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Word and sacrament: evaluating a mantra

by Tim Gallant

"The sacraments convey nothing that the Word does not convey." It sounds like a truism, and gets repeated like a mantra.

But what is meant by it?

If by such a statement we mean simply that the sacraments communicate the same Christ to us as does the Word, one would think that the issue would be beyond question. Nobody would disagree.

But surely that is not what is intended by the statement.

We need to inquire, then, whether the statement is actually helpful, or whether it reflects basic unclarities, and even underlying assumptions that are riddled with serious errors.

There are two issues here that need to be made more clear than the opening assertion seems to allow:

1) The Word-nature of the sacraments;

2) The uniqueness of the sacraments.

The Word-Nature of the Sacraments

The first question we must put to the assertion under discussion is: "Why does this statement presuppose a basic dichotomy between Word and sacrament?" Put another way: Doesn't this formulation presuppose that the sacraments are not themselves "Word?" And if so, is not that presupposition incorrect?

It seems to me that the claim here has in view, not the sacraments , but merely the sacramental elements. Not only would I never claim that the sacramental elements provide anything that the Word does not provide - I would emphatically say that the elements, as such, provide nothing at all. Water is just water; bread and wine are just bread and wine. Bread and wine are not the Lord's Supper; water is not baptism.

What constitutes baptism? Baptism is a ritual act which is fundamentally constituted by the divine Word of promise. "I baptize you in [into] the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Apart from that Word of promise, there is no sacrament. (To be sure: without the water, there is no sacrament either. Sacrament refers to the ritual act as a whole, not merely to the spoken word.)

Similarly, what constitutes the Lord's Supper? Does the Supper occur if we quietly pass around bread and wine? I don't think so. There needs to be some verbal expression of Christ's promise: "This is My body, given for you. This is My blood, poured out for many for the remission of sins." Apart from the Word of promise, there is no sacrament.

Even beyond this, however, one may - and probably should - say that the sacraments function as divine Word further than the accompanying human speech (e.g. the words of institution). By analogy, Jesus is the "Word" (John 1.1ff). He is Word; He does not only articulate God's Word verbally. God's "speech" is a self-communication that transcends human verbalization. When God provides us with bread and wine in the Supper, He is "speaking" to us a realization of the promise of participation in Christ.

The sacraments are not to be set in radical discontinuity with the Word; the sacraments - as opposed to the mere elements - are enactments of the Word. They are Word in personalized promissory form. Therefore, claiming that sacraments convey nothing that the Word does not convey is either a non sequitur or worse.

The Uniqueness of the Sacraments

But if this is so, this raises the issue of what is, after all, meant by "Word" in the assertion under discussion. Thus our second question: "What is meant by the Word here?" The Scriptures? The preached Word? The Incarnate Word? Just what?

My guess is that when this statement is used, most people are intending to refer to the preached Word. If this is the case, the statement is simply wrong, for it presupposes that the sacraments are wholly redundant. If the sacraments convey nothing that preaching as such does not convey, then there simply is no need of the sacraments at all. And I suspect that this is the real unstated - if inchoate and unexamined - belief of many people who make the assertion with which we are dealing.

I suggest that the notion that the sacraments cannot convey anything that preaching does not is in fact a dualistic notion so radical that we cannot live with it in any other aspect of our lives. We would not admit, for example, that human love - whether marital, paternal, or of whatever kind - is adequately expressed in words, and that all else we do is simply (at best) a sort of alternative to speech.

The notion here assumes, not merely the primacy of the intellect, but the absolute monopoly thereof. It assumes that the Word of promise is effectual only to the intellect. (The mere primacy of the intellect could not articulate the assertion in question. It could say that what the preached Word conveys is more important than what the sacraments convey; it could not say that the preached Word conveys or accomplishes everything that the sacraments do.)

We need to be clear concerning all that this implies.

It implies that infant baptism does absolutely nothing for the infant whatsoever.

It implies that the Lord's Supper does absolutely nothing beyond stimulating our mental reflection.

It implies that God's only access to us is via our intellects. The demented, the senile, and the infant are beyond His communicating power.

This is not simply incorrect.

It is heresy.

Mani would be proud. The Gnostics have triumphed. Let's simply invite Marcion through the front door.

The God who created man embodied; the God who calls infants His own; the God who relates to us, even if we become senile or settle into comas: this God communicates in ways beyond what the preached Word can do. To deny that is to worship Reason, not the God of Scripture. To deny that is to assert that when Jesus laid His hands upon the infants and blessed them, nothing happened.

Do the sacraments communicate the same Christ as does the preached Word? Without question!

Do the sacraments do absolutely nothing that the preached Word does not already accomplish? Ridiculous.

Baptism is a divine speech-act, by means of which God incorporates the objects of His promises into those promises. The Lord's Supper is a divine speech-act, whereby God grants believers participation in Christ and hence, in one another, in a fashion which cannot occur through intellectual reflection. Paul says that we are one bread because we participate together of the one bread (1 Cor 10.17).

That sacraments are not magical rites, we readily grant and insist - they are no more magical rites than a kiss or a hug is magical, despite being something other than verbal communication. Nor are the sacraments redundant - any more than a kiss or a hug is simply superfluous, serving a function equally served by speech. God has made us embodied and social and creatures of ritual, and these aspects of our being our not "unspiritual" or irrelevant to the way in which redemption comes to us. Salvation in Christ is not a mere intellectual philosophy, but a fully-integrated redemption of the whole person.

Which means that if the assertion under discussion is true, the gospel we preach (ironically) is a lie.

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