On signs and sacraments

One of the liturgical side-effects of the FV movement was to look into the sacraments and see what is being “done.”  Traditional theology had seen the sacraments as signs and seals connected by a sacramental union (and incidentally, only Reformed theology can truly maintain this balance and tension.  Other traditions which collapse the sign into the thing signified can no longer speak of signs at all).  The sign points to the thing signified.  Leithart and others have suggested that a better model is seeing the sacraments as “rites.”  A rite does not mean what we usually think of when we hear the term.  Rite as it is originally meant is a meeting place of God’s action.  So what do we make of this?

We must be very cautious in rejecting the “sign-model.”  The divines knew what they were doing. Losing the sacramental union between sign and thing signified opens the door to practices like paedocommunion.  On the other hand, the Lord’s Supper is indeed a kingdom feast.   Maybe this is where sign-terminology is helpful:  the Supper points to the ultimate eschatological feast.   It is not fully identical with it, which no one will deny (unless he is full preterist).  Yet the kingdom is really present in a sense.  Perhaps this sheds model on the phrase “sacramental union.”   Further, the kingdom-feast model moves the talk away from “substances and accidents.”  Even when Romanist scholars try to work transubstantion around eschatology, they end up conceding the debate to Protestantism.

I think the sign-model should be retained provided we add several explanations.   “Sign” in the Bible usually means watching God’s mighty action in such-in-such a place.  A possible exception might be Romans 4, but even then I don’t think Paul is using sign in the later Augustinian sense.  We should retain “sign” with perhaps a healthier emphasis on the older Hebrew connotations and with a practical understanding of the value of a sacramental union between sign and thing signified.  The rite-model makes more sense with the Supper than it does with baptism.  I know many have used it with baptism, but I don’t see any advantages it has on this front over sign-model.

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