“Sacramentalist” just sounds kind of cool, doesn’t it? Lots of alliteration and sibilance. But it’s not a word you hear much in Church of Christ circles. We’ve been accused by many of teaching baptism as a sacrament. We usually figure that’s a Catholic thing and so deny the accusation. But things are changing.
In this quarter’s Restoration Quarterly, John Mark Hicks argues for taking a frankly sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and the Lord’s Day — following Alexander Campbell and, no coincidence, three excellent books he’s authored or co-authored: Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper; Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work; and A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter.
Well, Hicks is one of our few truly interesting theologians, and so I want to spend a little time considering what he has to say.
“Sacrament” and the Churches of Christ
Though this [sacramental] language is the [Stone-Campbell Movement] at its best, many in the twentieth century have become more anthropocentric in orientation, more concerned about, as R. C. Bell put it, “human mechanics” than “divine dynamics.” Our anti-sacramentalism owes more to Zwinglian Protestantism and/or Lockean epistemology than we might admit.
Is baptism merely a human act in response to God’s accomplished work or does God himself do something? Is the Lord’s Supper merely a human act of remembering or does God himself somehow participate? Is the assembly simply a place to obey commands to perform five acts of worship or to edify one another? Or does the special presence of Jesus “where two or three are gathered” in his name mean that something more takes place?
Ulrich Zwingli was one of the founders of the Protestant Reformation, whose movement is older than Calvin’s but which was absorbed into Calvinism. Zwingli denied that God worked through the sacraments, denying any spiritual effect from anything physical. Although Calvin often disagreed with Zwingli, both their influences are felt in the denominations with Calvinist roots (including the Restoration Movement).
John Locke’s epistemology (theory of how we know things) is that all knowledge comes from experience of the physical world — there is no innate knowledge. Locke was very influential on American political thought and religious views. Campbell clearly was influenced by him. Hence, Hicks is suggesting, not unreasonably, that we’ve tended to ignore the supernatural side of these things as we’re part of a culture that tries to deny the supernatural.
Hicks notes that many denominations have attached all sorts of theories to the term “sacrament,” but its essential meaning is simply “a means of grace.”
The material elements do not merely represent, but they participate in the reality to which they point. They are not mere signs, but symbols that mediate a spiritual reality. The signs become symbols because God does something through them.
Now, I have to admit that, by this definition, the Churches of Christ have always been sacramentalists as to baptism, but not so as to the Lord’s Supper or the assembly. We’ve always taught that salvation occurs at the time of immersion — through the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, concurrently with the physical baptism but not by the power of the water.
And we’ve always disputed those who sought to reduce baptism to a mere symbol. It is, of course, rich with symbolism, but it’s more. We rejected the term “sacrament,” as the water itself has no magical power, however. And we’ve rejected the notion that the power of baptism comes through the church or requires an ordained minister. Rather, as was true of Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit and declaration of sonship come straight from God in heaven.
There is also just a little sacramental strain regarding the assembly, as we’ve often taught that Jesus has a special presence there, as two or three are gathered in his name. However, there’s been very little elaboration on this thought — what significance does Jesus’ presence have?
On the other hand, we’ve been obsessed with contradicting Lutheran and Catholic teaching of consubstantiation and transubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper — with this point being repeated before communion in some congregations nearly weekly. We very typically begin the communion by stating that, in contrast to these views, these elements are mere symbols. Our communion theology is not sacramental in the least.
Moreover, we’ve routinely objected to the language of the sacrament. As stated in an insightful article in the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 214 (1984),
Although the term “sacrament” is virtually never used in orthodox Church of Christ theology, it is nonetheless clear that there is a sacramental theology. While Catholics have seven sacraments and orthodox Protestants have two, Churches of Christ have only one: baptism.
There is a sense in which two other Church of Christ observances have a kind of sacramental character. Preaching is one of these observances, since it is through preaching that the saving logic of the Lord is mediated to the intellects of the hearers. Indeed, Churches of Christ are a verbal people rather than an aesthetic people, and the language typically is characterized by logical rather than emotional or liturgical appeal. The other observance that has a kind of sacramental character for the Churches of Christ is church attendance, usually three times a week. Regular church attendance is generally seen as essential to one’s spiritual well-being, especially since it is there that one attends to the proclamation of the Word … .
That’s right, isn’t it? In fact, I’ve just done a Google search on “sacrament” and “Church of Christ” and the first hit I got was this article on page 5! We just refuse to the use the word.
“Sacrament” in orthodox Protestant use
The Wikipedia says,
The most conventional functional definition of a sacrament is that it is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that conveys an inward, spiritual grace through Christ. The two most widely accepted sacraments are Baptism and the Eucharist; the majority of Christians recognize seven Sacraments or Divine Mysteries : Baptism, Confirmation (Chrismation in the Orthodox tradition), and the Eucharist, Holy Orders, Reconciliation of a Penitent (confession), Anointing of the Sick, and Matrimony. Taken together, these are the Seven Sacraments as recognised by churches in the High church tradition – notably Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Independent Catholic, Old Catholic and some Anglicans, while the Orthodox Church typically does not limit the number of sacraments, viewing all encounters with reality in life as sacramental in some sense, and the acknowledgment of the number of sacraments at seven as an innovation of convenience not found in the Church Fathers, but used infrequently later on from its later encounter with the West. Other denominations and traditions typically affirm only Baptism and Eucharist as sacraments.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines “sacrament” as a —
religious sign or symbol, especially associated with Christian churches, in which a sacred or spiritual power is believed to be transmitted through material elements viewed as channels of divine grace.
Now, the Catholic view of the sacraments (and for most other churches that teach apostolic succession) is that, other than baptism, the sacrament must be administered by a duly ordained minister of the church — that is, grace is mediated via the church’s officials. In this sense, the Church of Christ view is not sacramental. In fact, we nearly insist that communion be administered by laymen. It’s not wrong for the preacher to lead the communion, but it’s rarely done that way.
But this is not the Protestant meaning of the term, although some denominations do insist on ordination in order to preside over communion or administer baptisms.