Old and New in Sacramental Theology

This and the following two posts are lecture notes for lectures on sacramental theology that I’ll be delivering next week. Old hat, but perhaps helpful.

The relationship of the Old and New is consistently a background issue in historical debates in theological generally, and particularly concerning the sacraments. This is one of the underlying issues in the Eucharistic debates between Radbertus and Ratramnus, in the medieval sacramental theology of Hugh of St. Victor and Thomas Aquinas, and in the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants at the time of the Reformation.

Historically, there has been a marked tendency toward what I have described as a ?semi-Marcionite?Esacramental theology, a tendency to drive a wedge between the sacraments of old and new. More recently, sacramental theologies simply ignore the question of the OT rites and ceremonies as background to Christian worship. Countless are the books on sacramental theology that begin with Matthew.

On the other hand there are countervailing tendencies. The church fathers understood sacraments typologically; Christian sacraments were the fulfilled forms of the OT shadows. Augustine?s more developed conception of signs and sacraments is also worth noting; the sacraments of the new are fewer, simpler, and easier to perform, but there is no movement out of the realm of signs. Finally, the scholastic ?treatise on the sacraments of the Old Law,?Ea common feature of medieval scholastic sacramental theology, employed the categories of the OT to explore the character of the NC sacraments.

The NT clearly employs the categories of OT events and sacraments to express the meaning of Christian sacraments. The patristic sacramental typology has clear NT roots: The flood and the crossing of the sea are baptisms, and the Eucharist fulfills the manna, the Passover, and the other meals of the NT (1 Pet 3; 1 Cor 10; Jn 6; the institution narratives in the gospels).

Hebrews 13 offers an excellent example of the apostolic hermeneutic of the OT sacraments. The author refers to a specific feature of the Levitical system: the fact that no one ate from a purification or sin offering whose blood was taken into the holy place (Lev 4). Instead, the flesh of such a purification offering was taken outside the camp and burned. Jesus is our purification offering, as signified by the fact that He suffered outside the camp. Yet, we eat from His sacrifice. We have food privileges that even the priests of Israel did not have.

This is consistent also with Jesus?Eclaims about true worship in John 4. Worship in ?Spirit and truth?Edoes not mean that physical signs and objects have become dispensable in worship. Rather, it means worship that is empowered by the Spirit and worship that conforms to the ?truth?Erevealed in Jesus (Jn 1:17-18).

We can offer several illustrations of how this hermeneutic might help us. First, the background to baptism lies in the washing ceremonies of the Levitical laws of cleanliness (e.g., Lev 15; Num 19). We can reflect on those ceremonies to understand what Christian baptism does: It makes us acceptable to God, as the cleansing rites of the OT made the worshiper acceptable, and washing reintegrates the cleansed person into the community. Baptism does just this: Washes us and makes us acceptable before God; admits us into the community in which the Spirit dwells, the body of Christ.

Second, the rules for priestly meals can be used as a basis for reflection on the Eucharist (Lev 21). According to the Law, only priests or sometimes their families were allowed to eat from the holy food that came from the tabernacle. That was bound up with the holiness map that ordered Israel. In the Christian church, that map is done away, and we are all holy ones who receive the holy things from the table.

Third, Jesus spoke of the Supper as His ?memorial.?E This has to be understood in the light of the OT theology of the memorial, where the memorial is a reminder to God to keep His promise rather than primarily a memorial to the participants in the rite (rainbow; memorial portions of the grain offering, Lev 2). By enacting the meal, we offer the Father a reminder of what Jesus has done, and call on Him to keep His promises to us.

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