The Sacraments are a perennial discussion that all theologians, no… all Christians, must have. Even those Christians who believe that Baptism and Communion are bare memorial symbols must wrestle with the fact that for the majority of Christian history, they have been much more than that. Today, I want to briefly explain my view of the Sacraments. In this post, I’m going to focus less on the discussion of what they are, and try to focus more on the discussion of what they do, and how they do it. Keep in mind that this is a rough thought that I have not formalized yet.
Now, there are two extremes of view in the discussion, and it is helpful to briefly explain them.
The first extreme is most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic view. The Roman Catholic view, broadly, is that the idea that the Sacraments work “automatically” or “mechanically.” Now, these terms are broad terms, and miss some of the nuance of Roman view… however for our purposes I think they work. This view is often described by the Latin phrase Ex opere operato which means “From the working of the work.” Essentially, the thing that a Sacrament does, it does in light of the fact that the Sacrament is done.
The second extreme view is commonly associated with the Anabaptists, and erroneously with the Zwinglian memorial view. This is called the “bare memorial view” and argues that the Sacraments don’t actually do anything. They are nothing more than bare symbols that help us remember significant facts in reality.
Now, proponents of the bare memorial view will often argue that it is impossible for a physical thing to bring about spiritual reality. Ignoring the fact that the blood of Christ is physical, and that brought about our salvation… this seems to me to be not true in the least. As I wrestled with this instinct, I came to the following example.
When a man and woman get married, there are two distinct things that effect the reality of their marriage. The first is performative speech. This is a related concept, but not the main focus of this discussion, so I’ll be brief.
Performative speech is a type of speech act in which what is said brings about a new state of reality. In a legal sense, when the officiant says “I now pronounce you man and wife” it is effecting a new reality. The two persons before were not married, and after they are. A similar speech act occurs when a judge (or jury) declares a person “guilty” in a court of law. The judge saying “I sentence you to x years…” brings about a new state of reality. In the midst of the wedding ceremony we also see the phrase “With this ring, I thee wed.” When we break this down, we see that it is itself a distinct performative speech act. “Using this ring, I wed (bind) myself to you.” In our current context, this mutual binding is not complete until the officiant pronounces the aforementioned speech act. However, in other cultures the couple simply declaring that they were married, often with the accompaniment of pledge tokens, was sufficient. In some, this union was not complete until sexual consummation (another physical act bringing about spiritual reality…)
That brings me to the ring.
The ring itself is an integral part of our understanding of the wedding process. Just as with the Sacraments, some view the ring as a mere symbol, but many view it as more. The prominence of the ring as a symbol is part of why the phrase “With this ring, I thee wed” has move out of common usage and been replaced with something like “I give you this ring as a token of my love.” However, in contexts where the ring is more than symbolic, it is a physical object being used to effect, in conjunction with performative speech, a new reality. Somehow, and the philosophy of it is probably well beyond my capacity, this physical object is being used as the instrumental means which metaphysically binds two persons together. Just like I might say “With this keyboard, I compose this blog post” I am also saying “With this ring, I thee wed.”
So, what about the Ex opere operato view. This is where intention and performative speech come into play. Just putting a wedding ring on someone’s finger does not constitute a marriage. Even performing the act and saying the words does not do that (otherwise we would have a LOT of married actors). There must, on some level, be an intention to wed along with an acknowledgement that the ring accomplishes that in order for the union to be complete.
In my view, the Eucharist and Baptism function in a similar way. When I partake of the communion elements I must recognize that it is Christ’s performative speech act, along with his means of grace in the elements that are unifying me to himself. When I take the bread, I am receiving the forgiveness of sins through unity with the Father’s righteous son. Christ says to me,
With this bread, which is my body broken for you, I forgive you of your sins and make you my own.
When I take the cup, I am entering the covenant which was ratified by Christ’s blood.
With this cup, which is the new covenant in my blood, I am guaranteeing the promise of salvation.
However, just as in the wedding act, both parties must agree and participate. The next time that you participate in communion, whether you are a Zwinglian Baptist, or a Anglo-Catholic, remember that it is in the communion meal that you most clearly and outwardly say “I do” to the heavenly Bridegroom. Just as Wesley points out to Princess Buttercup in the classic Princess Bride,
Then you’re not married. You didn’t say it; you didn’t do it.