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Sacraments, Mission, and Divine Action, ctd.

This is actually a repost of something I wrote over a year ago. In light of recent conversations we’ve been having here, I thought it might be useful. I’ve modified it a bit from the original version to express things better.

By virtue of the church’s union with Christ (the totus Christus), the base-practices of the church—Baptism, Eucharist, the preached Word—which were instituted by Christ in his incarnation bear witness to and proleptically share in the apocalyptic promise of the final communio of the Triune God and the created world. The sacramental practices of the church participate in the christic and pneumatic dynamism of the immanent triune life which is the promised transfiguration of the world in Christ. The sacramental base-practices of the church, rightly understood, bear witness to, and by God’s grace manifest the form and splendor of the inter-trinitarian love translated into the life of humanity through the missional action of the Son and Spirit. In baptism a person is drawn into the circle of triune love, which embraces, heals, and captivates the brokenness of sinful humanity. Through baptism the Spirit unites the believer with Christ, drawing her into the communion of the Trinity, of which the church is a sign and sacrament. Likewise, through the Eucharist, the members of the body of Christ are gathered together by the Spirit in the peace that has been wrought by word of the cross which makes all things one. In the Eucharist the one loaf is consumed by the one body thereby assuming the members together into a truly united, truly catholic ekklesia.

The Word and sacraments are at once a witness to the divine verbum externum (vera visibli) and the sign of the gratuitous unio mystica. They testify to and participate in the sovereign work of God extra nos and simultaneously the divine condescension en nobis. Thus, the church bears witness to and corresponds to Christ because as his body she is united with him by the Spirit, thus being given to participate in the triune life of God. The church and Christ exist as one body in the communion of the Spirit, intimately connected, yet utterly distinct. Therefore, through the sacramental base-practices of the church, the Spirit continually actualizes the reality of divine-human communion in the church which is constantly being transfigured–indeed revolutionized–through the depths of the triune love poured out therein. The sacramental mediation of the church is in a sense an extension of the soteriological mediation of the Son, but the church is only that extension in the mode of pathos, of receptivity, humility, and poverty before the sheer gratuity of God’s action pro nobis in the cross and resurrection of Chist. Thus, the expansive and ubiquitous outpouring of the pneumatic love of God draws the entire creation into the communio, of which the church is a sign, such that in the eschaton all things are found within the infinite agape that is the Trinity.

The church then, in its practice of the Word and sacraments, participates in and recieves the movement of the Trinity into the world. Not in any way because of what she is in herself, for in herself she is nothing. Rather the church’s particiaption in the trinitarian work is wholly due to the gracious outpouring of the love of God by the Holy Spirit which enflames, enlivens, dissolves, and makes new, thus drawing the church into the apocalyptic movement of God into the world. God’s saving action in the world is not static, but gratuitous and infinitely expansive, intruding upon, interrupting, and transfiguring the world of sin and alienation. Thus, through Christ and the Spirit the triune Lord “makes room” for the church within God’s action for the salvation of the world, precisely as humble recipients who praise and witness to Jesus. God’s outpouring of love allows us at once participation in God’s trinitarian mission (which is God’s own eternal life) to drawn all persons into sacramental, spousal communion with God. The ecclesial communion is a sign, anticipation, and sacrament of this divine  promise and base-practices of the church are our fundamental modes of giving ourselves over to God in prayerful anticipation and joy.

18 Comments

  1. Brad A. wrote:

    Thanks for this, Halden. It helps lay out some specifics, and I happen to agree with them by and large. I wonder, though, how you could argue what you have recently in light of this. Below, I address several points; I’m not trying to assert my own arguments here, but rather looking at the (theo)logic of yours here and in recent conversations.

    Para 1: Baptism, Eucharist, preached word are all practices of the church – put differently, they require the church in order to exist. You state, “Through baptism the Spirit unites the believer with Christ, drawing her into the communion of the Trinity, of which the church is a sign and sacrament.” Christian baptism, which occurs within the church and is impossible without it, “unites the believer with Christ” and “draws her into the communion of the Trinity.” If this is so, how can you possible argue below that the church is not an extension of Jesus’ life and work, even in explicit soteriological terms? How is it not in some part a “means” or a “mediator”? Likewise, your point about Eucharist suggests worship and church are mutually dependent.

    Para 2: You write, “Therefore, through the sacramental base-practices of the church, the Spirit continually actualizes the reality of divine-human communion in the church which is constantly being transfigured–indeed revolutionized–through the depths of the triune love poured out therein.” Obviously here, the Spirit is the key agent, but the church cooperates, does it not? Otherwise, how could we speak of a “practice”?

    You also write, “The sacramental mediation of the church is in a sense an extension of the soteriological mediation of the Son, but the church is only that extension in the mode of pathos, of receptivity, humility, and poverty before the sheer gratuity of God’s action pro nobis in the cross and resurrection of Chist.” So then, in the modes you describe, the church is some sort of mediation? How does this square with some of your comments below, and particularly your agreement with Nate?

    Also in Para 2, you write, “Thus, the church bears witness to and corresponds to Christ because as his body she is united with him by the Spirit, thus being given to participate in the triune life of God.” This language seems to suggest the church is Christ’s Body before being united with him by the Spirit. Is that what you mean? If not, what is it before being united?

    This is important to me because in Para 3, you write, “he church then, in its practice of the Word and sacraments, participates in and recieves the movement of the Trinity into the world. Not in any way because of what she is in herself, for in herself she is nothing.” This seems nonsensical to me. The church is only the church when it is the Body of Christ; as the Body of Christ, created and instituted by Jesus, how can it ever be “nothing”? If there are times when the church is not the Body of Christ, is it still even the church?

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  2. Have you read Alexander Schmemman’s “For The Life of The World?” Your post resonates with his book. It’s actually quite a breath of fresh air to see someone putting an emphasis on sacramental and ecclesial communion. Although I don’t agree with everything Schmemman says I appreciate his emphasis on living life sacramentally, specifically eucharistically, and his approach to both the Church, creation, and mission with the sacraments in view.

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  3. Excellent disquisition Halden (just how did you keep from getting snapped up by the Benedictines? What a loss for the RCC). Quiz; Who wrote the following: “The Word and sacraments are at once a witness to the divine verbum externum (vera visibli) and the sign of the gratuitous unio mystica. They testify to and participate in the sovereign work of God extra nos and simultaneously the divine condescension en nobis.” Well, If you guessed Pope Pius XII you’d be wrong, but it’s an understandable mistake. Now a further challenge would be to take the same encyclia but infuse it with some of the eros of a Keats love letter, say the one to Fanny Brawne (see Campion’s ‘Bright Star’) for example:
    “My dearest Fanny, I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, ’twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures. I would never see any thing but Pleasure in your eyes, love on your lips, and Happiness in your steps. I would wish to see you among those amusements suitable to your inclinations and spirits; so that our loves might be a delight in the midst of Pleasures agreeable enough, rather than a resource from vexations and cares. But I doubt much, in case of the worst, whether I shall be philosopher enough to follow my own Lessons: if I saw my resolution give you a pain I could not. There may be a sort of love for which, without the least sneer at it, I have the highest respect and can admire it in others: but it has not the richness, the bloom, the full form, the enchantment of love after my own heart. I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I kiss’d your Writing over in the hope you had indulg’d me by leaving a trace of honey. What was your dream? Tell it me and I will tell you the interpretation threreof. Ever yours, my love! John Keats.”

    Forgive me, Valentine’s day is around the corner, and I been reading a bit of St. Theresa of Lisieux to offset my work-required study of the ‘National Electrical Code’ (which smacks of counter-reformational Popish prose, also lacking any “trace of honey”). obliged.

    Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Brad, sorry I haven’t responded yet. I really do intend to. Hopefully I’ll get to it later this afternoon or evening.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 12:08 am | Permalink
  5. Brad A. wrote:

    No problem, Halden. And I hope you take this as friendly conversation – I don’t mean to be nitpicking all the time.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Brad, I’ll try to respond as best as I can here. Hopefully I get to everything.

    1) Baptism, Eucharist, Word as practices.

    I think you get off a bit on the wrong foot when you claim that the sacraments “require the church in order to exist.” Most major ecclesiological reflection argues quite the opposite, namely that the Eucharist (and Baptism, the Word, etc.) “make the church.” This is an important point. In the biblical narrative all three of these precede the church. The church’s ongoing practice of the sacraments is a response to and derivative of their Christological prevenience, as it were. Christ, not us is the agent of baptism, Eucharist, and the Word. It is the Lord’s table, not ours. Moreover, to say that the sacraments “make” the church is not to say that the church is a “mediation” as such but rather to insist all the more upon the fact that the church has its being solely through the mediation of Christ. (cf. 1 Tim 2:5, which along with many verses in Hebrews problematizes the notion that there is any “mediator” other than “the man Christ Jesus.”)

    Now in regard to your specific question of baptism, I should have phrased things differently. With Barth I do not think that the rite of baptism (the physical act of immersing in water) unites us with Christ. Rather we are united with Christ in God’s act of election to which we obediently respond in baptism, speaking the “Yes” of faith to God’s own act of uniting us with Christ in the Spirit.

    2) Cooperation and Practices.

    I think it is crucial to distinguish the salvific work of the Spirit, which gives us over to Christ’s way of being (conforms us to Christ) from our own works of obedience and discipleship, even in regard to the practice of the sacraments. In other words, I’m resistant to the equation of “Spirit+our action in the sacrament=salvation/the work of God/whatever we mean.” Rather we give ourselves to the practice of the sacraments and the Word because God has promised to be freely and graciously present in them to save. Our performance of the rite is simply obedience and response to God’s prior and prevenient action in Christ and the Spirit. And indeed, our actual instantiation of the practice is not necessary for God to act sacramentally. Here I’m actually riffing on the Roman Catholic notion of the “baptism of desire” in which the reality proclaimed in baptism is received by a person who has never undergone the rite by virtue of the direct action of God to draw that person into union with Godself.

    I hope that all makes sense. The church, in my view is not cooperating with God in the sacraments, but rather is freed by God’s promise to attend to them in the confidence that God will meet us there (and elsewhere, wherever God chooses). Our action in the sacrament does not combine with God’s to bring about the result as if our salvation were a synergy. Rather we simply respond in obedience, trusting that in the doing of the thing commanded God will be faithful to do it all.

    3. Mediation and the “Nothingness” of the Church.

    You’ll notice the italics in the sentence you quote, “The sacramental mediation of the church is in a sense an extension of the soteriological mediation of the Son . . .” It is the “in a sense” that is all-important here. I tried to fill that “sense” out by mentioning “mode of pathos, of receptivity, humility, and poverty.” By that I mean something very much like Craig Keen’s image the dynamited dam. What I am saying is that the church “mediates” God/Christ/Salvation only in the sense that the church is an empty space into which the radical grace of God, in the Spirit flows.

    This is related to your final question about what it means to say that the church “in herself is nothing.” What I mean by this is that outside of the singular action of Christ and the Spirit all of the world is utterly estranged from God and is only brought back into union with God through God’s own work. We are, as Abraham says, “ashes and dust” (Gen 18:27). We have nothing to contribute, to synergize with God’s work. What do we have that we have not received? Nothing. And this is precisely the glory of the church as the sign of the kingdom of God. In the church we see that “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Cor 1:28-31).

    That is, in effect what I am saying. That God alone is the source of our life in Christ. Outside of that gracious and singular act of God which unifies us with Christ in the Spirit, we are, quite literally, nothing. Or, in 1 Peter’s terms, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:10). The “but now” is the crux here. The “but now” is due solely to God’s gracious act in Christ which makes, us who are nothing to become children of God and co-heirs with Christ in the Spirit. Outside of this union which God, in Christ works in the cross, resurrection, ascension, and parousia, we (whether we speak of the church, Israel, the nations, or whatever) are, quite literally nothing. Ashes and dust.

    I hope that clarifies things some.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden,
    Isn’t it the case really that most sacramental theologians say two thing: 1) that the sacraments make the church, AND 2) the church makes the sacraments?

    Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems you posted this because of comments elsewhere regarding the supposed postliberal collapse of Christology into Ecclesiology, and here you subtly refute the “3 bodies of Christ” claim that the tradition always held them together.

    For me it seems to be totally missing the point to argue for/against the work of God in the Sacraments. That is beyond question. The real question is what is the nature of our participation in that work? Until we talk about the nature of Christ’s presence (yes, I know you mentioned the Spirit…) and the relation of the Last Supper and the Lord’s Table, and other such issues, it seems that everyone could agree with you exposition.

    I guess I would love to hear what it means that Christ and the church are one body in the Spirit, “intimately connected, yet utterly distinct.”

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Geoff, I’m not sure I’ve seen too much from sacramental theologians about how the church makes the sacraments. That’s not to say that you’re not right, just that my reading in primary sources in liturgical theology has dropped off a bit in the last couple years.

    And, actually I didn’t post this as an attempt to refute the “3 bodies of Christ” notion. I have no problem with the notion that the Eucharist, the church community, and Jesus’s human body can all rightly be called “the body of Christ.” Obviously explicating what that term signifies in each of those different instances is very important and complex. I wasn’t setting out to solve it in this post, nor do I really think it could be synthesized satisfactorily in a post (not to say I might not try at some point).

    For me, in brief, as I tried to sketch to Brad above. Our active participation in the sacraments is one of responding in obedience to God’s gift of grace. So we baptize and are baptized in response to the liberating and saving work of God’s Spirit who brings us into union with Jesus. Likewise we take and share the Eucharist with one another in obedience to Christ’s command that we remember him and proclaim his death.

    Now, God is active in the sacraments, due to his freely-given grace. God’s promise can be depended on because God is faithful. So when we respond in obedience to God in baptism and Eucharist, we do so in gratitude (eucharistia) for God’s free and gracious presence to us in them. Our actions do not bring about the presence of Christ in the sacrament (so here, I am rejecting certain Catholic forms of sacramental understanding, I should acknowledge that).

    So if I were to sum it up in brief I think the nature of our participation in the sacraments is that in our practice of the ordinances Christ gave us we respond in obedience to his commands in hope and confidence that God will be true to his promise to be freely and dynamically present to us in the doing of the thing.

    Your last question seems to big for me to address here, though it does prod me toward writing more on the nature of the church as the body of Christ. I think that the nature of this metaphor (if its a metaphor) is one of the the central issues in ecclesiology and it is not easily synthesized. By anyone.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  9. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, thanks for your thorough reply. In what follows, I truly am not trying to argue a position, but rather to understand yours better.

    1. When I said “require the church to exist,” I meant it in a more pragmatic way. If baptism occurs, if the Eucharist occurs, etc., is not the church present? If so, then the church must be present for the sacraments. One cannot baptize oneself, etc.

    But since you bring up chronology, it is worth pointing out that while those rites do indeed precede the church, they do not precede the People of God. Which is to say, there is still “ecclesial” continuity of a sort in which context those rites are instituted, and which was required for them to be intelligible. This is not to suggest that they aren’t made effective (to whatever end) by Christ; it’s just to say there is a required context.

    So we are saved merely by God “electing” us? What, then, is election? If it is more than choosing, then you’ve moved beyond its biblical sense, I believe. What happens if we don’t respond obediently?

    2. I come from a very low-church sacramentality, so understand as we converse that I’m still wrestling with the nature and significance of sacraments myself. What do you mean, in light of your overall point, that Christ is present in the sacraments “to save?” If our performance is simply obedience after the fact, than what if we don’t perform and thereby disobey?

    3. On the point of the church as nothing in itself, I just wondered if it was not a bit nonsensical to speak of the “church” at all if it is “outside of the singular action of Christ and the Spirit.” Then, there is no church, so why even speak of the possibility of the church “in herself as nothing?”

    I think your statement, “we have nothing to contribute, to synergize with God’s work,” works for me to an extent when talking about effecting salvation. However, it does not work for me when talking about the purpose of salvation. We are saved to do good works (Eph 2:10; 1 Pet 2:9), to be, in Lohfink’s terms and like Israel was called to be, a visible place where the salvation of the world is made visible. As Israel was saved for the purpose of living as God’s people before the world, so are we. This, in my mind, is where we “cooperate” with a project much larger than ourselves: we embody the reign of God on earth so that the world may see what creation is to look like restored (and so that the powers are reminded of Christ’s victory over them), to whatever extent possible before the Kingdom is consummated. I feel like this sometimes gets lost in discussions of the “apocalyptic” and “ecclesial fetishism.”

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Brad, no problem, I’ll let you know when the questions get too tiresome. By coming over to your house and throwing a flaming brick through your window. :)

    1) I certainly agree that phenomenologically baptism and the eucharist happen within the church and have antecedents in Israel (though I’m not sure baptism is all that grounded in Israel, but that’s neither here nor there). Ontologically, however I think it is of the utmost importance to maintain that Christ is the primary agent in the sacraments precisely because they are signs of the future new creation of which Christ is the author and perfecter.

    Now as for salvation, no we are not technically saved “by” election. Rather election is God’s decision to save us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, which God in Christ sovereignly carries out. It is that event and that event alone which saves us and recreated the world. We respond in faith and obedience to that in and through the mission of the Holy Spirit (thinking of John 16:7;10 here). The “what if we don’t respond” question seems to take us too far afield here as that opens up the issue of universalism (and I basically am one).

    2. What I mean is that Christ’s presence in the sacrament involves the ongoing gift, by the Spirit of the salvation Christ has actualized in the cross and resurrection. So the sacrament doesn’t save us, but in the sacrament we experience, by the Spirit, an “opening up” if you will, of Christ’s completed salvific work.

    If we disobey (here I’m riffing on 1 Cor 12) we still experience Christ’s act of salvation, but as judgment (as the cross is at once judgment and grace, mercy and justice, etc.). Thus we can eat and drink judgment on ourselves, as Paul says.

    3. By “church” there I suppose I was speaking of the church as a gathering of believers, speaking historically and phenomenologically as it were. Who “we” are as a group of Christians is nothing outside of God’s own action of making us one and, by the Spirit conforming us to Christ (and thus making us the body of Christ, etc.).

    I’m a little confused about your contrast of “effecting salvation” versus “the purpose of salvation.” I certainly agree that we are saved “unto good works.” But the very grammar there presupposes exactly what I’m talking about, namely that God saves us through the singular action of Christ and the Spirit, thus liberating us to embody good works (or, as I would like to say here, “the politics of Jesus”).

    In terms of practice, I don’t think you and I are talking about anything different here. But for me it is important to name this reality, not as our “cooperation” with salvation, but rather as us being made, by the Spirit to be a sign of that already-accomplished salvation. I don’t see us as cooperating with God on a project so much as being transfigured by God’s action and thus responding to him with praise (doxology) and to the world with Christ’ radical love (agape). In doing this we do not extend or complete God’s work, rather we become signs and sacraments of it through the Spirit. So we are a foretaste of the new creation–through the action of the free Spirit of Pentecost–but this is all a dynamic gift, indeed one that we can never “catch up with” so to speak. We can never get a handle on it, rather we find it given to us ever and anew in different and surprising ways.

    That, at least is how I would want to talk about it.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden,

    sorry about misreading the purpose of the post. I’m always sniffing around for polemic.

    Yes, that last question is quite big. It seems that these two questions are related, 1) how does Christology and Ecclesiology relation, and 3) what is relation of sacraments to Christ are very similar. I understand and appreciate the focus on responding and obedience, but that seems more like it should be the beginning rather than the end.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Well, I have the bad habit of slinging polemics far too often, so no foul.

    In response to your last sentence, what do you mean by beginning and end here? And what do you think the “end” is rather than obedience/response? Just curious, and of course, always processing.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    Given the framework you are using to describe your position here (which I think has been very compellingly presented) how would you give an account of damnation, or the possibility thereof? Can the radical love of God through Christ be resisted? This isn’t a polemical question. I’m really just curious what this looks like from the perspective you are taking on this.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    In brief, Hill I basically don’t think that it can. I suppose I could best describe it as a “harder” Balthasarian position on the possibility of all being saved.

    I should rush to add though, that while I don’t think anyone can ultimately resist God’s love, some people may hold out for a hell of a long time and thus experience hell. But I do think hell ultimately will be found empty, as per the theology of Holy Saturday.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I just noticed my use of “hell” in that sentence. I was not trying to make a pun.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  16. The end of the sacraments and of salvation is union with Christ. I guess that is the end for which response and obedience are the beginning…

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:

    That makes sense. I was just curious if you felt like this drove you pretty hard in that direction or not.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Interesting. Instinctively riffing, I would be inclined to say that the beginning is being united with Christ by the Spirit to which we respond with obedience. Though of course the ultimate end of this union, in my view would be some itertation of theosis/participation in the Trinity.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

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