Sacraments as Means of Justification

As Christians we believe the words of St. Paul when he says that sinners are justified by faith, and as Protestants we recognize that the added “sola fide” of the Reformation was not a novel invention meant to remove the human element in salvation, but a traditional way of adding emphasis to a word (see the line in Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” – “Sola fides sufficit“), and in this case adding emphasis to the filial trust that believers have in the word of God who declares sinners to be “righteous” apart from their merits.

When God declares something about a sinner, he always uses inanimate and animate instruments to conveys that message. He used a burning bush to get his message across to Moses, and he used Moses to point Israel to that guiding flame and cloud, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. And, it was through that divine fire and cloud that all of Israel were “baptized into Moses,” as St. Paul says (1 Cor. 10:2 – εἰς τὸν Μωϋσῆν ἐβαπτίσθησαν ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ). All of these visible elements (the fire, the cloud, the sea, and Moses) were divine instruments and signs of Israel’s redemption. And, as St. Paul tells us, these signs correspond to the Christian sacraments, especially baptism. The sacraments are visible words spoken by God himself in sign language concerning the status of his people, saying, “I am their God, and they are my people.”

There really is no conflict between God’s objective sign language to us and our subjective seeing and hearing – faith comes through hearing. And so, there is no conflict in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Rather than detract from individual faith, the sacraments are actually given for the sake of bringing about faith (or in faithful adults, bringing about more faith), faith in God’s gracious declaration about us sinners, namely, that despite our sin we are righteous in Christ. There is a sense in which everyone who is baptized is justified, not through faith, plus sacraments, but because of their profession of faith in God’s word revealed through the sacraments. This is why they are called “means of grace.” Though this may come as a surprise to many, this is a Reformed view of baptismal efficacy. Jerome Zanchi says (in his Miscellanies) we are to believe that in baptism infants are washed with the very blood of Christ:

When the minister baptizes, I ponder and I believe, with the eyes of my mind lifted up to heaven, that Christ, as if with his own hand sent down from heaven, sprinkles my son with his own blood for the remission of his sins, through the hand of this man, who I see sprinkling the head of the infant with water.

We cannot talk about the remission of sins without talking about justification, since the very declaration included in God’s act of justifying sinners is his declaration that their sins are remitted. And, sins are remitted because we are united to Christ through the Holy Spirit that we receive in baptism. This applies to baptized infants as well, even though they are not capable of believing with their mind as adults do.

And therefore the infants of faithful [parents] receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of regeneration, the Spirit of faith & charity, as well as the remission of sins & the right to eternal life, since they become members of Christ when they are in the covenant. For it is not true that because they cannot believe due to the defect of their age, so they are destitute of the Spirit of faith, through whom they are regenerated. Just as it does not follow that because they cannot yet use reason, they lack a mind and reason (Zanchi, Commentary on Ephesians, 298).

Zanchi also affirms the appropriateness of attributing a power to the minister for regenerating and remitting sins, and justifying sinners through the sacraments:

Can the ministers of baptism also be said to truly baptize, that is, to wash away sins and to regenerate? I respond, yes in every way … But it should always be understood, that ministers do this sacramentally, that is, as they administer the sacraments, through whom Christ himself cleanses, regenerates, as through an instrument. And in the same sense it is said ministers are able to show forth not mere bread, but also the true body of Christ itself. For as it were, all who receive baptism, although hypocrites without true purification from sins, are said despite this to be cleansed from sins and justified because they have taken hold of the sacrament of these things. And so in the super of the Lord hypocrites, when they accept the bread of the Lord, can be said to also take up the body of Christ itself, namely sacramentally. Likewise ministers are also said to administer the things themselves, because they administer the sacraments of the things themselves. Therefore they justify and regenerate because they are ministers of these things and they serve the interests of Christ for the sake of regenerating humanity (Commentary on Ephesians, 305).

Zanchi’s qualifications here are very important. In every sacrament there is a mystical (or sacramental) union between the signum and res, between God’s sign language and the spiritual reality hidden behind the sign. In the crossing of the Red Sea God’s sign language (cloud, sea, and Moses) conveyed the hidden reality of Israel’s actual spiritual redemption and adoption into the family of God. And, in the same way, the sacraments act as God’s declarations to us today that he is our God and we are his people, that we are truly washed in the blood of the Lamb and clothed with his righteousness, and justified (declared “righteous”) in him. But, the sacraments do not work magically or automatically, otherwise they would not be sacraments (i.e., they require a real distinction between sign and thing signified). We know from experience (e.g., Judas) that the reality is not always given with the sign to everyone automatically and indiscriminately. Some, for example, “eat and drink to their own damnation”, while others participate in the full reality of blessed union with Christ, but all receive the sacrament, i.e., the sign mystically united to Christ himself.

And, unless someone might want some evidence for this view from an Anglican theologian, I’ve translated a passage from Samual Ward’s De baptismatis infantilis, British delegate to the Synod of Dort – there was obviously disagreement regarding this language, as Ward’s debate with Thomas Gataker attests. Ward’s language here is less guarded than Zanchi’s, but it is dependent on the same sacramental relationship, namely, the turn of phrase whereby we can refer to the sign as if it were the thing signified (i.e., metonymy):

All baptized infants are without doubt justified.

It is asked at present about the particular effect of baptism on infants [parvuli]; namely, whether it has without doubt this effect on infants, that it is effective for a solution to the guilt of original sin.

[F]irstly we assert it to be certain that Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism for an antidote [remedium] for original sin, and for a true solution to the guilt of the same.

Even if “antidote” taken strictly is the antidote of some illness, nevertheless even that can be called an “antidote,” which removes any evil whatsoever; whether it be of guilt, or penalty, or even of an obligation with regard to a penalty, which is called “guilt.” So theologians say that Christ came “for an antidote for sin,” as well for removing guilt through satisfaction on the cross as removing defect [culpam] through healing grace.

According to Ward, therefore, since God remits original sin in the baptism of infants, he also without doubt justified them.

Ward and Zanchi remind us that we ought to have a deep reverence and holy fear about God’s holy sacraments, not attributing too little to them nor too much. Everyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is justified in a sacramental sense, and so God calls them to believe that they truly share in Christ’s righteousness – and the Father’s declaration to Christ, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The mystery of the sacraments is in God’s work. There is no mystery in the evil of man. When someone spurns the gift of justification offered to them in their baptism, they reveal their own evil, not the weakness of God. Their unbelief, that is, does not detract from the mystery of their sacramental justification (to use Zanchi’s language). The sign and the thing are conjoined in God’s declaration and offering, and we should be very cautious in saying otherwise. In fact, that is why the condemnation of a lapsed Christian is greater than the unbeliever who has never been baptized. When it comes to the sacraments it is better to err on the side of mystery than on the side of presumptuousness. Because, as Zanchi says, the ministers of God “administer the sacraments of the things themselves.”

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Zanchi: The Logic of Union with Christ

Zanchi argues that we approach Christ’s divine person in a logical order. That is through the mediation of his humanity. In a treatise of his translated into English in 1594 entitled An excellent and learned treatise, of the spirituall mariage betvveene Christ and the church, and every faithfull man, Zanchi explains his justification for this idea. I offer below a brief selection of his argument to emphasize that for Zanchi the preaching of the Holy Scriptures and the administration of the sacraments play a key role in the church’s union with Christ, precisely because of this logical order of cognition. Zanchi is intentionally setting himself apart from the Zwinglians, who he says believe that the faithful are only united to Christ’s divinity, and the Lutherans who he says believe that Christ has an invisible body, which is not capable of nourishing us since it is completely unlike our bodies.

1. A faithfull man is first joyned to the flesh of Christ, and then afterwardes by the flesh, he is joyned to the word it selfe, or to the Godhead.

2. The reason is taken from knowledge. As it is with knowledge and the understanding of the minde, so is it also with voluntarie uniting and coupling. For the will followeth knowledge, and so far forth chooseth, willeth, and embraceth any thing, and uniteth it selfe thereto, as it doth thoroughlie understand and knowe the same. For it alwayes desireth not unknown but known good. But we do first and sooner apprehend & know Christ propounded in the word of God as he is man, then as he is God. Therefore in a certaine order of nature, and of the actions of teh minde and of faith, wee are first united to the flesh of Christ, and by that to his deitie, and so to his whole person.

3. I easily proove [this]…from the holy Scriptures. For, when God in the beginning of the world did promise a Redeemer, he promised and propounded him immediatly, as the seede of the woman, that is, as man, Gen. 3. “Her seede…shall bruise thy head.” So promised he also to Abraham: “In thy seede shall the nations be blessed.”

[…]

20. As therefore it was [in the Old Testament] the peoples dutie to come to the visible arke and there to wait and looke for the grace of God: so let no man hope for the grace of God, except he come to Christ visible man, and eate his visible flesh, and doe incorporate the same into himselfe by faith.

21. Wherefore it is clearer then the day light that a man cannot be united to the Godhead of Christ, except he be joyned to his humanitie, and to his flesh. For the flesh of Christ is the instrument of the Godhead, but it is this instrument onely, beeing taken and joyned inseparably into the unitie of the person.

22. This whole doctrine is very lively to be seene in the Sacraments, as it were in most cleere looking glasses.

23. There are two things in every sacrament: the visible signe, and the invisible grace: the earthly thing, and the heavenly. He that bringeth faith receiveth both.

24. But in what order? Even in the same, as they are propounded of God: by the signe we receive the thing signified: and by the earthly thing, we receive the heavenly thing: for God by the one doth offer the other.

[…]

And therefore that Chrsit doth still retaine his natural flesh, and doth imprint the virtue & efficacie, & as it were the image thereof, into our flesh, by communicating his holinesse with us, whereby we are made flesh of his flesh, and bones of his bones: also that he doth by the holy Ghost ingraffe our flesh into his flesh, & so quickneth our flesh by his flesh: and again, that the father doth communicate unto us nothing concerning salvation, but by the flesh of Christ truely and really communicated with us; and this they [i.e,. the church fathers] have prooved especially by the mysterie of the Supper of the Lord.

For as the bread is really and truly united unto us eating the same: so also is the flesh of Christ truly and in very deede united unto us who eate the same.

[…]

Because this union is made at the preaching of the Gospell in Baptisme, and in the Supper of the Lorde, therefore there are divers answeres made to this question [i.e,. the manner of how the union is made]. All confesse, that it is made at the preaching of the Gospell by faith alone: I say, an effectuall faith: neither is there any great controversie of the manner how it is made in baptisme: but there is no man ignorant how great contention there is even among those that professe Christ, of the manner how we are united to the flesh of Christ, and the flesh of Christ is united to us in the Supper of the Lord.

[…]

[We say] by faith also [Christ] is received of us into our harts, and we are united to him. Iohn 6. “Hee that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, abideth in me and I in him.” But hee is eaten and drunken by faith, as Christ in the same place expoundeth it, saying: “He that beleeveth in me shall never thirst.” Wee are therefore united to Christ by faith.

Wherefore, whether he be propounded to us in the Word, or in Baptisme, or in the Supper, Christ is alwaies united to us, and we unto him by his Spirit and by our faith… By the vertue & power of the same holy Spirit, we drinke in the supper, the blood of Christ, and growe together into one with him, and are quickened by his Spirit

When to Stop Interpreting the Lord’s Supper

A number of years ago the Lutheran historian, Paul Rorem caused a stir among certain Eastern Orthodox theologians over his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Rorem was accused, by Fr. Andrew Golitzin and others, of reading Dionysius like a Protestant, chiefly with regard to Holy Synaxis (a.k.a., the Eucharist). The crux of the debate had to do with Rorem’s emphasis on “interpretation,” which he said is of primary concern for Dionysius. To truly participate in synaxis one must rightly interpret the sacred symbols and “get behind the material show,” as Rorem via Dionysius says. Rorem referred to this act of peering beyond the veil as an “interpretation,” which implies that a right reading of the rite is all that is required of those who wish to commune with Christ. Of course, the problem with calling this a “Protestant” reading of Dionysius is that not all Protestants think interpretation is necessary for rightly communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Sure, some interpretation, some ability to distinguish between the sign and the thing behind the sign is necessary. Yet, interpretation is not the goal of the Lord’s Supper, nor should it be what one does while communing. If you know how to distinguish the sign from the thing, then you already have the power of “discerning the body” that should naturally direct you to the thing itself. An interpreter of Spanish, for example, has a habit of hearing Spanish, and so, his mind hears Spanish accurately without the use of a dictionary or mental deliberation. So, Christ calls us to participate in the whole event of his Supper with mind and body, not with the mind alone. The majority of Reformed theologians (at least of the first few centuries after the Reformation) believe that sanctifying grace is a quality (or qualities) that is infused (literally “poured in”) into the soul (mind and heart) by the Holy Spirit. By consequence, the activity of belief in the Supper itself (or in Christ within the Supper) is the mechanism of Christ-likeness (Christiformia) in the soul. The activity of faith in the Supper brings about a greater qualitative similarity to Jesus in the believer’s soul.  If there is any sacrifice involved, it is the sacrifice of ourselves, the sacrifice of our trust in ourselves and our ability to figure things out for ourselves (including the Supper!) as we surrender to the mind of Christ.

How does an increase in Christ-likeness (via infused qualities) happen in the event of Holy Communion? Most Reformed theologians agree that faith is not only an infused quality, but also a virtue. So, it will help to look at another virtue and ask, how does virtue itself increase? Let’s look at courage, for example. The courageous man becomes more courageous the more he takes on the likeness of perfect Courage, that is, the likeness of God’s own Courage (archetypal Courage). The courageous man takes on this likeness by performing courageously in battle or by choosing what is right in a moment of temptation rather than what is more immediately beneficial to him. How, then, should he interpret or develop an understanding of his courage? How will he know if he truly modeled archetypal Courage in his action? Should he stop to meditate on it while he is acting? Of course not. How could he be courageous if he’s distracted by his own act of self-reflection? Imagine a soldier fighting the enemy in close combat. If he pauses to reflect on the nature of his own courage he will most likely lose concentration on the enemy and lose the fight.

The same is true of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. We shouldn’t attempt to rationally distinguish between sign and thing signified while we eat the bread. We shouldn’t look at our own heart or introspectively examine ourselves as to whether we truly believe or not. How could you have faith in Christ’s promise at that moment if all you can think about is yourself? What should we do then? Don’t neglect self-examination. The unexamined life is not worth living after all. Just don’t examine yourself when you’re supposed to be doing something. When the consecrated bread is in your hands stop thinking about faith and just be faithful. Just believe that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is a faithful action. So, stop thinking about what you think about it and just eat. The King is here. It’s time for celebration. It’s time to be caught up in the beauty of holiness. It’s not time for deliberation. It’s not time for talking. There is a time for that. But, around the Lord’s table we are in God’s holy temple. Let all the Earth be silent.

When we do that our faith increases and we become more like Christ. We have performed faithfully and the faith that conquers the world has conquered us and given us new life. God has extended his Son to us as our greatest gift, and we have taken hold of him in an act of self-sacrificial dependance on all that he is and all that he promises to do within us. In that moment it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. However, doesn’t this emphasis on the faithful act take away from the “means of grace”? Faith is not about acting courageously, right? That would imply that the sacraments are not gifts but activities that we must perform. The answer is in faith itself. Faith is an activity of remaining passive, but this does not meant that it is an act of indifference. It’s a passive act, if that makes sense. It is an act of taking hold of the gift that is given and holding it deep within ourselves. This takes some courage, the courage to leave yourself behind, as Martin Luther says. Yet, this is holy courage, because it sets us apart from the world. In fact, it takes us out of the world altogether and places us within Christ. As we repeatedly participate in his table we increasingly take on his Courage (exemplar Courage) to leave everything behind and cling to the Father.

Remember, sanctifying grace is an act of cooperation between you and God within you. The courageous activity of faith is never merely ours. It is ours because it is Christ within us. Yet, Christ is within us according to his likeness, not substantially (i.e., union with Christ is not spiritual transubstantiation). He is within us according to our God-given ability to reflect him, which is primarily displayed in faith, though faith is only an effect of his union with us (it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of union with Christ). The Giver is giving himself to us and acting within us. We are called to receive him but our reception does not make the gift. Our reception does, however, facilitate the gift giving by preparing our soul for it. It’s like hospitality. The more that we receive him, the more we prepare a place for him, and the better we become at welcoming him the way that a King should be welcomed. The King comes into our home the more we extend the invitation and open the door for him, though it is really his house to begin with. In so doing we become more and more like the King himself, who invites all of us to his wedding banquet. This doesn’t happen through mere interpretation. We already know how to interpret. We know what is behind the veil. The Supper is not for interpretation but for interpreters who can habitually receive the language of the body and blood of Christ by hearing with the ears of faith. Our souls do not develop Christ-likeness by actively interpreting the Supper as we participate in the event. Rather, we become more like Christ within the event (through Christ acting within us), and the event, the wedding banquet, is the thing itself, slightly veiled, yet beaming as brightly as the sun behind a cloud to those who have been given eyes to see.

My Soul Is Not Me

Peter Leithart and others have noted the post-modern phenomenon of what I shall call the impenetrable ego. In his book on baptism Leithart notes that the idea that the ritual actually affects the person (socially, psychologically, ontologically) seems eerie because we have this idea that “who I am is deep down inside and cannot be touched by anything from the outside” – a sort of Neo-Stoicism.

Since I have occupied my summer with readings of Aquinas I shall not digress.  He had to fight with the gnostics as well (those who would radically separate mind and body, ego and flesh).  Aquinas does not fall victim to scholarly critiques of the Medieval theology such as that of N.T. Wright; who says that the popular idea that when we die our souls go to heaven never to return was invented by the Medieval church.  St. Thomas was waging war against the Albigenses (a.k.a. Cathari/Medieval Manichees). Fergus Kerr says we should read all of Aquinas with this context in mind.

Aquinas’s argument against the idea that “what is real in me is separate from matter” is fairly simple: Because the soul is only part of the person it cannot be spoken of as if it characterizes the whole. Sure, he also says that the soul is the form of the body – giving actuality to the body’s potential to exist.  I’m not denying the “superiority” of the soul or the fact that Aquinas did not diverge from the traditional teaching that the soul is separated from the body at death. My point is to note the anti-gnostic strain in Aquinas’s teaching on the soul.  He denies that phrases such as “my essence is the real me” or “who I really am is immaterial” can have any legitimacy.  In his De Ente et Essentia he confirms this:

For the phrase human being expresses it [essence] as a whole (not cutting out demarcated material but including it implicitly and indistinctly in the way we said a genus includes its differentiating characteristics): so individuals can be called human beings.  But the word humanness expresses it as a part (including in its meaning only what belongs to humans as humans and cutting out all demarcation), and so we don’t call an individual human being humanness.  This is why the word essence is sometimes asserted of things (Socrates, we say, is an essence of sorts) and sometimes denied (Socrates’ essence, we say, is not Socrates).

“Essence”, says Aquinas, can refer to an individual human being as a whole and also to the part of the individual that is purely immaterial.  Therefore, to say that the “essence” in the later sense is the real person is to say that part of the whole human is more human than the whole, which is a contradiction.  It is like saying “my arm is the real me” or “my face is more me than the rest of me.”  He demonstrates this more clearly in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

For it is clear that the soul is naturally united to the body and is departed from it, contrary to its nature and per accidens. Hence the soul devoid of its body is imperfect, as long as it is without the body. But it is impossible that what is natural and per se be finite and, as it were, nothing; and that which is against nature and per accidens be infinite, if the soul endures without the body. And so, the Platonists positing immortality, posited reincarnation, although this is heretical. Therefore, if the dead do not rise, we will be confident only in this life. In another way, because it is clear that man naturally desires his own salvation; but the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man: my soul is not me; So that even if soul achieves well-being in another life, that doesn’t mean I do or any other human being does. Moreover, since it is by nature that humans desire well-being, including their body’s well-being, a desire of nature gets frustrated.

He confirms here that a soul detached from the body is an incomplete human being. Therefore, neither the soul by itself nor the body is the true source of a person’s identity; rather, the composite body-soul which is the human being.  As John Nevin says, “The soul to be complete to develop itself at all as a soul must externalize itself, throw itself out in space; and this externalization is the body.” (Mystical Presence, pp. 161, 162)

Liturgical Theology

[In baptism] the infant, a silent preacher of the doctrine of St. Paul, cannot even appear to be performing a work of righteousness, it only “suffers the divine love.”  The child of nature’s womb has first of all to be re-formed in the Church’s womb, elevated to the point of being able to have a relationship of life with Christ and through him with the whole human family.  This is a dramatically anti-Pelagian gesture in which individual helplessness is met and mended in solidarity with others. (Peter A. Kwasniewski, “Aquinas on Eucharistic Ecstasy,” Nova et Vetera [Winter 2008])

Faith and Eucharist: Aquinas and Calvin In Harmony

I recently presented (in class) a study concerning the placement of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin within Henri de Lubac’s historical scheme (in his Corpus Mysticum). I concluded that they were men of there times but that they both retained a strong ecclesiology.  I also concluded the following:  Neither Thomas nor Calvin believed Christ’s presence to be confined to the Eucharist.  Both men saw the faith of the believer and the unity of the Church through the Holy Spirit to be the reality behind the sacrament.  Both considered Christ’s presence to be beyond comprehension, thus only with spiritual anatomy (i.e. Thomas’ spiritual eyes and Calvin’s spiritual mouth) can believers commune with the divine reality.  Neither affirmed a physical presence or even a local presence, and both adamantly agreed that only through faith can one truly partake of Christ.  The main source of disagreement is the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Calvin understood it as “that fictitious transubstantiation for which today they fight more bitterly than for all the other articles of their faith.” (Institutes, IV.17.13)  However, it remains to be shown that Calvin had the particular teaching of Aquinas in mind or whether he sought an answer to those common beliefs of Medieval Catholics, who were perhaps influenced by the different theories of Scotus and Ockham.  In his Institutes Calvin argues against those “Papists” who hold to a local presence of Christ and the annihilation of the substance of the bread – two ideas that Aquinas believed to be erroneous.  It is also interesting to think what Calvin might judge of Catherine Pickstock’s reading of Aquinas on transubstantiation – that his reliance on the esse/essentia distinction transcends that of substance/accidents.

Calvin’s Theology of Sacramental Efficacy In a Nutshell

Commenting on Ephesians 5:26 Calvin declares: 

When Paul says that we are washed by baptism, his meaning is, that God employs it for declaring to us that we are washed, and at the same time performs what it represents […] Others again suppose that too much importance is given to the sign, by saying that baptism is the washing of the soul […] But there is no absurdity in saying that God employs a sign as the outward means.  Not that the power of God is limited by the sign, but this assistance is accommodated to the weakness of our capacity.  Some are offended at this view, imagining that it takes from the Holy Spirit a work which is peculiarly his own, and which is everywhere ascribed to him in Scripture.  But they are mistaken; for God acts by the sign in such a manner, that its whole efficacy depends upon his Spirit.  Nothing more is attributed to the sign than to be an inferior organ, utterly useless in itself, except so far as it derives its power from another source. (Commentary on Ephesians, pp. 319, 320)