On Thursday of last week, I officially finished my Master's Degree in Theology. Given that I am now working as a web designer/developer, the immediate relevance of my degree is not readily apparent. Nonetheless, theology is–and will continue to be–my first love. Hence, I will continue posting reflections that I have in the course of my theological development.

My final semester was, in many ways, one of the most important. While I will be posting about many of the things I have learned, the reflection which I will today share derives from my semester's work in the subject of Sacramentology. I simply wish to discuss the role of the sacrments in the early church, examining them in light of the current practice which I encounter in my worship. But first, a bit of background.

I grew up in the Wesleyan Church, a small denomination established in the late 1960's from a merger between the Wesleyan-Methodists and Pilgrim Holiness churches. Although Wesley himself speaks of the sacraments as "converting ordinances," the practice within the Wesleyan Church is thoroughly Zwinglian. That is, the sacraments are viewed symbolically, as psychologized memorials of that which Christ has done for the believer. True enough, the *official* canons of Wesleyan belief speak of the sacraments as "signs and seals" of the salvific work of Christ. Nonetheless, the practice betrays the thoroughgoing symbolic viewpoint. (I do not wish to discuss this at length here, so if one desires a fuller explanation, leave a request in the comments). This kind of background, of course, biases one against any conceptions of the sacraments that suggest any "real presence" of Christ or–gasp–the idea of the sacraments conveying salvific efficacy. Now given my educational background, this class in my final semester of seminary was not the first time I had encountered discussions of alternate views of the sacraments. However, what was particularly poignant to me was the completley divergent views which the ancient church held concerning the sacraments in opposition to that which is standard fare in most Protestant forms of worship and liturgy. Obviously, the subject of the history and development of sacramental understandings in the church is a huge subject (hence an entire class devoted to it). To trace the history and nuances of understanding would be far too cumbersome for a blog post.

Therefore, let me simply outline some of the research that I pursued during this semseter, research which centers on Alexandrian and Athanasian understandings of the sacraments.

In short, from Origen to Athanasius, the Alexandrians taught clearly and forcefully about the sacraments. To them, the participation of the believer in the sacraments was no mere psychologizing about what Christ had done for them, nor was it merely a "memorializing" of something that had happened in the distant past. Rather, to the Alexandrians, the sacraments were viewed as vehicles of God's salvation; to participate within them in the context of the worship of the church was to dramatically encounter the life and salvation of the living God in a real, tangible and transformative way. The reality of this salvation, however, was not based in some superstitious conception of the sacraments as "magical" objects, nor were the objects–in and of themselves–understood as something independently and inherently salvific. Rather, the participation of the believer within the sacraments was salvific precisely because–and this is extremely important–they understood God to be present within the sacraments. Because of the realization of the "real presence" of the life of God within the sacraments, the Alexandrians were able to speak of the sacraments as, per Clement, the "medicine of immorality," saving not only the soul of the believer, but effecting transformation in their bodies as well. Origen wrote of the waters of baptism as the nexus of sanctification. He notes that although he knows of perhaps 1 or 2 individuals who, through philosophy alone, have transformed their lives from immorality to virtue, the number of virtuous are innumerable among those who have been baptized. Because of this, he even passively argues that the transforming power of baptism should itself be an apologetic for the social value of Christianity! But even more importantly, to the Alexandrians the value of the sacraments lies not simply in that they provide access to the salvific life of God; rather, they are invaluable to the Christian community primarily because they are, in the midst of the church's worship of the Triune God, the means by which God is manifest in the life of the community of believers. As God is truly and salvifically present in the sacraments, so God is truly and salvificallly present in the life of the Church when the sacraments are celebrated.

To those who, for all intents and purposes, have grown up in a Zwinglian tradition, such a perspective is hard to fathom. At once, it smacks fo idolatry, popery, and all other "evils" against which the Protestants, well, protest. Yet as the student of history quickly comes to realize, for the first 1500 years of the church, this view–in one way or another–has dominated the Christian consciousness, and it is only within the last few centuries that such innovations such as the "symbolic" view have come to predominate in certain circles.

This issue has become especially important to me in recent years. I worship at a church that very much adopts the "symbolic" view of the sacraments. At my church, communion is only celebrated corporately once a month, and even when this occurs little–if anything–is done to communicate the relevance and crucial importance of the ritual. Even worse is the opportunity available each week for private "communion" which consists of grabbing a "self-serve" communion recipticle from the back of the sanctuary. In all of this practice, where is the dynamism that controlled the consciousness of the early church? Where is the proclamation of the real and saving presence of God within the Church's worship that dominated the writings of the fathers of the church? My only conclusion is that, at least within certain traditions, this understanding has been completely lost. All that remains is a ritual–not a ritual that embodies the faith and dramatic witness of the church to the presence of God in its midst–but rather a ritual that is done merely for the sake of ritual. For being part of the Protestant tradition that prides itself on removing the dead skin of empty ritual, on this count at least its seems that the protest is entirely not self-critical.

As I continue to write, I feel that I am rambling. It is difficult to find a rhythm, for on the one hand, from an historical perspective, this discussion can be resigned to the sterility of scholarship. One could easily trace the history, draw conclusions, and leave it at that. However, my dilemma is that this cannot remain simply an academic pursuit. The stakes are too high and the issues are too important. Moreover, I am a part of a community, for better or worse, that is–at least from my perspective–deficient in its practice and theology. In my thinking, praying and internal deliberating, I am torn in two directions. The first is simply to leave and find a church that is more in keeping with my particular view of the sacraments. This, I must admit, is an appealing option because 1.) it is easy and 2.) it does not require much effort. I could simply pack up, scout out the options, and settle into yet another church. But despite the ease of this option, I hesitate tremendously. First, I love the community to which I belong. Although I am not a member, I feel that my family has found a place where we can belong, grow and form genuine friendships and relationships with other Christians. Second, I feel a certain responsibility. While I do not presum
to be
some grand defender of orthodoxy, I do feel that I have significant things that I could contribute, both theologically and praxially, to our church's worship, understanding and mission.

The other option to which I lean is simply to shut up, get over my particularity in thinking, and simply "let things be." This is appealing primarily because, as with the first, it is easy. But even more importantly, I fear being the kind of person that is driven by personal preferences to the point that they seek nothing less than to conform a church to such perspectives. I often fear that this is a hidden motivation, so I hesitate even more in my deliberations. Yet at the same time I cannot unlearn what I have learned, and I cannot stifle the passions which have been stirred within me. Yet most important of all, I cannot help but believe that these passions have been placed within me for a reason. While certainly they have not been instilled so that I can dominate others and force them to bow to my theological will, I do believe that I have something to add, and I long to see the understanding of believers, and the relevance of their theology and worship to be expanded and enlarged.

A third option has, from time to time, tickled my brain, and that is to start my own church. Yet I fear this most because I loathe the thought that I might potentially start a church merely to see my theological vision for the church engenered under my "leadership." I can imagine no greater vision of blatant self-aggrandizement, so I wish to avoid this option at all costs, at least until I can ensure against this danger.

So I remain at a crossroads of sort. I understand that a realization of my vision for a "reevaluation" of sacramental practice to conformity with ancient Christian practice is most likely impossible within my lifetime. Nonetheless, I would love to be a part of the process that moves the Church to a more relevant conception of the holy ordinances of the body of believers. Perhaps a conversation is the way to begin. I welcome comments in these regards.