The Power of the Sacraments in God’s Word Alone

In Puritan Sacramentalism, Peter Leithart wrote that a simple liturgy can reflect a higher view of the sacraments than a liturgy filled with what he describes as preparatory rites or ancillary rituals.

Even the more liturgical Protestant traditions stripped away rites that the Reformers considered ancillary and unnecessary, if not distracting. . . . In some branches of Protestantism, liturgical reform reflected a preference for simplicity per se. But something else was going on, . . . It’s often thought that “high liturgy” and “high sacramentality” go together. . . . From where I stand, though, they appear to be opposed. . . . The low-church Reformers (all of them, by my definition) stripped away preparatory rites because they believed that the power of sacraments rests on God’s word, and that alone. . . . Sacraments are sacraments because God designates them to be such, but he doesn’t override the features of things when he designates them to be used as rites in the church. Water is a suitable vehicle for baptism because of the way God made water. As creatures, bread and wine are designed for a Eucharistic feast. The rites of preparation in high liturgies suggest that the materials of the liturgy aren’t sacramental enough just by being the materials they are. They have to be elevated from nature to super-nature before they become liturgically useful. For low-church Protestantism, the world is sufficiently charged with the grandeur of God to begin with. They were chosen for holy use because of their common use.

In Serving the Table of the Lord, I suggested that we keep the main thing the main thing.

. . . too many signs crowd out the one central sign. Vestments, smells, bells, parading, kneeling, standing, bowing, crossing, kissing objects, veils for the elements folded just so – some of this is fine, but too much is too much. . . . overlaying the main actions of the Eucharist with multiple layers of rather arbitrary signs and symbols obscures what should be central in all of this. The best thing about the liturgical structure that we’ve adopted is that it clearly lifts up the mighty acts of God from creation to redemption, coming to a head in Christ’s death and resurrection and culminating in Christ’s coming at the end of the age. Christ’s body given to his people in the bread we share; his blood given in the cup: these are the central signs of our Eucharistic life.

 

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