Saturday, April 08, 2006

4: A Continuation...

Joshwall made some extremely pertinent comments on the last post. I thought it would be easier to post a new blog to address some of the issues rather than address them in the limited comment space.


Thanks for the comment! Your post strikes upon a number of issues which I think we would all consider quite important.

1. How do we know what is correct theology pertaining to the sacraments?

2. Who has the authority to dictate what is orthodoxy in this regard? (Does having an orthodox interpretation of the sacraments even matter?)

3. And (although implicitly) what is the Church?

I certainly cannot attempt to comprehensively address all those questions, but let me begin by addressing some of the specifics in your post.

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?

The Church has decided, based upon the trajectory set by Scripture. While certainly the most advantageous and rich place for us to go would be the writings of the Church Fathers, we would do well to understand that the development of doctrine and Christian orthodoxy was never done outside of the context of the Church. These decisions were not made by the Bishops and then imposed upon the laity but the laity had an integral part in the acceptance and proliferation of these universal decrees.

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?

I'm not as concerned about the "hard and fast" rules you describe here as much as I am with the theology of the sacraments. Can baptism be considered sacramental whether its praxy is by means of full immersion or sprinkling? Yes.

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.

You're exactly right. The fully formed sacramental theology is by all means a development within the Early Church. Yet I must contest the notion that these were developments which occurred "several hundreds years" later. The earliest literature we have available to us from the Fathers of the Church develop this sacramental theology. The understanding of the communication of grace through the sacraments is something that occurs very early in ecclesial history, not a rather late development.

But let's suppose it was a late development. Although inaccurate, let's say sacramental theology did not come to full development until the 5th century. If this had been the case the grounds for dismissing sacramentalism would still not be firm. After all, this century holds the great Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in which the official statements regarding the hypostatic union are made.

You mention that after Augustine this higher view of the sacraments “takes off.” This is not true. An incredibly high view of the sacraments is held by Fathers before the time of Augustine. Cyril of Jerusalem posits a view which is quite similar to that of transubstantiation. Much before Cyril the Eucharist was seen as a central and necessary component of the worship of the Early Church. It was the means by which God communicated grace but also the way in which the Church expressed thanksgiving and gratitude to God.

But again, let’s suppose that it is not until Augustine’s era that the sacraments take a prominent role in the Church. We must also then realize that it is not until the council of Constantinople in 381 that the Holy Spirit is officially declared to be God. It must be clearly understood that decrees of the Ecumenical Councils were never decisions that had arisen in a vacuum or suddenly appeared. The decisions of the Councils were the result of years and years of debate and discussion about the doctrines which are absolutely essential to the nature of Christianity. In the same way, the beliefs concerning the sacraments did not suddenly emerge but are the result of development that begins extremely early in the history of the Church.

If so wouldn't we have seen Jesus talk about them more?

There is much that I wish Jesus would have discussed in greater detail. But the reality is Jesus also left us with some ambiguity regarding the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, the deity of the Holy Spirit, and even his own ontology. But that is one of the reasons that he promised to send the Spirit, who would guide the Church in all truth. Some of the vital aspects of the Christian faith simply are not fully addressed in Scripture. The discussion begins but does not always end with Scripture.

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.

I think it might be helpful to have you clarify what you believe the Church to be. What I am asking is does a church (local body) which refuses to practice the sacraments run the risk of no longer being a part of the Church (holy, catholic, apostolic)? To be outside of the broader ecclesial domain is to no longer be Christian. One cannot exist as a Christian while being divorced from the Church. Perhaps you will have to define what you mean by “broader ecclesial domain.” Because historically the sacraments have been considered a part of the ontology of the Church (that is the sacraments constitute a component of the very nature of the Church), a local church which does not practice them runs the risk of ceasing to be in the Church. This is to cut that local body off from the primary means of God’s grace. That is why I am so concerned with orthodox teaching of the sacraments.


MoonGovernor said...

Ben, sorry to post here on a completely unrelated topic, but I didn't know how else to get ahold of you. Anyway, I responded to your comment in the form of another comment. Check it out.

joshwall said...

Interesting points Ben, I like your opinion, though I think we disagree on a number of points. I'm sorry this is so long, I've written and rewritten much of it because you ask so many questions that I wanted to attempt to address (though also like you not comprehensively). However it seems to me that our primary issue is over the nature of the church and its adjoined orthodoxy, or lack thereof. I address this briefly upfront and then attempt to return to the topic at hand sacraments. Oh and I apologize for its length

I should begin by addressing your final question back to me, which is basically asking me about my understanding of church (local) and Church (catholic). Within my frame work a church is composed of a group of followers of Jesus who meet together for the breaking of bread and the affirmation of one another (or however specifically that verse goes... don't have my bible on me). Now then taking that into a larger context the Church is the conglomrate of those churches. Where I think we disagree, and this appears to be our primary disagreement, is that you ascribe authority to the conglomrate Church above and beyond the individualized churches, while I do not.

I could give a variety of reasons for such a polity, but the most succinct answer is that I do not find the spirit moving solely where there is a majority of belief. So just because traditionally more Christians believe X over Y doesn't mean that X is more credible than Y for today(Using Wesley's quadrilateral I put tradition rather low on the list). I feel they are a great inspiration, a good direction, and as authoritative as the people who said the theological statements were, but not much beyond that, I'm am not swayed to their positions just because others are.

However, I have a follow up question to yours, how do you define the Church? Because this is where we disagree, I think. It seems that you see the church as something that exists as a singular entity, or at least can be referenced as such but I don't see the warrant for that. We are protestant, catholic, orthodox, evangelical, pentecostal, baptist, Anglican... all with differing orthodoxies, which from time to time have put us at odds with one another. So I'm not sure when you say the "Church" who you are talking about and how they can deem me "no longer a Christian" for being outside of the broader ecclesial domain. Basically, who has this authority that you give to the Church, and how is it wielded, in today's context?

And back to the subject at hand, sacraments. In general, I still stand by the statement that sacramental theology does become a prominent formed until at 200 years Jesus. We don't get councils, or Cyril (as you point out) until at mid 4th cent (Constantine becomes defeats Licinius in 323). That's 200+ years of practicing something that isn't a fully formed sense of sacraments but is something, but is something. I mean the earliest stuff along this line (at least that I can think of off hand) are some of the martyrs that make Eucharistic comparisons (Ignatius desires to be the "holy loaf" and all) but that is still something that much more loose of an understanding than we get after the councils. Rather it seems that there is a basic sacramental theology in the ancient church that then gets hammered out into specifics later on (4-5 cent).

Its with that in mind I'm fine going against the grain(and loaf) of traditional sacramental theology, as long as it conforms to the authoritative text. But here I give my own protestant theological assumptions away, a Catholic could read this situation rather different, thank you Luther/Calvin and solo scriptura.

Anyway... I should go, I've written to much as it is and spent to long writing it for anyone's attention span. :) I could write more mostly about our contrasting views of orthodoxy, what it is, who has it, who doesn't, and all the implications therein... but that seemed more like another post, even though its the cause of our primary disagreement.

Sniper said...

Joshwall:"(Using Wesley's quadrilateral I put tradition rather low on the list)."

I really like this conversation fellas, keep it up! But I must ponder on the above statement for a bit...lower? Sounds more beauracratic than quadrilateral. I think Wesley would take aim at your understanding of his own theory. Are they not all supposed to work together?

Ben Robinson said...


I apologize for the lack of response. It is finals time for me so I hope to re-engage the conversation as soon as things slow down. But I would like to continue the discussion (and Sniper, feel free to interject anything along the way).