Reflections on Calvin, part 9

Chapter 10: Of the Sacraments

When speaking of the sacraments in general, Calvin comments that they are a tangible signs by which the Christian’s faith may be strengthened in the promises of God. As he says on page 497, “by theses sacraments He manifests Himself to us in the way it is given to our dazed senses to be able to know Him, and testifies His good will toward us.” And again a little later on page 500, “the sacraments confirm our faith through showing us our heavenly Father’s good will toward us by the sight of our eyes; the firmness of our faith and all our strength lie in understanding this good will.” This in itself is no surprising to hear. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas himself also affirmed that the sacraments, namely the Lord’s Supper, are tangible ways by which God accommodates to human weakness to increase faith. The question that then arises is why does Calvin not allow for any kind of image in Christian worship. Granted, I understand the issue Calvin had with images of saints and God the Father or Holy Spirit. However, the incarnation is a tangible event, as is the crucifixion; the very thing the Lord’s Supper is meant to signify. If that is the case, then a crucifix or cross could be of great value (though not to the extent of the Lord’s Supper) in increasing the Christian’s faith. This fits nicely into Calvin’s very definition of a sacrament on page 495 as, “an external sign by which our Lord represents and testifies His good will toward us to support and confirm the weakness of our faith.” Now, Calvin would object that it should not be a sacrament because it was not instituted by Jesus the way Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were. He may even go so far as to say that Christian’s are implicitly forbidden from using a cross or crucifix to image Christ because Christ himself gave the proper sign by which the Church was to contemplate his death. I am inclined, along with Julian of Norwich, to see an image of Christ upon the cross as a proper tool for meditating upon his suffering, my salvation, and the love of God poured out there within.

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