The brilliant Jake Meador followed up the discussion below on the nature of work by attempting to bring together Sayers and Lewis:

My proposed reconciliation of the two views can be stated thus: The world is sacramental (the lowercase s is intentional). Part of seeing and experiencing the sacrament of creation, involves working in it. After all, at its core, Genesis 2 presents a view of humanity that sees cultivating and developing (another difficult word) our place as central to our identity. And yet the Sayerites should be cautious on this point, because Genesis 2 also calls for a regular Sabbath, a period of rest and removal from work. And in this way, Genesis teaches us, man imitates God.

I’ll be honest:  I wish I had written this.  I was attempting to move in this direction in the comments, but Meador–like always–got there first and said it better.  And so, rather than simply praise and move on, I’m going to do what I always do in such situations:  quibble.

Do we really have to call creation sacramental? Doug Wilson has been taking this on the past few weeks, so he’s worth quoting in this context:

There are two sacraments, true, but there is only one sacramental. The world is a sacramental, and everything in it. Grace is everywhere, and gets into everything. Faith can dig it out of anything. The grandeur of God can flame out from anything, like shining from shook foil.

Yes, the world is given.  And Wilson has rightly continued to hammer the distinction between giver and gift.  But I’m not sure what “sacramental” adds to that account.

Consider:  “sacramental” suggests a specifically theological understanding of the created order.  I think it is used to indicate not just the possibility of God’s communication in and through a created (physical) thing, but rather the actuality of it.  Rather than seeing things as things with particular natures that are independent of our perceptions, or society, or even–dare I say–God, the sacramental vision depends upon seeing everything as specifically ordered by and toward God.

And so much the better, right?  After all, it’s a corrective action against evangelicalism’s (purportedly) weak doctrine of creation.  But as a correction, it may not help much.  Inasmuch as the “sacramental” understanding of creation passes from its own internal goodness to its place within the divine economy, then the content of our obligations to the world depends upon the will of God and not on the structure of goods within the cosmos.  Or, nominalism and voluntarism and all the problems they entail.

At least there’s a danger of that.  And in younger evangelical contexts, that’s largely the reality–which is why the sacramental ordering of creation is often deployed as justification for the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, independent of any other good.  And why not?  In a world  where “creation” means “what God gives to us,” ethics is reduced to the divine command and whatever we can’t obviously find prohibited in Scripture becomes permissible.

A more robust understanding of creation–it would be a great time to deploy ‘thick’ if we knew what it meant–that didn’t start with its role as a mediator of God’s communicative action could help us recover the dignity of creation as creation and as creation for us. I suspect the absence of this sort of account is why Wilson has to deploy categories proper to the inner life of the Triune God–perichoresis–to the order of creation in order to recover its dignity.  Because on a “sacramental” account of the world, the world simply isn’t enough–it has to reflect God’s triune life in some way.  Call it a modern version of Augustinian vestigia trinitatis.*

*For those taking theological notes at home, we’re quickly approaching O’Donovan territory.  Also, I suspect one way to read this essay might be more Webster, less Radical Orthodoxy.

** To clarify pre-emptively, most of what I said is in “rant” form and not directed at Jake per se.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. Christof Meyer May 21, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Oooh, first comment. Sweet.

    I think I’m beginning to see where you are coming from when you say you get a bit queasy when people use the word Sacramental. Or the phrase sacramental theology. It just seems very casual and unconsidered((ill-considered?). The Anglican’s gave me the phrase ‘sacramental theology’ and, given the very constrained sense in which they use the term, I have always thought it had a very specific meaning.

    Because I get lost in this conversation very easily, I will just refer to my experience with the concept – which I will call ‘towards a broader definition of the sacraments’. Here’s what I was taught. Sacraments are things through which God communicates his grace to us. We rightly call things like the Eucharist and Baptism sacraments, but we can also rightly call Holy marriage a sacrament if we understand that the grace and love that springs from such an event is not coming from our spouse but directly from Jesus in heaven.

    We hold up certain sacraments in the church because we are very sure that the Lord communicates grace to ANYONE through them. Other things we call sacraments because we are sure that God has shown US grace through them (but perhaps we can’t be sure that God always uses that thing). Things like fellowship, foot washing, music, and architecture come to mind.

    This entire perspective on how there can be many sacraments, but certain ones are more worthy of special honor, and how God could, theoretically, use anything to fill us with His goodness but still tends to use certain particular things, gets bundled together into something I tend to call sacramental theology. Maybe it would be better to call it ‘sacramental doctrineology’? But that might not help.

    *And to use your format here, let me pre-emptively say that this does not mean that everything becomes a sacrament. God positively uses certain things more often than others. I’m thinking OT temple stuff here, but also the “normal stuff”.

    Reply

  2. Christof – Just to clarify, you’re actually hitting on my biggest struggle with the language on this point.

    I don’t mean to say that there are many sacraments and some are more important than others. Being a good Protestant, I’d insist that they are only two (though I will be annoyed if a Baptist insists on calling them “ordinances” just b/c they don’t like Rome ;) ).

    However, words work on a variety of levels. And while there may only be two Sacraments in the proper, specific sense of the word, we might also call something sacramental in a more general and distinct sense. For example, we could refer to a Christian as “law abiding,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they follow the Mosaic Law, even though when the Scripture speaks of the “law” it is routinely referring to the Mosaic code. In this case, we tacitly understand that the word “law” can be used in several different ways. I’m proposing a similar use of “sacramental.”

    Or put it this way: The Sacraments are visible, physical displays of God’s grace instituted by Christ (I’m drawing heavily on Dr. Robert Peterson’s definition of a Sacrament). But we can also speak of ordinary things in creation that in some way reflect or tell us of God’s grace. Indeed, the Psalmists do this frequently (Psalm 19) as does Paul in Romans 1. So there does seem to be a sense in which creation itself is “sacramental” in as much as creation itself reveals God’s grace to us. (Where the argument goes from here, then, is how much we can glean from that revealing, and my guess is Matt will be a good deal more confident in this sort of revelation than I am.)

    peace

    Reply

  3. Guys,

    From my reading of both your comments, it seems like you’re pretty much on the same page in terms of viewing the whole world as “sacramental.”

    Let me say just a couple things in response:

    1) Christof, I think your definition gets pretty close to how we might understand a sacrament: “Sacraments are things through which God communicates his grace to us.” Notice that there’s divine action there. Within a lot of sacramental theologies, that divine action isn’t just a *possibility.* Rather, it is necessarily tied to the physical elements that have been consecrated by the Church. So God promises to meet us there in these elements, and he does.

    2) I think this is actually a better way of putting it than Jake’s (sorry, man). “Physical display’s of God’s grace” sounds so…mechanistic. There is no distinction between “grace” and God. Grace is simply his self-giving, and the question is where and how he does that.

    3) Jake, I actually like the “ordinances” language, and I don’t think it’s driven by a fear of Roman Catholicism, but rather grounded in a distinct understanding of what communion is. The question, again, is one of agency: does God *necessarily* meet me here in the person of Jesus Christ (however we cash that out) or not? The Baptist response, as I understand it, is…..no. Communion and baptism are fully human responses to God’s prior salvific work of regeneration and justification. They aren’t “food for the journey”–that comes only through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, a presence not mediated by the practices of the church. Whatever you make of that account, it’s a different one than Anglicans, Presbyterians, RC’s, or Orthodox. And I suspect it has more going for it than most people think (even if I might not ultimately agree with it).

    More to come on this topic, for sure. : )

    matt

    Reply

  4. Christof Meyer May 22, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Hmmm… I can get easily lost in this discussion (about sacraments) sometimes – but I’m not totally sure why. It’s like we are talking about the same thing but somehow end up with opposing viewpoints and I can’t quite figure out why. Part of it, of course, is probably related the the historical animosity between competing sets of explanations for how the sacraments work, what they are (and aren’t !), etc. But, I also believe that at least part of it is due to good old fashioned pride. In this conversation it seems like the award goes to the party with the most humble opinion of man’s role in grace distribution (for lack of a better term) and/or the most lofty view of God’s interactive role with and/or in spite of man’s actions.

    I empathize with the low-church perspective (the Baptist perspective above) that thinks it presumptuous to assume that God will “automatically” do anything based on something we do. However, it also seems skeptical and untrusting to suppose we “might not be better off” by obeying God’s commands (and how does any good come into us if not via God’s grace ?). At least baptism and communion then seem to be things that are certain conduits for God’s grace. A baptist (now using the word as a bundle of grace-skeptical beliefs) might say that this position elevates men’s action, but isn’t is equally plausible that it is only a misunderstanding of the benefits of getting grace? I can’t imagine any Christian of any type who would argue that it might not be “a good” (which can only come from God’s grace) to obey God in being baptized or receiving communion. But this is all I think Anglican-types are saying when they say these things are certainly sacraments.

    The Westminster confession uses very careful, and I think very good, language when it sums up this perspective by saying that “Sacraments… be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us by which He doth work invisibly in us.”

    They are certain signs of grace and good will. If it is good, and full of God’s grace, it must be a sacrament. Otherwise where did the good come from?

    Ok, it’s all getting a bit jumbled up now so I think I should stop. The more I think about it, the more I think a good part of the drama of this conversation is caused by mismatched definitions of “sacrament” and “grace”. But more work would be required here than I have to spend on a Saturday afternoon.

    Reply

  5. Matt,

    Like Christof, I get lost rather quickly, and so what I am trying to understand is how the emphasis on creation as “sacramental” is likely to lead to skewed ethics. Does a sacramental understanding of creation not recognize that because all things are ordered toward God, our responsibility for careful stewardship is greater than we have imagined? Likewise, does a sacramental understanding not include recognizing our neighbor as a part of God’s good work of creation and does our love for that neighbor not then hem in our ethics? It seems that an over-emphasis on a creation that is for us and even a thing unto itself, i.e. apart from any accountability to the One that made it, has contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding. No doubt I love talking about this subject in greater measure than my ability to understand it. :)

    MJD

    Reply

  6. Guys,

    Great questions/comments. Let me address a couple things:

    1) Notice above that I’m really against *sacramental,* not sacraments per se. I’m suspicious of how people talk about those, too, but they aren’t my concern here.

    2) Christof, you said: “They are certain signs of grace and good will. If it is good, and full of God’s grace, it must be a sacrament. Otherwise where did the good come from?” I think there’s a lot of slippage in terms of what we might mean when we talk about being “full of God’s grace.” I think that’s my main worry–where does the intrinsic goodness of creation end and the grace of God begin? I think “sacramental” obscures the distinction unhelpfully.

    3) Christof, to your point about getting lost easily in the conversation….that’s part of my problem with it. But I don’t think it’s your fault, since it happens to just about everyone I know. I think the lack of clarity around terms like “good” and “grace” and “sacramental” contributes to it. That’s partly why I’m suspicious “sacramental” is just a band-aid on a deeper problem that we have.

    4) Michael, those are all great questions–and not one’s I’m sure I’ve got good answers to. For now, let me simply say that I am worried about theological slippage. If we start with sacramentalism and ground it all in God immediately, without thinking through our doctrine of creation first, I suspect that we’ll end up in straight-up voluntarism. And that troubles me. I think if we do some work on the doctrine of creation without necessarily appealing to the redemptive structure of the sacraments, we may be able to avoid an outright voluntarism that I think is pastorally debilitating.

    But again, these are all intuitions and worries. I’m still very much working through all of this myself.

    matt

    Reply

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