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First-Fruits and Foretaste of the Kingdom

A Foray into the Sacramental Theologies of John Williamson Nevin and Lesslie Newbigin

by Scott Collins-Jones

(Presented to the Reformed Theology and History Group of the American Academy of Religion, November 2001)

Copyright © 2002


Reformed sacramental theology has focused largely on metaphysical questions, and on questions regarding the relationship between the sacramental signs, the grace they point to or bestow, and the recipients of such grace [1]. While these questions are clearly not insignificant or irrelevant, they do fail to do justice to some other broad implications of the Church’s sacramental celebrations. If we look at the sacraments through a “wide-angle lens”, rather than a “zoom lens” that focuses largely on metaphysics, we see that the sacraments are not simply naked symbols or signs, but are rites and rituals practiced by a people, a people with a culture and cultural assumptions about what is true, real and good. Seen from the wide-angle perspective, the sacraments cannot help but be a focal point for other central theological issues such as the relationship of the Church’s members to God, one another, and creation [2]. Serious theological reflection on the sacraments, if it can avoid some of the myopic tendencies that have plagued the Reformed tradition in the past, may serve to reveal their nature as paradigmatic practices that offer valuable insights to contemporary Reformed Christians in the West concerning what it means to be united to Christ and his Church, a called and distinct community that exists not for its own sake, but for the sake of the world. The importance of dealing with such questions becomes obvious when we consider the fact that in a 1990’s survey of baby-boomers, 80 percent of active Presbyterians and 72 percent of other Mainline Protestants surveyed believed that one can be a good Christian without even attending worship, let alone being part of a missional community [3]. The beauty of theological reflection that interacts seriously with the sacraments is that, far from being esoteric or pedantic, whatever insight it yields should be inherently practical, because it derives from reflecting on some of the most basic constitutive practices of the Church [4].

John Williamson Nevin and Lesslie Newbigin are two Reformed thinkers who, in their work on the Church and the sacraments, take the sort of wide-angle approach that prohibits them from discussing the sacraments at length without connecting them to ecclesial, eschatological, and missional concerns. There are some striking similarities between the lives of Nevin, the 19th century liturgical reformer of Mercersburg, and Newbigin, the 20th century missionary bishop and ecumenist. Both looked back fondly on pious upbringings in the Reformed faith. Both went on to become creative Reformed thinkers. Both switched ecclesiastical homes in their adult lives, offering their new communions theological leadership, particularly where their churches’ worship and liturgical lives were concerned. Eschewing both memorialist and mechanistic perspectives, Nevin and Newbigin held to and defended a “high” view of the sacraments. While we wouldn’t likely call either Nevin or Newbigin “liturgical theologians”, the term often applied to those that take articles traditionally found at the end of the creed and place them at the forefront of theological discourse, the sacraments play no small role in their thinking. Both repeatedly discuss the sacraments in connection with other major theological themes like the doctrine of creation, ecclesiology, eschatology and missiology. Together, Nevin and Newbigin offer some ways for contemporary Reformed Christians to understand the sacraments as addressing some of the crucial questions regarding the Church and its calling to exist as the firstfruits and foretaste of the Kingdom of God by existing as a distinctive community in the world, for the world’s sake. Specifically, engaging the thought of Nevin and Newbigin might serve to remind Reformed Christians (1) what the sacraments reveal about the relationship between creation and redemption, (2) the centrality of the Church in the economy of salvation, and (3) how the sacraments mark the Church’s identity as distinct from that of the world. The first point will be concerned primarily with Nevin, the second will integrate the thought of both men, while the last point will focus solely on Newbigin’s work.

The Sacraments, Creation and Redemption

Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote that “it is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection and a new world” [5]. In other words, a robust understanding of creation is essential for a proper understanding of redemption. At some points the witness of Scripture seems to strongly support such thinking, suggesting that the world is an object of divine love and care that is to be saved, transfigured and transformed. And yet at other points the Bible depicts the world as God’s rival, something that believers should flee because of its ability to make deceptive claims to human allegiance. Central to the Church’s mission is its taking seriously the biblical view of the world with all of its tension. The Church must maintain its presence in and love for the world, all the while not being of the world. The sacraments are instructive here, preserving the biblical sense of tension where the world is concerned, reminding us that while the old creation is not the new, the new creation is a result of God’s transfiguration of the old one. This is something both Nevin and Newbigin understood quite well.

Nevin and Newbigin saw the creation in light of the Incarnation. Newbigin doubted the ability of speculative reasoning grounded in axioms of classical thought to lead to a proper understanding of reality, for such and understanding has “been given by revelation in the actual historical life and work of the Son,” which when accepted by faith becomes the starting point for a new way of understanding the world [6]. Through the Incarnation, the assumed classical dichotomy between the sensible and the intelligible worlds is healed [7]. Nevin certainly would have concurred with Newbigin. He described the Incarnation as “the cardinal principle” of the Mercersburg theology, seeing it, “not as a doctrine or a speculation but as a real transaction of God in the world…the essence of Christianity, the sum and substance of the whole Christian redemption” [8]. For Nevin, the Incarnation represents the divinely intended organic connection between the supernatural and natural realms, depicting the mysterious marriage of heaven and earth [9]. He wrote a bit more extensively on this aspect of the Incarnation than Newbigin did, probably because of its importance in the ecclesiological and sacramental debates of his day, in which he was deeply involved.

Nevin insists that the Incarnation is nothing less than the presence of the supernatural in the midst of the natural world. But the relationship between the supernatural and the natural, between the new creation and the old one, “may not be conceived as contradictory, violent or abrupt” [10]. “The divine economy which embraces both–proceeding, as it does, from the mind of Him to whom all his works are known from the beginning–must be a single system at last, in absolute harmony with itself throughout” [11]. In Nevin’s mind, “the whole constitution of the world…must be found to come to its proper conclusion in Christ, showing him to be in very deed the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, of all God’s works” [12]. The cosmos is not some sort of fixed or closed system. On the contrary, “the whole world is…carried toward God as its ultimate end; and its upward movement everywhere is upheld and sustained, in each stage of its rising course, by the energy of a higher existence flowing down into it from above” [13].

Nevin sought to avoid two extremes when thinking about the world: the separation of the supernatural from mundane experience and the natural world on the one hand, and the collapsing of the supernatural or the spiritual into “the sphere of mere nature” on the other [14]. He saw the natural or physical world as the efflorescence of the supernatural and spiritual realm that lies behind it. The natural world, along with the Church, the sacraments, and the scriptures, is actually the historical concretion of the spiritual realm [15]. Nevin insists that a proper understanding of the supernatural and the natural leads to a different view of the world than the naturalist one, which infers ultimate truths about reality from the natural order alone, seeking in effect to scale the heavens by the powers of the earth. A view of reality grounded in the Incarnation would see that, “the only true ultimate order both of essential being and of knowledge..in the general relation of the world of nature to the world of spirit…is in reality…from above downward,” from, “a flowing down upon the earth of the powers of heaven [16].

While Nevin held that a proper view of creation was dependent on a proper view of the Incarnation, he also thought that one’s views on the Incarnation were revealed by one’s sacramentology. In the preface to his magisterial work, The Mystical Presence, Nevin argues that, “our view of the Lord’s Supper must ever condition and rule in the end our view of Christ’s person and the conception we form of the Church…it must influence at the same time, very materially, our whole system of theology” [17]. The sacraments, like the Incarnation, unite distinct things, unlike in their natures, into an indivisible, organic whole [18]. They are the medium by which the hidden powers of the spiritual world are made known [19]. Nevin accused memorialist opponents like Charles Hodge, the colossus of American Calvinism, of being informed by dualistic metaphysics that predisposed them to viewing the spiritual as something outside of and disconnected from the material. Body and soul, spirit and nature, humanity and divinity were not seen as being able to exist in any sort of organic union. The new creation was not seen as the telos of the old–instead, the two were virtually rent asunder, with the supernatural and the spiritual simply floating above and outside of the created order, in effect emptying the Church and the sacraments of any abiding power [20].

Nevin’s thinking on the sacraments reflects his understanding of the unity of the orders of creation and redemption. For him the sacraments are not mere symbols of supernatural grace, but real means of it. He believed that this was true for creation as well, which was in a real sense sacramental through and through. The world does not just point to or symbolize the spiritual, but was filled with it. The two divinely ordained sacraments, which reveal the mystery of the new creation through an organic union of the spiritual and the material, point to the same organic union in all creation, revealed most clearly in the Incarnation. The world has not reached its divinely appointed telos, the new heaven and the new earth, but the organic principle of the Incarnation and the new creation is really at work in it. Informed by Nevin’s thinking, love for and solidarity with the world, the theater of God’s redemption, is quite natural. And yet it is not an uncritical solidarity that mistakes human projects and programs, “especially those ostensibly universal truths and human aspirations that could be defined and defended broadly within the culture”, as being de facto elements of the new creation [21]. Nevin understood that such an uncritical solidarity with the world leads to a sort of naturalistic view of redemption, where the heavenly city becomes something built from the ground up by human effort, rather then something that descends downward from heaven by divine initiative.

The sacraments stand over and against naturalistic views of creation that lead to an inadequate understanding of worldly solidarity, and to an overestimation of human ability to build the Kingdom of God. For, as Nevin clearly saw, the organic union that takes place between the spiritual and the material through water, bread and wine is made possible only through God’s action, not by our own, just like the eschatological reality of which the sacraments are a foretaste. The old creation, like the sacramental elements, is only made fit for the Kingdom through the power of the new creation coming down from heaven. We would do well in our liturgies, prayers and preaching to reflect more on the nature of the water, bread and wine that we use in the sacraments. For such elements generally come to our fonts and tables through a series of complex transactions that involve all manner of public and private institutions that regulate commerce and transportation, as well as civil society in general. Water, bread and wine, elements stemming from the natural order, represent almost the entirety of the social fabric of our culture in some way or another. Reflection on and celebration of the sacraments should serve to remind us that we live in a fallen creation, where access to staples like water, bread and wine require involvement in and engagement with a world distorted by sin. Yet, as Nevin reminds us, while we must not equate the new creation with the old one on hand, neither can we embrace another extreme that would virtually separate the new and the old, nature and grace, heaven and earth, leading to an indifferent attitude toward the world. The creation is indeed fallen, but it is not beyond redemption. The creation will be liberated, not by our sustained effort, but by God’s consummate action. But the foretaste of such liberation is experienced through water, bread and wine, elements of the old creation that, by God’s gracious action, serve to expand the new one. To be in solidarity with and involved in the world is to be in solidarity with and involved in both the object and the instrument of God’s love and redemption. Yet our involvement in and with the world is not without tension, as Newbigin reminds us: “…we can commit ourselves without reserve to all the secular work our shared humanity requires of us, knowing that nothing we do in itself is good enough to form part of…[the Holy City’s] building, knowing that everything-from our most secret prayers to our most public political acts-is part of that sin-stained human nature that must go down into the valley of death and judgment, and yet knowing that as we offer it up to the Father in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, it is safe with him and-purged in fire-it will find its place in the holy city at the end” [22]. Just as the signs cannot rightly be understood as being identical to the sacramental mysteries or as something altogether separate from them, neither can the Church’s engagement with and in the world for the world’s sake be wholly identified with or utterly divorced from the Reign of God.

The Sacraments and The Centrality of the Church

The sacraments point to the nature of the relationship between the orders of creation and redemption, at the same time revealing the centrality of the Church in the divine economy that embraces both. Geoffrey Wainwright has observed that Newbigin’s entire ecclesiology “bears a sacramental ring,” pointing out his use of terms like “foretaste”, “sign” and “instrument of the kingdom”, traditionally belonging to the area of sacramental theology, to describe the way in which the visible church continues the mission of Jesus in the world [23]. Indeed, in Newbigin’s mind the secret of God’s cosmic plan of redemption, which has its goal in the final unity of the whole creation in Christ, as well as the foretaste of its completion, have been entrusted to visible fellowships like the communities of marginal people scattered throughout Asia Minor in the first century [24]. For Newbigin, baptism and the Eucharist, as both signs and means of grace, are the very essence of such fellowships [25]. Nevin would certainly concur. In the preface to The Mystical Presence he wrote that as “the Eucharist forms the very heart of the whole Christian worship, so it is clear that the entire question of the Church, which all are compelled to acknowledge, the great life-problem of the age, centres ultimately in the sacramental question as its inmost heart and core” [26]. Both Nevin and Newbigin see salvation as having to do with a believer’s union with Christ, which comes through “sacramental incorporation into the life of His Church” [27]. This sort of sacramental soteriology cannot help but yield an understanding of salvation that is both communal and historical. Here Nevin and Newbigin seem to be Calvinists par excellance, following the logic of the Geneva Catechism, which responds to the question of whether or not one needs to believe in the Church as an article of faith as follows: “Yes, verily, if we would not make the death of Christ without effect, and set at nought all that has hitherto been said. For the one effect resulting from all is, that there is a Church.”

In The Open Secret, Newbigin observes that the “thread which binds the whole Bible story together is emphatically not the history of an idea but the history of a people…not conceived of as a voluntary association,” but instead, “as something which has been constituted by the mighty act of God” [28]. While Newbigin acknowledges that the scope of God’s redemption is not limited to the called out ones called Church, but extends to all of creation, he, along with Nevin, perceives the Church as having a central role in God’s redemptive scheme. Newbigin thought it right that the Kingdom of God had taken its rightful place at the center of missiological reflection, as opposed to the Church. He urges that rather than speaking of the mission of the Church, we should speak of the mission of God, seeing the Church as a by-product of the primal mission [29]. But Newbigin did not want to separate the Kingdom and the Church anymore than he wanted to separate the Kingdom of God from the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God is proclaimed and present at the same time. But what then, Newbigin asks, are we to make of the Kingdom’s presence in light of the fact that Jesus’ earthly ministry has ended? Indeed, did Jesus, who apparently was convinced of an imminent advent of the end, not even consider a need for any continuing institution? While acknowledging that Jesus saw the consummation of God’s purposes for creation as an immediate reality that “called for decisive action…and gave no room for procrastination or indecision,” Newbigin is convinced that the Church was not “the result of an improvisation undertaken to repair the breach made by the collapse of the original expectation.” He points to Jesus’ institution of his supper as evidence of his looking forward to the future of the community of his disciples. The disciples are to continue to break bread together, as they did with Jesus and with the sinners and outcasts whom he befriended. But their common meals would have a new meaning, for in them the disciples will continually participate in his dying and therefore, in his victorious life [30]. Through the sacraments that Jesus instituted, the community that bore his name would be bound to him “in a continually renewed and deepened participation in the mystery of his own being. His life, his cruel death, his resurrection would not only be a story to be proclaimed, recorded, and studied: they will be something to be lived. The disciples themselves became part of the revealed secret of the presence of the kingdom” [31].

Again, for both Nevin and Newbigin, the sacraments, as constitutive and paradigmatic practices of the Church, point to the inescapably communal nature of salvation. To be saved is to experience the saving presence of Christ, mediated by the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace in the Church. Both men criticized individualistic and privatistic notions of salvation they encountered in their respective contexts. Newbigin insists that since interpersonal relatedness belongs to the very being of God, salvation must then be an action that binds human beings together and restores for us the true mutual relation to each other and the true shared relation to all of creation [32]. He reminds us that the vision the Bible gives us of the consummate eschatological reality, of which the sacraments are a foretaste, is that of a city, an image that epitomizes mutual relatedness [33]. Nevin was just as opposed to individualistic concepts of salvation as Newbigin. Nevin’s 19th century American context was one dominated by nominalistic assumptions that thought of parts prior to the whole, and individuals prior to community. Nevin on the other hand, being more influenced by German Idealism, saw reality in terms of universals and of wholes, which were antecedent to particularity and individuals. For Nevin, individuality is “derived from participation in an essential nature” [34]. For the unregenerate, this nature is derived from Adam, for the regenerate, it is derived from Christ. But union with Christ, the basis of salvation “is only reached and maintained through the medium of the Church by the power of the Holy Ghost” [35]. For him, “the Church is in no sense the product of individual Christianity as though a number of persons should first receive the heavenly fire in separate streams, and then come into spiritual connection comprising the whole; but individual Christianity is the product, always and entirely, of the Church as existing previously”; in other words, the Church imparts life to individuals, not individuals to the Church [36]. When this is properly understood, the sacraments will be seen as “something more than mere devices of human ingenuity,” they will be “honored and diligently used accordingly as the ‘wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation” [37].

Nevin and Newbigin’s understanding of the sacraments require them not only to hold to a communal understanding of salvation, but to a historical one as well, where the visible company of the faithful exists as the foretaste of the coming eschatological reality. Nevin was convinced that if the Incarnation was to be seen as “the principle and source of a new supernatural order of life for humanity itself,” that “an actual, continuously visible Church there must always be in the world,” that is “if Christianity is to have either truth or reality in the form of a new creation” [38]. Nevin’s idealistic philosophy (which is too complex to do justice to in this essay) required that the spiritual, which he identified with the ideal and the universal, be actualized externally in time, space and history. In the sacraments then, “there is a real rending of the heavens-the canopy that separates the world of nature from the world of grace” [39]. The sacraments and the liturgy are the externalization of the divine economy that flows out of the general life of the Church in actual history. While the Church does for Nevin have an ideal and invisible nature, it must not be understood apart from the Church’s actual visible form. To do so would be akin to severing grace from the sacramental signs, or separating Christ’ divinity from his humanity, all of which he saw as gnostic abstractions that lead to a decidedly unhistorical understanding of salvation. Newbigin too saw the divorce of the invisible and the visible Church as problematic. Newbigin stressed that the true Church is a visible society with an institutional dimension, possessing real “limbs”, the sort that can become quite “arthritic”. But just as one cannot separate one’s arthritic self from one’s true self, neither did Newbigin believe that one should attempt to separate the Church’s spiritual or eschatological nature from its institutional expression [40]. Newbigin saw this tendency in some streams of Reformational ecclesiology that held to a dynamic understanding of the Church, where it is understood that God creates and recreates, judges and reconciles, builds up and tears down the Church through word and sacrament. Newbigin saw that the defect of such ecclesiologies, despite the fact that they capture the dynamic nature of the presence of the living Lord in the Church, is that they often give no real place to the continuing life of the Church as one fellowship that binds the generations together in Christ. In so far as the Church is understood primarily as an event, it seems to become “practically a series of totally disconnected events in which, at each moment and place at which the word and sacraments of the Gospel are set forth, the Church is there and then called into being by God’s creative power” [41]. While no one can accuse Newbigin of disconnecting eschatology, ecclesiology and sacramentology, he did think that there was a point where the eschatological could eclipse the historical in an unhealthy way. He warned of understanding the sacraments as isolated events, “let down from heaven on a string.” Word and sacrament are unquestionably of Christ, but their celebration grows out of the context of the life of actual, particular, visible fellowships [42]. Such fellowships are the beginnings of “of a real continuation of His [Christ’s] redeeming work, and extension of the divine humanity-though in a different mode-through history, until its consummation at His coming again.” The Church is “a real visible community having its place world history, even though the secret of its life is invisible and lies beyond world history” [43]. While Newbigin acknowledged the difficulty in describing with words the profound mystery of Christ’s relation to his Church, he was certain that it could not be done by picturing the sacraments “simply as instruments of Christ’s saving power standing over and against the Church, and the Church simply as that which is created by them” [44]. He saw such misunderstandings as leading to emphasizing the importance of an invisible Church as opposed to actual visible societies, and to a neglect of the sacraments, which will come to seem less and less essential to salvation, which in turn leads to a view of the Church as being, at best, an earthly shadow of an invisible and heavenly substance. Newbigin insists instead that the Church is both the first fruits and the instrument of God’s gracious election, the purpose of which is the re-creation of the human race in Christ [45]. Again, while the consummate scope of redemption for both Newbigin and Nevin extends to all of creation, in the time between the times, it is, in Nevin’s words, in the Church where, through the ordinary means of grace, “the powers of the world to come are actually at hand” [46].

Were we to heed Newbigin and Nevin as we reflect on and celebrate the sacraments, we might avoid two unhealthy views of Church and world that skew our views of the sacraments in the first place. On the one hand is the notion that God works in the world in such a general and universal fashion that any claim to the uniqueness or centrality of the Church, even when it is acknowledged that God is not constrained by it, becomes passé. On the other is the notion that God’s redemption is accomplished in the “spiritual” realm, outside of human history and the created order. Perhaps in our liturgy and preaching we must become more intentional about redemptive historical content, that through the celebration of the sacraments we might come to see, as Newbigin did, that “God’s purpose of salvation is not that we should be taken out of history and related to him in some way which bypasses the specificities and particularities of history,” but that “in and through history there should be brought into being that which is symbolized in the vision with which the Bible ends-the Holy City into which all the glory of the nations will finally be gathered” [47]. This might involve reflecting on the redemptive historical significance of water during baptisms, pointing out how it is through water that God has both judged and redeemed, not just individuals, but the entire creation, in human history, and that such cosmic judgment and redemption still occurs, in particular congregations that baptize particular people. Similar reflection could be done on bread and wine, on the significance of meals and feasting in redemptive history and their connection, along with our own celebration of the Eucharist, to the great eschatological banquet. For each sacramental celebration becomes a part of the story of the sacraments themselves, and part of the story of salvation narrated by the triune God through Israel, Jesus and the Church. In any case, the sacraments not only recall and renew the Church’s union with its crucified and risen Lord in history, but also mandate that the Church invite “all of humankind to share in the mystery of the presence of the kingdom hidden in its life” [48].

The Sacraments and The Church’s Identity

While the sacraments point to the Church’s role in God’s redemptive plan, and to the importance of being in solidarity with the world to be redeemed, they also shape the Church’s distinctive identity in relation to its host culture. The Church, through God’s action, is marked and made different from the world through the sacraments. This is something Newbigin wrote about, and knew about from first hand experience as a missionary bishop in the Church of South India.

In The Household of God, Newbigin argues that a missionary church in a pagan land must take seriously its responsibility for the nurture of new converts, because in their baptism “they have decisively broken the old ties of social discipline by which the common life was ordered” [49]. Elsewhere Newbigin explains that when baptized, “the convert confesses, in effect, not only that he believes in the finality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but also in the necessity of this community as part of the response to that revelation.” He points out that while conversion does have a crucial personal, internal, spiritual dimension, the New Testament knows no strictly personal faith that is not embodied in corporate human relationships. True conversion, while not merely an extension of the existing visible fellowship, necessarily involves a relationship with that fellowship [50]. Conversion implies that the convert accepts a new ethos because it is in continuity with God’s will and reign at that particular juncture of world history [51]. Thus Newbigin cannot say to a Hindu, “Remain a Hindu and worship Jesus in the context of Hindu faith and practice.” Nor can he go along with those that desired that “Hindu Christians” be admitted to the Eucharist without baptism, because both baptism and the Eucharist are the sacramental means by which the believer is united to the Crucified and Risen Lord. Such proposals distort the meaning of the Church’s baptismal and eucharistic practices, the former being the once and for all rite of incorporation, while the latter is the repeated rite of renewal which emphasizes the corporate nature of the Christian life [52].

Newbigin’s response to the Hindu is that they would have to become a Christian, which he defines as one who is baptized, shares regularly in the Lord’s Supper, abides by the teaching of the apostles through Scripture study, and participates in visible fellowship’s life of prayer and service. But Newbigin is careful to note that he would not ask or expect the Hindu in question to become “a Christian like me”, thus following all the habits and customs of Christians in the Hindu’s given context. Instead, Newbigin would want to say, “Be a Christian in the sense which I have defined and let the Holy Spirit who has brought you to Christ teach us too what it means to be a Christian” [53]. For Newbigin conversion is a two way street, because the Church is a learning community that does not posses in itself the fullness of understanding or obedience [54]. The Church, as it baptizes new members and renews its communion with Christ in the Eucharist, must recognize the sovereign freedom of the Holy Spirit who gives new converts fresh insights that serve to correct the Church and enlarge its understanding of the gospel [55]. As a result, the Church must be prepared to revise and correct its own pattern of obedience [56]. George Hunsberger describes the nature of this relationship well in his Bearing the Witness of the Spirit:: “Mutual recognition that each one’s culture stands under the judgment of the cross while also containing riches to be brought into captivity to Christ forces both to listen to the Scriptures and to learn from each other” [57].

As we have already mentioned, for Newbigin one is sacramentally united once and for all to Christ and incorporated into his body through baptism, with the Eucharist being the rite of renewal. We must realize as we celebrate the sacraments the paradigmatic relationship of the death and resurrection of Jesus to all human culture. Newbigin elucidates this relationship in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society: “We are to cherish human culture as an area in which we live under God’s grace and are given daily new tokens of that grace. But we are called also to remember that we are part of that whole seamless texture of human culture which was shown on the day we call Good Friday to be in murderous rebellion against the grace of God” [58]. Sacramental incorporation into Christ’s body means identification with the Crucified One and his cross, God’s “no” to the world. It necessarily involves some sort of break with the surrounding culture and ethos. And yet any negation or distinction is to the end of a hopeful affirmation and solidarity with the world. The Church is called to be distinct from the world, not intransigent. If an accommodating attitude to the world is forsaken, only to be replaced by antagonistic one, the Church’s ability to be an increasingly credible sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s reign will be compromised.

For Newbigin to be a Christian is to be part of a distinctive visible community marked by baptism and the Eucharist, which is called to make visible the hidden rule of God in the world [59]. The world ought to see in the community of the baptized “that kind of life which is both love for the world and separation from the world, lover for the world without being conformed to the world, that love which embodies the holy love of God” [60]. Newbigin believed that if the Church was to reveal the hidden presence of the Kingdom, to exist as the hermeneutic of the gospel, that it must live by a different story and indwell “an alternative plausibility structure” than that of the dominant culture. This requires the Church’s constitution as visible, viable public; a concrete group of real people united by distinctive and paradigmatic practices [61]. Newbigin saw that such a community would need to be a disciplined community if it was to be a discipling community. Newbigin believed that Eucharistic discipline, and in some cases excommunication, were required to prevent “flagrant evil from becoming permanently lodged in the church”. Such discipline must be exercised for the sake of the community’s witness, “even at the cost of grievous trouble within the local church” [62]. David Yeago, a Lutheran theologian, explains why this is so difficult for mainline Protestants when he points out that: “…the lordship of Christ…is not understood to claim any space for itself in the bodily world. Here again, it is not only the public exercise of the Keys [church discipline] that becomes unthinkable in such a climate. What has…become alien to us is the central New Testament conception of the church, the renewed people of God at the end of days, gathered together by God’s justifying act to be a sign to the nations and a light to the world. To grant the distinctive peoplehood of the church sufficient social density that it could be seen by the nations is just what mainline Protestants have to regard as at best in poor taste, and at worst heartlessly authoritarian” [63]. Reformed Protestants ought to be reminded by Newbigin that the sacraments regularly confront us with our calling to be distinct from the world, that the world might receive a foretaste of the Kingdom in and through the visible Church. Yet this lesson will be lost on us if we continue to celebrate the sacraments without also faithfully exercising ecclesiastical discipline, without which the Church has no hope of existing as distinct community for the sake of the world.


The sacramental theologies of Nevin and Newbigin have implications not just for what we think about the sacraments, but how we think about and celebrate them, that they might serve to make us, the Church, a more faithful sign, symbol, and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. Newbigin’s suggestion that the thread which holds the biblical narrative together is not the history of an idea but the history of a people, a people who in their very life together reveal the hidden presence of the Kingdom, points to one of Nevin’s primary concerns. For Nevin, Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, sacramentology, and theology as a whole are inextricably connected. All too often the way that theology is written and taught does not reflect such connections well. Significant reflection on the Church and the sacraments, and on the eschatological reality of which they are a foretaste are often not undertaken until the end of a work of systematic theology, or the end of a theology course, and discussions of ecclesiastical and sacramental “practice” are often relegated to the realm of “practical” theology. And yet, if Newbigin is right in suggesting that the primary hermeneutic of the gospel is the community that exists in Christ, which has at its heart the remembering and rehearsing of his words and deeds, and the sacraments given by him to engraft new members into his life and to renew this life again and again, then our approach to theological reflection and education should reflect such concerns. For contemporary Reformed theology to take Nevin and Newbigin seriously, it must not only place the sacraments at the forefront of theological discourse, it must also reflect on the practice of the sacraments themselves. For in the sacraments the triune God chooses to act in and through local communities of believers, communities with cultural assumptions, assumptions which will certainly shape the way we interpret and respond to God’s presence and action in the sacraments. How we celebrate the sacraments reveals a great deal about how and what we think about them theologically. For example, what would be the significance of locating the baptismal font at the entrance of the sanctuary, as opposed to the front of sanctuary? Would locating it at the entrance require congregants to leave their pews to participate in the celebration of the sacrament? Might such a location call attention to the congregation’s baptismal identity as they enter and exit the worship service? Similarly, as we celebrate the Eucharist, do the elements found at the Lord’s table resemble those found at our own tables, or do the elements have a decidedly churchly look and feel? How do such differences, or lack thereof, reveal our assumptions about Church and world, the old creation and the new? Do we or do we not “fence” the Lords’ table? How does who we admit to the table reflect our understanding of the inclusivity or exclusivity of God’s work in the world, or reveal the degree to which we see the local expression of the Church as distinct from the world? How do we communicate such distinction, or lack thereof, in the context of corporate worship? This is not an invitation to reduce sacramentology to ritual theory, or for theology to uncritically appropriate the social sciences, which John Milbank has rightly observed are not theologically neutral, but are theologies (or sometimes anti-theologies) in themselves. It is simply to suggest that we cannot overestimate the connection between our deepest theological convictions and our regular communal practices. Indeed, such practices might reveal theological convictions in desperate need of continuing conversion. If Newbigin is right in suggesting that through instituting the sacraments, Jesus made provision for his story to be both told and lived, then how we celebrate the sacraments involves how we embody the narrative of our Lord. But theological reflection on the sacraments and their practice, as important as it is, must not overshadow the sacramental practices themselves. I cannot help but think that both Nevin and Newbigin would concur my friend Peter Leithart’s sentiments about the celebration of the Eucharist, which make a fitting conclusion to this essay: “It would be as much an error to imply that the Eucharist exists only as grist for a theology of culture as to suggest it is an icon or a catalyst for individual meditations on the incarnation or the crucifixion. The Eucharist is not merely a “sign” to be examined, dissected, and analyzed but a rite whose enactment disciplines the church in the virtues of Christian living and forms the church and thereby the world into something more like the kingdom it signifies. As with music or drama, the interpretation of the Eucharist lies chiefly in its performance, and its performance should fill not only the few minutes of worship but all of life. The operative command in connection with the Supper is not ‘Reflect on this’ but ‘Do this'” [64].


1. Two primers on Reformed theology, John H. Leith’s Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) and Shirley C. Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), reflect this in their treatment of the sacraments. See also Paul H. Jones’ Christ’s Eucharistic Presence: A History of the Doctrine (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1994) for a helpful discussion of the development of sacramental theology, specifically eucharistic theology. Jones argues that Calvin, in his developing an eschatological perspective on the Eucharist by connecting it to the ascension and the parousia, was unique among both his Protestant and Catholic contemporaries. While I think that Jones is correct, Calvin’s sacramental concerns still seem to be along the lines of those mentioned above, in that his eschatological concerns, as they are related to the Eucharist, are concerned largely with the eschatological state of individual souls.

2. For the lens metaphor I am indebted to Peter Leithart. See his “The Way Things Ought to Be: Eucharist, Eschatology and Culture”, Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997), 161.

3. Donald A. Luidens, Dean R. Hodge, and Benton Johnson, “The Emergence of Lay Liberalism,” Theology Today 51, no. 2 (July 1994) 249-55.

4. By practical, I do not mean pragmatic. I use the word in the sense that Ellen Charry uses it in her By The Renewing of Your Minds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 5: Christianity’s “…primary doctrines are the practically oriented content of the faith. They enable a religious community to ‘propose a pattern of life to its members and nurture them in it as best it can.'”

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 156.

6. Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 28.

7. Ibid.

8. John Williamson Nevin, “Letter to Dr. Henry Harbaugh” in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978), eds. Charles Yrigoyen and George H. Bricker, 408.

9. John Williamson Nevin, “The Testimony of Jesus”, The Mercersburg Review 24 (Jan 1877), 12.

10. John Williamson Nevin, “Natural and Supernatural”, The Mercersburg Review (Apr 1859), 189.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. John Williamson Nevin, “Nature and Grace”, The Mercersburg Review 19 (Oct 1872), 489.

14. John Williamson Nevin, “Educational Religion”, Weekly Messenger 12 (Jul 7, 1847):2458. Cited by David Wayne Layman in “Holistic Supernaturalism”, found in Reformed Confessionalism in Nineteenth-Century America: Essays on the Thought of John Williamson Nevin, ATLA Monograph Series (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995), Sam Hamstra, Jr. and Arie J. Griffioen, ed., 196.

15. William DiPuccio, The Interior Sense of Scripture: The Sacred Hermeneutics of John W. Nevin (Macon, Georgia: Macon University Press, 1998), 26.

16. Nevin, “Nature and Grace”, 505.

17. John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Eucharist (originally publised-New York: Lippencott, 1846; reprinted-Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 3.

18. Dippuccio, 53.

19. Ibid, 55.

20. Ibid, 29.

21. Victor Guroian, Ethics After Christendom: Toward an Ecclesial Christian Ethic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 16.

22. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 136.

23. Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 286.

24. Newbigin, The Open Secret i, 79.

25. Lesslie Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church (London: SCM Press, 1948), 70.

26. Nevin, The Mystical Presence, 3.

27. Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God (New York: Friendship Press, 1954), 61. See also The Mystical Presence, 4.

28. Ibid, 64.

29. Lesslie Newbigin, Sign of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 4; 17.

30. Newbigin, The Open Secret, 50.

31. Ibid, 50-51.

32. Newbigin, The Open Secret, 78.

33. Ibid, 77.

34. DiPuccio,169.

35. John Williamson Nevin, “The Sect System”, 107. In Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid, 110.

38. Nevin, The Mystical Presence, 4.

39. John Williamson Nevin, “The Old Doctrine of Christian Baptism”, Mercersburg Review 12 (1860), 200. Cited by William Dippucio in “Nevin’s Idealistic Philosophy”, Reformed Confessionalism and Nineteenth Century America, 57.

40. Lesslie Newbigin, “The Church-‘a bunch of escaped convicts'”, Reform June 1990, 6.

41. Newbigin, The Household of God, 48. Newbigin names Barth here. But while his criticism is not invalid, Barth’s work on the sacraments is genteel to the concerns of this essay. For while Barth breaks from an understanding of the sacraments that might be understood as broadly “catholic”, Barth does this to the end of connecting them to ethics and the practice of Christian discipleship.

42. Ibid, 49.

43. Ibid, 57.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid, 114.

46. John Williamson Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation”, The Mercersburg Review 2 (Mar 1850), 187.

47. Ibid, 87.

48. Newbigin, The Open Secret, 72.

49. Newbigin, The Household of God, 8.

50. Lesslie Newbigin, The Finality Of Christ (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1969), 105-106.

51. Ibid, 91.

52. Wainwright, 289.

53. Newbigin, The Finality of Christ, 110.

54. Newbigin, The Open Secret, 156.

55. Ibid, 153.

56. Ibid, 144.

57. George Hunsberger, Bearing the Witness of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 236.

58. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 195.

59. Lesslie Newbigin, “Our renewed in bread and wine”, Reform July/August 1990, 18. “An X-ray to make God visible in the world”, Reform December 1990, 7.

60. Lesslie Newbigin, “The Church and the Kingdom”, an unpublished paper dated July 1972, cited by Wainwright in Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, 289.

61. Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 99.

62. Wainwright, 291.

63. David S. Yeago, “The Office of the Keys: On the Disappearance of Discipline in Protestant Modernity” in Marks of the Body of Christ eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 117.

64. Peter Leithart, “The Way Things Ought to Be: Eucharist, Eschatology and Culture”, Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997), 159-176.

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