The Exciting Future of Evangelical Sacramentalism


By Joshua Penduck 

Evangelical theology is going through times of change. In last week’s post, I introduced three exciting new developments happening in Evangelical thinking, what I’ve call Evangelical Calvinism, Evangelical Sacramentalism, and Pentecostal Globalism. I’m going to go into a bit more detail of what each of these implies over the next few weeks, and then review them in a final post. This week, I’m going to be talking about Evangelical Sacramentalism.

Why this one first? Because it’s perhaps the most surprising development of the three. Since the Evangelical movement reared its head, it has generally avoided Roman Catholic theology (a few occasional flirtations aside). Evangelicalism has in many ways seen itself as a Protestant renewal movement, and being a Protestant renewal movement often led to anti-Catholicism. Yet the changes in Roman Catholicism – officially since the great Vatican II council in the 1960s, and unofficially since the late 19th Century with the Catholic modernist movement – have meant that the differences between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are lessening.

Ressourcement and the Sacramental Universe

Henri de Lubac

One of the changes that took place in Roman Catholicism was the emergence of what has been called the Nouvelle Théologie, which had a huge impact on the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. One of the biggest aspects of this movement was what has been called ressourcement. This began to rear its head in the early 1920s, but came into full swing by the 1940s. In part, it was a reaction against what was perceived as the arid scholasticism of much Roman Catholic theology, most apparent in the theological ‘manuals’ of the 19th Century. Here, Aristotle was king, and his terminology and logic was prominent in all parts of theological life. The rise of Neo-Thomism since the first Vatican Council had cemented this development. Yet the increasing developments in the study of the Patristic in particular was beginning to shake this scholastic fortress. A new generation of mainly French-speaking and German-speaking theologians arose, which included such figures as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Jean Daniélou, Henri Bouillard, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Walter Kaspar, and Joseph Ratzinger – who would later go on to become Pope Benedict XVI. These theologians, in their extensive readings of the early church, realised they had to take seriously the influence of that other Greek philosopher upon Patristic theology – namely, Plato.


It was de Lubac in particular who began to articulate this. His mammoth reading project of Patristic and Medieval sources helped him to rewrite much of the last thousand years of theological history. He argued that rather than the Reformation being the great shift, this was simply the outworking of an earlier shift in theology, in the later Middle Ages. Christianity, de Lubac argued, had been articulated through Platonic concepts for over a thousand years.

This had been manifest in particular through what can be described as a ‘sacramental ontology’. This means that the universe, in being created by God, has its source in God. This might seem something of a truism, until we analyse it. If without God the universe would not exist, only God truly exists. The existence of the universe is dependent and derivative on God. Only God has ‘being’ completely in himself and from himself. This means that when I say that the universe exists or has ‘being’, its being is merely participating in the being of God. Its being is like a sign to God’s being. Not simply a sign that points the way (like a road sign), but more like a sign that embodies that which it points to. For instance, a flag more than points to a country; it expresses that country. A portrait points to the real person in that nobody mistakes portrait for the subject of the portrait, but the portrait itself expresses deeply the life of the subject. The bests signs do more than point; they convey. For the early Christians, the whole of the universe pointed – conveyed – God. One word used to describe this is ‘sacramental’. In the same way that a sacrament such as baptism or communion conveys to us the benefits of Christ, so the whole universe conveys and points to its source, God. The very existence of the universe, its being (or ontology, to use the technical term), is sacramental. It expresses the very thoughts of God’s mind (or Logos, or ‘Word’ – to use the phrase from John’s Gospel). Nature ‘participates’ in the supernatural simply by existing; it reflects the Word which spoke it into existence.

Eucharist-iconFurthermore, in the Word becoming flesh in Jesus, creation is offered back to God in an act of thanksgiving (or eucharist). In joined to Jesus in baptism, Christians become part of that offering; in the here and now they participate in the heavenly realities which are to come. The eucharist, by presenting Jesus’ offering, is the sacramental sign of this heavenly participation. For the early church, the eucharist and the church were very closely connected. This is a development of what we see in I Corinthians 10.16b-17, in which Paul is talking about the eucharistic meal of remembrance that Christ gave us. Paul refers to the ‘body’ found in the bread, and the ‘body’ found in the Church: ‘is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?…Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body’. There appear to be three uses of the word ‘body’ here. But which body is which? For the Patristic, they distinguished the three as: the historical body of Christ, now ascended and exalted in heaven; the ecclesial body, the Church (which de Lubac described as being the ‘true’ body of Christ); and the eucharistic body in the bread (which de Lubac described as ‘mystical’ body). Both the eucharistic body and the ecclesial body are sacramental, in that they are signs which point to Christ, and in doing so convey his life. But what is the relationship between these three bodies? For a figure like Augustine, the bread (eucharistic body) participates in the historical body; by receiving the body of Christ in the bread, we, the recipients, become the body of Christ. In short, the Eucharist makes the Church.

Even Scripture was read sacramentally, as a sign pointing to Christ through which we receive Christ. Rather than reading it merely literally, de Lubac argued that the early church read it ‘allegorically’ – that is, looking for the deeper meaning in the text to find how it speaks of Christ. Scripture was interpreted theologically. This means that every part of it had a mystical meaning; there are deeper connections which the Holy Spirit illuminates. We see these moments of illumination in the history of interpretation: to read the Scriptures sacramentally is to put a great emphasis on the tradition of reading the Scriptures.

Allegorical readings of Scripture are about reading it Christologically

For de Lubac, however, in the mid-Medieval period, with sociological and philosophical changes afoot, a shift occured. Theologians gradually began to separate ‘nature’ from its source, God. This means that rather than saying that God exists fully and creation less fully, theologians began to argue that existence, ‘being’, means the same thing whether it refers to God or creation. The universe no longer ‘spoke’ of God; it no longer pointed to God; it no longer reflected the mind – or ‘Word’ – of God. In short, it stopped being ‘sacramental’. Because of this, theologians reacted to this change by increasingly emphasising Christ’s presence in the eucharistic bread, forgetting that the purpose of the eucharistic body was to create the ecclesial body; theologians mixed up which body was ‘true’ and which was ‘mystical’. Increasingly, God became distant, and even arbitrary. Who could read the mind of God? Arguments about authority – over who could speak of God – arose. For the first time, the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Church were put in opposition: no longer could the allegorical way of reading Scripture with the Church tradition be trusted, only the plain sense which anyone could read. It was this which caused the Reformation: which authority do we listen to?

Evangelical Ressourcement

Hans Boersma
Hans Boersma

But what has ressourcement got to do with Evangelical theology, and why are Evangelical theologians being influenced by it? What of the Protestant heritage? After all, aren’t Protestants firmly on the side of the Bible in this debate? And hasn’t Protestantism – especially in its Reformed variety – avoided Plato like the plague for corrupting Christianity? For Hans Boersma, the JI Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College in Canada, what the story presented by figures like de Lubac is that both Catholics and Protestants have got it wrong. The Reformation did bring about a much needed reform, and returned theology to its roots in the Scriptures, but at the same time it accentuated even further the division that had sprung up. The Reformation, for Boersma, was something of a tragedy, the wounds of which need to be healed.

Now, Boersma’s not simply advocating that Evangelicals convert back to Roman Catholicism. His Protestant credentials have previously been impeccable, with some excellent studies of the Puritan divine Richard Baxter. And not just anyone can become the JI Professor of Theology. Instead, he’s arguing that Evangelicals must ‘pick up and read’ the Fathers again, and return to the ‘sacramental ontology’ that they believed in. This means a return to the traditional ways of reading Scripture, of reading it theologically and not just using historical-critical methods. Evangelicals must once more acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture through the tradition; this means no longer ignoring allegorical readings. We see a similar move to Boersma in the writings of Eugene Peterson, another theologian who argues for a spiritually-minded theological reading of Scripture.

candles in churchIt also means that de Lubac’s arguments regarding the three bodies of Christ can help Evangelicals connect once more with the eucharist and the Church. Liturgy and ecclesiology become important subjects once more. In parallel to Boersma, Evangelical writers such as Christopher Cocksworth have articulated a sacramental understanding of ministerial priesthood, eucharistic sacrifice, and heavenly participation in worship; Robert Webber argued that Evangelicals must immerse themselves once more in liturgical thought; James K.A. Smith has argued that Evangelicals need to take seriously the sacramental role of the body in the liturgy.

Figures like Peterson, Cocksworth, Webber and Smith are not as keen as Boersma on Platonism, yet all recognise the importance of Patristic ressourcement. In the Roman Catholic world, Ressourcement would go on to have an impact on almost every aspect of church life – from systematics, to ethics, to ecclesiology, to liturgy, to ecumenical relations. Ressourcement brought new life to the increasing tiredness found in much Catholic theology. Boersma hopes that a similar thing may happen in turn for the Evangelical world. In the same way that the Church of England’s 17th Century Caroline Divines and the 19th Century Oxford movement brought theological, sacramental, and liturgical renewal for that Church, so may a new ressourcement bring renewal to 21st Century Protestantism.

Recommended reading

Hans Boersma:

  • Heavenly Particpation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry
  • Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery
  • Eucharistic Participation: The reconfiguration of time and space
  • Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church

Eugene Peterson:

  • Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology
  • Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading

Christopher Cocksworth:

  • Evangelical Eucharistic Thought in the Church of England
  • Holy, Holy, Holy: Worshipping the Trinitarian God
  • Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity (with Rosalind Brown)
  • Holding Together: Gospel, Church and Spirit – the essentials of Christian identity

Robert Webber

  • Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World
  • Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are attracted to the liturgical church

James K.A. Smith

  • Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology
  • Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation
  • Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

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