Friday, June 15, 2007

On Sacraments and Protestantism

One of the reasons that I made the change from Lutheran to Episcopal is greater emphasis on sacraments in the Anglican tradition. In some some very important senses, the Episcopal Church (and the larger Anglican tradition) attempt to be both protestant and catholic. Hence the motto, "ecclesia catholica semper reformanda." And the focus on sacraments is part of its Catholic tradition.

I was therefore quite interested in the defense of the sacramental tradition by a Protestant blogger:

Luther cut the number of sacraments from 7 to 3 and then 2 (Baptism and Communion). Not only did Luther alter the quantity of sacraments, he also changed the quality: Luther rejected Thomas and the role of "whore reason" in theology, wishing simply to affirm that the bread and wine were in a real way the very body and blood of Christ (he did say Christ is "chewed with teeth" in the Supper), and, in a similar manner, got away from metaphysical specifics when dealing with baptism. Luther had a very high view of the 2 sacraments, but refused any metaphysical speculation.

Of course, the Radical Reformation and Zwingli began viewing the Lord's Supper as a "merely symbolic" act (as if a symbol couldn't communicate the reality of the thing!). Calvin also avoids complex metaphysics, affirming a "spiritual" union with Christ in the Lord's Supper; through the Spirit, we are somehow "united with Christ" in partaking of the bread and wine (or, as it is nowadays, the Solo-thimble of grape juice and little chunk of whitebread).

This rejection of things sacramental is most extreme in much of American evangelicalism. I've met many Evangelicals who sincerely believe that baptism and communion are optional, since (1) they're just "symbolic", and (2) it's all about having Jesus in your heart. Of course, American Evangelicalism is getting much of this from the American rejection of metaphysics; the American philosophy is an anti-metaphysical Pragmatism (Dewey, Rorty, etc.). It's no accident that American evangelicalism is pragmatic, as well.

The end is a dramatic removal of God from all things, a broad, ugly ditch between creation and creator. Thus American politics takes it as axiomatic that God can have nothing to do with the political ordering of society. (It's also no accident that, philosophy abhorring a metaphysical vacuum, the capitalist Market has become the providential deity who directs all things and to which all must bow.) American religion is thoroughly deist or gnostic, by turns: God doesn't do much but take our souls away to heaven when we die, and Jesus is at best a moral teacher.

But right-thinking Christians who haven't had their minds raped and opiated by the AntiChrist of American ideology believe in the Incarnation, which is the sacramental instance par excellence. It's the ultimate invasion of the cosmos, precipitating the renewal of all things (Romans 8). And this is why I find Orthodoxy and Catholicism so compelling: celebrations of the Eucharist are real symbols (symbols which really and truly communicate that which they symbolize, that in which they participate) of the Incarnation. Christ is present here and there and everywhere, and the liberation of the cosmos proceeds apace, the culture of death suffers rout, and the creation groans for the unity of all things in Christ.


I said the other day to my spouse that I felt compelled to have the Eucharist daily, to meditate on it and contemplate the reality it communicates, that it is. I always thought before that Catholics were nuts when they talked about daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration, but I'm finding myself often moved to tears by the possibility of ingesting the very life of God. Christ is really present in our midst!


Read it all. Hat to to Rod Dreher for the link.

As Sarah Miles discusses in her book Take This Bread, she became a Christain by taking communion. She went to the rail an unbeliever, and left a believer. To me, this illustrates that there is something lost by the failure to recognize the sacamental aspects of faith.

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