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Survey of Theology 8. The Doctrine of the Sacraments

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Topics

(These topics are largely from Chapter 16 in: Christian Theology. An Introduction. Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001

 

1. What is a Sacrament?

1.1. The Mystery of the Saving Work of God

1.2. Augustine's Definition of a Sacrament

1.3. Hugh of St. Victor's Definition of a Sacrament

1.3.1. A Modification of Augustine's Definition

1.3.2. The Requirement for Efficacy and Sacraments of the Old and New Covenant

1.3.3. Problems with the Definition of Hugh of St. Victor

1.4. Peter Lombard's Definition of a Sacrament

1.5. The Reformation and the Definition of a Sacrament

1.5.1. Luther's Definition of a Sacrament

1.5.2. Zwingli's Definition of a Sacrament

 

2. The Donatist Controversy and the Efficacy of Sacraments

2.1. The Diocletian Persecution and the Donatists

2.1.1. The Diocletian Persecution

2.1.2. The Consecration of Caecillian as Bishop of Carthage and the Donatist Schismatic Church

2.2. The Donatist Versus the Catholic Position on the Efficacy of Sacraments

 

3. The Function of the Sacraments

3.1. Introduction: Three Functions of the Sacraments

3.2. Sacraments Convey Grace

3.3. Sacraments Strengthen Faith, Reassure Us

3.4. Sacraments Enhance Unity and Commitment to the Church

 

4. The Eucharist: The Question of the Real Presence

4.1. What Does "This is my body" Really Mean?

4.2. Views in the Early Church

4.3. Theories on the Real Presence in the Eucharist

4.3.1. Introduction

4.3.2. Transubstantiation

4.3.3. Transsignification and Transfinalization

4.3.4. Consubstantiation

4.3.5. Memorialism

 

5. Baptism: The Debate Over Infant Baptism

5.1. Infant Baptism in the Early Church

5.2. Questions About the Importance of Infant Baptism

5.3. Infant Baptism Remits the Guilt of Original Sin

5.4. Infant Baptism is Grounded in the Covenant Between God and the Church

5.5. Infant Baptism is Unjustified

 

Primary Reference

 

 

1. What is a Sacrament?

1.1. The Mystery of the Saving Work of God

The Greek word mysterion in the New Testament refers to the saving work of God

  • very early in the church, Baptism and the Eucharist were connected to the "mystery" of the God's saving work

  • Tertullian (155-220) in North Africa first used the Latin word sacramentum ("a sacred oath" the oath of allegiance required of Roman soldiers) to translate mysterion. For Tertullian, sacramentum referred to:

    • the mystery of God's salvation

    • the church rites associated with salvation

      • important as signs of Christian commitment & loyalty

  • (The Eastern Orthodox today often talk of the 7 Mysteries rather the 7 Sacraments)

 

 

1.2. Augustine's Definition of a Sacrament

Augustine (354-430) first tried to defined what a sacrament is. Three requirements:

  • 1. a visible sign of an invisible grace. That is, a physical doorway or gate to a spiritual reality

  • 2. the sign has some resemblance to the invisible reality it points to

    • e.g.: in the Eucharist: wine resembles blood

  • 3. has an efficacy. Sacraments bestow grace

 

Augustine's definition was later felt to be too broad. He considered the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, for example, to be sacraments, "signs of the sacred"

 

 

1.3. Hugh of St. Victor's Definition of a Sacrament

1.3.1. A Modification of Augustine's Definition

Hugh of St. Victor (Paris theologian, 1096-1141) refined Augustine's requirements and added an additional requirement

  • 1. a "physical or material" element pointing to a spiritual reality (e.g. water in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist)

  • 2. a resemblance to the reality pointed to (e.g. wine resembles blood)

  • 3. an efficacy. Sacrament bestow a benefit or grace

  • 4. an authorization to signify that reality

    • authorization: some reason to believe the physical or material element is intended by God to point to the spiritual reality

      • e.g. institution of the Eucharist by Jesus

 

 

1.3.2. The Requirement for Efficacy and Sacraments of the Old and New Covenant

During the time of Hugh of St. Victor, the requirement for efficacy has a special significance in distinguishing between "Sacraments of the Old Covenant" versus "Sacraments of the New Covenant:"

  • Sacraments of the Old Covenant (e.g. circumcision) signified spiritual realities but bestowed no benefits -- they were not efficacious.

  • Whereas, Sacraments of the New Covenant bestowed benefits they were efficacious.

 

 

1.3.3. Problems with the Definition of Hugh of St. Victor

Problems with the definition of Hugh of St. Victor:

  • At this time, early 12th century, there was general agreement there were 7 sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, marriage, ordination, extreme unction

  • Penance however had no material sign

  • Hugh of St. Victor claimed by his definition, the incarnation, the church, and death were all sacraments

 

 

1.4. Peter Lombard's Definition of a Sacrament

Peter Lombard (1100-1160) was called the "Master of the Sentences." His textbook The Four Books of the Sentences became definitive beginning theology textbook for the next 350 years. Peter slightly modified the four requirements of Hugh of St. Victor:

  • 1. sign of an invisible grace of God (removed requirement for "physical or material," thus allowing inclusion of Penance as a sacrament)

  • 2. a resemblance to the reality pointed to (e.g. wine resembles blood)

  • 3. an efficacy. Sacrament must be able to bestow a benefit or grace (sanctify the believer)

  • 4. authorized for a dual purpose:

    • to signify a sacred reality

    • to sanctify the believer

 

Peter then showed that only 7 "sacraments" met these requirements

  • baptism

  • confirmation

  • the eucharist

  • penance

  • marriage

  • ordination

  • extreme unction

 

 

1.5. The Reformation and the Definition of a Sacrament

1.5.1. Luther's Definition of a Sacrament

Martin Luther (1483-1546) narrowed the definition of a Sacrament, emphasizing the need for a physical or material element, its efficacy to forgive sins, and its institution of by Jesus.

  •  1. a "physical or material" element pointing to a spiritual reality (e.g. water in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist)

    • by again requiring that the sacrament must have a physical or material element, Luther excluded Penance (which early in his writings he had included) 

  • 2. a resemblance to the reality pointed to (e.g. wine resembles blood)

  • 3. an efficacy to forgive sins

  • 4. an authorization by Jesus, documented in the Bible to:

    • to signify the sacred reality

    • to forgive sins of the believer

 

Or more succinctly: a physical sign instituted by Jesus with the power to forgive sins

 

Only 2 of the 7 Catholic sacraments met this strict definition:

  • Baptism

  • Eucharist

 

 

1.5.2. Zwingli's Definition of a Sacrament

Ulrich Zwingli (1481-1531, Swiss Reformer) said a sacrament (he accepted Luther's two, Baptism and the Eucharist) is a sign instituted by Jesus, which signifies the commitment and loyalty of the believer. He denied that a sacrament had efficacy -- that is, that they bestowed grace or the forgiveness of sins.

 

 

2. The Donatist Controversy and the Efficacy of Sacraments

2.1. The Diocletian Persecution and the Donatists

2.1.1. The Diocletian Persecution

Roman emperor Diocletian (b. 284, d. 313) issued Edict of February 303:

  • Christian books ordered to be burned

  • Christian churches to be demolished

This persecution of Christians ended with conversion of Emperor Constantine (b. 280, d. 337) and Edict of Milan 313

 

 

2.1.2. The Consecration of Caecillian as Bishop of Carthage and the Donatist Schismatic Church

Church leaders who had turned over their books to be burned were called traditores "those who handed over" [their books]

 

Felix of Aptunga was a traditor who later consecrated Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage, North Africa in 311

 

Donatists in North Africa (leader was Donatus) argued:

  • Caecilian's consecration invalid

  • sacramental system of Catholic church had become corrupted. All baptisms, ordinations by Caecilian and his priests tainted and invalid

  • church leaders must be pure and cannot include traditores, even if they repent

 

The Donatists formed a separate church. Sociological issues complicated the theology:

  • most Donatists: native Africans

  • most Catholics: Roman colonists

 

By 388, when Augustine returned to North Africa from Rome, the Donatist Church was larger than the Catholic Church

 

 

2.2. The Donatist Versus the Catholic Position on the Efficacy of Sacraments

The Donatist and Augustine, arguing for the Catholics, had very different view on how the validity of a sacrament depended on the purity of the minister giving the sacrament.

  • Donatists slogan: ex opere operantis = "on account of the work of the one who works." Efficacy depends on the personal qualities of the minister

  • Catholic (Augustine) slogan: ex opere operato = "on account of the work which is done." Efficacy depends on the grace of Christ

 

The Catholic position became the dogma for the Church to the present.

 

Some quotes:

 

Nothing more is accomplished by a good priest and nothing less by a wicked priest, because is it accomplished by the word of the creator and not the merit of the priest. Thus the wickedness of the priest does not nullify the effect of the sacrament, just as the sickness of a doctor does not destroy the power of his medicine. Although the "doing of the thing (opus operans)" may be unclear, nevertheless, the "thing which is done (opus operatum)" is always clean

- Pope Innocent III (1160-1216)

 

Article 25, Articles of Religion, Book of Common Prayer (p. 873):

 

On the Sacraments:

". . . Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their [a minister's] wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men."

 

 

3. The Function of the Sacraments

3.1. Introduction: Three Functions of the Sacraments

The role or function of sacraments (not mutually exclusive)

  • 1. convey grace

  • 2. strengthen faith and reassure us of God's promises

  • 3. enhance unity and commitment in the Church

 

 

3.2. Sacraments Convey Grace

The ability to bestow grace (the efficacy of a sacrament) was part of the definition of a sacraments until the Reformation, when some Reformers (Zwingli) disputed whether a sacrament bestowed grace

 

Medieval theologians debated not whether the sacraments somehow conveyed or bestowed grace, but whether they:

  • themselves caused the bestowal of grace

  • acted as causa sine qua non; that is, were indispensable preconditions for God to bestow grace

 

An example of this second view is seen in the quote:

 

When Peter Lombard states that the sacraments effect what they signify, this must not be understood to mean that the sacraments themselves cause grace, in the strict sense of the world. Rather, God effects grace at the presence of the sacraments

- Peter of Aquila

 

 

3.3. Sacraments Strengthen Faith, Reassure Us

The Protestant Reformers emphasized that sacraments strengthen faith and reassure us of God's promises. In particular, there was a sense that God had given us the signs of the sacraments as a gracious gift because of the weakness of our faith:

  • In an ideal word, the Word of God (which already promises us grace and the forgiveness of sins) should be enough for us

  • Because of the weakness of our faith and the mistrust in our hearts, God added Signs (the sacraments) to God's Word in order to:

    • reassure us of God's promises

    • strengthen our faith

 

The function of the sacraments to strengthen faith and reassure us of the God's promises is also emphasized in Post Vatican II Catholicism, where sacraments said to sustain and nourish both:

  • fides qua creditur = "the faith by which it is believed." The trust that lies at the heart of belief.

  • fides quae creditur = "the faith which is believed." The content of the Christian faith in the Creeds, catechism, etc.

 

Because [sacraments] are signs, they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen and express it. That is why they are called "sacraments of faith." They do indeed confer grace, but in addition, the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace to their profit, to worship God duly, and to practice charity.

- Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, p.20.

 

 

3.4. Sacraments Enhance Unity and Commitment to the Church

 

In no religion, whether true or false, can people be held together in association, unless they are gathered together with some common share in some visible signs or sacraments.

-Augustine of Hippo

 

The role of sacraments as enhancing unity and commitment was greatly emphasized by the Protestant reformers. For some of them, such as Ulrich Zwingli, this was the primary, if not the only purpose of a sacrament:

 

Ulrich Zwingli (Swiss Reformer):

  • a sacrament is primarily a token to show that an individual belonged to the community of faith

    • Baptism the Christian equivalent of circumcision, a public demonstration of membership

    • Eucharist is a continuing public declaration of membership in the Church

 

 

4. The Eucharist: The Question of the Real Presence

4.1. What Does "This is my body" Really Mean?

 

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

- Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

 

What does "this is my body" really mean?

 

 

4.2. Views in the Early Church

The Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem show a clear belief in the "real presence" in the fourth century

 

[Jesus Christ] by his own will once changed water into wine at Cana in Galilee. So why should we not believe that he can change wine into blood?. . . We should therefore have full assurance that we are sharing in the body and blood of Christ. For in the type of bread, his body is given to you, and in the type of wine, his blood is given to you, so that by partaking of the body and blood of Christ you may become of one body and one blood with him.

- Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures given to those preparing for baptism, 350 A.D.

 

John of Damascus in the early 8th century affirms the real presence, and suggests we must consider it a mystery, something beyond our understanding:

 

And now you ask how the bread becomes the body of Christ, and the wine and the water become the blood of Christ. I shall tell you. The Holy Spirit comes upon them, and achieves things which surpass every word and thought... Let it be enough for you to understand that this takes place by the Holy Spirit.

- John of Damascus, (665-749)

 

 

4.3. Theories on the Real Presence in the Eucharist

4.3.1. Introduction

Theories on the Real Presence:

 

 

4.3.2. Transubstantiation

Fourth Lateran Council 1215 gave the first doctrinal explanation of the meaning of the "real presence:" Transubstantiation.

 

Transubstantiation

  • based on Aristotle's view of reality. All matter had two qualities:

    • accidents (its outward appearance, color, shape, etc.)

    • substance (its essential nature)

  • at the moment of consecration, the substance of bread and wine changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Only their accidents remained unchanged

 

 

4.3.3. Transsignification and Transfinalization

Transsignification and Transfinalization were theories developed by group of Belgian Roman Catholic theologians in 1960's, most prominently Edward Schillebeeckx

 

They are both based on the idea that the identity of an object cannot be isolated from the object's

  • meaning or significance within the context in which it is used

  • purpose or end goal ("finality") within the context in which it is used

 

Transsignification

  • at moment of consecration, the meaning / "significance" of bread and wine fundamentally changes

  • it no longer means / signifies food, but means /signifies Christ

 

Transsfinalization

  • at the moment of consecration, the end ("finality") / purpose of bread and wine changes

  • end / purpose of physical nourishment is replaced by end / purpose of spiritual nourishment

 

The official view of the Roman Catholic Church affirms these theories only if transubstantiation is also accepted:

 

As a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new signification and a new finality, for they are no longer ordinary bread and wine but instead a sign of something sacred and a sign of spiritual food. Yet they take on this new signification, this new finality, precisely because they contain a new "reality." ... For what now lies beneath the aforementioned species [that is, what is now the new substance of the elements] is not what was there before, but something completely different... namely the body and blood of Christ.

- Pope Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, 1965

 

 

4.3.4. Consubstantiation

Consubstantiation is the name given to Luther's view, and is the official doctrine of the Lutheran church today.

 

Luther:

  • the substance of both bread and the body of Christ are present together

  • how they can be together is a mystery

 

Analogy (taken from Origen, 185-254)

  • an iron placed in a fire begins to glow

  • in that glowing iron, both iron and heat are present together

 

 

4.3.5. Memorialism

Zwingli argued there was no real presence, and the Eucharist is symbolic of Christ:

  • a memorial of the suffering of Christ

  • a token left by Christ to remember him by until the day he returns

  • "This is my body:" the "is" means "signifies." Jesus intended it metaphorically / figuratively, not literally

 

 

5. Baptism: The Debate Over Infant Baptism

5.1. Infant Baptism in the Early Church

There are passages in the New Testament which can be interpreted as condoning infant baptism:

  • baptizing of entire households (Acts 16:15, Acts 33:1; 1 Cor. 1:16)

  • spiritual counterpart to circumcision (Col. 2:11-12)

 

There are also likely pressures for infant baptism in the early church:

  • the need for something to serve as a rite of passage for Christian infants, like Jewish circumcision

  • the pastoral need to celebrate birth of an infant within Christian household

 

Whatever the reason, Infant baptism had become normal by the second or third century

 

 

5.2. Questions About the Importance of Infant Baptism

There has remained unease however over the theological basis and the importance of the need for infant baptism in some mainstream Christian denominations.

 

Karl Barth (1886-1968, Reformed theologian), for example, wrote that baptism:

  • is without biblical foundation

  • devalues the grace of God ("cheap grace")

  • weakens the link between grace of baptism & the response to that grace which is Christian discipleship

 

There are three major views in Christian thinking about the need for infant baptism:

Infant baptism:

  • 1. remits the guilt of original sin and saves the infant from damnation

  • 2. is grounded in the covenant between God and the church

  • 3. is unjustified

 

 

5.3. Infant Baptism Remits the Guilt of Original Sin

"Original Sin": is the "disease," "bondage," "guilt" that explains why, if human beings were created by a good God, they:

  •  possess a nature that seems to dispose them to sin

  • all do sin

 

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (~200-258) wrote that the grace imparted by baptism provides:

  • forgiveness of sinful acts

  • forgiveness of original sin

 

Augustine (354-430) further taught that:

  • baptism removes the guilt of original sin, but not the disease -- so the tendency to sin continues through life

  • an infant who dies without baptism still has the guilt of original sin and will go to hell

 

Peter Lombard (1100-1160) tried to mitigate the harsh consequence of the Doctrine of "Original Guilt" for unbaptized infants by suggested to go to a "limbo" state where they receive the "penalty of being condemned" but not "the penalty of the senses" (the experience of the physical pain of hell)

 

 

5.4. Infant Baptism is Grounded in the Covenant Between God and the Church

Ulrich Zwingli (1481-1531, Swiss Reformer)

  • did not believe sacraments bestow grace

  • was skeptical of the Augustinian concept of "original guilt"

 

Ulrich Zwingli however believed in the importance of infant baptism and justified it as the outward sign of membership in the People of God, the "successor" to circumcision in the Old Covenant

 

Functioning in this way, he wrote that infant baptism illustrated the more inclusive and gentle character of Christianity:

  • inclusive: women as well as men could be baptized, whereas only men can be circumcised

  • gentle: no pain or shedding of blood as in circumcision

 

 

5.5. Infant Baptism is Unjustified

The radical reformers, and the later Baptist church in England in the 17th century, rejected infant baptism.

  • Argued the sacrament of baptism does not confer grace and the forgiveness of sins, but rather declares that grace and is already present and the forgiveness of sins has already taken place

  • Baptism should therefore be the public declaration of conversion to Christianity

 

Benajah Harvey Carroll (1843-1914), leading Southern Baptist in Texas, listed four requirements for a valid Baptism:

  • 1. The proper authority (the church) must administer the sacrament

  • 2. The proper subject (the penitent believer) must receive the sacrament

  • 3. The proper act (total immersion in water) must be performed

  • 4. The proper design (baptism is declarative and in no way causative of the believer's conversion) must be affirmed

 

 

Primary Reference

"The Doctrine of the Sacraments," Chapter 16 in: Christian Theology. An Introduction. Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001

 

 

 

Survey of Theology

 

1. The Doctrine of God

2. The Doctrine of the Trinity

3. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 1. Classic Christology

4. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 2. Modern Views and Concerns

5. The Doctrine of Salvation in Christ

6. The Doctrines of Human Nature, Sin, and Grace

7. The Doctrine of the Church

8. The Doctrine of the Sacraments

9. Christianity and the World Religions

10. Last Things: The Christian Hope