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What Makes a Sacramental Theology “High”?

One of the things that often gets kicked around in ecclesial discussions is the issue of a “high” versus a “low” sacramental theology.  However, there are some interesting ambiguities that I note in most of these discussions.  In the first place, I find it odd that whenever we are talking about “sacramental theology” we are invariably talking almost exclusively about the Eucharist and very little else.  Especially when discussions of sacramental theology interface with questions of ecclesial unity, the question of Eucharistic communion is pretty much the central question.  However, in the New Testament is is Baptism, rather than the Eucharist which is the common sacramental marker of the church’s unity: “One Lord, One faith, One baptism”.

Also interesting and odd is the way in which “high” sacramentology is equated with a certain sort of stress on the mode the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist.  In other words, one’s theology of Eucharistic presence seems to often be the only way in which we ascertain whether one’s sacramental theology is “high” or “low”.  I find this a problematic tendency because it is myopic.  If we allow theologies of real presence to be the litmus test for what constitutes a “high” sacramental theology, it seems to me we will always end up with reductive accounts of sacramental theology as a whole.  We end up with a sacramentology gives inadequate attention to baptism, the proclamation of the Word, and the reality of the gathered people of God as central elements in what constitutes a truly high sacramental theology. 

This is not to say that the Eucharist is not the “sacrament of sacraments”, only that it can never be considered in isolation, and that our theologies of Eucharistic presence do not establish our sacramental theologies as “high” or “low”.  Only a full-orbed understanding of the sacramental practices of the church presented in their wholeness and intimate innerconnection can give an adequate picture of what constitutes a truly high sacramental theology.


  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I’m not sure if you can say that baptism represents unity more than the Eucharist in the NT. Both sacraments are connected to unity. For instance, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).

    This is an interesting question. To have a “high” sacramental theology usually suggests some kind of sacramental superiority. Of course, this is actually the official view of the Roman Catholic church for Protestants don’t actually receive the sacraments at all!

    Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Ben wrote:

    So then in other words, “high” and “low” are nearly meaningless?

    I see the two words as designating two general feelings about the sacraments, one in which they are effective, the other in which they are indicative.

    I’m hard pressed to imagine a “high” sacramentology which doesn’t include a belief in the kneel-to-it-Real Presence.

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:10 am | Permalink
  3. vassilip wrote:

    i find misleading to call Eucharist “the sacrament of sacraments” (a sacrament after all); because we cannot see Eucharist just as one act of the Church among the other—Eucharist is the very manifestation of the Church as such, her mode of life; so, the ground and the womb for any sacrament.

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:58 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Vassilip, I wonder does not Baptism ground and make possible the Eucharist? Is not Baptism the womb from which the Eucharist springs?

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  5. roflyer wrote:

    Contrary to vassilip, it seems to me that to say that the Eucharist is the “sacrament of sacraments” is another way of saying that the Eucharist is NOT just one act among others, rather it is the act of the church that pervades everything else.

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  6. Ben wrote:

    “Is not Baptism the womb from which the Eucharist springs?”

    That’s an interesting chicken-egg problem. With Christ, his incarnation, his body, is prior to his body’s baptism. But with the Christian, they are baptised into the Body before they receive the Body.

    Which makes me think about the immaculate conception of Mary, who received the Body before being baptised.

    Friday, January 25, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  7. vassilip wrote:

    i have to confess that it is impossible for a man to squeeze the mystery of pure Being into man’s linguistic awareness; but, i will try to add something:

    Baptism is a gift given once and for all to all men and does not presuppose our willingness. (the ancient Church accepted even heretics’ baptism, though She was not in communion with them.)
    Eucharist, on the contrary, implies man’s free will and desire for communion with his Father—it is THE mystery of personal relation between man and God (when Baptism refers to human nature, Eucharist is the mystery of the personhood).

    may i’m not very helpful, and, also, may i’m not very accurate, but i think (according to my experience in the mother Church) that it is something like that.


    Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  8. Ben wrote:

    except, vassilip, in the eastern churches, Eucharist is given directly after baptism and chrismation. meaning that even infants recieve eucharist.

    Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  9. vassilip wrote:

    > Ben:

    you are true (i, as a Greek, know it very well); i confessed my aporia already. (the unity of theology and practice is an endless agon–obviously, due to our messianic state.)

    Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  10. WTM wrote:

    On a different track than the previous comments, I always find it interesting to remember Barth’s many comments affirming that what happens every Sunday during the sermon in Protestant churches is even more miraculous than what Roman Catholics think occurs in transubstantiation!

    Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

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