Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sacramentalism

[originally written in 1996]

Evangelical Protestants of the "low church" or non-denominational variety especially, oftentimes exhibit an antipathy to matter as a conveyor of grace (or "blessing"). In other words, they tend to deny the sacramental principle. This hearkens back to the Docetic heresy, with traces of Nestorianism and Donatism. Non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christians frequently express the notion that matter is a step down, a "reduction" of Christ's Atonement: Matter vs. Spirit. Catholics (and Orthodox and many Anglicans and Lutherans) believe that the truth is quite the contrary, both prima facie and when examined in scriptural and reasoned depth.

The Incarnation, which made the Atonement possible, is the Event in salvation history which has raised matter to previously unknown heights. God took on human flesh! Given that all created matter was "good" in God's opinion from the start (Gen 1:25), and now is "glorified" further by the wonder of the Incarnation, why is it that such beliefs are still held? What is the scriptural basis? Most non-sacramental Protestants wouldn't deny the goodness of matter per se, but then their beliefs regarding sacraments are all the more puzzling.

Ritual and "physicality" were not abolished by the coming of Christ. Nor was the Atonement purely "spiritual." Quite the contrary! It was as physical as it could be, as well as obviously spiritual. Protestants speak much (or used to, anyway) of "the Blood," and rightly so (see Rev 5:9, Eph 1:7, Col 1:14, Heb 9:12, 1 Pet 1:2, 1 Jn 1:7, etc.). It was the very suffering of Jesus in the flesh, and the voluntary shedding of His own blood, which constituted the crucial, if not essential aspect of the Propitiatory Atonement. One can't avoid this. "By his bruises we are healed" (Is 53:5).

So it is curious that most Protestants appear to possess a distinct and pronounced presuppositional hostility to the sacramental idea of the Real Presence, flowing as it does so straightforwardly from the Incarnation and Crucifixion itself. To me, this smacks of an analogy to the Jewish and Muslim disdain for the Incarnation as an unthinkable (impossible?) task for God to undertake. They view the Incarnation in the same way as the majority of Protestants regard the Eucharist. For them God wouldn't or couldn't or shouldn't become a man. For evangelicals God wouldn't or couldn't or shouldn't become substantially, sacramentally present under the outward forms of bread and wine. I think the dynamic is the same. And I think that if any bias must be present going into a study of the Eucharist, it ought to be in favor of a material, Real Presence standpoint, for the following scriptural reasons:

The New Testament is filled with incarnational and sacramental indications: instances of matter conveying grace. The Church is the "Body" of Christ (1 Cor 12:27, Eph 1:22-3, 5:30), and marriage (including the sexual act) is described as a direct parallel to Christ and the Church (Eph 5:22-33, esp. 29-32). Jesus even seems to literally equate Himself in some sense with the Church, saying He was "persecuted" by Paul, after the Resurrection (Acts 9:5).

Not only that, there is the whole repeated strain in St. Paul's thought of identifying with Christ and His sufferings, very graphically and literally, or so it would seem: 2 Cor 4:10, Phil 2:17, 3:10, 2 Tim 4:6, and above all, Col 1:24; cf. 2 Cor 1:5-7, 6:4-10, 11:23-30, Gal 2:20, 6:17, Rom 12:1. Again, if this be the case, why not a literal Eucharist (and indeed, Paul sure seems to believe in that very thing, too)? It makes all the sense in the world, and is indicated strongly by Scripture in the first place.

Matter conveys grace all over the place in Scripture: baptism confers regeneration: Acts 2:38, 22:16, 1 Pet 3:21 (cf. Mk 16:16, Rom 6:3-4), 1 Cor 6:11, Titus 3:5. Paul's "handkerchiefs" healed the sick (Acts 19:12), as did even Peter's shadow (Acts 5:15), and of course, Jesus' garment (Mt 9:20-22) and saliva mixed with dirt (Jn 9:5 ff., Mk 8:22-25), as well as water from the pool of Siloam (Jn 9:7). Anointing with oil for healing is encouraged (Jas 5:14). Then there is the laying on of hands for the purpose of ordination and commissioning (Acts 6:6, 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6) and to facilitate the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17-19, 13:3, 19:6), and for healing (Mk 6:5, Lk 13:13, Acts 9:17-18). Even under the Old Covenant, a dead man was raised simply by coming in contact with the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21)!

All this and yet so many Protestants reject sacramentalism in principle! Protestants have exhibited many extremes in this regard historically: the no holds-barred iconoclasm of the early Calvinists and some Lutherans (e.g., Carlstadt), in which they marauded about, destroying stained glass windows, altars, religious paintings and statuary (even of Christ!), organs (probably even manger scenes), etc. Drama was banned in England for a time. Early Protestant painting was almost confined to the Dutch in one bleak period, due to the pervasive iconoclasm. Music and dance and art in general is still frowned upon in many Protestant circles, or else vastly under-appreciated. It is obvious that the great majority of classic Western art originated in the Catholic countries. This was no coincidence!

Sacramentalism is merely the Incarnation extended, just as the Church is. No a priori biblical or logical case can be made against a literal Eucharist on the grounds that matter is inferior to spirit and/or indicative of a stunted, primitive, "pagan" spirituality or some such similar negative judgment. If Christ could become Man, He can surely will to become actually and truly present in every sense in bread and wine, once consecrated.

So I challenge "low church" Protestants to go ahead and make their case against the Real Presence, but to do it on scriptural, exegetical grounds, not Docetic, philosophical ones. I submit that oftentimes, the bias against matter is what creates a prior bias in favor of pure symbolism, thus leading to eisegesis of John 6, Lk 22:19-20, 1 Cor 10:16 and 11:27-30.

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