This We Believe: Second Helvetic Confession, part VIIc

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Today we’ll finish up part 7 with chapters 19, 20, and 21–the sacraments!

“Sacraments are mystical symbols, or holy rites, or sacred actions, instituted by God himself, consisting of his Word, of signs and of things signified, whereby in the Church he keeps in mind and from time to time recalls the great benefits he has shown to men; whereby also he seals his promises, and outwardly represents, and, as it were, offers unto our sight those things which inwardly he performs for us, and so strengthens and increases our faith through the working of God’s Spirit in our hearts.”

Yes, that was all one sentence. It says several important things:

1. Sacraments are symbols or symbolic actions.
2. Sacraments are instituted by God.
3. Sacraments include the word of God, the symbol, and the thing to which the symbol points.
4. Sacraments remind us of God’s action.
5. Sacraments seal God’s promises.
6. Sacraments are outward signs of something God does inside us.
7. Sacraments are intended to encourage and strengthen faith.

The confession tells us that we observe only two Sacraments–baptism (which Bullinger equates with circumcision’s place in the old covenant) and the Lord’s Supper (which is equated with the passover lamb in the old covenant). These sacraments were not created by human beings, but God alone, and “as God is the author of the Sacraments, so he continually works in the Church in which they are carried out.”

Because the Sacraments come from God, the minister who celebrates them is not the point–it doesn’t matter if the minister is a sinner or perfectly learned or whatever (something we’ve discussed before in relation to the Donatist controversy). The integrity of the Sacraments depends upon the institution of the Lord.” period. Except if the minister is a woman…“we teach that baptism should not be administered in the church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.” (first of all–no Paul didn’t, but someone writing with his name did. Paul’s many female colleagues would be surprised to hear it. second–this has more to do with refuting the Roman teaching that unbaptized infants who died were destined for hell (or at best purgatory), so midwives baptized babies out of habit–not as part of God’s covenant people, but as a form of magic. That is indeed something to condemn.)

Anyway, back to the points:

In baptism we are reminded of Christ’s baptism, and of his death and resurrection. We are also reminded of God’s promise to make us all children of God. We remember that Christ sent the apostles to baptize and teach. We remember that the Holy Spirit descended on many at their baptisms in the book of Acts. It’s often called a sign of initiation for God’s people.” The symbol for baptism is water–the symbol of birth and of cleansing. The “thing signified is regeneration and cleansing from sin.”  

There’s only one baptism–you only need to be baptized once, and the form (sprinkling, pouring, immersing) is not the point. The point is that in this ritual we are reminded of God’s promise, and our faith is built up as we participate in that promise. We live as baptized people, people of God, people called and gifted and full of grace.

One of the important things about the Sacraments is that they use common things–like water–to show and effect something holy. Because baptism with water is both common and sacred, and because it’s the only thing talked about in scripture, “we do not consider necessary to the perfection of baptism…exorcism, burning lights, oil, salt, spittle, and other such things as a multitude of ceremonies.”  In other words–all the bells and whistles and trappings that the Roman Church added on are unnecessary or even harmful, according to Bullinger. Remember that he’s writing early in the Reformation era, and distinguishing from the Roman Church was important–and Bullinger’s main issue in these kinds of cases is that the extras make the ritual seem more like magic than holy. Baptism has one purpose–“to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God…to be cleansed from sin…to be granted the manifold grace of God in order to lead a new and innocent life….all these things are assured by baptism.” In other words, the ritual of baptism is the outward sign of these things that the Holy Spirit does in our hearts–and it is a sign that reminds us of God’s promise and encourages us to live in it.

The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, uses common things (food) to signify God’s promise and work in us. Bullinger takes great pains to ensure that we don’t think that bread and wine are actually turned into body and blood (they are not “changed into the things signified, or cease to be what they are in their own nature. For otherwise they would not be Sacraments–if they were only the thing signified, they would not be signs.” alrighty then.) The purpose of the Sacrament is two-fold–to “keep in fresh remembrance that greatest benefit which God showed to mortals” (giving God’s own self to and for us), and to feed us–not necessarily physically (because that would involve “infamy and savagery”), but spiritually–when we receive the bread and wine and remember all Christ’s work and life and death and resurrection and God’s promise, then the Holy Spirit applies and bestows upon us these things…Christ lives in us and we live in him”.

Instead of transubstatiation (the turning of a substance into another substance, aka the bread literally and physically becoming the flesh of Jesus), and instead of Christ “hiding” in the bread (leading to the worship of the bread), the confession teaches that the physical body of Christ “is in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and therefore our hearts are to be lifted up on high, and not to be fixed on the bread, neither is the Lord to be worshipped in the bread. Yet the Lord is not absent from his Church when she celebrates the Supper. The sun, which is absent from us in the heavens, is nothwithstanding effectually present among us. How much more is the Sun of Righteousness, Christ, although in his body he is absent from us in heaven, present with us, not corporeally but spiritually, by his vivifying operation, and as he himself explained at his Last Supper that he would be present with us. Whence it follows that we do not have the Supper without Christ, and yet at the same time have an unbloody and mystical Supper, as it was universally called by antiquity.”

In other words–when we participate in Communion, we are lifted up to Commune with Christ–our hearts are lifted up on high. Jesus is not absent from our celebration of the Sacrament because we don’t believe the bread and wine become body and blood–instead we are drawn into Christ’s presence at the Supper.

At the end of today’s theology class, I just want to go back to the beginning of chapter 19 for a moment, where the confession talks about the number of sacraments (again refuting the Roman Catholic church)…because this is just amusing. “There are some who count seven Sacraments. Of these we acknowledge that repentance, the ordination of ministers, and matrimony are profitable ordinances but not Sacraments. Confirmation and extreme unction are human inventions which the Church can dispense with without any loss, and indeed, we do not have them in our churches, for they contain some things of which we can by no means approve.” heehee.

What do you think of these explanations of Sacraments, and of the particulars of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? How do you experience God’s promise and presence in these symbolic actions? How does participating in the Sacraments inform your life as one of God’s covenant people?

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