This article dates from 2000, and was originally entitled, “Overblown Views of the Clergy and Sacraments.” As such, it was directed against tendencies I had personally experienced in the church. The actual culprits I will leave unnamed; I imagine they know who they are. But the article also speaks to the deeper existential problem of contemporary society, plaguing it even as we speak. And that is the problem of a libertine/slave citizenry. The two go together. Until people realize they are being played for fools even as they are being titillated, the problem will continue. And it is the job of the church to liberate people from this luxurious form of slavery, not use it for her own ends.
Libertinism and Slavishness in Church and State
copyright © 2000 Ruben Alvarado
This edition published 2013 on commonlawreview.com
There are two evils afoot in this day and age, both of which must be guarded against. The first is libertinism; the second is slavishness. The libertine champions individual autonomy and makes a law out of every particular wish. For the libertine, personal choice is the ultimate expression of and fulfillment of human nature. What that choice might be is secondary; what matters is that the choice is made, and that choice, so long as it does not infringe on similar choices by others, is to be accepted and lauded.
That such a concept is rife with contradiction does not matter. It serves quite well as a slogan and a political agenda.
On the other hand we have today a tendency toward slavishness, visible for example in the ease with which political and media elites manipulate the population at large. People do not seem to need a reason to believe anything anymore as long as whatever it is that they believe is promoted by the appropriate authorities. Independent judgment is scarce and, where exercised, shouted down.
These movements are of course felt in the church as they are everywhere else. On the one hand we have those for whom the individual and the Bible are the ultimate authority and for whom tradition and authority in the church – lodged in a church institution – are held in slight regard. The existential encounter of individual with the text is primary. This leads to shallow theology and an emotional approach to worship, as a substitute for intellectual agreement, attainment of which is practically impossible.
This is a peculiarly American disease, although it is also in evidence throughout the world. In reaction, many have gone over to a liturgical and sacramental theology emphasizing exactly the opposite things – tradition that overrules and authority that is paramount, authority vested in a church institution. The individual is expected to submit to this authority and this tradition; his or her own personal choice becomes secondary. Participation also become secondary, at least participation in the sense of the accountability and responsibility for the life of the church. One is expected to blend in with the whole. This is an organicist [original text: organic] concept.
This tendency lately has manifested itself in certain approaches to the sacraments and to the role of the clergy in the administration of grace. Baptism comes to be seen as in itself effectual of regeneration. The individual’s share in his own salvation become secondary to the act performed upon him. The clerical ministry then becomes indispensable. If its administration of the sacrament of baptism is capable of effecting such a change, then other aspects of ministry must of course have similar importance. One very easily comes to the conclusion that without this ministry that can be no salvation, at least in the normal case.
Now it is true that the church throughout history and, in particular, the Westminster Confession argues for the concept that outside the church there is no salvation. But does this mean that baptism saves? That the clergy play such a crucial role that without its ministry salvation cannot be obtained? In answering these questions, there are certain reformational distinctives that must be kept in mind. The first is the priesthood of believers. What this means is that it is the whole church which acts to bring salvation to the world, not just the clergy. Salvation can come through any of the members of this priesthood, which is the entire church, if such members communicate that Word. For it is by the Word preached that salvation comes.
Baptism is of course of crucial importance to the reformed understanding of the church. And baptism is rightly viewed by the Reformed as entry into the covenant with God. But we must distinguish between covenantal and particular grace. This is the second reformational distinctive to keep in mind. In covenantal grace, God agrees to be the God of a people and that people agree is to be servants of that God. This brings every individual member of that people into direct relationship with God. What that does is put every individual member of the group in a situation of personal accountability to that God. Every individual must decide whether he will serve the God in his heart or not. The covenant provides the opening to such relationship. It does not of itself effect such a relationship. And when covenantal grace eats up particular grace, one comes to the conclusion that the individual’s choice is irrelevant. Individual responsibility is lost; everyone remains in a minority status. Certainly there are those especially in this day and age who would like to keep their flocks in such a state. After all, they have before their eyes the example of civil government doing everything in its power to make its citizenry dependent upon it.
What has always distinguished the reformed understanding of the church is this combination of organic and individual, of covenantal and particular grace. The group, the organic whole, the generational bond, is taken up in the covenant. Thus natural life as created by God is recognized and valued. But on the other hand, such a covenantal understanding has never led to the view that the individual must not stand on his own two feet and make his own decisions. Individual participation in church government has always characterized the reformed churches. This is but a manifestation of the underlying doctrine expressed in particular grace, that the individual stands before God, responsible for his own soul.
In taking this view of the matter, do we deemphasize the ministry of the church? Of course not. A ministry working to edify and build up the members of Christ’s body as urged and command by Paul (Ephesians chapter 4) is crucial. But faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God; and the Word of God can come through any one acquainted with that word. Paul himself was saved by direct revelation from Jesus Christ. He used this experience precisely to underline the fact that ultimately it was not the church ministry to which he was responsible to directly to God (Galatians 2). Thus we do not have an either/or situation here but rather both/and.