Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Sacraments Revisited

I have not written exclusively or specifically on the sacraments for a little while now, but I'm not done treating the subject in depth. So far, I have written three installments about reclaiming the sacraments for evangelicals. In the process, I have challenged philosophical and theological assumptions that undermine right views of the sacraments, described in brief the sacraments' relation to ecclesiology, exposited Scriptures related to baptism, surveyed various orthodox views of baptism, and given the question of the Lord's Supper a biblical and scholarly treatment from a classically Reformed point of view. I have yet to survey the various orthodox views of the Supper, or, to discuss the broad implications of recovering a sacramental theology.

Before taking up these tasks, I think a little revision is in order when it comes to what I have already written on this subject. The things I had written before are by no means mature thoughts on the sacraments and their implications for the Church and the entire Christian life. They represent my earliest wranglings with these kinds of ideas. I've read and thought more extensively since then. Also, I've learned that doing theology is a constant balancing act. Here are some needed counterweights to my earlier thoughts.

First corrective: In a way that smacks of both medieval scholasticism and the more recent Enlightenment and Age of Reason-inspired evangelical Protestant scholasticism, I described salvation or grace (justification, sanctification, etc.) as a sort of commodity that is distributed by the Church. When we conceive of salvation in this sense, I think we are missing the point. Salvation is relational; it is none other than Christ we seek.

Second corrective: Also in reference to my previous point, commodifying salvation and thinking of the Church as some sort of salvation-dispensing machine diminish the overarching significance of the person of Jesus Christ. We should think of salvation, not as something that is abstracted from Christ and then applied to us, but as nothing more or less than the abiding personal presence of Jesus Christ in and with the believer. Similarly, we should not think of the Church as something antecedent to or separable from the person of Jesus Christ. We should think of the Church in terms of the Augustinian concept of totus Christus and the Eastern Orthodox idea of perichoresis.

The reality of totus Christus is the reality of Christ as the Head in heaven at the right hand of the Father united to the Church—His very own Body—on earth (see Ephesians 5). In other words, Christ is composed of both Christ our Head and we His Body. Therefore, we can say that whenever the Body acts in obedience to its Head, its actions are none other than the actions of Jesus Himself.

When I speak of perichoresis, I am speaking of the sense in which the Persons of the Trinity mutually indwell and interpenetrate one another. Through the Holy Spirit, we as the Body of Christ are taken up into this union the Persons of the Trinity share with one another. As a result, Christ is in us and we are in Christ. Christ is in us individually because we are in Him corporately as the Church.

The point is that neither the Church nor salvation can be theologically separated from Christ. Salvation is right relationship with Christ, embodied in the Church. The Church is salvation. The sacraments are instrumental in our salvation in that baptism incorporates us into Christ's Body and the Lord's Supper continuously renews our union with Christ and His Body.

Third corrective: The sacraments are not means of grace. Again, we are dealing with the problem of thinking of salvation as some sort of commodity. Grace is not some kind of ether that is abstracted from God and distributed. Grace is Christ Himself and the abundant mercy He shows to sinners. A better way to speak of the sacraments is as means of union with Christ.

Fourth corrective: The sacraments are not primarily visible words. This raises the specter of Zwinglian or Baptist memorialism and the worst abuses of medieval sacramental practice. The sacraments do not find their primary use or efficacy in visible demonstration. We certainly cannot neglect the symbolic significance of the sacraments, but we must understand that they are first and foremost performative actions. They are rituals. Preaching Christ's death, burial, and resurrection is more instructive than demonstrating the Gospel through baptism or the Eucharist, hence the reason why those who hold to memorialist views of the sacraments are often prone to neglect their practice.

Baptism is participation in the Gospel through repentance and the objective application of Christ's death and resurrection to us. The Lord's Supper is a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ through eating. It is a meal that embodies the humility and service to one another that are central to the ethic of Christ's Body and it anticipates the full realization of the Kingdom of God at Christ's return.

Certainly, God appeals to our senses in the sacraments but not just to our sense of sight. He appeals to our sense of hearing in that we hear the Word of God in baptismal and Eucharistic liturgies, the shuffling of feet in Communion lines, the sloshing of water, the clinking of cups and plates. God appeals to our sense of smell with the aroma of bread and wine. He appeals to our sense of touch with water, the passing of plates, the handling of pieces of bread and the cup. God appeals to our sense of taste with the Bread of Life and the fruit of the vine through which we truly taste and see that the Lord is good. And he appeals to our corporate human existence and experience by baptizing us into Himself before a great cloud of witnesses, by coming to be present with His Church at His Table, and by feeding us with His flesh and blood.

Fifth corrective: I followed the time honored practice of using a "zoom lens" to think about the sacraments. Discussions of baptism are almost always about what the water does or does not do to the baptizand, while discussions of the Lord's Supper are almost always about what does or does not happen to the bread and the wine. Also, we notice that the focus in discussions of the sacraments is often exclusively on their effects on individuals. Rarely do we consider how the sacraments work to establish and maintain the society of the Church.

As an alternative, Peter Leithart proposes a "wide-angle lens" view in discussing the significance of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Here is what a wide-angle lens view of the Eucharist offers as opposed to the traditional zoom lens view:

Instead of attending only to bread and wine on a table, we see people and they are doing things. They are not simply observing the elements but passing them from hand-to-hand, sharing them, eating and drinking them. Words are being spoken. In most churches, one or a few members of the congregation stand nearer the "elements," while the rest sit, stand, or kneel at a greater distance, revealing a hierarchy of some kind. Through the zoom lens, the Eucharist is presented as a miraculous puzzle of physics or metaphysics; through a wide-angle lens, the Eucharist becomes a focal point for more theologically central issues: the relationships of the church’s members to one another, creation, and God. (Leithart, Blessed Are the Hungry, 156)
This kind of discussion provides a good segue into considering the broad reaching implications of reclaiming a sacramental theology. This preceded by a survey of the various orthodox views of the Supper is the next task in my project of reclaiming the sacraments.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*For directing me to the concept of totus Christus, I owe Peter Leithart and his wonderful scholarship a debt of gratitude. Discussions with Dustin Lyons, former classmate at Mizzou and current graduate student at St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York City, have been important in directing me toward the theological treasures of Eastern Orthodoxy. Interestingly, Reformed scholars like Leithart have also come to look toward the wisdom of the Eastern Church for guidance in ecclesiological and Christological matters. May the dialogue continue between East and West, Protestant and Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, Catholic and Orthodox. We have much wisdom to offer one another.*

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