This is the last in our series of posts on legalism, which we have called covenant path marking because those who practice these acts see them as faithful embodiments of the covenant.
The Incarnational tradition, more accurately the sacramental tradition, is Foster’s weakest chapter, partly I’m guessing because he is Quaker. At any rate, he chooses Susanna Wesley, examines briefly divine aesthetics, and then looks at Dag Hammarskjold. As for its defining parts, Foster sees it as concerned with God as manifest through material means and that the material mediates the divine. There is a religious dimension and an arena for the everyday life.
[By way of critique: nothing substantial on the Lord’s Supper; nothing on Eastern Orthodox theology of icons, which is where this is most clearly elucidated; nothing on Roman Catholic churches and the like. Nothing on Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.]
The strengths: God is with us, it roots everyday life, gives meaning to work, corrects Gnosticism, beckons us Godward, the body becomes important, and deepens our ecological sensitivities. The potential perils include idolatry and the sense of managing the divine through the material.
When does the Incarnational tradition become covenant path marking: whenever specific embodiments of the faith — say the Lord’s Supper, baptism, candles, crosses — are identified with what they are intended to reveal or manifest or make present. Whenever we judge our own spirituality on the basis of whether or not we have “done one of these things” or whenever we judge others on that basis.
Covenant path marking is here to stay because of human nature. The mystery of the Christian life is that it is about union with God, communion with others, for the good of the world — and any means or any material embodiment or anything else that is designed to lead us to that can never be as important as loving God, loving others, or living in the Spirit. We need to keep in mind that we have a tendency to confuse the ring with the beloved.
We also need to keep in mind that what we value will become a covenant path marker, revealing to us that covenant path markers are good but not the end, not the goal toward which we strive.
Finally, we need to realize that everyone of us is susceptible to this problem, so let us quit thinking that others have the problem with legalism.