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.


Nathan Hendershott said...


Thanks for your thoughts. I am glad that you have entered into this discussion, I had forgotten a particular Augustine class where this was brought up.

As you might remember I was having difficulty with the idea of considering those faith communities which do not practice the sacraments correctly, consistently or not at all - to be not part of the Church (must be my Quaker roots coming out).

Anyways, I suppose my question to you is the same as the one I asked Dr.Bounds...If we consider these denominations (such as my beloved Quakers) not part of the Church because they do not possess this "mark" of the Church, then how should that effect how we relate to them? I recall one suggestion which I contested strongly, and that was that there should be a sort of pragmatic disconnect between our orthodoxy and orthopraxy with regards to this issue. Simply put, we should understand them to a part of the Church on a practicing level, but not an intellectual level. Is this really a responsible thing to do?

Thanks for you post,


joshwall said...


My question is who has decided over the years that sacramentality was part of the church, or what constitute sacraments, or the nature and role of sacraments? It strikes me that these are all decisions are great father and mothers(though not near enough mothers) made about the faith and I don't know if I always find them compelling. I think its a great way to understand the transmission of grace but I think we run into issues when we make hard and fast rules on sacraments, does a full immersion need to be done or just dropping water enough for it to constitute a sacrament, with both being held in a traditional high view?

Furthermore, while we have the example for the sacraments laid out in the Bible, their fully formed theological conceptions don't happen till later. Its only later on in the church, after several hundred years of ecclesial existence do we start to gather enough of a consensus to agree on sacraments. So why I find them a great part of ecclesial tradition and something that helps us understand ourselves, each other, and God I don't know if they are essential for what it takes to compose church.

Now, I should say I attend an episcopal church and enjoy the higher view of sacraments than what I grew up with. But I still don't find the historical support to centralize sacraments as on the of necessary elements of a church, true it starts to perk up after Augustine, but we had a couple hundred years before that when people conceived Christianity differently (if they even used the term).

So, I think sacraments are important, I think we should do them... but are they necessary to the ontological existence of the church, I don't think so. If so wouldn't we have seen Jesus talk about them more? He never goes into any detail about them, the most we get are those snippets we pull together from the synoptics concerning Eucharist.

On final thought, you also ask if "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?"

Yes, I think it does. But to follow up (and come full circle), your questions is (near as I can tell) asking if by ceasing practicing sacraments there is a risk that churches may function outside of the broader ecclesial domain... and think that's a possible outcome and I don't know if that's a bad thing.

Ben Robinson said...


Thanks for your input! Rather than writing an incredibly lengthy comment, I decided to post another blog in response to your post. If you would rather me not have done this I will remove the blog and relegate the discussion to these comment boards.

Ben Robinson said...


Whether it is responsible to allow a disconnect between practice and our intellectual convictions I'm not sure. I think there may be times where this is not necessarily a bad thing.

But you raise a great question: how do we relate to them? I do think that this affords an opportunity for us to open up dialogue regarding ecclesiology. As we interact with them we can push them to develop their understanding of the Church.

But how do we relate on a more interpersonal level? That's a good question. You may notice that in my post I did not say that such churches had ceased to be a part of the Church. I did say they have the potential to. If they have not yet ceased but are on their way to such a destination than I think we ought to lovingly correct them. Even for Augustine in the Donatist controvery, the underlying motivation was an ethic of love (even though his means of such an ethic are hardly loving). I think our first step would be to encourage the participation in the sacraments in those churches. But if that fails, I don't think it would a bad idea to invite them to participate in other local churches.

But this is no easy issue and I have no easy answers. I am emotionally conflicted when I think about it. What do you think? Any suggestions?