66. What are the Sacraments?
The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross. (Heidelberg Catechism)
In part 1 we considered how the sacraments came to be considered more than gospel signs and seals, how they came to be thought of in magical terms, as if the sacraments create the realities they signify. Of course, if a sacrament creates the reality it signifies, e.g., baptismal regeneration (Rome) or e.g., baptismal union with Christ (Federal Vision) or if it becomes the reality it signifies and seals, e.g., the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and propitiatory eucharistic sacrifice, then, by definition, it is not a sacrament. The title to my vehicle is not my vehicle. It tells me about the vehicle and certifies that it is indeed mine but it is not the vehicle. I cannot drive title. Yet, no one would say that the title is of no value.
Nevertheless, in reaction to the medieval and Roman abuse of the sacraments, there has sometimes been an impulse in some quarters to downplay the importance of the sacraments, to make them less than gospel signs and seals. Huldrych Zwingli’s (1484–1531) doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was one example of this impulse. To be sure, in the modern period, especially under the influence of the persuasive and well-argued work of W. Peter Stephens the older view of Zwingli, that he taught a memorialist view of the Supper, has been challenged. Nevertheless, having been on both sides of this question I’ve settled on the side of the older view. If one looks at Zwingli’s most mature statements on the Supper one does not find him discussing it as a meal as much as a memory. There is no (or very little language that I’ve seen) where Zwingli talks clearly about being fed on Christ’s “proper and natural body” and his “proper blood” (Belgic Confession 35). This was Calvin’s view, the view of the Heidelberg theologians, that of the Dutch and French Reformed Church and many others. As far as I can tell, for Zwingli, at most, the Supper was a time of intense remembering of Christ’s death. It is an intense, subjective, funeral experience. This has become, especially since the early 19th century, the predominating view among American evangelicals and probably among most otherwise Reformed folk. When I talk to seminary students and laity about the Supper, their default view is Zwinglian. This is why many recoil at the Calvin’s idea of weekly communion: they assume that it would be a weekly period of funeral grieving. If this is what the Supper was, then that would be quite reasonable response but, of course, it is not what we confess. This is how I interpret the standard rejection of weekly (or even more frequent) communion, “if won’t mean anything” or “it will lose its value.” What they mean is that, “It is not possible to sustain such a high degree of emotional intensity on a weekly basis.” That’s probably right. Of course, if the Supper is principally, well, a supper, a meal, whereby God the Spirit mysteriously feeds us on the “proper and natural body and proper blood of Christ” through faith, then we have a quite different conception of what is happening.
Pietism also devalues the sacraments. Pietism as a movement began formally about 1675 and was associated with Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), a Lutheran minister who was influenced by Jean de Labadie (1610–74) and others. The earlier Pietists were generally orthodox but they tended to have a low or poor doctrine of the visible, institutional church. Pietism was a reaction to perceived spiritual dullness in state-controlled churches. The Pietists worried that the ministers and laity were either not regenerate (spiritually alive) or sufficiently interested in spiritual matters. The Pietists gave us what we today call “small groups” or “cell groups.” In the 17th and 18th centuries they were called “conventicles.” They advocated “little churches within the church” (ecclesiolae in ecclesia). There’s more on the history of Pietism and its influence among the Reformed in Recovering the Reformed Confession. The Pietists were engaged in the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). They sought a direct, personal, spiritual encounter with the risen Christ. The adjective unmediated is important because the the visible institutional church is, broadly speaking, a medium or a means (the title for book 4 of Calvin’s Institutes is “On The External Means Unto Salvation”) and the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments she administers are media or means by which God the Spirit brings us to faith (preaching) and through which the Spirit strengthens our faith and our communion with Christ. For those familiar with certain strains of late medieval mysticism, particularly that associated with Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090–1153) and with the spirituality associated with some of the 15th and 16th century humanists, it is clear that Pietism was not utterly novel but a renewal of longstanding trends in the history of the church.
Modern American evangelicalism, emerging from the so-called First Great Awakening in the 18th century (see RRC) and the consequent and so-called Second Great Awakening in the 19th century (see RRC and “Magic and Noise” in Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey) were deeply influenced by Pietism. As a consequence of the turn to the immediate, many American evangelicals are indifferent about the holy sacraments. Many Americans simply assume a broad Baptistic paradigm in which Baptism is the outward sign of one’s profession of faith. Communion is a sub-Zwinglian, annual memorial of Christ’s death. For many American evangelicals the sacraments hardly function in any significant way in their spirituality. For all intents and purposes their “means of grace” (not that they think in those terms) are the quiet time (devotions) and the small group Bible study. For many even the visible church is essentially ancillary to their piety and spirituality. In the 1970s, when I first came into contact with American evangelicalism, it was clearly signaled to that the real heart of Christian piety was Bible memorization and the quiet time (Navigators) and whatever college “ministry” with which one was associated. Sunday worship was regarded as something obligatory but no one seemed quiet certain why. I had the strong impression that Sunday worship was for the “ordinary” Christian, that it was almost a condescension to attend public worship because the truly spiritual were more advanced. This, of course, is the way the second-century Gnostics spoke about their piety and relation to the visible church. They regarded themselves as truly spiritual as distinct from mere, ordinary Christians. The “second-blessing” theology of the so-called “higher life” movement is nothing new.
There have long been pressures both to over estimate the power of the sacraments and to devalue them. Reformed Christians should resist both of these impulses.
Next time: What the sacraments are.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.