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§ 91. The Sacraments in General.


G. L. Hahn: Die Lehre von den Sacramenten in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung innerhalb der abendländischen Kirche bis zum Concil von Trient. Breslau, 1864 (147 pp.). Comp. also the article Sacramente by G. E. Steitz in Herzog’s Real-Encyklopädie, vol. xiii. pp. 226–286; and Const. von Schätzler: Die Lehre von der Wirksamkeit der Sacramente ex opere operato. Munich, 1860.


The use of the word sacramentum in the church still continued for a long time very indefinite. It embraced every mystical and sacred thing (omne mysticum sacrumque signum). Tertullian, Ambrose, Hilary, Leo, Chrysostom, and other fathers, apply it even to mysterious doctrines and facts, like the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. But after the fifth century it denotes chiefly sacred forms of worship, which were instituted by Christ and by which divine blessings are mystically represented, sealed, and applied to men. This catholic theological conception has substantially passed into the evangelical churches, though with important changes as to the number and operation of the sacraments.950950   . The word sacramentum bears among the fathers the following senses: (1) The oath in general, as in the Roman profane writers; and particularly the soldier’s oath. (2) The baptismal vow, by which the candidate bound himself to the perpetual service of Christ, as miles Christi, against sin, the world, and the devil. (3) The baptismal confession, which was regarded as a spiritual oath. (4) Baptism itself, which, therefore, was often styledsacramentum fidei, s. salutis, also pignus salutis. (5) It became almost synonymous with mystery, by reason of an inaccurate translation of the Greek μυστήριον, in the Vulgate (comp. Eph. v. 32), and was accordingly applied to facts, truths, and precepts of the gospel which were concealed from those not Christiana, and to the Christian revelation in general. (6) The eucharist, and other holy ordinances and usages of the church. (7) After the twelfth century the seven well-known sacraments of the Catholic church. Comp. the proofs in Hahn, l.c. pp. 5-10, where yet other less usual senses of the word are adduced.

Augustine was the first to substitute a clear doctrine of the nature of the sacraments for a vague notion and rhetorical exaggerations. He defines a sacrament to be a visible sign of an invisible grace or divine blessing.951951   Signum visibile, or forma visibilis gratiae invisibilis. Augustinecalls the sacraments also verba visibilia, signacula corporalia, signa rerum spiritualium, signacula rerum divinarum visibilia, etc. See Hahn, l.c. p. 11 ff. The definition is not adequate. At least a third mark must be added, not distinctly mentioned by Augustine, viz., the divina institutio, or, more precisely, a mandatum Christi. This is the point of difference between the Catholic and Protestant conceptions of the sacrament. The Roman and Greek churches take the divine institution in a much broader sense, while Protestantism understands by it an express command of Christ in the New Testament, and consequently limits the number of sacraments to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, since for the other five sacraments the Catholic church can show no such command. Yet confirmation, ordination, and marriage have practically acquired a sacramental import in Protestantism, especially in the Lutheran and Anglican churches. Two constituents, therefore, belong to such a holy act: the outward symbol or sensible element (the signum, also sacramentum in the stricter sense), which is visible to the eye, and the inward grace or divine virtue (the res or virtus sacramenti), which is an object of faith.952952   Augustine, De catechiz. rudibus, § 50: “Sacramenta signacula quidem rerum divinarum esse visibilia, sed res ipsas invisibiles in eis honoari.” Serm. ad pop. 292 (tom. v. p. 770): “Dicuntur sacramenta, quia in eis aliud videtur, aliud intelligitur. Quod videtur, speciem habet corporalem; quod intelligitur, fructum habet spiritalem.” The two, the sign and the thing signified, are united by the word of consecration.953953   Augustine, In Joann Evang. tract. 80: “Detrahe verbum, et quid est aqua [the baptismal water] nisi aqua? Accedit verbum ad elementum et fit sacramemtum, etiam ipsum tamquam visibile verbum.” From the general spirit of Augustine’s doctrine, and several of his expressions, we must infer that he considered divine institution by Christ to be also a mark of such holy ordinance.954954   Comp. Epist. 82, §§ 14 and 15; Ep. 138, § 7; De vera relig. c. 16, § 33; and Hahn p. 154. But subsequently this important point retired from the consciousness of the church, and admitted the widening of the idea, and the increase of the number, of the sacraments.

Augustine was also the first to frame a distinct doctrine of the operation of the sacraments. In his view the sacraments work grace or condemnation, blessing or curse, according to the condition of the receiver.955955   Comp. the proof passages in Hahn, p. 279 ff. Thus Augustinesays, e.g., De bapt. contra Donat. 1. iii. c. 10 (tom. ix. p. 76): “Sacramento suo divina virtus adsistit sive ad salutem bene utentium, sive ad perniciem male utentium.” De unit. eccl.c.21 (tom. ix. p. 256): “Facile potestis intelligere et in bonis esse et in malis sacramenta divina, sed in illis ad salutem, in malis ad damnationem.” They operate, therefore, not immediately and magically, but mediately and ethically, not ex opere operato, in the later scholastic language, but through the medium of the active faith of the receiver. They certainly have, as divine institutions, an objective meaning in themselves, like the life-principle of a seed, and do not depend on the subjective condition of the one who administers them (as the Donatists taught); but they reach with blessing only those who seize the blessing, or take it from the ordinance, in faith; they bring curse to those who unworthily administer or receive them. Faith is necessary not as the efficient cause, but as the subjective condition, of the saving operation of the offered grace.956956   Hence the later formula: Fides non facit ut sit sacramentum, sed ut prosit. Faith does not produce the sacramental blessing, but subjectively receives and appropriates it. Augustine also makes a distinction between a transient and a permanent effect of the sacrament, and thereby prepares the way for the later scholastic doctrine of the character indelebilis. Baptism and ordination impress an indelible character, and therefore cannot be repeated. He is fond of comparing baptism with the badge of the imperial service,957957   Stigma militare, character militaris. To this the expression character indelebilis certainly attaches itself easily, though the doctrine concerning it cannot be traced with certainty back of the thirteenth century. Comp. Hahn, l.c. p. 298 ff., where it is referred to the time of Pope Innocent III. which the soldier always retains either to his honor or to his shame. Hence the Catholic doctrine is: Once baptized, always baptized; once a priest, always a priest. Nevertheless a baptized person, or an ordained person, can be excommunicated and eternally lost. The popular opinion in the church already inclined strongly toward the superstitious view of the magical operation of the sacrament, which has since found scholastic expression in the opus operatum theory.

The church fathers with one accord assert a relative (not absolute) necessity of the sacraments to salvation.958958   Even Augustine, De peccat. merit. et remiss. lib. i. c. 24, § 34: “Praeter baptismum et participationem mensae dominicae non solum ad regnum Dei, sed nec ad salutem et vitam aeternam posse quemquam hominem pervenire.” This would, strictly considered, exclude all Quakers and unbaptized infants from salvation; but Augustineadmits as an exception the possibility of a conversion of the heart without baptism. See below. The scholastics distinguished more accurately a threefold necessity: (1) absolute: simpliciter necessarium; (2) teleological: in ordine ad finem; (3) hypothetical or relative: necessarium ex suppositione, quae est necessitas consequentiae. To the sacraments belongs only the last sort of necessity, because now, under existing circumstances, God will not ordinarily save any one without these means which he has appointed. Comp. Hahn, 1. c. p. 26 ff. According to Thomas Aquinas only three sacraments are perfectly necessary, viz., baptism and penance for the individual, and ordination for the whole church. They saw in them, especially in baptism and the eucharist, the divinely appointed means of appropriating the forgiveness of sins and the grace of God. Yet with this view they firmly held that not the want of the sacraments, but only the contempt of them, was damning.959959   “Non defectus, sed contemptus sacramenti damnat.” Comp. Augustine, De bapt. contra Donat. 1. iv. c. 25, §32: “Conversio cordis potest quidem inesse non percepto baptismo, sed contemto non potest. Neque enim ullo modo dicenda est conversio cordis ad Deum, cum Dei sacramentum contemnitur.” In favor of this they appealed to Moses, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, the thief on the cross,—who all, however, belonged to the Old Testament economy—and to many Christian martyrs, who sealed their faith in Christ with their blood, before they had opportunity to be baptized and to commune. The Virgin Mary also, and the apostles, belong in some sense to this class, who, since Christ himself did not baptize, received not the Christian baptism of water, but instead were on the day of Pentecost baptized with Spirit and with fire. Thus Cornelius also received through Peter the gift of the Holy Ghost before baptism; but nevertheless submitted himself afterwards to the outward Sacrament. In agreement with this view, sincere repentance and true faith, and above all the blood-baptism of martyrdom,960960   Baptismus sanguinis. were regarded as a kind of compensation for the sacraments.

The number of the sacraments remained yet for a long time indefinite; though among the church fathers of our period baptism and the Lord’s Supper were regarded either as the only Sacraments, or as the prominent ones.

Augustine considered it in general an excellence of the New Testament over the Old, that the number of the sacraments was diminished, but their import enhanced,961961   Contra Faust. xix. 13: “Prima sacramenta praenunciativa erant Christi venturi; quae cum suo adventu Christus implevisset ablata sunt et alia sunt instituta, virtute majora, numero pauciora.” and calls baptism and the Supper, with reference to the water and the blood which flowed from the side of the Lord, the genuine or chief sacraments, on which the church subsists.962962   De symb. ad Catech. c. 6: “Quomodo Eva facts est ex latere Adam, ita ecclesia formatur ex latere Christi. Percussum est ejus latus et statim manavit sanguis et aqua, quae sunt ecclesiae genuina sacramenta.” De ordine baptismi, c. 5 (Bibl. max. tom. xiv. p. 11): “Profluxerunt ex ejus latere sanguis etaqua, duo sanctae ecclesiae praecipua sacramenta.” Serm. 218: “Sacraments, quibus formatur ecclesia.” Comp. Chrysostom, Homil. 85 in Joh: ἐξ ἀμφοτέρων ἡ ἐκκλησία συνέστηκε. Tertulliancalled baptism and the eucharist “sacramenta propria,” Adv. Marc. i. 14. But he includes under the wider conception of the sacrament other mysterious and holy usages, which were commended in the Scriptures,963963   “Et si quid aliud in divinis literis commendatur,” or: “omne mysticum sacrumque signum.” naming expressly confirmation,964964   “Sacrimentum chrismatis, ” Contr. Lit. Petiliani ii. 104. So even Cyprian, Ep. 72. marriage,965965   “Sacramentum nuptiarum,” De nuptiis et concupisc. i. 2. and ordination.966966   “Sacramentum dandi baptismum,” De bapt ad Donat. i. 2; Epist. Parm ii. 13. Thus he already recognizes to some extent five Christian sacraments, to which the Roman church has since added penance and extreme unction.

Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Mystagogic Catechism, and Ambrose of Milan, in the six books De Sacramentis ascribed to him, mention only three sacraments: baptism, confirmation, and the Lord’s supper; and Gregory of Nyssa likewise mentions three, but puts ordination in the place of confirmation. For in the Eastern church confirmation, or the laying on of hands, was less prominent, and formed a part of the sacrament of baptism; while in the Western church it gradually established itself in the rank of an independent sacrament.

The unknown Greek author of the pseudo-Dionysian writings of the sixth century enumerates six sacraments (μυστήρια):967967   De hierarch. eccles. c. 2 sq.(1.) baptism, or illumination; (2.) the eucharist, or the consecration of consecrations; (3.) the consecration with anointing oil, or confirmation; (4.) the consecration of priests; (5.) the consecration of monks; (6.) the consecration of the dead, or extreme unction. Here marriage and penance are wanting; in place of them appears the consecration of monks, which however was afterwards excluded from the number of the sacraments.

In the North African, the Milanese, and the Gallican churches the washing of feet also long maintained the place of a distinct sacrament.968968   According to the testimony of Ambrose, Augustine, and the Missale Gallicum vetus. Comp. Hahn, l.c. p. 84 f. Ambrose asserted its sacramental character against the church of Rome, and even declared it to be as necessary as baptism, because it was instituted by Christ, and delivered men from original sin, as baptism from the actual sin of transgression;—a view which rightly found but little acceptance.

This uncertainty as to the number of the sacraments continued till the twelfth century.969969   Beda Venerabilis († 735), Ratramnus of Corbie († 868), Ratherius of Verona († 974), in enumerating the sacraments, name only baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and even Alexander of Hales († 1245) expressly says (Summa p. iv. Qu. 8, Membr. 2, art. 1): “Christus duo sacraments instituit per se ipsum, sacramentum baptismi et sacramentum eucharistiae.” Damiani († 1072), on the other hand, mentions twelve sacraments, viz., baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick, consecration of bishops, consecration of kings, consecration of churches, penance, consecration of canons, monks, hermits, and nuns and marriage. Opp. tom. ii. 372 (ed. C. Cajet.). Bernard of Clairvaux († 1151) names ten sacraments. Confirmation was usually reckoned among the sacraments. Comp. Hahn, l.c. 88 ff. Yet the usage of the church from the fifth century downward, in the East and in the West, appears to have inclined silently to the number seven, which was commended by its mystical sacredness. This is shown at least by the agreement of the Greek and Roman churches in this point, and even of the Nestorians and Monophysites, who split off in the fifth century from the orthodox Greek church.970970   No plain trace, however, of such a definite number appears in the earliest monuments of the faith of these Oriental sects, or even in the orthodox theologian John Damascenus.

In the West, the number seven was first introduced, as is usually supposed, by the bishop Otto of Bamberg (1124), more correctly by Peter Lombard (d. 1164), the “Master of Sentences;” rationally and rhetorically justified by Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics (as recently by Möhler) from the seven chief religious wants of human life and human society;971971   Usually: Birth = baptism; growth = confirmation; nourishment = the Supper; healing of Sickness = penance; perfect restoration = extreme unction; propagation of society = marriage; government of society = orders. Others compare the sacraments with the four cardinal natural virtues: prudence, courage, justice, and temperance, and the three theological virtues: faith, love, and hope; but vary in their assignments of the several sacraments to the several virtues respectively. All these comparisons are, of course, more or less arbitrary and fanciful. and finally publicly sanctioned by the council of Florence in 1439 with the concurrence of the Greek church, and established by the council of Trent with an anathema against all who think otherwise.972972   The Council of Trent pronounces the anathema upon all who deny the number of seven sacraments and its institution by Christ, Sess. vii. de sacr. can. 1: “Si quis dixerit, sacramenta novae legis non fuisse omnia a Christo instituta, aut esse plum vel pauciora quam septem, anathema sit.” In default of a historical proof of the seven sacraments from the writings of the church fathers, Roman divines, like Brenner and Perrone, find themselves compelled to resort to the disciplina arcani; but this related only to the celebration of the sacraments, and disappeared in the fourth century upon the universal adoption of Christianity. Comp. also the treatise of G. L. Hahn: Doctrinae Romanae de numero sacramentario septenario rationes historicae. Vratisl. 1859. The Reformation returned, in this point as in others, to the New Testament; retained none but baptism and the Lord’s Supper as proper sacraments, instituted and enjoined by Christ himself; entirely rejected extreme unction (and at first confirmation); consigned penance to the province of the inward life, and confirmation, marriage, and orders to the more general province of sacred acts and usages, to which a more or less sacramental character may be ascribed, but by no means an equality in other respects with baptism and the holy Supper.973973   A more particular discussion of the differences between the Roman and the Protestant doctrines of the sacraments belongs to symbolism and polemics.



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