Sunday, October 25, 2015

OT sacramentalism

Lydia McGrew10/24/2015 5:14 PM

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.

I assume Lydia's statement was directed at another commenter rather than me, although my post might be a secondary target. 

1. I don't object in principle to God assigning certain blessings to certain cultic rituals, or punishing the profanation of ritually holy objects. Yes, we have examples of that in the OT. 

2. At the same time, as Hebrews makes clear, animal sacrifices (to take a prominent example) had no inherent efficacy. They were just forward-looking symbols and placeholders (Heb 10:4).  

3. With respect to sacramental realism, it makes two specific claims: baptism and communion are channels of saving grace. 

Over and above that, a communicant physically encounters the Risen Christ. Jesus and the communicant coincide or intersect in real time and real space. That's the frame of reference.

When I say "merely symbolic" or "just a symbol," I mean they don't convey saving grace, much less that communion bread and wine instantiate the physical body and blood of Christ. 

i) I don't think Jn 6 even refers to the Eucharist. 

ii) With respect to communion, much could be said. For starters:

a) In 1 Cor 11:24-25, the so-called "words of consecration" are not a formula or incantation by which the priest turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but Paul's historical narration of what took place at the Last Supper. The language is descriptive, not performative. 

b) Like the Synoptic Gospels, Paul presents the Eucharist as a new Passover, including the memorial motif (cf. Exod 12:14; Deut 16:3). But the Eucharist is prospective as well as retrospective. 

c) There's a double entendre in 1 Cor, where "body" alternates between a synonym for the church and a synonym for the communion bread, which, in turn, stands for the sacrificial death of Christ at Calvary. I think Paul trades on that double entendre. 

d) As Anglican scholar Rober Beckwith has noted:

To understand such feasts, it is necessary to remember the Biblical attitude to meals in general...Meals were...used to inaugurate covenants...the animals to be eaten were first offered in sacrifice to God, with the result that he became the Host, inviting men to his table, and that the sins of men were taken away by the shedding of blood before they approached (Heb 9:16-22)...Those who neglected the annual Passover meal were rejected by God and became liable to the visitation of death (Exod 12:15,19; Num 9:13). Now, in 1 Cor 10:14-22, St. Paul compares such feasts with their pagan counterparts and with the Holy Communion, and he dwells upon the function of all of these in cementing koinonia (communion, fellowship, partnership) not just between worshiper and worshiper, but more especially between the worshippers and the deity (vv. 16f.,20), R. Beckwith, Priesthood and Sacraments, Latimer Monographs 1 (Marchman Manor, 1964), 91.

The sin of 'not distinguishing the body,' and the physical judgments which it is liable to bring (1 Cor 11:29-31), can be paralleled from the corresponding judgments incurred by profaning the sacred feasts of the OT, in which no one imagines there to be a bodily presence of the Lord in the elements (Lev 7:20f.; 22:3), The Service of Holy Communion and its Revision. Latimer Monographs 3 (Marchman Manor, 1972), 33.

4. If you accept classical theism, there is also the metaphysical question of how a timeless spaceless God is "present" in the universe. We can speak of God's "presence" in popular, picturesque language, but then there's the issue of how to cash that out in more philosophically exacting terms, consistent with the transcendent nature of God.

Since I think God is timeless and spaceless, I don't believe he is directly or physically present in time and space. Rather, God is indirectly present through his effects. To take some comparisons:

There's a sense in which a letter writer is indirectly present to the recipient. Reading the letter puts you in touch with what he was thinking at the time. It was written to and for you, with you in mind, as if he was talking to you face-to-face. 

A phone call is a bit more "present" than a letter, because you can hear the recognizable voice of somebody you know, even though the caller is offsite. And a videophone takes this one step further, because you can see as well as hear him. Another example would be holographic projection, where a person appears to you in your living room, in a stimulated 3D image. 

5. There is, of course, a sense in which God is "present" via the Incarnation. However, I don't think the hypostatic union means the human nature bleeds into the divine nature. These remain distinct domains. 

6. I think profanation can apply to merely religious symbols, including traditional religious symbols that have no express divine authorization. 

Take a cross in church. I don't think the Bible either prescribes or proscribes a display of the cross in church, and I don't have any objection to such displays.

Suppose an atheist breaks into the church and spraypaints the cross with obscenities. I'd say that's profanation, not because the object is intrinsically holy, or even holy by divine ascription, but because the vandal intended to commit sacrilege. 


  1. Good thoughts. This is a good subject to explore. Apparently I need to read Beckwith.

  2. Yes, it was directed to CR, Steve, rather than to you.

    As I understand his position int he previous thread, it is gnostic and theologically wrong to hold that any physical object on earth can be, let us say, objectively holy. Even this _aspect_ of sacramentalism is apparently something he rejects.

    I wonder what your meaning is for "holy by divine ascription" in the last paragraph. Remember that if something is "holy by divine ascription" a person can commit sacrilege _without_ intention--viz. that guy who got killed for touching the ark when he was trying to prevent it from falling off the cart.

    The idea that any object can be holy in a sense independent of human intention or human ascription seems to be more "sacramental" just to that extent than CR's view.

    1. To use your own example, the ark of the covenant was holy by divine ascription.

      A church cross is not holy by divine ascription, for God hasn't assigned cultic holiness to a church cross.

      Even so, it is clearly a symbol of the Christian faith in general, and the atonement of Christ in particular.

      As such, I think it's possible for someone to commit sacrilege (by profaning a cross) even in that lesser case, if that is their intention.

      Now, some folks are so theologically ignorant that they don't know what a cross stands for. They could destroy a cross with no sacrilegious intent.

      You also have Puritans who destroyed crosses, not to commit sacrilege, but because they thought unauthorized religious symbols were sacrilegious. I consider their action to be misguided, but not profanation, inasmuch as their motivation was different.

    2. Just from morbid curiosity, if the Ark of the Covenant were discovered a la Indiana Jones, do you two think there would be piles of dead bodies stacking up around it because everyone who touched it would be instantly Uzzah-fied?

    3. I can't answer for sure, but I think that was indexed to the Mosaic covenant, so it had an expiration date.

  3. It's enough for me that Uzza was Uzza-fied, and not because of his bad intentions. I don't have to know what would happen now. The point to me is that there was something objective there. Which, CR, I have to say, seems to contradict your staunch implication that it is "gnostic" and tendeth unto idolatry to believe that any physical object on earth can be objectively holy, made so by God.

    Which gives us at least a model for what a sacramentalist could mean by the Real Presence in the bread and wine. And then there is Steve's phrase, that God might "assign certain blessings to certain cultic rituals." Which I take to mean objective blessings of some sort, not just, "It was really good for you to fix your mind on that cultic ritual." Mind you, it's a different matter to argue that that _is_ the case with respect to the reception of Holy Communion, and the elements thereof. But it does seem to take away the idea that any such sacramentalism is intrinsically gnostic, anti-biblical, idolatrous, and Not The Kind of Thing God Ever Does.

    1. To use Lydia's example:

      i) The ark of the covenant wasn't inherently sacrosanct or inviolable. It wasn't made of hazardous materials. It wasn't like a high-voltage power line.

      ii) Conversely, what made it sacrosanct wasn't the attitude that humans had about it. Its inviolability was independent of their reverent or irreverent viewpoint.

      iii) Rather, God assigned a certain effect or correspondence in relation to how it was treated. If it was mishandled, whether willfully or accidentally, the result was instant death.

      That divine ascription was arbitrary insofar as there was nothing intrinsic to the nature of the object that had that effect. Nevertheless, the effect or correspondence was real, by divine assignment.

      It's not natural cause and effect, but a divine convention.

      iv) This differs in one important particular from sacramental realism. Sacramentalists generally think the efficacy of a sacrament depends on the disposition of the recipient. Sacramental grace is resistible.

      An exception would be paedobaptism (or paedocommunion), where the rite is automatically efficacious because the recipient is incapable of resisting sacramental grace.

    2. Ah, but there is this similarity to sacramental realism: If you take Communion *unworthily*, you may eat and drink damnation to yourself, while if you take it worthily, you receive grace. So *something* happens irrespective of the disposition of the recipient; it's only whether the thing is good or bad that depends on the disposition of the recipient.

    3. i) To begin with, "damnation" is the misleading KJV translation. As you know, "damnation" is a technical term in Christian theology. But Paul merely uses the word "condemnation," which has a very different connotation. To say they "drink damnation" to themselves is fatalistic: once they do that, they are doomed–even while they live. Nothing can save them from thereout out. Forgiveness is denied them, even if they repent.

      ii) Your argument either proves too little or too much. In Scripture, there are every so many things that sinners can do to bring divine judgment down on their heads, including death, disease, plagues, and/or fatal illness. That overextends the category of sacramental.

      iii) In addition, it doesn't appear that communion is routinely toxic to unworthy communicants. There's no one-to-one correspondence, where unsuitable communicants become deathly ill.

    4. Do you assume that what I mean when I talk about eating or drinking damnation *must be* either eternal damnation ("It's too late, baby, now") or else sickness?

      I would reject that dichotomy. I would say that a truly unworthy participant (by which I emphatically do *not* mean a mother who is distracted by her toddler or a person who struggles with wandering thoughts) damages his own soul in an objective fashion. That may mean hardening himself and may ultimately (since my soteriology allows this) contribute to his ultimately going to hell, a la The Great Divorce, by deciding to become a certain kind of person. But it can also mean undermining his own sanctification in an objective way--spiritual food becoming poison, one might say.

    5. Lydia, you had the makings of a great horror story. A mischievous altarboy consumes the wafer unworthily. A moment later, he regrets his rash act, but it's too late! Now he's hellbound, come what may.

      So he grows up to be a psychopath. After all, he has nothing to lose at this juncture. He's on the expressway to hell. He passed the last exit miles ago. That's behind him. So he might as revel in evil here and now.

      But then you go and spoil this wonderful horror story. Where's your sense of drama?

  4. > "but because the vandal intended to commit sacrilege."
    A distinction that escapes many commentators: eg, Cardinal Newman's dig at the Protestants of Northern Ireland for being upset when someone vandalised a statue of William of Orange.
    The Ven Newman seemed to think he'd scored a palpable "Gotcha!" against the sep breth: "you lot are always criticising Catholics for venerating statues and relics of saints, but when someone wrecks a statue of one of your own Protestant heroes, you react as if that's ex opera operato desecration."
    Uh, no, Cardinal: what upset the Orangemen was that it was deliberate desecration, an intent to offend and insult living people. Had it been wrecked by an earthquake, there would have been regret but not anger.
    Likewise, most 21st-century Americans get very angry if someone deliberately burns a US flag. But if, say, a veteran's house burns down with his flag inside it, no-one attacks him as a flag-burning traitor. Because he lacks intent. It's not that flags are magical relics, but that they symbolise the USA. A deliberate insult to the flag therefore symbolises a deliberate insult to the USA.
    The Catholic view of sacramental magic leads logically to the topsy-turvy world of the Black Mass, where a Satanist who physically possesses a Eucharistic host can abuse it for evil purposes, just as the Nazis could (according to Lucas and Spielberg) abuse the divine powers of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail for their own evil purposes. To evangelical Christians, that isn't possible.

    1. You'll notice that it didn't work in _Raiders_, though. :-) Instead it backfired spectacularly.

      I think rather the notion is that these evil people can *try* to abuse these things for evil purposes.

    2. Lydia, I recall hearing numerous Catholics saying over the years that priests are warned to watch out for people who attending Mass, receiving communion and then pocket the wafer without consuming it then and there.
      There was some kerfuffle a few years ago when then-Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, who's some kind of Protestant,[*] attended a Catholic mass, went up to receive what everyone assumed would be a blessing, but took the wafer instead. When everyone looked dangers at him, he pocketed the wafer instead of consuming it:
      A couple of Catholic bloggers pointed out the reason priests are so vigilant about this is, yeah, at least in part, to prevent Satanists using the host for Black Mass purposes. So the Catholic view at least is that bad guys can misuse and misdirect divine power if they hold a sacred object "hostage."
      [*] Now that the Protestant Harper has been ousted by a Catholic, expect more and louder complaints by Catholics in Canada that their religious freedom is being abridged by an "anti-Catholic" government.

    3. That needn't be the point. That is to say, they don't want it desecrated. They want to protect it, because they consider it holy. And in their case, consider it to be (by sorta-Aristotelian categories) in some sense the literal body of Jesus Christ. So naturally they don't want to let Satanists to make off with it to commit profanation. I wouldn't either, as even a more loosey-goosey kind of sacramentalist. But it doesn't follow that one believes that the power of God can be "channeled" in an evil direction or something, which is what you appear to be saying.

    4. For that matter, even ordinary folk aren't supposed to make off with it and toss it in the trash or something. It's supposed to be consumed by a worthy recipient. So priests don't want people putting it in their purse or pocket even if they are just innocently going to walk off with it and throw it away or something. This is all certainly related to sacramentalism, which you may still think of as "magical" if you wish, but it has nothing to do with believing that Satanists can redirect divine power in the Black Mass!

  5. Steve, as far as whether baptism and/or communion are channels of saving grace, I would regard you as a sacramentalist if you believed that one or both of those were objective channels of sanctifying grace. If your theology is such that salvation takes place at a single point in time and everything thereafter is sanctification, that still leaves open the possibility for a pretty robust sacramentalism. If eating a piece of bread conveys objective grace that strengthens you spiritually, helps to purify your soul and conform you into the image of Christ, etc., in a way that is over and above any teaching value of your religious meditations at the moment, then that's a sacramental view. The bread is "spiritual food," as Cranmer's liturgy puts it, which is possible whether the grace conveyed is regarded as saving or sanctifying.

    1. i) As a Protestant, I don't object to your attempting to steer a middle course. You don't have to work within a received paradigm.

      ii) That said, there's an inner logic to what I might call "high sacramentalism." They believe the sacraments convey the same grace they signify. The kind of grace they convey is the kind of grace they signify.

      For instance, they think baptism signifies regeneration: hence, baptism confers regeneration.

      Likewise, because they interpret Jn 6 sacramentally, and because Jn 6 promises eternal life to those who "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood," they think the Eucharist conveys saving grace.

      Up-to-a-point, I think their position is logical, given the premise. Mind you, even on their own terms, Jn 6 is problematic because they typically believe a communicant can lose his salvation.

      Now you seem to be taking a position (or allowing for it) where the sacraments are means of grace, but the type of grace is disconnected from the sign. A kind of generic grace that's not specific to the symbolism of the sign.

      iii) Finally, I just don't think the function of the sacraments is to convey grace. Take the Eucharist. I think the function of the Eucharist is to furnish a vivid sacrificial interpretation of what Jesus did on the Cross.

      iv) Can we be blessed by taking the sacraments. Quite possibly. But that's hardly a sacramental distinctive. There are many different ways in which God can bless and sanctify his people.

      By the same token, it could be like prayer. Some prayers are answered while other prayers go unanswered. There's no invariable or even predictable correlation.

    2. Yes, that was why when I talked about blessing, I was fastening on your phrase "God's assigning certain blessings." Because if God _assigns_ them, then they are far more objective and stable than being blessed by, say, listening to a song or meditating on Scripture. Moreover, if God assigns them, then that's like a prayer whose "yes" answer is assured. That is to say, if God has promised to convey grace to the worthy recipient, then that's it. You receive worthily, you get the grace.

      And that's to my mind something distinctive about sacramentalism. The extent to which I am blessed in a non-sacramental way by going to church is going to vary greatly with my feelings, my level of attention, my insight, the insight of the pastor in his sermon, and so forth. A sacramental view says that sacramental grace doesn't work like that. In the physical analogy, a piece of bread conveys x number of calories even if I don't enjoy it very much.

    3. i) I was speaking generally and hypothetically. In principle, God can do that. One example is the tree of life. That's a case of God assigning a good to physical object or action. And it was automatic. If you ate from the tree, regardless of your disposition, it would make you immortal.

      We also have some negative examples, such as when the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant (1 Sam 4-6). They think that's quite a prize. But it turns out like they were thieves who unwittingly stole a cache of radioactive gold, and are now developing radioactive sickness.

      ii) However, the problem with these comparisons is that 1 Cor 11:17-34 never says or suggests communion is a means of grace, whether saving grace or sanctifying grace. We need to resist "mission creep" by building on a false premise.

      The pericope doesn't have a benedictory/maledictory antithetical parallel structure. It isn't set up so that if you do x, you will be blessed–but if you do y, you will be cursed.

      Rather, it describes the purpose of the Eucharist as a commemoration of the Cross and anticipation of the Parousia.

      When some Corinthian churchmembers mistreat other Corinthian churchmembers in connection with the Eucharist, they become liable to physical judgment, but that doesn't imply that if they receive it worthily, they receive grace. Although that's possible, that idea isn't present in the text.

      If a farmer tells his young son that he better finish his chores before supper "or else," the threatened punishment doesn't mean his son will be rewarded if he does his chores on time. Rather, he's just doing his job. Doing his part. It's a family farm, so everyone must pitch in to make it work.

    4. Yes, I wasn't arguing about the meaning of I Cor. 11 (at the moment). I was merely arguing that the idea of sacramentalism in the sense that we are discussing it is not *inherently* contrary to biblical theology, because (as you acknowledge) we have examples thereof.

      Now, I think that the talk about "gnosticism" or "semi-gnosticism" (whichever word CR used in the last thread) and human tendencies to idolatry, and his whole comment there, really does imply that there is something *inherently* and even *necessarily* heretical about any view that a physical object on earth can be holy in some objective sense.

      I'm extremely familiar with that viewpoint. It is what I was raised with. All talk of holy objects, etc., was "Catholic," and we learned to call it "gnostic" when we got to Bible college. We Baptists didn't believe in that nonsense. It was inherently idolatrous and must be purged from every nook and cranny of our theology. Another form this took was to say that any sort of sacramentalism was intrinsically _meaningless_. What could it _possibly_ mean for God to be present in an object? Faugh and meaningless, idolatrous nonsense. God is omnipresent, and that's all there is to it, period.

      To my mind, from my own sacramental perspective, it is a step in the right direction for a low-church Protestant even to agree that _that_ is not correct, that the Bible _does_ have holy objects and holy spaces in some objective sense. And I think you and I may even agree about what that objective sense might look like or mean--God's assigning objective blessing and objective power to an object in the physical world, making it by his own decree holy, efficacious, etc.

    5. The word was "quasi-gnostic".

      I think Jesus Christ was and is an objectively holy physical object.

      I think the Bible teaches that God efficaciously indexes grace through faith in Christ.

      I think fallen man has a bent toward sinful heart-idolatry.

      I think God understands our weak frame and has graciously and wisely given His people a living faith in His Son as His means of grace.

      Furthermore I believe the simple, modest, and plain symbols He has chosen to give His church as ordinances are powerful reminders which tend to evoke a holy reverence in His people as they contemplate His mighty works on their behalf.

      I don’t think there is a sound Biblical case for thinking grace is indexed to or mediated by these symbols (ordinances), or to the attitudes or mental states of the recipients apart from the grace that is indexed to the living faith in Christ which unifies the saint with the Savior.

      I think there are lots of Biblical examples and warnings about idolatry in both the OT and the NT.

  6. To clarify: My _own_ position on soteriology does not draw a sharp distinction between sanctification and justification. But I think that if one _did_ draw such a sharp distinction, one could still have a sacramentalist position.

    By the way, the comment (I think it was in this thread) about losing one's salvation and John 6 inspired me to look up the Greek to see the verb tense on the cognates of "eat" in the passage. Turns out that some of them say that if a person "shall have eaten" Christ's body he will be raised up, but other use the present participle and say that about a person "eating" Christ's body.

    So the Greek does at least allow for the need for a continued or repeated act of "eating," whatever one takes "eating" to be, which would be compatible with a progressive soteriology and the possibility of falling away.

    1. It sounds like your soteriology is deeply flawed.

      Jesus says that all those the Father gives to Him will come to Him, and that He will raise them up on the last day.

      How do you square this claim with the possibility of falling away?

    2. Oh, come, we're not going to debate the entire falling-away issue in this thread, are we? I know I'm not. But you could yourself go out and find prooftexts, you no doubt know what they are, that raise the possibility of falling away. Indeed, the very phrase "fall away" has probably come into our language from some of those prooftexts! I could just as easily quote one of those and say, "How do you square this with the impossibility of falling away?" Scripture has verses that appear to fall on both sides of this issue, as I'm sure you well know, because you probably know Scripture as well as I do. I could list more of them on your side, as well. So in the end, one develops a theology using a combination of Scripture and reason and trying to get a big picture that makes sense. That's how you do it; that's how I do it. We just come to different conclusions, and, though I think there are rational arguments and am not claiming that the whole matter is a-rational and subjective, I doubt that much good would be served by our trying to convince each other here and now.

    3. Yes of course. Fundamentally I think the Bible teaches Christ is an actual Savior, and not only a potential Savior.