Thursday, May 04, 2006
Sacraments as Language, II
…Perchance if Sacraments ever do enter into the discussion of Christians (which they often do in seminaries) so caught up are we modern Christians in re-hashing the old controversies which tragically divided Christendom in the 16th century that we miss the utter simplicity of them. This is because we have forgotten how to speak our "mother tongue."
Consequently we are accustomed to think of the Sacraments in one of two outmoded, if not unhelpful, paradigms. The first is…the objectivist model. The objectivist model places emphasis on the sacraments as operative means of salvation, captured in the somewhat infamous Latin phrase ex opere operato. Here we are encouraged to think of sacraments in mechanical ways, quasi-automatic in their effects. Grace is "produced" by them, or is seen as a product of their administration. Baptism is described in terms of implanting a "germ" or "seed" into the soul; and Holy Communion as a "medicine", "potion", or "remedy" for good spiritual health. Questions which focus on the validity of form, matter and intent, not to mention the proper ministers to celebrate them, pre-occupy polemical dialogue and debate both between and within various churches. Sacraments are viewed as necessary "channels" of grace, and inevitably the efficacy of the Gospel is very limited and exclusive – for only those who receive sacraments receive grace. It is not only necessary to go to church to be saved, but one must go to the right church to be saved.
Equally disturbing is the subjectivist model, spawned by reaction to the abuses of a Medieval Church in the throes of an addiction to a sacramentalism grounded in the objectivist model. Here emphasis is placed on the subjective sincerity – whether doctrinal, moral, or spiritual – of those who actively celebrate and partake of the sacraments. If there is any profit to be had or effect that takes place in the sacraments it wholly depends on what the participant brings to the Table (pun intended!). Baptism and the Lord's Supper – ordinances commanded and instituted by Christ himself – are at the mercy of the individual's sincerity. But…how "hearty" must our repentance be to convince God that our repentance is sincere? How "true" must our faith be before it rings true to God? The tendency is towards "Pelagian rigorism," which is precisely why the subjectivist model fails so miserably to lead a person to Christ.
Abuses associated with both models, the fruition of taking them to their logical extremes, is no doubt the primary reason why the sacraments have fallen into a general state of disuse and abuse in the modern Western Church. The objectivist model subjugates subjective (i.e., personal) response, rendering it redundant as a result. The subjectivist model subjugates objective effect (i.e., operative grace), denying it altogether in the process. Both tendencies are akin to the failure of the modern Western Church to understand the DISTINCTION IN UNITY of person and nature – a distinction altogether grounded in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. In the objectivist model, personhood is sacrificed on the "altar" of nature. In the subjectivist model, nature is sacrificed on the "altar" of person.
As a result, we fail to appreciate (ironically) the one thing to which both sides seem to pay lip service: that the salient point of the Sacraments is the gratuitous communication of God in Christ to believers, along with the corresponding faith response of believers to God in Christ – hence, Sacraments considered as language and dialogue. In fact, I will go further in my definition of the term "Sacrament": Sacraments are Divine-language incarnated in tangible, created matter – water, bread and wine. Is it any wonder that the ancients described them as "visible words"? The ancient faith and universal consensus of the Church has always affirmed that the Sacraments which the Church celebrates in faith necessarily have a spiritual efficacy which we call "grace," precisely because they are grounded in the truth and the event of the Incarnation – the "hem" of Jesus' garment. Why is this? It is God in Christ who meets us in them, because he promised to meet us in them. It is Christ who clothes us in the baptism of his own death and resurrection; Christ who bids us to feed upon his own glorified flesh and drink his glorified blood. It is only when the Sacraments are once again considered in terms of language – the medium of true relationship and real presence – that we can begin to rescue them from both abuse and disuse in the modern Church.