Posted by: dacalu | 22 March 2011

Effective Signs

This morning someone accused me of being heterodox.  gasp!  Not really so strange, though I do think of myself as orthodox, if sometimes in an unusual way.  I don’t always hold to things that Christians have believed for the last 50 or 100 years.  I’m more of a stickler for things that Christians have held onto for 500 or 1000 years.  So the Nicene Creed holds great weight for me, as do the sacraments, but particular theologies of atonement or scriptural interpretation, not so much.  Perhaps I pick and choose, but I’d like to think I’m at least in conversation with the language and structure of theology as it has shaped the major epochs of Christian history.  With that in mind, I’d like to take a stab at the idea of “effectual signs,” a notion of the sacraments that’s been bouncing around Anglicanism since the Reformation (i.e., Article XXV of the 39 articles).

Ideas about sacraments have changed radically through the history of the church.  In Eucharist or the sharing of Christ’s body and blood, we’ve gone from Augustine’s notion of “real presence” (God is there), to Aquinas’ perception of transubstantiation (the physical bread and wine participate in the Universal Substance of Christ) to Tridentine [from the Council of Trent] doctrine of transubstantiation (the physical bread and wine become physically the Body and Blood), to Zwingli’s memorialism (nothing changes, we just remember) and around to Anglican “real presence” (God is there, we’re not going to be to specific about how).

If that seems too obscure or round about, consider marriage.  There is an Old Testament idea of ownership, where the man owns the woman.  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Exodus 20:17.  There is a Pauline notion that the two belong to one another, but that the correct role is one of obedience.  “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” Ephesians 5:24.  There are medieval ideas of complementarity between the sexes and scholastic ideas of natural law and the “proper end” of marriage being reproduction.  Add to that the whole idea of marriage for romantic love (largely popularized only in the Renaissance, but overwhelmingly valued today) and you have a wide range of ideas for marriage.

That’s just two examples.  The particulars of sacraments change.  Most notably for Episcopalians, we made a major shift from a Eucharistic focus in the first 7 Books of Common Prayer to a Baptismal focus in the 1979 BCP.  Nonetheless, I think the essence of the sacraments remains the same.  They are effective signs of God’s grace, meaning that they have both a definite consequence and represent something greater.  Let us start with definite effect.


Baptism washes away sin and welcomes into community.

Eucharist connects us with Jesus’ life and passion and binds the community together.

Confirmation connects the will, the intellect, and the self of a Christian.  (That’s a bit rough as we don’t anywhere have a really robust theology of confirmation.)

Reconciliation clears away offense and re-knits the individual to God and community.

Marriage binds two people together.

Ordination empowers Christians to do particular ministries.

Anointing harmonizes the Christian with self, God, and others.


Now some of you will object to these characterizations.  We don’t entirely agree on the meaning of all the sacraments, though I think these are fairly safe characterizations of the CONCRETE EFFECTS of sacraments.  That, however, is not the whole of the sacraments.  They are effectual, but also signs.  For me this means that each of the sacraments is also the key to appreciating a fuller grace given by God.

Baptism washes away sin and welcomes into community, but also represents the continuity of the community, recognizes the grace of birth and the goodness of humanity – created in God’s image.  The particular effectual sacrament signifies the generic grace of creation and inclusion.  We don’t fully understand grace, which is why there are so many glosses and commentaries on the meaning of Baptism.  As a sacrament, it is a digestable and understandable piece of a miraculous and transcendent gift.  It concretely gives and abstractly hints at a greater gift.  It discretely changes reality and generically reveals a universal transformation (the coming of the kingdom).

Likewise, Eucharist connects us with Jesus’ life and passion and binds the community together, but it also makes one the whole of the Universal Church, the great cloud of witnesses in all times and all places.  It realizes the community as the Body of Christ, one with God and one another.  It  allows us to (dangerous word, but I think it works in this context) participate in the life of Christ. The greater glories of Eucharist are unfathomably deep, so we argue about what they mean exactly, but we hold onto the lesser, practical glory of sharing bread and wine because it reminds us of the profound mystery that we explore but never understand.

Sacraments are effectual signs because they really and discretely do something that allows us to participate in a larger truth – a truth beyond imagination.  Doing the former, we can disagree about the latter.  For me, that lies at the heart of orthopraxy (right behavior) and Anglicanism.  We have no control over the coming kingdom, but we do have a place in it.  We do tiny things for the good of creation, because how else can we appreciate the cosmic things God does for us.

Whether you think there are seven sacraments or only two,

whether you have a Protestant notion of memorial and participation or a Catholic notion of efficacy,

whether you think these things the core of the church or just useful add ons,

I hope you will take away the notion that we do them for the sake of real good that they do AND for the sake of the greater good they point to.  Even more, I hope you will ponder and accept the idea that you too are an effective sign of God.  You are discrete, finite, and concrete.  You are also a sign and symbol for (image and likeness of) the transcendent God who was and is and is to be. Neither is to be taken lightly.


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