Thursday, July 23, 2015

The ACNA Doctrinal Statement on Blessed Oils and Their Use: An Evaluation

By Robin G. Jordan

As well as endorsing rites of baptism and confirmation, the College of Bishops also endorsed a document entitled The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East andWest, which is intended for eventual printing with the special liturgies for Holy Week. This document contains a discussion of the use of the Oil of Exorcism (also known as the Oil of Catechumens), the Oil of Unction, and the Oil of Chrism and the practice of blessing these oils The practice of blessing so-called “holy oils” falls into the category of what The Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church and The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to as “sacramentals,” which include such practices as consecrating church buildings and blessing altars, communion ware, crosses, crucifixes, medals, rosaries, vestments, and other objects.

The English Reformers rejected the use of blessed oils, blessed water, and blessed salt on firm Scriptural grounds. The Bible contained no reference to the blessing of inanimate objects, much less to the use of oil, water, and salt that had been blessed. The Bible, however, contained numerous references to the invocation of God’s blessing upon people.

The crux of the argument in support of the use of blessed oils in The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East and West is the antiquity of their use. In essence the document is asserting that what is sometimes called “the rule of antiquity” trumps what is sometimes known as “the rule of Scripture.” Despite their great age error and superstition are error and superstition. As the New Testament narrative informs us even the New Testament Church was not free from error and superstition.  

One of the marks of authentic historic Anglicanism is that it recognizes the plenary authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and practice. If a practice is not agreeable to Scripture—if it is not prescribed by Scripture, does not have clear precedent in Scripture (as opposed to being merely described in Scripture) or conflicts with what Scripture teaches, it is not a practice that should be adopted no matter how ancient the practice is. The Thirty-Nine Articles reflects the application of both the regulative and normative principles.

Error and superstition, like bad habits, develop quickly and prove as equally hard to eradicate. The acceptance of error and superstition by a large group of people do not make it any less error and superstition any more than its persistence over a long period of time.

Jesus himself pointed out to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law how their own traditions had come to influence their understanding of Scripture and they were giving more weight to their traditions than to the plain words of the Bible. Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, like the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, give more weight to their particular consensus and tradition in the interpretation of the Bible than the Bible itself. Consequently, they do not fully accept the Bible as their rule of faith and practice and their Christian profession is flawed, a point that J. Packer makes in Concise Theology: Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.

The anointing with blessed oil of those afflicted by demons is not found in Scripture. In his teaching Jesus emphasized the importance of prayer and fasting in deliverance ministry, not the use of blessed oil. This practice has its origins in the practice of anointing the sick with oil in the ancient Mediterranean world as illness was often attributed to demons. Olive oil was believed to have curative properties.

The only material object infused with divine power, which we find in the Scriptures and then in the Old Testament is the Ark of the Covenant, which had become a focal point of God’s presence on earth. The infusion of the Ark with divine power was God’s own doing. In the New Testament that focus shifts to Jesus himself—God incarnate—and the Holy Spirit in the believer. The whole notion of blessed objects is odds with what the Bible plainly teaches.

The English Reformers did away with the practice of anointing the very ill and the dying with so-called “holy oil” for the two reasons. First, they found no clear warrant for the practice of blessing so-called “holy oils” and other objects in the Scriptures. What they did find in the Scriptures led them to conclude that the practice of blessing objects—altars, vestments, so-called “holy water,” and so-called “holy oils”—was not agreeable with Scripture. Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament the invocation of God’s blessing was reserved for people. 

Second, the Medieval Catholic Church taught that when the very ill and the dying were anointed with so-called Oil of Unction, their sins were remitted.

The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East and West alludes only to the second reason for the English Reformers’ dispensing with the anointing of the sick with oil and reflects an Anglo-Catholic interpretation of the English Reformers’ thinking. It does not accurately represent what the English Reformers themselves thought.

Its origin can be traced to the infamous Tract 90 and John Henry Newman’s reinterpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles in a Rome-ward direction. Newman claimed that the English Reformers did not reject unreformed Catholic teaching, only certain Medieval errors. This has been the Anglo-Catholic movement’s view of the English Reformation to a large extent but not exclusively since that time.

The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East and West cites “the Epistle of James”—a reference to James 5: 14-18—as the Scriptural basis for the practice of anointing the sick with blessed oil. In the ancient Mediterranean world anointing sick people with olive oil was a common practice. Olive oil was believed to have medicinal properties. The practice would persist well into the Christian era among pagans as well as Christians. The reference to anointing the sick with oil is a reference to this practice. What James 5: 14-18 emphasizes is not the anointing with oil but the elders’ prayer for the sick person.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
James 5: 13-18 makes no mention of the use of oil that has been blessed. To claim that James 5: 14-18 is a warrant for the practice of blessing so-called “holy oil” for the anointing of the sick goes beyond stretching the meaning of a text. It involves taking a text from the Scriptures and reading a meaning into it that cannot be read out of it.

While it may be a tradition in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches to interpret James 5: 14-18 as a warrant for this practice, clearly more weight is being given to a traditional interpretation of a text than to its actual meaning. This is one of the major problems with how Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches handle Scripture. Ultimately tradition not Scripture is the final authority in matters of faith and practice.

The Thirty-Nine Articles identify what is sometimes called Holy Unction—the sacramental anointing of the sick with oil—as a false understanding of apostolic practice. The view expressed in The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East and West reflects that false understanding.

This is not to say that those who correspond in a modern day congregation to the elders of a New Testament church—the pastor and other church leaders—should not visit the sick and pray for them and even anoint them with oil as a gesture of good will toward them and of desire for their recovery.

However, they do not need to anoint the sick with oil blessed for this use. Good quality stone-pressed extra virgin olive oil bought off the grocery shelf will suffice. This is what was used in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Nor is the anointing of the sick with oil a sacrament. It does not convey any special grace. God may respond to the elders’ prayer and heal the sick. This healing, however, will have nothing to do with the anointing of the sick with oil. The Order for the Visitation of the Sick in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer recognizes what is most important—prayer.

It should be noted that the practice in the ancient Mediterranean world including what was then Roman Palestine was to liberally apply olive oil to a large part of the body of the sick person, not just apply a smear of so-called “holy oil” on the sick person’s forehead as is the current practice of Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic priests.

In the New Testament Church new believers were typically baptized by immersion. As was a common practice in the ancient Mediterranean world after taking a bath, the newly baptized were anointed with olive oil. Converts to Judaism were also anointed with olive oil after they were immersed in the mikveh as a part of their conversion process. Describing this anointing in relation to Christian baptism as symbolically representing God’s bestowal of the Holy Spirit in baptism and eventually as the act through which the Holy Spirit was bestowed came later. Of course The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East and West fails to mention these important details. The anointing of the newly baptized with the so-called Oil of Chrism is the end result of a process in which an ordinary practice would over a period of time assigned a significance that it did not originally have. Passages of Scripture like John 16:12-13 would be subsequently used to justify and rationalize the assignment of this significance.

The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East and West takes the position that through their anointing with the Oil of Chrism presbyters and bishops receive “the spiritual gifts appropriate to their functions in the Church.”  This view reflects the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in which newly-ordained priests are anointed with chrism on the palms of their hands and newly-ordained bishops on their foreheads. This anointing the Roman Catholic Church teaches confers upon newly-ordained priests the spiritual gift to reiterate or represent Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world:
"It is in the Eucharistic cult or in the Eucharistic assembly of the faithful (synaxis) that they exercise in a supreme degree their sacred office; there, acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his mystery, they unite the votive offerings of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head, and in the sacrifice of the Mass they make present again and apply, until the coming of the Lord, the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, that namely of Christ offering himself once for all a spotless victim to the Father." From this unique sacrifice their whole priestly ministry draws its strength. [The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Art. 1566]

The same anointing confers upon the newly-ordained bishop the spiritual gifts that were conferred upon the apostles:
The bishop receives the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders, which integrates him into the episcopal college and makes him the visible head of the particular Church entrusted to him. As successors of the apostles and members of the college, the bishops share in the apostolic responsibility and mission of the whole Church under the authority of the Pope, successor of St. Peter. [The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Art. 1594]
Where the view articulated in The Three Blessed Oils Used in the Early Christian Churches, East and West departs from the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is  that it does not recognize papal authority.

Tucked away in this document, which will form a part of the final version of the ACNA Prayer Book, is further evidence that those occupying the place of power in the Anglican Church in North America espouse what Douglas Bess describes as “an extreme form of Anglo-Catholicism,” which has as its aim the reshaping of the Anglican Church along the lines of the purportedly undivided Church of the early High Middle Ages during the eleventh century before the East-West Schism—an imaginary golden age of Catholic Christianity. This aim is clearly at cross-purposes to GAFCON’s call for the Anglican Church to return to its spiritual foundation—the Bible and the historic formularies. To achieve this aim those occupying the place of power in the Anglican Church in North America have shown in the doctrinal statements that the College of Bishops has endorsed to date their willingness to deny official standing to the beliefs and convictions of orthodox Anglicans who are faithful to the Bible and loyal to the historic formularies and to put them in a position where they must compromise these beliefs and convictions and conform to the doctrine and liturgical usages of a Prayer Book, which are a repudiation of the English Reformation, the Elizabethan Settlement, and authentic historic Anglicanism. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee! 


Unknown said...

The Scripture never sanctions the blessing of inanimate objects? Are you serious? 1 Corinthians 10:16: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?" Please, please, please stop promoting this profoundly tired, unbiblical, and Gnostic opinion.

Robin G. Jordan said...

The view presented in the article is thoroughly Scriptural. The invocation of God’s blessing upon the bread and wine and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the elements are later developments and have no basis in Scripture.

As I have point out on a number of occasions, this passage from first Corinthians is not a reference to the blessing of inanimate objects. The NIV translates the same passage as follows:

"Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?"

The Greek word eulogia used in this passage means praise and the Greek word eulogeō used in the same passage mean to praise or celebrate with praises. These two Greek words form the root of English words—eulogy and eulogize. The same two Greek words are used for “the blessing of God by believers in the sense of giving him praise and glory.” Eulogeō used to translate the Hebrew group brk. The primary meaning of this group is to kneel down. The group includes the word berakhah, which is used to describe certain prayers recited at the Passover seder as was well as those recited at ordinary meals. In these prayers it is God who is blessed, given praise and glory, not the food. At the Passover seder a berakhah is said over the bread at the beginning of the meal and over a cup of wine toward the conclusion of the meal.

At the Last Supper our Lord gave a new and expanded meaning to these actions. He identified the bread over which he had praised God and then broken and given to his disciples with his body that would be broken on the cross. He identified the cup of wine over which he had praised God and gave to his disciples with his blood that he would shed on the cross. He turned these actions into a memorial and proclamation of his atoning death on the cross for the sins of the world.

The Didache, a a brief early Christian treatise, dated by most scholars to the mid to late first century, basically describes the same ritual that occurred at Corinth. In regards to the Eucharist it states:

"Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which Thou madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever….”

In regards to the broken bread the Didache states:

“We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever….”

We see from these two forms that the early Church had already moved away from the distinct formof the berakhah, which typically begins “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God…” to a form that reflected the Christian concept of eucharist, or thanksgiving.

Gnosticism is “a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin. Gnostic doctrine taught that the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit.” The view presented in the article has no connection to Gnosticism.

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

I notice you conveniently omit the clear teaching that Jesus sent the apostles out and they used oil in healing the sick / expelling demons.

While we don't have to use oils set apart by a bishop, it is meet and right insofar as it ties the action of a prayer team or congregation to the prayers of the whole church (particularly the litany) throughout time and space.

Further, there is nothing superstitious about oil being consecrated (set apart) for a particular use in the Church. This is done for buildings, Bibles, pews, pulpits, etc. And it doesn't stink of Rome, either. It is an ancient practice, going all the way back to before the Old Testament. It us ecumenical, being practiced by Baptists, Pentecostals, and other protestants who aren't moored to the catholic tradition but rather call themselves Bible Only.

The fact that Anglicans DO preserve (or conserve) catholic practices, and thus use catholic forms, should surprise no one who has read the Reformers and the Caroline Divines...though it may still ruffle the feathers of Puritans.

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

Forgot to give the reference. Mark 6:13. The 1599 Geneva Bible says that the gift of healing has disappeared and so the rite should cease. The same "logic" is used to brush away James 5:14, but it is adv argument from experience rather than an exegetical one. Anglicans can refute such a twisting of the plain command of Scripture both from exegesis and (thanks especially to our GAFCON partners) manifold experience.

Robin G. Jordan said...

My omission of any reference to Mark 6:13 was an oversight.Thank you for drawing it to my attention. Let us take a brief look at Mark 6:13:

“And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.”

Nowhere in this passage does it say that the disciples used oil in their exorcism of demons. What it does say is that they anointed the sick with oil with the result that the sick were healed. The word for oil used in this passage elaion—olive oil used for fueling lamps, for anointing the sick, and for anointing the head and body at feasts. Nothing in this passage suggests that the oil used by the disciples had been blessed or consecrated. What this passage describes is simply an apostolic practice.

If Mark 6:13 is placed in the context of the passages in which it is found, we learn that our Lord had sent the disciples out two by two and given them authority over unclean spirits. When they went out, they proclaimed that people should repent. They also performed signs and wonders. All of these things point to the in-breaking of God's Kingdom. There is no evidence in Mark 6 that its author using his description of these signs and wonders to establish a precedent for future disciples to follow, much less that he was using the narrative to describe our Lord's institution of a sacrament of healing.

What you yourself are neglecting to mention is that the bishop in blessing the Oil of Unction and the Oil of Chrism is blessing them for sacramental use—the Oil of Unction for the sacrament of Holy Unction and the Oil of Chrism for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination. The English Reformers rejected on firm Scriptural grounds the notion that Confirmation, Holy Unction, and Confirmation were sacraments along with the notion that anointing with a particular oil confers a special grace. This includes the belief that the anointing with the Oil of Chrism conferred the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism. The English Reformers recognized anointing with oil as an apostolic practice but concluded from their study of the Holy Scriptures that to categorize that practice as a sacrament or a part of a sacrament was a false understanding of the practice.

A bishop is not needed to tie the actions of a prayer team or congregation to the prayers of the whole Church. When the members of the prayer team or congregation received the Holy Spirit, they became a part of invisible Church, the Body of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that ties the actions of the prayer team or the congregation to the prayers of the whole Church. The Church is united not in a bishop but in its head, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only true Bishop and Shepherd of our souls.

We do not encounter in the history of the reformed Church of England the consecration of church buildings or their ornaments until the period of the Caroline High Churchmen and then it was not a widespread practice but was limited to those of High Church opinions. Their services show little indebtedness to the medieval rites. Before and after that time use for sacred purposes was what was considered to set apart church buildings and their ornaments for sacred purposes. This view was held by the English Reformers and is held by Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants to this day.

While the Old Testament tells us that the altar of sacrifice in the Tabernacle was anointed with oil and spattered with the blood of slain beasts and that numerous sacrifices were offered at the dedication of the Temple, all these actions were a part of the ceremonial law which ceased with Christ’s death on the cross, which brought to an end the Old Covenant and the need for further sacrifice. If anything stands out about the setting apart of the Tabernacle and the Temple for sacred use in the Old Testament accounts is the primary method used to set them apart was actual use. [Continued]

Robin G. Jordan said...

As someone who has read the English Reformers, the Caroline Divines, and the Puritans, I must point out that the English Reformers did away with many Medieval Catholic practices. The Caroline Divines only revived a limited number of practices that they believed were ancient. They had a fascination with the Church of antiquity and this fascination clouded their judge. They had a tendency to rely too heavily upon the opinions of the early Church fathers and were apt to neglect to test the truth the Patristic writers’ thought against the rule of the Scriptures. Consequently they were prone to give greater weight to the rule of antiquity than the rule of Scripture and to twist Scripture to justify and rationalize what they were doing.

A new generation of scholars has rejected the Catholic credentials of the Caroline Divines because they rejected papal authority and the doctrine of transubstantiation.

The Caroline Divines also numbered in their ranks a number of Puritans, for example, Archbishop of Amargh James Usher, whom Oliver Cromwell gave a state funeral.

You may be surprised to learn that some Puritans such as Thomas Godwin considered anointing the sick with oil to be an apostolic ordinance.

James 5:14 is not a command to anoint the sick with oil as a careful exposition of the text shows:

“James 5:14 makes anointing with oil a minor issue, framed in participular form, which is subservient to the main verb associated with prayer, and thus giving the emphasis to prayer: καὶ προσευξάσθωσαν ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν ἀλείψαντες [αὐτὸν] ἐλαίῳ ἐντῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ κυρίου.” [Prayer and Anointing with Oil An Examination of James 5:13–15, p. 5]

As I point out in my article, The Order for the Visitation of the Sick in the 1552 and 1662 Prayers Books reflects the emphasis of James 5:14 on prayer. The following two passages James 5:16-17, which form a part of the context of James 5:14 also emphasize prayer. The English Reformers interpreted Scripture by Scripture, avoided expounding one passage of Scripture in such a way that it disagreed with another (Article 20), and likewise steered clear of supporting their conclusions by citing isolated texts, taken out of context.

John Calvin may have taken the position that the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the apostolic age but his position is not that of A Homily of the Coming Down of the Holy Ghost and the Manifold Gifts of the Same.

“The Holy Ghost doth always declare himself by his fruitful and gracious gifts, namely [1 Cor. 12:[7–11].], by the word of wisdom, by the word of knowledge, which is the understanding of the Scriptures, by faith, in doing of miracles, by healing them that are diseased, by prophecy which is the declaration of God’s mysteries, by discerning of spirits, diversity of tongues, interpretation of tongues, and so forth. All which gifts, as they proceed from one Spirit, and are severally given to man according to the measurable distribution of the Holy Ghost, even so do they bring men, and not without good cause, into a wonderful admiration of God’s divine power.”

As the Article 35 reminds us, the two Books of Homilies contain godly and wholesome teaching. They expound in more depth and more detail the principles of doctrine laid down in the Articles of Religion.

Consequently your argument that English Reformers discontinued the practice of anointing the sick with oil because they, like Calvin, were cessionists falls to the ground. While they recognized the anointing of the sick with oil was an apostolic practice, they found no support in Scripture for the notion that it is an apostolic ordinance, much less a sacrament. They did not countenance the practice because they concluded from their study of the Scriptures that the blessing of so-called “holy oils” was not consistent with Scripture and too many erroneous and superstitious beliefs had attached themselves to the practice of anointing the sick with oil.