Edward Schillebeeckx and Louis-Marie Chauvet both provide insight and theological discourse on the sacraments. However, their approach and core theology is quite different. Edward Schillebeeckx’s Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter of God provides a strong personalist understanding of the sacraments. Louis-Marie Chauvet, on the other hand, concentrates on the symbolic order of the sacraments working through models. He calls these models objectivist, subjectivist and the Vatican II model in his book The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. This paper compares their diverse approaches to the sacraments; highlighting the specific areas of concentration: institution, grace, service (diakonia), mystery, Trinity, and use of the Emmaus story, as found in their two books.
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The Belgian-born theologian, Fr. Edward Cornelis Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx, O.P. (1914 – 2009) focused on dogmatic theology, although his doctoral thesis was on the redeeming economy of the sacraments. The original version of his text, Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God, appeared in 1960 during the early and preparatory phases of Vatican II.
Fr. Louis-Marie Chauvet was born in the Vendée region in west central France on January 26, 1942. Ordained in 1966, he is a French Roman Catholic Priest and a professor of sacramental theology at l’Institut Catholique in Paris, France. His earlier work, Symbol and Sacrament, was published in 1995 and The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body was published two years later, in 1997.
Contrast in Overview
Schillebeeckx’s publication that appeared during the early preparatory phases of Vatican II was underscored by his personalist understanding of the sacraments. His preliminary releases and conceptual theological analyses were very influential in the composition Lumen Gentium. Much of his work places significant emphasis on the people of God. For Schillebeeckx, the sacraments are an intersection of faith and life. He operates out of an understanding that the human person is unique and of irreducible value and dignity. The sacraments fulfill the need to create and distinguish the singular human gift of encounter. In Christ, God became human. We are therefore compelled to recognize that there is a distinct divine character about being human. For Schillebeeckx, human beings are essentially special because they are made in the image of God.
In contrast, Chauvet’s views include an emphasis on causality and symbolic order. Although he expresses his view that grace is received in the sacraments he is careful to avoid a commitment that it is the sacraments that are the cause of grace.
Chauvet does not view human beings apart from language nor see them as inventing language. He states, “â€¦ one cannot be a human being without language.” He equates language to a mother’s womb stating, “â€¦ in relation to the subject, language is no longer regarded as an instrument but as a womb: the subject arises and is maintained within it.”
For Chauvet there is an order of language, which creates the possibility of dialog concerning the sacraments. This points to a symbolic order that allows Christians to attain their identity. As he states, “This symbolic womb, within which each person is born as Christian through initiation, is unique. One becomes a Christian only by adopting the ‘mother tongue’ of the church. Sacraments are an important element of this tongue.” For Chauvet, the sacramental rites are not the direct causality of grace. They are faculties that allow access to God through an act of ritual, which allows the encounter. Human beings encounter God through the symbolic rituals of the Church (i.e., the Body of Christ) through language, scripture, rite, and symbolic exchange. As Chauvet states,
If symbolic exchange is part of what allows the young human to become and perdure as a subject, it is constitutive of the fact of being human; it is irreducible to a simple ‘experience’ from which, by analogy one could approach the mystery of communication between God and humanity. This means that the relation of believers with God is not only as in symbolic exchange but is inscribed in this type of exchange that structures the subject. Again the theological takes ‘place’ in the anthropological.
In contrast Schillebeeckx views sacramental symbols quite differently. He sees sacramental symbolic action as ecclesial worship. This concept is summarized,
The ecclesial acts, in which Christ, through his eternally actual redemptive act, makes himself here present, are in their human religious form, precisely this kind of act of ritual symbolism performed by the religious community which is the Church. Because they are the Church’s activity in worship through symbols, St. Thomas calls the sacraments the insigne’s of the Church.
Sacraments are ecclesial symbolic actions; the Church herself receiving a visible bestowal of grace from God. The Church is the body of Christ, giving human love for God through worship, and also receiving the body of Christ through the Eucharist. The Church’s grace adds nothing, but instead shares in the fullness of the grace of Christ. Schillebeeckx identifies the symbolic action of the sacraments as, “â€¦ acts of Christ in and through his Church.”
For Schillebeeckx, the substance of a sacrament is in part an epiclesis, “â€¦ in the form of a request (in forma deprecativa) that is to say, a prayer in which we plead with the Father by the power of the Spirit and together with Christ.” Chauvet agrees. He discourses on the inseparability of Christ with His church in his particular view of the Eucharist. For Chauvet, “â€¦ the Church cannot offer Christ-in-sacrament without being itself offered through and in him.” This notion of the subjective anamnesis from Chauvet runs parallel to the notion of Christ as the sacrament of encounter purported by Schillebeeckx. Schillebeeckx also views a twofold element and the second part is, “â€¦ a definitive bestowal (in forma indicativa).” In comparison, Chauvet’s “second sense” speaks of, “Christ-in-sacrament by the church.”
Schillebeeckx views the sacraments as an office and charism of the Church. He defines them as an “â€¦ official act of the Church as redemptive institution.” The Church is the locus where grace and redemption become visible. It is also the visible saving activity of God in Christ, which allows the Church to be a saving institution. This locus becomes visible in two ways; institutionally and through charism in an; “â€¦ outward manifestation of inward communion in grace with God.”
On the other hand, Chauvet does not embrace the hierarchical notion of the institution of the sacraments. It is for this reason that he rejects the idea of a sacrament as an instrument, a channel or a germ. This rejection hinges on the notion that the sacraments appear as representations of the efficacy ex opre operate as equated with and as “a corollary of the ‘power’ of the priest.”
Chauvet does embrace the institution of the Church as the minister in the name of Christ, when it comes to the administration of the sacraments. As he writes, “Christian identity is not self-administered; to obtain it, one must receive baptism and one does not baptize oneself; one is baptized by another person acting as the minister of the church in the name of Christ.”
From Chauvet’s perspective, grace is freely given. Like the manna in the desert, it is underserved, free of charge, and unable to be quantified or calculated. Grace is not only the gift given freely by God, but it is also the return-gift given by the one who receives the underserved grace. There must be some level of gratitude from the recipient. By way of example, Chauvet states, “â€¦ this does not mean that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist depends on the subject’s disposition, since it is God who through the Holy Spirit realizes it.”
What the human subject would return to God is faith and love. However, if one was not disposed to do so, God’s gift of grace would decay like the manna in the desert. Chauvet accepts Karl Barth’s rejection of “ex opre operato” (i.e., from the work accomplished) as a correct response. This is an appropriate response by Chauvet only if Barth’s fears are valid and the subjectivist model, which purports that the sacrament is an instrument for the production and transmission of grace, effects the negation of the freedom of God in salvation. Barth respects the freedom of God’s word in salvation and Chauvet concurs, but asserts that the sacraments are still instruments. A sacrament is either an objective instrument for the production of grace, or an instrument for the transmission of grace.
Grace is important, central, and permeates most of the text throughout Schillebeeckx’s discourse. This is demonstrated by the fact that the word grace, appears more than 500 times throughout his book. Schillebeeckx understands grace as an unfailing gift based on the foundation of Christ’s love for the Father. He describes how grace works in the sacraments using words such as infallible, ecclesial visibility, and the encounter with God. He states, “â€¦ only in grace does God’s presence in man blossom forth into an intimate and living communion.”
Grace comes from one mediator, who is Christ! Christ Himself is the Church and therefore Jesus is the visible realization of divine grace. Christ is grace. Because of this, divine grace is tied to the human saving acts of Jesus. Still, “â€¦ the Church is the visible expression of Christ’s grace and redemption realized in the form of a society, which is a sign (societas signum).” Schillebeeckx calls sacramental grace, “â€¦ a ‘curative’ grace-one which restores us to health-and as such has the additional effect of actually compensating for any lack or impotence on our part, so long as our disposition remains sincerely religious.” Grace is like a seed. When we submit to the grace of God, this seed can take root. In so doing, Christ Himself corrects what is at fault with us, therefore allowing us to transcend our own weakness.
The notion of service for Schillebeeckx is rooted in Christ’s service as the Son of God. This is true, not only from the standpoint of Jesus’ life, but also by His sanctifying sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. Human service is restricted to acts in praise of God, through “â€¦ ritual worship of the community.” This is supported by Avery Cardinal Dulles, who, referring to observations by Richard McBrien, agrees “â€¦ that in some of the early presentations, such as Schillebeeckx’s Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God, there is a narrow sacramentalism that accords insufficient place for diakonia (service) in the Church’s mission to the world.”
Service is mentioned 32 times by Schillebeeckx in his book, but not in relation to human diakonia. For Schillebeeckx, service is what the Church does as manifest in the servant model or change-agent model of the Church, seen “â€¦ primarily as an instrument of social change whose task is the wise and courageous allocation of its own moral and material resources for the sake of the Kingdom of God among humankind”
Chauvet embraces St. John’s theological model of the ethics of service to others. He specifically mentions how the,
â€¦ fourth Gospel intentionally substitutes the washing of the feet for the institution of the Eucharist; it replaces the command concerning the ritual memorial of the Lord Jesus (‘do this in memory of me’) with a command concerning his memory translated into acts: ‘I have set you an example that you also should also do this as [kathÅs] I have done to you (John 13:15).’
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The notion of diaconal service as a response to the primary gift, which is God’s love, is important to Chauvet. He states, “In the measure in which the ethical life of service to others is lived as a response to this primary gift [God’s love], and therefore takes its source in the sacraments, in that same measure it finds its Christian identity. [â€¦] This is why it would be absurd to think or say that one could be a Christian without the ethical concern for othersâ€¦”
Chauvet believes, “â€¦ the Bible is replete with mysteries or sacraments in conformity with the use of ‘mystery’ in the Jewish writings of the apocalyptic current replete with revelatory signs of God’s secret design for the world.” On the other hand, he does not claim that he can explain the mystery of God’s communication with humankind. He believes that in theology, “â€¦ no question should be silenced by the excuse of ‘mystery.'” He turns to the paradigm of scriptures, then to theological discourse and finally the sacraments. Chauvet states, “Under the paradigm ‘Scriptures’ we can classify everything that pertains to the knowledge of God’s mystery revealed in Jesus Christ.” Chauvet does admit that mystery is valid in both the incarnate Word, who is Jesus, and through the hypostatic union. Mystery for Chauvet is primarily Christological, both in the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery. He purports that it is also Trinitarian. In addition he believes that mystery is neither to be used as an excuse to forgo theological discourse and investigation nor evoked as excuse to discontinue the quest for understanding the scriptures.
Schillebeeckx certainly accepts the Christological centered mysteries as well as the Trinitarian mystery. He also views the seven sacraments as a celebration-in-mystery of the life of Christ. Jesus is both human and divine. His human acts of redemption have temporal significance. Avoiding any docetic tendencies, Schillebeeckx asserts, “His human existence itself is wholly and entirely a presence of God among us.” He clearly ties the mystery of the life of Christ to the mystery of the Church in the sacraments. As he states, “Just as Christ through his risen body acts invisibly in the world, he acts visibly in and through his earthly body, the Church, in such a way that the sacraments are the personal saving acts of Christ realized as institutional acts in the Church.”
Schillebeeckx and Pope Pius XII coincide, as he points out in his reflection on the encyclical Mystici Corporis. Schillebeeckx also touts the merits of Dom Casel’s work in this regard. For Casel, Christ is personally present in the sacraments. In the Eucharist, Christ Himself is present through transubstantiation. In the other sacraments however, His presence is by virtue of His act of redemption. For Schillebeeckx, the presence in mystery of the sacraments rests on the personal acts of Christ.
Schillebeeckx refers to the Trinity a number of times throughout his book. The Trinity dominates many areas of his sacramentology and is reflected in many of his theological preponderances. As an example, there are statements such as, “â€¦ that absolute generosity which the Trinity simply is remains the universally dominant background of the mystery of saving worship in Christ.” It is the ex opre operato where the “â€¦ sacramental reality of the mystery of the redeeming Trinity in Christ” is manifest in Passover and Pentecost.
He believes it is impossible to understand and grasp the “essence of redemption” without understanding that redemption is the “historical revelation of the mystery of the Trinity.” For Schillebeeckx, both baptism and confirmation are necessary in order for initiation to be “â€¦ fully achieved by incorporation into Christ both as Son of the Father and as co-principle of the Spirit.”
Chauvet, on the other hand, confines his discourse on the Trinity primarily within one section of his book. He continually separates the sacramental mystery from the Trinitarian mystery. He links Christ and God the Father, through the Paschal Mystery and the Parousia of the Ascension. Chauvet also creates a clear diagram for the Paschal Mystery of Christ, but he focuses on the sacramental grace within the power of the risen Christ through the Spirit.
In Chauvet’s words, “â€¦ we must think of God as somehow human in God’s divinity, [which] leads us back to the cross of Jesus (relation Father/Son) and to the Spirit (without which the relation Father/Son is theologically unthinkable)”. Chauvet understands the relationship of Father and Son within the context of anthropology, while the Holy Spirit is drawn from a cosmological context as pneuma. In this context, the Spirit transcends all boundaries (“blows where it chooses”). Chauvet maintains a polarized view of the sacraments: One is a “Christological pole [â€¦] and the other is a pneumatological pole”. For Chauvet, it is in the Christological pole that one beholds the “pole of humanity”. It is in the pneumatological pole where one discovers the “â€¦interaction of the pole of God.”
Use of Emmaus
Both Chauvet and Schillebeeckx refer to the road to Emmaus in their texts. For Chauvet, the Emmaus encounter, which we find in the Gospel of Luke, provides three levels of framework: the geological, the theological, and the symbolic. It is within the context of the symbolic that the two disciples encounter their conversion. It is a “round trip” that leads them through their experience of gaining faith and a new vision, which opens their eyes to the risen Christ. It was imperative for them to abandon their own “tomb of death” and understand the primacy of Jesus as the Messiah and not simply a prophet. Chauvet understands that the eyes of these disciples were not opened at the Eucharistic table during the Last Supper. For these two disciples, it was when they, were able to “assent to the mediation of the Church” on the road to Emmaus that their eyes were opened.
Chauvet also creates a diagram demonstrating that it is inside the circle of the mediation of the Church that salvation can take place. This diagrammatic representation in his book depicts the Church encircling faith, as gained from scriptures and ethics in the human function. In his diagram, Jesus Christ is positioned above the Church to empower faith by grace through the sacraments. The circle of the Church is not closed; it is a dotted line, since the world is wider than the Church.
Schillebeeckx refers to Emmaus as, “â€¦ our hidden road [â€¦] on which we are accompanied by our Lord.” He aligns his thinking with St. Ambrose who understood the sacraments as the place where Christ encounters us face to face. As Schillebeeckx reflects, “It is the mystery of Christ’s sanctification in and through His Church, and is expressed in God’s agape, His condescending and generous love in Jesus Christ, in the love of His Church as the bride of Christ, and in man who as a believer emerges from himself and transcends his own limitations.”
Schillebeeckx is clear,
With regard to substance, a sacramentally structured evangelization or catechesis presents a Jesus Christ who is not simply an ‘example’ but the genuine ‘sacrament’ of God. To present a Christ who would be first of all an example to imitate is to veer toward a path of moralism, a discouraging, even a fraudulent path since the example to imitate is inimitable. Christ must be announced primarily as the sacrament of God (and as a consequence he is to be “imitated” in a way completely different from that promoted above). As a sacrament, that is to say, as the gratuitous gift of God and, more precisely, as Savior. He is our ferryman to God’s shore. We do not have to desperately run after him to join him: he himself comes toward us, as at Emmaus, and takes us in his boat to carry us to the other shore. It is, before all else, this truth that the sacraments are witnessing to us; a pure gift from God deposited in our hands (the body of Christ-Amen).
Chauvet believes that the sacraments are ritual symbols. This begins with the understanding that man is a linguistic creature. Humanity does not exist except in communication and this communication is permeated by sign and symbol. Human beings are not organisms from the start, but individual persons, and therefore ontogenetically the human being is compelled to be a being in relationship. This personal relationship unfolds from language and therefore Chauvet posits that sacraments are the language and the communication of God with humanity. Chauvet reaches the operational level of the sacraments by first understanding the role of language as mediation and womb and this then brings him to the symbolic order. It is only within the Church that humanity can encounter scriptures, sacraments, and ethics. This is done through participating in sacramental and liturgical rituals. The Word of God is truly at the mercy of the Body of Christ, who is the Church.
It is logical and natural that Chauvet would conclude his book on the sacraments with a discourse for pastoral ministers. His challenge is to accept the pastoral task for preparation of those seeking baptisms and weddings, accept the task of confronting those received into the Church with the Gospel and the profession of faith, and avoid falling into rigorism by remaining pastorally prudent.
Schillebeeckx honestly admits that all of his efforts to define the sacraments provide only a pale outline. It is in the sacrifice of the Mass and in the sacraments where we meet our Lord in His concealed presence creating a, “â€¦ longing that we must turn at once into Christian action.”
Reflecting on Schillebeeckx’s theology of the sacraments, Richard McBrien, author of Catholicism provides a clear summary when he states,
Apart from the sacramental principle, there is no basis for contact (encounter) between God and the human community. God is totally spiritual, and we are bodily creatures. Thus, it is only insofar as God adapts to our material condition that God can reach us and we can reach God. The embodiment of the spiritual in the material and the communication of the spiritual through the material is the sacramental principle. [â€¦] The essence of the Church, therefore, ‘consists in this, that the final goal of grace achieved by Christ becomes visibly present in the whole Church as a visible society’. The Church is not only a means of salvation; it is the principal sign, or sacrament, of salvation. It is not only an institution but a community. Indeed, it is an institutionalized community. The important missionary implication is not whether the whole world enters the Church but whether the Church itself gives credible witness to the presence of Christ and of God within the community.
For Schillebeeckx the sacraments of the Church are how the Church provides the reality of Christ to humanity. God unites Himself to humanity in Christ, who is humankind’s undeserved gift and greatest sacrament. Through this unity we are given the gift of identity as well as the gift of communication by which God can address us. The Church then, as the body of Christ, is and remains as sacrament for humanity. In our corporeal existence, we are therefore given access to the institutional sacraments, which are both significant, visible and accessible events as well as a means to our salvation.