Thursday, October 22, 2015

Disambiguating sacramentalism

A commentator on my blog asked:

Does the N.T. assume the the sacraments are just symbols? If sacramentalists assume the reality why can you just assume they are merely symbols?

Here's an opportunity to introduce a point of clarification. In evaluating sacramentalism, it's necessary to unthread two intertwined issues:

i) What are the prooftexts for sacramentalism?

ii) What is the function of sacraments?

Concerning (i), Jn 3:5 and Tit 3:5 are standard prooftexts for baptismal regeneration, Mk 16:16 is a prooftext for the soteric necessity/sufficiency of baptism, while Jn 6 is a prooftext for salvific character of the Eucharist.  

However, nonsacramentalists don't think those passages refer to baptism or communion in the first place. Or in the case of Mk 16:16, that's a scribal interpolation. 

So one of the dividing lines between sacramentalists and nonsacramentalists is how many verses even refer to baptism and communion. That's before you  get around to the question of how to interpret passages that do refer to baptism or communion. 

It that event, it's not a case of saying, yes, that refers to baptism or communion, but a sacrament is just a symbol of grace, just a symbol of salvation.

Rather, if you don't think the passage in question even refers to a sacrament, then (ii) is moot. For (ii) presupposes (i). (ii) is irrelevant if the verse isn't even referring to a sacrament.

And this has some interesting consequences. For instance, both Jn 6 and 1 Cor 11:24,28 are traditional prooftexts for the real presence. However, 1 Cor 11:24,28 doesn't suggest that communion is a channel of saving grace. The only prooftext for that distinctive claim is Jn 6, where you have the promise of eternal life. 

Therefore, if Jn 6 is removed from the list, sacramentalists no longer have a prooftext for communion as a salvific sacrament. At best, they only have a prooftext for the real presence (1 Cor 11:24,28)–which, of course, is disputed.

Likewise, although sacramentalists have other prooftexts for the soteric necessity/sufficiency of baptism (e.g. Acts 2:38; 22:16; Gal 3:27; Eph 5:26), Jn 3:5 and Tit 3:5 are their only prooftexts for baptismal regeneration, per se. 

So, from the standpoint of the nonsacramentalist, it comes down to a very small set of verses that even need to be harmonized with their overall position. 


  1. These are my comments. So I have to ask how many proof texts is required for something to be true? Also in reference to 1 Cor. 11 if you go to chapter 10 Paul opens with connecting the Sacraments to the people of Israel and as a reminder that though someone participates in these gifts it does not guarantee that they will saved it the live a sinful life. Also interesting later in 10 he references that we participate in the cup of blessing being the blood of Christ, and the bread being the body of Christ.

    Honestly, proof texts are from Holy Scripture and should be taken at face value. So though you may think there is a small amount of proofs, you still have proof from the Word of God.

    Now this is usually where conversations shut down, but if one was to search church history the historical view of the church has been baptismal regeneration & the body and blood of Christ being present (how Christ is present there are several views) in the Lord's Supper.

    1. "So I have to ask how many proof texts is required for something to be true?"

      At least one that actually demonstrates your claim.

      "Honestly, proof texts are from Holy Scripture and should be taken at face value."

      You yourself don't take 1 Pet 3:21 at face value. When pressed, you introduce many caveats. And the same would be the case in other instances.

      "So though you may think there is a small amount of proofs, you still have proof from the Word of God."

      Everybody has their favorite prooftexts, whether they are Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Arminian, Calvinist, cessationist, charismatic, premil, amil, postmill, &c.

      Having a "prooftext" doesn't mean it proves what you think it does or wish it does. It's not just the text, but your interpretation of the text, as well as your exegetical arguments in support of your interpretation, that's where the battle is really engaged.

      The point of my post is not to defend my own interpretation. I've done that before.

  2. As a sacramentalist, I don't think I've ever confused the two issues (i and ii) that you mention. I would just interpret the original question at the beginning in such a way that the word "sacraments" isn't question-begging. Something like, "Does the N.T. assume that baptism and the Lord's Supper are just symbols? If sacramentalists assume the reality why can you just assume they are merely symbols?"

    Non-sacramentalists also believe that the NT teaches that Christians should engage in baptism and the Lord's Supper. So the replacement of the first use of "the sacraments" in the question removes any appearance of confusion and turns the question into something like this: "Why is the default position non-sacramentalist or purely memorialist? Is it really accurate to say that we should take the burden of proof to lie on the sacramentalist rather than on the non-sacramentalist?" That is a rather interesting question, and I'm not sure that your post actually addresses it.

    One possible answer would be that sacramentalism is a more complex position and hence that, on the basis of simplicity considerations, the non-sacramentalist position should be the default.

    That argument has some merit, but the sacramentalist might answer that simplicity must be construed relative to a body of evidence, not in the abstract. E.g. The assumption that the glass of milk is exactly where I left it may be simpler in an abstract sense than the assumption that it has been knocked over. However, relative to my visual experience that appears to tell me that it has been knocked over, the hypothesis that it is still exactly where I left it is no longer simplest, because it would require the added auxiliary hypothesis that I am now hallucinating! Hence, the sacramentalist could argue (and the original question hints at this) that some of the _agreed_ passages referring to baptism and the Lord's Supper are most naturally taken in a sacramental, non-memorial fashion and that this shifts the burden of proof, requiring the memorialist to do some "explaining away," though as you say, the question of the connection between sacramentalism and soteriology is a separate matter.

    1. i) I address that question in a prior post.

      ii) In addition, one has to take each passage on a case by case basis. Exegete each passage.

    2. It's a question of theological method. Many Christians, especially laymen, suppose their theological affiliation can be read right of the pages of Scripture. But it's not that simple. Their theological tradition supplies harmonistic principles for how to combine some passages with other passages. How to calibrate one passage in relation to another to produce a system. Each theological tradition has its own harmonistic principles and combinations.

      I'm not suggesting theological relativism. I think some combinations are better than others. But many Christians are oblivious to how they reflexively adjust some passages to other passages.

      Yes, it is, indeed, an important question whether certain passages should function as control passages, and how we determine that.

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  4. I realize I'm probably going to sound as obtuse as the most wooden-headed sacramentalist, but the OT symbols that correspond (in nearly whatever manner one makes the correspondence) to their NT counterparts appear (sans argumentation I realize) to be just that - symbolic. Signs that symbolize the spiritual reality which undergird the ceremony.

    Are we to think that Abram was really cutting the foreskin off the penis of Jesus when he circumcised his sons (or himself)? That Jesus' flesh and blood was really present "in and under" Abram's foreskin? Or that Abram's foreskin actually, physically became the foreskin of Jesus after it was lopped off?

    Or when the children of Israel ate the Passover lamb, were they actually, physically consuming Christ's actual, corporeal body?

    Or are these all symbols? Powerful, evocative, even provocative symbols of the supernatural things being signed? 

    Did Jesus mean His people must cannibalize Him? Did anyone ever actually consume portions of His physical Person or drink His blood during His earthly humiliation, during His time in the tomb, or post resurrection? Did anyone ever do that prior to His Incarnation?

    If Christian baptism is a condition of salvation and is indeed salvific, how was anyone ever redeemed from Adam to the NT era? 

    Anyway, good grist for the ol' mill.

    1. I think even Steve would acknowledge, though, that transubstantiation is not the only alternative to "mere symbolism." So you have (IMO) a false dichotomy here--either symbolism only or literal, physical presence in the Lord's Supper. There are other versions of sacramentalism.

    2. I grant that, of course. There are some very refined and nuanced versions of sacramentalism.

      But I've yet to discover any to make a compelling Scriptural case for going beyond "mere symbolism" (scare quotes), yet I don't find this troubling in the least. Symbols are powerful even apart from mystical, quasi-gnostic (extra-Biblical, traditional?) underpinnings.

      And given fallen man's propensity for heart-idolatry I figure the Lord took this into account when He chose His symbols.

  5. One could argue that the Old Testament is significantly more sacramental than this analysis suggests. For example, the Shekinah and the Ark were *not* only symbols of the presence of God. They had actual effects in the real world. Contrast the import of the Ark of the Covenant with that of, say, the word "God" in the English language. The latter is a symbol, but we have no orders from God that we have to write that word only in a particular way or that anyone will die if he doesn't handle it specially. The Shekinah actually moved ahead of the Children of Israel and was clearly miraculous, providing light by night and direct, divine guidance by day.

    Similarly, priests really did die in the Holy of Holies if they "did it wrong," and the people really did have to sacrifice in order to have their sins forgiven.

    All of this stands in contrast to contemporary Protestant memorialism. If, for example, my kid takes home the cracker from a Baptist Communion unbeknownst to me and I, upon discovering this, put it in the bird feeder or toss it in the garbage, I don't expect to be struck dead.

    So there is in fact precedent in Scripture in the OT for some, yes, more mystical sense to God's being "present" in particular physical locations and things on earth in some sense beyond his omnipresence. There is not, and cannot be, something inherently heretical or idolatrous about such a concept.

    1. I'm not sure what sacrament(s) you have in mind in connection with the Ark of the Covenant or the Shekinah, nor do I recall any Biblical record of High Priests actually dying in the Holy of Holies, threats of failing to abide by the prescribed holiness codes notwithstanding. Nadab and Abihu weren't High Priests after all, nor does it appear from the text that they were in the Most Holy Place when they offered strange fire, if that's the linkage.

      God's manifesting Himself doesn't appear on the face of it to have any particular connection to any sacraments in the examples deployed, so I'm not sure there's anything to deal with in regards to the topic at hand.

      Recognition of God's choice to manifest Himself in some extraordinary ways from time to time isn't heretical and idolatrous when it's Biblical, but when men move beyond what is written and ascribe to objects, images, sacerdotal ceremonies, etc. something of God that He hasn't prescibed, this typically tends toward some form of heart-idolatry.

      This was OT Israel's persistent problem, and of course men's hopelessly religious hearts haven't changed.