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.


Jason Loh said...

Mark (Talley),

Have you been to the Society of Archbishops Cranmer and Laud's website? Speaking of which, how about setting up a website and blog devoted to promoting the Caroline divines, Hooker, Non-Jurors and pre-Tractarian High Churchmen, etc.? I wish I had access to the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, let alone frisking the pages for the gem of comments, statements but alas works like LACT are unknown in places like Malaysia.

Sites devoted to the above are rare and hard to come by ...heck, even there is a dearth of *specialist* literature discussing a specific theological category like soteriology.

The Anglican Catholic sounds more like an academic abstraction rather than a living embodiment. I know ... of course there are exceptions :-) ...wouldn't describe myself as such but would opine that the Catholic heritage of "Anglicanism" did not start in 1833 or after that.

Jeff said...


An excellent post! I have one comment and one or two questions. The comment is the grounding of the Eucharist and Sacraments in general within a Christological framework is an excellent and point in where the Eastern Fathers camp and not surprisingly Andrewes as well. There is a lot to be said about Christology and Sacramentology that needs some exploration. One of the reasons Andrewes argued against Transub was due to his belief that it made Eutychianism true. So there is a lot to be said here.

My question is concerning the phrasing you use by 'real language' as opposed to what? Is this a reduction of the Sacraments to propositions and participles?

Jason Loh said...


How's your Latin studies going on? I am it's pretty fine settling in Rome. Do let us know any books you're getting over there! The RC priest that I got in touch here in Malaysia got all his sacramental books in Rome whilst he was preparing for licentiae. He mentioned this, and Dan would definitely know this, that the French liturgiologists are the most advanced in their research, integrating anthropology, comparative religious studies etc. into liturgical research.

If I'm not mistaken, the book recommended by Dan some time ago regarding Sacraments as a kind of language was written by a noted French liturgical scholar no less ...

I'm still contemplating who should I refer to for my MA by Research testimonial for Durham Uni's Theology and Religion dept.

No to inertia, yes to optimism and hope!

Steve Blakemore said...

Nice post and good thoughts! One question, though.

Is it possible that you don't see the positive import of what you call the "subjectivist" model. What if the impluse there is to have persons captured by the grace of God existentially and find their lives completely and fully oriented to God in Christ. The sacraments could then be means of such grace to which God has tied us (as John Wesley conceived them), but they would not be the grace or the presence of God to us. Wouldn't it, then, be correct to suggest that some kind of what you term subjectivism would be appropriate, so long as such subjective acts of faith wer acknowledged to be merely grace enabled free response to God's initiatory work?

Steve Blakemore said...

BTW: If you are interested you could read something I wrote on the sacramental theology of infant baptism from a Wesleyan perspective. I don't often often do this, but here 'tis.

Mark said...

Hello Jason,

I'll have to check out the Cranmer/Laud website. Sounds interesting. Don't think I'm qualified to set up a pre-Tractarian web site ( I'm a Luddite and, besides, my grasp of church history/theology is rudimentary at best ).

Check out Project Canterbury. They are the best online resource for what you are looking for. You can also order old, tattered copies from the LATC series via Anglican Bibliopole- but they ain't cheap. For a good anthology of Caroline spirituality, consider getting your hands on Anglicanism by More and Cross. It's a terrific resource.

You really think "Anglican Catholic" is an academic abstraction, more - let us say-than "Roman Catholic" or "Eastern Orthodox"? I'll betcha Dr. D wouldn't agree. Nice to make your aquaintance, Jason.

Take care


CSPellot said...

This sent me on a frenzied quest to find the famous phrase from the BCP, "he hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries, as pledges of his love..."
Sacramental language, as many other forms of communication, is both mysterious and intimate (think agape). I think you nailed it when you said the phrase "real language". It is this combination of mystery and love that in some degree makes up for that reality in the sacramental exercise, if I may use that latter word.
It's hard also not to remember St. Augustine, who tempered his hermeneutic through the principle of love.


lexorandi2 said...

Howdy Jeffers,

Propositions and participles? Hardly. Fundamentally, language is about symbol, not grammer - pointing to realities beyond itself. In the Sacraments a true dialogue takes place between God and man -- a true communication not merely of words but of THE Word.


lexorandi2 said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the link. I'm looking forward to reading your article.

I'll get to the rest of the questions posed in the comments later. Been extremely busy of late! Getting my graduates ready for commencement next week.


Jason Loh said...


Yeah, Project Canterbury is one of my favourite e-hang outs too ... the thing is the site takes ages to copy the LACT online! Would love to order books from overseas, problem is they are too expensive nowadays because of the exchange rate.

What's your library like?


Mark said...


My library isn't particularly large. Specifically Anglican tiles would include Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying, Pearson's Exposition of the Creed, Overall's Convocation Book, vol. II of Bramhall's collected works, Richard Field's The Church, Moss' Dogmatic Theology plus a number of works from Michael Ramsey and Eric Mascall.

Cranmer Theological House ( that's a seminary of the REC, in case your'e wondering ) has quite a few Anglican works in Ebook form that are relatively inexpensive. You ought to check them out.


lexorandi2 said...

"Wouldn't it, then, be correct to suggest that some kind of what you term subjectivism would be appropriate, so long as such subjective acts of faith wer acknowledged to be merely grace enabled free response to God's initiatory work?"

Hi Steve,

Not only would I say that some sort of subjectivism is appropriate (and thus agree with you), but some sort of objectivism as well. The balance that must be maintained is to acknowledge that one side of the dialogue between God and Man in the Sacraments (i.e., Sacraments as language) should not be sacrificed for the sake of the other side.


Steve Blakemore said...


You are speaking my language. This truly God-enabled synergy is something that I fear is becoming lost in contemporary Christianity. Either persons see salvation and faith as rooted in the human response to God (subjectivism) or in the objectivity of God's work (either Christ's real presence in the sacrament -- which I affirm -- or perhaps God's eternal decrees). AT least that is what I see happening among many.

Thanks for the response.

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