It is an interesting time to write a book review on the sacraments (or anything, for that matter). As Tim Chester, author of the book, Truth We Can Touch, points out, “You can read your Bible on your own. You can pray on your own. You can worship God on your own. But you cannot be baptized or take communion on your own. Baptism and communion are communal acts” (p.213).
Indeed they are, and perhaps this is a moment for those of us who come out of a Protestant background to reconsider the importance of the sacraments for our life together. As each of us struggles with varying levels of loneliness and isolation during these months of social distancing, what is it that the sacraments of baptism and Communion teach us about God, each other, and the world we live in?
For, as Chester argues, “it is not just that you need other people to be baptized and take Communion. There is a sense in which the Christian community is formed by baptism and Communion” (emphasis mine). (p.213)
The ironic reality is, books on the sacraments are not necessarily the most sought after in the evangelical church. In fact, Chester asks how long it would take for our congregations to recognize that their sacraments were missing if we just suddenly stopped celebrating them. What would be the answer in your community? (You pastors may soon find out!)
I think that is part of the need for books like this.
While all the Reformed confessions and catechisms state the centrality of “Word and Sacrament,” the sacraments are, let’s be honest, given short shrift in the evangelical world. Chester cites professor Robert Letham here to demonstrate the dearth of attention given to the sacraments in the evangelical church today:
“Nothing presents a starker contrast between our own day and the Reformation than the current neglect of the Lord’s Supper…Today, the communion hardly features as a matter of significance. It is seen as an optional extra” (The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread, P&R, 2001, 1).
Thus the central goal, Chester states in the book, is “to learn to appreciate baptism and communion. Christ gave them to us to nurture our faith. I want us to understand how we can approach them so they do this” (p.31).
To that end, there is a lot to be commended in the book. Chester does a good job providing context around the sacraments and their connection to the evangelical church. As a Brit, his perspective is slightly different than what you might expect from someone writing in from the U.S., but not substantially.
Chester begins with a very interesting survey of significant Biblical passages and their relationship to water. This section alone would be worthwhile for those interested in biblical theology. He touches on the parting of the Red (or Reed) Sea and Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, up through John’s Baptism of Jesus.
I also appreciated his survey of the history of sacramentology in the West, starting of course with the Roman Catholic Church, then moving on to Luther, then Zwingli, Calvin, and the Anabaptists. Coming from a Reformed perspective myself, I didn’t take issue with any of his definitions, though I’m sure others from differing perspectives might quibble with this or that (but that seems to be the history of the sacraments among the various Christian denominations isn’t it?)
One very interesting point made here was why Luther rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Maybe this widely known by others, but it was completely new to me:
“Yet Martin Luther rejected transubstantiation not because it was too superstitious but because it was too rational.” (p.237)
What does that mean? Well, I’ll let you discover for yourself, but suffice it to say, it had to do with Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy, separating out that which is “essence” and that which is “accidental.”
Beyond the background information both in scripture and the Western church, which is helpful, Dr. Chester appears most desirous of seeing the sacraments become as formative for Christians today as they have been in the past.
“Communion is not simply an act through which we recall the death of Christ. The act of remembering changes those involved. It leads to identity formation. It allows the past to shape the present. It enrolls us in the story. Just as the Lord’s Supper connects earth and heaven through Spirit-enabled communion, so it also connects past and present through Spirit-empowered remembrance” (p.164).
To demonstrate just how formative the sacraments can be in everyday life, Dr. Chester provides some interesting illustrations from history, including a notable story from Martin Luther himself, who, apparently, when facing down significant fear and doubt, would often say to himself, over and again, Baptizatus sum, or “I am baptized.” “His circumstances,” Chester notes, “looked bleak. But his baptism was a fact, and it embodied the promise of God” (p.75).
The last great strength of this book are the analogies used by Chester (a number of which you can find on this site) throughout the book to help us develop a richer appreciation (and hopefully transformation) from the sacraments. It is not surprising that Chester is a pastor himself, who I imagine is always looking for ways to connect great theology to everyday experience. Consider, for example, this analogy used in the introduction to describe why the sacraments have power to shape our lives:
Go online and find a picture of a cute-looking kitten. Apparently, half the Internet is made up of cat photos, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Print it out and then pin it on a dart board. You can probably see what’s coming. Now throw darts at it. Me-OW!
Those of you of a certain callous disposition might relish this idea. But what about the rest of us? Most of us instinctively hesitate to throw the dart. But why? It is, after all, just a piece of paper. No actual kittens were harmed in the making of this exercise. What’s going on?
It’s clear why we would be reluctant to hurt an actual kitten, but why do we find it hard to harm a photo of a kitten?
It’s not just kitten photos that have this effect…
Or imagine someone burning the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack or the flag of whatever happens to be your home country. We’ve all seen pictures of a crowd of people on the television news, cheering as the flag of their enemy burns. Why is this act so emotive? After all, it’s just a piece of cloth. Yet a burning flag is powerful. For the crowd it provides a focus for protest and a release of frustration. For others it provokes anger; they may feel somehow personally violated.
In one sense symbols and signs have no intrinsic value: a photo is just a piece of paper; a flag is just a piece of cloth. But intuitively we know they are much more than the materials from which they’re made. We invest them with meaning, and that meaning is, well, meaningful—they are full of meaning. There can be a real and strong link between signs and the things they signify.
Baptism is “just” water. Communion is “just” bread and wine. But there is no “just” about it. The sacraments are full of meaning. They have power (21).
Overall I found Chester’s book both academically interesting and spiritually fulfilling. If his goal was to give his audience a deeper appreciation for the sacraments and a desire for the sacraments to act as a means of grace, to draw us closer to Christ, then I would say he has succeeded in spades.
As we continue down this path of social distancing and quarantines, may we look forward, perhaps more dearly than ever before, to the day when we get to celebrate the sacraments together again, “in the flesh.”
Grace and Peace,
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