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.