Reformed Sacramentality: A Book Review

Dorothea H. Bertschmann reviews Graham R. Hughes’ Reformed Sacramentality (ed. Steffen Lösel; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2017), an alternative approach to sacramental theology in the Reformed tradition

‘Reformed Sacramentality’ seems to be an oxymoron at first glance. The Reformed tradition, though affirming and celebrating the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion does not have a reputation for a particularly sacramental spirituality or theology. But, writes Graham R. Hughes, himself a Reformed theologian and liturgist, this perception is not quite right. The Reformed traditions have indeed a form of “distributed” or “disseminated” or “diffused” sacramentality (p.1). According to a “disseminated” sacramentality the whole world is sacred, the “theatre of God’s glory” as Calvin famously puts it (Institutes 1.14.20). The entire life must be rendered to God as everyday worship, the ordinary is hallowed and there is no strict division between sacred and secular vocations: Every member in Christ’s body is dignified with a calling to live to the greater glory of God. Hughes duly appreciates the great strengths of this tradition, which makes space for a healthy “worldliness” and more than other traditions allows for egalitarian and democratic instincts to come to fruition in more participatory and conciliar styles of governance, encouraging lay people to be invested in their societies and God’s wider creation.

This form of sacramentality still exercises considerable appeal in our times by presenting faith as personal and unmediated and by showing a great flexibility to be translated into ever new cultural contexts. But Hughes is also acutely aware of the dangers in this model. The Reformed tradition, for better or worse, is more vulnerable to self-secularizing than “high sacramental” traditions, which have a “condensed” sacramentality at the heart of their worship. A condensed or compressed sacramentality finds and celebrates God presence in what is extra-ordinary and marked out as different from every day life through a carefully scripted ritual, such as the Eucharist, in a consecrated space and with ordained personnel clearly distinguished from the laity.

Hughes readily names the dangers of this second model of sacramentality: It can become sterile and inward looking, unable and sometimes frankly unwilling to communicate with the people of a given society or to build bridges of understanding. Hughes calls it poetically “a cloistered credence cut off from the world.”(16).[1]

Still, Hughes is convinced that unless the Reformed tradition does not re-discover a robust sense of “condensed sacramentality” in its worship and encounter God’s alterity (otherness) there it will be unable to distinguish itself from a purely social club or a social action programme and ultimately lose its identity as a religious movement.

Hughes never tires of pointing out the paradox that “(w)hen everything is sacred, nothing is any longer sacred” (p. 107). If the presence of God as the altogether other (such a cherished phrase for Reformed people especially of a Barthian type!) is not encountered in the condensed form of sacramental worship it will be lost altogether.

Hughes’ key thesis is unfolded in a number of essays, which were posthumously brought together for this book by Steffen Lössel, framed by an introduction to Hughes work and an interview with Hughes, which turned out to be the last one.

In five essays Hughes offers a more in-depth critique of what he views as the ‘cultural colonizing of the Reformed tradition by modernity’ (eg p.30) analyzing the plight first before offering a way forward.


Chapter 1: Disseminated and Condensed Sacramentality:

Chapter one sets out the already mentioned forms of disseminated and condensed sacramentality. Hughes sees church traditions on a spectrum between “aniconic” or “low church” on the one hand and “iconic” and “high church” on the other end. Hughes critically rehearses the popular Protestant view, which sees the early church descend from its initial charismatic and egalitarian heights into the rigid notions of formalized creeds and hierarchical office of ‘early Catholicism’. Church offices, just like the canon and creeds are a necessity in an ambivalent world, where “as human beings we require touchstones, consolidated meanings, and defining artifacts (symbols, we may say)”(p.11).

While he makes it clear throughout that condensed and distributed sacramentality must be held in a dialectic relationship, he argues for a “strategic priority” of condensed sacramentality (p.12).

While God is omnipresent human beings need diversified time and space to encounter God’s holiness and alterity, in fact such an encounter needs to bring a certain distance between God and the worshipper, not the often craved for immediacy.[2] This distance is brought about by the sacramental or symbolic re-presentation. And here Hughes detects another paradox: “Coming ‘into’ the presence of God works distance, but it is just this distance that achieves ‘presence’.”(25)

In short, where there is no clear center there can be no periphery either, where there is no condensed sacramentality there can be no dispersed sacramentality. The two are mutually dependent and enabling, though the condensed form has priority.


Chapter 2: What is sacramentality?

Hughes further explores the notion of sacramentality and in particular the role of the physical or material. He calls sacramentality “the marriage of spirit and form”. There is always a component of a “material signifier” but also a “transcendent reference”, which is somehow mediated through or within the signifier” (2). Both dimensions are equally important with the Spirit being “to form as music to the libretto, breath to the body” (16).

Human beings are made in the image of God precisely with this double character and the question of “image” occupies much of the rest of the essay. Drawing chiefly on Jean Luc Marion’s work, Hughes explores the notion of iconicity and idolatry, which are closely related but not the same. Hughes fully affirms Calvin’s concern that something created must never be identified with the creator tout court but critically addresses the Reformed propensity to throw out the baby with the bathwater or rather the image with the idol.[3] What keeps an image from becoming an idol is precisely its propensity to point beyond itself as a window into an ultimate reality whereas an idol poses as this last reality itself, absorbing the viewers’ gaze in itself. An idol is self-referential, assuming divine autonomy. An icon “allows itself to be traversed by an infinite depth” (75, quoting Marion).

Images, including concepts and ideas, mediate between the spirit realm and the physical world. This is true on a simple anthropological level since “the need, desire, compulsion even, to give outward form to inward cogitation is endemically human.” Theologically every human being is made in the image of God and thus a living sacrament – at this stage Hughes mounts an energetic attack against the notion of total depravity! Drawing on Levinas Hughes describes how we discover and are called to respect “the other” in our neighbor, while acknowledging our common humanity. Giving “physicality and visibility to spiritual values” then, is a necessity despite the risks it carries. 74

Hughes rounds off the chapter by reflecting on Jesus Christ as the true icon of God and, following Schillebeeckx, the primordeal sacrament of God, of a God who is deeply involved in and affirming of the material world through the incarnation and resurrection. The sacraments are “the face of redemption turned visibly toward us, so that in them we are truly to encounter the living Christ” (quoting Schillebeeckx, 88).


Chapter 3: The Uncertain Place of Materiality in the Reformed Tradition

In this chapter Hughes takes on what he sees as both a central characteristic but ultimately liability of the Reformed faith, namely its unease with materiality, though this needs to be qualified as an unease with the material or visual in the context of condensed sacramentality, read as “particular representation of God’s presence, whether in terms of designated spaces, of physical depictions of the sacred (images), or of human representatives of God (priestly persons)” (92).

Hughes argues that the trajectory in Calvin’s Eucharistic theology goes from the material to the spiritual, despite Calvin’s positive evaluation of the materiality of the elements in places. At the end of the day there is a clear Reformed propensity to value the Spiritual over the physical, the internal over the external in matters of (condensed) worship: Finitum non capax infiniti (the finite is not capable of the infinite).

Hughes calls for a turning away from the 16th century “war against the idols” (104) and a healthy re-discovery of “particular things, places, times, and persons” where God’s holiness and presence is known in a denser and more explicit way (109) or as God’s intensive presence as Hughes sometimes calls it in contradistinction of God’s extensive presence.

Hughes names three criteria for this type of condensed sacramentality:

The sacred things first must be “semiotically capable” of pointing beyond themselves. Liturgical spaces and ordained persons have to “evoke the sense of otherness”. Hughes is equally emphatic, even passionate about a materiality that is clear and evocative in and by itself, such as plenty of water for baptism (which should be conducted by immersion if possible), chalices, which speak of a royal banquet and bread, which speaks of satisfying human hunger.

To this material aspect must come a spiritual one. Significance must be ascribed through “some act of ritual consecration” (110). Just as the material carrier must keep its ability to speak, for instance bread, which speaks of nourishment, it has to be clear that “it cannot be just bread anymore” (110). Charting a way through this basic Reformation controversy, where different contestants often tried to emphasize one aspect to the detriment of the other, Hughes settles for expression of “Trans-Signification” (110).

The third criterion is “some order of canonicity”, which means that the condensed sacramentality is taking place within the parameters of a shared tradition and church order, lest it simply becomes “the apotheosis of each individual’s experience” (110).



Chapter 4: The Embodied Word: In Search of a Reformed Sacramentality

In this chapter Hughes once again addresses Calvin’s anti-idolatrous sensibilities, which have their root in a heightened sense of God’s majestic transcendence. Hughes suggest to disentangle notions of physicality, read as the possibility of something material to be a carrier or mediator of the divine and idolatry from each other, whereas Calvin saw the two very much as one. The terms “reification” or “apotheosis” are better suited to describe human beings’ sad propensity to project “the love, loyalty, dependence and devotion that, as creatures, is due only to our Creator into some thing (or person, or ambition)”(141). Despite Calvin’s theology of divine accommodation, which makes space to view the sacraments as “an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his goodwill toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith”(Inst.4.14.3) the movement goes from the physical to the spiritual, from the visible and tangible to the invisible. Strictly speaking the sacraments are no longer needed in an ideal world of pure and internalized faith. Not surprisingly the Reformed tradition one-sidedly prioritizes hearing among the senses. This diminishes on the one hand the rich ability of human beings to encounter the world, each other and God through their senses. On the other hand the Reformers were prone to overlook the humanely made aspect of language and linguistic systems, which are by no means immune against idolatry.

In his attempt to both safeguard this insight and allow for a positive notion of physicality Hughes settles on the notion of “metaphor” for the sacraments: They are pointers beyond themselves, “at once consisting in and not consisting in that of which they speak.” 152


Chapter 5: Faith’s Materiality and Some Implications for Worship and Theology

In this chapter Hughes mostly addresses the need for specially ordained persons in the church.  In an attempt to move beyond the somewhat pragmatic and half-hearted rationale of the Reformers for ordination Hughes emphasizes the need for a representative person, who speaks both on behalf of God to the congregation and on behalf of the congregation to God, though not at the same time. Only such a dialogical character of the liturgy preserves the identity of the people of God as being addressed and spoken to.

Hughes notes, that “God’s words require a human spokesperson. Faith depends on materiality.”

This sense of the ordained person as the icon of God’s presence jars with traditional Protestant misgivings about priestly patterns of theologizing, including the biblical traditions thereof! On the other hand Hughes emphasizes the importance of the ordained person’s personal integrity, which goes against an overly “mechanical” view of office and the sacraments along the lines of ex opere operato. Dealing once more with the postmodern longing for transcendence and immediacy Hughes states that only in a properly dialogical worship which takes place in its own distinctive spatial and temporal structures will people encounter God as the radically other and will be confronted with all aspects of God’s demanding, judging and redeeming presence.


Reformed Sacramentality is a rich and fascinating book. We follow Hughes into deep and learned conversations with voices from the tradition and contemporary theologians from various denominations. While this can make it a complex and demanding read in places, the self-contained character of the individual essays adds a helpful redundancy. The introduction seeks to give a tour d’ horizon of Hughes’ overall work but can be quite technical especially in its presentation of linguistic concepts. I recommend to begin with chapter 1 or 2.

The book shows ecumenical breadth and learnedness. Hughes models a genuine humility and openness to learn from other traditions. He ends his last essay by stating that, “(t)o acknowledge faith’s materiality must push Protestants several degrees closer to a theology of ‘Catholic substance.’ ”

This does not mean that Hughes is a detached observer or on a crusade against his own tradition. His is the position of a Reformed theologian, who is gravely concerned about certain developments and malfunctions of that part of the church, which threaten to undo its strengths. His critique is rooted in a deep love for precisely this tradition and a longing that it might once more regain its spiritual verve and depth.

His plea of holding both sacramentalities meaningfully together is first and foremost addressed to those inhabiting Reformed traditions, calling for an important course correction, which does not neglect the legacy of the Reformation but dares to move beyond some of its one-sided positions in the spirit of semper reformanda.


The book’s greatest insight is the sketching out of the two types of sacramentality, dispersed and condensed and to show their inter-dependence. As Lösel sums it up so well “the sacramental character of the world itself becomes obvious only in light of the condensed sacraments.” xlvi

The verdict of Hughes is occasionally harsh: The Reformed tradition and its offspring of various evangelical and charismatic movements are in danger of solipsism in their worship, where the worshippers chiefly encounter their own reflection as in a mirror.

It is easy to imagine how this might not go down well in various quarters. Charismatic Christians will point out that theirs is a search for transcendence, too, with distinctive spatial and temporal patterns, and with the worship leader as the mystagogue, who leads people ‘into the presence of God.’

Representatives of a classical Reformed position would hold that it is in the preached word that the gathered congregation is confronted with God’s majestic alterity and called to respond with obedience in their every-day life.

Why are precisely the sacraments in a condensed sense so important?

The answer is of course their materiality or physicality, which form an important condition for alterity, both in the anthropological and theological sense and hence for a true encounter. Hughes has much to say about how the human existence is bound up and embodied in the physical. His reflections on iconicity or ‘image making’ as a fundamental anthropological condition are also very helpful. The human spirit wants to express and re-present and visualize. The material world reflects God’s creativity and glory. But what about the reverse movement? Can something material, which is not a human being visualize, carry and communicate the divine in a direct and condensed way? Where does the icon become an idol?

At this point Hughes shows considerable ambivalence and at times nervousness. He frequently affirms the theological principle that nothing created can fully substitute for the creator.[4] On the other hand he is very critical about Calvin’s spiritual trajectory in his Eucharistic theology, where too much is left to the imagination of the communicant in the style of ‘it is all in my head’. It seems to me that Hughes cannot quite break free from this ambivalence and perhaps it is an ambivalence, which is theologically appropriate and necessary. Hughes’ suggestion of the consecrated elements as a metaphor will not win him many friends in catholic camps, but might just capture this ambivalence rather masterfully.

His notion of the communicative potential of the ‘matter’ used for the sacraments and his insistence to allow them to speak, to have a meaningful semiosis, could just point to a still very valid contribution of the Reformed tradition. This contribution could clarify that valuing the elements in their creaturely integrity does not need to be at war with a notion that they are ‘much more than just bread.’ It strikes me as remarkable that there is a certain tendency in “high church” sacramentalities to minimize the material aspect of the signifier, at least for the Eucharist (a very abstract version of bread, communion sub una etc.) in the attempt to safeguard the ‘more’.

A Reformed tradition could insist that by pointing beyond themselves the elements are not necessarily pointing away from themselves, reducing their initial communicative propensities quite literally to ‘accidents’. Just as the bread gives life for a season, the consecrated bread communicates and gives eternal life: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:49-50).

A concern for the communicative potential of the elements and their creaturely integrity would open up a further important avenue to hold distributed and condensed sacramentality closely together, which is curiously not that much explored by Hughes, unless I missed it: For it is of course a part of ordinary creation, which is consecrated in this very extra ordinary arrangement of space and time, in order to communicate God’s self-giving love in Christ as the final pledge for the preserving and redeeming of all that God has made. It is a fully human person who is set apart and ordained to re-present and embody the church as a people addressed and called into being by God. And it is a very ordinary section of the wider society which gathers for worship in order to be set apart and re-constituted as God’s holy people and sent out (dispersed, we might say) as Christ bearers and icons to offer glimpses of a redeemed humanity.

Hughes’ study offers fertile ground for many promising conversations about the meaning of the sacraments, but ultimately about how God the creator and God the redeemer, spirit and matter, church and world can be held together in a differentiated and meaningful way. It offers a vast and often exciting spiritual panorama, which holds together God’s extensive and intensive presence and refuses energetically to emphasize one at the cost of the other. Of all Christians Anglicans should be particularly interested in this intriguing and insightful proposal on how to hold together reformed and catholic instincts.



[1] It is important to note, that Hughes shows equal appreciation for catholic proposals to counter these dangers, such as Rahner’s  “liturgy of the world” (p.40-41).

[2]Here Hughes is truly Reformed in the style of the younger Barth, slamming the door equally in the Charismatic’s and Catholic’s face, who are both longing for the unclouded experience of ‘real presence’ during their worship (52). This sentiment is greatly balanced in the interview at the end of the book where Hughes speaks with great feeling about union with Christ in the Eucharist (185).

[3]“The creator is forever beyond the signifying power of the created order.”116

[4] This is by no means limited to Calvinism, but is foregrounded and interpreted with particular passion in that tradition.

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