Monday, May 26, 2008

Reclaiming the Sacramental (Part 2)

The God we as Christians serve is a Living Mystery who surprises us more and more the longer we follow him. The strangest thing about God is that as we come to know him in deeper and ever more profound ways, the more we grow in the realization of how very little we actually know about him. The distinction I want to highlight here is between that of the relational knowledge of God and the intellectual knowledge of him. One would naturally think that these two things exist in a direct relationship—that as one grows the other does as well—but this is precisely the opposite of the way things work. The more we know God, the less we realize that we "know" about him. Believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Father of Jesus Christ have long testified to the ways in which God transcends our understanding and is thus in a very real sense unknowable to our very limited and finite human minds. This sense of mystery stands out particularly strong in the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares Yahweh. 9'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (55:8-9).

In the Christian faith tradition, most notably in its Orthodox and Catholic varieties, one way of sounding Isaiah's theme has been through the negation of positive properties of God. This is called the apophatic way. The apophatic way is designed to bust our idols by clearly defining what God is not. It guards against the danger inherent in all speech about God, which is that of literally conceiving of God in creaturely terms. For instance, while speaking of God as Father is authorized by Christ's use of the term, calling God "Father" can become idolatrous if we conceive of God as a literal father. In order to keep us from doing so, the apophatic way would be to detail how God is not at all like a father. The purpose of this initial negation of the concept of God as Heavenly Father would be to arrive at an understanding of God as Heavenly Father that does not in any way diminish his glory or ascribe to him any similarity to created things. The apophatic way, then, shows us that God is Father in a way that nothing else in the universe can possibly be. Perhaps no group of Christian thinkers excelled in the expression of the apophatic way as did the great 14th-century Rhineland mystics, Meister Eckhart and his brilliant students Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso. The most shocking apophatic statement comes from Eckhart, who provocatively declares, "God is neither good nor better nor best of all. Whoever would say that God is good would be treating him as unjustly as he were calling the sun black." Of course, Eckhart is not denying the goodness of God here but showing how God transcends all of our conceptions of what goodness is. God is good in a way that we never can be and in a way that we never could have been, even if we had never fallen into sin.

In our ways of thinking about God, we must constantly guard against the impulse to reduce God from the Living Presence he is to a rigidly and easily defined set of propositions. The Angelic Doctor Thomas Aquinas famously said, "If anyone claims to have understood God, then what one has understood is not God." I think these ancient words of St. Thomas have a prophetic significance for contemporary American evangelicals when it comes to our understanding of the way God works in the world, particularly in regard to the rites of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Most evangelicals, to use the words of Leonard Vander Zee, deny the ability of material objects, including and especially the sacraments, "to carry the freight of spiritual reality." Though the Reformation is 500 years in the past, to many Protestants the idea of sacraments raises the full specter of the abusive medieval Roman Catholic sacerdotalism against which Luther and Calvin railed as if it were a present reality threatening the integrity of the Christian faith. "Protestant horror" is an appropriate term for this reaction. This Protestant suspicion of all things that sound remotely Catholic arises, I believe, not from a sola scriptura reliance on the explicit teachings of the Bible or from a religious climate like that of the 16th century but a spirit-matter dualism that is more characteristic of Enlightenment rationalism than the Spirit-led theological premises that informed the Apostles' writing of the New Testament. It is more characteristic of the modern mindset to systematize knowledge and reduce it to its lowest common denominator, such as the philosophically simple distinction between spirit and matter, than it was in the first-century Judeo-Christian mind. Whereas we as early 21st-century American evangelicals view the mystery associated with a messy theology that does not radically separate spirit from matter as a problem that must be solved, the Jewish writers of the New Testament embraced a spiritual God who repeatedly humbled himself and used visible, tangible signs, symbols, and personal invasions into history in order to relate to human beings. The God of Israel repeatedly revealed himself in the natural world, speaking to Moses through the flames of the burning bush, guiding the children of Israel in the Exodus in the form of the pillar of smoke in the daytime and the pillar of fire at night, and, most dramatically, becoming one of us in his Incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth. When we deny the possibility that God continues to relate to his people through the elements of this world, we are thus taking a departure from the view of God presented in the Bible.

While our philosophical inheritance from the Age of Reason and modern life may be fundamental to mainstream evangelicalism's rejection of the sacraments, we cannot just dismiss the theological objections and questions that the sacraments raise for evangelicals. In my last posting, some of the ideas I put forward were undoubtedly shocking to many of you. In fact, some of you have expressed alarm at the dangerous ideas I put forward, particularly my foray into ecclesiology, with the direct correlation I made between salvation and the Church and between Christ and the Church. Also, I made some remarks that appeared to denigrate the reality that we are saved by faith alone and that, at face value, seem to make salvation primarily a sacramental affair. I will take this opportunity to moderate some of those remarks, which, upon further reflection, I must admit were put forward with somewhat less nuance than they should have been. Let me first take up the question of the Church's role in salvation.

The most shocking statement I made was that "the Church opens the gates to heaven in some sense through the sacraments of salvation it administers." This statement seems to imply that the Church and the sacraments by themselves can save us, or, inversely, that without the Church and the sacraments we cannot be saved. I too reject the idea that the Church and the sacraments by themselves can save us or that we cannot be saved without them, as would, incidentally, most Catholics. If we personally reject Jesus Christ, the Church and the sacraments can do nothing for us. If, by faith, however, we are in Christ, no power of the Church can separate us from him. Though the Catholic Church would explain this in different terms than I would, consistent with the Reformed tradition, I would say that the Church and the sacraments contribute to our salvation in the sense that they augment and strengthen the faith through which Jesus saves us. In other words, the sacraments strengthen the influence of the Christ event in our lives. They sign and seal our salvation by powerfully and experientially conferring God's promises on us. In the unusual situation in which the sacraments are not available, however, the promises of God's Word remain true, albeit without the additional assurances that the sacraments alone can provide.

I also mentioned how I do not find the teachings of the Catholic Church about its role in salvation to be substantially wrong but object only to the degree to which it understands this role. I stand by that statement. We must realize that this is not the 16th century and that the Roman Catholic Church has done much to address the abuses that led to the Reformation. While many of the popes and spiritual leaders of the Middle Ages were corrupt and abused their spiritual authority for political and material gain, it is undeniable that recent popes, notably John Paul II, and the current Pope, Benedict XVI, are holy men who deeply love Jesus Christ and are earnest and sincere in shepherding the flock. No longer are indulgences and promises of salvation aggressively marketed to poor peasants for the purposes of filling the Vatican's coffers and no longer does the hierarchy of the Church use the threat of excommunication as a political weapon. Furthermore, in spite of the sex abuse scandal, for which the Vatican is truly beginning to express godly repentance, the vast majority of priests are holy and faithful men who love the Lord deeply. That being said, however, I cannot affirm the Catholic teaching that the Church directly and exclusively administers salvation to the faithful through the priesthood. For me, this places too much stress on the Church's role in salvation and makes God's grace too dependent on human mediators. I do not deny that the Church has some bearing on our salvation but only object to the extent to which this is expressed in Roman Catholicism.

This brings us to another question. I mentioned the connection between the Church and Christ. How is Christ present in the Church? Is he first and foremost present through a professional priesthood that can be identified directly with him, or, do we envision Christ's presence in the Church in a more organic sense? As a Protestant, I must choose the latter and affirm the priesthood of all believers. Though my ecclesiology is quite high for an evangelical (high Church evangelical is an oxymoron if ever there was one!), I cannot identify Christ's presence in the Church with a professional clergy. However, I enthusiastically affirm that Christ is present in his assembled body in a more excellent way than he is in each Spirit-filled Christian individually. Jesus affirms this, when he promises in Matthew 18:18-20:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Though we cannot say that the Church is Christ and that Christ is the Church (Jesus is locally present only at the right hand of the Father in heaven), we clearly see that the Church has great spiritual power and authority because Christ is among his people when his body is assembled. When we encounter the Church, we are encountering the living Christ powerfully present. Conversely, then, when we reject the Church and the sacraments, we are rejecting the Head of the body, Christ. As a result, we can say that in a real sense we are incorporated into Christ through our incorporation into his body by the sacraments and that we are cut off from him through our dismemberment from his body. That is why the author of Hebrews is so insistent that Christians do not forsake the regular gathering together of believers. It is hazardous to our spiritual health to do so.

Finally, how can we reconcile the saving significance of the sacraments with the Protestant tenant of salvation by grace alone through faith alone when the sacraments involve physical things and actions? This was a difficult question for Luther and Calvin to answer, but our importation of a modernist dualism that radically separates spirit from matter complexifies this question to an even further degree. How we read this into the Christian life of faith is most evident in our interpretation of Jesus' words in John 4:24: "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." Protestants, particularly evangelicals, have long used this verse as a proof text to argue against all forms of ritualized worship. True worship is that which occurs in the heart and the head; therefore, ritual actions and ritual objects cannot carry the weight of spiritual reality and are thus unnecessary, if not harmful, to true worship. A look at the context of the passage in which Jesus speaks these words and a discussion of the historical context of the Reformation will introduce needed balance to our understanding of these words.

The biblical context of this verse is Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. We must note that this interaction is unusual because of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans that existed at this time. The Samaritans were the descendents of those Hebrews in the northern kingdom of Israel who were not deported by the Assyrians when Israel fell in the eighth century B.C. Recall that when Judah and Israel divided after the reign of Solomon, Israel set up a temple in Bethel to rival Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem in order to sever the religious connection between the northern tribes and their kinsman in the South. The religion of Israel centered in the temple at Bethel combined elements of monotheistic Judaism with the pantheism of the local Canaanite peoples. The Hebrews who remained in northern Palestine after the Assyrian deportation intermarried with these Canaanite peoples and, in time, became indistinguishable from them, resulting in the rise of a distinct ethnic group called the Samaritans. The animosity that existed between first-century Jews and their Samaritan cousins was thus based not just on race or ethnic identity but also on religious grounds. In the course of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman, she brings up the differences between Samaritan religious practice and that of the Jews. She says, "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where we ought to worship" (v. 20). When Jesus responds that the day is coming when God's worshipers will worship neither in Bethel nor in Jerusalem but rather in spirit and truth, on the one hand, he is speaking to the pantheistic impulse to identify God directly with a physical location that the woman's words indicate, while, on the other hand, he is also speaking to the Jewish understanding of God's exclusive relationship with the physical descendents of Abraham (v. 21-24). By reaching out to a pagan half-breed Gentile woman, Jesus is showing us that the new covenant is not limited to one specific ethnic group or to a particular region of holy geography. The Messiah has come to claim for the Father worshipers from all peoples, nations, and places who will worship him in spirit and truth. This does not mean, however, that this worship is only expressed in an internal and subjective experience. After all, the greatest commandment is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength." This is worship in spirit and truth—a passionate, engaged, embodied (erotic even) spirituality that ardently worships God with all of one's faculties.

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" was an important statement for the Protestant Reformation, not in the sense that the Reformers were rejecting any and all ritualized expressions of worship but in the sense that ritual worship is not to be the sum total of authentic Christian spirituality. The 16th century was a time of ecclesiastical abuse and neglect by the Roman Church. Secular priests were often poorly trained, bishops were often absent from their dioceses, sermons, when provided, were most often in Latin, as was the liturgy of the Word, and promises of the forgiveness of sins and even salvation were exchanged for money through the purchase of indulgences. What the Reformers were reacting to was a spirituality that was mediated exclusively through the Church and that demanded nothing of Christians but loyalty to the Church, yearly confession, and participation in the Mass, which the vast majority of the laity could not understand and in which they were only occasionally given the Eucharistic bread and never the cup. None of the Reformers rejected liturgical worship and, with the exception of Zwingli, all retained a sacramental understanding of baptism and the Eucharist. Furthermore, while Calvin completely rejected transubstantiation, Luther maintained the physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine and did not forbid Christians from accepting transubstantiation as an explanation of how the Lord's Supper works. For the Reformers, ritual and sacramental worship thus remained an important part of authentic Christian spirituality.

The significance of this for our understanding of how the Reformers affirmed the saving significance of baptism and the Lord's Supper while affirming salvation by grace alone through faith alone is that God uses the material substances of water, bread, and wine to confer his promises on us. The Reformers' focus in the sacraments was not on what people do but rather on what God does in the sacraments. God freely offers his grace through baptism and the Eucharist. It is Jesus who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit in baptismal waters. It is Jesus who feeds us with his flesh and his blood when we come to the Lord's Table. Even the verbs we use in talking about baptism and the Lord's Supper testify to this. For instance, we do not baptize ourselves but we are baptized, and though we do eat the bread and do drink the wine, are they not first given to us?

Yet, this is just the problem, that things somehow bring the grace of God to us? Is this not a works salvation because sacraments are bodily received? It is no more a works salvation than the mistaken belief that sincerely praying to receive Christ in and of itself causes us to be saved. Notice something very important about Protestant ideas regarding salvation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone. It is not faith that is causal of our salvation but grace. Grace is the cause of our salvation, and faith is simply the vehicle through which God confers this grace on us. Faith cannot appropriate salvation from God or it too becomes a meritorious work that we must do to please God—a "spiritual" work but a work nonetheless. In other words, faith does not work upward from us to God. Faith comes down from God to us. It merely enlightens us to the salvation that is already freely given in Christ. Let's look at Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." What is the gift here? Is it salvation or is it faith? It is both. Salvation is freely available to us in Christ; faith opens our eyes to this reality.

We still have not answered the question of how we understand faith, though. What does faith mean? I think the modernist spirit-matter dualism we have imported into our understanding of Christianity has dramatically warped what we mean by the word “faith.” Is it a platonic acceptance of the objective truth of certain propositions, or is it a passionate grasping on to and trust in the promises of God that transforms our lives? The witness of Scripture would clearly direct us to the latter. Faith is not an airy, ethereal, abstract belief in objective facts that have little bearing on our lives. No; faith is a passionate, engaged, embodied subjective experience of the objective reality of God's redemption of us in Christ that makes each of us a new creation.

Faith, however, sometimes seems the farthest thing from this experience. Sometimes it is very faint. Sometimes it is all we can do to hang on to it. That is why Christ instituted the physical signs of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Until Christ returns, they remind us that the Christian faith is based on the historical events of the God-man's life, death, and resurrection. In Christ's physical absence, they testify to the fact that he was here, that he was and is one of us, that he loved us and gave himself for us, that he died, that he defeated death and rose again, that he ascended on high and is at the right hand of the Father, and that he will come again to make all things new.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments are the visible words by which we know our Savior. In them, God promises us the realities to which they point. Whenever our faith is weak, whenever the clouds come to make us doubt whether or not we have indeed experienced the saving grace of Christ, each of us can point to our baptism and claim the promises God made to us in those waters. This does not mean that baptism in and of itself is a guarantee of salvation or that it mechanically accomplishes our salvation, but for those who live by faith in the Son of God, we can count God's testimony in baptism that "This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased" to be true. And if we doubt Christ, that he was crucified and rose again, that he was our Passover lamb, that his sacrifice counts for us, we can come to His Table and receive his body and blood anew. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? When we sit at the Lord's Table, we can emphatically say, "Yes! I was there. It counts for me."

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, God only wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

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