Vander Zee writes out of a deep sense of grief over the evangelical denial/neglect of the Sacraments. This is what truly drives him to write this informative book. In his own words,
“Evangelicals apparently are not very interested in the sacraments, which seems to correspond to their lack of interest in ecclesiology in general.”1
Vander Zee masterfully exegetes what is at the heart of this Protestant abandonment of a robust view of the waters of baptism and the Eucharistic meal. They have made the preaching the center of all worship,2 and the Lord’s Table an unfortunate monthly or quarterly inconvenience.
Vander Zee helpfully re-orients the reader to see in these sacraments more than mere church activities or necessary duties, but rather a life transforming and soul-changing rite that impart grace to the elect. The evangelical (broadly speaking) world needs to be called back to where the Scriptures and the Church have been calling for centuries: to the frequent table feast and the powerful sign and seal of baptism.
The book is divided into 12 chapters. Each chapter focuses on a particular dimension of sacramental theology. The reader who has had little exposure to this topic will find himself familiarized with historical, theological, and existential levels of sacramental thinking after reading this tome. As a result, he will become aware of different theological traditions and furthermore, why the Church from her early days has made these sacraments an essential part of their worship.
Vander Zee approaches these topics from a distinctly Reformed perspective. Nevertheless, he has carefully analyzed other traditions where the Eucharist and Baptism are inextricably tied to their liturgy and life. The author is not only interested in defining a Reformed view of the sacraments (though his expositions of them reveals his presuppositions), but he is eagerly seeking to see the sacraments as means for unity and peace in the Church. Due to this passionate plea for unity, he interacts with the honorable Alexander Schmemann,3 who beautifully taught that we are hungry beings and our souls can only be satisfied in Christ offered for us. “All hunger,” wrote Schmemann, “is a hunger for God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.”4
The author interacts with an eclectic group of sacramental scholars ranging from Catholic to Baptist writers. As a Reformed Scholar, it is only natural that the author emphasizes some Reformed distinctive such as covenantal baptism and a Calvinistic view of the spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. These are supplemented by positive interactions with other traditions that seek to elevate the importance of the sacraments in the Church.
Ultimately, sacramental interest is diametrically opposed to the overwhelming individualism of our day. In his discussion of the history of baptism, Vander Zee operates under the presupposition that the Bible, particularly the New Testament, operates under Jewish conceptions of the family.
“In the Jewish way of thinking, one’s relationship to God is not merely individual, but social.” 5
In this same manner, argues Vander Zee, the New Testament continues that covenantal structure begun in the Older Covenant where families were invited to partake of all sacramental privileges in the covenant.The households are always included in God’s promises.
The intention of this book is to bring together the body of Christ, battered by divers controversies, into one baptism. The Church is plagued by separatists who would rather die alone than seek catholicity. In their estimation, individualism is the badge of orthodoxy. In other words, my response to the gospel, my commitment to Christ, and my remembering the Lord at the table is the foundation of true Christianity. In a spiritual level, it is my faith that God is seeking and my attestation of that faith in baptism that He desires. Certainly in such an attempt to please God, they are in actuality denying the work of grace in God’s gifts to the Church. The stake is high: if individualism wins the day, all that the Reformers considered sacred will vanish and give way to autonomous man operating their autonomous wills, preaching their autonomous message to an autonomous congregation who finds solace not in God’s means to nurture and sanctify, but their own human-devised methodologies.
In light of all this, there is one element of this book that is astonishingly faulty. On page 100, under footnote 29, Vander Zee seems to give in to the symbolism of baptistic theology in baptism. He writes,
“In the practice of baptism today, however, I think its sacramental nature is best highlighted by using as much water as possible according to the circumstances. There is an exciting return to immersion among non-Baptist churches, even for the baptism of infant and young children. I believe that immersion, where possible, is the best means to express the meaning of baptism.”
This statement is utterly problematic. Even if the symbolism of baptism by immersion seemed to reflect what happens to us in baptism, the question is: does the Scripture teach immersion? It is not enough to seek catholicity at the expense of abandoning certain Biblical and Reformational principles in order to unite.6 It has been sprinkling and pouring that has united the “One, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” not immersion. Furthermore, the Biblical imagery of immersion bears no similarity to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Christ was not buried under the earth, but above the earth in a tomb. Suffice to say, Vander Zee builds a crescendo leading to a beautiful portrait of true baptism, however, he fails to seal that picture with the imagery the Bible conveys.
As a final note, this book walks the reader through a litany of events; from the corporate unity that was broken so severely in the Church of Corinth,7 to the historical battles fought over sacramental definitions in the Reformation, to the modern divisive waters of baptism that were truly intended to unite. We are reminded, however, that amidst these tumultuous historical events, our God has not left us without the proper means of nourishment. He brings us to the waters of baptism and to the table of His dear Son to be fed and assured that we are His to His everlasting praise. These are simple, physical means: water, bread and wine used by God to create a new humanity. In the words of Vander Zee, ” When the worshiping community shares the cup of wine, it affirms what it already is and will become in God’s kingdom, a community of joy and gladness, the feasting people of God.”8
- Vander Zee, Leonard J. Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship, pg. 10. [↩ back]
- Preaching must be maintained as central in Orthodox Reformed worship, but it cannot be put against the Sacraments, for they work together as means of grace to convert the soul. [↩ back]
- See pages 18, 202, 212, 219, 224, 239. [↩ back]
- Quoted in Vander Zee, pg. 239. Taken from Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, p.15. [↩ back]
- Vander Zee, pg. 99. [↩ back]
- Immersion is also practiced by the Orthodox Church. Though the Orthodox Church has been greatly used by God, they are still practicing erroneous baptism by denying the rich Old Testament symbolism of pouring and sprinkling. [↩ back]
- I Corinthians 11. [↩ back]
- Vander Zee, pg. 240. [↩ back]