In seminary, two perennial topics of conversation occupy the chief portion of our social interactions, to which we return over and over with a certain sisyphean fatalism. The first is, of course, college sports in general and college football in particular. The second is the nature of the Word of God and the sacraments of the church. In one such conversation last saturday, we had turned from intercollegiate athletics to the less divisive topic on the agenda, and our ensuing conversation provided a good deal of fodder for thought. I will not recount the whole conversation here, but rather begin in the midst of things, as a point of departure for thinking about the scriptures, sacraments, and baptist common life.
As we talked, one Anglican brother commented that he has always been perplexed by the baptist perspective on sacraments, because the very perspective at times deplored among baptists with regard to the Lord’s Supper and Baptism is affirmed with regard to the scriptures: we have, in a sense, a “sacramental” perspective on the scriptures. Being the very living and active Word of God, they have power by God’s Spirit to work wonders, building up and strengthening the saints and even calling sinners out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light. In the scriptures we find Christ everywhere proclaimed--openly in the New Testament and hidden in the mysteries of the Old.
I’ve been reflecting on that observation since the weekend, and also chewing over Hans Boersma’s book Scripture as Real Presence, in which he argues regarding the church fathers’ view of the scripture that it is a form of “sacramental exegesis”--a theological reading that looks for Christ in all of scripture using the Rule of Faith to provide guardrails for valid interpretation. I am beginning to think that teasing out more clearly this perspective on scripture can be 1) helpful for baptist churches in their preaching, and 2) may provide a useful mode of expression for (admittedly strange) baptists like myself, who have a higher-than-ordinary view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that nevertheless has some precedent in the baptist tradition.
That this perspective can be helpful in the common life of baptist churches seems easiest to demonstrate. Baptists have always (rightly) seen the Word as central to their worship, especially the proclamation and teaching of the Word through the ministry of preaching. But preaching in baptist churches has always faced the twin dangers of becoming either, on the one hand, pure moralizing story-telling or, on the other, theologically true lecturing with no application to the church or the individual. Reading the scriptures sacramentally could help with this: Abraham and Isaac is no mere bearer of moralia about faith and obedience; rather in it we see Christ, the “true and better” Isaac, who was born of Mary while too young to have a child just as Isaac was born of Sarah while too old to have a child. He was a promised Son born against the way of nature, and bore the wood up to the summit of a mountain for a sacrifice of praise, and was received back from the dead. This is to say that reading the scriptures sacramentally helps us to see Christ, and looking upon him, to live.
Second, reading the scriptures sacramentally can provide a mode of expression for baptists who have a higher view of the ordained sacraments of the church--baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If, indeed, the scriptures are a sacrament in which Christ is present on every page, and the scriptures give definition and content to us as a people of God just as does the constitution give definition and content to the republic, then so also the scriptures give definition and content to the nature of the sacraments. We may confess with our baptist fathers and mothers, of the Lord’s Supper, that, “there’s flesh in bread and blood in wine/ the banquet in the whole divine.” as did english baptist pastor Edward Trivett; or with Anne Dutton, an 18th century baptist writer and pastor’s wife, that, “As our Lord is spiritually present in his own ordinance, so he therein and thereby doth actually communicate, or give himself, his body broken, and his blood shed, with all the benefits of his death, to the worthy receivers.” We can, in expressing ourselves this way, enjoin more frequent and more solemn participation in the Lord’s Supper, and more solemn understanding of baptism and baptismal vows, among baptist churches.