Against Sacraments

Against Sacraments September 27, 2017

The following is an extract from chapter 3 of my Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003).  You can get a 30% discount on the book by entering LEITREADER during checkout at


Modernity is a revolt against ritual, and the modern city is an unprecedented attempt to form a civic community without a festive center.


Removing the creche from the town square is the very essence of modernity, whose first commandment is, “Thou shalt have no common symbols.”


Six overlapping tendencies make it difficult for evangelicals to grasp baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

First, a spiritualizing reading of redemptive history: “When Jesus removed the special status of Jerusalem as the place where God was to be worshiped (John 4:7-24), he signaled the abolition of all the material forms that constituted the typological Old Testament system.”[1] The move from Old to New is thus seen as a move from ritual to non-ritual, from physical to less physical forms of worship. Baptism and the Supper seem anomalous throwbacks to an earlier era: What use do “spiritual” churches have for these rituals?

Second, the prophets: Israel’s prophets inveighed against empty formalism, and some conclude from this that the prophets condemned form and ritual as such.

Third, the Reformation: The Reformers taught that the Word has priority over the sacraments. Salvation comes from hearing the word with faith, not by mechanical adherence to the sacramental system of the church. Sacraments are an “appendix” to the word.

Fourth, individualism: The frame of reference for nearly everything, including worship and sacraments, is the individual person and his experience of the world. So, in sacramental theology we ask questions like, “What benefit do I receive from the sacrament?” or “What grace does the individual child receive from baptism?” And we wonder why we need these objects and substances to communicate these benefits.

Fifth, inwardness: Grace is invisible, so why do I need visible substances to receive grace? Moreover, what is really important is my spiritual heart-relationship with God; my outer physical actions are of lesser significance. What matters is the “me” lurking behind the roles I play and the things I do. What happens on the outside never touches that inner self that is unchangeably me. What good then is an external bath, physical food?

Finally, privatization: Religion is a matter of belief and personal devotion. Public rituals can be faked, and so those who tie religion to public rituals tempts us to be hypocrites.



In the end, all these factors reduce to one: The church has embraced modernity’s disdain for ritual, though we have given pious glosses to our worldliness.

In the end, all these factors are part and parcel of our adherence to Christianity.


P. S. Uberoi is almost correct that the modern world arose at Marburg: When Luther and Zwingli parted ways on sacramental theology, “symbol” went to Zurich and “reality” off to Wittenberg.

In fact, the sundering had taken place centuries earlier, and has its source already in the patristic period, as soon as the notion of “sacraments” emerged, as soon as theologians formed the notion that “sacraments” were magically and ontologically different from other signs, and as soon as they came to believe that the church’s meal was a supernatural meal and the church’s water was supernatural water.

This conception of “sacraments,” reinforced by Reformation and especially Reformed conceptions of ritual and redemptive history, bears significant responsibility for promoting the heresy of Christianity. If “sacraments” are completely different sorts of things from the signs and rituals of cultural life, then Christianity is something completely different from culture. It is a “religious” community, an island of sanctity and miracle surrounded by a sea of profane and mechanistic nature. “Sacraments” thus both misconstrue the nature of the church, and the nature of the world; by reserving “miracle” to the church, “sacraments” leave the rest of creation to be run by “natural process.”

Sacraments grow out of and promote Christianity; and so I am against sacraments to the degree I am against Christianity.

On the other hand: Ritual is public, and no ritualized religion can be completely privatized. Ritual is action, and no ritualized religion can be completely intellectualized. Ritual is communal, and no ritualized religion can be completely individualized.

Ritual is incompatible with Christianity; and so I am for Christian rituals to the degree I am against Christianity.



Liturgical theology is sometimes seen as the preserve of antiquarians and monks, cute and reassuring but irrelevant to the large issues of theology and to the mission of the church. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Liturgical or ritual theology is one of the chief fronts in the church’s war against the heresy of Christianity.

Which is to say, liturgical theology is one of the chief fronts in the war against secular modernity.


Are baptism and the Supper symbols or realities?

It is a false question. Words are symbols, but we know that words have enormous power for good or evil. A flag, a handshake, a kiss, a poster, are also symbols but they are clearly as real as stars and snakes and salamanders. So, to say that the church’s bread, wine, and water are symbols is not to say that they are without value or power, or that they lack “reality.” It is merely to say that whatever power they have is the kind of power that symbols have, and not the kind of power that a combustion engine or a nuclear power plant have. It is to say that whatever reality they have is the kind of reality that symbols always have. Theology goes into the ditch when it treats symbols as if they were something other than symbols. And at the bottom of that ditch is Christianity.

So, the opposition of symbol and reality is a false antithesis.

We can arrive at the same destination along another pathway. What is baptism? Not water only, not only water poured. Baptism is water poured on a person in obedience to Christ and by His authorization. What is the Supper? It is not just bread and wine, and not just eating of bread and wine. It is eating bread and wine by members of Christ’s body at Christ’s invitation. Christ’s authorization and definition and invitation make all the difference.

Baptism is not a “symbol” of someone becoming a disciple. Because Jesus designated it as such, this symbol is his “becoming-a-disciple.” It is not a picture of a man being joined in covenant to Christ; it is a man being joined in covenant to Christ.

The Supper is not a symbol of a meal with Jesus. The bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but because Jesus promised to be with us at the table, this symbolic meal is a meal with Jesus. By eating the symbols, we are partaking the reality.

Symbol or reality? It is a false question.


[1]Terry Johnson, “The Pastor’s Public Ministry: Part I,” Westminster Theological Journal 60 (1998), p. 140, quoted in D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), p. 157.


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