Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 12: Chapters 19-20

These chapters–“The Word and Sacraments” and “Worship and Prayer”–flow rather naturally from the previous chapters, in that we are talking about the means by which the Church performs its mission in the world. We are still dealing, in other words, with Applied Theology, and MacQuarrie is digging deeper macquarrieand deeper into ecclesiology. He has been, throughout Principles of Christian Theology, a voice for the middle-ground (he is, after all, an Anglican), and so in these chapters, too, which deal with some issues that often divide Christian traditions, he is attempting to demonstrate the wide space that Christian orthodoxy can occupy while remaining Christian orthodoxy.

The Word

“The Word” refers to the reading of the Bible and especially of the Gospels, whether that be in a personal or corporate setting. The Word is different from the sacraments, and it attempts to accomplish something different: It is intellectual and grounded in the understanding, whereas the sacraments are practical and grounded in experience. But it is a major mistake to privilege the one to the exclusion of the other, although every Christian tradition is going to put the weight in different places. To ignore the sacraments in favor of the Word is to have an intellectualized, “middle-class” (451) faith. (Can you even imagine a Calvinism before widespread literacy?) But to emphasize the sacraments to the exclusion of the Word is to risk having no intellectual content whatsoever–and to leave oneself open to abuses from on high.

The Word, in Christian doctrine, is three-fold. On the one hand, it refers to Christ Himself, the Word Incarnate–but it also rightly refers to both the Bible and the proclamation of Christ from the pulpit and in the marketplace. The first sense is obviously the most important one, but as MacQuarrie points out, we don’t have access to the Incarnate Word except through the other two forms, and thus they are essential as well. A unity is preserved by the Holy Spirit, that Great Unifier.

The Sacraments

The Sacraments, like the Word, are a method of focusing the presence of God to particular points and rites. On one level, everything in the world can be a sacrament, but it’s largely unhelpful to talk that way, because, to paraphrase The Incredibles, if everything’s a sacrament, nothing is. Thus MacQuarrie points to the seven historic Christian sacraments (baptism, communion, confirmation, ordination, marriage, penance, and unction) as the important sacraments for Christian life. Even these are controversial–Calvinists, for example, don’t accept any but the first two. MacQuarrie meets them halfway, as we would expect: baptism and communion, because they are explicitly instituted by Christ, are the most important sacraments. But the others are closely related to these, or at least flow forth naturally from them and the other evidence of the Gospels, and so they must be taken seriously as sacramental.

MacQuarrie goes through the sacraments in some detail, detail which I won’t try to reproduce here. But I will point out that he sees the sacraments as having both spiritual and practical value, that they are “the great vehicle for the cure of souls” (482) and that they exist throughout an individual Christian’s life. They are, as the Church has always affirmed, “the means of divine grace, the vehicles for the divine presence” (482), and as such the priest goes beyond mere armchair psychology and into an irreplaceable human role.

Worship

MacQuarrie devotes only a few pages to the subject of worship, and I wish he’d spent more time on it, because I very much like what he says about it. Worship, it seems to me, is a much more freighted term for our own moment than for his. MacQuarrie is chiefly responding to the interpreters of Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity,” to whom worship had come to seem a holdover from the days of magical thinking. Our age–at least in its evangelical form–is more likely to misunderstand worship as a musical expression than to misunderstand it as a cultic practice. We are more apt, as MacQuarrie suggests, to approach it idolatrously than to avoid it altogether.

True worship, on the other hand, is the human response to divine initiative, and it is much more connected to daily human life than the apologists for the Sunday morning rock concert might suggest. But it’s a response to the full divine initiative, meaning that it takes into account both divine judgment and divine grace; and it’s an existential response in that it must radiate out of its concentrated form (the pilgrimage, or the mass, or what have you) into every corner of the worshiper’s life. Finally, it is both an individual and corporate response–personal and yet unified in the Body of Christ.

Prayer

Prayer is quite closely connected to worship, and, as with worship, we have to avoid any conception of prayer which makes it into a vehicle for magical thinking. I cannot imagine that, if I pray for a New Car!, that the structure of the universe will thus be changed and that I will be given one. (In fact, MacQuarrie seems to believe that prayer for one’s individual needs borders very closely on sin, that the appropriate objects of prayer are things like world peace and the coming of God’s Kingdom.)

Since prayer is so connected with worship, we have to think about it in the same terms–it is a response to divine initiative in all its forms, and it hangs between the individual and the corporate. And, perhaps also like worship, prayer is a form of discourse and thus takes place in words. In its simplest terms, in other words, prayer is just our communication with God, although of course we understand that we don’t talk to God the way we talk to other human beings.

 

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