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No. 44: Why Sacraments?

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 44
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
March, 1995

Like certain kinds of music, the unchanging rhythm of Aquinas’s Summa gets into your bones. Read a few sections and it begins to run through your head. You start drumming your fingers, humming, swaying gently to the rhythm of Videtur-Sed Contra-Responsio, Videtur-Sed Contra-Responsio, “It seems-On the contrary-I answer.” The only way to get a tune out of your head is to sing it out loud. The best thing to do to get Aquinas out of your head is to write it down. This article is not so much information for readers as therapy for the writer.

Aquinas actually raised the question of why there continue to be sacraments under what he calls the “New Law.” I do not think, however, that he raised the strongest objections or gave the strongest answers. Hence this revision, the first and probably only section of a Reformed Summa. For the aid of readers, I have chosen not to write in Latin.

Article 1: Should there be sacraments in the New Covenant?

1. It seems that there should not be sacraments in the New Covenant, for Paul tells us in Hebrews tells us that the Old Covenant rites and ceremonies were shadows of the reality (Hebrews 10:1). The reality has come through the work of Christ. Therefore, when the truth comes there is no longer any need for shadowy rites, and in fact it is a great sin to revert to shadows.

2. Paul wrote in Galatians that the law was a schoolmaster leading us to Christ (Galatians 3:23). Central to that law were the rites and ceremonies of Old Covenant worship. Now that we are mature, we have no need of the schoolmaster. Therefore, we have no need of rites and ceremonies.

3. Also in Galatians, Paul wrote that circumcision means nothing, but what matters is a new creation (6:15). Rites such as circumcision are therefore irrelevant in the New Covenant.

4. Under the Old Covenant, there was need of mediators between God and man. The priests were mediators, and the rites and ceremonies mediated Israel’s approach to God. In the New Covenant, we can have direct contact with God, without the need of mediators. Therefore, there should be no sacraments in the New Covenant.

4. Eternal predestination secures our salvation. We are saved because God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world. This truth has been revealed more clearly in the New Covenant than in the Old. Since our salvation depends upon God’s choice, and nothing we do can add to God’s determination to save, rites and ceremonies are superfluous. God does nothing superfluous, and hence there should be no sacraments in the New Covenant.

On the contrary: Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:25) and He commanded His apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-20). Thus, Jesus commanded the performance of certain rites in His church, and therefore there are sacraments in the New Covenant.

There are three reasons why it is fitting for the Church to observe sacraments in the new covenant. First, as St. Jeffrey of Missouri has said, the Persons of the Divine Trinity perform rites of homage in relation to each other. The Son glorifies the Father, the Father the Son, and the Spirit glorifies the Son who glorifies the Father; the Three are bound in a Unity of mutual subjection to and glorification of one another.

Moreover, as St. James of Niceville has said, in creating the world God followed a ritual pattern: taking hold of the world, restructuring it, distributing it, evaluating it, and enjoying it (Genesis 1). Since man is made in God’s image, and since God is a God whose actions follow regular, “ritual” patterns, man is inherently a creature of ritual. This is as true in the New Covenant as in the Old. Since the New Covenant brings a renewal of creation, it is appropriate that sinful man’s perverse rituals be replaced by the true. Therefore, it is fitting that the church, which is the beginning of a new human race, should have ritual forms in the New Covenant. The sacraments are the most important of the New Covenant ritual forms.

Second, man is a unity of soul and body, and therefore he should offer worship in his whole nature. It is not the case, as the Doctor of Aquino said, that the body is merely an instrument of the mind. Nor is it the case, as Plato implies, that man’s ideas are a mental picture that comes to visible expression in his bodily actions. It is rather the case that all the actions of a man are actions of both mind and body. Even our thoughts are thoughts of our brains, and the expression of our thoughts involves either movements of tongue, lips, and wind in speech or of the hand in writing.

It is not the case, moreover, that pre-existing thoughts merely come to expression in external actions; instead, thoughts are often, perhaps normally, formulated in the performance of external actions. When I began to write, I did not have a fully-formed mental picture of the final article. I began with a vague and general outline, but my thought actually came to be formed as I performed the physical (and mental) action of typing on a keyboard. This view of the relation of thought to action provides a strong antidote to Platonism. One should not think of the “real me” hidden inside a casing of flesh; instead, my body and soul are together the real me, and just as my soul or mind moves my body, so the actions of my body shape and mold my thoughts.

Because man is a physical/spiritual (or mental) unity, the purpose of rites is not simply to bring to mind certain ideas through symbols but also to cause our bodies (with our minds) repeatedly to perform certain actions, including acts of speech. Through repetition, our bodies and minds are inscribed with certain physical and mental habits. Through years of typing on a keyboard, my hands have been trained to find the right key. I could not draw a picture of a keyboard on a piece of paper, since the keyboard is not pictured in my head; instead, my fingers act out of habitual practice without any direct or strong intervention of my thoughts. Knowledge of the keyboard, to overstate the case, is located in my fingers as much as in my brain. Pianists and other musicians will have had the same kind of experience. So also, the rites of the church, and especially the Eucharist, inscribe through repetition the mental-physical habits appropriate to life in the body of Christ ‘ habits of thanksgiving, of sharing, of communion. Through years of training, we “instinctively” give thanks over our daily bread. Through years of training, we develop the habit of sharing our lives with those with whom we share eucharistic bread.

Third, rites are necessary to the body of Christ as a visible, public body. St. Augustine of Hippo said that men cannot be bound together in a religious association without some common signs and sacraments. For worship to be a public and social act, regular forms and patterns are necessary, lest worship become indecent and disorderly. The sacraments are the most essential of these public and social rites of the church. Moreover, Paul said that we manifest ourselves as One Body by partaking of the One Loaf. Therefore, the Eucharist is important for the strengthening and manifestation of the unity of the Church.

I answer: 1. The Old Covenant ceremonies were types and shadows of the work of our Lord. But our Lord has commanded us to continue to perform certain ceremonies in his church. The Old Covenant ceremonies have passed away, but the Lord has instituted New Covenant ceremonies. And this is appropriate for the reasons stated above. The reason for rites in the New Covenant, it is well to note, is not that the New Covenant continues to be a shadow in relation to the eschatological order, though this in itself is true. The Doctor of Aquino was wrong to say that in the new heavens and new earth, ceremonies would pass away and everything would be revealed in naked truth. St. John shows clearly that there are rites of homage and worship in heaven (Revelation 4-5). So long as men are bodily creatures ‘ that is, throughout all eternity ‘ so long will men perform rites.

2. Paul’s statement about the necessity of circumcision should not be generalized to apply to all rites whatever. Paul is speaking specifically of Old Covenant rites, which have now passed away.

3. It is true that what matters in the New Covenant is a new creation. But part of being a new creature is obeying the words of our Lord, and our Lord commands us to perform certain rites. Moreover, as we have said, man is created as a ritual being and he remains so when he is renewed in Christ.

4. As St. John of Escondido has said, the Word of God is always mediated by creation. When we hear the Word preached, the sounds we hear are products of the physical actions of the speaker’s mouth and the movement of sound waves through the air. When we read the Bible, our encounter with God is mediated through symbolic marks of ink on paper. Since God’s revelation is always mediated through the creation, it is not inappropriate that there should be mediating rites in the New Covenant.

5. The fact that our salvation is dependent upon God’s election and therefore fully certain does not imply anything about how the elect express their homage to God. Even in heaven, as we have seen, the angelic beings perform rites of worship. Moreover, although the ultimate cause of our salvation lies in the will of God, God uses means to achieve that salvation. The sacraments are means toward our individual sanctification and salvation. Salvation, however, is not a merely individual matter, but also restores our relationships to others. Since the sacraments are necessary for the being and for the health of the body of Christ, they are means of salvation in this social dimension.