Saturday, February 25, 2006

1: What Does it Mean to be a Sacrament?

I think it would be appropriate to discuss the sacraments by first defining what they are. Various Christian groups interpret the sacraments differently thereby opening the door for much confusion if we were not to make clear definitions beforehand. Theopedia defines a sacrament as "a rite or ceremony instituted by Jesus, and observed by the church as a means of or visible sign of grace." The reader should understand that what I consider to be important about this definition is that a sacrament by definition communicates grace (I vehemently oppose the idea that the sacraments are merely ordinances). While the finer points of this definition can be debated and discussed, essentially this series will be operating from the theological conviction that a sacrament communicates grace. This is the orthodox position of the Church and to reduce the sacraments to ordinances is not something I'm willing to entertain.

Protestants accept two sacraments while the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church hold to seven. For the purpose of this series, the focus will be upon the two sacraments which almost all of Christians accept: baptism and the eucharist (debate over whether Protestants should accept more than the traditional two will have to wait for another day).

As it pertains to baptism and the eucharist, there are four views which predominate (thanks to Dr. Chris Bounds for the work which follows is his categorization).


Roman Catholic: "By either awakening or strengthening of faith, baptism effects regeneration." This occurs with the workings of the sacrament itself. Faith does not have to be present. The work is solely God's work in the person. Infants and adults are baptized.

Lutheran: In order for baptism to be effectual, saving faith must be exercised by the one baptized. Salvation is imparted potentially to infants, actually in adults. This position differs from the Catholic view only with respect to faith.
Infants and adults are baptized.

Reformed: Baptism is an act of faith by which we are brought into the covenant and hence experiences its benefits. Grace is imparted, but the type of grace is a mystery.
Infants and adults are baptized.

Memorial: It is simply a testimony - a profession of faith that a believer makes. The rites shows the community that the individual is now identified with Christ. There is no objective effect upon the person. Only believing adults and/or children are baptized.

The Eucharist

Roman Catholic: Through consecration of the bread and the wine, the bread changes into Christ's body and the wine changes into Christ's blood. Christ is truly and substantially present in the elements themselves. This is called transubstantiation. Communion is spiritual food for the soul and strengthens the participant.

Lutheran: The elements do not change into the presence of Christ, but he is actually present in, with, and under the elements. This is called consubstantiation. The recepient has the forgiveness of sins and the confirmation of his faith. Participation must include faith or the sacrament conveys no benefit.

Reformed: Christ is not literally present in the elements. He is spiritually present in the partaking of the elements. This is a commemoration of Christ's death that bestows grace to seal partakers in the love of Christ. The meal gives spiritual nourishment and brings a person closer to the presence of Christ.

Memorial: Christ is not present in the elements either literally or spiritually. It is a commemoration of Christ's death that reminds the partaker of the benefits of redemption and salvation brought about in Christ's death.

There certainly are various views which fall amongst these but this gives a good range for us to begin to articulate these concepts. I find it important to note that the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed view of each of these sacraments falls within orthodoxy. The memorial view does not. Considering the prevalence of the memorial view in the praxy of many evangelical churches, I find this an important point to accentuate.

Do you agree that a sacrament communicates grace? Why or why not?
Where do you fall in the spectrums delineated above?
Why is your sacramental understanding even important?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Real First Series Ever

I can honestly say that I am actually beginning the real first ever series on The Orthodoctor. The series will pursue the question of the sacraments. What is a sacrament? Why are they important? Is grace really communicated through them? Sacramental theology is by no means something to be put aside as irrelevant. The ontology of the Church is partly defined by its practice and use of the sacraments. Therefore, to dimiss them as unimportant is to reduce one's ecclesiology to less than orthodox. I am interested to see the variety of opinions that will be expressed and the reasons supporting them. Sacraments, here we come.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Feeling Inspired?

I had a wonderful conversation tonight with a peer of mine who has an incredibly bright mind. The struggle which he expressed to me is quite similar to my own struggle as I attempt to craft my theology.

Essentially, the crux of our discussion was the meaning of inspiration as it pertains to the Bible. The subject is certainly one of great significance and also one which brings forth strong reaction from those accustomed to being told that any discrepancy within the biblical text is merely alleged. To suggest otherwise would certainly make one out of sync with the typical evangelical layman's theology. My friend believes that, especially since the time of Luther, the Bible has been elevated to this place where it has assumed authority based upon the claim that it is inerrant. What is interesting to me is the manner in which my friend is wrestling with this whole issue.

There are those who would declare that what it means for the Bible to be inspired is that God dictated the text word for word to the biblical authors. Thus, any apparent discontinuity within the text is cause for alarm. I cannot imagine any reputable scholar making this claim, but this is where things begin to get hazy. The Church has, at times, used the Christological analogy when speaking of the dynamic inspiration of Scripture: just as Christ is both fully human and fully divine, so is the Bible both fully human and fully divine. How, though, is this inspiration different from the inspiration given to a pastor preaching a sermon on a given Sunday?

Here's the basic argument from my friend. We say that God inspired Scripture but we also say that God inspires preachers to preach Scripture. After preaching a sermon, a congregant can come to the pastor and say, "You were really inspired today. What you said about the hypostatic union was right on. But, what you said here was incorrect." The pastor could listen to this comment and upon studying his alleged error find that he truly is incorrect. How is it that a person can be inspired to deliver a message, and while the core of the message is good, still error therein? Why is this not also the case with the inspiration of Scripture? If Scripture is fully human as well as divine, can it not err? And do we not then run the possibility of constructing our theology upon the errors rather than the truths?

Upon investigating the clear development within both the Old and the New Testament my friend has also been left to say that much of what is recorded in the Old Testament is man's inability to correctly understand the workings of God. Does the Old Testament give us a completely distorted view of God because of the conceptual categories which the ancients were drawing from? James Dunn argues that it is quite likely that Paul potentially had semi-Arian views pertaining to Christ. Is it okay for Paul's Christology to be incomplete, and if so, is it not possible that much of what he says is in fact incomplete?

The result for my friend is placing his trust in a theological dialectic: what the Church has said throughout the ages is most trustworthy. There is certainly a true tension which exists here, one which I'm not entirely sure what to do with. I do find that the best appropriation of Scripture is seen through the eyes of Church Tradition. But important to this discussion is the value the Bible loses when large portions of the text can be seen as irrelevant and the result of man's incapacities.

So what do you think? How are we to understand the inspiration of Scripture?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Call to Reform?

This is a "Focus Paper" for Church History II. It's another one of those assignments where you have to "fall off the log" and make statements that you may not fully agree with. Nonetheless, there is a lot in here that I like.

It is undoubtedly true that the Protestant principle which Paul Tillich speaks of is indeed a pervasive reality. Since the time of the Reformation Protestants have appealed to both Scripture and conscience almost exclusively in determining what is to constitute the Christian faith. The result is thousands of fractured, autonomous sects declaring themselves to teach the truth based solely upon Scripture and individual convictions. The damage accrued is not irreparable but requires a renewed adherence to the historical Christian narrative in order to rediscover the truths that lay at the center of Christian orthodoxy. As unfriendly as it sounds to the often myopic Protestant ear, a system of councils is preferable to the inherent dangers of the Protestant principle.

One of the central problems facing Protestant biblical interpretation is that of the locus of authority. Protestants have rejected the type of ecclesiastical authority represented by Roman Catholicism. This has resulted in a vacuum where periodically an individual will arise and determine his/her interpretation to encapsulate real Christian truth. Dissensions carry weight when there is no authority to appeal to beyond personal interpretations of the Bible. While certain levels of ecclesiastical authority remain (i.e. denominational boards) there is no central and unifying authority for Protestant Christians. This poses a problem without precedence considering historically the Church has appealed to its leaders to identify orthodoxy.

While the possibility of complete ecumenical unity is perhaps infeasible, if the Protestant Church desires to eradicate schism it may need to consider an ecclesiastical reform which would bring Protestantism into greater continuity with the Church structure of Roman Catholicism. Many of the doctrines central to the Christian faith were debated and agreed upon by Church councils in the Patristic period. The bishopry was best suited to handle matters of theology and was balanced by the number of bishops who contributed to debate. Theologians from the West and the East conjoined to participate in the development of the most monumental decisions in Christian history. In many ways we owe the orthodox interpretation of Scripture to the ecclesiastical structure of early Christianity.

The ecclesiology of the Patristic period is not immune from corruption. The gradual development of papal authority, while by no means inherently evil, leaves itself open to the abuse of power. When final authority is predominantly placed in leaders, a hierarchy forms in which the followers become victim to intentional deception. However, such structure is by no means a guarantee for eventual corruption and such an argument is not terrible effective. If Church authority remains in the univocal consensus of hundreds of Church leaders the danger of exploitation becomes significantly minimized. More concerns arise when final authority is placed in a single man. Most Protestants would use this concern as a critique of the Roman papacy without realizing that inherent within the Protestant principle is the placement of authority within individual men.

The ecclesiology that best preserves the integrity of the Christian community is one which finds consistency with the Patristic period. If the Protestant Church endeavors to eliminate useless schism and endless debate it would do well to seek to reform its own ecclesiastical structure. In reality, that which began as a call to reform has become a mandate for division.