Matter and Sign Distinguished

Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings. – John Calvin

Calvin and Augustine in agreement;calvin

“Hence the distinction, if properly understood, repeatedly made by Augustine between the sacrament and the matter of the sacrament. For he does not mean merely that the figure and truth are therein contained, but that they do not so cohere as not to be separable, and that in this connection it is always necessary to distinguish the thing from the sign, so as not to transfer to the one what belongs to the other. Augustine speaks of the separation when he says that in the elect alone the sacraments accomplish what they represent, (Augustin. de Bapt. Parvul.) Again, when speaking of the Jews, he says, “Though the sacraments were common to and the grace was not common: yet grace is the virtue of the sacraments. Thus, too, the laver of regeneration is now common to all, but the grace by which the members of Christ are regenerated with their head is not common to all,” (August. in Ps. 78.) Again, in another place, speaking of the Lord’s Supper, he says “We also this day receive visible food; but the sacrament is one thing, the virtue of the sacrament another. Why is it that many partake of the altar and die, and die by partaking? For even the cup of the Lord was poison to Judas, not because he received what was evil, but being wicked he wickedly received what was good,” (August. in Joann. Hom. 26.) A little after, he says, “The sacrament of this thing, that is, of the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is in some places prepared every day, in others at certain intervals at the Lord’s table, which is partaken by some unto life, by others unto destruction. But the thing itself, of which there is a sacrament, is life to all, and destruction to none who partake of it.” Some time before he had said, “He who may have eaten shall not die, but he must be one who attains to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; who eats inwardly not outwardly; who eats with the heart, and not with the teeth.” Here you are uniformly told that a sacrament is so separated from the reality by the unworthiness of the partaker, that nothing remains but an empty and useless figure. Now, in order that you may have not a sign devoid of truth, but the thing with the sign, the Word which is included in it must be apprehended by faith. Thus, in so far as by means of the sacraments you will profit in the communion of Christ, will you derive advantage from them.” Calvin, Institutes book 4

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2 thoughts on “Matter and Sign Distinguished

  1. Thanks for the post!

    “Augustine speaks of the separation when he says that in the elect alone the sacraments accomplish what they represent, (Augustin. de Bapt. Parvul.) ”

    Do we have a more specific reference?

    Augustine writes something interesting in his exposition of Psalm 78 in the relevant passage:

    “Just as in our times, now that the faith has been revealed, which then was veiled, to all men that have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Matthew 28:19 the Laver of regeneration is common; but the very grace whereof these same are the Sacraments, whereby the members of the Body of Christ are to reign together with their Head, is not common to all. For even heretics have the same Baptism, and false brethren too, in the communion of the Catholic name.”

    It would be interesting to see Augustine today and how he would pass judgment on today’s Catholics. Augustine pressed for the baptism of all infants, and it was HIS theology that won the day, Yet, by his own theology, he clearly did not view all the infants as automatically saved. Ironically, his own “student” Prosper of Aquataine clearly taught that all baptized infants are saved by default. Hence, being that not ever person who was baptized lives a life in which they apear heaven bound, the sacraments became a means to put people back into the saved state they had during baptism.

    Yet, this simply does not work if the Spirit is not conferred in baptism to those who are not predestined. This would mean that for the lost, they were never even regenerated as infants to begin with.

    Very interesting ramifications to say the least.

    • After a little research I found it! Augustine on Psalm 78:

      “Hearken ye,” He says, “My people, to My law” (ver. 1). Whom may we suppose to be here speaking, but God? For it was Himself that gave a law to His people, whom when delivered out of Egypt He gathered together, the which gathering together is properly named a Synagogue, which the word Asaph is interpreted to signify. Hath it then been said, “Understanding of Asaph,” in the sense that Asaph himself has understood; or must it be figuratively understood, in the sense that the same Synagogue, that is, the same people, has understood, unto whom is said, “Hearken, My people, unto My law”? Why is it then that He is rebuking the same people by the mouth of the Prophet, saying, “But Israel has not known Me, and My people has not understood”? Isaiah 1:3 But, in fact, there were even in that people they that understood, having the faith which was afterwards revealed, not pertaining to the letter of the law, but the grace of the Spirit. For they cannot have been without the same faith, who were able to foresee and foretell the revelation thereof that should be in Christ, inasmuch as even those old Sacraments were significants of those that should be. Had the prophets alone this faith, and not the people too? Nay indeed, but even they that faithfully heard the Prophets, were aided by the same grace in order that they might understand what they heard. But without doubt the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven was veiled in the Old Testament, which in the fulness of time should be unveiled in the New. “For,” says the Apostle, “they did drink of the Spiritual Rock following them, but the Rock was Christ.” 1 Corinthians 10:4 In a mystery therefore theirs was the same meat and drink as ours, but in signification the same, not in form; because the same Christ was Himself figured to them in a Rock, manifested to us in the Flesh. “But,” he says, “not in all of them God was well pleased.” 1 Corinthians 10:5 All indeed ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink, that is to say, signifying something spiritual: but not in all of them was God well pleased. When, he says, “not in all:” there were evidently there some in whom was God well pleased; and although all the Sacraments were common, grace, which is the virtue of the Sacraments, was not common to all. Just as in our times, now that the faith has been revealed, which then was veiled, to all men that have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Matthew 28:19 the Laver of regeneration is common; but the very grace whereof these same are the Sacraments, whereby the members of the Body of Christ are to reign together with their Head, is not common to all. For even heretics have the same Baptism, and false brethren too, in the communion of the Catholic name.” First pdf was my source https://www.google.ca/search?q=augustine+on+psalm+78+pdf&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&gws_rd=cr&ei=W9GPVs-XFYO5ecCwofAD

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