Is Liturgy Magic? A Response to Peter Leithart’s Puritan Sacramentalism


I must admit that it always bugs me a bit when someone tells me what I believe, especially when I do not actually believe it. And so the bug in my bonnet buzzed again a bit when I read Peter Leithart’s latest musings on liturgy over at First Things. In this piece, Leithart lets the Orthodox, Roman Catholics and other “high church” types know that our preparatory liturgical rites indicate that we don’t actually believe in the potency of sacraments:

The low-church Reformers (all of them, by my definition) stripped away preparatory rites because they believed that the power of sacraments rests on God’s word, and that alone. If a minister is ordained to a ministry of word and sacrament, why does he need to go through what looks like re-ordination every time he leads the Eucharist? He doesn’t need to wash his hands, because Jesus has already set him apart by the laying on of hands; he was vested at ordination. If Jesus promises to wash us at the font, we don’t need to bless the water. We only have to believe him. Jesus promises to give himself to us at his table. We should trust him, take, and eat. To the Reformers, the Latin Mass didn’t take God at his word. Surrounding the sacraments with elaborate preparatory rites manifested distrust in God’s promise, which means distrust in the potency of sacraments (emphasis in bolding added -ed.).

Earlier today, a contributor wrote a good response to Leithart’s piece, but I wanted to add in my few cents, especially focusing on this issue of what, exactly, is the purpose of the liturgical rites in which the sacraments are expressed and administered.

Liturgy and the Hammer of Monergism

It is said that, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. My sense is that Leithart’s analysis remains deeply informed by the hammer of monergism (which is heretical and presupposes the heretical Christology of monoenergism)—anything that “man” does detracts from the work of God. In this case, it manifests “distrust in God’s promise” and in “the potency of the sacraments.” Why “add” all that preparatory ritual when God has promised that He will save us? If we really believe that God is the one giving the sacraments their power, doesn’t any ritual we do suggest that we don’t really believe that?

When applying the hammer of monergism to liturgy, of course you’re going to smash things into unrecognizable pieces. Indeed, Leithart’s logic really has no business smashing up only the parts of liturgy he identifies as preparatory. If preparatory rites indicate a lack of trust in God’s work in the sacraments, why should the rest of the rites be spared, as well? Why utter words of consecration? Why give thanks? Why even commune? Don’t you trust that God is already at work? Or why not just reduce the whole thing to communion? This quickly reduces to absurdity if consistently applied. And of course that’s the problem with monergism to begin with—if followed consistently, there’s actually no point in doing anything at all as a Christian. God’s taken care of everything.

Even prayer itself can be seen as an attempt to detract from God’s glory. That God commands prayer or whatever doesn’t really hold much water if you see all human activity as impinging upon God’s glory. Obeying divine commands doesn’t do anything. You’re just supposed to obey. Why? No reason, really. Yes, I’m being a little facetious here, but it’s to illustrate a point—divine commands come as a kind of non sequitur in a monergistic soteriology.

This is where Leithart’s definition of liturgy makes it about magic. He seems to believe, because of a supposed “distrust” in God, that “high church” Christians think that the magic won’t happen unless we throw in our two mites’ worth of ritual. In other words, the Eucharist or the water or whatever won’t be really real unless we have our Proskomedia or processions or preparatory rites. But who actually teaches that? It may well be the superstitious belief of some, but that’s certainly not the official teaching of any of the historic churches.

Leithart’s comments about preparatory rites also betray an ignorance of the details of liturgical history. He would like to discard rites that aren’t part of the discrete rite of communion itself, but he doesn’t seem to realize that it’s not so easy to separate those things out from the rite. The Proskomedia, for instance, now takes place “before” the Divine Liturgy, but its history is as an element within the liturgy which gradually elaborated such that it now takes place traditionally during Matins. But it’s not some separate service that you can do without the liturgy, nor can you celebrate the liturgy (most of them, it should be noted) without the Proskomedia. They’re part of the same liturgical action. (Some liturgies, such as the Liturgy of St. James, do not have a prior Proskomedia, but that’s because they still contain its essential elements within the inner part of the rite.)

But if you don’t presuppose monergism and therefore aren’t required to see all human activity as a threat to God’s sovereignty, then liturgy begins to look very different.

It is sometimes said that liturgy means “the work of the people,” but a better translation is really “public service,” or perhaps “a work for the people.” A leitourgeia in the ancient world was usually something done by a person of public import in behalf of his community. A senator could build a public forum, for instance. Likewise, the Divine Liturgy is a public service performed by God in behalf of the world.

It was mentioned that the liturgy begins with “It is time for the Lord to act.” The liturgy is God’s action. But how can that be? It certainly looks like human beings doing things like singing and praying. And as also mentioned, “Bread and wine are both the result of a painstaking process of transformation or metamorphosis. Bread does not grow on trees, and there are no lakes of wine. Rather, these elements of the Eucharist are cultivated, worked, and produced by the toil and sweat of human beings. They achieve their telos through effort.” Everything visible seems to be the acts of human beings. But the part that is normally visible is not man’s work (“the work of the people”) but rather man’s participation in God’s work. In other words, the things that we do in the liturgical life are our way of receiving and being changed by what God is doing.

The Reality of “High Church” and “Low Church” Sacramentality

Probably the weirdest (and I don’t use that term lightly) part of Leithart’s argument is his claim that “low church” equals “high sacramentality” and “high church” means “low sacramentality.” This is just an absurdity when it comes to the actual evidence on the ground regarding what Christians believe about the sacraments. Contrary to Leithart’s claim that the more “high church” you go, the less people actually believe in “high sacramentality,” the truth is actually the very opposite. Line up the churches which clearly teach the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and you’ll find a bunch of men swinging censers and wearing funny hats. Line up those who go all-out in their Zwinglianism (i.e., that the sacraments are just signs and symbols with no “there” there), and you’ll find business suits and (increasingly) blue jeans. Associating “low church” with “high sacramentality” is really just wishful thinking that is in no way reflected in what’s really going on in churches.

Why is that? Why is it that “high sacramentality” actually manifests in “high church”? Most Christians throughout history have held to a “high sacramentality,” and most of Church history would also not have known what “low church” was. If one steps outside the monergistic schema for a moment, it’s really not difficult to answer why: If you really believe that what is on that little plate and in that cup are really the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the God-man and Saviour of the world, then you will not be putting those things into styrofoam vessels, nor will you be throwing away what’s left over after communion. What you treasure most, you give your best to. What is most critical, most potent, most precious is surrounded by the greatest glory you can offer. The golden diskos and the golden chalice do not detract from the glory of what they contain but rather express it and draw attention to it.

This is the same logic that informs God’s command to make the Ark of the Covenant out of rather impressive stuff and which made the Temple of Solomon one of the most glorious structures in the world. And it is the same logic that informs the rather elaborate rites—again, commanded by God—that took place in that Temple and in the Tabernacle before it. Building a temple and doing all the things that traditionally surround worshiping in it and going to it in no way express a distrust in what God’s presence there does. It’s the opposite, really. All those things are done because of the trust in God’s presence.

I get what Leithart is trying to say with his contrast of “high” and “low” church and sacramentality, but he should probably have a look at what his fellow “lows” are actually teaching and doing. He won’t find a “high sacramentality” there. He’ll actually have to look pretty hard even to find people using the word sacrament positively. There’s a reason that the altars have been permanently stripped in the low church world. It’s because they don’t believe there’s anything terribly special being offered on them.

The Nature of Preparation

What’s at the heart of all this is a failure to understand the nature of preparation when it comes to liturgical life. Leihart wants to remove preparation from liturgy, and we addressed that above, but it’s not like it’s not a distinctly visible part of Christian ritual. It is. He’s not making that up. So let’s consider it in its distinctiveness.

So what’s the point of preparation? It’s certainly not magic. We don’t think that preparation is what makes the magic of the sacraments happen. They’re not magic at all.

In some cases, the preparation before liturgical services has the purpose of not changing the sacraments or making them happen but rather preparing us to receive them. We know, for instance, that receiving communion unworthily is dangerous. So it makes sense to have pre-communion prayers to help prepare the communicant. Likewise, when entering a church for prayer, it is appropriate to pray while making that entrance, because it helps to prepare the worshiper for what he is about to do.

In most cases, though, such as the Proskomedia of the Byzantine Liturgy, what’s happening is mainly practical but with elaboration surrounding it. There is a need to get out bread and cut it into the appropriate shape to fit onto the diskos. There is a need to get out wine and water and pour them into the chalice. These are the “practical” actions of the Proskomedia. Along with these practical actions are a whole series of commemorations of the saints, as well as the living and departed, commemorations which express our ecclesiology in the midst of the Eucharist—the Body of Christ and the Body of Christ. And the actions of cutting the bread and pouring the wine and water into the chalice are all done with quotations from Scripture, particularly the Suffering Servant passages from Isaiah.

We can also make the same observation about the prayers of entrance into the sanctuary (Kairon) and the vesting of the clergy, which Leithart thinks look like another ordination. But as someone who’s actually been ordained at a Byzantine liturgical celebration, I don’t have any feeling of being “re-ordained” when I pray before entering the sanctuary, put my vestments on and wash my hands before the Proskomedia. No, it’s that I need to go into the sanctuary, need to put my vestments on (wearing them everywhere would be awkward) and need to make sure my hands are clean before handling the holy vessels.

To think this looks like a “re-ordination” would require not actually knowing what an ordination looks like. The key element in ordination is kneeling face down at the altar and having the bishop’s hand placed on one’s head, an element which is decidedly lacking from what I do before the Divine Liturgy. There’s no laying on of hands before the Divine Liturgy. Why? Because I’ve already been ordained.

One could make roughly the same observations about the Western processions into the church and so forth, as well as the Eastern versions of such things, such as the procession with the Gospel into the sanctuary. They are fundamentally practical.

So the question is this: Since we need to do these practical things like walking from one place to another, cutting bread, pouring wine, cleaning our hands, etc., how are we going to do that?

It seems that Peter Leithart would prefer that we do all these things without prayer. In other words, even though it’s obvious that we’re doing all these practical actions as part of our worship of the incarnate Lord, we should basically pretend that they don’t really have any sacred aspect to them. They are not set apart.

But they are set apart. And so we pray as we go. And as the Church prays as it goes over the centuries, it begins to think of ways to encompass more with its prayers. The Church’s reflection on prayer and preparation gradually express more ways to consider our participation in the leitourgeia of God.

Ritual Participation is Human

Why is it that Christians have traditionally done all these things and have a tendency to elaborate on them rather than to reduce them? It is because they are human, and human beings are gifted by God with a desire to participate.

To think about this more clearly, I’d like to indulge in a metaphor. It has its limitations, of course, but I think it works.

Consider the participation of sports fans in a football game. They prepare in many ways before they go to the game. They buy their tickets and make plans on the calendar. They purchase jerseys and hats. They may put colorful makeup on their faces. They have a ritual meal before the game (“tailgating”). They eat certain kinds of foods during the game. They shout out chants and cheers. The follow particular players and teams. They keep statistics. They throw footballs around at home. And so on. And no one thinks of these things as detracting from what the players are doing or expressing a distrust in their ability to play the game.

All these things are ways for fans to participate in the game, even though they’re not actually on the field. The players are doing the leitourgeia for the fans, and the fans participate in all the ways that they do. And it’s perfectly natural and human and normal. Very ritualistic. Very “high church.” Very much a way of participating that merely learning the score just cannot convey.

And what would a “low church” football game look like, a la Peter Leithart’s Puritan sacramentality?


(Sorry, Eagles fans. You’re used to it by now, though.)


  1. Wonderful response, Father! Many thanks! (And I’m in favor of any article that ends with the Eagles getting their tails kicked). 🙂

      1. Not as much as being a Browns fan does. The Eschaton will probably come before Cleveland wins another championship. -sigh-

  2. My seminary classmate, Leithart, continues down the Protestant Reductionism path, while espousing evolution of doctrine. His blogs seem sometimes desperate at times to be innovative and new. Your response is helpful. Thanks.
    There are many Protestant writers that I read and find helpful. He is not one of them.

    I have no time.

    Also get a little tired of some First Things writers (and many others) lumping us in with Rome as if we were twins.

  3. I’m not a sports fan, but I love the analogy. I thought it worked well. Now, will Leithart and his fans actually read and reflect on such responses? Will they grant that someone within a tradition may have more of an understanding of what their own tradition means and means to express than someone looking and evaluating from the outside (with inevitably erroneous presuppositions). Those are my questions. If they never do, thanks anyway.

  4. First off, wonderful article. Reminds me what St. Thomas Aquinas said about the pre-baptismal exorcism rite. “What is done in the exorcism does not take away the sin for which man is punished after death; but only the impediments against his receiving the remission of sin through the sacrament.” (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Q. 71, A. 3)

    Secondly, would it be necessary though to include preparatory rites for the sacrament to have effect? I get the vibe that some Orthodox and Catholics would hold that isn’t necessary as some hold that Protestant baptisms are valid as long as they maintain the intentions and are done in Trinitarian form by a Trinitarian but I don’t really know.

    Third, while the Eagles have a fairly high-powered offense, I think them scoring 23 on the Steelers like this requires Nick Foles to be healthy. The Steelers defense is too good. While I am some-what of an Eagles’ fan, I’d say that a more realistic score would be Steelers: 34, Eagles: 13.

  5. “We should trust him, take, and eat.”

    We should just bring a box of donuts and carafe of coffee and call that the Holy Supper. That would be trust, wouldn’t it?

    “We only have to believe him.”

    What’s the need for any sacramentalism at at? Just reduce everything to belief and be done with it.

  6. Fr. Damick,

    From your post, it seems that you’re upset because what Leithart said is untrue about what you believe. I.e., you don’t believe that the liturgy is “magic”. However, I felt as though in this post you argued similarly to how Leithart argued, except you’ve critiqued him for it!

    Leithart said that the prepatory rituals are suggestive of a lack of faith in the power of the Sacraments, basically arguing that these rituals actually reveal a low sacramentology. That is not your position, and you argued that Leitharts problem (at least one of them) is that he’s a monergist, and because he’s a monergist, “there’s actually no point in doing anything at all as a Christian.” Certainly, Leithart, and those in his tradition would never make that claim. How is this not telling those who agree with him (as to monergism) what they believe even though they themselves would not recognize it? If he isn’t allowed to argue along the lines of, “here’s an implication of what you believe due to your preparation rituals,” why can you argue, “here’s an implication of what you believe based upon your monergism”? Hopefully that make sense :).


    1. The difference lies in that Leithart is saying that “high church” Christians do not trust God, i.e., he is saying something about the inner state of other people and what they believe. And while it is true that he is drawing that as an implication of what he thinks about preparatory rites, the difference between that statement I made and what he made is that I’m not saying anything about what he believes other than what he himself has said. I’m drawing it as a logical implication, yes, but I’m not saying that that is what he believes, just that it is the logical result of what he believes. “There is no point in doing anything at all as a Christian” is a statement about reality irrespective of the other person’s inner state, while “You distrust God” is a statement about another person’s inner state.

      Does that make sense?

      My beef with Leihart is not that he’s drawing out implications from a practice or belief he disagrees with—that’s a normal part of critique. It’s that the content of those implications says something which he can’t possibly have knowledge of, i.e., someone else’s inner state. And what’s worse is that it’s actually directly contrary to what they have said they believe.

      1. Fr. Damick,

        Thank you for your response. Personally, I feel that the difference is too subtle to be significant. Letihart certainly doesn’t believe a number of the things you said are implied by monergism, just like you don’t believe what Leithart said was implied by liturgical preparations. I wonder if you would have been satisfied had PL simply said, “the logical result of preparatory ceremonies is that ‘high church’ folks don’t genuinely believe in the power of the Sacraments”? That type of statement is theological as it is personal.

        Just my two cents… thanks again for taking the time to respond!

    2. “”If he isn’t allowed to argue along the lines of, “here’s an implication of what you believe due to your preparation rituals,”…””

      Adriel, the problem is that it would be an inference not an implication.

  7. Father Damick,
    You are absolutely correct in pinpointing monoenergism as the main culprit here. This assumption is the starting point for Calvinistic theory, which ultimately manifests from the metaphysical concept of absolute divine simplicity. The logical conclusion leads to a type of theistic determinism which disallows any type of freedom for a substance that is not a part of God lest it should detract from his will. In this schema we see the person is eradicated and the need for prayer simply makes no sense. It employs the nominalist worldview which fails to see the interconnectedness of all things and sees religious rituals as distractions that need to be eliminated. Although, as you pointed out, modern man is not without his rituals. As someone from the Deep South, I can tell you that Sundays’ low church, anti-ritualistic Protestants transmogrify into a highly ritualistic people on Saturday afternoons. The cognitive dissonance is astounding.

    Thank you for your excellent response.

  8. St. Nicholas Cabasilas:

    God said: “Be fruitful and multiply”. What then? After these words do we need nothing more to achieve this and is nothing else necessary for the increase of the human race? Is not marriage and conjugal union essential, and all the other cares which go with marriage, and without which it would be impossible for mankind to exist and develop? We consider marriage, therefore, necessary for the procreation of children, and after marriage we still pray towards this end, and without seeming to despise the Creator’s command, being well aware that it is the primary cause of procreation, but through the medium of marriage, provision for nourishment and so on. And in the same way, here in the liturgy we believe that the Lord’s words do indeed accomplish the mystery, but through the medium of the priest, his invocation, and his prayer. These words do not take effect simply in themselves or under any circumstances, but there are many essential conditions, and without these they do not achieve their end. Who does not know that it is the death of Christ alone which has brought remission of sins to the world? But we also know that even after His death faith, penitence, confession and the prayer of the priest are necessary, and a man cannot receive remission of sins unless he has first been through these processes. What then? Are we to dishonor His death and to claim that it is no effect, by believing that its results are inadequate unless we ourselves add our contribution? By no means. (A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 29-31)

  9. “If one steps outside the monergistic schema for a moment…”

    The “mo” words caught me off guard, and for a second, I thought you were going to talk about monergistic schemamonks. You know you’re leaving Protestantism when… 😛

  10. Fr. Andrew,

    Very helpful article. As one grew up with a conscience bewildered by monergism, I find this article almost therapeutic.


    Your prudent tracing of the error to an error in theology which is linked to an error in philosophy is insightful. I’ve speculated for a while that Calvin was more influenced by Islamic thought than he surely knew and this might be another instance.

    The eradication of the person, as you nicely expressed it, has a profound impact on my primary concern, which is education. At a largely protestant home school conference I reminded people that a Christ centered curriculum (a buzz word) has to honor human nature if it is going to honor Christ. While they were a largely sympathetic audience, I could easily see that wheels were churning and quite a few were not sure what to do with that idea.

    Education has been seriously messed up by the eradication of the person, “the abolition of man,” and only a right recognition of who Christ is, what the sacraments mean, and how man relates to God can fix it.

    Sorry if this takes the discussion off course, but this article drew it out so I thought I’d post here. I hope that’s appropriate.

    Well said, Fr. Andrew and Mason,


  11. Fr Andrew, thanks for your well worded and thoughtful post. I for one (and there are a rapidly growing number) am neither Orthodox, nor Roman Catholic but yet reject the moniker of Protestantism. I donor wish to be seen as a protester to unity in the Body.

    As a pastor in the Wesleyan tradition, I (and many others) are learning to embrace the mystery of our God and the beauty of liturgy and the sacred mysteries (sacraments). We are learning, in large part, due to the void we sense left by the spiritual vacuum created by the low church movement of the Reformtion.

    While there was much to be reformed in Western Christendom by the 16th century, Many of us have realized the Reformers missed the mark. I for one feel we must look to the East if we wish to discover authentic early Christian faith.

    I am grateful for your writings and the ministry of so many others on Ancient Faith Radio to share the light of the ancient faith that is still available to all who look to the uncreated Light of Christ. If we will humble ourselves to admit we have erred in our theological formations, and look to the first Light that shone through the Apostles and early church fathers, He will lead us to truth.

    Oh that we would echo Jesus’ prayer in John 17, “…that they all be one”, and really mean it.

    Lord Jesus. Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and teach me to have mercy on others!

    Blessings on your ministry!

  12. This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a pastor who insisted the “real” church existed underground until the Reformation but could offer no proof of its existence. It had been suppressed by the emperor (St.) Constantine and forced underground. So everything that evolved was really pseudo, “high church” so to speak, with all those unnecessary trappings while the “low church”, so to speak, existed in secret and used only Scripture, eventually being justified by the Reformation.

  13. just as a matter of passing interest, the Liturgy of St.Addai and Mari — omits — the words of Consecration: “This is My Body……This is My Blood except in an escatological sense on the ground that the Words having been once spoken by God Himself are sufficient for His Church throughout time.
    The Take and eat is done; the Do this is done; these and the prepatory rites and post Communion prayers are all served as the ‘envelope’ in which the Anaphora is spoken aloud, secretly and by God Himself
    The council of Trent dismissed this as heresy, but post Vatican II our Latin brethren have decided that it is ‘valid but deficient’ [whatever that means.]

  14. On another note there are versions, including a version I’ve seen in Russian Orthodox use, of St. James, that appear to fully modernize it, i.e. the liturgy is celebrated inside the iconostasis as normally and the proskomide occurs beforehand using the normal rites. I believe they even do the typical psalms. This is certainly the case with the 1890s era recension of the Divine Liturgy of St. Mark which some Greek and Russian seminaries have celebrated. The Syriac Orthodox liturgy, which is derived from St. James and uses the Anaphora of St. James on special occasions, and a number of others (including a version of John Chrysostom, and that of the Twelve Apostles, which liturgists think was the inspiration for the former, and a version of St. Mark (or St. Cyril) does the liturgy of preparation during or immediately following Matins with the curtain closed over the altar, just as in the Byzantine Rite.

    I believe the versions of St. James that have the proskomedia occur during the liturgy itself may be authentic, but many of these versions, which feature oddities like twelve or thirteen concelebrating priests or a Bishop, and a temporary Holy Table set up in the nave, seem to me to be inauthentic; there are a number of “reconstructed” versions of this and other liturgies of Greek version that don’t make too much sense. Especially anything with a second Holy Table in the nave; yes, it’s true that in ancient centuries the iconostasis began life as an altar rail and you could see much more of the altar, but that doesn’t justify a reconstructed liturgy where you have effectively added a second altar. That’s just strange.

    I love your article though Fr. Andrew. I just wanted to shoot it out there that the liturgy of St. James has in recent years been celebrated in some strange ways that may be inauthentic, has also been celebrated just like Vesperal St. Basil on Holy Saturday; I.e. The standard liturgy but with Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent instead of the Cherubic hymn and a different Anaphora, and lastly, the Syriac Orthodox Church, which is rhe only church to have continuously used the liturgy as its primary aervice, does the Preparatory Service beforehand and with the curtain drawn, just like the Byzantine Proskomedia (the prayers are similiar too).

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