The Search for Reenchantment - by Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer

For anyone who cared about the future of Christianity in the West, the stakes could not have been higher. The Protestant Reformation was now a quarter-century old; Western Christianity was divided, and the two parties, Catholic and Protestant, met in a last-ditch effort to heal the breach. Representatives of the Vatican, led by the irenic Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, and a Protestant delegation led by Philipp Melanchthon, Johann Gropper, and Martin Bucer gathered in April 1541 at the Imperial Diet of Regensburg in an attempt to restore unity to Christendom.

In advance of the colloquy, Bucer and Gropper had drafted a comprehensive statement of Protestant doctrines as a basis for discussions. Remarkably, and somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Protestants and Catholics, with only minimal negotiation, came to an agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith, which some thought would be the most intractable.

Take and Eat

Then came sacramental theology. The Protestants quibbled with Catholic understandings of the sacrament of penance, but the real impediment to unity centered on the Eucharist, specifically the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the notion that the bread and wine of Holy Communion actually became the body and blood of Christ. Rejecting it outright, the Protestants had here succumbed, by one degree or another, to rationalism: How, after all, does one explain the transformation of wafer and wine into flesh and blood? Martin Luther himself was rationalistic on the point. Twenty years earlier, he declaimed at the Diet of Worms that unless he was convinced “by Scripture and plain reason,” he would not recant, a statement not without irony because Luther had excoriated the rationalism of both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

At Regensburg, neither side was willing to give ground. Even Contarini, the seasoned diplomat, could not break the logjam. For their part the Protestants, including John Calvin, caucused on the matter. Though the Protestants were by no means united on this question of the nature of the Real Presence, Calvin summarized their sentiments about Catholic doctrine: “It was the opinion of all that transubstantiation was a fictitious thing.”

The Colloquy at Regensburg ended in failure.

Now, 500 years into the Protestant Reformation, I’m prepared to argue that the Protestant embrace of rationalism has been its undoing. In America, at least, Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli’s memorialist approach to Holy Communion – the Lord’s Supper is strictly symbolic, a memorial commemoration – has prevailed.

Some Protestants do talk about the mystery of Holy Communion. Luther the foe of transubstantiation held out for a nuanced Protestant approach, insisting that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine. Memorialism, however, is no mystery at all; the partaker is asked merely to recall Jesus’ death. This devaluation of the sacraments – a devaluation rendered even more acute by the evangelical embrace of temperance movements since the 19th century – has produced an arid sacramentalism devoid of power.

Eucharistic Takeout

Let me provide a couple of examples. For a time at least, worshipers at one pioneering megachurch were offered the option of taking communion as they left the auditorium. “There were attendants who gave each person a piece of bread and a small cup,” my informant tells me, “and then the person would ingest both at that point and put the cup in a basket.” Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ, en route to the parking lot.

Several years ago, while under the misguided illusion that I wanted to write a book about Sarah Palin’s faith, I attended her church in Wasilla, Alaska. I happened upon communion Sunday. Following the sermon, the pastor instructed the congregation to queue up at tables scattered around the gymnasium. There, deacons distributed thimble-sized containers of grape juice, and the deacons’ wives broke off pieces of bread. They were wearing the clear plastic gloves used in fast-food restaurants.

The body and blood of Christ. These examples of Protestant indifference toward the sacraments could be multiplied. I’m well familiar with this memorialist approach from my own childhood. Later, my embrace of the doctrine of Real Presence placed the Eucharist at the center of both worship and spirituality.

Not Wanting to Offend

Bereft of a robust sacramental theology, Protestants – both liberals and evangelicals – have succumbed to the cult of rationalism. Among liberals, the embrace of rationalism has led to attempts to explain away the miracles of the New Testament – the annunciation, healings, the Resurrection.

Among evangelicals, more often than not, the rage for rationalism can be traced back to its reading of John Calvin, who was trained as a lawyer. The appeal of Calvinism lies in the fact that once you accept Calvinist presuppositions – total human depravity, the doctrine of election – you enter a vortex in which everything can be explained. Evangelical logic-choppers love Calvinism for precisely that reason, and I suspect it is no coincidence that Calvin felt obliged to defend himself against the charge that his sacramental theology was “bound to human reason.”

By the 18th century, a confluence with Enlightenment rationalism had robbed the Protestant world of enchantment. Protestantism often calcified into theological sterility. Holy Communion was reduced to little more than a mnemonic exercise. To invest it with deeper significance would offend rational sensibilities.

Alchemy of Grace

The failure at Regensburg placed Protestants on the road to a largely unmitigated rationalism. The recovery of a solid sacramental theology would go a long way toward reinvesting Protestantism with a sense of enchantment and restore spiritual vitality. In small, discrete ways this is beginning to happen. Various Protestant congregations are observing Holy Communion every Sunday, rather than once a month or once a quarter. Many have yet to develop a theology befitting such a move, but that may come in time.

The recovery of a sense of enchantment centered in the Eucharist would also be a countercultural gesture of defiance, one that says people of faith refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment rationalism serve as the final arbiter of truth. Positivism is not the holy grail. The embrace of sacramentalism – the Real Presence of Christ – would assert that we live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at play that we can’t begin to understand, much less reduce to rationalistic terminology.

The sacrament of Holy Communion, the alchemy of grace, may be the ultimate such force.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of Evangelicalism in America (Baylor, 2016). He was a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School from 2004-08.