I. Introduction

Sacrament, any of several liturgical actions of the Christian church, believed to have been instituted by Christ and to communicate the grace or power of God through the use of material objects. In the 4th-century theologian St. Augustine's definition, the sacraments are "outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace."

II. Sacrament in the New Testament

The word sacrament does not appear in the Bible, although baptism, Eucharist, and perhaps other rites that fit the definition are reported there. The New Testament basis for sacraments is found in its teaching about mystery, which remains the Eastern Orthodox word for sacrament. In the New Testament, the word mystery refers to God's plan for the redemption of the world through Christ, a plan that is hidden from the understanding of unbelievers but revealed to those who have faith (see Ephresians 1:9-10).

In the Christian experience, the saving action of Christ is made known and accessible to the church especially through certain liturgical actions such as baptism and the Eucharist. Therefore, these actions came to be known among the Greeks as mysteries, perhaps by analogy to mystery cults.

III. From Mystery to Sacrament

In the early 3rd century, Tertullian, the first Latin theologian, translated the Greek word musterion ("mystery") by the Latin sacramentum, which in pre-Christian use denoted a pledge of future performance, as in oath of loyalty taken by soldiers to their commander; emphasis fell on the thing that was given in pledge. In the Christian case, the word sacrament came to focus attention on the water of baptism and on the bread and wine of the Eucharist. These different nuances of mystery and sacrament account in part for the differing character of Eastern and Western sacramental theology.

IV. Sacraments and Signs

Sacraments are sometimes called signs. In Roman Catholic and much Protestant theology, sacraments are regarded as "communicating signs." That is, the sign itself actually conveys the reality for which it stands. In some Protestant theology, however, sacraments are not thought to be the vehicles of divine reality; rather, they are "arbitrary signs" that simply call to the believer's mind the inner reality of grace.

V. Ex Opere Operato

If the communicative nature of the sacraments is acknowledged, a sacrament properly performed is seen to convey God's grace independently of the faith or moral character of the celebrant or recipients. Its value springs from its divine institution, "from the work already done" (Latin ex opere operato), in which the sacrament participates. The opposite position has been maintained by some–that the value of the sacrament does depend in some way on those who celebrate and receive, ex opere operantis ("from the work being done").

VI. Sacramental Character

Certain sacraments, such as the Eucharist and penance, are to be repeated often. Others–baptism, confirmation, Holy Orders–are to be administered to a person only once. From the time of Augustine, this second group of sacraments has been recognized as having "character." In other words, because God is faithful to his promises, the gift in these sacraments cannot be withdrawn. Grace may become latent if a person fails to act as the church intends, but the sacrament need not be repeated if the person is restored to the communion of the church.

VII. Number of Sacraments

The New Testament affirms one mystery–God's plan for redeeming the world through Christ. In the history of Christian thought, however, a large number of acts have been called mysteries or sacraments. In the 12th century, the Italian theologian Peter Lombard summarized a growing consensus that there should be just seven: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and marriage. These were, in fact, what the church found necessary for the regular, adequate liturgical celebration of the Christian mystery. A series of conciliar decisions in the 13th century made the number seven official. Orthodox churches also recognize these seven rites as sacraments, but no official decision enjoins that number. The 16th-century Protestant reformers declared that there are but two sacraments, baptism and Eucharist–these having been instituted by Christ. The reformers dismantled the rest of the sacramental system, maintaining that God's grace is more readily accessible through more personal channels–prayer, the Scripture, and preaching Reformation.

Contributed By:

Charles P. Price, B.D., Th.D.

Professor of Systematic Theology, Virginia Theological Seminary. Former Member, Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church. Author of Introducing the Book of Common Prayer and A Matter of Faith.



"Sacrament," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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