Holy Communion – 2

The Sacramental Life of the Church

While some groups and denominations within the Church believe the sacraments to be critical for the life and ministry of the Church (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some Anglicans), others see them as either unimportant or irrelevant (eg. Quakers, Salvation Army). This study considers the notion that Jesus Christ is Himself the Primary Sacrament, and that the function of the sacraments for and in the Church is to re‑present Christ to us.

§1 Jesus Christ as the Primary Sacrament

1.1 The Concept of Sacrament

1. Sacrament as mysterion

The Greek word mysterion, as found in the New Testament, was translated by Jerome into Latin as sacramentum. In Ephesians 5:32, for example, where Paul speaks of marriage and the ‘one flesh’ relationship as a great mysterion, Jerome used the word sacramentum, thereby creating the theological concept of marriage as a sacrament.

The word ‘sacrament’ originally meant a ‘thing set apart as sacred,’ and ‘a military oath of obedience,’ where a citizen of Rome was inducted into the army and loyalty to Caesar, who was considered to have divine status.[1]

Augustine later defined sacrament as a ‘visible word’,[2] or an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.[3] The similarity between the outward form and the hidden grace tended to be stressed. As a result, the ritual of a sacrament came to be regarded as ‘conveying grace,’ rather than relating human persons to God through participation in Christ through faith.

The technical term for this direct mediation of grace through the elements and ritual of a sacrament was described as ex opere operato (on the basis of the work wrought). In other words, the grace of God conveyed in the sacrament was not dependent upon the recipient, nor the officiant, but the act itself.[4]

2. Sacrament and the Word of God

Both Luther and Calvin rejected the doctrine of ex opere operato and agreed upon the effective relation of Word to Sacrament and the importance of faith. However, they also wanted to protect the sacraments against an undue subjectivising, a charge which Rome made against the Reformers in the their rejection of ex opere operato. Berkouwer points out that the Roman Catholic doctrine contains within it a subjectivising factor itself – there is the necessity of a certain disposition, or rather, the absence of a ‘negative disposition’ which constitutes the effectiveness of the sacrament. Supernatural grace is prevented from entering the soul if an obstacle is in the way.[5]

Reformed theology, particularly as found in Calvin, reached beyond the synthesis of objectivity/subjectivity in the Roman doctrine of ex opere operato and posited a third possibility. The objectivity in the sacrament is not in the elements or the act but in the ‘object of faith,’ Jesus Christ, the true mysterion.[6] Thus Calvin took the outward form of the sacrament with full objective seriousness, but did not locate the mysterion in the relation between physical sign and grace, but in the person and work of Christ himself. Thus, the grace of the sacrament is the same grace as in justification. For Calvin, the sacrament is directed toward faith in order to nourish and strengthen it. This is what Karl Barth described as Calvin’s ‘cognitive sacramentalism’.[7]

3. Sacraments as signs

By the 12th Century, the Medieval Church had concluded that there were 7 sacraments, and the Council of Trent made this a dogma of the Church. In addition to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they added Confirmation, Holy Orders, Marriage, Confession, and Extreme Unction. The Reformers rejected the additional five as having no Biblical basis. A sacrament is a sign, but not all signs are sacraments.[8] Therefore, the doctrine of the sacraments cannot be based on a phenomenological basis, but must be a recognition of those signs through which God has determined to act.

Here we must heed Berkouwer’s warning against developing a general concept of sacrament, and then applying it to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Bible does not speak of sacrament, but only of those concrete actions directed by Christ.[9]


[1] Cf. R. S. Wallace, ‘Sacrament’, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (ed. W. A. Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 965.

[2] Cited in Carol Harrison, Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 245.

[3] Augustine, Augustine: Confessions Books I-IV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 163.

[4] Cf. Gerrit C. Berkouwer, The Sacraments (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), 62.

[5] Cf. Berkouwer, Sacraments, 68.

[6] Cf. Berkouwer, Sacraments, 72ff.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4 (eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans. G. W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969), 130.

[8] Berkouwer, Sacraments, 24.

[9] Berkouwer, Sacraments, 9.

Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.