Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Sign or sacrament?

Rivers of ilk have been spilt over the nature of the sacraments. If you believe the sacraments to be a means of grace, then they are either the source of salvation, or at least the source of the assurance of salvation.

But even if you believe this to be the case, then that immediately raises its own host of uncertainties, for you must then distinguish between a valid sacrament and invalid sacrament, which, in turn, stirs up a dust cloud of other issues—in distinguishing between valid and invalid holy orders, or between the one true and a false church, or in discerning the right intention of the officiate, or the right intention of the recipient, and so on and so forth ad finitum ad nauseum.

If, on the other hand, you regard the sacraments as signs only, and not as means of grace, then all these secondary complications and imponderables are mooted. And in that case you'll look elsewhere for the source of salvation and the assurance thereof.

1. What is a sacrament?

Let's begin with a definition. For someone who holds a high view of the sacraments (sacramentalist, sacramentalism), a sacrament is a significant means of grace. In other words it is both a sign of grace and a means of grace. Means and sign are internally related inasmuch as the grace conveyed is the grace signified by the rite.

For a sacramentalist, baptism signifies and therefore conveys regeneration while communion signifies and therefore conveys the true body and blood of Christ.

2. Rationalism

A sacramentalist will often accuse the opposing side of rationalism. I don't believe in sacramental realism because I only believe what is believable, and hence I put reason ahead of revelation.

Now this charge is sometimes true. Someone may not hold a high view of the sacraments for the same reason that he doesn't hold a high view of Scripture or a high Christology. He may be sceptical about the miraculous and mysterious and supernatural. He may be a theological liberal.

On the other hand, many Christians deny sacramentalism because they believe it to be an unscriptural reversion to heathen superstition, to a magical view of grace.

In addition, many liturgical churches are quite liberal. They continue to manipulate the traditional signs long after they've lost faith in what the signs signify.

It is striking to consider that Lutheran Germany is the cradle of modern theological liberalism. One wonders if there's some particular reason for this.

I have a pet theory about that. It is, in fact, very easy to see a parallel between sacramentalism and pagan magic. If you've been brought up to believe that the Bible teaches sacramental realism, and you then make a study of comparative mythology, it is easy to infer that the Bible writers operate with the same outlook as their pagan neighbors, indeed, that they borrowed their ideas and practices from their pagan neighbors.

So I'd say that the charge of rationalism and liberalism is a double-edged sword.

3. When is a prooftext a prooftext?

One initial difficulty is the question of what verses even count as prooftexts for sacramental realism. For example, some of the favorite prooftexts are Jn 3, Jn 6, 1 Cor 6:11, Eph 5:26, and Tit 3:5. But a preliminary question is whether these are even talking about baptism and communion.

i) Jn 3:5 talks about water, but elsewhere John uses water as a spiritual metaphor, as when Jesus talks about living water in Jn 4, as well as 7:37-39.

That being the case, we cannot assume in advance that Jn 3:5 is to be taken literally without further argument.

A sacramentalist takes 3:5 to be a reference to Christian baptism, yet this is the least likely interpretation because Christ's conversation with Nicodemus assumes that Nicodemus was in a position to understand what was meant; but Christian baptism had not yet been instituted, so this interpretation is anachronistic.

Now as far as sacramentalism is concerned, it really doesn't matter what other interpretation we offer, for as long as it doesn't refer to Christian baptism, it cannot be a prooftext for Christian sacramentalism.

Other interpretations would include John's baptism or else some OT allusion, viz. water from the rock (Num 20), the rivers of Eden (Ezk 47:1-12), the valley of dry bones (Ezk 37:1-14), the restoration of Israel and new covenant (Ezk 36:25-27), or the bridal bath (Ezk 16:4-6). It is probable that John is triggering a number of OT motifs.

ii) As to John 6, if we already knew that this had reference to Communion, then it might be a good prooftext for the Real Presence; but since John uses agricultural imagery as a spiritual metaphor (12:24), such a prooftext assumes what it needs to prove. So the sacramental reading of Jn 6 suffers from the same question-begging presumption as the sacramental reading of Jn 3.

It also suffers from the same anachronism. Since the Lord's Supper had not been instituted at the time Jesus was speaking, how could his audience be in a position to know what he was talking about? How would their disbelief be culpable?

When we listen to the Bible it is important for us to hear the text with the ears of the original audience.

iii) As to Tit 3:5, if this was talking about baptismal regeneration, we'd expect it to say that rebirth is the effect of washing instead of washing the effect of rebirth. And it may well be that vv5-6 allude, not to baptism, but Pentecost.

iv) As to Eph 5:26, water is a spiritual metaphor for the effect of the Gospel.

v) As to 1 Cor 6:11, if Paul had meant baptism, he could have simply said so. The word was available to him, and is used elsewere. As we've noted above, the imagery may just as well be a carryover from OT imagery.

None of the above observations rule out the possibility of a baptismal background in any or every one of the verses in question, but when a commentator or pastor or theologian reaches for the sacramental reading as his first and only recourse, then he is not doing exegesis, but taking for granted that his own tradition is true and imposing that understanding on the text as the assumed and unquestioned meaning.

4. What's in a symbol?

i) There are undoubtedly a few prooftexts that do ascribe saving benefits to the sacraments (e.g. Acts 2:38; 22:16;1 Pet 3:21). For a sacramentalist, that settles the matter then and there. Case closed!

But this fails to come to grips with the nature of symbolism. If baptism was both a sign and a means of grace, then a Bible writer would naturally ascribe saving benefits to baptism; but if baptism were only a sign, but not a means of grace, then it would be just as natural for a Bible writer to ascribe saving benefits to baptism. That's the whole point of a symbol. Because a symbol stands for something else, whatever the symbol stands for you can say about the symbol itself.

When, for example, the Fourth Gospel talks about the Paschal lamb (1:29,34) or light and darkness, sight and blindness, or the true vine, or the gate of the sheepfold, the very comparison assumes that there are enough similarities between the spiritual metaphor and the thing itself that what is true of the thing can be said of the sign, and vice versa. Symbolism has this crossover effect. That's what makes it symbolism.

ii) Whether or not you find a sacramental reading persuasive also depends on where you begin. A sacramentalist may begin with the institution of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11; cf. 10:16). However, Paul's discussion of the Lord's Supper doesn't begin with the Last Supper and the New Covenant, but with OT typology (1 Cor 10:1-4). So if you're going to treat the Lord's Supper as a sacrament, in the high sense of the word, then you should logically treat Manna and the Red Sea as sacraments. To say the least, I find that rather less convincing.

iii) It is sometimes said that the sacraments are means of grace because their misuse has detrimental effects (1 Cor 11:27-30). But by that logic, the ark of the covenant was also a sacrament (2 Sam 6:6-7). If an Israelite was guilty of profaning the Passover, he incurred the judgment of God (Exod 12:14-20). Does that imply the Real Presence of Yahweh in the unleavened bread? In order to defend even two sacraments, a sacramentalist must multiply his sacraments without any upper limit.

iv) The purpose of the Eucharist is to serve as a symbolic surrogate for Christ. It reminds the communicant of our Lord's past presence and future presence in relation to his present absence (1 Cor 11:24-26).

5. How literal is literal?

A sacramentalist will accuse the opposing side of trifling with the plain sense of Scripture. But just how literal is sacramentalism?

i) The Last Supper is the paradigm of the Lord's Supper. Was our Lord present in the bread and wine at the Last Supper? But how could it convey the grace it signifies before his actual sacrifice on the cross?

ii) What does it mean to say that the communion wafer is the true body of Christ? What was the true body of Christ?

Both before and after the Resurrection, the body of Christ was the body of a normal adult male, say, about 6 feet tall, give or take, 150 lbs., give or take, with limbs and organs, hair and fingernails, bones and blood vessels. It was visible and tangible.

Clearly a sacramentalist doesn't believe that the communion wafer is the true body in that sense, but what other sense is there in Scripture? I've given a literal description of our Lord's true body.

In order for a sacramentalist to reconcile his claims with the evidence of his senses, he must drive a wedge between appearance and reality. So he may say, according to transubstantiation (the RC view), that the bread and wine are illusory secondary properties, while the real, primary properties consist in the true body and blood of Christ. Or he may say, according to consubstantiation (the Lutheran view), that the true body and blood is in, with, and under the sensible properties of bread and wine.

Now, a problem with these harmonistic devices is that they depart from the literal sense in favor of a simulation or optical illusion. Sacramental realism becomes virtual reality. So it's hard to see how such face-saving explanations enjoy any hermeneutical advantage over the opposing position. It sounds simple enough to say that we should take the Bible at face value, accept the natural sense of the words, and all that, but when it comes right down to it, a sacramentalist must interpose a rather complicated theory between dogma and data to save appearances.

iii) Another problem is that many who receive the means of grace don't seem to be in a state of grace. The explanation for this is that sin and freewill can negate sacramental grace.

But a problem with this explanation is that it retreats from the literal force of the prooftexts. For example, Jn 6:53-54 doesn't introduce any mitigating factors (ditto: Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet 3:21). Once again, a sacramentalist stakes out a very bold position, only to back down under pressure.

6. Compromise positions.

Taking their cue from Calvin, Presbyterians, for one, try to strike a balance. But putting other issues aside, the incentive for a compromise is if you believe that both opposing positions contain a grain of truth, and so you then try attempt frame a mediating view that captures the element of truth in each. But if the prooftexts don't yield a sacramental conclusion, then there's no motive for splitting the difference.

One could delve into many more exegetical details, but I think this outlines the basic issues and fundamental difficulties with sacramentalism.

In sum, what I think we find in Scripture are a few covenant signs and a multitude of spiritual similes. But I don't think we can find the category of a sacrament in the classic sense of the term.

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