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Replacing the Spirit with the sacraments

I’ve been listening recently to an online lecture series called Space, Time, [Matter] and Sacraments. The speaker (an influential Church of England Bishop called N. T. Wright) posed some very important questions. For example:

  • How is the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made “real” to us in our own lives now?
  • How is the promise of new creation, which we know will be truly physical and not just a fluffy boring harp-playing cloud-sitting eternity, made “real” to us now who still live embodied lives in the midst of the old creation?

His answer to these questions involved more than 3 hours of lectures and question times, but it can be summarised in two words: “the sacraments”, by which he meant primarily the physical activities of the “Eucharist” and water Baptism but also other traditionally “Catholic” sacraments such as marriage, confession, confirmation, etc.

Wright’s basic argument was that because the new creation in Christ is real, material and physical, it is appropriated in real, material and physical ways, through physical sacrament as well as through spoken word.

On the positive side, Wright said many interesting and helpful things about physicality and Christian community. As usual he offers correctives to modern over-individualistic “disembodied” misunderstandings of the gospel. And he was at pains to keep God’s word and the sacraments together; he certainly didn’t believe in a “magical” operation of the sacraments where they just “work” regardless of whether God’s Word is being preached.

Nevertheless after a while, something struck me. During the entire three hours, he never spoke about the Holy Spirit’s vital place in the answer to these (above) questions. From memory, all I can remember about what Wright said about the Holy Spirit was:

  • A passing mention when referring to Romans 8 (but he didn’t really make anything of it)
  • Another passing acknowledgement when quoting a poem that mentioned the Holy Ghost
  • An acknowledgement that Calvin talked about a “spiritual” eating and drinking in the Lord’s Supper, after which he immediately said that while he basically agreed with Calvin, nevertheless he wanted to emphasise the physical, material aspect of the sacraments (implying that he believed that Calvin was right when it came to a “real presence” and not quite right when he emphasised the spiritual rather than the physical).

Wright also made quite a few negative comments about the “spiritual” nature of much modern reflection about the Christian life and church, which he frequently connected with un-Christian individualism and gnosticism. In the vast majority of cases, “spirit” and “spiritual” were neutral or negative concepts for him.

Before I criticise Wright, I need to concede a few things. Yes, he was asked to speak on the sacraments, not the Spirit, so of course he should be focussing on them. Yes, I know that Wright would never deny that he believes in the Spirit (he frequently mentions the Spirit in his writings on Jesus and Paul). And yes, even at the beginning of his lecture series, Wright acknowledged that he was being exploratory in his own reflections about the sacraments, and that most of his beliefs about the sacraments in his life so far had come through his church experience, so this isn’t his “final word”.

Nevertheless, despite all these caveats, I still think there is something deeply wrong here. Wright deliberately went out of his way to frame his discussion in terms of these questions (above) about the way in which the story of Jesus and the new creation is made “real” in our lives. The answer of the Bible to these questions (e.g. Romans 8), which is also the answer of John Calvin, is that these things happen primarily by the Holy Spirit. This is not to deny that the new creation is physical, nor to deny that there should and will be physical manifestations of the new creation in our lives and communities, nor to deny that sacraments are or should be involved. But to spend more than three hours answering the question in relation to the sacraments, without any real discussion of the Spirit, is a very grave error. I content that Wright, at this point, has substituted the sacraments of the church for the Holy Spirit of God.

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