May 8, 2007

Why Sacraments?

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

On Saturday, I raised a couple questions for Calvin about his theology of the sacraments.  I thought I’d drag a couple items out of the comments on that blog entry and present them here.

First, my friend Duane asked if Calvin meant things the way they sound in Ferguson’s summary (or my summary of Ferguson’s summary).  I do think Ferguson’s summary is accurate.  Calvin approves of Augustine’s description of the sacraments as visible words: “Augustine calls a sacrament ‘a visible word’ for the reason that it represents God’s promises as painted in a picture and sets them before our sight, portrayed graphically and in the manner of images” (Institutes 4.14.6).

More disturbingly, he also writes this in his section on the sacraments:

God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough…. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself, even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. For if we were incorporeal … he would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls engrafted in bodies, he imparts spiritual things under visible ones (Institutes 4.14.3).

I have to admit that this statement puzzles me.  Is Calvin talking about post-fall man, weakened by sin?  That’s possible. If so, he’s part of a long tradition. As Peter Leithart pointed out to me,

The notion that sacraments are a result of sin comes up in Hugh of St. Victor’s De Sacramentis and is probably earlier than that. It seems connected with the notion that original sin is essentially about our obsession with carnality and materiality, along with the notion that Adam in the garden had a purely “inward” communion with God — come to think of it, I believe that Augustine says that kind of thing.  The movement of redemptive history from a inner communion (Adam) through various sorts of accommodated outward forms of communion (from garden to consummation) but leading to a final restoration of purely inner communion.

In a recent blog entry, Leithart also notes that “Thomas …denies that sacraments were necessary in Eden, since there was no need to remedy sin (ST 61, 2).”  So if this is what Calvin is thinking, then he’s in line with many theologians before him.

But if Calvin wants to say that sacraments became necessary because of our sinful (or at least, sin-induced) weakness, then what about those trees in the Garden of Eden? Before the Fall, God didn’t simply bestow life and the knowledge of good and evil on man apart from means.  He determined to use created means, the fruit of two trees.  Those trees were as sacramental as the Lord’s Supper, and yet they were present in the Garden before man’s sin.

I’m not sure, however, that Calvin really is saying that it’s sin that weakened man.  He might be, but the last two sentences quoted above seem to indicate that he’s simply talking about physical man, apart from the Fall.  We need sacraments, Calvin says, because we “cleave to the flesh.”  But then he says that the reason God “imparts spiritual things under visible ones” is “because we have souls engrafted in bodies.”  The necessity for the sacraments, then, is not that we are impaired and weakened by sin, but rather that our souls are engrafted in bodies.

On the other hand, perhaps Calvin is still speaking about a weakness brought about by sin but is trying to say that because we’re embodied God uses earthly things to strengthen our faith.  It’s not as if God sees that in our weakness and sin we “cleave to the flesh,” and so He cures that by using non-earthly, non-physical means.  After all, we are embodied.  We are physical.  And so God uses physical means to bring about the cure and to strengthen our weak faith.  That’s about the best I can do with this passage.

The worst interpretation, then, is that Calvin thinks God uses sacraments because being physical itself constitutes a sort of weakness.  I can see how someone might conclude that from this paragraph.  But the best interpretation, I think, is that Calvin thinks sin has brought about our weakness, making it necessary to strengthen our faith with something more than just His word, and that God strengthens our faith by physical things because we are ourselves physical.

(Even on this reading, though, I still get a sense from the last two sentences that Calvin thinks there’s something “condescending” about God’s use of physical things, as if it might have been better to be non-physical and not to need physical sacraments.  That’s just a sense, and I can’t prove it.)

As I’ve indicated above, I don’t buy Calvin’s view.  I don’t believe that the sacraments are in any sense the result of sin or the weakness resulting from sin.  In part, I don’t believe that because there appear to have been sacraments before the Fall.  But my rejection of his view also stems from my embrace of the goodness and physicality of the creation.

I don’t believe that for God to use physical means — and speech is no less physical than food, since it involves physical vibrations in the atmosphere and in the ear — is condescension and certainly not condescension in the sense of “lowering oneself,” as if it’s somehow beneath God’s proper dignity to involve himself with physical stuff.  As C. S. Lewis says somewhere in Mere Christianity (I’m paraphrasing): God likes matter; He invented it.

That’s why we have sacraments.  God made us physical creatures. He likes us as physical creatures.  He wants us to have bodies for all eternity.

And so He gives us physical food.  He could, of course, simply zap us and give us, by His Spirit, all the energy and strength we need to live.  Food doesn’t have the power in itself to give life.  We eat things that aren’t alive (like plants); we even eat things that are dead (like steak).  Life comes from the Spirit.  But God gives us life as we eat physical food.

So it is with the sacraments.  The question “Why sacraments?” is no harder to answer than the question “Why baths?” and “Why food?”

Just as food isn’t the result of the Fall, so the sacraments aren’t the result of the Fall.  Just as God gave life through all the fruit of all the trees of the Garden, God would give special life through the fruit of the Tree of Life.  Just as God gives you life through your dinner every day, so God also gives you life — the life of Christ — through the Lord’s Supper.

Having said all of that, I do want to add this.  Put in a pastoral way, there is something to be salvaged from Calvin’s approach and from the approach of, for instance, the Belgic Confession, Article 33, which says that “our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments….”  That “insensitivity and weakness” is not the ultimate reason for the sacraments, but it is a pastoral occasion for the assurance that the sacraments give.

It’s not wrong, therefore, for a pastor — following the lead of Calvin and the Belgic Confession — to say something like this to a guy who is struggling with his faith, struggling perhaps to believe that his sins are really forgiven: “Look, God proclaims Sunday after Sunday that your sins are forgiven.  He tells you again and again that He loves you.  He says it in one way or another in virtually every sermon

“But He doesn’t just say it to you.  That ought to be enough to give you comfort.  But God is so good that He’s done more than that.  He also had you baptized into Christ.  Maybe you think God isn’t really speaking to you in the sermon or the declaration that your sins are forgiven.  Well, what about your baptism?  Do you think that water was meant for someone else?  No!  He called you by name.  He had that water administered to you.  You don’t need to doubt Him.  His love and His forgiveness and His grace are as real as your baptism.

“And as if that isn’t enough, what about the Lord’s Supper?  Every Sunday, that bread and that cup are passed to you personally.  That’s Jesus’ love right there.  He’s giving you His body.  He’s giving you His blood.  Take it.  Don’t doubt but eat and drink.  Yes, your faith is weak.  But God gave you not only His Word but also baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a host of other things, including your pastor and your fellow brothers and sisters, by which He strengthens your faith.”

That’s how I read the Belgic Confession’s use of that “insensitivity and weakness” language: It’s not providing an explanation for why God gave sacraments in the first place, but it’s pastorally pointing to the comfort of having not only the Word but also the sacraments for the assurance of our faith.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:18 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Why Sacraments?”

  1. duane vandenberg Says:

    I suppose my questions about the frequency of communion might have had more to do tradition than anything else. I’ve never been a part of any church that was into weekly communion, but I do see your point about the early church.
    Wow, you got a lot of response to your comments about Calvin! I agree about the lack of need to see the sacrament to be blessed by it, but as to sacraments being tied to our weaknesses, I suppose without our human frailty, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus, or any sacraments.

  2. John Barach Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Duane.

    You wrote: “as to sacraments being tied to our weaknesses, I suppose without our human frailty, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus, or any sacraments.”

    I do believe there were “sacraments” before the Fall, namely, the Trees in the Garden.

    All the trees gave life by the power of the Spirit in some sense. After all, if you eat an apple you’ll be nourished and continue to live, and it’s the Holy Spirit who works that life in you.

    But the Tree of Life was special and gave life, by the power of the Spirit, in a special way, a way which is at least an analogy to the Lord’s Supper.

    The other question is whether we’d need Jesus apart from the Fall. I’m inclined to think so. That is, I’m inclined to think that God always intended to send His Son in human flesh, even apart from man’s sin, so that God and man are united in Christ. I think that’s implied by 1 Corinthians 15:45ff.

    The alternative, it seems to me, is to say that the only reason we have union with Christ and we’re the bride of Christ and so forth is because of sin. Which means we’re better off as a result of Adam’s fall than we would have been without the fall. That doesn’t seem right.

    Anyway, thanks again for the interaction!

  3. duane vandenberg Says:

    Did Adam and Eve need to eat from a tree to be nourished by the Spirit- After all God walked in the garden in the cool of the day- wouldn’t such close contact have provided all the nourishing they would need? I’m not saying the trees couldn’t have been sacraments, but after the fall, what did Adam have for sacraments?
    I’m in over my head here!

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