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 It remained unpublished until 2007, when it was included in the Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology.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!

Rowan Williams on Vaticanum II and Henri de Lubac

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, adressed to the Synod of Bishops in Rome yesterday. He spoke about the connection between contemplation and evangelisation. His whole lecture can be read here. In the introduction of his adress Williams touches upon the importance of Vaticanum II. The council was a rediscovery of ‘evangelistic concern and passion’. Then, he continues by saying:

But one of the most important aspects of the theology of the second Vaticanum was a renewal of Christian anthropology.  In place of an often strained and artificial neo-scholastic account of how grace and nature were related in the constitution of human beings, the Council built on the greatest insights of a theology that had returned to earlier and richer sources – the theology of spiritual geniuses like Henri de Lubac, who reminded us of what it meant for early and mediaeval Christianity to speak of humanity as made in God’s image and of grace as perfecting and transfiguring that image so long overlaid by our habitual ‘inhumanity’.

It’s a remarkable passage in the Archbishop’s adress, for a few reasons. First of all, it’s in a certain sense brave. De Lubac’s specific view on the history of doctrinal development is by no means generally accepted in today’s Roman Catholic church. No wonder, as his words surely imply an incisive critique on the (neo-)scholastic tradition from Cajetan until the 20th century.

Secondly, the words of Rowan Williams imply a qualified view on the rupture between Catholics and Protestants. This rupture is, at least partly, ascribed to the doctrinal developments in the Catholic church of the late 15th and 16th century. Actually, the Reformation is in this view a re-action, instead of the initial action. Of course, opinions may vary about the nature of this reaction. De Lubac, for instance, was of the opinian that both the Reformation and Jansenism were deviations of the true Catholic doctrine, an ‘over-reaction’. J.H. Walgrave however, a Dutch Catholic theologian and philosopher, claimed the opposite, maintaining that both the Reformation and Jansenism were, in a certain sense at least, the legitimate continuation of (augustinian) Medieval theology.

Finally, the words of Rowan Williams evoque an augustinian anthropology of longing to God and the only possible fulfillment, by embracing his grace. As De Lubac in a number of writings underlined, there is not such a thing as ‘natura pura’, meaning a conception of human nature that is capable of reaching its natural potency. According to this doctrine, the supernatural longing for God does not properly belong to human nature. It’s an ‘extra’, an addition to human nature. The Archbishop certainly is right about the implications about our anthropology for evangelisation. But I suppose it has implications in the direction of sacramental theology as well. The sacramental debate in the Reformation period might be read in this light. In the theology of the Counter-Reformation we might detect a tendency to ‘supranaturalize’ the sacramtents, especially the eucharist, by emphasizing its mystery and incomprehensibility. The Reformation, on the contrary, seems to downplay the importance of the sacraments, may be not so much in theory, as well in practice. In the Swiss Reformation the habit of celebrating the Lord’s supper only four times a year became the standard practice, suggesting that it is an ‘extra’. For me, it’s an open research-question whether this tendency is also inherent in Calvin’s sacramental theology or not. Further study must show.

Jeremy Begbie on the potential of the Reformed tradition

Jeremy Begbie is one of the leading theologians discussing the connection between christian faith and the arts. Very recently, I discovered a (pre-publication) article of his, titled: ‘The Future of Theology amid the Arts: Some Reformed Reflections’. (Because of the pre-publication shape of the article, Begbie asks the reader not to cite this version. I will respect that and summarize his thoughts).

In the initial pages, he outlines his perspective on the discussion between theology and aesthetics in different strands of Christianity. He argues that the lack of dialogue between these strands in the early 1980s, has completely disappeared by now. Reformed evangelicals do not hesitate to be inspired by Roman Catholic of Eastern Orthodox writers and thinkers. But it seems as if the Reformed tradition is in this respect always to some degree suspicious. Isn’t the Reformed tradition iconoclastic, extreme suspicious to the (figurative) arts, and so forth. Those are the questions of Begbie, and they seem to hit the mark, according to me.

Begbie knows of some careful corrections in the past decade of this picture of the Reformed tradition. A number of studies argue for a different and more nuanced perspective. But the shadow of doubt still remains… But then Begbie makes a very interesting observation. From whence comes this shadow of doubt, he asks. And doesn’t the Reformed tradition possess enough riches to be explored? What striked me in this suggestion is the similarity in this respect between the situation in theological aesthetics and in sacramentology. Concerning sacramentology, the same observations could be made. The Reformed tradition is still regarded with suspicion, not only concerning the arts, but also concerning the sacraments. And for the same set of reasons, just mentioned.

That’s a pity, Begbie argues. We need the Reformed tradition in the debate about theology and the arts. And I add: we need the Reformed tradition in the ecumencial debate about theology and the sacraments.

Torrance on the sacraments

In The School of Faith (1959) Torrance discusses the Reformed conception of the Covenant of Grace. He makes in this regard a sharp distinction between Mediaeval theology, thinking in sacramental terms and Reformed theology, thinking in convenantal terms. Whereas Mediaeval theology, according to Torrance, considered the church as the extension of the Incarnation, against the background of a sacramental universe, the Reformers employed the Biblical terminology of the Convenant of Grace and its total fulfilment in the Person and Work of Jezus Christ as the incarnate Son and Word of God (p.lii).

After citing Karl Barth’s formula of the Convenant as the inner ground and form of the creation and creation as the outer ground or form of the Convenant and Calvin’s statement that Godwrapped himself up in earthly signs and symbols, so that the whole of creation is to be regarded as a mirror or theatre, Torrance continues by saying:

“Thus while the whole of creation is formed to serve as the sphere of divine self-revelation, it cannot be interpreted or understood our of itself, as if it had an inherent relation of likeness or being to the Truth, but only in the light of the history of the Convenant of Grace and its appointed signs and orders and events in the life of the Convenant people, that is to say, according to its economy prior to the Incarnation and according to its economy after the Incarnation” (p.liii).

In short, Torrance seems to deny any intrinsic connection between the sacramental signs and their signification. That, however, raises several questions. Think, for example, of the Lord’s Supper. According to Torrance, it’s signification originates from Divine appointment, e.g. the words of institution spoken by Christ and repeated by the minister every time the Supper is celebrated. True as that is, does that mean that, say, its character as a meal is completely arbitrary? Could the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection as well have been instituted in the form of a shared dance around an old tree? Or would in that case the ritual have had a different meaning, at least partly? I think so.

It seems that Torrance, in his effort to avoid a sacramentalism based on a kind of natural theology, did cut off, not only the branches of the tree, but also some of its vital roots. Furthermore, while claiming to describe the Reformed position in sacramental theology, he seems to distantiate himself from the position of Calvin. For Calvin makes use of the analogy between our daily eating and drinking and the eating and drinking we have in the Lord’s Supper (for example in his sermon about Psalm 65, edited in Supplementa Calviniana VII (ed. E. Mülhaupt); p.32-40). Obviously, Calvin doesn´t want to know about an intrinsic sacramental operation. The signs and the rite don´t have an operation on their own, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. But that does not mean that the relation between the sacramental signs and their signification, between the rite and its operation is completely arbitrary.

Torrance, Craig’s Catechism, and the Lord’s Supper

Sometimes things nicely come together. Thanks to a little discussion about Thomas Torrance and (federal or evangelical) Calvinism, I took Torrance’s The School of Faith from the shelf. It’s one of his less well known books and it comprises an edition of all the Catechisms that were ‘officially authorised and employed by the Church of Scotland since the Reformation’ (1). It’s was first published in 1959. Torrance offers an excellent introduction to these writings in about 125 pages. These pages are in fact a very concise introduction to Torrance’s own theology, especially his thoughts about revelation and natural theology, incarnation and atonement, and his doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the church and the sacraments. It were these topics on which he lectured in the fifties at New College. These strands in his thinking have been attracting less attention then what he said and wrote about the incarnation and atonement and about science and theology.

In the meantime I’m preparing a lecture about the Lord’s Supper and our mortality. How does the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection enables us to live, while facing death, in us and around us? While turning over the pages in Torrance’s The School of Faith I stumbled upon Craig’s Catechism from 1581. I read it before and at that time it was completely unknown to me. But it struck me because of his very forceful style, with short questions and answers, but also because of its concreteness. There is quite a lot emphasis on our senses and our body, especially in the (large) section about the sacraments. Like the other Catechisms from the Reformation period, it stresses the fact that the elements, like water, bread, wine, don’t have an intrinsic power or efficacy. However, unlike these other Catechisms, Craig’s Catechism maintains very convincing that the bodily language of the sacraments do have an intrinsic worth. This worth is twofold: first of all epistemological. Consider for example these questions and answers (p.155):

Q. How does He (Christ) offer His body and blood?

A. By the Word and Sacraments.

Q. How do we receive His body and blood?

A. By our own lively faith alone.

Q. What follows upon this receiving by faith?

A. That Christ dwells in us, and we in Him.

Q. Is not this done by the Word and Baptism?

A. Yes, but our union with Christ is more evident and manifest here.

Q. Why is it more evident?

A. Because it is expressed by meat and drink joined with us inwardly in our bodies.

That’s the first point: the Supper makes the Union with Christ more evident, that is: evident inwardly in our bodies! No Platonic thinking here! No separation between soul and body! We are both body and soul and that’s why God gave us the sacraments! But there is another point to maken (p.157):

Q. Should we seek the food of our souls in the elements of bread and wine?

A. No, for they were not given to that end.

Q. To what end then were they given?

A. To lead us directly to Christ, who only is the food of our souls.

 Q. What profit should our bodies have by this Sacrament?

A. It is a pledge of our resurrection by Christ.

Q. How is that?

A. Because our bodies are partakers of the sign of life.

This is a very remarkable passage! The imagery of a ‘pledge’ is very common in Calvinistic theology. The Lord´s Supper is called a pledge of our salvation, a means to be sure of it. But, to the best of my knowledge, Calvin nowhere says that the Lord´s Supper is a pledge of our bodily resurrection. No wonder then, that Craig let his pupils ask: “How is that?” And his supreme answer: “Because our bodies are partakers of the sign of life”. Before this, Craig has explained that the giving of the bread and wine means a spiritual feeding of our souls with Christ’s body and blood (p.156). The ‘close conjunction’ with meat and drink means ‘the spiritual union which we have in Jesus Christ’. But there is also a bodily conjunction, so to speak. And that conjunction means participation in Christ’s bodily resurrection. We share in the sign of life!

Young Calvin about the Lord’s Supper (3)

In the first and second post about Young Calvin and the Lord’s Supper, I pointed out that his Epistolae Duae and his Articles concernant l’organisation de l’église et du culte a Genève appeared in print in January 1537, only four days separated from each other. However, that is not the last writing of Calvin in that month. At the end of the month his Instruction et Confession de Foy dont on use en leglise de Geneve (Geneva Catechism) was published. So we have a unique possibility to reconstruct his views on the sacraments at the end of 1536 and the start of 1537 from different angles.  In this post I will give a long quotation about the nature of the sacraments.

“Les sacremens sont instituez a ceste fin quilz feussent exercices de nostre foy tant devant Dieu que devant les hommes. Et certes devant Dieu ilz exercent nostre foy quand ilz la confirment en la verite de Dieu. Car le Seigneur nous a propose avoir les haulx et celestes secretz soubz choses charnelles, ainsi quil cognoissoit estere expediant a lignorance de nostre chair. Non pas que telles qualitez soient en la nature des choses lesquelles nous sont proposees au sacrament, mais parce que par la parolle du Seigneur elles sont marquees en ceste signification. Car tousiours la promesse precede laquelle est comprinse en la parolle: le signe est adiouste, lequel confirme et seelle icelle promesse et la nous rend comme plus testifiee, ainsi que le Seigneur voit quil convient a la capacite de nostre rudesse. Car nostre foy est tant petite et debile que si elle nest appuyee de tous costez et soustenue par tous moiens soubdain elle est esbranlee en toutes pars, agitee et vacilante. Or elle est aussi par les sacremens exercee envers les hommes, quand elle sort en confession publique et est incitee a rendre louanges au Seigneur. (…)

Sacrement doncques est un signe exterieur par lequel le Seigneur nous represente et testifie sa bonne volonte envers nous, pour soustenir limbecillite de nostre foy, ou (pour dire plus briefvement et plus clairement) cest un tesmoignage de la grace de Dieu declare par signe exterieur.”

The sacraments are instituted in order to exercise our fatih, both for God and man. For God they exercise our faith, in as far as they give us assurance in God’s truth. Bread and wineFor the Lord gave us these exalted and heavenly secrets in carnal form, because He acquainted with the ignorance of our flesh. It’s not that such qualities are in the nature of the things which are given unto us as sacraments, but it is because their meaning is given by the word of the Lord. Because, always the promise, contained in the word, precedes; the sign is adjusted, which confirms and seals this promise and gives us more testimony, in a way which the Lord has judged necessary because of our rudeness.  For our faith is so little and weak, that it would collapse, fluctuate and be wholly unstable if it’s not  underpinned from all sides and supported with all means. (…)

A sacrament therefore is an exterior sign, by which the Lord represents and testifies to us his good will towards us, in order to support the weakness of our faith; or (to state it shorter and more clearly) it’s a testimony of the Lord’s grace, declared by an external sign.  


Welcome to Qualitative Theology!

This is a new blog! A weblog about theology. ‘Qualitive’ igrondplan-buurkerkntends now to be an allusion to the great quality of the theological tradition of the Church, reaching from Augustine to Karl Barth and further. This tradition is like the groundplan of an impressive cathedral. In this blog I will pay tribute to this tradition and its qualities.

See you back soon!