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The Meaning of the Sacraments with Gordon T. Smith

May 17, 2016
"If we’re going to integrate heart and mind, we need to integrate them in our bodies."

Gordon T. Smith is the President and Professor of Systematic and Spiritual Theology at Ambrose University. He is a frequent lecturer at Regent College and will be teaching The Meaning of the Sacraments from June 6-10 this summer.

When did you begin teaching at Regent?

I began in ’98, when I joined Regent as Dean of the Faculty, the role that Paul Spilsbury has now. After five years in that role, I moved on to another position outside of the College but I continued to teach at Regent part time, right up to the present. I’ve never been a full-time faculty member, but have always taught a course or two each semester. In the last 20 years, I’ve missed teaching only one semester at Regent.

Can you tell me a little about your upcoming course, The Meaning of the Sacraments?

I started the course about 10 years ago. In the beginning we weren’t sure there would be sufficient interest, but as it turned out, that wasn’t a problem. What has intrigued me is that, typically, more than half the people in the class come from traditions like the Vineyard or the Apostolic Church: traditions that are distinctly not sacramental. And yet these students are very interested in what the sacraments mean.

What do you think has inspired that interest?

A big part of it is a growing appreciation that our bodies are not incidental to the life of faith. The phrase that we will use early on in the course is that “if it doesn’t take in our bodies, it doesn’t take.” The sacraments provide a healthy response to the over-cerebralness of some traditions and the over-sentimentality of other traditions: if we’re going to integrate heart and mind, we need to integrate them in our bodies.

I look at my sons’ generation—they’re both in their 30s—and I think that they have a deeper appreciation of the embodiedness of the life of faith than is typical in my own generation. I think that appreciation is related to a growing awareness of the significance and value of the sacraments in their generation.

What inspired your own interest in the sacraments?

It came later in life for me. I grew up in the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church, a tradition that is at best ambivalent about the sacramental life of the church. We viewed the sacraments as something Catholics and Anglicans were interested in, but not us.

I can’t really trace how an appreciation of the sacramental life of the church arose in my life. It emerged very slowly over time. The turning point, though, was during my doctoral work, when I took a course in liturgy and the implications of Vatican II for the renewal of the liturgical life of the church. The readings for that course had a profoundly transformative impact on me. In brief, they convinced me that these gestures—the sacraments—have huge significance and power in the life of the church.

Another part of what happened in that process for me was a rereading of Scripture. Every tradition has certain blinders when it comes to reading the Bible. In my tradition, when we came to Matthew 28:19-20, we didn’t even see the order to baptize: we just saw the command to teach. When we read Acts 2:38, we took the instruction to repent very seriously, but didn’t think the instruction to be baptized was particularly important. As a result, that tradition tended to make very little connection between what happens in our bodies and what happens in our interior lives.

How do you see the sacraments—the institutional aspect of Christian spirituality—interacting with the spiritual practices of individual believers?

It’s interesting that you use the word institutional. That’s a word that people often shy away from. But when we ask what it means to be the church, we have to acknowledge that it has a distinctly institutional character to it.

There is no avoiding the close connection between sacramental theology and ecclesiology. You can’t have a theology of the sacraments without a theology of the church. The sacraments are not acts that we do alone: they are by nature communal. We are brought into fellowship with God as we are brought into communion with the church. We don’t baptize ourselves: we are baptized by the church. When we participate in the meal, we do it together, not alone: we are in communion with Christ and with each other.

As I noted earlier, my sons’ generation tends to grasp the deep physicality of our faith better than people in my own generation. However, they’re not generally as strong on the institutional aspects of the faith. Many students I encounter at Regent have a deep ambivalence about the church as an institution and a very shallow ecclesiology. Sometimes there are reasons for that: they have been hurt or are angry at the church and are still working through the experiences and beliefs that have given rise to that hurt or anger. However, I trust and hope that over the trajectory of their degree, and certainly through my courses, they will come to a growing degree of appreciation for the ecclesial character of all religious experience.

One interesting aspect of your course is its consideration of the ecumenical implications of our understanding of the sacraments. How do you see sacramental ecumenism playing out in the life of the global church today?

This is a very live issue. I firmly believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the quintessential ecumenical acts. I am baptized into one church. I am not baptized Catholic, Mennonite, or Methodist: I am baptized Christian. I may be baptized into a particular tradition, but the tradition does not own my baptism.

This is crucial: though there are diverse modes and expressions of baptism, there is only one baptism. To refuse to accept my sister or brother from another tradition, to dismiss their baptism, is an affront to what God is doing in their life.

The Lord’s Supper is where that unifying principle comes out in our communal life. We meet as one at the table. In practice, of course, this is a huge challenge. There is an absence of Eucharistic hospitality across many traditions. As part of the course, my students experience this by attending a church where they are not welcome at the table.

But there are some glimmers of Eucharistic hospitality even in traditions that are typically not open. When I’m in New York, I attend a Catholic church in Manhattan where the priest actually rebuked me for holding back from taking the Eucharist. He said, “Gordon, the Lord has commanded you to break bread with us. It’s the Lord’s table, not our table or your table.” I think that’s really what it comes down to.

It would be spectacular to see universal Eucharistic hospitality in my lifetime, but I don’t see it on the table right now (no pun intended). For instance, tomorrow I fly out to an ecumenical gathering in Frankfurt. It’s exciting that this is happening, and I’m thrilled to be able to enter into conversation with my brothers and sisters, but there will be no shared Eucharist. And that’s disappointing.

What do you hope that your students take away from this course?

First, I would like them to have an appreciation of the Trinitarian character of the sacramental actions of the church. That is going to be crucially important. As an aside to that, I don’t think you comprehend the Trinity just by using your head: you get it because you participate in the sacraments, which are fundamentally Trinitarian acts. That’s not to discount the importance of critical reflection on the nature of the Trinity and its theological significance and so forth, but if we don’t get it in our bodies, we don’t really get it.

Secondly, I would like each of them to develop a deeper appreciation of their own theological tradition, along with the ability to provide a gracious critique of that tradition. Many students who take a course on the sacraments are inclined to then leave their own non-sacramental traditions and move up the “Canterbury trail”: perhaps become Anglican, or Catholic, or even Orthodox. While this is certainly a valid response, my preference would be a more critical appreciation of their own tradition and how they can be an agent for positive change within that tradition.

Thirdly, I hope that the students will leave with a better understanding of their own faith and its formation in light of the sacraments. For example, I’ll have a lecture on baptismal spirituality: what does your baptism mean for the shape and contours of your own spiritual life, as well as the sacramental practice of the church? I want my students to leave appreciating the role of the sacraments in their own individual spiritual lives.

Gordon T. Smith will be teaching The Meaning of the Sacraments from June 6-10 at Regent College. To browse our summer course offerings, visit

Meet more of this summer's fantastic instructors! Read our interviews with J.I. Packer and Doug Moo.

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