Friday, March 23, 2007

Wright on Sacraments

Today I attended the Albert Cardinal Meyer Lecture Series by N. T. Wright at Mundelein Seminary.

First, I must say that the hospitality of the people at the seminary was remarkable. The lectures were offered free of charge to the general public. And they even provided lunch. These people were so friendly and generous that I felt honored to be on their campus.

The lectures focused on sacramental theology.

Wright was wearing his purple clerical shirt with his characteristic cross hanging from a chain around his neck, and read his notes from a laptop on the lectern.

He began by addressing the longstanding rift between Protestants and Catholics. He talked about the "cultural suspicions and alienation" between the two groups. He said that Protestants think that Catholics are caught up in idolatry and works righteousness. Even though the Catholics say it is not true, the Protestants don't believe them.

He said that Anglicans take fire from both sides. But possibly "this Anglican" can offer some words that will form a basis for the two groups to move closer together. He decried the emphasis on tradition, whether based on "papal pronouncements or protestant confessions," at the expense of the authority of the Scripture.

The key, he argued, to understanding the sacraments is eschatology, the movement from creation to the new creation. Everything must be understood in light of what God is doing in bringing the Kingdom to completion. He has called his people to be "the people of God for the world not the people of God away from the world." We must resist the dualist missiology of "saving souls for heaven" over and against building the kingdom here and now.

God's work can be understood in three dimensions:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Matter

"When God made space, time and matter, he made something good." Understanding these three dimensions can give us a richer theology of the sacraments.


Heaven and earth overlap in many ways. The temple in Jerusalem was one such place. Jesus was the ultimate overlapping of heaven and earth. He was the "walking sacrament."

Jesus did not give his disciples "a theory of the atonement to be held in the head, but a meal."

We must make explicit the connection between Jesus' sacrifice and the observance of the Passover.

"When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the place wasn't big enough for both him and the temple."

The Eucharist is "a place where the bright cloud of God's presence engulfs us" as occurred on the Mount of Transfiguration.


Eternal life is not a timeless existence. It is life of the age to come. "Time itself is part of the good creation." "God is very keen on time. He made plenty of it and likes it."

We have assumed that time is part of the problem, but it is, in fact, a great gift. God will remake and redeem time as a part of the new heavens and the new earth.

Jesus always seemed to be working on a different time scale.

The images of the coming age that are given to us in Scripture are "signposts point into a fog." They are not photographic images of what is to happen.

"Baptism is an encoded narrative" including creation, the exodus, the entrance into the Promised Land, the baptism of John and the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We don't come to the Eucharist to be justified by faith. We come because we are justified by faith.


The miracles should not be understood as Jesus transcending matter. They should be understood, rather, as "Jesus doing things that manifested the new creation."

We should not frame our understanding of the Eucharist in terms of a dated ontology and epistemology.


We should not think of the sacraments as "theological meteorites" that have randomly fallen to earth. Rather, we should think of them as "outcropping of rock" that give us a hint at what is underneath it all.

These are just a few of my notes from these lectures. I've tried to be as accurate as possible.

Let me know what you think.

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"

Update: Here’s Helen Mildenhall’s much more detailed notes.


Helen said...

Great notes, Rod - and you got them up really quickly too!

I think I was right behind you going out the door by NT Wright at the end - I heard you say you're from Elk Grove Village and was going to say hi since I'm from fairly close to you - Oak Park - but you'd left.

The traffic totally sucked coming home - it took me about 2 hours to get back, crawling down the TriState - but I'm still really glad I went.

I thought NT Wright was an awesome speaker (I've read some of his books but this was the first time I heard him speak). And I had fun meeting some interesting people at lunch.

I'll let you know when my comments about the day are up.

Helen said...

Update: my comments on the first lecture are up:

NT Wright: Biblical Foundations for Sacramental Theology

Pastor Rod said...


Thanks. I'll put the link in the main post.

Wow. Your notes are much more detailed than mine. Where you once a court reporter?


Helen said...

Thanks Rod.

I put my second lecture notes up now. I don't think I followed it as well as the first, though.