Sacramental Theology Under the Sun

“How do you fit those two things together?” I paused before answering. I do this more as I age. She and I, along with another bright student (with her dog, Samson), were talking about theology, spiritual formation, and dogs—as we enjoyed craft beer at Living the Dream Brewery.  The two things needing fitting together were sacramental theology and the Ecclesiastes kind of life, which is so much of my life.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes, 9:11; KJV).

Life is unfair and unpredictable for the most important matters. Understanding escapes us, even as we thirst for it.

Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it (Ecclesiastes 8:17-18; KJV).

Under the sun, we walk in the fear of God, committing much to mystery, trying to enjoy what God gives—and takes away.

Sacramental theology, as I tried to tease it out, affirms that the world is full of heaven; the natural speaks of the supernatural; life is rich with symbolic meaning; the finite mediates the infinite. God is with us, in us, and for us. We experience this most dramatically in the Eucharist and in the Spirit-led preaching of Holy Scripture. Consider Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion teaching on communion.

XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. . .

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.

Sacramental theology speaks of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist, but also of God’s presence in and through all areas of life. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Or, as the hymn sings, “This is my Father’s world. He shines in all that’s fare.” So, then, how can a theology of Ecclesiastes faith amidst the ruins of a wrecked world be squared with a sacramental faith that claims God’s good presence everywhere, but especially in the two sacraments (Eucharist and baptism)?

God does vouchsafe his presence and direction through nature, friendship, reading, and much else. He is always there, always here within us. But God sometimes hides himself (Isaiah 45:15) and keeps his own counsel, leaving us dry and dusty—and even desperate. Hence the many sad reflections of Ecclesiastes and elsewhere in the Bible. We should try “read the signs of the times,” while knowing that much of it is indecipherable.  This is our lot “under the sun,” our way in a fallen and groaning world that yet awaits its full redemption (Romans 8:16-23).

The sacraments, on the other hand, are not indecipherable. They ring out in sight, touch, and taste. Their meaning is biblically fixed (however much we wrangle about that) and durable. They are the substance of two thousand years of Christian practice. The elements of these practices—water, bread, wine—are common, not esoteric. We don’t need a French deconstructionist to interpret them for us (or anything else). These elements become symbols that mediate the sacred for us through the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth. They are God-ordained, not invented by mere mortals. Nor are they subject to revision. Their meaning is fixed, solid, and reliable—week after week, month after month, year after year. Of this, we can be certain. The sacraments of the church anchor us in the eternal. We may be tethered to eternity as we are blown around by a world that often makes little sense, the Ecclesiastes world “under the sun.”

The church’s sacraments remain true and holy, real no matter what assails us, even though,

 the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11; KJV).

And yet, the Gospel is true, no matter what. Christ is Lord, come what may. God has given us his symbols and practices to root us in him in a rootless world, to train us to remember what the world wants us to forget. The more forsaken I feel, the more I cling to the realities that the sacraments reveal to us. For now, that is how I combine Ecclesiastes and sacramental theology. Thank you for asking, my young student. Perhaps we will talk again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Books grounded me during my early Christian life. Along with The God Who is There by Francis Schaffer, Pensées by Blaise Pascal, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, and The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, The Confessions by Augustine (and many others), Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life offered a historically and theologically rich charter for living the Christian life in all its dimensions: individual, church, and culture. To this day, I know of no other book in this category. How pleased I was a few months ago to find a student at Denver Seminary reading and lauding this magnificent book.

I was in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon.  During that time I read Lovelace’s book. Most of my ministry time was spent in preparation for teaching. During the early 1980s, I taught from Dynamics in a yearlong course for upper division credit in Sociology. It was called, a bit pretentiously, “The Twilight of Western Thought.” Given the fear of micro-aggression, the advent of “equality officers,” safe zones and trigger warnings for those fragile souls traumatized by ideas not their own, this course would never be taught today. You see, it was taught from a Christian perspective. Free of any discrimination against non-Christian students or their work, Dynamics explained the Christian worldview in relation to other perspectives. True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it does not avoid them at all cost. That is how the head of the sociology department saw it, so he sponsored the class.

"True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it dose not avoid them at all cost."

What a feast it was to teach through every chapter of Dynamics of Spiritual Life. My copy is decorated with color markings, underlining, marginalia and my own index placed on the inner front cover. As C. S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, the literary person rereads his great books.  In his introduction to Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word, he says that the older books should not be neglected for the new. This work, now thirty-six years old, deserves to be read and re-read.

Dr. Lovelace approaches the theology of renewal as a church historian, who draws wisely from many movements and thinkers, of whom Jonathan Edwards features prominently. While Reformed theologically, Lovelace appreciates the best of the Protestant traditions and accepted the ongoing power of the charismatic gifts. His winsome and sane approach stimulated me to rethink and eventually leave behind the cessationism I had picked up from the Dispensational theology I was taught in a Baptist Church. I found one could be a Calvinist Charismatic, and so I have remained.

The book proceeds in a linear and systematic fashion by considering the nature of renewal in some depth. He is not writing about revivalism specifically, although he cannot ignore that. Rather, he addresses the conditions for renewal given what the Bible and church history tells us. In Part I, Dynamics of Renewal, Lovelace measures the current situation (1979),  for the church, looks at biblical patterns of renewal, the preconditions for renewal (knowing God and our sinfulness), primary elements of renewal (our status in Christ), secondary elements of renewal (mission, prayer, community, theologian integration, and disenculturation). Renewal in the Church is the second and longer part of the book, and offers a cornucopia of insight on “the sanctification” gap, how revivals go wrong, the nature of orthodoxy and ecumenism, the Christian and the arts, a biblical account of social action, and “the prospects for renewal.”

Lovelace’s reflections are deeply biblical, theologically rich, and spiritually heartening. Consider one example. His discussion of justification and sanctification is deeply biblically, clear, and cogent. Our theology of justification and sanctification is foundational to any Spirit-led renewal in the church and in culture. Twenty years after I taught this material, one of my students emailed to say how significant this was in forming her young Christian life. I often return to this reality in my Christian experience. I am accepted in Christ, justified by his righteous and am loved. That is the foundation. From that foundation, I seek to grow in grace and truth, depending on the Holy Spirit in all things. Francis Schaeffer’s modern classic, True Spirituality, makes these same points in a bit more detail.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more. Dynamics of Spiritual Life, though written in 1979, can help chart the way. I cannot think of any book as profound, wise, and challenging on these matters. Yes, it is high time to reread this modern classic. Thanks to InterVarsity for keeping it in print all these years and thank you, Richard Lovelace for this work of love and erudition.

Theology of Suffering

Guest post by: Chad Ellison


The phenomenon of suffering is at once alien and common. It is not difficult for most of us to hear and accept statements such as, “If you are not suffering now, you will be soon.” Yet I’ve never known anyone to accept suffering as just another banal feature of existence, to passively observe it and get used to it like one might get used to an unpleasant landscape. It seems that in every instance of suffering the soul violently rebels, and we cannot help but thinking, even knowing, that this is not the way life ought to be. While suffering in a vacuum is not a good thing, in our world it is the common and intended experience of God and His people.

One cannot even skim through the New Testament without quickly discovering that suffering is a major part of being a disciple of Christ; indeed, every book of the New Testament except one, references suffering for the follower of Christ. Paul wrote several of his letters from a prison. James said to consider trials pure joy (James 1:2). Peter reminded the early Christians to not be surprised at the painful trial they were suffering, as though something strange were happening to them (1 Peter 4:12). There are moments when life is so painful that one would rather not be alive. We might be surprised to find out how many recorded instances God’s people asked God to kill them; these people include: Moses: Numbers 11:13-15; Job: Job 3:11; Elijah: 1 Kings 19:3-4; and Jonah: Jonah 4:5-8). I often look to God in bewilderment and shock at why others and I are permitted, and in some instances caused, to suffer so much more than expected.

An essential part of being a Christian, however, is devotion and being conformed to a man of sorrows who was tortured to death. Jesus tells us candidly that “anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). What is the cross in this passage if not an instrument of suffering? Perhaps the person who does not carry their cross is excluded from discipleship, not because Jesus will exclude him, but because a person who is not willing to suffer will exclude himself. He will not follow God into the gallows. By contrast, a disciple carries his cross even when he knows that God has given it to him and is the engineer of his suffering.

To be a Christian and not suffer turns out to be an oxymoron; suffering and Christianity are coterminous. We must even conclude, to the shock of many comfortable people, that one’s love for Christ is as deep as one’s suffering (or willingness to suffer). A Christianity that is not worth suffering for reveals a relationship, not with Christ, but with a product—a product that will be abandoned when the costs outweigh the benefits. If this were not the case, then the blood of the martyrs and the tears of the afflicted would indeed be in vain. By contrast, we see that suffering is the currency of love. A man suffers for what he loves, and suffers more intensely for what he loves more thoroughly. The Church’s love for Christ will be revealed in how she bears her cross, just as Christ’s love for people was revealed in how He bore His.