysteries are necessary for Salvation only in the sense that they restore communion, but Necessity itself does not lord over any aspect of the Mysteries. Lastly, Calvin focuses heavily on the communication of the Mysteries rather than participation with them. His perspective is restrictive to God’s grace and he puts yield signs and traffic lights on anything that resembles mystical participation (not communication), which is, to him, characteristically Roman Catholic. However, the Orthodox perceive the Mysteries as things which can be received, communicated and participated in simultaneously. They are not simply a one sided communication, but a two-sided communion. They do not simply “point to Christ,” they are Christ.
Calvin also focuses with intensity on “cornerstone” sacraments such as Baptism and the Eucharist in order to channel his more general theology through specific sacramental examples. According to him, “Baptism is the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children (Ch. XV, pg. 1303).” Although he addresses quite firmly the materialistic and gnostic heresies of the Roman Catholic Church regarding Baptism, he also spends time reiterating how Baptism is a sign of repentance and union with Christ. It demonstrates repentance and represents union. It is a claim to “regeneration” and a union with the generations of God’s children. However, it stops at this. Torn between what a sacrament is and who it imparts, Calvin does not go beyond simply stating the evident communication of God’s grace and presence in the sacrament and goes on to meticulously define the nuances of definition itself with regard to the exterior nature of the Mystery.
The Orthodox do not necessarily disagree with Calvin on Baptism either, but as with most of the Holy Mysteries, Calvin does not have the “full picture.” The Orthodox agree that it is a physical indication of repentance, but they go even further to say that this “metonia” (the word for repentance, meaning a complete change of physical, spiritual and mental direction) is a participation in the event of Christ’s Baptism, thus emphasizing a real connection with Christ through baptism. The engrafting is not simply symbolic, but mystically communal--not simply a communication from God to the people and from the person to God. It is both (not bits and pieces of) the outward sign and the inward reality. It is a sustained and accepted paradox. In addition, Calvin focuses on the exterior sign representing an interior, unseen reality, but the Orthodox perceive the interior reality as being the source of the equally legitimate exterior reality. Calvin reasons from the outside in; the Orthodox reason from the inside out.
Lastly, Calvin shifts his focus toward the Mystery of the Eucharist as he responds to the heresies which saturated the Roman Catholic Church and he brings up the famed “spiritual presence” of Christ in this specific Mystery. Calvin’s ideas on this subject were highly influenced by the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church of his time period, so his views on this must be gracefully understood in the context of the extremities he experienced. Communion was no longer communal. Instead, it was a power play of the hot blooded popes who spiritual starved people due to their impertinent defiling of the Mystery and arrogant deification of themselves. Thus Calvin conceived the idea of “spiritual presence” and to this day, it characterizes his theology from all other theologies. He says that, “when we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood (Ch. VXII, pg. 1363).” Careful not to fall into the heresy of transubstantiation or complete gnosticism, Calvin tries to walk a high wire between the utterly real and the utterly spiritual in his theology regarding Holy Communion. However, in his balancing, he delineates boundaries and logical constraints to something known since the early church to be a “mysterion”--something which is certainly not illogical, but simply beyond our logical abilities. In addition, he puts a weighty emphasis on Holy Communion as being a sacrifice and our participation in it as being a reflection of that sacrifice. It focuses primarily on Christ’s death, not on the life found through His death.
There is a significant difference between Calvin’s focus and perspective on the Eucharist and the common Orthodox perspective; the first, misplacing emphasis and the second, correctly placing emphasis on this Mystery. Concerning his misplacement of emphasis, Calvin states that the preaching of the Word of God is the center of worship and that sacraments are illegitimate without this preaching. The Orthodox also hold similar views about the importance of scriptural inclusion in the liturgy. However, in contrast to Calvin, they center their liturgy on the partaking of the Eucharist. Because of this, the Orthodox and Calvin are both simultaneously different and similar. Both Calvin and the Orthodox focus on the Word of God with great energy. Yet Calvin focuses on the Word as a what (scripture, preaching, etc.), whereas the Orthodox focus on the Word as a who (Christ, the Word of God, the ultimate communication of God’s grace). By acknowledging the Word of God in His being through the Mystery of the Eucharist, the Word of God in its written form naturally follows. This broad difference has multiple implications. For example, Calvin instructs us to “reflect” on the Mystery, limiting our participation in the mystery to merely the mind. The Orthodox endeavor to be present entirely in the Mystery as Christ is also entirely present--with the mind, the body, and the soul--for it is the whole body which needs life and healing. There is also a sharp divide between Calvin’s use of logical distinction and rationalization (which ironically limits a full understanding of the Mystery) and the acceptance of the incomprehensibleness of the mystical event which is found in Orthodox sacramental theology. Knowledge is not as important as relationship and explanation is not necessary for participation. Lastly, as mentioned, Calvin heavily emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. The Orthodox would also agree here--the significance of Christ’s body and blood is found in the Crucifixion. However, the Orthodox do not use the Eucharist to focus on what was done, but Who did it and who it was done for.
With a “phronema” that sets relationships above facts, the Orthodox concern themselves first with the person and second with the mind--for with the first comes the second. Calvin, on the other hand, in a defensive position against the Roman Catholic corruption of the sacraments, fell into the trap of heavily focusing on the mind and rationalism as tools of healing, due to the abuse to the person he had the misfortune of witnessing. Based on these foundations, Calvin’s thorough rational analysis of both Baptism and the Eucharist stand in sharp contrast with the Orthodox understanding of the personal and relational aspect of the Holy Mysteries. Calvin, by no means, was entirely wrong. In fact, his perspective is strikingly similar to Orthodox sacramental theology, requiring subtle differentiation to highlight the actual differences, but he only had half of the picture. With the advent of the age of reason and the subsequent importance placed on mind and man, Calvin’s writings, although wise at the time, have become a movement to elevate humanity and to “box in” God Himself. For the Church, according to the Early Church Fathers, was and is a hospital for sinners, not a philosopher’s forum and its sacraments are the medicine given by the Doctor and received by His patients.
Works Cited and Sources
Fr. (Anonymous) Ph.D. (in Patristics) and Protopresbyter
Calvin, John. The Institutes of Christian Religion. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2006. Print.
The Orthodox Study Bible. ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008. Print.