On this, the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, a great many of the discussions focus on the “Five Solas of the Reformation,” a collection of Latin phrases that were first assembled a little over 50 years ago in an attempt to summarize Protestant doctrine. (Just over 100 years ago, the first three were proposed, but over time the others were added.)
The solas are fine as far as they go, but they ignore a critical aspect of the Reformation and thus fail signally in summarizing what Protestantism was about.
The early Protestants described their work as a “reform of word and sacrament,” yet the solas deal almost exclusively with the reform of word. Few people, even among the most ardent fans of the Reformation, are discussing the reform of sacrament which was central to the Protestant reformers’ vision for the church.
Part of the reason for this is that the early Protestants split into competing factions over how exactly to interpret the sacraments. They all agreed that Rome was wrong, but they could not agree on what was right. Focusing on the reform of word while downplaying sacraments thus highlights the things mainstream Protestants agreed upon.
But I think there’s another, deeper reason for the omission: the modern Western worldview.
Sacraments have two parts: a visible sign, and an invisible reality toward which the sign points. The two are connected. When you receive the sign, you also receive in some measure the invisible reality. The connection is activated by faith, without which the sacrament is ineffective. With faith, however, the spiritual reality is given to us and the sacrament acts as a means of grace.
To put it differently, the sacramental worldview sees the visible and invisible worlds as overlapping. This world points to deeper realities beyond itself, and physical objects can carry in themselves spiritual significance and even power. Nature and grace come together in the sacraments.
And that is the problem
In our post-Enlightenment world, we draw a sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual. To a pure secularist, the concrete world of facts and the nebulous world of faith and values are completely separate, with no connections between the two. Most Christians wouldn’t go quite that far, but in effect they only see the two realms as touching a bit along their edges, not as being deeply intertwined with each other. And that makes accepting sacraments as a means of grace difficult or impossible to grasp: how can a physical object convey spiritual grace? It doesn’t seem possible since the two occupy different worlds. This is why so many evangelicals talk about ordinances and avoid the word sacrament altogether.
For conservative Protestants, the reform of word and sacrament has become the emphasis on the word and the loss of sacrament.
The rationalist worldview that has molded the Christian mind has led us away from the supernatural worldview of the Bible and of the historic tradition of the Faith. It is my prayer that this anniversary of the Reformation might provide an opportunity for a recovery of not simply the solas, but of the sacramental worldview that all of the Protestant reformers saw as an essential part of the faith.