Westminster Sacerdotalism

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I said that I was going to try to get caught up with Greenbaggins’ review of RINE, and here is the next payment on that particular debt.

In his review of my tenth chapter, Lane says that my criticism of Warfield is based on a confusion of sacerdotalism and sacramentalism. “Sacerdotalism,” he says, “has to do with a priesthood caste in the church.” This is different from the idea that the sacraments work ex opere operato, which he calls sacramentalism. He also says that if something works ex opere operato it is tantamount to magic.

He then cites Warfield at various places to show that Warfield was objecting to the idea of a “human intruder in the pathway of God’s grace.” Now I take Warfield to be objecting to the idea of a created intruder, not just a human intruder. For Warfield, God’s immediate grace does not need a priest to funnel it, certainly. But neither does it need bread or wine, or water.

But let’s work with Lane’s distinction and see what happens — even though, in one sense, the whole discussion is beside the point because Lane acknowledges that Warfield would reject sacramentalism also.

First, how can there be sacraments without someone to administer them? And if there must be someone to administer them, and they are means of grace, then presto, we have our human intruder getting in between the worshipper and the grace of God. The Westminster Standards are very strong on sacraments not showing up by themselves, or in the hands of agents not lawfully ordained to the task.

“The Lord Jesus has, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants” (WCF 29.3).

“To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require” (WCF 30.2).

Lane’s take on Warfield means that Westminster Presbyterians are sacerdotalists. The fact that we don’t call the “human intruder” a priest is just a matter of terminology. The grace of God is available in the sacraments, and the sacraments are only available through those who are lawfully ordained. This means that the grace of God for God’s people is dependent on human agents. This means that Lane must either change his definition of sacerdotalism or take an exception to Westminster.

My second point here has to do with Lane’s take on ex opere operato being necessarily magic. Certainly, when a Roman Catholic priest utters the words of consecration, the results come about ex opere operato. In other words, with the sacraments, a “magic” utterance would be an ex opere operato utterance. But it doesn’t need to go the other way. All cows have four legs, but not all four-legged beasts are cows.

Peter Leithart does a wonderful job in his most recent book The Baptized Body in showing the potency of ritual. And in his discussion, it is very clear that there is no “magic” at all. A man can lawfully make love to a woman on Monday when it would have been unlawful for him to do so the previous Friday. The difference was the wedding ritual on Saturday. A man takes the oath of office as president, and can send troops into battle where before he was powerless to do so. There is an ex opere operato efficacy in this kind of thing which is not magic, but which is no less potent for all that.

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