Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Caution to the Sacramentalists

(I feel embarrassed to be writing from my experiences; but I suppose I’m some sort of embodied, located person, so here goes…)

The other day I attended choral mattins at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The music and setting were greatly used by God to stir my heart to admiration of and desire for Him.   The ceiling of the place is fantastic, with amazing mosaics (I assume) that seemed almost Byzantine.  I’m not wholly an iconoclast (at the moment), so I appreciated the images of Christ’s life, as well as the Christ Pantocrator returning the congregation’s gaze from the far end of a succession of domes.  However, I don’t how to venerate and not worship an image (do you?), so I spent a good bit of the service with my eyes closed.

Afterward I took in the Courtauld Gallery, and the Manet, van Gogh and Gauguin paintings (so famous I recognized them) made me weak with Stendhal syndrome.  Foolishly homeopathic, I made my way to the British Museum.  How amazing, that place (pace the kid who, seeing the crowd around the Rosetta Stone, asked “What’s so good about that?”).  I was moved in a way I couldn’t quite understand by the Elgin marbles and Assyrian statuary.  The objects inspired awe, not just because they were ancient or meaningful, but also because they were tremendous pieces of art, of handicraft, of man’s creative mind and hands.  Could they be idols?  Could I, or perhaps, could Christianity, or Judaism, or God, condemn such pieces?

I’m curious as to how we assess idols today.  I suppose we don’t need to, for the most part, as we never encounter a physical object one openly worships as a god; and so we don’t find ourselves asking whether an item might go from piece of art to idol or from idol to piece of art.  Perhaps this can happen when an object is removed from its setting and worshipers.

More basically, however, it struck me that God’s Old Testament people were quite distinct in their remove from most imagery.

I also was curious as to how careful the sacramentalism is of many of my Evangelical-plus friends (that is, those who are or were Evangelicals, but supplement its supposedly sparse theology and worship with other parts of the Great Tradition).  We appreciate art and wish not to miss out on the blessings of any part of God’s creation.  What I want to know, however, is if we can distinguish (or, to be practical, simply if we distinguish) an icon from artwork.  Do you know what it is that makes this materially constituted bull a bad thing?

Perhaps I’m wondering if there’s a distinction to be made between being influenced by a theology of the sacraments and simply having the famed ‘sacramental worldview.’  I’m not sure it’s OK to have the latter uninformed by the former.  Who am I to be speaking on this point?, but it seems like the sacraments are about God’s irruption in the physical world in a very particular way, a way that in no way can yet be applied to all of materiality.  The special coming of the Spirit upon bread and wine, oil and the conjugal couple might not be an endorsement of all art.

The (Modern/Baptist) Worldview

Real quick: on this blog ‘modern’ is not an epithet.

Is cessationism not definitive of the modern view of reality, vis-à-vis the ‘enchantment of the world’?

The Baptist view of reality seems to be (to me, a Baptist) that miracles can happen, that they’re rarely seen, that they have happened in the past and that supernatural things will occur again.  We do not believe in a ghost world regularly irrupting into the corporal world.  While we do believe in the Spirit and in humans (and animals [<‘anima’]) being spirited, we believe in the invisibility of spirit.  Depending on our theological strain, we may suggest that God’s work and that of humans are not competitive, that God (for the most part) only builds the house that humans build.

Baptists have little to fear from a temperate empiricism.  The miracles we believe in are Scriptural, that is one-off, historical events.  They cannot be disproved (though likewise can’t be proved).  I’m not aware of many supernatural occurrences Baptists today have seen in broad daylight.  Much of the supernatural experiences we report occur in the invisible realm of the Holy Spirit and our spirits.

I do not think it’s the case that Baptists disbelieve in the supernatural and self-deludingly say otherwise.  We do not live in a regularly supernatural age, ever since the cessation of apostolic signs and wonders (by the way, check out cessation in the ANF and NPNF).  But, we do not deny the possibility of miracles happening today.  Indeed, we watch the Eastern skies for our Savior coming bodily down out of heaven.  And never having seen a miracle with our own eyes we believe fervently in the truth of those recorded in the Bible, most of all, our God’s assumption of flesh, his sinless life and obedient death, his genuine resurrection and his ascension, and foolishly, we expect his return.

That Baptists believe in miracles yet seem not to believe as some other do is, I hope, honest faith in God.  It is honest in its recognition of our lack of experience with the supernatural overwhelming the material (I hope; perhaps we blind ourselves to some of God’s actions today).  Yet with these desert eyes, it still believes in God’s promises and trusts the record of his extra-ordinary activity in the past.  It lives between the times with faith in what God has done and what God will do.

contra sacramentalism, the Incarnation is not a principle

Jesus Christ was/is an historical person.  Per the New Testament, he is presently at the right hand of the Father, preparing a place for his children, and he will return at the time assigned by the Father.  Though we Christians have developed a number of principles for understanding his Incarnation, we always remember that he is not a principle, but a person.  Indeed, for the Christian ‘Incarnation’ is not a deverbal noun but a name for Jesus Christ.
Thus, the symbolic interpretation of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper.  It is not so much the difficulty of Christ’s omnipresence that drives me from a hard interpretation of the bread and wine as Christ’s more-than-symbolic body and blood, but the fact that Christ was an historical person and that he still exists as such, and that Incarnation is his being and not simply a principle initiated by him and repeated weekly.