Maundy Thursday

Since I’ve been really busy lately, I thought I’d take a break from Thesis Thursday. (Even though we’re in the home stretch — just three lectures left!)

Everybody knows about Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, but for a long time I’d thought of Maundy Thursday as bit of Catholic (or Anglican, a.k.a. Catholic-lite) extranea, like Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and Lent and Epiphany, and most of the rest of the traditional church calendar.

However, my church is on a trajectory towards higher-church liturgy, and few years ago we instituted a Maundy Thursday service. But even though Maundy etymologically refers to the foot-washing of John 13, our service only has a simple church dinner in the “Fellowship Hall,” followed by moving into the “Audiosacramentorium” for a short homily and communion.

As far as I can tell, the Reformed tradition has never cottoned to the whole foot-washing thing — agreeing with Rome that it is not a sacrament, contra some Anabaptist groups like the Mennonites. However, it seems to me that John 13:14-15 pretty clearly meet the SC92 definition of “A holy ordinance instituted by Christ.”

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

Is that not even stronger language than “Do this in remembrance of me”? So why don’t we have foot-washing as a third sacrament? Checking with go-to-guy (Calvin’s commentary), I find him to be unhelpful:

It deserves our attention that Christ says that he gave an example; for we are not at liberty to take all his actions, without reserve, as subjects of imitation. The Papists boast that, by Christ’s example, they observe the forty days’ fast, or Lent. But we ought first to see whether or not he intended to lay down his fast as an example that the disciples might conform to it as a rule. We read nothing of this sort, and, therefore, the imitation of it is not less wicked than if they attempted to fly to heaven. Besides, when they ought to have followed Christ, they were not imitators, but apes. Every year they have a fashion of washing some people’s feet, as if it were a farce which they were playing on the stage; and so, when they have performed this idle and unmeaning ceremony, they think that they have fully discharged their duty, and reckon themselves at liberty to despise their brethren during the rest of the year. But — what is far worse — after having washed the feet of twelve men, they subject every member of Christ to cruel torture, and thus spit in Christ’s face. This display of buffoonery, therefore, is nothing else than a shameful mockery of Christ. At all events, Christ does not here enjoin an annual ceremony, but bids us be ready, throughout our whole life, to wash the feet of our brethren and neighbors.

I don’t get how Calvin can escape “follow my example” so easily by simply asserting that “Christ does not here enjoin an annual ceremony”?

Maybe it is problematic to have a “sacrament” that is administered by everybody (i.e. administered by lay-Christians, not just the ordained)? But if that’s the problem, then surely it would be quite in the spirit of the original foot-washing to have the ordained leaders of the church (pastor, elders, deacons) wash the feet of the parishioners?

I also wonder whether the answer lies in how foot-washing fits with the rest of SC92: “wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” But that seems to me to fit pretty well. Obviously it is a sign that we would apprehend by our senses, and it would represent the same washing benefit as baptism, as well as the benefit of Christ’s humiliation on our behalf. Does the argument then head in the direction that the bible nowhere promises that foot-washing will seal and apply benefits to believers?

Do any readers have any further thoughts (or better yet, actual historical citations) that would explain why the Reformed do not have sacramental foot-washings?

This entry was posted in Baptism, Calvin, Calvinism, Compare and Confess, Confessionalism, Confessions, History, Protestantism/Catholicism, The Lord's Supper, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Maundy Thursday

  1. RubeRad says:

    From my pastor, by email: “I think part of the answer needs to include Paul’s and the other writers of the NT strange absence of any mention of it in contrast to the mention of both the supper and baptism. I would also include that both baptism and the supper appear in the ministry of Christ after the resurrection. These are unconventional arguments that could be added to the standard arguments about all things sacrament.”

  2. John Hutson says:

    Many people’s feet (mine included) are very ticklish. I attended a foot-washing in college and found it excruciating. I’m guessing the disciples’ feet were hard and not ticklish from wearing sandals and walking everywhere.

    But seriously, before being a sacrament, you have the question of whether it’s even an acceptable element of worship. I don’t see it in WCF XXI or the DfW, so I think it’s safe to say that historically Presbyterians have not seen it as such. I suppose you could have a foot-washing “church function,” and just not call it a worship service nor ask everyone to be present (especially the ticklish).

    I think there’s an additional problem if you’re going to use ordained officers to do the washing, because the officers are men (right?) and many of the congregants are women. Maybe some don’t see a problem with that, but I’m sure some will.

  3. RubeRad says:

    Interesting thoughts. As for being an element of worship before being a sacrament, I think it should actually be the other way around. If it is a sacrament, then surely that makes it acceptable for worship (or, in RPW categories, a commanded element of worship).

    And even though it seems culturally strange now, if we had been doing it for centuries/millenia, we would not see it as strange.

  4. Pilgrim says:

    Does foot washing signify grace, or just service and love? That could be a reason it’s not considered a sacrament. Second, foot washing was only an act of servant love given certain accidental features of Jesus’ day. Our feet are fairly clean and well-kept (especially if you’re prone to getting pedis). The meaning would be lost, then. Even if it were to instituted as a sacrament in Reformed churches, a substitute would need to be chosen, and even this would vary across time and cultures. And this implication seems to be a strike against making it a sacrament. Instead, if we love and serve one another, in whatever way is salient given particular times and cultures, it seems we’re meeting Jesus’ prescription.

  5. RubeRad says:

    Well if sacramental, I think it would be more a picture of Christ’s humiliation and service to us, than of our service to each other. Then again, Jesus does explicitly draw out the parallel “as I serve you, so you serve each other”. As for “making it a sacrament”, I think we have to avoid that kind of thinking, and ask rather whether it should have been a sacrament all along. And even if some peoples’ feet are cleaner nowadays, I can tell you that my feet are pretty nasty. It would be right up there with Peter, “yeah, you don’t want to be down there”. And even for clean feet, getting on the ground and washing somebody else’s feet is an act of humility, and at least a sign of service, even if it is not a service that is commonly needed in our culture.

  6. Pingback: Thesis Thursday | The Confessional Outhouse

  7. Pilgrim says:

    Nothing rides on the language of “making it a sacrament.” The same considerations apply to your rephrasing it as, “should it have been a sacrament all along?” Thanks for the info on your feet, but TMI. I know plenty of females that wouldn’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Same with the few very rich men I know. They get a pedi at least once a week. And, yes, *perhaps* getting on the ground and cleaning someone’s feet is a sign of humility, but perhaps not. I’m not sure we can say that today. However, there are some things that pretty clearly are today. In any event, since when is a sign of *service* a sacrament? We do services for brothers and sisters all the time, sometimes humble ones. Should these be sacraments?

  8. Chris Hansen says:

    Both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were built on the edifice of Old Covenant sacramentology explicitly depicting the drama of redemption and the signs of the covenant. Although they mean more than that, both (including their Passover and Circumcision protoypes) image the cutting of the covenant–the covenant ordeal if you will. Both are clearly taught to be signs and seals of the covenant. Foot-washing, on the other hand, not only has no teaching that demonstrates it being a sign and seal of the covenant, it’s symbology and origin (being derived from cultural rather than cultic practices) seem to militate against it being considered as such.

    Footwashing, in Jesus’s teachings, seems to me to be a moral command, not an ecclesial sacrament. It is no more sacrament than alms giving or prayer or wearing a head covering.

  9. markmcculley says:

    I used to be Church of Brethren clergy before I was converted by the power of the true gospel. So I am used to footwashing. Two comments.

    1. The command to foot wash is at least as clear as any command anywhere to baptize with water. Of course I understand that most folks supply the word “water” whenever they see the word “baptize”. At the least they don’t have a clear rule to understand when “baptize with the Spirit” and “baptized into the death” DON’T mean water.

    2. Of course there are no “sacraments” in the Bible. if you accept the “difference” between what we are doing and what God is doing, then the only “sacrament” is what Jesus did to obtain a righteousness, and not what we do to witness, confess, profess, pledge etc. I think the best way to “see through” the idea of “sacrament” is to read that confessions and systematics say about “sacrament in general” before they get to baptism and Lord’s Supper in particular. What do they have in common, and why is prayer and marriage and footwashing not “sacramental”?

    If paedobaptism is not baptism, is baptism not a necessary prerequisite for the Lord’s Supper? Credobaptists who welcome paedobaptists to the Lord’s Supper welcome their baptism. Is baptism a prerequiste for footwashing? Doesn’t footwashing have too much human doing in it? I mean, in the mass, after you stick out your tongue, you can be passive…

  10. markmcculley says:

    John 13:8 “Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, dexcept for his feet, but is completely clean. ”

    If we attend to the text, the focus is not on service but on daily renewal and cleansing. You have been sanctified, but you must continue to “put on the new man” etc.

    To address Hanson’s concerns, let’s stipulate that

    1. Any footwashing that we do will be “covenantal footwashing”.

    2. Since footwashing is a “moral command”, it is a part of God’s moral law and reflects God’s nature, and therefore cannot be abrogated even by God.

    3.Confessional footwashing will be not only a sign of cleansing but also a seal. And to be clear about what a “seal” is, we will explain that it assures people who are less verbal that God is telling the truth about cleansing. And let’s leave it a bit more ambiguous if this “seal” is saying something in particular about the person who is having their feet washed. Maybe footwashing is just a general proposition but then again the person who has their feet washed should perhaps feel comforted in a more personal way that the gospel promises are for them in particular.

    4. One thing is clear. Reformed footwashing would involve water and bowls and hands and clothes, so it it is a good alternative against gnostics who are so abstract and academic that they don’t appreciate creation and incarnation like they should. And when you get to the academy, one of the first things you learn is not to be gnostic and individualist, but instead to do things in groups and by tradition. And only ignorant people don’t know that “sacraments” have been around a lot longer than the Reformation.

    I would do a sarcasm alert, but I am waiting to deconstruct the difference between “cultic” and “cultural”. Also, between “covenantal” and “non-covenantal”.

  11. markmcculley says:

    “the bible nowhere promises that foot-washing will seal and apply benefits to believers”?

    What bible verses say that water baptism seals and applies benefits to anybody?

    What bible verses say that water baptism seas and applies benefits to the elect who do not yet believe the gospel, the efficacy of this water baptism not being limited to those who are now believers?

    What , are we biblicists now?

    Assuming that baptism always includes water, and further assuming that baptism is always something God does, and not something humans do, is it a fair question to ask if it’s God the Holy Spirit who baptizes or if it’s Christ who baptizes or if it’s Father who baptizes? And if it’s not a fair question, does that mean that one person of the Trinity baptizes, all the persons of the Trinity baptize? Or does it mean that all three persons of the Trinity baptize when God baptizes? Who imputes righteousness to the elect so that they become justified? Who is the He in I Cor 1:30? “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”. Is the God in the “God has made” the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit?

  12. RubeRad says:


    Thanks for dropping by and dropping some comments. I am too busy to interact with them at the level I would like to, but here’s a few thoughts that might be useful/relevant:

    why is prayer and marriage and footwashing not “sacramental”?

    In reverse order, footwashing is the question at hand. The Reformed rejected the RC assessment of marriage as a sacrament because it isn’t for everybody (it is not required that all be married). Prayer is an interesting point, maybe see this post where I wonder why prayer is a means of grace but not a mark of the church (and discipline vice versa). But probably prayer does not fit within the definition of a sacrament because it is not a sign or a seal, it can be administered by more than just those duly ordained, etc.

    What bible verses say that water baptism seals and applies benefits to anybody?

    We’re having a Reformed discussion here, so in a Reformed context, the confessions say that baptism signs & seals benefits, which is shorthand for saying “we Reformed confess that the bible says that baptism signs & seals benefits”. There are plenty of data in this regard in the scripture proofs of the confessional artifacts. For instance WCF 28.1: “Baptism is…to be unto him a sign and seal of…his ingrafting into Christ [Gal3:27,Rom6:5]”. Putting on Christ, and being united to him in resurrection are two benefits promised to “as many as were baptized into Christ”. So what promised benefits are signed&sealed by footwashing? I think the answer (if correct) must be “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.”

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