Matt's blog

The story of me, an American in Edinburgh, Scotland finding my place as a musician, a husband, a father and a Christian.


Losing My Religion-Sacraments

I was raised in a household that thoroughly embraced the Reformed tradition of the Christian faith. When my father was my age many of his friends started down the road to careers in the church while he became something of a lay theologian. He taught adult education classes at our church usually with the aim of speaking truth to those who believed we are all reincarnated animals or that we turn into angels when we die. Hence, I grew up with a very traditional reformed theology. This post, and a few others occasionally after it, will be about how I am coming to a deeper understanding of Reformed theology and how I feel myself pushing at its boundaries.

Americancatholic.org gives a good definition of “sacrament”, one that I believe most Catholics and Protestants would agree with:

“The Latin word sacramentum means "a sign of the sacred." The seven [or two in the Reformed tradition] sacraments are ceremonies that point to what is sacred, significant and important for Christians. They are special occasions for experiencing God's saving presence. That's what theologians mean when they say that sacraments are at the same time signs and instruments of God's grace.”

The Catholic Church before the Reformation, and to this day, regards seven spiritual rituals as sacraments. Those are Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick, formerly Last Rites. When the Reformation rolled around, Luther ditched all but two sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist. As I understand it, his reasoning was that we should only consider as sacraments those rituals which Jesus himself participated in while he was here on earth.

I think another way to define a sacrament is as an act that helps us along the path to sanctification. (Sanctification essentially means being made like Christ.) Baptism, whether infant or adult, serves as a sign of God’s promise to all those who witness it and as an instrument to sanctify the one baptized, through their own promise to grow in Christ and through the promises of others who desire to help the baptized grow in Christ. The Eucharist, or Communion or the Lord’s Supper, serves as a sign of the unity of the church and acts as an instrument of sanctification setting our minds, hearts, and tangibly our mouths on the sacrifice of Christ. Marriage acts as a sign of a covenant made in love between God and man in the same way as between a man and a woman, and acts as an instrument for sanctification as those who are married learn in a deeper way what it means to live in the bounds of a covenant in a Christian community.

I could go on, but I think you already see the point I’m getting at here. I firmly believe all of the sacraments held by the Catholic church are sacramental in nature, and on top of that one could add sacraments of worship, prayer, fellowship, or any other mundane action that is made holy and useful for the growth of believers through the Spirit. I’m not a total nut-job suggesting this. In a class I took at Whitworth the professor discussed the concept of sacramental living, in which every aspect of life can be transformed though the Spirit into a sanctifying experience. Before Jeni and I got married our pastor, at our Presbyterian church, counseled us on the sacramental properties of marriage.

Reformed ministers, at least in the Presbyterian tradition, are called ministers of the word and sacrament. Anyone who has spent much time in a Reformed church knows that usually there is much more focus on the word than on the sacraments. I have already seen this lopsided tradition become more balanced in churches which are embracing the sacraments more firmly again without fear of being ritualistic or overly mystic. There is a certain X factor in the sacraments. The Word (at least the written version) can be broken down, analyzed, and organized into a systematic theology. Sacraments have an X factor because they act upon the individual, making indelible marks on that person as they are chiseled into the image of Christ. So personal an act cannot be broken down in a rationalistic way and ultimately does open us more to the unknown, to the spiritual, to the mystic.

So there you have the first way in which I am straying from my Reformed background, or perhaps just looking deeper into the possibilities of Reformed faith. The sacraments, both the official ones and the ones which permeate our lives when we are filled with the Spirit, are of great importance when building a relationship with God and becoming more like His Son. The Word is still of great importance as well, but when you are empowered by the Spirit to come to know God more though His Word, well, I think there’s something sacramental about that.

3 Responses to “Losing My Religion-Sacraments”

  1. # Blogger Andrew Seely

    I think you need to read Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy. It was eye opening for me.  

  2. # Blogger Elizabeth

    Matt, you are not loosing your religion, you are loosing a part of your theological tradition. There is a big difference. I agree that as a minister of the word and sacrament that there is not enough enfluence on the sacraments. We throw them in when convinient and many do not understand the richness of them. I am glad to see that you do.

    I have one clarification to make about what makes a sacrament a sacrament in the reformed tradition. A sacrament is a mystery which Christ instructed us to do, ie "Do this in remembrance of me" and "Go and make disciples, baptizing them...". Christ told us to do these things as a sign and symbol of our faith. This was how they made the definition in the Reformation to get it down to two sacraments. Jesus thought marraige was a good thing, but he did not think that everyone had to do it. Also the Reformers felt that sacraments were for everyone. 3 of the 7 Roman Catholic sacraments do not include everyone (marraige, ordination, and one other one I cannot remember but it has to do with the priesthood.)

    You were right on your definition, but I wanted to add some clarity. It was a really good post.  

  3. # Blogger Editor Choice

    Many Thanks for your nice blog. I will come back.
    I wanted just to mention an interesting site regarding: Religions, with more than 500 pages, Religion News and Articles Religion Universe: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism (Daoism) and many others  

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