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The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter II. The Christian Sacraments

ENOUGH has been said, we trust, in the first chapter of this book to show that Christian sacramentalism offers the key to a balanced, satisfying, and rational view of the universe, of God, and of religion. But it is not sufficient for us to put forward merely a general justification of sacramentalism. It remains to show why we value and employ certain signs and acts rather than others to show forth and to mediate to us the grace of God. It is not only sacramentalism, but the Christian Sacraments that must be accounted for. The answer can be concisely put. We use certain outward signs and words and actions, and account these Sacraments rather than other signs and words and actions which we might choose and employ, because we believe that the particular Sacraments of the Christian Church gain their power and effectiveness through the Holy Will of God, historically revealed to us by Christ--either directly or through His Church. The Prayer Book Catechism defines a Sacrament not only as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace," but as such an outward sign of an inward grace as has been ordained by Christ Himself. The Christian Sacraments are such because they have their origin in their institution by Christ as recorded in the pages of the New Testament. It is the conviction that God through Christ has set them forth, which makes it possible for them to be, not symbols merely, stirring up in us an aesthetic or emotional reaction,--as for instance the sight of our flag may do--; but what we may term effectual symbols, truly and really conveying to us the grace or thing symbolized, as a United States one dollar note really conveys the dollar to its owner. The note is an effectual symbol of the dollar because there stands behind it the intention and will of the Government of the United States that it shall indeed be such. The Christian Sacraments are effectual symbols of God's grace because God has set them forth for us, because we use them in obedience to His Will, and because He wills to give to those who so use them the graces which He has attached to their use.

To refer again to the Church Catechism, the Christian Sacraments "are the means whereby we receive" grace, and "a pledge to assure us thereof." The rites revived or evolved by Dr. Guthrie at St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, rites of Holy Fire or Holy Water, or revivals of other rites, Greek, Egyptian, American Indian or what not, are in a certain sense no doubt sacramental, but they are not and cannot be Christian Sacraments for the simple reason that we have no assurance that the Will of God as shown through Christ and His Church has set forth any such rites, or that He has promised to bestow grace upon those who use them. They are symbols merely, perhaps beautiful, suggestive, or inspiring, but mere symbols and not, like the Christian Sacraments, effectual symbols.

It is because we believe that the Christian Sacraments have behind them the Divine authorization that we are able to refute the accusation, so often made, that Christian sacramental belief is in its essence magical. "We are overwhelmed today," writes Dr. Gavin in his recent lectures on "The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments," "by a steady and consistent stream of propaganda which would induce or coerce us to recognize in all utilizations of the material for religious, ceremonial, or ritual ends, the existence and presence of magic and superstition. This type of argument is plausible and apparently convincing until we delve into definitions in an attempt to clear the issue. . . .

"How shall we define magic! We may not deem it sufficient to describe it as a utilization of a formula, rite or ceremony in order to produce phenomena utterly incommensurate and surpassing the power of the cause. The heart of the matter lies still deeper, for it concerns the aim and purpose of the use of the formula we should call 'magical.' For example, the story of Aladdin and the genii is a tale of pure magic. What is the essential factor in the case? Is it not the power possessed and exercised by Aladdin of coercing forces, ordinarily outside the range of his control, by means of the technique called 'magical' to do his will? In each instance of what may be alleged to be magic this fundamental characteristic maintains: the person in possession of the magical secret can impose his will on others, without reference to their desires. The broadly defined type of primitive religion that can be called magical presents the same characteristic: the person employing the proper method can disarm the hostility or opposition of a supernatural power, even of the Deity, and coerce it to do his will. As the salient quality of magic we may then state that it consists in the imposition of the will of the person possessing the secret on that of another, whether human or other-than-human, by the use of some formula or rite having this coercive power." [Gavin, op. cit, pp. 19, 20. 21]

The Christian Sacraments and Christian sacramental theology even in the fully developed form which the latter has assumed in the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, do not in any way come under the category of the magical. "The sacraments have their sole excuse for being in what is deemed to be explicit divine injunctions for their institution and continuance. So there is certainly no advantage taken of Deity, nor any imposition of human will on His--but the precise reverse: all that is done is done because it is believed to be His Will that is being carried out." Nor can it be maintained that as regards the recipient of the Sacraments, the Christian doctrine is magical. In this case the analogy of our dollar bill fails completely. The person who gains possession of the dollar bill is credited with the dollar in money, whether he has earned it honestly, merely found it by accident, or stolen it. On the other hand the sacramental benefits are received only by those who in faith and love make their approach to God in these appointed ways. Thus a person who should seek sacramental Absolution from a priest merely that his conscience may be temporarily unburdened in order that he may the more freely sin again, does not at all receive Divine forgiveness through the Sacrament, rather he stains his soul with the awful guilt of sacrilege. The response of the will of the recipient, so far as he is capable of this, is in every case necessary in order that the benefits of the Sacraments may be received. Long ago, St. Paul reminded the Corinthians of this fact. "Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body." [1 Cor. xi, 27-29.] It is this ethical insistence that forever frees the Christian doctrine of the Sacraments from any element of magic or superstition.

The Sacraments then are Divine means of grace because God has made them such. But we do not believe them to be the only means of grace. God can and does give grace to the soul by other means than by Sacraments. Every prayer, every aspiration of the soul towards God, every act of love towards the brethren, is followed, we believe, by the outflowing of Divine grace into the soul. "Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you" is a principle of universal application whether the means of drawing nigh be Sacraments or something else. It is a principle which is asserted again and again by theologians that "God is not bound by His Sacraments." There are many devout people today who through no fault of their own do not know and do not value the Sacraments. To them, we may well believe, God will supply His grace in other ways. But to him who has come to appreciate the sacramental principle as it is revealed in the supreme Sacrament of the Incarnation and Atonement of Jesus Christ, and in the sacramental system of the Church, the Sacraments are in a special sense, the means of grace, for they are the means appointed by a loving Father to which the obedient wills of His children must rise in joyous response of grateful love.

There remains to be considered the historical objections to Christian sacramentalism. As has already been pointed out, a ground of our repudiation of the charge that Sacraments are magical or superstitious lies in our belief that they are ordained for our use by God Himself. In the case of at least the two great Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion it has been the almost universal Christian belief, until very recently, that these were intimately connected with our Lord; in that He expressly commanded them to be observed and used by His followers. "Those who are acquainted with the present position of the minute critical and historical investigations, which have been for the last century and still are being carried out with reference to the origins of Catholic Christianity, will not need to be reminded . . . that the connection of the Sacraments with the historical Jesus is precisely one of the matters which are most hotly disputed." [N. P. Williams: "Essays Catholic and Critical," p. 378.] To discuss this problem in detail would require a large volume, but it may be well briefly to summarize the problem and to give some hints as to its probable solution. "It is generally admitted," writes Canon Quick of Carlisle in his recent book on "The Christian Sacraments," "that the actual command to baptize, contained in Matthew xxviii, 19" [i. e. "Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"] does not belong to the most primitive and authentic record of our Lord's sayings; and, although the direct evidence for His institution of the Eucharist is much stronger, yet the different accounts of what was said and done at the Last Supper vary considerably from one another, and differences of interpretation are still possible, even when the facts have been agreed upon. On the other hand, our documents seem to warrant the assertion that Baptism, the Laying on of Hands, and the Breaking of the Bread were practised from the earliest times in the Christian community; and it is a natural inference that these ceremonies had had some authority given them in the precept or example of the Master Himself."

". . . It may, however, be well to state at once, as a general conclusion from the historical controversies of the last half-century, that we are no longer justified in resting the whole, or even the main weight of the authority for the doctrine and practice of any sacrament upon the bare fact that the Bible attributes a particular form of words to Christ Himself." [Quick, "The Christian Sacraments," pp, 118, 119.]

The considerations advanced by those who do not believe that our Lord intended to institute the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, or indeed any Sacraments, may be summarized as follows:

(1) The actual command to baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost as given in the Matthean Gospel presupposes a developed doctrine of the Trinity which is without parallel elsewhere in the New Testament. Further this so-called baptismal formula is in conflict with the actual practice of Baptism in the Apostolic Church as described in the Book of Acts where Baptism is stated to be given "In the Name of the Lord Jesus." [Cf: Acts ii, 38; viii, 16; x, 48. 27] For these reasons the command is supposed to be a reflection of a custom prevailing at the time the Gospel was written, rather than representing words uttered by the Lord Jesus Himself. It should be added that modern scholars are practically in agreement that the Matthean Gospel in the form in which it now stands was not written by the Apostle Matthew, and therefore the passage cannot be taken as the account of an eye-witness of the event.

(2) The crucial words in connection with the Eucharist, "This do in remembrance of me," though occurring in the account of the Institution of the Eucharist given by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, are found elsewhere in the New Testament only in the Gospel of St. Luke. And in certain manuscripts of this Gospel, these words are lacking. It is held by many critics therefore that our Lord did not pronounce these words, nor did He intend that His actions at the Last Supper should be repeated.

(3) It is further believed by many scholars that our Lord supposed (with the Apostolic Christians) that His return to the earth in glory would take place within a comparatively short time. "This generation shall not pass away till all be fulfilled." In such a case there would be no need for a Sacrament which was to be a continual remembrance of Him.

(4) Many scholars would admit that there did exist in the early Apostolic Church, a Baptism derived from the ceremonial washing administered to Jewish proselytes who were admitted to a certain share in the Jewish religion. And the "Breaking of Bread" referred to in the Book of Acts, was the Jewish Kiddush "or sanctification of the Sabbath or of a great feast by the blessing of bread and wine on its eve, a ceremony which Jesus had in the circle of His friends and hearers occasionally invested with the additional significance of a ritual rehearsal of the 'Messianic banquet,' which on the last evening of His life He had employed as an acted parable of His imminent death, and which His followers continued to observe at their club-meal or Agape, from habit or feeling rather than from any reasoned theory, as a commemoration or reminder to themselves both of His death and of His future return. For the first few years of Christianity, therefore, these observances were no more than harmless pieces of sentimental symbolism, with no specifically 'sacramental' significance." Indeed, neither the proselyte Baptism, nor the "Breaking of Bread" could have been sacramental, since what we now term "sacramental conceptions," were entirely foreign and unknown to Judaism.

(5) The transformation of these empty symbols into Christian Sacraments full of awful power and mystery was due mainly to the influence and work of the Apostle Paul. Desiring to commend the new faith to the pagan Gentile world he allowed these harmless rites to be interpreted by his converts, and, indeed himself interpreted them, as Sacraments, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. These novel ideas and teachings of Saint Paul were borrowed by him from non-Christian sources. The teachings of the so-called "Mystery Religions," represented by the cults of Dionysius, of Isis and Osiris, of Mithras and of others, were boldly adopted by "Paulinized" Christianity. "The basal human need which these Mysteries, all alike, claimed to satisfy was the craving of the sick soul for 'salvation.' The 'failure of nerve,' which afflicted great masses of the population during the first century of our era, the widespread pessimism and world-weariness which supervened upon the close of the Roman civil wars, appeared in the consciousness of the individual as a nameless and oppressive fear--a fear of the universe, of the ruthless power of Fate, of the malefic influence of the stars, of annihilation at death, of the torments of Tartarus. It was from this fear that the 'Mystery Religions' promised deliverance, bestowed by a philanthropic 'Lord' or 'Saviour,' who himself had known the anguish of death, or at least of poignant sorrow or laborious toil, and who, as it is alleged, promised to transfuse the virtue of his own divine life into the soul of his votary, assuring the latter thereby of pardon, inward peace, and a blessed immortality, through rites of a sacramental character. As the chief needs of the religious soul are purity and inward strength, it was natural, indeed inevitable, that these rites should have taken the form of a cleansing bath and of a sacred meal." [N. P. Williams: "Essays Catholic and Critical," pp. 387, 388.] The similarity of the alleged teachings of these "Mystery Religions" to Catholic theology should be noted. Thus "pagan sacramentalism" passed into Christianity.

It is scarcely too much to say that if all the allegations of this skillfully woven hypothesis be true, Christianity as a historic religion has received a severe if not a mortal wound. The critics of Catholic sacramentalism would explain by this hypothesis not only the origin of the Christian Sacraments, but the rise of the belief in the Deity of Jesus Christ Himself. For the origin of the latter belief they find also in alleged similar ideas occurring in the Mystery Religions. It has been the strength and glory of Christianity that it claims to rest upon historic facts. But upon the hypothesis outlined, the Christian religion from almost the start has gone sadly off the track. A Jewish prophet has been elevated into an incarnation of Deity, an identification which according to these critics, would have astonished no one more than Jesus Himself. It may be well to add, however, that the Catholic Christian suffers far less, even if the hypothesis outlined be true, than does the Protestant. For the Catholic, believing very definitely in the Church and in God's promise to guide His Church into all truth, might well admit that even such an unpromising field as the "Mystery Religions" might furnish treasures of truth for the development of Christian doctrine. The Protestant, assuming the truth of this hypothesis, might take refuge in Unitarianism, though it would seem to be more rational not to believe in God at all, if the message of Him Who was at least the greatest of the prophets, was allowed so soon to be misunderstood and to remain for nineteen centuries uncorrected.

Neither Catholic nor Protestant, however, seems likely to have to adopt any such expedients. There are not wanting signs that the theory outlined as to the origin of Catholic Christianity "has reached the zenith of its popularity and may shortly enter upon a period of decline." [N. P. Williams "Essays Catholic and Critical," footnote, p. 392.] In fact it rests upon a number of unlikely and unprovable assumptions. To the factors which militate against the acceptance of the "Mystery-Religions" hypothesis, we must now turn our attention.

(1) The fact that the form of the Matthean command to baptize gives evidence of a later developed Trinitarian theology does not, of course, prove that our Lord gave no command to baptize. On the contrary, the use of Baptism in the early Apostolic Church is presumptive that such a command was, in fact, given. The account of the baptism of Jesus by John occupies a prominent place in the Gospels and is connected with the illapse of the Spirit. It seems not unlikely that our Lord's human experiences at this time would naturally tend to associate the gift of the Spirit with Baptism by water, and possibly led to the use of Baptism by the disciples of Jesus, even during our Lord's lifetime. If so, the circumstances of its origin would make it entirely sacramental, an outward sign of the inward gift of the Spirit.

(2) The Apostle Paul in giving his account of the Last Supper with the words, "Do this in remembrance of me," most probably refers to teaching which he had "received," not as is sometimes supposed directly from the Lord in a vision; but from his own instructors in the Christian faith, the followers and friends of Jesus. Even if the words, "Do this in remembrance of me," do not occur in the Gospels, it may well be that the early Christian Church felt less need to record the fact of our Lord's commanding the observance of the Eucharist, when in fact they were observing it, either in response to His explicit command or to other indications, which He had given at its institution, that it was to be repeated.

(3) The question as to the limits of our Lord's human knowledge as to the time of His return is a most difficult one. Some of His sayings would indicate that He looked forward to a long period elapsing before this took place, and it is not fair altogether to overlook these. Thus in the same chapters in the Synoptic Gospels which contain the saying about "this generation" not passing away "until all be fulfilled," there are other sayings which indicate a much longer period before the Second Coming. It is possible that the solution of these contradictions lies in the confusion by the Evangelists of prophecies relating to the destruction of Jerusalem which actually took place within "that generation" and other words of our Lord which referred to His return in glory. In any case it is hazardous to insist that He looked forward to an immediate return.

(4) If it is admitted, as it usually is, that a Baptism and a Eucharist were observed by the earliest Christians it is surely arbitrary to assume that these were "mere empty symbols" and therefore non-sacramental. As a matter of fact the sharp distinction between "inner" and "outer," "thing signified" and "sign," "matter" and "spirit" is comparatively modern, and had no place in the Judaism in which Christianity took its rise. In the lectures delivered last Summer in London, and but recently published, Dr. Gavin of the General Theological Seminary has shown that sacramentalism, far from being alien to and absent from Jewish thought, was an essential part of Judaism. "Rudimentary sacramentalism, or at any rate the essential and germinal factors in sacramentalism, not only existed but flourished as an essential part in Judaism. . . . We may feel assured that there is nothing inherently improbable or impossible in the hypothesis that Christian sacramentalism was Jewish in origin." [Frank Gavin: "The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments," p. vi.] The main conclusions of his lectures are in accord with the views of eminent Jewish scholars.

(5) In the light of this fact, the "Mystery-Religion" hypothesis for the origins of the Christian Sacraments, being quite unnecessary falls to the ground. Incidentally, Dr. Rawlinson's recent Bampton Lectures on the "Christology of the New Testament," show that the "Mystery Religions" are unnecessary to explain the emergence of Catholic Christology, which also derives largely from Jewish ideas. No doubt the "Mystery-Religion" theory will now rapidly decline in popularity. Besides being superfluous it contains a psychological impossibility. I quote the Rev. N. P. Williams:--"Consider for a moment the implications of this supposition. It compels us to suppose that, within a comparatively short space of time, St. Paul's Asian and Hellenic converts unconsciously infected their master and father in Christ with what was, on the hypothesis which we are considering, a profoundly un-Christian point of view; and that this mental infection was so thorough-going, that the Apostle, whilst still at the zenith of his intellectual and spiritual powers, and still enjoying an unimpaired memory of his past life, came to believe--in diametrical opposition to the truth--that he had 'received from the Lord,' through the Mother Church of Jerusalem, and had always taught to his disciples, traditions and ideas which in fact he had unwittingly imbibed from them. It necessitates the ascription to him of an incredible degree either of simplicity or of carelessness, in order to account for the alleged fact that--whilst engaged in a campaign against those pagan cults which, in his bitterest moments, he regards, like Justin Martyr, as the work of demons and which in a more tolerant mood, he dismisses contemptuously as the worships of 'many (so-called) Kyrioi'--he should have unsuspectingly allowed the texture of his devotion and his thought to become saturated by conceptions borrowed from those very 'Mysteries' which it was the object of his mission to destroy. If this be incredible, and yet the 'Mystery' hypothesis be retained, it can only be on the supposition that St. Paul was dominated by the desire to attract converts at any price, even the price of truth. Only if one or the other of these suppositions be accepted--only if we assume that the most heroic of evangelists may pervert his message for the sake of a cheap success, or that the most vigorous of thinkers may so befog himself by self-hypnosis as to lose grip on the realities of his own past life--shall we think it a probable explanation of the genesis of Catholic sacramentalism that 'St. Paul, though ready to fight to the death against the Judaising of Christianity, was willing to take the first step, and a long one, towards the paganizing of it.' ["Essays Catholic and Critical," pp. 398, 399.]

"And only if we attribute a hardly believable blindness to the primitive nucleus of Jewish-Christians, can we suppose--as the 'Mystery' theory would compel us to suppose--that, whilst attacking St. Paul with unmeasured ferocity for his liberalism in regard to the imposition of the Law upon Gentile converts, the Judaising faction should nevertheless have acquiesced, with inexplicable placidity, in his far-reaching contamination of the faith of Israel with Gentile ideas of a Kyrios and of 'sacraments.'"

The Catholic belief that sacramental Christianity, as we know it, owes its origin to the will of Jesus Christ is far more satisfactory intellectually as the "Mystery religion" hypothesis. And in any case we would think it more rational to believe that the course of the development of Christian thought was in accordance with the will of God, and the desires of Jesus Christ, than that His message was misunderstood and perverted from almost the very beginning until the ingenious researches of modern scholars discovered that Christianity was in fact, entirely un-Christian!

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