Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Learning from the “Sacramentalists”: Weaknesses of the Commemorative Ordinances View

I issue apologies for last time and issue them ahead of time in this post. Labels are tricky. Usually they are misnomers. It is a bit inaccurate to associate the Baptist view of the sacraments with Zwingli, who retained infant baptism (though the Anabaptist movement did begin among Zwingli's followers in Zürich who simply disagreed with the Reformer on the mode and subject of baptism but not on the spiritually "dry" nature of it, and, of course, one can argue that adult baptism is the logical development issuing from Zwingli's understanding of the nature of faith and his radical duality between spirit and matter.)

The "sacramentalist "label I utilize this time is liable to get me in trouble from the Reformed direction because it sounds too Catholic, but thankfully Scott Clark, Michael Horton, and the other radical Puritans do not read my blog even though I read theirs (though, duh, 1) who am I that they would read me, and 2) I read those guys primarily for comedic purposes anyway).

I must also note that it almost feels as if I take everything I offered as potential strengths of the commemorative ordinances view back in critiquing it, but I would offer that those things still are commendable even if emphasizing them too much can lead us into trouble. Such, however, is the nature of the entire theological enterprise, hence the things I'm always muttering about "balance." Now to my list. Please note there will be more personal prognostications and theologizing in this list than in the last one, as I am in apologetic mode for my position. Plus, some of my points require explanation:

1. That Baptist common sense, of which the commemorative ordinances view of baptism and the Lord's Supper is part, is often a good old-fashioned virtue. Sometimes, however, we are called on to repent of our virtues. That Baptist common sense is partially an un-biblical Cartesian brand of common sense that marks a wide gulf between spirit and matter. For instance, I bring forward the short version of the Southern (and I mean Southern) Baptist catechesis about baptism: "Water don't do nothin’ for you. If you ain't already saved, you go down a dry sinner and you come up a wet one." Absolutely, baptism is not effective for salvation if it is unaccompanied by present or future faith in Christ. What this fails to grab hold of, though, is the way signs and symbols, rites and rituals, and group belonging and identity can strengthen, form, and even create faith in individuals. Through baptism and the Lord's Supper, God can plant, water, and nourish seeds of faith and activate them for regeneration. Do we doubt that God's Incarnation as Jesus Christ, Christ's physical death and resurrection, God's Word spoken and read, and human messengers to bring the Gospel are indispensable to bringing us to saving faith and in causing that faith to grow and be nourished through sanctification? Matter matters and God has repeatedly used it throughout salvation history to reveal himself, accomplish his redeeming purposes, and communicate his salvation to his people.

2. The commemorative ordinances view of the sacraments presupposes an understanding of God's workings in the material and temporal spheres of existence that denies the angels' confession that "heaven and earth is filled with his glory." Modern evangelicals, even Calvinist ones, have conceived of God's work in the world and even in the visible church in ways that smack of Gnosticism, Platonism, and/or Deism. Basically, earthly, material existence is governed by the laws of nature and spiritual existence is governed supernaturally by God. This is not a biblical viewpoint. In spite of the Fall, God still actively governs the world. As Calvin has it, we should not think of ourselves as being nourished by food through the self-perpetuating, God-independent natural process of digestion but by the God who miraculously converts dead food into life and energy for our bodies. Of course, I am not denying biology or laws of nature, but nature could not function without the God who sustains all things by his power. The "death of God" theologians of the 60's were foolish to suppose that the universe would not dissolve into nothingness if God were to empty himself of his being.

3. Continuing in this line of thought, the commemorative ordinances view of the sacraments seems to be part and parcel of a truncated understanding of the scope of salvation and the means through which God communicates that salvation to us.

I will preface my explanation of that point by saying that Christians who hold the commemorative ordinances view of the sacraments are very good about getting the absolutely essential, first-order points of the Gospel right. Salvation is for the souls of individual people, and the salvation of the world begins with the spiritual salvation of individual people. Indeed, we are the firstfruits of cosmic salvation, because, as the spiritual condition of humanity goes, so goes the rest of Creation. Also, people are most assuredly added to the Kingdom by ones and by grace alone through faith alone.

However, where modern evangelicals and even classical, sacramental Protestants go wrong is in limiting salvation to human beings and in applying it almost exclusively to the spiritual capacities of human beings. God means to redeem every single inch of us and every single inch of the universe. In redeeming humanity to the uttermost, there is not a single aspect of human existence that is not grasped in some way by God's saving intentions. God means to redeem not just humans souls but human bodies as well and not just individuals but families, societies, and nations as well: "Go into all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything I have commanded you." If God has targeted human society for redemption, then it follows that redemption is going to be expressed and communicated in and through human social structures, i.e., the family and the visible church. Likewise, if God has targeted the whole Creation for redemption, then it follows that redemption is going to be expressed and communicated in and through the earthly means of words, water, bread, and wine.

4. The commemorative ordinances view of the sacraments is connected to a misleading understanding of what faith is. The commemorative ordinances view seems to equate faith directly with beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and works of the will and works with anything that has a material or physical expression. Put in equation form, it looks this way: faith = spiritual > works = matter. That sounds a lot like the barren faith of James 2 that consists exclusively of propositions. This conceives of faith far too platonically. I think of faith as having an erotic quality. Like erotic love, faith is produced, revved up, and expressed through the senses. The sacraments work for faith like sex does for marriage. Sex produces, deepens, and expresses creaturely dependence on and trust in one's spouse (or so I‘m told) and the sacraments produce, deepen, and express the creaturely dependence on and trust in God that is faith.

An example: I have heard it suggested that the Roman Catholics might have come to a point of agreement with the Calvinists and Lutherans on the issue of justification by faith alone had they not confused or feared the confusion of the Platonist and anti-materialist understanding of faith espoused by the Zwinglians and the Anabaptists with the Calvinist and Lutheran understanding of faith. The Council of Trent condemned justification by faith alone because they feared that the Protestants meant in this doctrine that the sacraments had nothing at all to do with the application of salvation, as Zwingli and the Anabaptists taught. However, Lutherans and Reformed non-Zwinglians have absolutely no problem reconciling justification by faith alone with the sacraments' role in salvation. In fact, you won't find stronger stalwarts for the doctrine of justification by faith alone than the Reformed and Lutherans. Indeed, for us, the sacraments' role in creating and strengthening faith is a great support for justification by faith alone.

5. Holders of the commemorative ordinances view of the Lord's Supper, while not subject to the exclusive, myopic focus on the elements, have unduly narrowed the focus of this sacrament to a memorial of Jesus's death. What!? I'm not mad. Christ's death is the central focus, but he did rise again and he is coming again. The Lord's Supper is not a funeral; it is a celebration of the resurrection and the dawning of the New Creation. We remember Christ's death because of the resurrection. And, we are not just "remembering;" we are sharing in the body and blood Christ sacrificed for us once and for all at Calvary. Furthermore, we are not just communing in the body Christ offered for "me" but in the body he offered for the world and the body he has assembled and knit together out of people from every nation under heaven. We are not to simply look upward in worship to God but around us in love for our brothers and sisters. There is a lot to chew on in the Communion rite.

6. If the commemorative ordinances view does not kill the mystery in the sacraments by subjecting them to scholastic theology, it kills the mystery by denying that it exists! Mystery is not a bad word; it is our life. Luther believed that the memorial view was a "rational emptying" of the Lord's Supper. I agree. There is more than meets the eye going on in baptism and the Lord's Supper. We are worried about "magic," but I think we all too serious moderns could use a little more "magic" in our lives. Kids are far more innocent than we are and they like “magic.” They don't deny stuff because they can't explain it like we so often do. Faith is not so much the land of understanding as it is the land of simple belief and childlike awe and wonder. There’s nothing wrong with expecting God's work right where he promises it. This sacraments business may seem a little goofy and "mythological," but I'm fully prepared to be ridiculous. Screw Tillich and Bultmann! A "de-mythologized" Christianity is as good as dead.

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