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The Overcorrection of the Evangelical Sacramentalists

April 2nd, 2024 | 4 min read

By Gillis Harp

Neglect of the sacraments has often been a problem among contemporary evangelical Protestants, particularly those in non-denominational churches. Understandably, some evangelicals have reacted by adopting weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.  About a dozen years ago, The Gospel Coalition website observed that weekly communion had “become a badge of honor in a growing number of Presbyterian and Baptist churches.”  Since then, this trend seems (at least anecdotally) to have increased.  Though weekly communion is not explicitly mandated in the New Testament, it does appear to have been common in the early church.

Yet fixing old problems can open the door to new ones. A singular focus on holy communion can occasionally overshadow other crucial elements in worship, especially the ministry of the Word. Preoccupation with the eucharist may prompt evangelicals to overlook the hazard of sacramentalism. Readers may be surprised to hear this cautionary note coming from an Anglican, but our experience here may be instructive.

Back in 1918, the Dean of Canterbury, Henry Wace, recognized the potential problem. As the Church of England shifted toward making holy communion the principal Sunday service, problems arose. Among these was the belief (in Wace’s words) “that intimate contact with Christ is only to be obtained through the channel of the sacraments.” Indeed, such teaching could leave the impression that corporate worship could not occur without sacramental observance. Dean Wace considered this trend cause for concern.

The medieval church elevated the eucharist to a height that overshadowed the ministry of the Word in the liturgy and the lives of the faithful. The modern Catholic Catechism still affirms that “the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life” and concludes that “the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith.” (#s 1324-1327).

Some Protestants are now not far behind such a view. When Hans Boersma (strikingly, the former J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver) advocates an “evangelical sacramentalism,” he draws liberally not from Protestant sources but from select patristic and medieval writings, guided by the mid-twentieth-century French Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac. De Lubac viewed Word and sacrament as intimately connected, but he gave priority to the eucharist as the means through which the church understands the Scriptures. As Boersma entitled one article, “the Eucharist makes the Church.” Accordingly, some maintain that the sacraments preceded or enjoy a certain priority over the Scriptures since Christian communities had long been observing the eucharist before New Testament canon was officially closed.

Predictably, other baggage often accompanies this elevated sacramentalism. A revived sacerdotalism can follow. Joshua Penduck, for example, notes with approval how some evangelical writers such as Christopher Cocksworth have now articulated “a sacramental understanding of ministerial priesthood [and] eucharistic sacrifice.” Penduck describes this approach as “the exciting future of evangelical sacramentalism.” Further historical and theological reflection should temper that excitement.

Such an approach implies that the ministry of the Word, as the sixteenth-century Reformers understood it, is not primary. Historically, Protestants carefully avoided an unbalanced approach to the sacraments, and to the Lord’s Supper in particular. They viewed the Bible (understood as God’s Word written) as setting forth the Gospel message. The faithful who responded to that message constituted the ecclesia, the saints called by God. Meanwhile, the sacraments served a secondary role, pointing to things signified, rather than as ends in themselves.

As one response to Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical discussions (ARCIC) explained back in the 1980s, the 39 Articles teach that “the sacraments are adjuncts to the Word. The preaching of the Word has priority.” It should be remembered that in the authoritative 1662 Anglican Ordinal, the Bible, not a chalice and paten as in the Medieval rite, is delivered to the ordained presbyter.

Perhaps a different French theologian, Pierre Marcel (1910-1992), who articulated the classic Protestant position, can provide a helpful corrective. Marcel wrote that “the Word is indispensable to salvation, but the sacraments are not. The sacraments, in fact, are subordinated to the Word; they are signs of the content of the Word and are joined to it. The Word, therefore, is definitely something apart from the sacraments, but the sacraments apart from the Word are nothing: apart from it they have neither value nor power.”

Yet an even larger project is, in fact, envisaged here. This evangelical sacramentalism is also being called upon to do some heavy philosophical and cultural lifting. It champions a sacramental approach to Scripture and the creation at large as the best way to counter the “disenchantment” they associate with the Protestant Reformation and, more generally, the rise of modernity.

Boersma, for instance, laments “the abandonment of a pre-modern sacramental mindset in which the realities of this-worldly existence pointed to greater, eternal realities, in which they sacramentally shared. Once modernity abandoned a participatory or sacramental view of reality, the created order became unhinged from its origin in God, and the material cosmos began its precarious drift on the flux of nihilistic waves.”

This brief essay can’t do justice to the extensive writings of de Lubac, Boersma, and others who have made valuable contributions to biblical hermeneutics and sacramental theology. Much of this work is worth studying.

But this pan-sacramentalism "re-enchants" the world by overextending the scope of the sacraments and treating all of creation as a sort of sacramental sign.  All of this comes at the expense of swallowing up the words of Scripture and obscuring the Gospel heart of the two dominical sacraments.

Clearly, the move to more frequent communion can be beneficial – though some overlook the truth that regularity is probably more important than frequency. But fixing sacramental neglect needn’t bring with it a totalizing sacramentalism. Evangelicals would be wise to recognize how some features of this overcorrection can send Protestant congregations down a problematic path.