Friday, March 31, 2006

3: Sacraments as They Pertain to the Ontology of the Church

The significance of the sacraments pertaining to the ontology of the Church is what I would like to most fervently address. This aspect of sacramentalism has been placed upon dusty bookshelves by some evangelical theologians but many are re-thinking the role of sacraments in the identity of the Church.

"So what really do you mean Ben?" For those of you who are not familiar with the theological/philosophical verbosity of that previous paragraph let me bring forth clarity as I expound upon this. In order for one to understand the significance of the sacraments we must first begin with ecclesiology (the study of the Church). Most pertinent to this discussion are what are called the "Protestant Marks of the Church." These marks are 1) the preaching of the Pure Word of God; 2) the community rightly ordered; 3) the due administration of the sacraments.

The question of the place of the sacraments is intimately tied to the question of what is the Church. I am working from the assumption of the historical position of the Church that the sacraments are a component of the very identity (ontology) of the Church. Augustine and other Church Fathers were very clear that if in a local church body the sacraments were not properly administered then that "church" was not operating from the identify of the Church. It lacked a necessary component of what it means to be the Church.

It was understood from the apostolic age and throughout the Patristic period that the Church is the primary agent of God's grace to the world. The danger, therefore, of not being immersed in a local church body is paramount because by being disconnected one has cut him/herself off from the primary means of God's grace (this is one of the great dangers of the ideology of Barna's Revolution). But what happens when a person is connected with a local church body but that body does not regularly partake of the sacraments nor hold them in high esteem?

This is where we get to the crux of the question: does a church which does not practice the sacraments run the risk of eventually moving towards what can be inexpressibly called outside of the Church? I believe so. If the sacraments are essential to the ontological essence of the Church then to ignore them would be to truncate the grace dispersed by the participation in them. To voluntarily choose to not partake of the sacraments it to voluntarily choose to deny oneself of the means of grace. It should be noted that I am not saying that the sacraments are the only means of grace. In order to avoid distracting tangents I should also note that when I say the Church is God's primary means of grace to the world I mean exactly that. The Church is the primary means of grace, but not the sole means.

But back on track. Here comes the pertinent question for many evangelicals and especially for me and my Wesleyan sisters and brothers. While we partake of the sacraments, do we run the risk of gradually moving away from the "center" of the Church by the low view held in our praxy and the rarity of the participation in the sacraments? I believe so. If the Augustinian distinctive mentioned in the previous post is correct (which I perhaps should not even label as the "Augustinian" distinctive considering it appears other Fathers may hold to it as well; i.e. Cyril of Jerusalem), then it is not enough for a pastor to believe in the efficacy of the sacraments and hold a high view on his/her own. The faith of the community must also be present in order to co-operate with the grace offered in the sacraments.

How many evangelicals do you know that hold a high view of the sacraments? How many sermons have you heard on the sole purpose of communion being that of remembrance? How many messages have been related to you on the importance of "believer's baptism (which I mention only because such sermons are usually accompanied by a low view of baptism)?" Are we at risk of losing some of the essence of what it means to be the Church? I think we might be.

But what about you? What do you think?
Are the sacraments a central and necessary component of the Church's ontology? Why/why not?
If the faith of the community must be present, how can we go about changing the low view of the sacraments predominantly held by lay-people?

I would also love to hear the thoughts of those of you who may not be studying theology/Church history/biblical literature and gain your perspective.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

2: In What Manner is Grace Communicated?

I apologize for the lengthy delay of this second post. Even with Spring Break, these past few weeks have been incredibly hectic for me.

In the last post I laid out four basic views of both Baptism and the Eucharist. Emphasis was put on the mysterious reality that grace is in some way communicated through these sacraments. Inevitably the questions arises, "In what manner is this grace communicated?" There are three views I would like to put forth for discussion. I acknowledge the fact that there are other understandings and certain nuances present with each view but for the sake of brevity I have decided to post merely three.

1. Ex opere operato

This view essentially asserts that grace is guaranteed to be communicated through the sacraments. The flow of this grace is not contingent necessarily upon the faith of the individual participating in the specific sacrament but is assumed by the very nature of the sacraments. The sacraments in a sense become channels of constant flow; one must enter into this channel in order to participate in the grace thereby dispersed.

Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this view would be the modern day Roman Catholic Church. However, it can be argued that certain aspects of the praxy of evangelicals carries connotations of this view while redefining the locus of this guaranteed grace. For some evangelicals, if an individual comes to the altar and recites the "sinner's prayer" there is the assumption of the assured communication of grace. The semi-pelagian idea that one can choose to accept Christ at any moment they so delight actually bears striking resemblance to the Catholic understanding of the communication of grace through the sacraments.

2. Ex opere operantis

The basic difference in this view is that the communication of grace through the sacraments is dependent upon the faith of the individual receiving the sacraments. While St. Cyril of Jerusalem may not categorically fall here, he gives stern admonitions to those who would enter the waters of baptism with malignant motives. If one persists in these motives the regenerative effects of baptism do not accompany the person. The motives and faith of the person are paramount. It is Luther who adopts this view and emphasizes the individual aspect of participation in the sacraments. It is the faith of the individual that the efficacy of the sacrament relies in part upon.

While it will have to wait for another discussion, it should be noted that theologians such as Wesley did not believe that grace was guaranteed to be distributed by means of partaking of the sacraments. The same measure of grace is not always given to each person whom receives the Eucharist in the same service. But this digression will have to wait for another post, another day.

3. Ex opere operantis

Do not worry, I realize this is identical with the aforementioned view. However, I have seperated this perspective from the former because of an Augustinian distinction. Augustine held to this specific understanding while placing the emphasis of belief on the community rather than the individual. In other words, while faith had to be present it did not by necessity have to be the faith of the specific individual. The congregation could believe on behalf of the individual partaking of the sacrament. Not that the faith of the individual was not important to Augustine, but equally important was the faith of the accompanying gathering of believers. Faith must be present, but its locus need not solely be that of the individual.

So what do you think?
What additions would you make to these three views?
Is there any particular view not mentioned that you find insightful or important to bring to the discussion?
What might be the varying consequences of each of these views?