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No. 30: What Is a Sacrament? Some Problems of Definition

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 30
October, 1991
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons

Several months back, a candidate for ordination was being examined for entrance into the Presbytery of which I am a member. The candidate had a good deal of trouble with the exam on the sacraments, stumbling badly as he tried to define the "nature of the sacrament." Apparently in an effort to help him, a member of the Presbytery asked him to describe how a sacrament worked, that is, how it communicated grace. The answer the questioner was looking for was that sacraments speak to the eyes of the believer as the Word speaks to his ears; for this pastor, the distinguishing mark of the sacrament is that it can be seen. Even with various hints, the candidate had a difficult time answering the question put to him.

That exchange is one very minor illustration of a difficulty that has plagued the Church throughout her history: the definition of the term, "sacrament." The evidence of the difficulty is apparent on the surface of Church history: the many debates about the number of sacraments, the efficacy of the sacraments, and the administration of the sacraments — all are in part and perhaps centrally debates about the definition of "sacrament." In this brief essay, I wish to raise two prominent problems in Protestant sacramental theology, and to suggest how these problems might be solved.

1. For Protestants, one of the main difficulties of defining the sacrament is finding a definition that encompasses baptism and the eucharist, but only baptism and the eucharist. This is not a problem for other traditions. In particular, the Orthodox tradition and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholicism do not face that problem. In Orthodoxy, "sacrament" is given such a broad definition that literally everything becomes a sacrament; in Roman Catholicism, there is a tendency to include every ordinance of the Church, and indeed the Church itself, under the category of "sacrament." (These are, by the way, fruitful perspectives, which are, I believe, consistent in certain respects with the Reformed position.)

The difficulty of finding a limited definition of sacrament is illustrated by James Bannerman’s discussion in his The Church of Christ (2 vols.; St. Edmunton, Canada: Still Waters Revival, [1869] 1991). Bannerman argues that "there is a promise of grace annexed to outward ordinances when rightly used." Over and above any natural effect "there is a spiritual efficacy in the ordinances of the Church, distinct from the natural, and which is derived from the blessing of Christ and the working of His Spirit." In short, the Spirit makes "every ordinance of the Church . . . the channel for the conveyance of supernatural grace" (2.1-3). Prayer, worship, fellowship, discipline — all these and others are means of grace.

If this is the case, however, on what basis are baptism and the Supper singled out as the sole "sacraments" of the Church? Bannerman answers that the sacraments, like the Word, appeal to the understanding. Yet, the sacraments have "this peculiarity, that they speak at the same time and alike to the outward senses and to the inward thought." It is the unique ministry of the sacraments to "the twofold nature of man, as made up of body and soul, to minister both to the senses and the understanding; and to speak at once to the outward and inward nature of the believer" (2.7-8).

Bannerman’s position fails on two fairly obvious grounds. First, the implied philosophy of language is thoroughly rationalistic. What theologian today would make the claim that the word addresses itself solely to the "intellect and spiritual nature of man"? One does not have to buy into modern linguistics wholesale to concede the obvious fact that words do much more than appeal to the understanding. Second, and even more obviously, one can hear the word, or sing praises to God, or utter prayers, only with the body and with the use of the body’s senses. Preaching appeals to the sense of hearing no less than the sacraments appeal to the sense of sight, taste, and touch. Since this is the case, the fact that the sacraments appeal to the senses does not distinguish the sacrament from the other ordinances of the Church.

One way to defend the Protestant doctrine of two sacraments is to stress the covenantal character of the sacraments. Covenant is, of course, a key to the Reformed understanding of the sacraments. Because the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant, they are signs that mark out the covenant people. Only the people of God, and all the covenant people receive these signs. This covenantal perspective excludes ordination and marriage as sacraments, since the former is applied only to the ministers of the covenant community and the latter is not peculiar to the covenant people.

This definition would not, however, exclude confirmation, penance, or unction (anointing the sick) from the purview of the sacraments. We can, however, exclude the rites of confirmation and of penance because the Bible does not command them, so that they are merely customary. We can exclude unction from consideration because, though it is a Biblical rite of healing, it is not for every covenant member.

At the same time it is not clear how the covenantal emphasis helps us to distinguish the two sacraments from other rites of the Church, such as prayer and worship, which are, like the sacraments common to the covenant community.

2. Bannerman implicitly reduces the "senses" to one: sight. That limitation has a long and venerable history in theology. It was Augustine who defined a sacrament as a "visible sign of an invisible grace," and Calvin approvingly cites that definition (Institutes 4.14.1.) The key to defining a sacrament is that it is "outward" and that it is a "sign." But, Calvin goes on to argue, a bare sign does not constitute a sacrament. Rather, again citing Augustine, Calvin argues that the word must be added to the physical "element" and only then will the element become a sacrament (4.14.4). A sacrament, then, is for Calvin a visible sign annexed to the Word.

This definition, however, raises a host of problems. If Word + Element = Sacrament, then the element would become a sacrament (the water would become baptism and the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ) without ever being administered. It seems plausible to suggest that it was this very definition of the sacrament that led to many of the medieval abuses that Calvin so vehemently (and so rightly) condemns. Once we assume that the water, bread, and wine become sacraments when the Word is spoken, and that the sacrament is mainly a "visible sign," then the logic of the veneration of the host and medieval "hocus pocus" becomes almost irresistible.

Several medieval theologians offered a more satisfying theory of the sacraments. The author of the Summa Sententiarum proposes a threefold, rather than a twofold definition of the sacrament: Sacraments are composed not merely of word and element, but of word, element, and act (dicta, res, facta). All three are equally fundamental to the proper observance of the sacrament. It is not merely water and the Word that constitutes baptism; it is the Word with water poured or sprinkled upon the baptized that constitutes baptism. It is not merely bread and wine with the Word that makes the Supper; it is the Word plus bread and wine eaten and drunk. This emphasis has the salutary effect of forcing us to think about the elements of the sacraments in the context of the liturgical act. (This discussion is based on the enlightening series of three articles by Damian van den Eynde, "The Theory of the Composition of the Sacraments in Early Scholasticism," Franciscan Studies.)

This perspective moves us away from preoccupation with "seeing" the sacrament. I have not been baptized if I have only seen a baptism, nor have I communed if I have merely watched the Supper. The promise is attached not to the viewing but to the doing.