Thursday, November 12, 2009

By the work worked

Of course I know what Luther was getting at when he assailed the Romanist ex opera operato error. His chagrin over the peasants who thought they could be saved from the wrath of God without faith, if only they gave indulgences, or if only the mass was performed for them, is pretty well known. Sort of reminds me of that old Star-Trek episode in which some extra-terrestrial is having Kirk and Spock over for dinner, and, in place of saying grace, he has some Hindu-ish guy come in and hit a gong. Sure, that counts, doesn't it? Well, I think that's the kind of mischief Luther had in mind when he decried ex opera operato -- by the work worked -- and insisted instead that the means of grace are to be understood instead as opera operantis -- works working and producing faith.

Right, agreed.

On the other hand it seems to me there's also a kind of mischief that obtains if we go into apoplexy any time a hint of ex opera operato is sniffed, because there is a way in which this phrase may be understood as having a proper and salutary meaning.

The power of the sacraments is not effected by faith; it is received by faith. And there's a huge difference. For if the former were true, then I would have to wonder about my faith, whether it was sufficient to do the trick, and I would be depending upon how reflexive my faith was, and, in the end, would be resting my salvation on something in me, namely my believing, rather than on something in Christ, namely His grace.

I was thinking about this as I visited a shut-in today, who was fretting over the fact that she couldn't remember anything, that her memory wasn't serving her well. And I assured her that what matters is that her Lord remembers her.

This got me thinking about the Sacrament, and about doing it "in remembrance" of Him. A recent issue of Gottesdienst has a great article by Chaplain Jonathan Shaw about the matter of who is chiefly to be thought of as doing the remembering there: Christ. Just as the angel of death saw the blood on the Israelites' doorposts, and it was the angel that did the remembering, and so passed over their houses, so also it is God who remembers the meaning of the blood of Christs which He sees, as it were, on our doorposts, and His judgment passes over.

And I got to musing, now there's a salutary way to think of ex opera operato: the Israelites were all spared by virtue of the blood on their doorposts. And this is a token of the effect of the Sacrament on us. While affirming that in the case of the Sacrament faith is requisite on our part, we must also declare that what we believe to be happening here is that it is God who is seeing the Blood, and it is He who is doing the remembering. We are saved by the work which Christ worked.

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