Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Word & sacrament

Fr Alvin Kimel January 6th, 2010 10:19 am :
Dear Andrew,

I fear that my previous must have been unclear, for I clearly do not believe that baptism (or any the sacraments of the Church) are merely symbolic representations of salvation. Clearly baptism is a symbolic action, but I learned long ago during my Anglican catechetical lessons that sacraments effect what they symbolize. Or as the old Prayer Book Catechism puts it: a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”

With others I have argued that baptism is a work of God. Let me suggest another way of looking at it: baptism is the Word of God, a word that is both audible and visible, verbal and embodied. “The word comes to the element,” writes St Augustine; and so there is a sacrament, that is a sort of visible word.” Every sacrament is a divine word that accomplishes what it promises: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

Baptism, therefore, is not just a symbolic pouring of water that points us away from itself to something else: it is God speaking to us now and God accomplishing what he speaks. And this is the solution to the problem of faith with which you are struggling. Precisely because baptism is divine Word, spoken to us directly and personally in the form of first-person discourse, it summons us to faith, bestows faith, and sustains faith. The fact that it is a word spoken to us in the form of symbolic action involving material elements does not alter its character as divine Word. Baptism is the gospel simultaneously proclaimed and enacted.

Again I ask you to put aside the question of justification and focus instead on baptism and our union with Christ. Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans believe that baptism sacramentally but effectually effects union with the risen Christ and his mystical body the Church. We see this clearly taught in the New Testament and confirmed in the ancient baptismal liturgies of the Church, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers. Can you concede this belief as at least a plausible and reasonable reading of the New Testament? I do not ask you to agree with it. I simply ask whether you can see how the baptismal texts in the New Testament might be interpreted in this way.

Several problems:

1.In the high-church tradition, sacramental grace is resistible grace. In the Presbyterian tradition, by contrast, the sacraments are efficacious only and always for the elect.

So you have a tradeoff which parallels limited/unlimited atonement. A tradeoff between the conferral of resistible grace for many (or all), and the conferral of irresistible grace for some. Either a lesser benefit for more, or a greater benefit for fewer.

For the moment, I’m not discussing the verity of either position. Just comparing their theoretical advantages and disadvantages.

The obvious problem for Kimel’s is that if sacramental grace is resistible grace, then the fact that you’re a baptized Catholic and regular communicant says nothing one way or the other about your eternal fate. You could go to confession on Saturday, be in state of grace for Sunday Mass, commit mortal sin on Monday, die in a traffic accident on Tuesday and go to hell.

Indeed, Catholicism denies the assurance of salvation as well as the perseverance of the saints. So what does a “high” view of the sacraments about to?

2.It’s true that a symbol may be more than a symbol. It’s also true that a symbol may be nothing more than a symbol. You can’t infer from the sign itself whether there is a causal link or equipollent correspondence between the sign and the significate. So you need some argument over and above the symbol if you’re going to treat the symbol as an efficacious means of grace.

3.Where does the NT ever indicate that baptism “bestows faith”? Normally, faith is a precondition of baptism.

4.To use Augustine’s theory of the sacraments to gloss Isaiah 55:11 is a good example of just how far Catholics have drifted from their Scriptural moorings.

5.If Baptism effects union with Christ, then Christ is far and away the most profligate divorcé in human history, since ever so many baptized men and women are eventually severed from Christ.


  1. "Indeed, Catholicism denies the assurance of salvation as well as the perseverance of the saints. So what does a “high” view of the sacraments about to?"

    I'd also like to know (according to high-church theory) what the baptism supposedly does to people who are insincere converts to begin with.

    What sacramental grace is given to an unbelieving opportunist who comes to baptism just to reach some worldly position in a Christian society, or to some medieval pagan barbarian who was given a choice of baptism or death?

    This is far from an academic question.

  2. Below is one of the strongest prooftexts in the NT for what high-churchians are pleased to call "Biblicism" or "Bibliolatry".

    These verses would justify considering the preaching of the Word to be even more essential to faith than the sacraments:

    Luke 16:29-31

    Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

    And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.

    And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.