July 11, 2002

“Spiritual” Worship?

Category: History,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Last night, I started reading E. Brooks Holifield’s The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England, 1570-1720. I’ve often seen the book in footnotes and bibliographies and I finally tracked down a copy.

So far, I’ve read only the first part of the first chapter, the section dealing with Luther and Zwingli. I’m just starting the section on John Calvin. But already, I’ve begun to wonder about a theological strain which can be found in the early Reformers and which still infects the church today, namely, the idea that real worship is “spiritual” as opposed to physical — an idea which tends to downplay the sacraments.

If I recall correctly, Carlos Eire, in War Against the Idols, points out that the iconoclasm of many of the Reformers was grounded on Christ’s statement that God is Spirit and must be worshipped in spirit and truth, which they took to mean that our worship should be purged of all the “externals” and “physical stuff” which characterized medieval Roman Catholic worship. I’d agree that there were problems with medieval worship, but I question the “spiritual worship is non-physical, non-external worship” argument and the exegesis and the understanding of God’s “spirituality” that lie behind it. It seems like a remnant of gnosticism, not to mention a far cry from the robust and even sensual worship we find in Scripture.

Zwingli’s view of the sacraments, in particular, seems to have been shaped by this emphasis on “spiritual” worship. Holifield writes:

Zwingli believed that the Spirit acted directly on the souls of men without the mediation of material instruments. Implicit in that belief was a devaluation of external means, which, he said, could “never cleanse the soul.” In effect, Zwingli divided the world into material and spiritual spheres which could never intersect, and then he located Christian existence solely in the realm of spirit. Consequently, internal spiritual baptism, constituted by an immediate relation between the Spirit of God and the spirit of man, was not necessarily related to the external water baptism. Zwingli’s presuppositions left little room for baptismal efficacy. In 1525 he even denied that the sacrament could strengthen faith: “It does not justify the one who is baptized, nor does it confirm his faith, for it is not possible for an external thing to confirm faith” (p. 7)

By 1531, Zwingli did admit that the sacraments could strengthen faith, which is certainly an improvement on his earlier position.

It strikes me that this same sort of view lives on today. If Paul says something about baptism which sounds as if baptism is efficacious in some way, then people conclude that Paul mustn’t be talking about water baptism. He must mean Spirit baptism instead.

Looking for a topic for a doctoral dissertation in Reformation church history? Here’s one worth studying. Where did this “spiritual worship versus ‘physical, external’ worship” view come from? Some of the Reformers got it from Erasmus, but did it originate with him? Why the opposition to “externals”? What’s the exegesis behind that? Does it have something to do with the Reformer’s understanding of the move from Old Covenant to New Covenant? I expect so. What’s the rest of the history of this “not water baptism but Spirit baptism” interpretation? How did Reformed people end up claiming that God’s real work is immediate (i.e., unmediated)?

I imagine Holifield is going to give me some answers, though I want to be cautious as I read him. Reformation scholars, like other scholars, sometimes (mis)read their sources in terms of their own categories and questions. At any rate, the book looks like a very interesting read.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:12 am | Discuss (0)

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