Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart. A Review and Critique by Douglas W Jerving

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Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart. A Review and Critique by Douglas W Jerving
Part Three: Sacraments or Ordinances

Copyright © July 20, 2011 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

We are dealing with the book Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart, who condemns Christianity as heretical because of its compromise with modernity. Today's Church no longer realizes who she is (the City of God, the colony of heaven's King on earth) or what she is supposed to be doing (proclaiming without compromise the Law of her King). Instead she sees herself as just one more institution of our modern world for men to pick and choose from like apples and oranges on a fruit stand. The accomodation to modernity has created the intellectualization and privatization of the Christian experience. In theology the Church has been tainted by compromise with philosophy. The shuttering of the biblical foundations in that exchange produced the intellectualization of Christian life as we had seen above. In the next several paragraphs we will see how the Reformation led to the privatization of religious experience and what that means for us today.

Against Sacraments

Dr. Leithart spends considerable time building a case for ritual as a valid part of the life of any community. He shows how all ancient cultures incorporated ritual sacrifices, feasts, and other celebrations into both their civil and religious lives. Ancient Israel was not different in that respect from the heathen cultures around her. Depending on where you examine Israel's history, there were seven, and sometimes eight feasts, fasts and/or festivals on their calendar year. The first seven were instituted by Moses (Lev 23:1-44). The last, (Purim), was added during the intertestamental period celebrating the events that took place in the book of Esther.

The Church following Israel's lead, incorporated ritual ordinates and festivals into her own calendar from early on. These were initiatory rites (water baptism), and regular celebrations (the Lord's Supper, and some would include footwashing). The New Testament honors "the first day of the week", as an ongoing experience of the New Creation begun at the Resurrection of Christ. It also talks about regular love feasts that probably followed the Communion of the Lord's Supper. (1 Cor 12:20-34; cf. Jude 12; 2 Pet 2:13).

The later post -apostolic Church added annual memorials including Good Friday, Resurrection Sunday, and Ascension. Still later, and more up for debate, celebrations of the birth of Christ were added that became Christmas under the state Churches. The Book of Acts Church apparently placed value on some of the older Jewish customs such as Pentecost. As the Church became more Gentile and less Jewish, those earlier celebrations were dropped or morphed into other ritual manifestations. By the late medieval period the various state/Church institutions had a numbing plethora of holy days to keep the laity occupied. By 1150 there were at least forty-one festival days, and by 1233 under Gregory IX, there were "eighty-five days when no work could be done and ninety-five days when no court sessions could be held." "In the Byzantine empire there were sixty-six entire Holy Days... exclusive of Sundays, and twenty-seven half Holy Days." See the Catholic Encyclopedia, article: "Ecclesiastical Feasts", online at:

The medieval Church created innumerable new celebrations, venerations, festive holy days and half-holy days, holy objects, places and practices, priests, saints, and ad infinitum. (What is a half-holy day, anyway?) Stranger yet, the medieval Church had a tendency to make magic out of every thing. Baptismal waters magically became holy water. The bread and wine of Communion were transmogrified into the actual body and blood of Christ. Even marriage magically became the wedding of Christ and the Church, thereby literally conferring grace upon the participants and the children of their union.. The symbols of the Church were turned into literal substance through the magical/mystical mumbo-jumbo of medieval religion. The magic of the Sacrament was its ability to confer grace without faith.

The Reformers saw through the tendency to spiritualize everything, and tossed out the bathwater. But the baby went with it. Leithart discusses the Patristic theology "that 'sacraments' were magically and ontologically different from other signs" (p.90). The Reformers did not challenge this opinion. They removed the rites that they could not find in the New Testament, without necessarily challenging the theology of sacramentalism. The Reformers' views of the world were essentially rationalistic, with miracles belonging to the Church and natural processes to the rest of creation (ibid).

Sacramentalism implies that some things are sacred, holy in and of themselves; it implies the magic act. Patristic sacramentalism separated the holy from the profane, creating a priestly caste having the keys to the kingdom, and a profane caste of commoners. The common man was not expected to do or understand anything apart from the intervention of the priest. So long as he followed the prescribed magical formulas, his relationship with God was taken for granted. The Reformers returned the Church to the priesthood of the Believer, realizing that biblical religion is of the heart. Every man should be able to hear and read the Word of God for himself; to understand God's Word personally. At the same time, however, the Reformers continued the theology of the magic act. Modernist thinking saw the incongruity and rejected it as irrational and unnecessary.

If sacraments are the problem, do we throw out the rituals on which they are based? What value is there in the ritual? Within a modernist framework ritual is nothing more than the weak and beggarly elements of the Old Testament. Since the Old Testament prophets inveighed against ritual, and the New Testament declares such things to be dead works of the law, we should treat rituals as unworthy contenders for our affection. (Are you beginning to hear the baby crying just outside the door?) Religion is a matter of the heart. Form and symbol are therefore unnecessary. Personal experience of faith in Christ is the reality. Religion is a private matter requiring no traffic signs along the way. We can do just fine without resorting to the accoutrements of formalism. The addition of anything to faith is a worldly dependency upon tokens for our salvation. It is a return to the magic act of Romanism. So the modernist contends, having derived his first principles from the Reformers.

This leaves us with a stunning problem. Modern Christianity, having disposed of the need for ritual, what becomes of the rituals that the Church properly owns? After all, there are rituals (properly called ordinances, not sacraments) appearing in the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Himself, and continued without contradiction by the Apostles (1 Cor 11, the whole chapter, but note specially verse 2). The later Church turned those rituals into magic acts, but that cannot negate their reality as valid ordinances of the Church. Rejecting the ordinances (rituals) of New Testament religion or viewing them as less important than faith essentially privatizes religious experience. It teaches the believer that his personal life supersedes the community life of the whole body of Christ. It removes from him the responsibility of body life and ministry. But the New Testament, as one brother said years ago knows no such thing as a floating kidney, or an arm detached from the rest of the body.

Water Baptism is more than a ceremonial leftover from the one-time predominantly Jewish Church. It is an authorized symbol of our relationship with Jesus Christ and with the community of the baptized. The Lord's Supper is more than a pretty picture reminding us of what Jesus did at the cross. It is a symbol, but one with a deeper reality, depicting our fellowship with our Lord and with the community of believers. Are these things necessary to our salvation? Are the ordinances requisite to our faith? The real question that must be asked is "Does the New Testament ever set forth the possibility of a believer who does not have these evidences of faith in his life?" The answer is a resounding No! Can we be saved without the ordinances of the Church? The question is ridiculous because the New Testament assumes the ordinances in the life of the believer. The thief on the cross is the exception proving the rule, Paul indirectly answering that argument when he said some are baptized for the dead (1 Cor 15:29). He implies that some early Christians were baptized in proxy for others who died as martyrs without having the opportunity to fulfill the ordinance in their lives.

There are other less recognized rituals that all Christians practice, probably without even recognizing them as such. These include more family-oriented rituals, such as saying Grace over our meals, prayer at bed-time, and family Bible-reading. These are all things we do and teach our children to do as a way of training them in Christian life (p. 92). Yes, even marriage is a ritual that has always been Judaeo-Christian and which we are not authorized to set aside or devalue. The rituals reinforce and internalize attitudes of service towards God and our fellow man or woman.

Ordinances and ritual instill in us an understanding of the reality that the ritual represents. Leithart says (p. 95):
The Supper is not a symbol of a meal with Jesus. The bread and wine are symbols of Christ's body and blood, but because Jesus promised to be with us at the table, this symbolic meal is a meal with Jesus. By eating the symbols, we are partaking the reality.

When this same concept was proposed by one of the overseers of a local Church I am familiar with the pastor summarily pronounced his views as borderline heresy. But the reality of the bread and cup is matter of factly, our relationship with Christ. This is not mystical magical mumbo-jumbo, or Catholic Transubstatiationism. It may be close to Martin Luther's Consubstantiation, but Luther was no heretic. The actual heresy is one that denies our literal union with Christ, making it part of a religious environment having no substantial meaning for our daily lives.

The shallowness of name-calling others as heretical is the same sort that denies the literal authority of Christ's Kingdom over the kingdoms of this world, since that is what our union with Christ accomplishes. The fellowship of the bread and cup unites the formerly disparate groups that came out of the world into one new people in Christ. We are no longer Jews, Gentiles, male or female, rich or poor, adults or children, nor even smart or ignorant or incapable. So long as we have the simple ability to confess faith in Christ, and have done so we are a part of God's ecclesia.

The New Testament reminds us that there is no completely private religion, but we are instead baptized into the body of Christ, and fellowship with Him and with other believers in His death and resurrection. The ordinances of the Church are the proof of the koinonia, the fellowship of true religion. As soon as we privatize religion as an intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic work, we lose the reality of our community with one another and with Christ the head of the Church. Not only that, but religion becomes nothing more than a mystical and subjective experience without relevance to the world around us. That is the heresy of modernist Christianity.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the You may contact him at


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