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Wasted opportunities for a good chat over a beer

I’ve suggested before that “dialogue” is too lofty a word for us Joe Schmoes here in the trenches. I don’t really want to have a “dialogue” with people who have ecclesiastical disagreements with me; I’d rather have a conversation over a beer. That seems to me to be more a appropriate aim for us Reg’lar Folks.

My apathy towards “dialogue” notwithstanding, I think when questions get asked and answered publicly about those with whom we disagree, we should at least make efforts to answer the questions honestly, even if that means — gasp —  deferring to those with whom we disagree so that they may define themselves.

What am I talking about? First off, read this. Now, Campus Life’s Ignite Your Faith is a daughter publication of Christianity Today, so I hardly expect it to quote the Catholic Catechism, but I also don’t expect it to take a tone which approaches “Well, Jimmy, the Papists want to put God in a box so they can have an excuse to worship idols and preach works-based salvation, but we’re the real Christians, so we don’t.”  Marshall Shelley, it is to be hoped, would be better than this.

I sent them this response. Nearly five months later, I have yet to receive any response whatsoever. It’s probably better I don’t hold my breath. To be fair, me getting at all worked up over this is probably tantamount (to paraphrase Robin Williams) to coming out of a, um, house of ill repute complaining that you didn’t feel loved. I just find it unfortunate that many will read Mr. Shelley’s answer to this kid’s very honest question and accept it uncritically.

To whom it may concern:

In regards to Marshall Shelley’s answer to the question, “What Are Sacraments?” —

A question such as “What are sacraments?” could and should be seen as an opportunity to honestly examine the differences between various sorts of Protestantism and communions which adhere to an older tradition, such as Roman Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy, and explore what the relationship between us is. Unfortunately, the answer Mr. Shelley provides does neither of these things, being rather a woefully knee-jerk misrepresentation of sacramental theology that borders on being not much more than an anti-Catholic strawman.

First of all, the word “sacrament” is a perfectly biblical word; it is nothing more than the Latin translation of the Greek word “mysterion”, which simply means “mystery” and appears twenty-two times in the New Testament according to Strong’s. Indeed, “Mystery” is the word still given preference over “Sacrament” for many Orthodox Christians.

Second, the assertion that “[t]he early church believed preaching was the main way of sharing of God’s plan of salvation with others” is somewhat confusing, at least in terms of trying to draw a connection to sacramental practice. There is, to be sure, no question about the importance of preaching even in the extra-biblical textual sources (for example, the Didache says “My child, day and night you should remember him who preaches God’s word to you, and honor him as you would the Lord”, Did. 4:1), but to suggest that this is somehow over and above, or as opposed to, sacramental practice is at odds with both the witness of the New Testament and early church history. To be fair, Mr. Shelley correctly links sacramental practice to liturgical practice (although to say that sacraments are exclusively manifested liturgically is a severe overstatement), but this is not in opposition to preaching. The Book of Acts often places even preaching in this liturgical context, such as in 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.” Acts 13:2 is often translated so that the church in Antioch “ministering to the Lord,” but the Greek verb used is leitourgein, “liturgize.” The letters of Ignatius of Antioch also underscore this liturgical context, as does the Apology of Justin Martyr:

“And this food is called among us the Eucharist… For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. […] And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” (First Apology, 66-7)

Third, the clericalism assumed by Mr. Shelley to be held by those who use the word “sacrament” is frankly bizarre. It is true that the priest stands in persona Christi, but insofar as a priest participates in a sacrament he is allowing himself to be used as a vessel of the Holy Spirit, not somehow casting a magic spell which compels the Holy Spirit to action. The liturgical texts employed by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox make this quite explicit. There is nothing to say that the Holy Spirit cannot work in other ways; “the wind blows where it will,” after all. Nonetheless, as Paul exhorts the Corinthians, “Let all things be done decently and according to order,” and again, the early church writers make it plain that these functions have been in place since the earliest of days, and that they are strictly a matter of function, not a matter of quality or access.

Fourth, it is not entirely true that Protestants believe in “two ordinances” instead of “seven (or however many) sacraments.” This is true of some Protestants; however, Anglicans profess seven sacraments, and Lutherans also use the word “sacrament” (although they profess two).

This still leaves the question, “What is a sacrament?” A sacrament is, plainly, a way in which the Holy Spirit interacts with the created order in a transformative manner. The philosopher theologians of Roman Catholicism such as Thomas Aquinas analyze this in terms of concepts such as matter, substance, accidents, etc. which make the whole notion sound very technical, but it can be understood far more simply. At the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit interacts with the bread, the wine, the celebrant, and the people; as a result, it is not just the bread and wine that are changed, but all participating. At Baptism, the Holy Spirit interacts with the water and, again, the people, transforming those being baptized. Sacraments are, really, nothing short of miracles, and miracles which are considered to be normative. In that sense, then, to limit the number of sacraments to seven is somewhat missing the point; any time the Holy Spirit interacts with the world, it is a sacrament.

In Christ,

Richard Barrett
Bloomington, IN

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