Monday, June 15, 2009

When You Need Something from Outside Yourself

Having grown up in a Baptist context, I knew that worship and theology were not sacramental in nature. However, it was not until I did my undergraduate work at a fundamentalist Bible college that I realized just how anti-sacramental my tradition was. The rejection of God working through any material means was passionate and pointed, as though giving any ground to sacramental theology would somehow reverse the Reformation. Fear of Roman Catholic stereotypes permeated many layers of the fundamentalist teaching, leaving one with the sense that Protestants had better keep "protesting" or else a sinister Cardinal is coming to get you. As a result, all expressions of faith allowable for worship must be manufactured out of one's own sentiments.

This is not to denigrate the devotional life, nor to downplay the necessity of emotive engagement in worship. However, by making worship solely reliant on the sentiments that one can conjure within themselves, the anti-sacramentalist unwittingly denies the penitent a tangible means of receiving God's grace when life's "low spots" retard the ability to manufacture the right sentiment on their own. This is unfortunate, since there are most certainly times when conjuring feelings of worship and devotion are more difficult than other times. At such times the worshiper needs something from God that they know they didn't conjure on their own. Such exterior sources of assurance can penetrate dark times of disappointment, despair - even depression.

Consider the great pleasure taken by the parent when the child first expresses love back to them in a way that the parent didn't train them in. Or think of the security wrought in a relationship when one hears "I love you" that was not "I love you too" (a response to the affection you initiated). Assurance cannot be manufactured on our own. Intuitively we know this. It is a deeply felt desire to receive tokens of relational security that our conscience cannot undermine with an accusatory: Oh you totally made that up.

For this reason there are most certainly times in life when you need something from outside yourself.

Sure there may be times when I can "sense" God's grace around me, but right now I need you to had it to me as I kneel at the rail. Sure there are times when I can pray spontaneously to God, but right now I need you to lead me through prayers past down from ancient divines that knew the same God I'm crying out to. Sure I can reflect privately on my own about what I believe, but right now I need you to walk me through what we all believe from the Creeds. Sure I can remember the great acts of God on my behalf, but what if I need reminding - will you supply symbols, traditions and rites to keep them fresh in my mind? What's your answer when I need a faith that I know I'm not making up? Will you "feed" me the goodness of Christ? Or will you instruct me to be "warmed and filled" on my own, and be on my way?

Sometimes you need something from outside yourself. I come from a tradition that often maligned sacraments by calling it "salvation by works." If anything, sacraments refute "salvation by works" by offering grace from outside yourself. You're not conjuring, manufacturing or inventing feelings of grace within yourself. On the contrary, it can't be by your work since it came from a source outside yourself - and that can be very assuring at just the right time of life.

12 comments:

Jude said...

"Sure there may be times when I can "sense" God's grace around me, but right now I need you to had it to me as I kneel at the rail. Sure there are times when I can pray spontaneously to God, but right now I need you to lead me through prayers past down from ancient divines that knew the same God I'm crying out to. Sure I can reflect privately on my own about what I believe, but right now I need you to walk me through what we all believe from the Creeds. Sure I can remember the great acts of God on my behalf, but what if I need reminding - will you supply symbols, traditions and rites to keep them fresh in my mind? What's your answer when I need a faith that I know I'm not making up? Will you "feed" me the goodness of Christ? Or will you instruct me to be "warmed and filled" on my own, and be on my way?"

Whatever happened to sola scriptura?

Perhaps I wouldn't be giving such a cynical eye to your views if you actually quoted scripture to back up your claims.

Monk321 said...

Interesting that you invoke "sola Scriptura." The further I get into Reformation studies, the clearer it becomes that Luther himself (in writing of "sola Scriptura") did not envision the anti-sacramental extremes to which proponents of the Radical Reformation would go. I realized that I had been misreading Luther to think that "sola Scriptura" was meant to strip Christianity of all but the printed text. It had to do more with supremacy of Scripture in shaping Christianity, rather than the reduction of Christianity to merely what can be read and preached.

You require Scripture references? We might consider that the original Christian community (in Acts 2:42) devoted themselves to (1) the Apostles' teaching (a noteworthy allusion to both Scripture and creedal doctrine), (2) to fellowship, (3) to the breaking of bread (likely alluding to communion - or at the very least to meals gathered together), and (4) to the prayers (likely an allusion to liturgical aspects of worship inherited from Judaism).

No doubt Luther saw Scripture as supreme in shaping these Christian practices of the Church. But it's unlikely, based on his writings, that he encouraged anti-sacramental faith devoid of material expression. This is why radicals such as Zwingli and other Swiss Anabaptists would accuse him of "selling out" just when the Reformation was picking up steam.

Like his reforming counterparts in England, he saw Rome has having gone astray on many points, but did not want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." My own development of faith has increasingly made this middle view attractive.

Jude said...

You make some good points about the way Luther intended sola scriptura to be used. However, I was under the impression that it has been classically used to mean that scripture rules supreme in understanding theology. In practice, that would mean turning to scripture before creeds, culture, emotions, symbols, or tradition. Am I wrong?

Thank you for your scriptural references. Could you please show me from scripture where the early church dedicated themselves to sacraments, symbols, and traditions? While the account in Acts 2 is a blessing and instructive, it doesn't focus on the sacraments while your post does.

Thanks Aaron.

Monk321 said...

What we find among the Continental reformers is a disagreement over the approach to "biblical" worship. While Zwingli took the approach that worship should contain no elements not explicitly prescribed in Scripture, Luther held that only those elements should be discarded that appeared explicitly prohibited by Scripture. While Zwingli definitely was the forerunner of what would later become the anti-sacramental view, Luther sought greater continuity with the ancient Church prior to the Roman innovations of medieval scholasticism. As a result, Luther saw in the Church of the first millennium a rich body of Christian worship that included sacrament and symbol. Since Scripture did not explicitly forbid most liturgical expressions of worship (on the contrary, in many places appeared even to prescribe some; i.e. communion and baptism), there was no need to discard them.

While I may have grown up being more a recipient of Zwingli's legacy (i.e. baptist fundamentalism), I now find Luther's view more reasonable. As a result, I've sought a current expression of the Church that, as I perceive it, more closely approximates Luther's intent in the Reformation. The Reformed Episcopal Church appears to be such an arena. The history of Anglicanism also has a long heritage on following Scripture and venerating its authority as binding on the Church. They simply did not, like Luther, see the need in "reinventing" the Church under the guise of reforming it.

dude777 said...

I can totally relate, having been raised Episcopalian, then after becoming born again, baptist, restoration movement (independent Christian) followed by feeling very displaced ... I miss my book of Common Prayer, know where I can get one?

Monk321 said...

dude,

www.rechurch.org has an electronic copy on its "downloads" page and sell printed copies from its headquarters. I'm just starting to appreciate the rich wealth within its pages.

Jude said...

That's a good point about the different views Zwingli and Luther had on the sacraments.

Were they able to find any examples of New Testament Christians in the Bible where they dedicated themselves to sacraments, symbols, and traditions?

By the way, I take Luther's view. I recycle my milk cartons and sometimes save them for worship. They remind me how God is environmentally friendly and supports good stewardship. My sacramental connection to God using empty Borden bottles isn't explicitly denounced in scripture, so by golly, it's on par with scriptural ordinances such as baptism and communion.

Monk321 said...

Congratulations Jude, you've succeeded in killing the conversation. Enjoy your life. I hope your flavor of smug combativeness gains you oodles of meaningful fellowship.

Jude said...

I apologize Aaron. I just got frustrated when you refused to answer my question.


-Cameron

Monk321 said...

There is a mountain of difference between dialogue and debate. Dialogue seeks clarity, but debate seeks victory. I will engage respectful dialogue all day long, but debate is a waste of time. No one is ever persuaded, nor is fellowship grown.

A healthy dialogue might have ensued regarding the ancient Church's sacramental reading of the Scriptures, the Christian use of the arts in worship (then and now) and the traditions that preserve fidelity to doctrine (lex orandi lex credendi), but such a friendly dialogue does not appear to have been your goal.

Jude said...

I apologize if I came across that way, but it certainly wasn't intended. My milk carton example wasn't even sarcastic - it's part of a real world example (UUMFE, Methodist Recycling, and Coffeeville Methodist.) I apologize if I didn't make that clear. And I agree that dialogue is more important than debate; however, I disagree with your perspective. Makes it a tad hard to have a non-debate attitude. So I apologize if it comes across that way. It is not my intent.

But it is my intent to discover the scriptural basis of your claim that Christians should dedicate themselves to sacraments, symbols, and traditions. While Luther's perspective on this may be interesting, it's not logical. It essentially says that since God has not explicitly stated that he doesn't operate in one manner, he can, does, and must. Therefore that manner of operation, while plausible, becomes in practice of worship and theology on par with the explicit ordinances found in the Bible. And whether or not you intended it, your writings have reflected that belief.

So once again I ask you: can you show me in scripture where the bride of Christ dedicated itself to sacraments symbols, and traditions?

On an off note, I disagree with lex orandi lex credendi. I tend to agree with 1 Timothy as it is summed up in chapter 4 and epitomized in verse 16. Out of doctrine comes effectual belief. Not prayer. Prayer reflects belief.

Monk321 said...

Your statement, "prayer reflects belief," is both insightful and accurate. This is lex orandi lex credendi ("the law of prayer is the law of belief"). An implication of this is the the manner that one conducts Christian worship and devotion will always reflect their belief. Thus, tradition and symbol are means of preserving belief. This is why Christians have always used the symbol of the Cross extensively in worship.

"Lex orandi lex credendi" simply acknowledges a symbiotic relationship between how people worship and how they believe. Thus the use of the arts in a manner accepted by the Christian "mainstream" throughout history to teach and preserve orthodox faith. Early Church fathers saw the New Testament believers as inheriting this practice from Old Testament symbols such as the Ark of the Covenant, Moses' bronze serpent in the wilderness, etc. Today we still use the Cross to teach and preserve, along with other media forms as well (i.e. The Passion of the Christ).

In addition, reflections on the incarnation of Christ led early Church fathers to see God's work playing out through human conduits. Clearly Christ stands alone as the unique incarnation of God, but he also provides a paradigmatic understanding for reading the Scriptures and worship God. In this way, the means by which people experience the grace of God, in a material way (i.e. communion, baptism, marriage, laying on of hands, etc.) are seen as sacred gifts of God to us ("sacraments"), and attested throughout Scripture.

It is not productive to weigh whether one view is "biblical" or not. All orthodox Christian traditions seek to be "biblical." The question is in how the Bible is to be read. Since the Church of the first millenium was unified in their sacramental reading of the Scriptures (prior to the later innovations of Rome), I've come to a point where I'm prepared to place more trust in how they read the Bible than I use to. After all, the manner that the ancient Church read the Bible left it pretty well unified for its first thousand years. Whereas the modern practice of everyone deciding on their own what the Bible means has given us everything from the Unitarian Universalists to Joseph Smith.