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This is something I just wrote up today, originally intended to Paul Nimmo, a young professor at New College that I enjoyed talking to at the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference this week. He had argued that there are two senses in which the sacraments may be necessary—either necessary because they offer a grace that can’t be had elsewhere, or necessary because God commands them—and he insisted it was the latter, not the former. As I typed it up, it grew very long, and became more for my own benefit as I tried to think things through. I’m not sure at all whether I’m saying anything that’s actually relevant and valuable, so I'm not sure if I'll actually send it to him. But since I typed it up, I think I'll put it up here.

Dear Dr. Nimmo,
I very much appreciate your very helpful paper and interaction at the conference. I wanted to follow up the discussion we started earlier, because I’m not sure you saw where I was heading with my questions about sacramentology…indeed, I’m not entirely sure I know where I’m headed, or whether it leads anywhere, in fact. But I have to try it out to make sure. Now, I’m thoroughly familiar (I think) with the traditional discussions in sacramentology, and the basic difference you’re articulating between a sacramentalist understanding of the necessity of the sacraments, and a more Zwinglian understanding. The alternatives, as they are usually put, are conceiving of the sacraments as actually transmitting grace as something like a substance, and understanding them as simply memorials we are commanded to observe and proclaim. The question has often been put, “Is there an objective grace conveyed in the sacraments, or is any benefit based simply on my subjective response?” Or, another version of the question, “Is any unique grace offered in the sacraments that is not offered elsewhere, or not?”

Now you, Dr. McCormack, and Dr. Blocher espouse the latter alternative, partly out of a sense that the former depends too much on a grace-as-a-substance metaphysics. I don’t think the latter alternative, at least as it generally states itself, is quite coherent, and I don’t think you need to retreat into substance-metaphysics to resolve that. Let me see if I can show this by adopting your Zwinglian position for the sake of argument.

So let’s say, following the more Zwinglian position, that we observe the Eucharist because God commands us to do so, as a way of proclaiming his death to the world, as a way of affirming our identity as the people of God, who owe our life to the death of Christ, of publicly remembering who we are, why we are who we are, and pledging ourselves in thanksgiving to live like Christ, etc. Now, the question is, is it necessary that we do this through the Eucharist, or not? Now, it would seem that it’s not. Couldn’t any number of rites serve this purpose? Couldn’t we get together in the city square, read the Passion narrative, and say some vows? Or we could do something less “liturgical,” perhaps…just gather for a fellowship meal, not containing bread and wine, and sing a hymn.

That is the direction in which the Zwinglian position has generally led, against which you desire to guard by saying, “No, it is necessary that we do this, within fairly circumscribed limits, because God has commanded it.” Now, as soon as you say that it is necessary, it seems to me that you have a conundrum. Why does God command it as necessary? Is it purely arbitrary—God just commanded it because he wanted us to learn to obey him absolutely, even in doing odd rituals? Or does God command it for a good reason, a reason presumably involving certain specific benefits to the Church as a community, and involving the communication of truths which otherwise might have remained opaque to us?

Even if you take the first answer, it seems to me, the strict Zwinglian position is somewhat compromised. Because, there is presumably a benefit to be gained, a gift of some sanctification, in obeying God vs. not obeying him, even if the command seems arbitrary. So, even if the Eucharist is necessary merely because God says so, pure and simple, then it will remain true that there is a distinct benefit, a grace, if you will, that we receive through doing the ordinance. This grace, or benefit, or sanctification, or however you like, comes objectively through doing the rite, and it is unique—you couldn’t receive it by not doing the rite, and just exercising faith in some other way; just as Abraham couldn’t have said, “Well, I’m not going to take Isaac up to Moriah, but I nevertheless have full faith that you can raise the dead, and that you have absolute authority over me.” Even if there were nothing intrinsically beneficial about the rite, the fact that God commands it as necessary makes it uniquely beneficial to us to do it, a benefit we would lose if we didn’t do it. All this may not be saying much, though I think it does show that the Zwinglian position has tended to overstate itself in denying unique or objective spiritual benefit to attach to the sacrament.

But, I think we can go much further than this. I think we would both agree that God does not command the Eucharist arbitrarily, but because God intends and indeed promises that there is much to be gained through doing so, much to be gained that could not be gained through another means (otherwise, why insist upon this particular means). We could reflect much on what some of the benefits might be; much might revolve around the particular power and significance of eating, especially as a community. When we eat, we display our need for nourishment. When we symbolically eat the body and blood of Christ, we renew our identity as a community that derives its life only from Christ itself. When we memorially share in Christ’s death, we renew our identity as a community that has been rescued by death, and that by death has passed over from death to life. By participating in a meal that pre-enacts the marriage supper of the Lamb at the end of history, we renew our identity as the betrothed bride of Christ, a people awaiting the fulfillment of a promise. By participating in this meal, in God’s presence, at the invitation of the Son, by the power of the Spirit, we renew our fellowship with God, we show ourselves to be friends of God. And a thousand more such things could be said. All this, it seems to me, makes the Eucharist the means by which we receive innumerable gracious gifts of sanctification, both as individuals, and more importantly, as a community.
“Ah,” the Zwinglian will say, “but you have said, ‘renew our identity’—all these things that are enacted, proclaimed, represented, etc., are merely confirmations, reaffirmations of what is already the case, and which would continue to be the case with or without the rite. We already are a community which depends for its life on Christ, a community bought by his blood, etc. Our participation in the Eucharist merely restates this; it does not cause it to be the case.”

But I think this is to radically understate the power of ritual, or perhaps to miss what it means to be a community, and how important that is. I think I could also say that, in all the ways above, “we constitute our identity as…” What would the people of Israel have been without their ritual of Passover, and their other national festivals? Well, in one sense, they would have still been the people whom God had redeemed from Egypt—the historical facts of the case would not have changed (just as, a failure to observe the Eucharist would make no difference in Christ’s work of redemption). But, if the Israelites had never ritually remembered and reenacted the Exodus, or observed as a community the other rituals prescribed for them, then would they have continued to have their identity as the people whom God had redeemed from Egypt? It would be true as a bare historical fact that they were that people, but that fact would have no meaning, no impact in the present; it might be believed by individual Israelites, but without the public rituals, there would be no community of the redeemed. Just so with the Eucharist, if indeed God has commanded it, and vested it with these significances. If the Church never partook of the Eucharist, never gathered to renew its identity in this prescribed way as the people nourished by the shed blood of Christ, would the Church still be that people? Well, I think in many cases yes, but clearly only in a very attenuated, weakened, malnourished sense; just as Israel, when she failed to observe the commanded rituals that constituted her identity as the people of God, continued to be the people of God only in a very attenuated and deprived sense.

From all of which it is evident that a great deal of grace (or, if this term is fraught with questions, then blessing and sanctifying gifts) are objectively to be found in the practice of the Eucharist, grace that will not be found outside of that practice. Now, there still seems to be quite a gap between this “objective grace” and any kind of real presence of Christ in the sacrament; I think there are ways to bridge that gap, but that’s quite another conversation.

Our attendance at an Anglo-Catholic Church on the Feast of the Assumption last Sunday, and the dramatic (to me, at least) displays of Marian devotion that we saw there, jarred me into thinking about prayers to Mary and to the saints in general in a more systematic way than I yet have. No doubt any Catholic reading this will be shocked at my dullness (“Well, duh…did that really never occur to you before?”) and any Protestant will be shocked at my brazenness (“Are you serious? How could you even venture to think that?”) but here it is, all the same.

On what basis do Protestants object to prayers to and for the saints?
Now, of course, there have been terrible abuses; the Reformers were right to protest against devotion to the saints that bordered on (or plunged headlong into) idolatry, and on the whole system of indulgences that grew up around prayers for the dead. God alone is God, Jesus alone is our Saviour, and any teachings or practices that exalts or overemphasizes human beings so that they come to compete with God is justly condemned. Medieval Catholicism, and much modern Catholicism, I think, is easily critiqued on these lines. But on what basis do we condemn, not the abuses, but the whole concept, in principle? Prayers for the dead are pretty easily defended: the dead have a long way yet to grow in glorification (it does not occur all in one moment), and we can therefore pray that God will bless them in that and mature and glorify them further. It doesn’t work to argue that the prayer is pointless, since we know God will do that in any case; whenever we pray, we are praying for the inevitable; but our prayers are nonetheless part of how God works according to his will.

What about prayers to the saints? Here, perhaps, our vocabulary gets in the way—prayers are for God alone, we say. That is a recent linguistic development in English, so let’s clarify. What is wrong with beseeching the saints to pray for us? This is different from beseeching the saints to do things for us, as Catholics often have—that seems to me to attribute to them a status that doesn’t make sense in a Biblical understanding of God and man. I should not pray, “Saint Peter, help me to excel in my studies”; but what about praying, “Saint Peter, please pray to God to help me in my studies”? This is the kind of prayer that we see in the Hail Mary (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of death.”) and in many Catholic “prayers to the saints.” It is this kind of prayer that I am no longer sure how to condemn. If I went to my father and said, “Dad, please pray to God for me, that he would help me in my studies,” would anyone complain? Hardly—we do this all the time. Since “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” I might want to go to a pastor, or someone of great spiritual maturity, and ask them to pray for me. Would anyone complain about this? Perhaps if I did this as a substitute for praying to God myself, there would be a problem, but if it was a supplement—“I’m really praying about this; could you pray for me too?” would anyone object? Certainly not. But what about if the pastor or righteous man was dead? Whoa…hold on a minute!

In principle, though, it’s no different, except that there is considerable doubt on the question of whether or not the dead can hear us. Even if the dead cannot hear us, it would seem that the worst that can be said about “prayers to the saints” is that they’re a waste of time, not that they’re blasphemous or idolatrous. And this, it seems, is important to establish in increasing understanding between Protestants and Catholics.

But can the dead hear us? Is there any contact between the dead in Christ and living saints? Certainly, at a popular level, we often tend to feel there must be, that we can be seen and heard in some way by loved ones that have passed on, and throughout the Christian age, literature has often encouraged us to believe that this is the case. But clear Biblical evidence seems lacking for the idea that I could successfully speak to a friend or relative who has passed on, and ask him to pray for me (though again, is there harm in trying?).

However, it seems that there is clear Biblical evidence (or at least, I have always understood in the theology I’ve been taught) that, when we gather for corporate worship, we are worshipping together with those who are dead in Christ; that they witness our worship and join together with us in praising God. It would seem, then, that when we gather together as a body for worship, that we can speak to the saints, can ask them to pray for us, at least on the basis of this line of reasoning. There may well be other objections, and I am eager to hear them, but there is certainly a strong prima facie case for much of Catholic practice on these issues. I still have a gut sense that something's wrong with this, but am not sure how to justify it. I look forward to some feedback.

Follow-up on Socialism

Despite my disdain for Facebook, I find it tends to generate much more discussion than posts here do. When I put up my little "What's Wrong with Socialism?" post there, it led to some good questions and constructive discussion. You can read it here.

Theopolitical Schizophrenia

I had cause to reflect today on an arresting symptom of the political schizophrenia in which I've been living for the past couple years (which has been, mind you, a very productive schizophrenia). I find that I am still an email subscriber to two organizations that send me daily reports and exhortations about the American political scene: One is the Sojourners, the somewhat saccharine, semi-socialist Christian leftist group, and the other is Break The Matrix, a group of rabidly libertarian Ron Paul supporters. It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting agendas.

Of course, both are in my Spam folder, and I almost never read them, but I haven't gotten around to unsubscribing, and couple weeks or so, the irony of it all, and it helps keep me humble.


I hear something quite often which annoys me profoundly, all the more so because I used to find it persuasive. Nothing, it seems, is so irksome to the soul as the syllogism which, having once held one in awe, now seems empty and frivolous.

The claim goes something like this: Giving stuff to other people is good. But taking something from one person to give it to another person is by definition stealing, and that’s exactly what socialism is.

Now, of course, socialism can be that. Indeed, I daresay that all the forms of socialism with which we are familiar often look very much like a kind of theft—a third party using force to take money from one party and give it to another. But to claim that this is necessarily the case, that this is what the idea of socialism means, is absurdly to misunderstand what it means to be a society. Moreover, and more maddeningly, it requires allegiance to an ideal of absolute private property rights that has no basis whatsoever in Scripture.

The premise of this syllogism, of course, is that each individual (or perhaps family, though it is hard to see why we should allow community here when we forbid it elsewhere) is an entity unto itself, and has its own property over which it alone has absolute authority. Of course, this individual may transfer some of this property to another, but that decision rests solely with the individual as an individual, and if anyone else makes any claim as to how to dispose of his property, this is theft.

But, as my little parenthetical remark reveals, this premise is senseless—it ignores the fact that individuals must always function in communities of shared interest, working towards common goods. There is, you see, a possible option that is neither that of an autonomous individual choosing on his own to transfer property to another, or that of a third party seizing goods from that individual and transferring it to another. Both of these presume that there are no real ties that bind these separate individuals, and so only relationships of coercion can be forged between them. But a community of people bound together seeking the common good can decide that some of their resources should be shared, with the most-privileged sacrificing for the least-privileged, and in this decision, the givers are both free and constrained—they are not private decision-makers giving only when it suits their preferences, but neither are they under the compulsion of an alien agent. To reduce ourselves to just these two possibilities is to require that we choose between the social contract theory of Locke or Hobbes. I suggest we choose neither.

This syllogism also presupposes that only the autonomous property-owner has a claim on his property, and no one else can have a claim on it—not the poor, not the community as a whole, no one.

The questions here are important—must we always act as mere autonomous individuals, or can we act as communities working toward shared goods?
Do only I have a claim on my property, or do others have a claim on it as well?

I do not see how, if we answer “the former” to these questions, the Church makes sense. Because the Church is a socialist organization, a community which tells us that we do not have sole claim over our goods, but which demands that we each sacrifice our goods for a common good, that we give up some of our money for the Church to redistribute to the needy, and which threatens us with far worse punishment than imprisonment if we do not do so.

To be sure, socialism can become theft, but to criticize it as theft by definition is like being outraged that some women become whores and so considering all women whores—a solution that is likely to worsen the problem.

For those of you not familiar with this volume, it basically tells the story, from the inside, of John Perkins, a man hired by a major engineering firm, which collaborated with the World Bank and the US government, to produce fraudulent forecasts of the economic growth that would result from massive development loans to Third World countries. Of course, the economic growth that did occur happened in the US, since US engineering firms were hired with the loan money to do the development work. Conditions in the recipient countries simply got worse, so they were unable to repay their loans, so they had to do what we told them. And of course, this was all exactly according to plan. If a leader wised up to the plan and tried to resist, he was either assassinated (as, for example, Roldos in Ecuador or Torrijos in Panama) or invaded (such as, for example, Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1990 and 2003).
In many ways, this book told me nothing that I had not already come to understand or begun to suspect. Nonetheless, it came as a shocking bolt of illumination, laying bare the comprehensiveness of our nation’s evils, and the weight of guilt that rests on each one of us, myself included. Indeed, what I appreciated most about this book was that, in unveiling the conspiracies of the leadership in many departments of our government and in many of our largest corporations to exploit and enslave dozens of countries around the world, it did not present it as a “conspiracy theory.” Perkins did not attempt to shove all the guilt of America’s greedy, deceptive imperialism on a sinister conspiracy of a handful of higher-ups, determined to sacrifice all else to further their interests. Rather, he presented it as a culture-wide conspiracy, a natural result of the materialistic values and salvific delusions that America as a society has indulged in since World War II. We are all responsible. We have all preached a gospel of American supremacy as the best way to save the world from war and poverty. We have all clung to the delusion that simply by generating capitalistic economic expansion, we will hoist the desperate billions in the Third World out of poverty. We have all demanded with insatiable appetites an endless flow of cheap goods into our stores, thus demanding (although we pretended not to know it) the endless exploitation of poorer countries. We have all bought into the morally outrageous claim that military force and mass slaughter is just and necessary whenever American interests are threatened. We have all, with a self-delusion that beggars the imagination, turned a blind eye to the most obvious lies, contradictions, and injustices in US economic and foreign policy, proving to our leaders that we are content to swallow any story they want to spin at us, as long as it makes us feel good about ourselves.
And I can’t help feeling personally guilty for all of the above, instead of being fired up with righteous wrath against our leaders and businessmen.
Just a couple examples of the last—swallowing the most ridiculous stories:
Back when the Bush administration was trying to cobble together scanty evidence that Iraq had sheltered and financed bin Laden, and that this was thus the legimitate basis for our invasion of them (the only basis that seemed to even begin to meet Just War principles), it was a matter of known fact that one country had certainly sheltered and financed bin Laden—Saudi Arabia. If Iraq deserved to be attack, then certainly the Saudis did. But of course they weren’t, because they’d done a deal with us decades earlier, in which we agreed to turn a blind eye to their activities in return for loads of money and oil; Saddam had refused to make this deal. Somehow, the obvious double-standard went unnoticed.
Or take the first invasion of Iraq. The ostensible basis for this was that a big, powerful country had invaded a poor, defenceless neighbor (Kuwait) simply for material gain. They needed to be punished. This claim, of course, came from a country that, bigger and more powerful than any, had just one year beforehand (1989) invaded a poor, defenseless country, Panama, for no better reason than that we wanted control of the Panama Canal, which we had returned to them in 1977. But of course the media and the American people completely ignored this blatant hypocrisy, and rewarded Bush with a 90% approval rating.

Often when we look at other eras or places in Christian history, we marvel at the idolatry, and the compromise with worldly interests, or with ungodly political motives, that these Christians fell into. But I think now that, when we look back at church history a millennium from now, the American Religious Right will look about as devilish as the Spanish Inquisition or the Renaissance popes. May God bring us repentance!

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