On Jumping the Gun and Missing the Apostrophe

by Ron Henzel

In Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad, the Achaeans weep over the corpse of Patroclus, the beloved comrade-in-arms of Achilles, who had been killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. Achilles is particularly distraught, since he had promised Patroclus’s father, Menoetius, that he would bring him back home safely. In his grief he addresses the dead Patroclus, promising him vengeance.

So then, Patroclus, since I too am going below, but after you, I shall not hold your funeral till I have brought back here the armour and the head of Hector.

[Iliad 18.330, E.V. Rieu, translator, (New York, NY, USA and Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1950; 1981), 345.]

Although The Iliad is filled with the supernatural, the question of whether Patroclus could actually hear Achilles’ promise does not come up. There’s a good reason for that: Achilles was employing a rhetorical device for the benefit of the living who overheard him; he was not trying to communicate with Patroclus.

Toward the end of Act 3, Scene 1, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and company had just departed, leaving Marc Antony alone with the dead body of Julius Caesar.

Antony addresses the corpse,

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers! / Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times. / Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!

[William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911), 965.]

His soliloquy goes on for another 17 lines, speaking to the dead Caesar. He pronounces curses on his murderers and predicts that Caesar’s spirit will return to “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” but there is no reason to assume that Antony believes that Caesar can actually hear him.

A Manner of Speaking

When people try to communicate with the dead, we call it “necromancy.” That is not what is going on in these two scenes from our Western literary heritage. Rather, these are two examples, widely acknowledged in literary circles, of the rhetorical device known as “apostrophe” (yes, it’s spelled and pronounced the same as the punctuation mark). Apostrophe occurs when someone speaks to a person who is absent as though that person were present, and it occurs throughout ancient, medieval, and modern literature. We also find it in Scripture. When King David cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, ESV), he was engaging in grief-stricken apostrophe.

With apostrophe, the addressee does not have to be dead, nor does it even need to be a person. It simply needs to be something that is not actually present to the speaker—such as, for example, death itself, as when John Donne wrote “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.” It is even at work when the speaker mistakenly believes that the addressee is absent.  So when Juliet, thinking her lover was absent, cried out, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” she was employing apostrophe.

By its very nature, apostrophe obviously does not intend actual communication between the speaker and addressee.  Nor is apostrophe difficult to spot, or easy to confuse with something quite different: say, for example, the act of praying to the dead. Distinguishing between these two is not complicated. Unlike the act of praying to the dead, in apostrophe no petitions are given; the absent (or in this case, dead) are not asked for anything. They are merely addressed as if present.

Simple, right?

At Least, So You Would Think

Just a few days ago (on Friday, April 29, 2016), Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong accused Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) of “praying” to his friend and fellow Reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) the year after Melanchthon had died. In a blog post titled, “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon,” Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

With a cynical brevity that is breathtaking for its sloppiness, Armstrong simply posts an incomplete quote from one of Calvin’s theological treatises, with no substantive comment, as if that were all the proof necessary:

O Philip Melanchthon! for I appeal to you who live in the presence of God with Christ, and wait for us there until we are united with you in blessed rest . . . I have wished a thousand times that it had been our lot to be together!

The citation is from page 258 in Calvin: Theological Treatises, edited by J.K.S. Reid (although Armstrong does not cite Reid’s name properly), and reprinted in 2000 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Slam dunk, right?

In case we don’t believe him, Armstrong links to an image of the page on Google Books. But then he provides another link, this time to a volume containing a 19th century translation of the same source, also on Google Books. He prefaces this second link with the words, “The same prayer (or whatever one thinks it is) is found in…” as if to disclaim that he is not absolutely saying that this is what the bold-lettered title of his blog post declares it to be: a prayer from Calvin to the late Melanchthon.

Yeah, right.

Ready, Fire, Aim!

As it turns out, at this point in his very real and ongoing war against Protestantism, Armstrong was not using real ammunition. Nor did he have a clear view of his immediate target.

Not only is there nothing in the words he quoted from Calvin to suggest it was a prayer, but if Armstrong had bothered to check Reid’s introduction, he would have found those words referred to as Calvin’s “moving apostrophe to Melanchthon,” (Reid, ibid., 21). And if he had checked the index of his 19th century source, he would have discovered it listed as “Calvin’s solemn apostrophe to [Melanchthon],” (Henry Beveridge, translator, Calvin’s Treatises on the Sacraments [Edinburgh, UK: Calvin Translation Society, 1849], 2:587). What has been obvious to readers for at least the past 167 years was wholly lost on Armstrong.

The notion that Calvin would lapse into a prayer to Philip Melanchthon so soon after publishing the final editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Latin: 1559; French: 1560) is analogous to the idea that Bernie Sanders would endorse Donald Trump for President the day after he loses the Democrat nomination. In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” (Institutes 3.20.21, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press], 2:879), and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” (Institutes 3.20.22; ibid., 2:880). Any kind of communication with the dead is impossible, since “when the Lord withdrew them from our company, he left us no contact with them [Eccl. 9:5-6], and as far as we can conjecture, not even left them any with us.” (Institutes 3.20.24, ibid., 2:883.) And yet Armstrong would have us believe that a year after Calvin applied the final tweaks to the extended section of the Institutes in which he thoroughly denounced this practice (3.20.21-27) he engaged in it himself!

As a former Roman Catholic, I find it somewhat shocking that a zealous son of the Vatican cannot distinguish an example of apostrophe from a genuine prayer to a dead saint. It was never difficult for me. All one need do in order to find out what real prayers to dead saints look like is to consult an authentic historical source, such as the prayers of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109).

When Anselm prayed to the Virgin Mary, he made specific requests. He asked her to cleanse him from his sins: “let this filth be washed from my mind, let my darkness be illuminated, my lukewarmness blaze up, my listlessness be stirred,” (The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, Benedicta Ward, ed. and trans., [London, UK and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1973], 116). When he prayed to the Apostle Peter he begged for assurance “that I am received, healed, and cherished,” (ibid., 138). He asked the Apostles Paul and John to intercede for him before God: “St Paul, pray for your son,” (ibid., 155); “John, whose intercession I ask,” (ibid., 167). He pleads with St. Stephen that if he will only speak up for him, “I am sure the most loving God will remit the whole of my evil deeds,” (ibid., 177). He asks St. Nicholas to “stir up my spirit, excite my heart, move my mind according to my need,” (ibid., 188). To St. Benedict he prays, “Help me! I beg you to be my protector,” (ibid., 199). To Mary Magdalene he implores, “in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity,” (ibid., 202).

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

But nothing like this is found in Calvin’s address to Melanchthon. It lasts all of a paragraph, and it ends with a quote from a letter that Melanchthon had written to Calvin. Calvin does not ask Melanchthon to intercede for him before God, or apply some of his own merits to Calvin, as we find in Anselm’s prayers. He simply recalls the support Melanchthon had given to him during his lifetime, and moves on to the next paragraph where he recalls his own response to what Melanchthon wrote. The apostrophe is already over by this point, and it includes no petitions, no request, no pleas. The reason for this is simple: it’s not a prayer.

Epilogue

When I first began writing this, I did not see any comments on Armstrong’s blog post. That has changed, and I notice that the issue of apostrophe has been called to his attention. He is not responding very positively to it.

Go figure.

30 Comments

  1. John Harutunian said,

    May 2, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Ron, as an Anglican I think that what you say makes good sense. But then how would you define the communion of saints? Communion of living saints only? My intuition tells me there’s a third view, in between your view and that of Rome.

  2. Kevin said,

    May 2, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    And this suprises us why? Catholics are looking for help from everything and everyone except the only one who can save them, Jesus. Why? Because they dont believe in Him. If they did, they would believe only He could save them. ” For the one who comes to HIM must believe that HE is, and that HE is the rewarder of those seek Him. They are looking for love in all the wrong places. Protestants know that He has the words to eternal life. K

  3. Ron Henzel said,

    May 3, 2016 at 5:51 am

    John,

    My definition of the communion of saints is in keeping with that of the Heidelberg Catechism:

    Question 55. What do you understand by “the communion of saints”?

    Answer: First, that all and every one, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.

    There is nothing in this definition that excludes the saints who have died and are now with Christ from this communion. As Herman Bavinck wrote concerning them:

    The blessedness of communion with God is enjoyed in and heightened by the communion of saints. On earth already this communion is a wonderful benefit of faith. Those who for Jesus’s sake have left behind house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields already in this life receive houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children, and fields—along with persecutions—(Mark 10:29-30), for all who do the will of the Father are Jesus’s brother and sister and mother (Matt. 12:50). Through the mediator of the New Testament, believers enter into fellowship, not only with the militant church on earth, but also with the triumphant church in heaven, the assembly of the firstborn, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, even with innumerable angels (Heb. 12:22-24). But this fellowship, though in principle it already exists on earth, will nevertheless be incomparably richer and more glorioius when all dividing walls of descent and language, of time and space, have been leveled, all sin and error have been banished, and all the elect have been assembled in the new Jerusalem. Then will be fully answered the prayer of Jesus that all his sheep may be one flock under one Shepherd (John 10:16; 17:21).

    [Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, John Bolt, ed., John Vriend, trans., (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic, 2008), 4:723.]

    Even though saints who have died are included in the communion of saints, one of the “dividing walls” that remains to be leveled is the fact that their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living. Bavinck does not mention it here, but he goes into it at length in 4:620-627. His position is that “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,” (ibid., 625).

    Calvin, of course, agrees. The dead can neither hear our prayers nor respond to them. And yet he is willing to concede that “their love is also contained within the community of the body of Christ” to the point that he affirms that they pray for us, albeit without receiving information from us concerning our needs.

    Now even though I grant they pray for us in this way, still they do not abandon their own repose so as to be drawn into earthly cares; and much less must we on this account be always calling upon them!

    [Institutes 3.20.24; Battles’ translation, 2:883.]

  4. May 3, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    >>>Even though saints who have died are included in the communion of saints, one of the “dividing walls” that remains to be leveled is the fact that their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living.

    Really? Why, then, did Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration? Why did Saul appear to Daniel and tell him he was to die the next day? What about the Two Witnesses of Revelation (commentators think they may be Moses and Elijah, or maybe Enoch and Elijah)?

    The physical deaths of all these men did not prevent THEM from “communicating with the living.”

    Yet you claim that this is not possible and forbidden by God. So what gives? I go with Scripture, whenever traditions of men contradict it.

  5. May 3, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Bad typo: should be “. . . why did SAMUEL appear to SAUL!!!”

  6. Don said,

    May 3, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Is this guy seriously using the Transfiguration as a counter-example? Wow.

    Also, in the even less relevant example of the two witnesses, is he saying that Enoch and Elijah died? The Scriptures are kind of vague but it’s generally understood that they skipped the whole dying part of the going-to-heaven experience.

  7. Kevin said,

    May 3, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Armstrong, those appearences werent them invoking the saints for help thru praying to them. What is that you need Dave that you cant get from the perfect counselor and savior? You Catholics have no idea what is in store for those who undetmine His perfect sufficiency. You worship bread, participate in tbe go out and do your part gospel, and invoke saints.. a human institution indeed, becoming more human every day.

  8. May 3, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Read again what I wrote in my comment above, then maybe you’ll grasp the actual argument I was making, contra Bavinck’s and Ron’s statements.

  9. May 3, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    You (Ron) have persuaded me and I have retracted and reversed my position. See my revised article.

    But I also clarified some significant ways in which you misrepresented my original argument, and did an exposition / word study on the latitude of biblical prayer.

    In any event, thanks for your input, which caused me to correct my mistake. I always appreciate that.

    Article (now revised, complete with new title):

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/04/john-calvin-prayed-to-dead-philip-melanchthon.html

  10. Don said,

    May 3, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    Dave Armstrong 8,
    Let me rephrase: Are you claiming that the Transfiguration is normative?

  11. May 3, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    It’s irrelevant whether it is “normative” or not, because it is a clear disproof of an attempted universal negative, asserted by Ron and Bavinck:

    Ron: “their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living.”

    Bavinck: “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,”

    Moses and Elijah appearing at the Transfiguration refutes that. Samuel appearing to Saul also refutes it, as does the Two Witnesses of Revelation, if indeed they are the dead returned, as many Protestant commentators believe.

    It’s simple logic. God allowed all these events to happen, so either the blanket statements are wrong or God is. I say that God is right!

  12. May 3, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    You can quibble over whether Enoch and Elijah died, but that still would not explain Moses at the Transfiguration, who DID die (Deut 34:5-7).

  13. May 3, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    . . . or Samuel appearing to Saul, which most commentators believe to be the REAL prophet, not some demonic impersonation. He told the truth to Saul, which suggests that he was really the man Samuel. And so that’s what many commentators hold. Look it up, if you don’t believe me, just cuz I’m a lowly Catholic, supposedly ignorant as a doornail about Scripture and Jesus. :-)

  14. Ron said,

    May 3, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    David,

    If someone who has died appears to you and also communicates to you, then by all means you should believe that such has happened. Would such an occurrence, should it ever happen, imply more than that such an occurrence actually happened? Moreover, what may we infer from two from the dead appearing to Jesus and those with Jesus yet while communicating only to Jesus? What are you trying to establish and how do you get there?

  15. May 3, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    It’s very simple. My examples clearly refute the “universal negative” that you asserted:

    Ron: “their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living.”

    Bavinck: “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,”

    If these dead guys come to earth, then those statements are at worst, false, and at the very best, in need of qualifications. You have to explain why God allows these instances that contradict your absolute statements. You could say they were mere rare exceptions, but it seems to me that you would then have to explain (at least speculate) why God allowed those exceptions.

    You could say they were non-normative, and the usual norms exclude these things (sort of like how most Reformed view tongues and miracles, that have supposedly ceased).

    Samuel came back to earth and talked to Saul. Moses and Elijah *may* have talked to the disciples during the Transfiguration (I visited the place where that happened). The text doesn’t say that they did not. Si it’s quite plausible and possible. The Two Witnesses clearly talked to lots of people because they were proclaiming and preaching God’s truth.

    What is it in the manifest progression and logic of my argument that you don’t get? You’re a smart guy. I believe you can see how this creates a difficulty for your stated position.

    It may be scary; it may take you out of your Reformed dogma and comfort zone for a brief hypothetical moment, and/or contradict the Creeds and Confessions you adhere to, and that’s not enjoyable. But I believe you can understand my argument and why it has some force.

  16. Don said,

    May 4, 2016 at 2:05 am

    15,

    If these dead guys come to earth, then those statements are at worst, false, and at the very best, in need of qualifications.

    If you want to take your pencil and at every relevant place in the Heidelberg Catechism write in, “…unless they show up with Jesus and are glowing” then feel free.

    You have to explain why God allows these instances that contradict your absolute statements.

    No.

    you would then have to explain (at least speculate) why God allowed those exceptions.

    No.

  17. May 4, 2016 at 5:16 am

    I tried. Your head is so firmly in the sand that I could never pull it out of there. Your choice.

  18. Ron said,

    May 4, 2016 at 7:30 am

    David,

    It seems to me you could be begging some crucial premises in order to get to your conclusion about what remains possible based upon what has at sundry times and under distinct circumstances occurred. In any case, I’ll leave this to the other Ron with whom you might have confused me.

  19. Kevin said,

    May 4, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Armstrong said: you have ro explain why” because Christ is risen and is the only mediator we need. Paul didnt say, hey Im available to hear prayers when I get to heaven. You guys missed an important fact, Christ is risen. Let Him off the cross. We posess the person of Christ thru His Spirit. ” For the one who joins himself to the Lord is one SPIRIT with Him. We dont need derivatives. We are incorporated into His body through the SPIRIT not the flesh, not even saints. You are in a false system. K

  20. Bob S said,

    May 6, 2016 at 2:30 am

    You’re 0 for 2, Dave. (Not good, but not a surprise considering.)
    The exception doesn’t prove the rule.
    It’s elementary unless you’re functionally illiterate/unreasonable.

    Of course since the Roman church claims apostolic powers, including miracles it’s no surprise you’re trying to mine this vein of fool’s gold.

    IOW they’re “one of” events.
    At least the transfiguration.

    As for Samuel, start naming your commentators that think it is not an apparition of the devil, but really the prophet.
    Wait. Make that a pope.
    They’re the only infallible ones on your team.

    But then again maybe ouiji boards are something we ought to include in the liturgy. Before or after the introit?

    cheers

  21. Kevin said,

    May 9, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Dave Armstrong, God has a message for you, Colossians 1:13″ For He rescued us from the domain of darkness , and transfered us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we HAVE redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” I invite you to cease from the work of the mass for your salvation and to repent and believe the gospel of scripture. As you can see from Paul, we have been rescued from darkness, have been transfered to the kingdom of God, and have redemption. John says by this we have overcome the world, our faith. It was finished at the cross. Revelation 18 :4 ” come out from her my people” God bless. K

  22. Ron said,

    May 9, 2016 at 8:06 pm

    Kevin,

    You seem to be suggesting that DA is one of the “we” who have been rescued and that his coming out of the harlot is a matter of sanctification.

  23. Kevin said,

    May 9, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    Ron, Im not sure where you got that. I invited him to believe the gospel. I dont believe those that believe the Roman gospel are saved. However, God is also calling his elect out of that communion. I believe true believers( God’s elect) will leave that communion. Im sure you would agree there are true believers in that church. Im sure I could have said it differently. Revelation 18:4 God is calling his people out of her. I believe that is the Roman Catholic church. I

  24. May 11, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    […] “John Calvin Did NOT Pray to Philip Melanchthon,” and I thank him not only for citing my blog post of May 2 as providing the reason that persuaded him to make that change, but for actually thanking me for […]

  25. Ron said,

    May 14, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    I got it from here:

    “Dave Armstrong, God has a message for you, Colossians 1:13″ For He rescued us from the domain of darkness , and transfered us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we HAVE redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

    You said it was a message to DA. It’s a message to the saints, Kevin. If one is rescued, he’s saved. The message informs the believer what has transpired. The message for DA is quite a different from the mouth of the Lord.

    I invite you to cease from the work of the mass for your salvation and to repent and believe the gospel of scripture.

    That can equally apply to a saint like those in Galatia who were bewitched. Yet all the rest you wrote inadvertently implied DA’s personal salvation, which surely you didn’t want to do. For instance you wrote: “…we have been rescued from darkness, have been transfered to the kingdom of God, and have redemption.” We? How is that a message for one who has not yet been converted? And here, “John says by this we have overcome the world…” We? David is not in that number.

    Please don’t argue against this, Kevin.

  26. Kevin said,

    May 16, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Ron, please dont tell me not to argue against something I wrote and you misunderstand. The we means christians, those who believe the true gospel, the elect. I didnt include him. You just assumed that. And I know the verse is Colossians is talking to believers. I was telling him we ( those who believe the true gospel, christians) are already rescued. I invited him to believe the gospel. You read that and still acuse me of calling him a christian. And if you are saying that God is not calling his elect out of that communion l, you are wrong. By telling him that doesnt imply that I consider Catholics christians. But for those true elect in that communion, God is calling them out of that communion. I dont see how youbwould say otherwise. K

  27. Ron said,

    May 19, 2016 at 3:08 am

    Kevin,

    Like so much of what you write, your literal words don’t always portray your intended meaning:

    “Dave Armstrong, God has a message for you, Colossians 1:13″ For He rescued us from the domain of darkness , and transfered us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we HAVE redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

    You didn’t intend to convey that DA has been saved but that’s what your literal words imply. Your observation that God calls his elect out of Rome is irrelevant to whether you unwittingly applied a verse that speaks to believers to DA. Take responsibility and care when you write things like “DA, God has a message for you… we HAVE redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” If this message is from God to DA as you say, then DA is numbered among all the “we” who have forgiveness of sins now, this very moment. You don’t mean what you say.

  28. Kevin said,

    May 19, 2016 at 8:50 am

    Ron, please forgive my not being concise What I was saying to him there is we ( those who believe the biblical gospel) are already rescued and redeemed Ephesians 1:7. I wasn’t saying we including him, but I can understand the ambiguity there. Thanks Ron I’ll try to do better. K

  29. Ron said,

    May 19, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Brother,

    I appreciate that… and most of all your evangelistic desire to see him released from the clutches of idols. Keep up the good work!

  30. Kevin said,

    May 19, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks Ron my brother. God bless k


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