Calvin: Belching, Stinking Breath, and Horses to Asses

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I've been reading through parts of D.A. Carson's commentary on John while my congregation has been studying John 9-12 this quarter in our sermons, and one of the sections I was reading refers the reader to the notes on John 20:22. As I was looking at that section, I noticed a footnote that gives a lengthy quote from John Calvin's commentary on John:

... for it would be meaningless if the Spirit did not proceed from Him. So much the more hateful is the sacrilege of the Papists, who seize to themselves the honour which belongs to the Son of God. For their mitred bishops boast that in making sacrificing priests they breathe out the Spirit when they belch over them. But the fact plainly shows how different their stinking breath is from Christ's divine breathing; for all that they do is to change horses into asses. Moreover, Christ not only communicates to His disciples the Spirit whom He has received, but bestows Him as His own, as the one whom He has in common with the Father. Wherefore, all who profess to give the Spirit by breathing usurp to themselves the glory of divinity (2.204-205). [John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries: The Gospel according to St. John, 2 vols., tr. T.H.C. Parker (Oliver & Boyd, 1959-61)

I haven't a clue what Calvin is talking about here, either about what Roman Catholic practice he was targeting or about what he was saying they were doing that he thought was so awful (which may turn out not to be the same thing, since he may have been wrong about what they were doing). If anyone has any information on this, I'd be curious to know.

Could you imagine a theologian getting away with saying this sort of thing nowadays? People do talk like this now, but we rightly label them cranks. This was par for the course during the Reformation. It's not exactly irenic, is it? As much as I think what the reformers needed to say what they were saying, at least on the major issues, I do regret how they too often said it.

6 Comments

But you must admit that it makes for much livelier reading than much of our contemporary theology. ;) In one of the classes I taught last semester we read portions of the Loci Communes by Melancthon, and it was similarly scathing (this time the target was the scholastics, not the papists). My students were wide eyed and riveted.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what Calvin is talking about in this passage. I hope someone comes up with the answer.

Hello Jeremy,
Long time no visit for me. I looked up the passage and I thought I could give an answer to your question. BUT like you and wink I have no idea what Calvin is saying. He seems to be accusing the HCC of saying the Spirit proceeded from the priests as mediators of the Spirit BUT I do not think that is HCC doctrine...Hmm? I wold e-mail David at Jollyblogger and directly ask him. I would liek to know that answer.

Good Morning Familia...it appears that John Calvin is referring to one of the Seven Sacraments administered by and reserved to the Clerical Office in the Catholic Church.
The Sacraments are, Baptism, Holy Matrimony, Confession, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Annointing Of The Sick and the Holy Eucharist.
The specific Sacrament in question is the Sacrament of Holy Orders which is exercised at the level of Bishop and above for the purpose of annointing Priests. As part of the ceremony the Bishop "breaths the Holy Spirit" on the recipient.
Hope this helps.

Interesting that he would write in such a way that obscure his meaning. I am guessing that Eddie is correct about the connection between ordination and the practice. But I wonder how many times our own communications to the non-Christian community simularly obscure.

But I wonder how many times our own communications to the non-Christian community simularly obscure.

Calvin wouldn't have been writing to a non-Christian community as this quote was from his commentaries, so it would have been written to other clergymen. Also, I don't think his quote would have been obscure to anyone who read it at the time it was written, as almost all of them would have come out of the Roman Catholic church, just as Calvin did. A big group of his readers would also have been seminary trained in the RC church as well. He was writing to a particular audience and I think this would have been understood quite well by by them, which is really about all someone who is writing can hope for.

As to the particular type of language used--this is pretty much par for the course during this particular time in history. This seems to b an accepted means of argument, and it wasn't just the reformers who used it. This sort of sarcasm was widely accepted as a useful rhetorical tool.

Paul's sarcastic statement about wishing the judiazers would emasculate themselves would seem needlessly rude to us, too, but apparently that sort of sarcasm was considered by him to be a good way to communicate.

Rebecca,

Point taken, context would have let everyone know what is being said. Perhaps I should have said, "obscure his meaning to us". I think often we think from our perspective and don't fill in enough pertainant facts.

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