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What is a Sacrament?


Within the Church, mystery and sacrament have always been closely linked; when the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts were translated, for what would become the Latin Vulgate, the word sacramentum for the Greek word μυστήριον (mysterion) was used. The word sacrament, however, had been in use before in other contexts. Significant developments in sacramental theology arose in North Africa from the writings of Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, and Augustine of Hippo.[1]


Is it a mystery or a sacrament?

In the NT, the mystery of the Kingdom of God is mentioned in all the synoptics, commonly in relation to the secret way God works. For the apostle Paul, the mystery too, was in God’s plan for salvation (Col 1:26). For these contributors to the canon of scripture, the μυστήριον was in reference to the secrets that are revealed to the faithful and not to any specific act such as baptism or eucharist. This doesn’t help define a sacrament but goes some length to establish its usage.


The mystery would remain a mystery to those not initiated into the knowledge of Jesus Christ and the revelation that he brought. The use of the word sacramentum, is therefore not so removed when we consider its original meaning: a ritual or rite of passage that a Roman Soldier would undergo at the initiation of their military service. Consider the initiatory connotation over that of the militaristic connotation.


Tertullian was first to use the word sacramentum in a Christian context, when he used it specifically in reference to baptism: the start of a new life which follows a binding commitment.[2]


Sacramentum, therefore, became central to the early church and to the Christian worship of God. For the early Church Fathers, worship itself was part of the mystery of the kingdom of God; in a move to distance the church from the pagan ‘mystery religions’ the word mystery was dropped from common parlance and replaced with sacrament.[3] Cary writes: ‘Because one enters the Body of Christ by faith not by birth, the Christian church has always had a special need for external marks of its membership. The Western church calls them sacraments’ [4]Here we find one definition- that sacraments are a mark of church membership.


Augustine and semiotics

For Augustine of Hippo, the sacraments were integral to the life of the Church; however, he viewed them merely as a ‘sign’ of the spiritual reality that was God’s grace. Cary explains that for Augustine the sacraments were like words: they could only be external vessels that carry meaning; yet the meaning behind them was the mystery of salvation and the importance of an ‘inner life’.[5]By ‘inner life’ it seems Augustine intended meaning was that of the ‘community of souls’ within God’s love, the subjects of His grace and soteriological plan. Cyprian of Carthage, who himself defined sacramentum as symbol, figures and signs representing spiritual reality,[6] had established that there could be no true sacrament outwith the Church, as salvation could only be found within.[7]

Due to this broad understanding of sacramentum, it meant that Augustine viewed much of the Church activities as sacraments. Although Augustine seems to use sacrament most specifically for the Eucharist, Baptism, and ordination, he designated not only ‘sacred rites’ as sacramentum but almost anything else with a symbolic meaning. In his Easter Sermon 228, he lists the following: ‘the sacrament of the altar’ (in reference to the Eucharist), ‘the sacrament of the creed,’ ‘the sacrament of the Lord's Prayer,’ and “the sacrament of the font” (in reference to Baptism).[8]


Augustine defined more narrowly how he viewed the sacraments in letter 138, written in AD412 as ‘symbolic actions pertaining to divine things are called sacraments’[9]. Although he defined them as a symbol, he expanded on the mystery of sacrament too; Augustine evidently attached a metaphysical quality to them: in his tracts on the Gospel of John, Augustine writes:

'Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Why does He not say, You are clean through the baptism wherewith you have been washed, but through the word which I have spoken unto you, save only that in the water also it is the word that cleanses? Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word.’[10]


Augustine on the efficacy of Sacrament

What are the constituent parts of a sacrament? What is the sacrament doing to the receiver? From the definitions above, we recognise an active component exists within a sacrament. Augustine writes of an interior seal conferred on the receiver and the grace of God which the seal represents.[11]Thus the two parts are separated, a sacrament does not necessarily bestow the grace of God, it merely paves a path for it to find residence in the individual. It begins an act of consecration, supplying a certain apartness which does not immediately result in sanctification or holiness; that designation remains firmly in the domain of the divine.


The oft repeated definition ‘an outward sign of an inward grace’ brings us to the idea of the visible and the invisible. The aforementioned ‘community of souls’ become part of both a visible church and an invisible church. Grudem offers the definition of the visible church as ‘the church as Christians on Earth see it’ and the invisible church as ‘the church that God sees.’[12] Ultimately, as an individual participates in the sacraments, they enter the door into both the visible and invisible church.


An outward sign, although not devoid of meaning, requires both the genuine participation in the meaning of the ritual, and for that genuine participation to be recognised by God. Consider circumcision, viewed as a holy ritual by the Jews and given as a divine ordinance, it was not extended into the Christian Church despite it meeting the Augustine criteria as defined in his letter 138, and of course, as it could not be viewed as sacrament for Cyprian of Carthage, existed outwith the church because of the scriptural lessons of St. Paul. However, baptism, recognised as sacrament by most denominations can be considered analogous to circumcision. The ritual of circumcision (as in Baptism) did not immediately imply that an individual would be saved by election, despite belonging to the covenant people; for the Apostle Paul something further was required of the individual too:

‘for no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the spirit, not by the letter’ (Rom 2:28-29)


Here again we see something of Augustine’s ‘inner life’ concept. Augustine required four components to a sacrament, all indivisible from one another:

1. Outward visible element

2. The virtue – grace conditionally bestowed as discussed above

3. The spoken formula or verbum which links the sign with its virtue

4. An agent of sacrament – Christ himself[13]

The sacraments, as we have already established, reveal something of the mystery of the Kingdom of God; part of that revelation was also the person and the work of Christ.


Christ and Sacrament

For those in the schools of reformed thought, a sacrament had to be specifically instituted by Jesus himself. The WCF evidently holds to this definition, however the reformers view of sacraments varied extensively. Zwinglians went along with part of Augustine’s view, that they were symbolic; they were clear to distinguish them as no more than visual aids of reminders of past salvific events.

One the other hand, and according to Berkhof ‘Some of the Lutherans claim that a specific grace, differing from that which is wrought by the Word, is conveyed by the sacraments.’[14] In this regard, the sacraments are moments in which the faithful experience Christ differently from the preaching of scripture. Yet, all the major protestant denominations affirm a strong and necessary link between preaching of the word and sacrament.[15] To that end there can be no Eucharist without scripture and preaching; thus, we find ourselves back with the early church fathers who sought to distance themselves from any ‘mystery worship’ associated with the pagan religions.


The ecclesiastic evolution of the sacrament has taught us the following: sacraments are linked to the Kingdom of God; the Kingdom of God will be a momentous event of salvific quality; the sacraments are an outward sign of divine bestowal and conditional election; they reveal the mystery of the Kingdom of God, whilst initiating the participant into the Kingdom. The invisible things of God are revealed through the things that are made writes MacLeod.[16]


Therefore, a link is established between the sacraments and with Christ. For Augustine, Christ was the agent of sacrament, for the reformers, there could be no sacrament without the word. Christ as the Word came to reveal the work of God, and in some manner the sacraments reveal the same.


The liturgical movement of the 19th and 20th century reconsidered the sacraments as a way in which participants can encounter the living triune God,[17]and in Jesus we encounter both the mystery and the reality of God himself.


Schillebeeckx takes the analogy to its logical conclusion:

‘Jesus is sacramental. For a sacrament is a divine bestowal of salvation in an outwardly perceptible form which makes the bestowal manifest; a bestowal of salvation in historical visibility.’[18]


Returning to Berkhof, in his definition of sacrament he writes:

‘It is derived from the Latin sacramentum, which originally denoted a sum of money deposited by two parties in litigation. After the decision of the court the winner’s money was returned, while that of the loser was forfeited. This seems to have been called a sacramentum, because it was intended to be a sort of propitiatory offering to the gods.’[19]

Sacraments have always been associated, therefore, with the divine; either as something that is offered as propitiatory or as an outward sign of allegiance. As an alternative definition found in Augustine’s writing suggests ‘a sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice.’[20]This helps us to understand the meaning of the ritual from both a human point of view and a heavenly point of view. Within the administering of sacraments there manifests a reciprocal relationship between man and God.


Conclusion

Schillebeeckx states:

‘A Sacrament is primarily and fundamentally a personal act of Christ himself which reaches and involves us in the form of an institutional act performed by a person in the church who is empowered to do so by Christ himself.’[21]


The definition of ‘sacrament’ has undergone evolution within the church, each alternative definition explored in this essay has remained constant in theological principle to Augustine’s four components whereas Schillebeekx captures it fully. It is an outward symbol of a reciprocal commitment between man and God to work towards the Kingdom of God. It is a symbol of man’s salvation, both given and received as a sign of hope. An encounter with God that is made visible to all those in Christian fellowship.


Bibliography

Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology, 5.3 < Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof (monergism.com)> [accessed 7th March 2023]

Cary, Phillip, Outward Signs: The powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought, (Oxford University Press: London, 2008)

Cunningham J.G, ‘Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series,’ Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 138 (St. Augustine) (newadvent.org)> [Accesses March 2023]

Davie, Martin, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (2nd Edition), (IVP:Nottingham, 2016)

Grudem, Wayne Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (IVP: London, 2020)

Heizman, David, Augutine of Hippo, Sermon 228, <Sermons 227 thru 229A (heitzman.net)> [Accessed March 2023]

Jankiewicz, Darius ‘Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority’, Andrews University Seminary Studies, 42(2)

Macleod, Donald, The Person of Christ, (IVP: Illinois, 1998)

Schillebeeckx, Edward, Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God, (Sheed & Ward: Maryland, 1963)











[1] Darius Jankiewicz, ‘Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority’, Andrews University Seminary Studies, 42(2), 361-382. [2] Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (2nd Edition), (IVP:Nottingham, 2016) p1181 [3] Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic p1181 [4] Phillip Cary, Outward Signs: The powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought, (Oxford University Press: London, 2008) p155 [5] Cary, Outward Signs: The powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought, p157 [6] Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic p1181 [7] Jankiewicz, ‘Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority’ p363 [8] Augutine of Hippo, Sermon 228, ed David Heizman <Sermons 227 thru 229A (heitzman.net)> [Accessed March 2023] [9]Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 138 (St. Augustine) (newadvent.org)> [Accesses March 2023] [10] Augustine Tractate 80 (John 15:1 -3) [11] Jankiewicz, ‘Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority’, p365 [12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (IVP: London, 2020) p1049-1051 [13] Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic p1181 [14] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 5.3 < Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof (monergism.com)> [accessed 7th March 2023] [15] Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic p1182 [16] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, (IVP: Illinois, 1998) p239 [17] Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic p1183 [18] Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God, (Sheed & Ward: Maryland, 1963) p15 [19] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 5.3 < Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof (monergism.com)> [accessed 7th March 2023] [20] Jankiewicz, ‘Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority’, p365 [21] Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God, p63

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