Friday, September 18, 2009

Word as Sacrament

I was asked, by a church member, to comment here on Ben Witherington's provocative post, entitled "Feed on the Word" suggesting that the Word should be seen as a Sacrament. In Protestant circles we often talk about Word and Sacrament, by which we mean the Eucharist and Preaching. But, could the Word itself be a sacrament, and what does that entail?

Witherington is an evangelical Methodist biblical scholar. I expect his theology is to my right, but he isn't a Fundamentalist. In this post he has a somewhat expansive understanding of Word -- it is living -- but he also firmly links it to the Bible. While lifting up the role of preaching -- which in most Protestant churches happens more often than the Eucharist is celebrated -- he doesn't limit it to preaching. Indeed, he notes that each of us can and should feed on the Word, by which he means the Bible.

The biblical texts that he mentions as support for a more sacramental understanding of Word, such as this from Paul, seem to refer to the Gospel message, not the text of Scripture:
"And we constantly thank God because when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as it actually is--the Word of God which is at work in you who believe." (1 Thess. 2.13).
As to why it should be considered a de jure sacrament, rather than just a de facto one, he writes:

The term sacramentum in the Latin has had various definitions over the ages of church history but perhaps the most familiar one is 'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace' or more simply, a means of grace. If a sacrament is a means of grace, by which is meant a means of divine influence and change in a person's life, then surely the Word of God and its proclamation, reading, hearing learning, memorizing is a sacrament. We just don't tend to call it that. Consider however what is said about the Word of God in the NT at various junctures. The Word of God is seen as something living which dwells richly in the believer once received, probing and changing the person inwardly.

I do find the idea interesting and useful. But of course we need to keep in mind what we mean by Word of God. On that there is likely some debate.

As a preacher I have to be careful as not to claim too much for what I do in the pulpit, but at the same time I do believe that the Word preached, when carried to the heart and mind by the Holy Spirit can be life changing. I hope and pray that what I do in preparation and in the pulpit is not mere words, but is life changing -- otherwise, why bother. My call is to preach the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, not to dispense common sense wisdom that one can just as easily get from Dr. Phil or even Oprah.

This, Witherington encourages:

I do not say this because I think we should neglect the other sacraments. I say this because we actually need a more sanctified view of the Word of God. The Word of God, when faithfully preached and openly received is far more than just preaching, or a good life lesson, or an edifying discourse. It is the unleashing of God's transformative power in the human life. In short--the Word does things to the recipient that the recipient might well be unaware of at the time, much like taking a medicine the effects of which take time to be noticeable. There is of course a corollary to this-- the less one consumes the Word, the less grace, the less spiritual health, one is likely to have. In an age of Biblical illiteracy even within the church, it is no wonder that the church is sickly and open to all sorts of false teaching and its bad spiritual effects.
So, back to the definition of Word. My own understanding has been greatly aided by Karl Barth's three-fold division of the Word. I'll mention it here and then post a bit more fully on it in another posting.

Christ as the Word (Logos) revealed.

The Scriptures as the Witness to that Word

Preaching -- when rooted in the Word written -- bears witness to the Word Revealed (Christ).

So, if the Word is Sacrament, in what way and how is it received? As a Disciple, my own sacramental experience is a bit different from many Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants such as Witherington. We celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday -- and more often than that if needed or possible. But the point is well taken. Is the Word, however it may be received, a means of grace that transforms lives?


John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

For me, the Word as embodied in Scripture, is sacramental, in that it is a medium connecting me with the divine. I understand that the "Word" has multiple meanings in Christianity, including: the Christ, Scripture, the Proclamation of the Good News, as well the breath of God. And I feel the sacramental in each of thee aspects. But Scripture seems to stand out and stand up through the millennia as receiving special support and protection from the forces of human history.

Anyway, Scripture speaks to me, and with its words and ideas come both the Proclamation of the Word, and the Breath or Spirit of God into my heart. So, however I understand the "Word" I receive it is sacramental.


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