[update April 25, 2017] The following is a chapter from a work by the noted Dutch Reformed theologian Oepke Noordmans. The book is entitled Liturgy and is devoted to the task of elucidating and developing the characteristic Reformed liturgical tradition over against the modern “liturgical movement.” Noordmans situates the Reformed liturgy within the Western Latin tradition, and thus as kindred to the Roman Catholic Mass, albeit with obvious differences. Lutheran and Anglican understandings are also extensively discussed. Eastern Orthodoxy he situates over against the Western tradition, and as a source of inspiration for the modern liturgical movement. His treatment is quite helpful in illuminating an otherwise obscure subject. It also helps us to understand the unique value of corporate worship as an element of the Christian life. The translation is currently in the final stages of preparation for publication.
© 2017 Ruben Alvarado
We must now examine the relationship between Word and Sacrament. Dr. Bakhuizen van den Brink in the Handboek voor den eeredienst [Textbook for the Worship Service] devoted attention to it. He is also on the alert against blurring the boundaries between Rome and the Reformation. He does not wish to go back before the Reformation, because the sacrament cannot be cut off from the working Spirit. He thus rejects a magical realism. The Protestant worship service should not disable the Spirit; not with the administration of the sacraments, and not with the Word. The sacramental must therefore be determined in another manner. Dr. Bakhuizen does so by bringing the spiritual aspect of the Word into connection with the sensory aspect of the sacrament. This sensory aspect brings an accent of reality with it, but this does not abolish the connection with the Word, because the latter is also in need of a sense organ, in order to be heard. In this manner, the entire worship service gains a sacramental character. No part may be considered insignificant. The slightest gesture will thus gain significance here. Because a “real” encounter between God and the congregation is taking place. Bakhuizen appeals for this reflection to Luther and Calvin. He cites Luther to demonstrate that the Word presupposes the senses, just as much as the sacrament does. And he cites Calvin to show that the sacrament is also Word and thus is not cut off from the Spirit.Since the gospel and not the ceremony is the actual enclosure of the sacrament, so that we ought not, like the Greek-Catholic church does, call our worship service Liturgy, but rather with the Reformed, the service of the Word, therefore we should scrupulously investigate the relation between Word and Sacrament. We have already said some things about this in the previous chapter when we remarked that, with the Reformation, Word and Sacraments came to the fore, out from among the ceremonies; and how the Word thereby in a sense assumed the role of the ceremonies, by doing around the sacrament what the ceremonies had been accustomed to do. And we saw that the church thereby gained a more open door to life.
The citation from Luther is from his Larger Catechism. Luther there teaches that the water of baptism is taken up in God’s Word and commandment, and thereby becomes holy water that we should not despise. He cites Augustine, who writes: “When the Word comes to the element, a sacrament arises.” Luther warns against separating faith from the thing in which faith rests. For the whole gospel is in a sense an external and bodily preaching. God always works with outward means; thus, not in the sacrament alone. Two things happen at baptism: the body is sprinkled with water, because it can understand nothing but such language; and words are spoken in order for the soul to listen to them. So do both become holy.
Luther in this manner allows the Word to approach the sacrament. For the reverse, Bakhuizen relies on Calvin. The latter with Augustine calls the sacrament a visible Word. If one wishes to call the Word spiritual in distinction to the sacrament, it must be borne in mind, according to Calvin, that it has just as much need of the Spirit as the sacrament to find the way to the soul.
“The parallel between Word and Sacrament is here complete!” exclaims Dr. Bakhuizen van den Brink. He further cites Tillich and Barth in order to harmonize them. Barth called the subordination of the sacrament to the Word only relative. The Word was not essential either. And the human spirit was also flesh.
We must consider these quotations a little more closely to get a clear idea of these things. And to that end I want to start by pointing out that the context in which such statements were made must be considered. Luther speaks as we heard him when he – Bakhuizen even remarked on it – challenges the Anabaptists. To the false spiritualism that despises the outward signs, he opposes the historical spiritualism that does not do so. And because these people stick to the Word to the uttermost, he argues to the sacrament from there.
That does not mean that Word and Sacrament are equalized. That is precisely what Luther does not want. He knows the difference between them in a different way than we do. He also knows another way to unite body and soul than we. The two natures are connected with each other by what is called the communicatio idiomatum, without the one turning into the other. When the Reformer says that body and soul each accept baptism in its own way, the former as water and the latter as word, it is not sophistry or subterfuge, but is based on his dogmatic presuppositions. Both are united, or rather, are together; both are saved together. But each in its own way and with its own means. That is typical Lutheran. The body has its own epistemology; I almost said: its own doctrine of faith. In any case, its own worship service.
But this holds true only for the sacrament, not the Word. As far as that goes, the distinction of body and soul cannot apply because Luther has only just said that the soul accepts the Word. And now he cannot say that the body does that as well. To do so, he would first have to distinguish between Word and Spirit, and determine that the body receives the Word and the soul receives the Spirit. And in that case the Reformer would have been a spiritualist, which is precisely what he does not want to be. Given his position, he must stick with the first contrast, between body and soul, each with its own epistemology. This can be done for the sacrament, but not for preaching. With the latter, there is unity of Word and Spirit. The Word is the body of the Spirit. And it is un-Lutheran to separate these once again. The reality which is attributed to the sacrament stands in contrast to both Word and Spirit.
Therefore the appeal to Calvin likewise does not hold. He has no epistemology of the body, like Luther. This Latin theologian, citing Augustine on almost every page, is not that realistic. The essential dictum of his Institutes is loco rei in verbo acquiescimus. When the Reformer with Augustine says that the sacrament is verbum visibile, he does not mean to eliminate the difference between Word and Sacrament. It is true, in the absence of the stark realism of Luther, that the parallelism of preaching and sacrament relative to the external and sensorial, by which the German Reformer sometimes argues, can better come into its own. But Calvin opens the way to the difference between them in a different manner.
This begins immediately when in the Institutes, speaking of the word “sacrament,” he explains it as a translation of the Greek “mystery.” It has a function that the Word cannot fulfill. Preaching should thereby serve as interpreter of the sacrament. Calvin is not aware of an epistemology pertaining to the body, a sacrament of silence, regarding which Luther retains a rudiment in the language of the water on the body. That is why he condemns the use of Latin in the Mass, which also signifies a silence. “Let the Word come to the element,” we have already heard him say. Because the force of the water both on the body and the heart lies in the Word. And not the mumbled word, but the preached word, that one can take on in faith. So does the Word serve the sacrament as interpreter.
But this does not remove the difference between them. The sacraments present the promises to us, says Calvin, ad vivum, i.e., God draws them like a schoolmaster on the board before His children, just as Augustine already said. Therefore, Calvin along with this church father wishes to call the sacrament a visible word. Magic spells they are not, however; just as with preaching, faith needs to come into play. However, one must not confuse things. God did not give us one gift, as the fanatics say, but three: Word, Sacrament, and Spirit. The latter opens the heart to the first two.
Calvin thus emphasizes the distinction. With him, Word and Sacrament do seem to be more like each other than with Luther. Both need the Spirit to come into the heart and to be believed. Luther knows that too, when he says that in a sense preaching is an external thing; and yet, with him the Word speaks its own language to the soul, unlike, e.g., water that in baptism speaks to the body. With Luther, Word and Spirit are more closely connected. The Word sometimes has its own hypostasis and in that case is at one with the Spirit.
Calvin is more anxious than Luther to assign a peculiar strength, an independent mode of existence, a daemonic essence to Word and Sacrament. They are institutions [instellingen]. The sacrament is a ministry, an instrument. But if Word, Sacrament, and Spirit are to remain three, and Word and Sacrament two, this makes it necessary to distinguish them. It will also become easier. They do not participate in the divinity of the Spirit, but exist by God’s will and serve Him. And those ministries are distinct.
It is necessary to emphasize that difference and ask where it lies. We take no account of it if we speak, as Bakhuizen does, of the sacramental nature of the worship service. Or if we ascribe to it a dramatic character, as B. ter Haar Romeney does, for which reason then the liturgy must be sacramental. Or if we claim a priestly character for the worship service, as Dr. Boissevain does.
He who wishes to distinguish Word and Sacraments should not do so on the basis of the sign language that they perform, but in connection with the spiritual language by which they address the heart. One should not primarily pay attention to the form in which they come to us, but to the message they convey. Therefore, Calvin’s doctrine of the sacraments is better than Luther’s.
When Luther with his crass realism appears to grant to the sacraments their own mode of existence, then this is related to the sign and not to what is called the “signified” thing. The water has a different way of speaking than the Word and only the body understands that language.
With Calvin it is different. Both Word and Sacrament speak to the heart; both must be heard and believed. Both must be brought to the soul by the Spirit. The speech of the sacrament is the promise, preached by the minister in a clear voice and therefore not in a silent language of, e.g., water to the body. A secret power, of whatever kind, does not lurk there. Without the Word the sacrament is almost nothing.
So, when the Reformed go about determining the difference between Word and Sacrament, for them it is not to be sought in sign language, as with the difference between hearing and seeing, because then the distinction drops away. In other words, we cannot approach them from the creation – which, actually, is obvious. They must be spiritually distinguished, according to the will, the wisdom, and the mercy of God, who puts the promises on the heart of His children in two ways.
When Calvin, following Augustine, says that God writes His promises to His children on the board like a schoolmaster, then we must develop what there lies inchoate, even though he himself does not draw further conclusions. It is not just a difference between eye and ear, which would result virtually in equality. No, what matters should be sought not in the means of grace, but in grace itself, which chooses the means. Calvin indicates that himself. Hearing and seeing are just a picture of what Christ, beyond the measure of nature, by a particular grace works in our hearts.
We must therefore not speak of the relation between Word and Sacrament from creation, but from Pentecost. This is how it happens in the biblical narrative as well.
If we do that, we discover a distinction in the particularity, the specialness, of God’s grace. To wit, in God’s mercy. Because the character of particular grace, in distinction from the grace in the creation and in nature, is precisely that the mercy of God comes to the fore in it.
The difference between Word and Sacrament will therefore need to be sought in the fact that therein God’s mercy manifests itself in different ways. There must be reasons why God’s grace makes itself felt now in this way, now in that. The distinction between hearing and seeing or tasting is insufficient to give account of this; it does not lie in the sphere of particular grace, and at best can be a distant analogy. The thing itself should be different. When there is diversity in the field of particular grace, then sin has to be involved; then man as sinner will have to be implicated. For as such, and not as the possessor of ear and eye, does he arouse God’s mercy. Now, what difference does it make in the worship service whether God comes to us through His Word or through the sacrament?
Firstly, the fact that the difference between Word and Sacrament has to be measured by God’s mercy and by our sinful condition, brings us to the recognition that with the sacrament we are dealing not with a plus but a minus. When an abundance is here spoken of, it is only because sin has abounded. The sacramental in the worship service will not lead to expansion, but rather to ascesis. It will, as little as the cross, be a motive for aesthetic development, but rather for extreme frugality. And this, where the entire Liturgy (with a capital L) stands and falls with the ceremonies, touches the essence of the matter.
There is some cause for putting the emphasis here. It is one of the rocks on which the liturgical movement is in danger of foundering. In the Rapport of the Union for Church Renewal, the essence of the worship service is described as a mystery. This mystery is then further defined as “the form of the life of faith,” parallel to the incarnation, “by which the promise becomes reality.” It is recalled that the body, feet, mouth, knees all participate in the liturgy. That “vessels” are necessary for the service and that “nothing is good enough” to be those vessels. It is recognized that “the display of the treasure in the vessels” is not what it is all about, and that God must release the treasure of grace from the vessels, but immediately thereafter the distinction between Word and Sacrament is again reduced exclusively to the difference between eye and ear. Finally, the worship service is called liturgical life (emphasis mine).
All of this shows that the writers here do not primarily move in the categories of particular grace. They speak of form, reality, hands, feet, eyes, ears, liturgical vessels, and liturgical life. All of this points to the creation or the consummation. The Rapport itself knew that the matter comes down to God releasing the treasure of grace from the vessels. Had one gotten serious about this idea, then there would have been much more talk of sin and grace, guilt and atonement, repentance and faith. These are the categories from the realm of particular grace.
We should also understand some passages from the Handboek in light of the Rapport. Confession – writes Van der Leeuw in the Introduction – should be a living act of faith. And in another chapter the same writer says that the activity of the liturgy prepares the congregation for action. Bakhuizen also sometimes pays the price for this notion, which by the way does not suit him as well. In the discussion of baptism, he says that the work of God thereby becomes livingly visible.
These are all familiar sounds that fit better with Eastern and Anglican conceptions regarding the worship service than with Reformed and even Roman Catholic views. When Rome today also sounds that tone, it is Anglican influence mediated by Newman that has contributed to it.
When the worship service in this manner is made into a mystery, then indeed do the dangers of the great Liturgy threaten, with the ancient mystery-essence behind it. Shape and life are then the leading ideas, the Greek di-unity of form and activity. W. H. van de Pol presents this more boldly and more completely in his contribution to the Handboek on “Het Kerkelijk Jaar” [Textbook on the Church Year]. He there calls the Christian liturgy the realization of the prayer life of the congregation. The secret life of the church is also new reality. The form is important because it reveals life-reality. Liturgy is an objectively-given thing; it is the treasures of the church with the sacrament as the concrete focal point. The liturgy is the spatial shape of the church. It is reflected even in the colors of the church building. The life of the liturgy is the redemption of Christ. “The Incarnation of Christ, i.e., the saving work of Christ, as it has become a historical reality once and for all in the history of mankind, continues in the church of Christ, where by continuation it bears new fruit in the lives of the saints.”
This dynamic realism, which we might call “magical realism” in its spatial form, whereby no gesture is without meaning, and is vaporized in the colors of the church building, threatens to turn the liturgy into a mystery game. Dramatics make their appearance, with music as cosmic background which at the same time connects the parts, fully parallel with the development of secular radio drama. The aesthetics are strongly asserted. The vessels are never “good enough.” Wide aisles leading to high-standing altars are among the demands of the new order of construction. Ter Haar Romeny wishes to have the children carried to baptism along this path in solemn procession, and candidates for confirmation to their first communion, before the eyes of the entire congregation. Banners are to be carried along and the strides of the clergy along such an “endless” aisle form one of the visions of this Reformed liturgist. Ter Haar Romeny is more or less the enfant terrible of the Liturgical Circle. A certain liturgical frenzy can be noted in him. “If such a complete Protestant church is to be consecrated,” he calls out at the end of his essay, “it will be a sign of the new age.”
I hope that this day will never come. We must return to God Himself releasing the treasure of grace from the vessels. This is what the worship service will have to focus on. And thus we come back to what God, beyond nature, works in our hearts by a particular grace. To the mercy of God, which is the essence of that particular grace. To repentance and conversion, which are the result of that mercy, and sin, which gave rise thereto. And to ascesis in the worship service, which is connected to all of this.
In seeking the difference between Word and Sacrament, we will have to determine it in connection with all of this. Here at least there is room to look for such a distinction, room that is missing entirely if we pay attention only to the sensory side, to the difference between eye and ear. For the sacrament to reveal its character of sin and grace, there is reason to think that it will take its own place alongside the Word. It will then prove to stand even deeper in need and sin than the Word. There is reason to expect that we will here find the actual mark of distinction of the church, by which it differs from the other areas where the Word also has its run: the family, the field of the world. The church will then prove to be that which the Church Fathers held it to be, the ark of which the “antitype … also now saves us.” So does our formulary of baptism also teach, when it speaks of “Noah’s eight” who were saved by God’s great mercy. So has the entire Western church seen it, which before the Reformation did not actually have a doctrine of the church, but treated what we consider to be such together with the doctrine of the sacraments.
The sacraments then particularly bring this to expression – that there is a place where God gathers His children. Question 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts peculiar emphasis on His protecting and sustaining them there, as if it wished to express how very necessary this is. We are led to think once again of the formulary of baptism, which speaks of the Red Sea where Pharaoh drowned but Israel went through dry-shod. The formulary for the Lord’s Supper also sets that tone, both in the first part, in which self-examination is described, and in the last, in which the manner of celebrating the remembrance of the sufferings of Christ is explained in detail.
So then, the sacrament, to a degree in distinction to the Word, the gospel, is an indication that the righteous person scarcely shall be saved [cf. 1 Peter 4: 18, King James Version], and that God still confirms through a very particular grace by sign and seal that He will not let him perish. The non-articulated speech and the silence sometimes accompany the sacraments as if to testify that the opinion of the Spirit comes to expression in a different way here than in the Word. And that this opinion concerns a state of our existence which cannot be achieved entirely by ordinary preaching. This remains in force even when the speech of the sacrament, the promise, is preached aloud by the minister. The sacrament is not completely exhausted in preaching. It continues to speak its own language, even if it is translated. And it does so because it refers to a state of our being sinners which is difficult for preaching to approach psychologically.
Here we are diametrically opposed to the modern liturgical movement, which seeks the nature of the sacramental in life breaking out through it. And which allows that life to emerge in the activity of the liturgy, which prepares the congregation for action.
This dynamic realism, which has its origins in the Greek liturgy, should make way for another realism, the one the people understand when it calls things by their name. The sacrament therefore should not be included under the categories of life, strength, activity. It remains speaking, naming. In baptism, we receive our name. And in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus speaks to us in the words of institution. To this degree, it is good that we keep Word and Sacrament together. But we should not look for the difference only in the area of the senses, as if it only consisted in the Word speaking to the ear and the sacrament to the eye. The distinction in speaking is of a spiritual nature. The Spirit speaks in the sacrament realistically; He says things just as they are. Because of its creative function, however, one could yet bring the Word into connection with life and activity. With the sacrament, this is impossible. The realism that here comes forward lies entirely in the area of the name. Baptism calls the state of birth original sin, and the Lord’s Supper calls the state of death sacrifice, broken body and shed blood. Here there is no question of a breakthrough of life, but rather the contrary. The Roman Catholic church stands here with the Reformed on the right side, despite its errors in relation to the effect of the sacrament respecting this original sin and this sacrifice. Therefore, when we hear Calvin say that the sacraments herein differ from the Word by representing to us the promises ad vivum, this means the same thing as what I just termed realistic in the popular sense. The opinion of the Spirit about original sin and the sacrifice of Christ is given in the sacraments. Reality does not keep preaching in the sacrament, but is called by its names. And what philosophy and modern liturgy call reality, dynamic reality with its activity and forms, its liturgical life, is hard to find. Here we are in another world: the biblical world. Sin is pointed at with the finger, and the mercy of God is shown in the sacrifice of Christ.
To that degree one might say that the sacraments are yet more truthful than the Word. They are like the Amen after the Our Father, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains it, and where the Spirit elevates God’s promises “above the level of nature” and above the psychological mediation of the Word. But at the same time, one would have to say they have less reality. They are, in an even fuller sense than is the case with the Word, promises. They are even more word, in distinction from life, reality, activity, than the Word itself. Original sin and the sacrifice of Christ signify that “the righteous scarcely are saved;” and the sacraments have reference to both of them. Therefore, God writes these promises for His children on the chalkboard, so that they, from fear and distress, can cast their eyes on them. Luther says: If our sin and our conscience accuse us, we must say to ourselves: I am still baptized. The sacrament has a strong eschatological side. Here, hope takes its place alongside faith.
This eschatological side also allows us clearly to distinguish the sacraments. No more than we may identify Word and Sacrament with each other, may we identify the two sacraments with each other. In modern liturgical circles we hear the rash assurance that there is really only one sacrament or, what boils down to the same thing, an infinite number. This is unbiblical. It is wrong to fade the sacrament symbolically into the “sacramental,” which then would include the entire worship service. Asmussen writes that in the Reformation, Christianity characterized this as a dead end.
Under eschatological light we see that there can only be two sacraments, and we see the difference between those two. They relate to the extremes of life: birth and death, original sin and the sacrifice of the body and blood. We may not identify these two with each other in the manner of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. That is a pagan, dynamic realism, where life is born from death, so that they are two names for the same thing. The Bible is realistic in another sense. It calls things by their names, so that they can be distinguished. Original sin is called death, and the sacrifice of the body and blood is called life; and both stand in sharp contrast to each other, as evening and morning at the creation. It is impossible to mix them or equate them. “It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” [cf. Genesis 3: 15, KJV]. And in Cain and Abel, original sin and sacrifice are already depicted.
Thus are the sacraments bearers of the mercy of God to the extremes, where “reason succumbs” and where the Spirit can barely make Himself understandable to the soul. They are torches in the night.
Therefore, what Asmussen says is also true, that the relation between Word and Sacrament is not systematic. The latter is not a necessary supplement of the Word and does not crown the sermon. A logical connection, he says, cannot be identified. One cannot arrange the worship service as a pyramid, with the sacrament as the peak. Nor is the sacrament the Holy of Holies behind the Word as the Holy Place.
This is absolutely correct. The distinction between Word and Sacrament is based on the will of God and for us is underivable. It is incorrect to subsume that will in the self-communication of God and to involve Him in a dynamic realism, as the Rapport of the Union for Church Renewal does. This is an improper way to create a foundation for the sacramental unity of the worship service. Before God’s will, our systematics have to be silent.
There follows from this view of the relation of Word and Sacrament, an ascetic attitude regarding liturgy. And liturgical life in which everything flows together, which breaks out in its own forms so as to generate a powerful thrust of which the extension is hope, is not given us by God. The parts of the worship service do not allow of being merged into an enclosed whole. And the sacramental which would serve that end proves to be a false abstraction of the two institutions that are founded upon the will of Christ, which we call baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
 Op. cit., p. 68.
 See p. 17 above.
 Catechismus Maior, IV, Müller ed., pp. 485ff.
 Ibid., p. 487.
 Ibid., p. 489: fidem et rem.
 Ibid., p. 492.
 Verbum visibile, Institutes, IV. 14. 6.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 10
 Karl Barth, “Die Lehre von den Sakramenten“ [The Doctrine of the Sacraments], Zwischen den Zeiten, 1929, pp. 427-460.
 See Noordmans, “Historisch Spiritualisme” [Historical Spiritualism], in Verzamelde Werken [Collected Works], vol. I, pp. 188-204.
 Instead of in the thing, our faith finds rest in the Word.
 Institutes, IV. 14. 2.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 3.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 4.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 4.
 Cf. Will, op. cit., vol. I, p. 190.
 Institutes, IV. 14. 4.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 5.
 Ibid., IV. 10. 7.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 8.
 Ground of being.
 Institutes, IV. 14. 9.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 12.
 Handboek, p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Intended in the sense of the Latin crassus.
 Institutes, IV. 14. 4.
 Ibid., IV. 14. 9.
 Speciali gratia.
 Institutes, IV. 14. 9.
 Romans 5: 20.
 p. 4.
 p. 4.
 p. 5.
 p. 6.
 p. 6.
 It is then too apocalyptic.
 Handboek, p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 121.
 Ibid., p. 81.
 Ibid., p. 198.
 Ibid., p. 199.
 Ibid., p. 203.
 See Ibid., pp. 181ff.
 Ibid., pp. 30-36.
 That the communion table should be closed off from below the leaf to the ground, as this writer desires, is a liturgical mistake. Kuyper (Onze Eeredienst, p. 35) knows better. Many high altars (e.g., in the Dom in Halberstadt) have table legs. Van der Leeuw has informed me that Ravenna has an altar with the full table form. The actual altar closed to the ground has another origin.
 The nota specifica.
 I Peter 3: 21.
 Calvin, Institutes, IV. 14. 4.
 clara voce.
 See p. 35 above.
 See p. 33 above.
 Catechismus Maior, Müller ed., IV, p. 492.
 In the Rapport of the Union of Church Renewal, the Christian hope waits for the fulfillment of the form that life has in the worship service. But the Christian hope expects the fulfillment of a promise, not of a form (cf. Calvin, Institutes, III. 2. 42).
 Op. cit., p. 35.
 τὰ ἔσχατα.
 Anna Bijns [1493-1575; Flemish nun and author].
 Asmussen (op. cit., p. 39) has a similar thought, but he also gets held up by the sensory distinction between the means of grace.
 Ibid., p. 39.