Review ‘The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh’ by Robert J. Stamps

Robert J. Stamps, The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh (Wipf and Stock 2013); $ 39,- ($ 31,20 [web price])

In his book The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh, Robert J. Stamps engages with the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. It was his doctoral dissertation at the University of Nottingham, coStamp - Word made Fleshmpleted in 1986. It remained unpublished until 2007, when it was included in the Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology. And finally, in 2013 it was released in the USA by Wipf and Stock. The delayed date of publication seems not completely coïncidental, as the sacramental theology of T.F. Torrance didn’t catch much attention until the first decade of the 21th century. George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism (2008), preceded by his important essay ‘The Dimension of Depth’ (2001), is dedicated to the memory of T.F. Torrance and Hunsinger’s sacramental theology is deeply influenced by Torrance. Paul Molnar wrote about the same subject in 2005, in an essay (‘The Eucharist and the Mind of Christ. Some Trinitarian Implications of T.F. Torrance’s Sacramental Theology’) and, to mention just one more example, Myk Habets devotes several pages to the same topic as part of his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (2009). These and other recent publications are not mentioned in Stamps’ book, as its conception predates these books and articles.

Stamps starts his study with an outline of ‘the theological and cosmological framework’ for Torrance’s eucharistic theology. This first chapter functions as a very concise introduction of Thomas Torrance’s view on theology in relation with (modern) science and its epistemological implications. Not surprisingly then, we find in this chapter much interaction between the positions of Torrance and Barth. Stamps does a good job in his exposition of Torrance’s emphasis on God’s self-revelation, his aversion of dualism, and so forth.

The second chapter starts with a brief ‘rationale’ for the subsequent outline of the discussion of Torrance’s sacramental theology. Stamps chooses here for a revision of Calvin’s approach in the Institutes (IV,XVII,1): Signification; Substance of Matter; Effect or Action. In my view this approach is not completely satisfactory. Of course, especially in his early writings, Torrance often refers to Calvin’s sacramental theology and he employed Calvin’s outline himself, ‘though with considerable difficulty’ (60). However, as Stamps rightly remarks, Torrance offers an incisive reinterpretation of the material. Stamps consciously indicates these reinterpretations in the subsequent chapters. But they don’t become structurally visible in this way. And that’s a pity. To be fair, the strength of Stamp’s approach is that the points of divergence can be marked, step by step.

Chapter 3 ‘Sacramental Matter and Action: the Objective Christological Ground and Potential for the Sacrament’ maps the interconnections between Torrance’s christology and sacramental theology. The key to this is found in his most comprehensive treatment of eucharistic theology: “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’. His christological emphasis on the homo-ousios is the key for the interpretation of his sacramental theology. That has deep epistemological implications: ‘for God cannot be known in the revelatory ‘sacramental relation’, either in word or formal sacrament, except from the integrity of his incarnation.” (99). Moreover: “the worship of Christ is the ground for the Church’s worhsip. We can also understand why the Eucharist in his theology, answering as it does the worship of Christ, should be central to the life of a reconstituted, new humanity.” (109). It is this position that makes Torrance’s contribution unique, pointing to, what George Hunsinger rightly called, the ‘dimension of depth’.

While chapter 3 is the heart of the book, in my opinion, chapter 4 is less convincing: ‘Sacramental Effect: the Subjectification of the Objective Christological Reality’. The subtitle indicates the problem already. According to Stamps “Calvin dealt with sacramental action and effect together in his outline, whereas Torrance’s sacramental theology separates the effect from the action” (144). I don’t think so. In Conflict and Agreement (1960) he makes the distinction between the ‘action of Christ’ and ‘its effect in our reception of it’. But, as Stamps rightly says, “[t]his does nog designate two distinct actions” (ibid.). But then he adds “but [it designates, AT] the difference between Christ’s formal action and its subjectification within the Church” (ibid.). To be sure, Stamps is a very careful ‘exegete’ of Torrance. For a few lines later he writes that Torrance elsewhere (in his shorter article ‘The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’ in The Liturgical Review (1976) “treats these two aspects of our sacramental communion specifically as the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Therefore, we shall discuss Sacramental Effect under these two headings” (145). Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the tension between the title of this chapter and the subheadings. The chapter offers for that matter brief comparisons with Luther’s and Calvin’s sacramental theologies (partly in the footnotes) that are right on target.

The last chapter is called: “An Appraisal of Torrance’s Eucharistic Theology with Open Questions”. Stamps refers in the beginning of this chapter to an personal interview he had with Thomas Torrance.

“When asked in 1985 what he would change if his earlier works on the Eucharist could be rewritten, Torrance stated that he would like to alter their context, i.e. not to discuss the issues so much from the perspective of the Reformation, as from that of the Eastern Fathers.” (240-241)

In the light of this quote, it becomes even more puzzling why Stamps chose to make Calvin’s approach leading for the outline of Torrance’s sacramental theology. He gives the answer by arguing that – in the end – Torrance’s eucharistic theology “finally ought not to be judged by what it aspires to be, but by what it actually is, a Eucharist [sic!] in the Reformed tradition operating from a highly developed christology richly informed by patristic sources” (244). Stamps notes in T.F. Torrance (lecturing)passing that (especially the early) Torrance is in some respects heavily indebted to Karl Barth (“an ‘actualist conception of God’s Word” (250)), but in the end, his analysis of Torrance’s sacramental theology boils down to the dilemma: either Calvin or Eastern Orthodoxy. That seems to me a serious flaw in his analysis. Torrance’s sacramental theology certainly isn’t purely Barthian, but can’t be properly understood by omitting the Barthian ‘overtones’ in the thought of Tom Torrance.

This is not to deny that Stamps offers in his book a thorough study of the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. As indicated, its strenght lies in the ‘exegetical’ reading of all the relevant texts of Torrance’s work. Its weakness is its systematic presentation and evaluation. But for sure: anyone who is on his way to study Torrance on the sacraments, will have to read this book and will definitely find it useful.

I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing the review copy!

Eucharist and suffering

Six years ago, in 2006, Marilyn McCord Adams, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, published her book Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge University Press). The book is based on her Gifford Lectures from 1998-1999 and is rich and provocative. In this book McCord Adams pleads for an understanding of the eucharist, which does justice to the intense suffering in this world. This understanding is part of her larger project to provide a christological answer, not only to the problem of sin, but principally to the ‘more fundamental problem of horrors’. In short, in her proposal, Christ is our horror-defeater. His suffering and resurrection are the guarantee that in God’s future ‘the plot will resolve for everyone’.

But what about the meantime? That’s where the eucharist comes in. McCord Adams argues for a very strong notion of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. Because we, human beings, are embodied persons, we are in need of embodied encounters. Christ shares the table with us and gives Himself to us. But, ‘because we are horror-participants, He sets a specific agenda: all conflicts out on the table, immediately!’ (294).

“God in Christ crucified offers us His Flesh to chomp and bite and tear with our teeth, invites us to get even, horror for horror, urges us to fragment God’s own Body in return for the way God has allowed horrors to shred the fabric of our lives.” (294)

It should be evident by now that McCord Adams needs a stronger notion of eucharistic presence than Calvin’s. Indeed, while she is fairly critical about Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, calling it ‘philosophically underdeveloped’ (299). Luther’s notion of ubiquity won’t do either, because it’s ‘philosophically incoherent and un-Chalcedonian, insofar as it confuses the Divine and human natures’ (303). Her own proposal is an analogy with the incarnation, namely ‘impanation’: “Christ’s Body is present on the altar without being extended according to its human nature, but present and extended according to its bread nature” (305).

As I said, her book is rich and provocative. It raises quite a few questions and objections, but I’ll leave them aside for the moment. Instead, I will point to a counter-proposal from Nicholas Wolterstorff. Like McCord Adams, he both sacrifices the doctrine of divine impassibility and links God’s suffering love to the Lord’s Supper. Unlike McCord Adams however, he thinks that Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is especially valuable in this regard. In one of the articles in his recent book Hearing the Call, Wolterstorff shows that Calvin repeatedly speaks of the wounds of God in the context of people being wronged by others. He cites Calvin’s comments on Genesis 9:5-6 and Habakkuk 2:5-6 in support of this view. It is not an isolated thought in Calvin, but firmly rooted in his conceptions of human nature, the way to deal with suffering, and so forth. Then Wolterstorff writes:

“Though I do not propose to develop it here, it is worth noting that this theme of the wounding of God is also given a specifically christological and sacramental development in Calvin. At one point in his discussion of the Eucharist he says: “We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; … that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren… (Institutes IV,xvii,38).”

What is happening here? Wolterstorff’s approach provides us with a notion of divine suffering that is in a sense even stronger than McCord Adams’s. He makes God not the opponent of the horror-participant (like McCord Adams does), but her companion in her suffering. And the Eucharist is no longer the place to deal with our conflicts with God, but a place of consolation and sharing of Christ’s ‘shalom’. In the Lord’s Supper we are assured by Christ that He participates in our brokenness (cf. Lament for a Son, 39,40).

While McCord Adams’s approach suggests that our suffering could – at least to a certain degree – be compensated by ‘biting and chomping’ God, Wolterstorff’s proposal is more modest. There is no solution, no real answer to  the problem of suffering. He simply claims that Christ is there, participating in our brokenness, in our suffering. Do we really need more than that?