66. What are the Sacraments?
The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.
The church has faced two great temptations with respect to the sacraments. The first is to make them more than they are. The second is to make them less than they are. By their nature and divine intention and institution, the sacraments are supports for the preaching of the gospel. They are visible and tangible representations and testimonies to the gospel. They are also and promises or seals that what the gospel declares is really true for the believing recipient. Through the history of the church we have tended either to make them more than or less than that.
That Magic Moment
Our Lord instituted only two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. The earliest church fathers mention and teach only those two sacraments. There is no unambiguous record of the church receiving or practicing more than these two sacraments. As late as the 9th century, when Ratramnus and Radbertus were arguing about the nature of the Lord’s Supper, they agreed that there were only two sacraments. Today, however, when we think of the medieval church and Roman communion, we think of 7 sacraments. What happened?
In the patristic period the church began to add unauthorized practices to its life. These practices came to be called by the medieval church “sacramentals.” These were elaborations upon the two divinely ordained sacraments. Gradually, however, these popular elaborations upon the divinely ordained sacraments gained ecclesiastical approval and the list of sacraments began to expand. E.g., Dionysius the Pseudo Areopagite, in the 6th century, wrote about unction (anointing with oil) as if it were a sacrament. Still, by the 9th century, the consensus was that there were only two divinely instituted sacraments. Peter Lombard (c. 1160) had taught 7 sacraments in the Sentences. In 1267 the W. Church imposed a list of 7 sacraments was imposed upon the Eastern emperor, Michael Paleologus. Thomas taught 7 in the Summa in 1274. That list was formally ratified at the Second Council of Lyon (1274) and the Council of Florence (1439). The list of 7 sacraments was only ratified and promulgated unambiguously in session 7 of the council of Trent, 1547.
What happened? Popular elaborations upon the sacraments, which had no divine institution, were gradually received as sacraments. This brief sketch of the history of the corruption of the sacraments reminds us of the importance of being clear about the sole, unique, and final authority of the Scriptures as the canonical Word of God (sola scriptura). When the church adhered to this principle she imposed on God’s people only those sacraments instituted by Christ. When she forgot this principle, she corrupted the sacraments by addition. This is also why Reformed people talk about the “regulative principle of worship,” i.e., that the church may do in worship (and impose practices upon God’s people) that God himself as imposed or commanded. The church only asks one question: what must we do or what has God commanded? If we ask, what may we do? or Is it forbidden? We have changed principles. The answer to those questions is never determined solely by God’s Word.
Why did it happen? In part for the same reasons that the Israelites behaved as the did in Moses’ absence and for the same reason they set up calves and Bethel and Dan. It’s what we do. We’re sinful. Our hearts are corrupt. After the fall such elaboration is a natural thing to do. If 2 are good then 7 are better right? After all, 7 is the perfect number. Who can argue with perfection? Well, we can and must on the basis of God’s Word. Our Lord only instituted 2 sacraments. Full stop. There are other reasons why the church felt an impulse to elaborate upon the sacraments instituted by our Lord. In part it was a reaction to pagan dualism. In the early church the greatest heresy we faced was Gnosticism, a manifestation of a dualism between spirit (the immaterial) and matter. The Gnostics claimed to have secret information, a sort of second blessing, which distinguished them from ordinary Christians who had to rely on Scripture. In response the church finally claimed to have its own secret, unwritten revelation (oral tradition). When this dualism re-emerged in the high medieval period, the church, in the 13th century, turned to this unwritten oral tradition, to ecclesiastical (as distinct from biblical) authority, and to the alleged 7 sacraments as part of her response.
During the medieval period, the church was also developing an unofficial doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. I say unofficial because it was not ratified by a council until Trent in the 16th century and then in response to the Reformation. The church gradually came to think of grace as a sort of stuff, instead of divine favor, and as medicine with which believers are infused. If we are justified because we sanctified and if we are sanctified by the infusion of grace, through the sacraments, and cooperation with grace then more sacraments are better than less sacraments. By the 13th century the church had a sacrament for every stage in life. One was said to be infused with grace in
- the Supper
- (or holy orders)
- extreme unction.
Over tine, the church turned divinely ordained signs (witnesses, testimonies) and seals (promises) into a magic. This process is called broadly sacerdotalism, i.e., the transformation of the ministry of the church into a priestly religion. The ministers of the New Covenant were transformed, were it possible, into “priests of the New Law” according to Rome. This is Rome’s doctrine today in the 984 Catechism of the Catholic Church. In §1114 she says, “Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers,” we profess that “the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is a quotation from session 7 of the Council of Trent (1547). According to Rome, sacraments are not signs and seals but “‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are ‘the masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant” (§1116; ibid.). They are magic “dispensed” by the Roman communion.
The temptation to turn signs and seals into magic is not a new one. When Moses came down from the mountain (Ex 32) he found that the people had demanded of Aaron “Make us gods who shall go before us” (v. 1). They melted down their gold and made a golden calf (v.4) and declared, “These are your gods O Israel who brought you out of Egypt” (v. 4). Aaron built an altar and the next day the people sat down to eat and rose up “to play.” So the church has always been tempted “to play” with God’s institutions. Like Rome, Aaron claimed that the new sacrament was magic: “24 So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Ex 32:24; ESV). The Lord was so impressed with Aaron’s magic that he made them drink the golden calf and executed 3,000 of them.
Next time: How the sacraments became less than they are.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.