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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.


An excellent argument. It's strong on both fronts: first, it would be strange for God to command something arbitrarily. And second, even if God did command something "arbitrarily," as soon as we began to obey that particular command grace and blessings would be uniquely conferred upon us, because obedience to God just works that way.

August 28, 2009 at 8:11 PM  

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