What is Latria? Do you need a few clues? It’s not a small country near Estonia. It’s not a large tropical rodent. It is an important issue facing the Christian Reformed Church.
The Christian Reformed Synod is currently considering whether to revise question and answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism. This Q.&A. deals with the differences between the Roman Catholic Mass and the Lord’s Supper. In 1998, Synod received two overtures on the subject. One requested that Q.&A. 80 be removed from the Catechism because the phrase “a condemnable idolatry” should be reserved for the behavior of people who do not believe in justification by faith in Jesus Christ; because Christian love, unity, and understanding demand it; and because Q.&A. 80 was not included in the original text of the catechism. The second overture asked that Q.&A. 80 not be removed from the catechism, as the earlier overture requested, on the ground that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has never repudiated its official condemnation of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith found in the decisions of the Council of Trent (1545–63).
Is this a debate that is better suited for the 16th century or does it have significance today? Is this issue important and, if it is, why? To answer these questions we need to consider the importance of doctrine and dogma. Doctrines are the truths contained in the Bible. Dogmas are the church’s formulations of those doctrines in a systematic form. The Reformed tradition has always placed great emphasis on the truth of God as revealed in Scripture. “We believe that Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.” The church must give clear expression to the contents of her faith. It is only in this way that the church can be an effective witness, lead people to Christ, and teach them how to lead lives that are pleasing to God.
Paul speaks to Titus about, “the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness,” and tells Titus to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” Paul also warns Timothy to “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
We as Christians must master the teachings about Christ so that we can become mature and learn to distinguish good from evil. It is the duty and responsibility of the Christian Reformed Church to ensure that its statements are in keeping with the truth of Scripture. If they are not, we will be leading people astray and doing a disservice to the gospel.
Adding Footnotes To the Catechism
As a result of the overtures of 1998, the synod directed the Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) “to make an attempt to dialogue with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church to clarify the official doctrine of that church concerning the Mass.” The IRC appointed a subcommittee to carry out this mandate. The subcommittee met with a number of notable Catholic theologians in 1999 and 2001. The Roman Catholic representatives insisted that the Heidelberg Catechism misconstrues in some ways the Roman Catholic understanding of the Mass.
As a result of their study of the issues and their dialogue with the representatives of the RCC, the subcommittee recommended to the Synod of 2004 that it should print Q.&A. 80 in a smaller font and add two footnotes. The first footnote would say that Q.&A. 80 was absent from the first edition (February 1563) of the Catechism but was present in a shorter form in the second edition (March 1563). The translation here given is of the expanded text of the third edition (April 1563/November 1563).
The second footnote the subcommittee proposed would say, “The Synod of 2004 concluded that the Mass, when celebrated in accordance with official Roman Catholic teaching, neither denies the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ nor constitutes idolatry. The same synod also concluded that Q.&A. 80 still contains a pointed warning against any teachings, attitudes, and practices related to the Eucharist that obscure the finality and sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and detract from proper worship of the ascended Lord. Therefore Q.&A. 80 was not removed from the text but retained in a smaller font.
The Synod of 2004 asked each church council and each classis to review the proposed footnotes and submit their responses to the General Secretary of the CRCNA by July 1, 2005. These will be considered by the IRC along with responses from other denominations and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. The IRC will evaluate the responses and propose recommendations to the Synod of 2006.
In view of the momentum that has already occurred in the direction of changing a doctrinal standard that has been in place for over 400 years we should consider what Q.&A. 80 says about the Roman Catholic Mass and whether it accurately reflects Catholic dogma and scriptural truth.
The Reformed View of the Sacrifice and Presence of Christ
In the Old Testament there were many types of sacrifices offered by the priests. Some were for the expiation or covering of sins committed and some were offerings of thanks. The Levitical priests never sat down in the tabernacle or temple, as a sign that their work was never done. The sacrifices they offered were imperfect and had to be repeated over and over again. In speaking about the Old Testament priests, the author of Hebrews writes: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”
The author goes on to say, “But when this priest (Jesus Christ) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:11, 12). Why does it say, “He sat down”? Because it indicates that His priestly duties were done. Atonement had been made for sin. No further sacrifices need to be made for the forgiveness of sins.
The suffering, death, resurrection and ascension are historical events. They happened and are done. As a result, all who have faith in Jesus Christ are reconciled to God and their sins are forgiven.
Hebrews 9:25–26 says, “Nor did He enter heaven to offer Himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” When Jesus breathed His last on the cross, the curtain in the temple that separated the Most Holy Place was torn in two. This happened because atoning sacrifices no longer needed to be offered.
The Bible never refers to the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice. The eating of the bread and drinking of the wine are done as a remembrance of Christ and our proclamation of His death.
The Roman Catholic View of the Sacrifice and Presence of Christ
To understand the concept of sacrifice in the Mass, we should first consider the Catholic belief of transubstantiation. In brief, this means that once the bread and wine are consecrated in the Eucharist, they actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly His body that He was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
Once the bread and wine have supposedly been changed into the body and blood of Christ, they are worshipped with the worship of Latria. She (The Roman Catholic Church) has at all times given to this great Sacrament the worship known as “latria.” Such worship is be given to God alone.
The Catholic Church, however, has always displayed and still displays this latria that it says must be paid to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, both during Mass and outside of it, by taking the greatest possible care of consecrated Hosts, by exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and by carrying them about in processions to the joy of great numbers of the people. The Liturgy of the Hours, which is like an extension of the Eucharistic celebration, does not exclude but rather in a complementary way calls forth the various devotions of the People of God, especially adoration and worship of the Blessed Sacrament.
The concept of sacrifice is central to the Mass. The Catholic representatives that met with the IRC said, “Since the sacrifice of the Mass is a reenactment and representation of the one final, sufficient, and unrepeatable sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the Mass by its very nature as sacrament of that once-for-all event cannot detract from the one sacrifice of Christ.” The Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council do say that the bloody sacrifice which Christ accomplished once for all on the cross is offered in an unbloody manner in the Eucharist.
The Roman Catholic representatives said that because it is the same sacrifice offered in a different way, the Eucharist is not a “denial of the one sacrifice” as Q.&A. 80 makes it out to be. If this is truly an “unbloody” sacrifice, why do Catholics insist that it is Christ’s real blood on the altar?
The Mass and the Forgiveness of Sins
If the Mass is in fact just a reenactment, why does the Roman Catholic Church say that it forgives sins?
Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. If, as often as His blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy.
As sacrifice, the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead and to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God. Every time this mystery is celebrated, “the work of our redemption is carried on.” The Mass is even capable of forgiving the sins of the dead according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it states, “The Eucharistic sacrifice is also offered for the faithful departed who ‘have died in Christ but are not yet wholly purified.’” These sins would already have been forgiven if Christ’s sacrifice were in fact “once for all” as the Bible clearly states.
The Council of Trent declared, “If any one saith, that the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. . . but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits only the recipient, and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.”
To understand what the Roman Catholic Church believes and professes about the Mass, we must understand what propitiation means. Propitiation is something done to a person: Christ propitiated God in the sense that He turned God’s wrath away from guilty sinners by enduring that wrath Himself in the isolation of Calvary. Christ died on the cross to appease the wrath of God so that His justice and holiness will be satisfied and He can forgive sin. Propitiation does not make God merciful; it makes divine forgiveness possible. An atonement must be provided; in Old Testament times, animal sacrifices; now, the death of Christ for man’s sin. Through Christ’s death propitiation is made for man’s sin.
With Humility and Reverence
We should also consider some of the statements that the IRC subcommittee report makes concerning the Mass and the Heidelberg Catechism’s reaction to it. The report refers to Article 35 of the Belgic Confession which states that we must “receive the holy sacrament” with “humility and reverence.” Based on this, the report goes on to say, “It seems reasonable to assert that the difference between the Roman Catholic and Reformed teaching is not whether the sacramental meal should be treated with reverence but the precise manner in which this reverence is expressed.” To draw any comparison between the worship (latria) that Catholics give to the consecrated host on the altar and the respect with which we should come to the table of the Lord’s Supper is stretching the definition of reverence to the breaking point.
The IRC Report sets up a distinction between the Heidelberg Catechism as a response to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the Mass and the Mass as practiced by the Catholic Church. In the 16th Century the Mass was celebrated in Latin and the people understood little of what was going on. They would run from altar to altar as simultaneous Masses were being celebrated to hear the priest’s pronounce the consecration, “Hoc est corpus meum,” (from which the term Hocus Pocus came) and to witness the “miracle” of transubstantiation. Today the Mass is conducted in the language of the people in most cases, but the Mass is still a sacrifice in which the bread and wine are held up for veneration and worship.
The IRC Report concludes that when the Mass is celebrated as approved by the Roman Catholic Church it does not deny or obliterate the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ. This conclusion seems unwarranted considering the evidence already presented. The teachings of the Catholic Church concerning the Mass have changed very little since the Council of Trent. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms this. John Calvin addressed this issue of sacrifice in his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper. “While the Lord gave us the Supper that it might be distributed amongst us to testify to us that in communicating in his body we have part in the sacrifice which He offered on the cross to God His Father, for the expiation and satisfaction of our sins—men have out of their own head invented, on the contrary, that it is a sacrifice by which we obtain the forgiveness of our sins before God. This is a blasphemy which it is impossible to bear.”
The second conclusion the IRC Report reaches is that “it seems inappropriate to charge Roman Catholics with idolatry when they are worshipping Christ through the consecrated elements.” The reasoning of the committee seems to be that even though the Catholic Church is wrong in believing that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), it is okay to worship the ascended Christ through the consecrated elements, because Catholics believe it is the body and blood of Christ. This conclusion is also unwarranted, not to mention illogical. It is somewhat akin to saying that even though someone is wrong to believe that two plus two equals five, because they believe it, it is okay for them to believe that five plus five equals eight.
Transubstantiation has been the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church since the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and the final formulation was put forth by the Council of Trent. It is the result of taking Christ’s words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” literally. If this were the proper way to interpret Christ’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper, we would have to believe we are made out of wood because Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” This belief is the foundation on which the concepts of the Mass as sacrifice and the worship of the consecrated elements are built. John Calvin said, “ this falsehood has no foundation in Scripture, and no countenance from the Primitive Church, and what is more, cannot be reconciled or consist with the word of God. Transubstantiation is an invention forged by the devil to corrupt the true nature of the Supper.”
Louis Berkhof says, “It is quite impossible to conceive of the bread which Jesus broke as being the body which was handling it. This view of Rome also violates the human senses, where it asks us to believe that what tastes and looks like bread and wine, is really flesh and blood; and human reason, where it requires belief in the separation of a substance and its properties and in the presence of a material body in several places at the same time, both of which are contrary to reason. Consequently, the elevation and adoration of the host is also without any proper foundation.”
A Condemnable Idolatry
The final statement of Q.&A. 80 is that the Mass is a “condemnable idolatry.” This seems to be the emotional heart of the issue. People today are uncomfortable making such a strong and harsh statement. The first question we need to ask is what is idolatry. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of idol worship from the time when Rachel stole her father’s household gods. The common conception of idolatry is the worship of statues. Primitive people fashion an image out of wood or stone and then dance around and sing its praises.
This is a misconception. When the Israelites had Aaron fashion the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, they were worshipping the God who had delivered them from Egypt through the idol. Even the worshippers of Baal did not think their idols were really god. “Nor are the heathen to be deemed to have been so stupid as not to understand that God was something else than wood and stone.” This is illustrated in II Chronicles 28 where it says that Ahaz, “walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and also made cast idols for worshiping the Baals.” The idols clearly were physical representations of the gods behind them.
God forbids any worship through created things. In Romans 1:25 the Bible says, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.” Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Any time we worship any physical representation of God, we are committing idolatry. “For to prostrate ourselves before the bread of the Supper, and worship Jesus Christ as if He were contained in it, is to make an idol of it rather than a sacrament.”
Let us consider what Q.&A. 80 says about the Mass.
“The Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests.” Catholic dogma admits that sins are forgiven and the dead are purified by the sacrifice of the Mass. So this premise is true.
“It (the Mass) also teaches that Christ is bodily present in the form of the bread and wine where Christ is therefore to be worshipped.” The fourth Lateran Council, the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Catholic theologians who consulted with the IRC subcommittee all admit to this. So this premise is also true.
The conclusion of Q.&A. 80, based on the first two premises, has two parts. The first part is that “the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ.” The Catholic representatives admit that the Mass is a continuation or perpetuation of Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross. It is offered on an altar. It is, according to Catholic dogma, propitiatory. What does the Bible have to say about this? “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” “By one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” There is nothing more contrary to the true meaning of the Supper, than to make a sacrifice of it.
The ninth chapter of Hebrews makes clear that the Mass is a denial of the one sacrifice of Christ. “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; He entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did He enter heaven to offer Himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.” (Hebrews 9:24-28). Based on the testimony of Scripture, the first conclusion that Q.&A. 80 reaches appears to be correct.
The second part of the conclusion that Q.&A. 80 reaches is that the Catholic Mass is a “condemnable idolatry.” The Catholic Church admits that they worship the consecrated bread and wine. Just because they believe (contrary to Scripture) that it has been changed into the body and blood of Christ does not excuse the worshipping of God through created things. Worshipping God through created things is by definition idolatry. All idolatry is condemnable. Therefore, the Heidelberg Catechism is correct in making the assertion that the Catholic Mass is a condemnable idolatry.
The IRC Report says that, “a primary consideration of the synod should be to speak the truth in love, not only in our interaction with other Christian communities but also in our official expressions of our faith. We must also deal justly with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and do what we can to guard and advance our neighbor’s good name (HC Q.&A. 112).”
Q.&A. 112 deals with the ninth commandment and bearing false witness. We need to be sure we are bearing witness to the truth of Scripture even if that means telling our neighbors they are wrong. We need to do this in love, but we do not love our neighbor when we ignore their errors. Paul wrote to Titus that an elder “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
The issues raised by changing Q.&A. 80 are much broader than the proper way to observe the Lord’s Supper. They involve justification by faith, the nature of the incarnation, the atonement, the ascension, the state of those who die in Christ, and perseverance of the saints among other doctrines. This teaching of the mass as a perpetuation of the sacrifice of Christ, which is propitiatory for sin, was a point of universal opposition by the Reformers. They vigorously objected to this teaching on Scriptural grounds that it made void the cross of Christ. Before we change a Confession for which our forefathers faced fire and sword, we need to give prayerful consideration to what we propose.
The Christian Reformed Church should reaffirm Q.&A. 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism as an accurate formulation of Biblical doctrine. Elders should prayerfully consider the issues and respond to the IRC Report. Each classis needs to discuss the report and respond to it also.
Mr. Elmer De Ritter graduated from Calvin College in 1970 and is a member of the Comstock Park Christian Reformed Church in Comstock Park, Michigan.
The Lord’s Supper and the ‘Popish Mass’: Does Q. & A. 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism Speak the Truth?
One of the primary tasks of the church of Jesus Christ, which the apostle Paul calls the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), is to confess its faith before the world. The church owes its life to the work of Christ, who by His Spirit and Word calls it into existence and preserves it in the way of faith. Because the church is born out of and nourished by the Word of God, there is no task more basic or critical than that of confessing what it believes the Word teaches. Reformed churches, therefore, are always confessing churches. They subscribe to creeds and confessions, which publicly attest their faith before others. Such creeds and confessions are often referred to as “forms of unity,” since they join their adherents together in a unity of faith.
Due to the importance of the confessions to the church’s testimony and unity, it is not surprising that few changes have been made to them over the centuries. And, when changes have been proposed, these have usually provoked considerable discussion and reflection in the churches. The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), however, is presently contemplating a significant change in one of its historic confessions.
Though it is risky to offer generalizations about such things, I have the impression that this change may well be occurring below the “radar screen” of public awareness or discussion. The change to which I refer is a proposal to place Question and Answer 80 (Q. and A. 80) of the Heidelberg Catechism in a smaller font (print) in future printings of the Catechism, and to declare that this answer “can no longer be held in its current form as part of [the] confession.”
Q. and A. 80 offers a sharply worded account of the difference between the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the “popish mass,” declaring the mass to be “nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.” Accordingly, if the proposed change is adopted by a future synod (2006 is contemplated), the CRCNA will have officially changed its confession and diminished an important Reformation conviction regarding the unbiblical character of the Roman Catholic mass.
Background and History
The proposal to alter the CRCNA’s adherence to Q. and A. 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism comes as the result of a recent and relatively brief process of study and reflection dating back to 1998. Synod 1998 received two overtures regarding the Catechism’s treatment of the Roman Catholic mass. One overture asked that Q. and A. 80 be removed from the Catechism for three reasons: one, the language of “condemnable idolatry” should only be used against the behavior of those who deny justification by faith in Jesus Christ; two, the harsh language of Q. and A. 80 does not meet the requirements of Christian love or unity; and three, the original version of the Heidelberg Catechism did not include Q. and A. 80. A second overture, which was formulated in response to the first, argued that Q. and A. ought to be retained in its present form, since the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) had never repudiated the official decisions of the Council of Trent and its statements about the mass.
Though Synod 1998 did not accede to the first of these overtures, which asked that Q. and A. 80 be removed from the Heidelberg Catechism, it did direct the Interchurch Relations Committee “to make an attempt to dialogue with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church to clarify the official doctrine of that church concerning the mass” (Acts of Synod 1998, p. 427). Subsequently, the IRC appointed a special subcommittee to carry out these instructions from Synod. This subcommittee was composed of Dr. David Engelhard, Dr. Lyle Bierma, Dr. Henry De Moor, Dr. Ronald Feenstra, and Dr. George Vander Velde. During the course of the subcommittee’s work, two meetings were held with official representatives of the RCC to ensure that the Committee’s representation of the Roman Catholic view of the mass was accurate, and that its assessment of the language of Q. & A. 80 was based upon an accurate understanding of contemporary Roman Catholic teaching and practice.
In fulfillment of its mandate, the subcommittee of the IRC presented an initial study report on Q. and A. 80 to Synod 2002. This initial report was also forwarded to the Conferences of Catholic Bishops in Canada and the United States in order to see whether they could concur that it offered an “accurate representation” of the Roman Catholic view of the mass. In addition, the report was sent to churches with whom the CRCNA enjoys ecclesiastical fellowship, to invite their response to its findings. After receiving a favorable judgment from the Catholic bishops, who affirmed that the report accurately summarized the Catholic conception of the mass, the subcommittee made some minor revisions to the report and prepared a second, briefer report that it submitted to Synod 2004.
The actions of Synod 2004 in response to this second report suggest that the CRCNA is poised to alter its confession regarding the Lord’s Supper and the Roman Catholic mass. After adopting a recommendation that calls for the removal of Q. and A. 80 from the Heidelberg Catechism (“That synod declare Q. and A. 80 can no longer be held in its form as part of our confession given our study of official Roman Catholic teaching and extensive dialogue with official representatives of the Roman Catholic Church”), Synod 2004 adopted several motions that will provide opportunity for churches in ecclesiastical fellowship, as well as CRC churches and classes, to respond to the proposed change before its imple mentation. Barring any significant opposition to what is being proposed, a future Synod (in 2006?) will likely ratify the change in Q. and A. 80.
The Arguments of the IRC Subcommittee Reports
If we may assume that a change in the church’s confession is always a matter of considerable importance, the question that has to be pressed regarding the proposed change in Q. and A. 80 is: has the burden of proof for such a change, one that alters substantially a consensus of the Reformed churches since the sixteenth century on the subject of the Roman Catholic mass, been met? What kind of argument has the subcommittee of the IRC mustered that warrants the removal of Q. and A. 80 from the Heidelberg Catechism?
Both reports begin by observing that Q. and A. 80 registers two principal objections to the Roman Catholic mass. The first objection to the mass focuses upon its nature as an unbloody sacrifice, which is offered daily by priests on behalf of the living and the dead. Because believers enjoy the forgiveness of sins only on the basis of the unbloody sacrifice of the mass, which is offered to God on their behalf as a propitiation for sins, the mass “is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Christ.”
The second objection to the mass focuses upon the way Christ is worshiped in the form of the bread and wine, which through the miracle of transubstantiation have become the true body and blood of Christ. Though the consecrated elements appear outwardly to be bread and wine, they are the actual body and blood of Christ and are to be venerated accordingly. Q. and A. 80 declares such worship to be a “condemnable idolatry,” because it requires believers to venerate the bread and wine as the true body and blood of Christ. The strong language of Q. and A. 80 is directed against these two elements of the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of the mass. In their case for removing Q. and
A. 30, the IRC subcommittee reports offer the following arguments:
First, the IRC subcommittee’s two reports challenge the accuracy of Q. and A. 80’s description of the Roman Catholic mass as a sacrifice. Though the subcommittee’s two reports acknowledge the sacrificial character of the mass, they also call attention to other features of the mass that figure prominently in Roman Catholic teaching. They note, for example, that the mass is not only a sacrifice, but also “a meal, spiritual nourishment, offering of thanksgiving, memorial, sign of unity, bond of love, source of grace, and pledge of future glory.” Because the RCC recognizes these various features of the sacrament of the mass, Q. and A. 80 misleads, when it treats the mass primarily, if not exclusively, as a sacrifice.
Second, the IRC subcommittee’s two reports insist that Q. and A. 80 misrepresents the Roman Catholic view of the relation between Christ’s one sacrifice upon the cross and the sacrifice of the mass. When Q. and A. 80 speak of Christ being offered “daily” in the mass, it concludes that the Roman Catholic view denies the unique and unrepeatable nature of Christ’s bloody sacrifice upon the cross. However, the Roman Catholic view, according to the subcommittee and Synod 2002, speaks of “one sacrifice [that] is offered in different manners.” The sacrifice of the mass is not another sacrifice, but a sacramental “representation” and “perpetuation” of the one sacrifice of the cross.
Third, the IRC subcommittee’s two reports further argue that Q. and A. 80 misstates the Roman Catholic view of the way Christ is to be venerated or worshipped in the mass. Though Christ is “present under the appearance of the consecrated bread and should be worshiped in the adoration of those consecrated elements,” this adoration is an adoration of Christ, “not the elements.” Q. and A. 80 fails to appreciate the Roman Catholic understanding that the object of the worshipper’s adoration is Christ himself, even though the form of worship involves a veneration of the sacramental elements in which Christ is present.
Fourth, in respect to the claim of Q. and A. 80 that the sacrifice of the mass obtains the forgiveness of sins for believers, the IRC subcommittee and Synod 2002 maintain that this reflects a failure to distinguish between what lies “in the area of justification” with what lies in the area of “final sanctification.” In the assessment of the subcommittee and Synod 2002, the Roman Catholic view does not “detract from the finality of redemption accomplished on the cross.” Since the forgiveness that is mediated through the sacrament of the mass relates to the believer’s present and future holiness before God, it should not be viewed as the forgiveness of justification or acceptance with God.
And fifth, in its second report, the IRC subcommittee introduces and appeals to a distinction between “official” Roman Catholic teaching and the “practice” of the Roman Catholic church in some places. Though Q. and A. 80’s criticism of the mass may apply to the practice of some Roman Catholics, it does not fairly represent the official standpoint of the RCC, particularly in light of the reforms and improvements introduced by Vatican II.
Evaluating the Arguments for the Proposed Change
Since my summary of the arguments of the IRC subcommittee reports, which have thus far enjoyed the approval of two synods of the CRCNA, is rather skeletal, it might seem improper to evaluate them too critically. The more I reflect upon these reports and their arguments, however, the more convinced I become that they offer little that approximates a refutation of Q. and A. 80. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence adduced in the IRC subcommittee reports that confirms rather than disproves the accuracy of Q. and A. 80.
Though Q. and A. 80 may speak the truth in language that is more severe than our contemporary ears will allow, it speaks the truth nonetheless, and on a matter of no small significance. To illustrate the weakness and implausibility of the subcommittee’s case, I will respond briefly and directly to each of the five points I have identified.
First, though the RCC today and at the time of the Reformation recognizes many different elements in the mass, it continues to view the mass principally as an unbloody sacrifice. The statements of the sixteenth century Council of Trent and the more recent twentieth century Vatican II Council fully concur in representing the mass as an unbloody sacrifice that priests offer upon an altar to God. Though Vatican II emphasizes more than the Council of Trent that the whole people of God are joined with the priests in making this sacrifice to God, it remains an unbloody sacrifice, not merely of thanksgiving (a proper Eucharist), but of oblation and propitiation. Q. and A. 80 can hardly be faulted for neglecting the RCC’s teaching that the mass is more than a sacrifice, when its interest is to distinguish the true Supper of the Lord from its corruption in the sacrifice of the mass. The evidence presented in the IRC subcommittee reports only confirms this aspect of what Q. and A. 80 says about the mass, rather than disproving it.
Second, the IRC subcommittee’s two reports properly note that contemporary Roman Catholic teaching prefers to speak of the sacrifice of the mass as a “perpetuation” rather than a “repetition” of Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross. It is, strictly speaking, not correct to say that the RCC views the sacrifice of the mass as “another” offering. However, the subcommittee reports indulge in a bit of wishful thinking, when they conclude that this protects the RCC against the charge that the mass is a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Christ.
The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ upon the cross can no more be “perpetuated” or “prolonged” or “represented” or “enacted” than it can be “repeated.” To speak of the mass as an unbloody sacrificial participation in the one sacrifice of Christ is nothing other than a denial of the finished work of Christ upon the cross. If I may be permitted an analogy, a mother who has given birth to a child may now enjoy features of motherhood that are a result of her child’s birth. But these features of motherhood are in no proper sense to be conceived of as a perpetuation or prolongation of the act whereby she gave birth to her child. In a similar way, Christ, our high priest, having made sacrifice once-for-all for the sins of His people, may continue to apply and communicate the benefits of that sacrifice through Word and sacrament. However, Christ’s work of applying the benefits of His unique, indispensable sacrifice should not be confused with the sacrifice itself.
On this point, a comment of Calvin seems as appropriate today as when it was first written: “Nor am I unaware of the tricks by which the father of lies is wont to disguise his fraud: that these are not varied or different sacrifices, but the same one often repeated” (IV.xviii.3). The contemporary RCC claim that the sacrifice of the mass is not “another” sacrifice than the sacrifice of the cross is no more plausible today than it was in Calvin’s day.
Third, the claim made by the IRC subcommittee reports (and Synods 2002 and 2004) that the mass does not constitute a form of idolatry is unwarranted and even belied by the evidence adduced to confirm it. According to the IRC subcommittee reports, the RCC mass is not a form of idolatry because those who venerate or adore the consecrated elements are actually venerating or adoring Christ who is mediated through them. If this attempt to defend the veneration of Christ in the mass were plausible, it might equally well be applied to various acts that are described as idolatrous in the Scriptures. Few are the idolaters who profess to have any other intention than worshipping the true and living God, even though the immediate object or means whereby their worship is offered is a golden calf or some other creature. When the children of Israel worshipped the golden calf, they no doubt intended to worship God alone. To say that the Roman Catholic mass does not constitute idolatry because the worshipper believes that the bread and wine are the real body and blood of Christ is a self-defeating argument. If the worshipper venerates the bread and wine in order to venerate Christ, he commits idolatry.
Fourth, one of the more unlikely claims of the IRC subcommittee’s first report is the claim that the mass does not compromise the finality of redemption accomplished on the cross. To support this claim, the subcommittee report notes that a distinction must be made between justification and final sanctification. Those who argue that the mass compromises the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for sin fail to recognize that its benefit relates only to the believer’s sanctification, not his justification.
Though one can admire the subcommittee’s ingenuity in trying to defend the Roman Catholic doctrine of the mass, this argument fails utterly. Roman Catholic teaching regarding the mass continues to be that it is an unbloody and truly propitiatory sacrifice that obtains the forgiveness of sins on behalf of those who benefit from it. The forgiveness of sins that believers enjoy through the offering of the sacrifice of the mass is an important part of the process whereby believers are justified and made holy and acceptable to God. Though the IRC subcommittee and Synod 2002 insist that the forgiveness that is obtained through the mass relates only to a (final) sanctification, this is not the teaching of the RCC. The distinction between justification and sanctification, as it is drawn by the subcommittee and Synod, is a Protestant, not a Roman Catholic distinction.
And fifth, the IRC subcommittee reports offer no compelling evidence to warrant the claim that “official” Roman Catholic teaching differs so widely from the practice of some Roman Catholics that the condemnations of Q. and A. 80 only apply to the latter. Q. and A. 80 was most likely written in direct reply to the decrees and canons of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which concluded its work shortly before Q. and A. 80 was added to the Heidelberg Catechism. While the IRC subcommittee suggests that Q. and A. 80 might have originally addressed the practice of the medieval RCC more than its official teaching, no historical evidence is provided to support this suggestion. The likeliest explanation of Q. and A. 80 is that it intends to condemn the official teaching and corresponding practice of the RCC. That remains its proper purpose to the present day.
Lest my evaluation of the proposed change to Q. and A. 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism be misunderstood, I wish to note that I have no quarrel with the CRCNA’s desire to ensure that this Q. and A. speak the truth in the present context. Even though the IRC subcommittee’s studies may not finally warrant their conclusions, they remain fairly thorough and useful treatments of Q. and A. 80 in comparison with contemporary Roman Catholic teaching. Reformed believers who confess Q. and A. 80 should have no objection in principle to a fresh reconsideration of their confession, and to an honest discussion with Roman Catholics whether it properly presents their teaching regarding the sacrament of the mass. Indeed, those who would defend the retention of Q. and A. 80 in its present form owe it to themselves and to the cause of truth to read the two reports of the IRC subcommittee and to study contemporary Roman Catholic teaching on the subject. If a compelling argument can be made to show that the Heidelberg Catechism misrepresents the RCC’s teaching regarding the mass, then the Catechism should be revised accordingly. Since the RCC recently updated in the documents of Vatican II some of its formulations regarding the mass, a reexamination of Q. and A. 80 is all the more proper.
The problem with the proposed change, however, is that it is not warranted by the kind of arguments presented in the IRC subcommittee reports. Rather than showing that Q. and A. 80 misrepresents the RCC doctrine of the mass, these reports could easily be read to confirm the accuracy of Q. and A. 80. Both of the IRC subcommittee reports provide numerous official RCC statements that the mass is an unbloody sacrifice, which perpetuates the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross and procures propitiatory benefit for those who participate in its offering.
Likewise, ample documentation is provided for the Heidelberg Catechism’s claim that the mass is a “condemnable idolatry.” By the subcommittee’s own admission, RCC teaching continues to affirm the propriety of worshipping Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine. Furthermore, though the documents of Vatican II exhibit a tendency to soften the severe language of the Council of Trent, the subcommittee reports also confirm that the position of the Council of Trent was reaffirmed by Vatican II, including the anathemas pronounced against the Reformed view of the sacrament.
When all of this is taken into account, one is left to wonder whether the real objection to Q. and A. 80 is that its language is simply too harsh and condemning. Should we continue to use language like “nothing but a denial” or a “condemnable idolatry,” when speaking of the RCC view of the mass? Is such language consistent with the requirements of Christian love and unity? Perhaps this is the primary motivation that undergirds the proposed change to Q. and A. 80.
If this were the only reason for the proposed change, would it not be preferable to consider an alternative proposal that retained the substance of Q. and A. 80, while removing the offending language “nothing but” and “a condemnable” idolatry. One could easily imagine a proposal to change Q. and A. 80 that might read: “Thus the mass in effect denies … the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and is … a form of idolatry.” However, rather than propose a change in Q. and A. 80 along these lines, the proposal presently being considered calls for a piece of more radical surgery, namely, the removal of Q. and A. 80’s condemnation of the Roman Catholic mass. Though it may not comport with modern sensibilities, I believe Q. and A. 80 should be retained in its present form. Though the language may be severe, it reflects a Reformed passion to defend the sufficiency of Christ’s one sacrifice upon the cross and to condemn idolatry in whatever form, even if it be born of the most pious of intentions. Real progress toward unity in the faith on the important doctrine of the Lord’s Supper will not come by removing strong, yet true statements like Q. and A. 80 from the Heidelberg Catechism. As its stands, Q. and A. 80 expresses the truth that John Calvin articulated so eloquently in his Institutes: “But when it is most clearly proved by the Word of God that this Mass, however decked in splendor, inflicts signal dishonor upon Christ, buries and oppresses His cross, consigns His death to oblivion, takes away the benefit which came to us from it, and weakens and destroys the Sacrament by which the memory of His death was bequeathed to us—will any of the roots be too deep for this most sturdy ax (I mean the Word of God) to slash and upturn?”
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He also serves as contributing editor for The Outlook.