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A Quick Thought on “Sacramental” Language

January 2nd, 2019 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

Derek has a good post offering some needed pushback to the growing usage of ‘sacramental’ language amongst some evangelicals. The problem, in short, is that sacraments are a very particular thing with a particular function in the Christian life and we begin to get muddy on what they are and what they do when we start talking about other things being ‘sacramental.’

Here’s Derek:

The primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate: dying and rising in union with Christ, sprinkling a clean conscience, being washed pure of your sins, the broken body and shed blood of the Godman given for you, the coming wedding feast of the Lamb, the Father feeding his children, Christ’s New Exodus Passover, communion and participation in Christ’s Body, and so forth. 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.

There’s an instrumentalization of the term ‘sacramental’ happening and Derek is right to criticize it.

For the sake of clarity, the folks I have in mind when I think about this problem would be some of the things I see coming from Hans Boersma or things like this video:

That being said, I still have some sympathy to the ‘sacramental’ language, though I am not a great fan of it myself. This is why: If you follow C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, one of the arguments Lewis makes is that modern education is designed to inculcate in children a hardened materialism that divorces natural qualities we find in things from the things themselves. So a waterfall is not sublime in itself; we simply have sublime feelings when we see a waterfall. We cannot comment on nature having any sort of objective quality; we can only comment on how raw material makes us feel.

This, of course, is not a particularly human way to exist in the world, even if it does have a certain utility for certain classes of people. But we will often and imperceptibly find ourselves rebelling against it: Go on a hike with someone in the mountains. Go stand on a beach and look out on the ocean. Or do something far more banal—simply spend a day observing the animals on a farm. You will find yourself thinking that the things you are seeing do possess some kind of inherent internal quality.

The problem for young Christians who have been educated in this way and yet find themselves chafing against their teaching is that the modernists have been so successful in their training that we no longer have concepts or language in our heads to speak of that something we sense as being somehow internal or intrinsic to the thing we have observed. And yet particularly for those who grow up in the church, we likely do have some half-formed ideas about sacraments and we know that sacraments are a visible sign communicating some kind of spiritual truth. Unsurprisingly, we latch onto that language as a means of describing something we have seen or experienced in nature. And thus you end up with sacramental work, sacramental landscapes, and even sacramental high fives.

Derek’s criticism of all this is exactly right. But the difficulty is here: For many of us, the only categories we have for relating to the physical world is to view it as raw, dead material, infinitely moldable and deriving its value chiefly from how it enables our own life in the world, or to view it as we view the sacraments.

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.

We might put it this way, if we’re going to be provocative: The characteristic error in how many Christians view the sacraments is to imagine that these physical signs are somehow drawing God down to us. The reality is that they are actually doing the opposite—lifting us up to God. Christ’s role in the Supper with us today is the same as it was in the upper room: He is the host, graciously offering us a place at his table to dine with him. It is also a foreshadowing of the feast to come at the end of all things. The point of the Eucharist, contra both the Baptists and the Catholics, is not that its meaning is chiefly derived by, somehow, calling Christ down to us—either through an act of memory or an actual act of transubstantiation—but that the meaning of the Eucharist is Christ drawing us up into his life to dine with him at his table.

That being said, this does not mean that there are not many ways in which Christ’s presence is announced to us down here in, as Lewis sometimes called it, the Shadowlands. Scripture is constantly assuming that you and I can look at the natural world and learn something about God. You can’t make sense of the book of Job or the Sermon on the Mount if nature doesn’t speak to us in some way, if nature doesn’t have a coherence to it that can be discerned through careful looking.

The way forward, then, is not by pretending our current relationship to nature is fine or by completely conflating the message that comes to us from looking at a sparrow with the message that comes to us in the Eucharist. It is, rather, to recognize both that the mechanistic view of the world is bunk and that even in a coherent natural order there is still a unique role to be played by the sacraments. The trick is to find the right language for talking about the coherent natural order. You can play some linguistic games here, like distinguishing between small s and big s “sacramental.” You might also follow the lead of someone like Wendell Berry and speak of “the grand coherence.” There are probably other ways as well. But it’s important to recognize that while the “sacramental” language can be very dangerous and slippery when used carelessly, there is a reason we’re seeing more people using this kind of language.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).