A Rejoinder to “If everything is sacramental, is everything a sacrament?”

It’s been a while since I last posted a blog. I’ve been focused on other tasks the past few years. Writing more technical papers for journal publication, moving states, and having my first child.

So what has spurred my sudden return?

Well, I almost blogged a few weeks back due to a Baptism dust up on Twitter. I put down a few paragraphs but ultimately lacked the drive to really put together a great return piece. It has to be somewhat worthy since it’s been over a year and a half since my last post. Plus everything I really wanted to say is already in an article I’m hoping to see published this year. So I let that one die.

But then I saw what appears to be making the rounds among some of the elite twitter scholars and I was awoken from my blogmatic slumber. Derek Rishmawy, Zen Reformed Twitter Master, first tweeted and then recently posted a blog: “If everything is sacramental, is everything a sacrament?” It seems quite a few are pleased with the content.

While I think I understand the point he is trying to make and I usually just pass over these online disagreements (okay, lets be honest. I just text my friends about my curmudgeon thoughts on my disagreements, so I don’t just “pass over”), I find Derek to be a venerable theologian and worthy of legitimate disagreement. Indeed, he even offered others to write up their thoughts. Really, we can blame this on him, then. So, here I am. Thanks, Twitter. I plan to briefly defend what he calls “sacramental ontology” and engage his post in around 1,000 words in order to be fair to his own post of about 1,000 words. But since I am long winded, I am going to steal the 350 words I quote from him back to my allowed total.

Let’s begin with the reason he wrote his post. He says, “The problem is, most of the time I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by that phrase “sacramental ontology.””

According to him, it seems this phrase is being used more frequently as of late without proper definition. Fair enough. I have no problem with that. It’s likely true. Most catchy labels end up getting abused. Particularly ones that require philosophical tools to discern the theological content.

But why do people believe in sacramental ontology? He says “For some of the folks who go in for it, it has to do with seeing in the sacraments an antidote towards modern disenchantment.”

Yes, I think that’s true as well. Of course, this isn’t the only reason by any means (they ought to believe its biblical before its utilitarian!). Granted, its present usefulness is going to be its main draw in this current cultural moment to show its importance. So, no real problem here besides quibbling (of course, in the Twitter world, quibbles are the cause of earthquakes and major disasters. But this is my blog, so my rules.).

He continues on with how he thinks sacramental ontology works against modern disenchantment: “How do the sacraments function against this? Well, for some the sacraments tell us that “matter matters”, or that the stuff of the material order can actually function as a medium of divine grace. God can use stuff to communicate truth to us about himself. The world, with its order and beauty, is not just dead nature, but the appointed, spatio-temporal medium of our encounter with our Creator.”

Sure, this is fine. Matter definitely matters and a sacramental ontology can help provide a thick foundation for such a belief, though its not necessary for it. I like his last sentence about how the world isn’t dead nature but specifically designed to bring creation into an encounter with the Creator. High five. Who doesn’t like that? He obviously agrees with this overall idea considering he quotes several scriptural texts to support it. No disagreement here. We move on.

So where are the problems? Where are the disagreements? He gives us two problems.

Problem 1: “As I said, some folks don’t seem to be just saying that. They seem to be importing into all their talk about nature being sacramental something far more akin to a 19th century, mystical, nature-Romanticism under the guise of a properly Christian doctrine of creation and the sacraments. It’s not so much a communicative doctrine of creation, but a magical one.”

Problem 2: “Second, maybe more importantly, is the sense that the sacraments themselves are being instrumentalized in a way that washes out and evacuates their own proper meaning. In other words, if I ask you the question, “What are the sacraments about?”, I truly hope your answer is not primarily, “it shows me matter matters,” “the world is an enchanted place,” etc.”

These are clear enough. And I will disagree with them in a second. But what is his main point here?

Bottom line: “But the primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate….These realities are what the sacraments are about, what they are meant to communicate and effect in us. They are particular signs and seals of a particular gospel covenant….But when your focus is on how the sacraments show us that everything is sacramental, well, you’ve lost the sacraments.”

Let me sum up. His main problem is that sacramental ontology apparently flattens out the gospel sacraments. Is this a fair charge? Maybe for some. But I don’t think it’s a necessary inference from sacramental ontology.

Let’s define sacramental ontology first. Sacramental ontology confesses generally that God creates the world with an internal design to reveal himself where all created things point to, signify, and depend on their Creator.

So, what about problem 1? I’m not sure where this definition imports magic, mysticism, or nature-Romanticism. It seems like a pretty standard inference from Psalm 19, Romans 1, etc. Maybe he has something else in view than what I posit here. Or maybe I lack the eyes to see? I would probably need these terms (magic, mysticism,  and nature-Romanticism) to be defined more thoroughly to make a proper judgment on this problem. Admittedly, I haven’t read anyone who defines it in a way that would meet his criteria so I simply could be lacking the necessary research context.

Now, what about the bigger problem (number 2)? This definition is a general sacramental vision and says nothing regarding the particular sacraments of the gospel. Right?

Well, kind of. I think it’s helpful to distinguish between a broad and narrow sacramentalism here so that we can properly avoid Derek’s charge.

The sacramental ontology he argues against and that I have defined here is a broad sacramentalism. All of creation is a sacrament that signifies God.

This is traditional Catholic doctrine and only died off recently. And I’m not sure anyone really wants to deny this. Even Derek admits as much. He quotes Psalm 19, Romans 1, and Calvin arguing as such.

What is missing here? The narrow sacramentalism. These are the sacraments that are signs and seals of the gospel. The concrete and primary meaning of the term “sacrament.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (and of course Passover and Circumcision in the old administration of the covenant of grace). But nothing in a sacramental ontology must deny the uniquely special sacramental nature of these ordinances. They remain special items ordained by God himself to particularly signify redemption. But they, unlike the broad sacraments, also seal redemption.

So, I think a better way forward is not to dump sacramental ontology out altogether. As my good friend Francis Turretin says, “we make distinctions.”

The broad sacramentalism that signifies the Creator.

The narrow sacramentalism that signifies and seals the Redeemer.

I think this mitigates his main worry, that a sacramental universe (broadly) negates the sacramental ordinances (narrowly). Both can be true simultaneously. There is no reason Baptism or the Lord’s Supper must lose their pride of place or their status as the ordinary means of grace if a sacramental world is affirmed (broadly).

Yes, this requires making the broad/narrow distinction since both arent sacraments in the same way. But surely this is a worthy distinction to maintain in order to do justice to the entire biblical narrative, particularly Psalm 19 and Romans 1 as noted from Derek. This way we uphold the sacramental role of both creation and redemption and do justice to both sides.

If these two are logically contradictory or theologically contradictory, I am happy to be corrected. However, I think these are actually logically complementary and theologically satisfying.

This all seems pretty simple and straight foward to me. So, maybe I am actually missing his objection. Regardless, hopefully this is helpful at least moving the discussion forward. And hopefully this presents my disagreements in the proper light (you know, happy, friendly, open to reason, and all the stuff most online debate is not).

Well, I promised to keep this at 1,000 words. So here I stand. I can do no other.

 

**UPDATE**

I saw Jake Meador posted briefly on this subject yesterday. He mostly agrees with Derek (who tweeted out his appreciation for the follow-up) and doesn’t say much more than him but he does address my broader/narrower distinction. He calls it the small s and big s “sacramental.”

He says: “The solution here is not to reject the former way of seeing and then conflate all of creation with the sacraments. It is, rather, to recover a proper cosmology that helps us to see the natural order and coherence to creation.” Then later: “The trick is to find the right language for talking about the coherent natural order. You can play some linguistic games here….”

Basically, he objects to the distinction because its apparently a linguistic game that makes everything slippery. If someone plays the linguistic game and labels everything as sacramental, somehow the gospel sacraments are obliterated and flattened out. But I see no reason why this must be the case if we are clear in our language. Its only slippery if we fail to make the proper distinctions clear. It only flattens everything out if we don’t make these distinctions. Sure, we can create an entire new category of language to describe the sacramental nature of the world versus the sacramental nature of the seals of the covenant of grace, but why should we if we have the tools to distinguish between creation and redemption appropriately?

Reading the entirety of this post really made me wonder if anyone is actually objecting to the true meaning of “sacramental ontology” as defined here. It seems the objection is with a popular vague appropriation of it which I’m still not sure exists all that popularly. Yes, this is a blog so we aren’t being all source citing crazy, but it would help to see more examples here.

To me, the cost of losing language that works well for both concepts is not worth the benefit. Surely we all agree that the point of “sacramental ontology” is heartily biblical. Either we must reject sacramental ontology as non-biblical (which no one appears to be doing) or we need to rename the signifying nature of creation (which I think is a mistake and not necessary to protect the narrow sacraments). We simply need to work hard at being clear and precise. Problem solved.

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