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Posts Tagged ‘sacraments’

I have a great appreciation for Carl Trueman.  For those who don’t know, Trueman is a theologian and historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary.  He also blogs regularly at Reformation21.  He is one of the wittiest and most insightful writers out there, one from whom I’ve learned much.

Part of what I like about Trueman is that he is unabashedly Reformed.  It’s not that I agree with his positions, but I admire the man for the fact that he has strong convictions, doesn’t mind stating them strongly and, it seems, he appreciates when others do the same.  I like people who know where they stand and hold to it firmly, as well as grant you the right to do the same.

Then there I times I shake my head.  Like yesterday, when I was reading this post on an unfortunate incident regarding a church suing a former member.  The context of that post isn’t my concern here (since I agree with Trueman, save for the following points).  But in it he makes a statement I’ve heard/read from him previously: “The church is marked by two things: the word and the sacraments.”

This is, of course, a classic Reformed position, so he’s not stating anything new here.  And since I went to a Reformed seminary, I’m well aware of the arguments in favor of it.  I don’t necessarily disagree with “the word” part of the statement, though Trueman and I might not see eye-to-eye on how it’s carried out.  Most Reformed folks I know would stress the preaching of the word- one guy standing up in the front and the congregation listening, with very little interaction otherwise.  That, to me, is not necessarily bad, in fact, it’s mostly a good thing, but it’s not exactly what the NT writers had in mind.  There was some of that style of preaching, to be sure, but there also seemed to be a bit more interaction happening, too.

Anyway, I find his statement regarding the centrality of the ‘sacraments’ (and the term he uses next, ‘means of grace’) to be the most problematic.  This is the mark of the church?  I’m not sure if a person who has never read the NT before would come away with these two points as the marks of the church.  What about love (Jn 13:35)?  What about obeying the commands of Jesus (Jn 14:23-24)?  What about living lives of faith?  It seems to me that Paul thought faith set the church apart from others.

What about believers helping fellow believers financially, practically, etc?  In fact, that shows up more often in the NT than the Lord’s Supper does.  Why doesn’t that make the Top 2 Marks of the Church?

Or, perhaps even more egregious, how about the fact that the very presence of God who was present at the beginning of creation now dwells in the hearts of his people individually and among his people corporately?  You mean to tell me that someone read the NT and came away thinking that the Holy Spirit is not the mark of the church?  God himself dwells among us!  After all, it is the Spirit’s presence in our corporate worship that ought to make unbelievers “fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!'” (1 Cor 14:25).  If that isn’t something that marks off the church, I don’t know what is.

I want to be clear.  I’m not down on the so-called ‘sacraments,’ or as I state here, my inner Baptist prefers to use the term ‘ordinance.’  In fact, I’d argue baptism and the Lord’s Supper are undervalued in the modern church.  I’m a proponent of weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (though I’d stress more ‘supper’ than a cracker and juice).  I have very strong feelings about baptism, not just the mode but also its importance.

But what I think Reformed theology has done in general, and Trueman in particular, is give a good thing too high a place in the life of the church.  It is, in my opinion, very difficult to get from the NT that the two primary marks of the church are the word and sacraments.  The first, as I said, is defensible, depending on how we define it.  The second is a harder case to make.

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Special thanks to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.

Way back in September of last year I mentioned my desire to read Worship and the Reality of God, and guessed that I would “be pumping my fist in agreement in one chapter and shaking my head the next.”  That’s pretty much how it turned out, though my reaction would often change from page to page.  I, for one, appreciate this in a book.  John Jefferson Davis is professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and, as my previously linked post indicates, an eclectic theologian (in a very good sense).  Davis’ concern in this book is the lack of understanding of the presence of God in Christian worship, hence the subtitle “An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence.”

As Davis sees it, there are “competing ontologies” working within the church today (p21).  There’s the scientific materialism (the ontology of modernity), digital virtuism (the ontology of postmodernity) and trinitarian supernaturalism (the ontology of eternity).  As you can see with just that short list, this is no easy book to plow through.  If you are not familiar with philosophical categories (ontology and epistemology being the two biggest), then I’m not sure how much of this book makes sense (another example, the John Zizioulas quote from page 178: “Pneumatology is an ontological category in ecclesiology”).  Davis demonstrates how the first two ontologies have diluted Christian worship, specifically in how we understand God’s presence in our worship.  To put it differently, churches act as if God’s is not truly present when we gather to worship, and this is largely because we have a skewed view of reality (ie, our ontology is off).

So Davis has some strong words of critique for modern Christian worship, which is no surprise coming from a seminary professor (especially one from Gordon-Conwell).  But what I love about Davis is that he doesn’t simply point the finger at others, but calls theologians and seminaries to task for not spending enough time thinking and training people in worship (pp9-10).  Davis takes this topic seriously and personally, which shows throughout this book (more on this point at the end of this review). 

I won’t take the time to summarize Davis’ argument for the lack of understanding of God’s presence in our worship, in part because I think he’s basically right.  Christians across the board, and I’m including we charismatics who allegedly have a strong theology of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit, do not show up to church excited to gather with other believers in the presence of God.  There is little-to-no expectation of encountering God.  Davis attempts to demonstrate how this has happened through the aforementioned competing ontologies and their impact on our view of reality (interestingly, I had a lot of trouble keeping up with his discussion of modern technology, virtual gaming and its impact on the church, whereas many people my age would understand that far better than the philosophical portions of the discussion).

What I want to get to is Davis’ recommendations for fixing this problem.  Davis’ stance is that with the loss of liturgy we have lost the belief in the real presence of God in Christian worship.  He believes that a more regular practice of the Eucharist would lead Christians back to a place of taking the presence of God more seriously in worship.  Davis also argues that a return to the regular practice of spiritual gifts would contribute to fixing our error.  Like I said, he’s eclectic.

If you’ve read this blog for very long, you’ll know I’m jumping on the spiritual gifts bandwagon, but I remained unconvinced of the previous two points (liturgy and Eucharist).  We all must be aware that we are in danger of turning preference into law, and there were points of this book where I felt like Davis was doing exactly this.  There’s no doubt that he is greatly moved by a weekly Eucharistic celebration, and he feels the weight of the liturgy.  But he never convinces me that I should be, too.

Davis marshalls all sorts of evidence in support of his liturgical and Eucharistic (is that even a word?) suggestions, mostly theological and historical.  But that is precisely the problem: because his biblical arguments are unconvincing, I’m not sure why anyone should adopt his stance on these points.  And I’m not sure the historical evidence necessarily works in his favor at all times, either.  Let me explain.

There is no liturgy in the New Testament, at least not in any sense we see practiced in liturgical churches.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad to follow one, but to think of this as the medicine for our problem when it isn’t described or prescribed in Scripture seems a bit backwards.  Besides, there were pragmatic reasons for adopting the liturgy in the first place.  Yet, when reading Davis one gets the impression that pragmatism is the enemy of the church. 

Also, last time I checked, New England (where I’m from) is littered with liturgical churches that have no understanding of the presence of God.  Their liturgical practices haven’t helped one bit, why should we think this is the solution to our problems?  I do admit his list of 6 advantages of using a liturgy is intruiging (p188, I’ll post them another day), but, again, I’m surrounded by churches that see none of these despite their liturgical practices.

Regarding the Eucharist, I’m simply too far removed from Davis’ theology here to buy what he’s selling.  I don’t even like using the term Eucharist (nor sacrament, nor communion, for that matter).  I’ll confess that I’m basically an old-fashioned Baptist/Zwinglian on this issue.  Mind you, I agree with Davis’ argument that evangelicals don’t take the Lord’s Supper seriously enough- I’m 100% on board with that.  And I even lean towards a weekly observance.  But I’m uncomfortable with terms like “means of grace” or the thought that the Eucharist “seals to believers the benefits of the Redeemer’s Sacrifice” (p131).  Last time I checked, that the job of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14).  I should note that when Davis talks about the presence of Christ at the Eucharist, he is careful to say he does not believe Christ is present in the elements (basically a Catholic view) but at the Table.  But again, I’m unconvinced by the biblical argument of this point, and would argue that Christ is present through his Holy Spirit, not through the Lord’s Supper.

Going back to church history, I think one could make a case that those with a high view of the Eucharist share the blame for its fall within American churches.  After all, it was those folks who wouldn’t allow frontier churches (a target in the book) to administer the Lord’s Supper because they did not have ordained clergy to do so.  Well of course the practice fell out of favor, no one would let them do it! 

This review is going on much longer than my normal ones, so I’ll summarize briefly.  I think church leaders would benefit from this book.  Because Davis’ approach is fairly eclectic, he helps the reader see church practices from multiple angles.  And even though I’m unconvinced by his positive arguments (what the church should do), I see the merit of his negative ones (what the church should not do).  This will be, whether we admit it or not, largely determined by our previously held position.  It’s no coincidence that you can read a largely negative review of the book by a Baptist, and a positive one by an Anglican.  If nothing else, read the book for the annotated bibliography- it’s a goldmine of historical and theological writings on the topic of worship, liturgy and the Eucharist.

I mentioned above that Davis’ passion for this topic is evident.  This is not a normal thing to include in a book review, but it did affect the way I read the book so I feel the need to mention it.  When I told a seminary buddy about this book before it came out, he relayed something to me that stuck in my brain.  He heard Dr Davis give a talk at a conference on worship and was greatly impressed by Davis.  In his words, “this isn’t the same man we studied under a few years back.  I honestly think he underwent some kind of personal revival since then.”  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ll agree with the basic point.  The Jack Davis coming through these pages was more passionate and moving than what I remember in class.  It is clear this is a very personal issue for him, and he truly is moved in worship of our Savior through the practices outlined in Worship and the Reality of God.  I appreciate that about him and this book.  I hope others see that, too.

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Joel Willits over at Euangelion had an interesting post yesterday regarding the presence of God and charismatic theology.  I was simply going to leave a comment, but it was going to be too long, hence this post.  He starts by asking the question: “How much of the modern charismatic movement’s stress on the ‘tangible presence’ of God in the form of signs, wonders and individual manifestations is the result of a non-sacramental theology?”

For those who aren’t familiar with the term “sacramental theology,” Dr Willits is referring to those Christian traditions who believe that Christ is, in some sense, present in the sacraments (Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, and Anglican- though they all nuance it differently).  There should probably be more to this definition, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll start with that.  He observes that charismatic churches tend not to emphasize the sacraments in terms of Christ’s presence, and I think he’s probably right. Most charismatic/pentecostal churches tend to be “non-sacramental,” along with Baptists and a few other groups (Nazarenes?, Congregationalists?, not sure).

He also relays a conversation he had with a friend who is part of a “supernatural boot camp” (Willits’ term).  This friend expressed a desire to feel the presence of God and experience intimacy with God,  giving a couple examples of this happening, such as feeling a warm sensation in his hands.

I encourage you to read Willits’ entire post, because he discusses a couple other things that provoke good thought, but I wanted to focus on his original question: is the desire to experience the presence of God a result of a non-sacramental theology?

There are probably a number of factors that are at work in the desire for the tangible presence of God, some good and some bad.  Some have a desire for something new or cool.  Some have seen the faithful lives of those who seek after these things and want whatever it is that those people have experienced.  And, as Willits suggests, they may be seeking the tangible presence of God because they don’t have any other room in their theology to have that experience (that is, being non-sacramental).

But I think there is something more crucial here that Willits does not mention, and does not crop up in the comments (at least not yet).  Once again, I appeal to what Gordon Fee has emphasized on many occasions: in the earliest churches, the Holy Spirit was an experienced reality.  Many of us charismatics read 1 Corinthians 12-14, Galatians 3 and the entire book of Acts and note there was something about the presence of the Spirit that manifested itself in the community, and, with maybe a couple exceptions (Acts 2:42?), those passages are not connected with sacraments (or ordinances, as my inner Baptist prefers to call them).  That, of course, doesn’t mean that those holding to a more sacramental theology are wrong to do so (they do have biblical justification in the gospels); it simply means that the presence of God can be manifested apart from them.

To be sure, charismatics hardly have the monopoly on experiencing the presence of God.  I’ve written a bit about this before.  Needless to say, a warm feeling in the hands may indeed be from God, but it most certainly does not exhaust what the NT has to say about God’s presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit.  In fact, I’d say it barely touches on the amazing things we see in Scripture.  My point here, though, is simply to note that there is a biblical and theological justification for the charismatic’s desire to “feel the presence of God,” even if that can be awfully hard to define.

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I can hardly call this post an RoTM, since, as Danny has noted, I have been decidely delinquent in posting lately.  I have several excuses for this, but rather than take ownership and responsibility for the management of my life, I will follow current social trends and blame somebody else, viz., Danny.  It may not appear obvious, but somehow, I know it’s his fault :)

I wanted to tie off a thought of two on the local church:  When is a church properly called “a church?”  Danny and I have admitted up front that “what church is supposed to look like” is a difficult question to answer, because there are no orders of service in Scripture, nor are there detailed descriptions.  Instead, we have to deduce from Scripture how New Testament churches functioned and what types of things they did.

In my encounters with American Christians, most seem to agree with various aspects of what the local church should look like.  Words like “community,” “Bible teaching,” “service,” “prayer,” and “worship,” dot the conversation, as they should.  We’ve heard (ad nauseum, in my opinion) that the church isn’t a building, that the institution isn’t a necessary component to being Christian (side note:  I wonder if that has anything to do with the strong anti-institutional bias in America?).  Yea and amen.  Indeed, a group of believers who come together regularly to study the Word, pray, worship, serve and love each other can be called a local church, irrespective of their registration with the state as such, what day and time they meet, how often, how long, the existence of paid staff, a building, offices, bylaws, polity, or even a proper name.  Or can it?

I feel that the Sacraments are often left out of this discussion, and I number myself among those guilty of neglecting them when describing the fundamentals of what a local church should be.  The Lord’s Supper and baptism are clearly a part of the early church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:14-16; 11:17ff), and their practice today ought to be a part of ours.

The reasons are manifold, but most importantly, if we take the early church as the prototype for all churches to come, and the New Testament as the authority on defining what a church is and does, our participation in these Sacraments shows an explicit attempt to continue in those traditions and practices; affirmation and assent to what Christ founded and the apostles continued.

So then, if a group of believers gathers regularly for worship, prayer, community, and Bible teaching, but neglects any attempt practice the Sacraments (n.b., I make no mention here of what Baptism an the Lord’s Supper mean or look like; these are disputed matters for another post), I do not believe that the New Testament would understand said group as a local church.  Is it good?  Can it be blessed?  Is God pleased with it?  Yes, yes and yes.  Is it a church?  I don’t believe it is.

I am aware that many local gatherings may not have much opportunity for baptism, especially if all members have already been baptized.  However, it should be an available practice, and hopefully the group is seeking to reach unbelievers (another clear mark of a church), and will have the opportunity at some point to baptize.

Is this post a major in the minors?  Am I guilty of sweating some nuance of proper nomenclature?  I do not believe I am.   If we love, serve and pray in our church because the pattern is clear in the New Testament, then we should also practice the Sacraments, since they are equally clear.  Not only so, but they are far from burdensome, but a powerful expression of devotion and love to the God we serve.  I never fail to be blessed when I’ve participated (or witnessed) a Sacrament at my local church.  Let us endeavor to keep them in the ongoing conversation of “what church looks like,” lest we rob the local church of these great traditions.

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