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Sacramental Efficacy

by Peter J. Leithart

copyright © 1998

Protestant-Catholic debates about the sacraments have usually taken the form of debates about sacramental efficacy. Protestants claim that Catholics believe that sacraments work ex opere operato, virtually a magical view of the sacraments. A priest goes through the motions and says the mumbo-jumbo and — presto! — the sacraments confer grace. By contrast, Protestants insist that sacraments are not means of grace apart from the word and a response of faith in the participants. It is not my purpose here to examine these debates, which in all probability involve a great deal of caricature and oversimplification on all sides. Instead I wish to suggest that it is best if we give the notion of efficacy a little stretch, if it becomes more elastic and complex.

I begin by noting some oddities of evangelical Protestant ritual theology. No one would question, after a rite of marriage, whether the man and woman were "really" married. In regard to marriage, no one questions whether the ritual works ex opere operato. Of course it does. By definition, one comes into a state of marriage through a ceremony involving the exchange of vows and a performative declaration by some official of the church or state. Nor would any Protestant raise the question of efficacy in regard to ordination. After hands have been laid on the candidate, no one asks if he is "really" ordained. He may be a good shepherd or a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, but that he holds office in the church is unquestionable. Again by definiti on, subjection to the rite of ordination brings the candidate into an office in the church.

If it is taken for granted that the rites of marriage and ordination, which are not even sacraments, have an "automatic" effect, why are questions raised about the "automatic" effects of the sacraments themselves? The reason is evidently this: w ith the sacraments, the stakes are much higher. That is to say, the Bible brings the sacraments into connection with union to Christ and our personal relationship with the Living God. Marriage and ordination imply nothing about one’s relationship with God. When earthly realities such as the family and the institutional church are in view, rites can be said to work ex opere operato, but that cannot be said when heavenly realities are in view. This distinction, however, is not as sharp as one might imagine. Marriage is not a secret fraternity handshake, and ordination is not election to chairmanship of the bridge club. A rite of marriage effects a one-fleshness that "God has put together," and those who are ordained to office have been called and placed by the Holy Spirit. These rites have efficacy not only in human social terms, but also, in a strict and strong sense, before God and in heavenly places.

But let us grant that the stakes are higher in the sacraments, and let us grant that because the stakes are higher we must avoid a view that suggests eternal saving grace "automatically" is given to all who receive the sacrament. I do not want to suggest that everyone who is baptized or who receives the Supper is automatically and eternally right with God, a position that, to my knowledge, no one in church history has ever held. Instead, I wish to suggest that efficacy is a more complicated matter, that there are various kinds of efficacy that have to do with multiple uses, ends, or intentions. Some of these ends may inevitably accompany the performance of an action, and others may not. I put the children to work in the yard to force them out of the house, to burn up their excess energy, and to make the yard look better. The first two of these purposes will be accomplished simply by the fact of putting the children to work in the yard, but the last might or might not be. This does not mean that the activity was ineffective; it means that only some of my purposes were fulfilled. My broom is effective for sweeping up crumbs, pulling cobwebs down from those hard-to-get corners, chasing away a neighborhood tomcat. Given the complex usefulness of my broom, it would be churlish of me to complain that it lacked "efficacy" because it rarely if ever transports me through the air.

For many centuries, there has been an unwarranted narrowing of the purposes and intentions of the sacraments. The sacraments have come to be seen purely in relation to individual salvation. But the sacraments have multiple purposes and intentions. In terms of individual salvation, they cannot be said to operate "automatically," but this is not all that is going on in the sacraments. Conferring grace to individual members of the Church is not the only end for which the sacraments were instituted.

The Supper is not only a means by which individual members are joined more closely to Christ, but also a means by which the Church manifests herself as One Body: We are One Body because we partake of One Loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17). Whenever the Supper is celebrated, the Church objectively and automatically manifests this unity — simply by virtue of performing the rite of the Supper. This ritual testimony to unity may be belied by the way members of the Church actually treat each other, but eve n here the Supper is not without its effect: it issues a rebuke and an invitation to repentance, which may, to the shame of the members, be ignored. Every time the Church drinks wine in the presence of God, she testifies that she has entered into the New Covenant Sabbath in Christ (compare Leviticus 10:8-11). Every time the Church celebrates the Supper, she manifests in a temporary and imperfect manner the festival form of the new heavens and the new earth, the perfected kingdom of God (Matthew 8:10-12).

The same kinds of thing may be said of baptism. Fears of baptismal regeneration have made Protestants reluctant to attribute any efficacy whatsoever to baptism. As with the Supper, this reluctance arises from too narrow a view of the purposes and ends of baptism. Aquinas called baptism (along with ordination and confirmation) a deputation to a certain function in the worship of God. In Reformed theology, baptism is the watery gateway to the church. Whoever is duly baptized is a member of the church, the royal priesthood, by virtue of the fact that he is baptized. He may prove himself a Hophni or a Samuel, but there is no doubt that he has been deputized to play a role in the worship of God. Baptism not only is effective for membership in the visible Church, but it also "automatically" manifests the "shape" of the Church and its position over against the world. Every time someone is baptized, the Church says that something is radically wrong with the world, so radically wrong that only death and rebirth can correct it. Every time an infant is baptized, moreover, the Church testifies that she is a community where the weak and helpless may find security, where the broken and ill may find brotherhood.

In these important ways the sacraments are "efficacious," and may even be said to work ex opere operato.

copyright © 1998

Peter Leithart is an ordained minister of the Gospel in the Presbyterian Church in America. He received an A.B. in English and History from Hillsdale College in 1981, and a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1986 and 1987, respectively. In 1998 he received his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England. He is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature and Librarian at New Saint Andrews College. He has written many books on theology, the Bible, and literature. His dissertation on baptism will soon be published.

1 Comment »

  1. Again, I can hear m….er, his wife saying, “Yes, but initiation into the church does not mean salvation ‘a se'”. The rebuttal still hinges on whether we may say anything about the pleb immediately post baptism. So that subsequent faithfulness (years later for infants) is the litmus test.

    Comment by BlackNTanInTheAM — February 9, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

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