Monday, June 27, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (10): Dumb Sacraments?

Below is the tenth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I’m sorry I offended you by quoting from the Pope. I really had no idea that you would find it so disturbing and I do apologize. If it helps, just pretend the quotation came from me and forget it was Benedict XVI.

Thanks for giving me Terry Johnson’s little book Reformed Worship, published by Reformed Academic Press. I can’t say I was as impressed by it as you were. Indeed, far from undermining what I wrote in the previous three letters, I think it confirm many of my concerns, especially about rationalism and Gnosticism.

One of the things I found most interesting was his exposition of John 4:21-24 where Jesus said to the Samaritan woman:

Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth.

Johnson takes Jesus’ words to mean that “True worship is not a matter of sacred places but the spiritual condition of the heart.” He goes on to contrast the external, formal and symbolic worship of the Old Testament with the heartfelt, internal worship of the New Testament. Yet as Stuart Bryan reminds us in his discussion of this approach to John 4:21-24:

The difficulty faced by advocates of this approach is not the insistence that worship is to be heartfelt and genuine. That is most certainly true. The difficulty is that this was no less true in the Old Testament than in the New. ‘Sacrifice and burnt offering you did not desire,’ David declares. ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite spirit.’ Heartfelt, genuine worship was to characterize the Old Testament no less than the new?

So what then is the change in worship that Jesus was anticipating in his conversation with the Samaritan woman? Again, allow me to quote a rather lengthy passage from Stuart Bryan’s discussion of these verses:

First, Jesus insists that the corporate worship of the people of God would be decentralized. No longer on Mount Gerizim in Samaria nor on Mount Zion in Jerusalem would corporate worship be confined – rather corporate worship would be spread throughout the earth. Note that he is addressing corporate worship, for that was what happened in Jerusalem and, idolatrously, on Mt. Gerizim. Jesus is announcing that wherever the servants of God gather together in the Name of Christ and lift His Name on high, there is Mount Zion, there is the City of our God, there is the place of corporate worship. Jerusalem in Israel is no longer the center of God’s dealings with man; the heavenly Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the Church is the center.

Second, Jesus informs us that not only would corporate worship be decentralized, it would be explicitly Trinitarian. When Jesus rose from the dead and sent forth His Spirit, the worship of God’s people was forever transformed. It became explicitly Trinitarian – worshiping the Father in Spirit – the very Spirit whom Jesus promised would come and lead His people into all righteousness – and in Truth – the very Truth who took on human flesh and declared to His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me.” …

Worshiping the Father in Spirit and Truth is not an exhortation to heartfelt, genuine worship – that exhortation had been given throughout the Old Testament. … It means that…as we gather together to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth, as we gather to worship the Triune God, we are entering into the presence of God Himself. Brothers and sisters, the roof has been ripped off and we have been ushered into the presence of the Most High.

If it is true that God’s presence dwells with His people when they gather corporately to worship Him, then it is appropriate that the places where this meeting of heaven and earth occurs should be treated with extra respect and honor, just as we give the Bible more honor and respect than a normal book since it is the very words of God. Thus, there is an appropriate sense in which church buildings are set apart from ordinary functional buildings. Yet Terry Johnson seems to eschew this. In Reformed Worship he writes with approval of when the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah dedicated a new church building in 1891 and deliberately refrained from calling it a ‘sanctuary.’ Instead they called it a ‘church building’ or ‘church house.’ Johnson comments, “God’s presence is in heaven. There are no holy buildings, holy places, or holy things through which God’s blessing is uniquely mediated…. This seemed to be better understood a hundred years ago than it is today. The point for us is that worship can never be a matter of getting our bodies in the right building at the right time for the right ritual.”

Now of course worship involves more than getting our bodies at the right time for the right ritual, but does it involve less? God is transcendent in heaven, but is He not also present with the saints who gather to worship Him? So much Protestant architecture hinges on this assumption that while God is everywhere generally He is nowhere in particularly, and the steeples on Protestant churches which point away from earth seem to underscore this point. I consider this nothing other than architectural Docetism.

One of Johnson’s reasons for urging that churches are not sacred spaces is because worship has nothing to do with the physical dimension in which our body exists, but is a matter of what goes on in the invisible realm of our head and spirit. As he writes:

... the worship of Reformed Protestantism is simple. We merely read, preach, pray, sing and see the Word of God… True faith comes through the word (Rom. 10:17). True worship then must be primarily (though not absolutely) non-material, non-sensual, and non-symbolic…. Everything about our worship is to be simple…Nothing is to draw attention to…the beauty…

Johnson is careful to use the word ‘primarily’ since he does recognize that the sacraments are symbols. But, he is clear to point out that this is all they are. As he says in his discussion of John 4:21-24:

… it is crucial that the symbolic, typological and temporary nature of Old Testament worship be understood. Visual pictures were given to Israel of the spiritual realities that would be fulfilled in Christ…The New Testament sacraments are symbolic presentations of the gospel as well….So what is the difference? It is a difference of emphasis and proportion. The Old Testament was loaded with symbols in anticipation of Christ. These symbols are by nature temporary. The New Testament has only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thus the New Testament worship is ‘in spirit’ in that it does not have the emphasis on symbols and types as did Old Testament worship…. Symbols by nature are inferior to verbal revelation. This is why the church has no ‘dumb sacraments,’ as J.A. Motyer has put it. The sacraments are always accompanied by an explanatory word. They are not self-interpreting. They depend on the word in ways that the word does not depend on them. The addition of symbols beyond the two instituted by Christ are a distraction from the ordained means of grace.

He then goes on to compare the sacraments to the law, which was a ‘shadow’ and ‘not the very form of things’ (Heb. 10:1). So where does this leave us? If I understand the trajectory of Johnson’s thought, it leaves us somewhere as follows:

1) Jesus said that a day is coming when those who worship Him would do so in Spirit and Truth.

2) By this Jesus meant that there would be a cessation of the symbolic aspects of Old Covenant worship.

3) Two symbolic elements have, however, been preserved in the New Covenant, and these are the two Protestant sacraments.

4) These symbolic elements have been kept to a minimum of two in order that the primacy of the Word will not be displaced.

5) The value of the sacraments depend on them being accompanied with an explanatory interpretation, and in any other context they are ‘dumb sacraments.’

I’m sorry George, but that seems to pack an awful lot into John 4 which simply isn’t there. But moreover, consider where it leads in practice. Since the efficacy of the sacraments do not work ex opere operato but depend instead on explanatory interpretation, we can assume that all children and mentally handicapped persons should be immediately excommunication. But this is to fall prey to the type of rationalist anthropology that I addressed in my previous letters.

I wish I could say that Terry Johnson’s Reformed Worship is an anomaly, but his views on the sacraments do seem to have some resonance with the theology of the magisterial reformers. In his book Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip Lee explores some of the ways that reformed theology has been tainted by the Gnostic tendency to undervalue the body and the material world, leading to a low sacramentalism to which even Luther and Calvin were not immune. For example, Luther commented that “the sacrament without the word can be nothing, but indeed the word without the sacrament [can], and if necessary, one can be saved without a sacrament, but not without the Word.” Elsewhere Luther made the point that the materiality of the Eucharist is unimportant because the real action is what happens in your mind: “I am able daily, indeed hourly, to have the mass; for, as often as I wish, I can set the words of Christ before me, and nourish and strengthen my faith by them. This is the true spiritual eating and drinking.”

But it wasn’t just Luther who occasionally colluded with the Zwinglian spiritualization of the Supper and the corollary devaluing of matter. As important as the Eucharist was for Calvin, it remained God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write: “Forasmuch as we are so ignorant, so given up to earthly and carnal things and fixed upon them, so that we can neither think, understand nor conceive of anything spiritual, the merciful Lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.” Calvin thus made himself vulnerable for later generations to suggest that left the Eucharist dangling as a kind of appendage inadequately attached to his system. At least, that is what Philip Lee argues. To quote again from his Against the Protestant Gnostics:

It is easy to see how Calvin’s suspicion of knowing God through material things would influence his sacramental theology. Although he makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament together, to handle them in a parallel way, there is never the slightest doubt in his mind as to which is preeminent. If necessary, the Gospel could stand by itself and indeed would do so were it for our human weakness, which makes us dependent on these more primitive means of grace. ... In maintaining a distinct dualism between spirit and flesh, he would always be on guard against awarding too much dignity to the visible Church as Church, and he would always be suspicious of the externals of religion.

The book you gave me serves as a useful example of this Calvinist suspicion of the externals of religion. Not surprisingly, the author is also tainted with Puritanism, having written that “our worship is to be … liberated from the calendar and nature’s cycles.” But don’t get me started on that.


Canterbury Chris


Robert F said...

I think you misunderstand Luther. For Luther, the Word is not only a spiritual reality, but a material reality as well. The Word is the foundation on which the Holy Communion, and everything else for that matter, stands. In the most simplistic sense, without Jesus' word, his command, and his Words of Institution, there would be no Eucharist. There is nothing Gnostic or Manichaean in Luther's understanding, there is no contempt for matter (in fact, in another place Luther said that although the normal means that God uses for conveying his gifts to the Christian is through the Sacrament of Holy Communion, he could as effectively do it through a bowl of cabbage soup if he so chooses....nothing Gnostic or Manichaean there); rather, there is the highest regard for the Living Word which is potent and life-giving and which communes with the body and spirit together.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Robert F. I note that I published this as part of a series on behalf of a (non-Anglican) friend, so it is his interpretation of Luther that is at issue.

Robert F said...

Sorry for the misdirection of my comment. I should have read your introduction to the series first, as you indicated at the beginning.