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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Sacraments

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Neither in the NT nor in the other Christian writings of the 1st cent. is there any trace of the use of a common name to designate those observances which were afterwards classified more or less comprehensively as sacraments. The word sacramentum (see W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, London, 1911, p. 464 f., and notes 28-33), as applied to denominate such rites, occurs first in the famous letter (x. 97) of the Younger Pliny to the Emperor Trajan (circa, about a.d. 112); but its employment in that letter may be merely accidental. In Christian usage the term makes its earliest appearance in the Old Latin version and in Tertullian, and there stands as a rendering of μυστήριον, and as synonymous with mysterium. The word μυστήριον did not acquire its special reference to the Christian sacraments until later than this period. In the NT it is never applied to institutions or observances, the nearest approach to such a significance being in Ephesians 5:32, where St. Paul asserts regarding marriage, τὸ μυστήριον τοῦτο μέγα ἐστίν. An approximation to subsequent usage may perhaps be detected hi Ignatius; but even of the phrase ‘deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ’ (Trall. ii. 3) Lightfoot says that a restriction of its reference to the Eucharist ‘would be an anachronism.’

The absence of any common name for the sacraments indicates the absence in this period of any defined sacramental concept. It is true that ideas as well as things must be already in existence before they receive a name; but it is also true that prior to their designation ideas remain uncrystallized. The kindred nature of the ecclesiastical rites known as mysteries and sacraments-their kindred nature as belonging to the externals of Christian practice-must obviously have been perceived from the first. Harnack, indeed, places the grouping together of Baptism and the Eucharist as among ‘a series of the most important Christian customs and ideas’ whose origin is involved in obscurity and ‘in all probability will never be cleared up’ (History of Dogma, Eng. translation , 7 vols., London, 1894-99, i. 132f.). Nevertheless, the affinity of these two principal sacraments appears to have been recognized from the earliest times. They are mentioned in conjunction as of the same order by the Didache (vii. 1, ix. 1, 5), and by Ignatius (Smyrn. viii. 1, 2, ‘where the ἀγάπη must include the eucharist’ [Lightfoot]). Both are referred to by implication in a manner exactly analogous in the parallel discourses of the Fourth Gospel on the New Birth and the Bread of Life (John 3, 6). An allusion to both may possibly underlie John 19:34, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Hebrews 10:22, 1 John 5:6-8. Their connexion in the mind of St. Paul, when he conjoins the type of Baptism ‘in the cloud and in the sea’ with the type of the Eucharist in the ‘spiritual meat’ and ‘spiritual drink’ of the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-4), scarcely admits of question. And the primal picture of the life of the Christian community given in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:41-42; Acts 2:46) exhibits these sacraments as united together in primitive observance. In one of the passages cited above (1 Corinthians 10:1-4) there is evidence, moreover, not only of the association of Baptism and the Eucharist in the mind of the Apostle himself, but also of the existence of a general sacramental idea in the minds of those to whom he writes; for the argument developed in the succeeding verses (1 Corinthians 10:5-12) seems to lose point unless it be directed against an improper and unethical application of certain views then prevailing as to the character and virtue possessed by these two sacraments in common.

The absence of any defined sacramental concept is naturally accompanied by the absence of any formulated doctrine of the sacraments in general. This does not mean, of course, that instruction as to the institution, purpose, and significance of individual sacraments was at any time neglected in the Apostolic Church. It is inconceivable that such instruction did not invariably find a place in the elementary teaching (Acts 2:42; Acts 18:26; Acts 19:4) imparted to every believer concerning the first principles of the doctrine of Christ (Hebrews 6:1-2). The sacramental references in the Didache, Hermas, Barnabas, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, all assume that their readers are familiar with the doctrine of Baptism and the Eucharist. The allusive nature of the references to Baptism in St. Paul’s Epistles plainly infers that those addressed had been carefully grounded in the relative doctrine. The same may be said regarding the reference to the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; while the one example afforded of direct instruction upon the subject of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) expressly adverts to instruction previously given (1 Corinthians 11:23) as well as to supplementary instruction to be administered on a future occasion (1 Corinthians 11:34). But, in accordance with the educative order which rules in the history of the Church-truth and life first, explanations afterwards-the elaboration of sacramental doctrine belongs to a later period than that of the 1st century. ‘Cyril [Catechetical Lectures] is the first church-teacher who treats of baptism, the oil, and the Eucharist, in their logical sequence, and in accordance with general principles’ (Harnack, iv. 293).

In these circumstances any discussion of the abstract subject of sacraments in connexion with the Apostolic Church has little primary material to deal with. It must presuppose the whole special study of particular sacramental observances; and it must confine itself almost exclusively to the general inferences to be drawn from that study. At the outset some definition of the more exact significance in which the term ‘sacrament’ is used requires to be taken for granted; and for this purpose the definition provided by the Shorter Catechism (Q. 92) of the Westminster Assembly will be found to offer certain advantages. It is distinguished by extreme precision of statement. It postulates, as essential to the nature of a Christian sacrament, not only (1) the outward and sensible sign, and (2) the inward and spiritual grace thereby ‘represented, sealed, and applied to believers,’ but also another constituent, one of great importance in differentiating the sacramental from the magical, namely, (3) the institution and command of Christ, which conjoins the inward and spiritual grace with the outward and sensible sign, and imposes upon participators the attitude of religious obedience. And it concentrates attention upon the two particular observances, which, in virtue of their special history, sanction, and rank, have always occupied a position apart from all others. If not the only Christian sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist are at any rate by universal consent the Christian sacraments par excellence; and with the witness which may be adduced regarding them the apostolic authority of the whole system of sacramental practice and doctrine stands or falls. At the same time it must be borne in mind that there are other and cognate rites rooted in the soil of this period-chrism, laying on of hands, benediction, offices of common worship-which partake of a sacramental character, and cannot be left altogether out of account. (See separate articles, Baptism, Eucharist, Anointing, Ordination, etc.)

Whatever inferences may be drawn from a study of the sacraments in this period will be found to have an important bearing upon other and larger fields. One lesson taught by the science of comparative theology is that the ceremonial associated with any form of religion furnishes an illuminating index to the origins and contents of that religion. Our whole view of the nature of Christianity and of the history of the Church must be affected by the conclusions to which we come regarding sacramental practice and theory in the Apostolic Age; and these conclusions, in consequence, are themselves peculiarly liable to be biased by theological and ecclesiastical repossessions. The subject, therefore, is one which requires the exercise of candid and dispassionate judgment. It may be dealt with under two heads: (1) inferences as to sacramental observance, and (2) inferences as to sacramental doctrine.

1. Inferences as to sacramental observance

(a) The observance of sacramental rites was primitive and universal in the Apostolic Church. All the evidence available goes to establish this conclusion. There is no trace of a period anterior to the practice of sacramental rites; no record of the subsequent introduction of such a practice; no vestige of any controversy, like that concerning circumcision, upon the question of obligation or propriety. Direct references to sacramental rites may not be very numerous in the NT; in the case of the Eucharist they are admittedly scanty. But the references which do occur are of a sort which may be said to offer their actual infrequency as additional constructive proof, and to leave no manner of doubt that sacramental rites were from the first an integral part of the Christian ‘way,’ that baptism was invariably enjoined upon converts to the faith, and that the ‘breaking of bread,’ which at least comprised the Eucharist in its germinal form, was one (Acts 20:6-7, 1 Corinthians 11:20) if not absolutely the chief purpose of Christian gatherings for worship. The only questions concerning the origin of Christian baptism, as an observance, relate to its connexion with and differentiation from antecedent kindred Jewish rites. Certainty as to the original form of the Eucharist is to some extent obscured by speculations with regard to the supposed primitive custom of the Christian Agape. But the prevalence of that custom in the Apostolic Church, a circumstance too generally taken for granted, is itself both hypothetical and supported only by somewhat meagre and equivocal evidence (P. Batiffol, Études d’histoire et de théologie positive3, Paris, 1904, pp. 283-325). The term ‘breaking of bread’ in Acts 2:42; Acts 2:46; Acts 20:7 may refer to the Agape as well as to the Lord’s Supper; its reference to the latter, however, is not less obvious, but, on the contrary, more obvious, than its reference to the former. The attempt to maintain that St. Paul or any other teacher engrafted a commemorative or sacramental significance upon a custom which before was predominantly social and but vaguely religious credits innovation with a facility, speed, and completeness of accomplishment which are to the highest degree improbable.

Recent research has thrown interesting light upon the environment of pagan ideas and practice amid which the Gentile Churches were planted; but its results do not substantiate the hypothesis that Christian sacraments owe either inception or character to this source. The lineage of these sacraments is manifestly Jewish. Apostolic history exhibits no trace of any real nexus between them and the Hellenic mysteries; and their subsequent conflict with the mysteries of Isis and Mithra belongs to a phase of development posterior to the age of origins. Such general resemblances as their comparison with the mystery rites has discovered may be sufficient to furnish what Farnell has called ‘adjacent anthropology’ with illustrations of certain laws in the evolution of religion from the human side. But these parallels, while remote and indecisive in themselves, are also accompanied by contrasts much too pronounced and significant to afford solid ground for any theories of definite borrowing or suggestion. It is true, indeed, that, at a later date, recognized analogies led to a deliberate adaptation of the mystery terminology; and the very name sacramentum, which seems to have been used of initiation into the third grade-the grade of miles-in the Mithraic cult, may itself have found entrance into the Church by this avenue (F. Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra, 2 vols., Brussels, 1895-99, ii. 318, n. [Note: . note.] 11). It is true also that, still later, there set in a marked tendency to imitate or compete with the accessories of mystery ceremonial. But the utmost influence upon the sacraments with which these pagan rites can be credited in the Apostolic Age is that of having provided the sacramental vocabulary with perhaps one or two convenient words then in current use and of having prepared the way, through familiarity with symbolic worship and its circle of ideas, for the reception of sacramental observances and teaching among Gentile Christians. To attribute to the mysteries any influence more germinal than this is to mistake the soil for the seed. Although the conclusion that the observance of sacramental rites was primitive and universal may appear to be elementary, important consequences follow from it. If such rites obtained from the first, the conception of primitive Christianity as a formless spiritual impulse, a mere community of religious experience which afterwards developed its own constitutional order and embodied its worship in appropriate ceremonies, is not tenable. Primitive Christianity was undoubtedly charismatic. It bore witness to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dividing to every man severally as He willed. But the sacraments attest that primitive Christianity was ceremonial as well as charismatic. And such ceremonies carry with them the implication of some measure of corporate form, of common regulations, and of recognized administrative rule. The co-existence, moreover, of ceremonial side by side with charismatic life, especially with a charismatic life so universal and powerful as was manifested at the first, affords a proof of the vigour and stability of the ceremonies themselves. Such a combination could not have been maintained unless these ceremonies had been regarded either as of indispensable value, or as ordained by incontestable authority, or, which was in fact the case, as possessing both of these sanctions in the fullest measure.

(b) The observance of sacramental rites was regarded as of indispensable value in the Apostolic Church. For the earlier half of the 2nd cent. and for the closing years of the 1st this assertion will hardly be challenged. Evidence as to the high place assigned to Baptism and the Eucharist in the Didache, to Baptism in Hernias and Barnabas, to the Eucharist in Ignatius, and to the eucharistic service in Clement of Rome, is decisive and leaves no room for doubt. For NT times the conclusiveness of the evidence has been disputed. The mere prevalence, however, of these sacramental observances from the first itself affords strong presumption as to the exceptional reverence in which they were held. In the case of a religion old enough to possess traditional customs one can imagine rites of universal currency which, having become thus consuetudinary, are regarded as of but ceremonial significance. It is impossible to imagine such formalism in the case of a religion still in its infancy, of a religion so spiritual, moreover, and so intolerant of unreality as that of Christ. These rites must have been esteemed as primary, or they would not have been universally observed. That Baptism, for instance, was treated as indispensable is plain. Even one converted by a heavenly vision (Acts 9:18; Acts 22:16), even those upon whom the Holy Ghost had already fallen (Acts 10:48), were required to receive it, while of those whose understanding and experience of the faith were discovered to be essentially defective (Acts 19:1-7) the crucial question at once asked by the Apostle was-‘Into what then were ye baptized?’ To Baptism St. Paul habitually appeals as to a fact of cardinal religious importance (Romans 6:1-14, 1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:26-27, Colossians 2:11-12, Titus 3:5); and he includes it among a series of solemn witnesses to the unity which the Christian calling demands in a concatenation of ideas the most exalted conceivable (Ephesians 4:4-6). Regarding the Eucharist, again, it may be affirmed with confidence that St. Paul could never have expressed himself as he did in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 had he reckoned its value to be secondary, or its sacredness to be negligible, or its obligation to be anything less than imperative upon all members of the Church. Support has been claimed upon various grounds for the contention that sacramental observance is ‘not central’ in the NT. It has been pointed out that in the Acts and writings of the apostles the space devoted to sacramental subjects is extremely exiguous, that in many whole books neither one sacrament nor the other is mentioned, that such references as do occur are for the most part incidental. But it may be replied that the books of the NT do not purport to be comprehensive; that they are occasional or specific in their character; that not one of them is, or professes to contain, a systematic manual of first principles; that all of them assume the concurrent operation of evangelistic preaching and oral instruction; that, when read as addressed to churches in which sacramental observance was invariable and presupposed, they are at once perceived to be really interwoven with manifold allusions to the sacramental life unobserved before. The argument ex silentio is proverbially a perilous argument. It becomes convincing only when accompanied, as in this case it is not, by independent proof that silence must infer either ignorance or disregard. It may often with equal, if not greater, propriety be used to establish the very contrary of that which it has been cited to make good. Lake’s remark applies most pertinently in this connexion: ‘It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of realizing that, if we want to discover the central points of Christian doctrine, we must look not at those to which St. Paul devotes pages of argument, but at those which he treats as the premises accepted equally by all Christians’ (The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul, London, 1911, p. 233 n. [Note: . note.] ). It is not really paradoxical to maintain that the NT writers say little about sacramental observance just because sacramental observance was in their eyes a first principle. The emphasis laid in the NT upon the saving grace of faith is another reason adduced to depreciate the primitive importance of the sacraments. But saving graces and the means of grace are never placed in contrast in apostolic doctrine. The antithesis is gratuitous and imaginary. The relation between faith and sacrament remains exactly analogous to that which the Gospels represent as existing between faith and the instrumentality used by our Lord in the performance of His miracles. The faith involved in sacramental obedience is faith, not in outward rites, but in Him by whom these rites were appointed, whose instruments they also are. One particular passage (1 Corinthians 1:12-17) is frequently quoted as an indication that St. Paul disparaged Baptism as compared with preaching. Careful examination of the purpose of that passage leads to a conclusion entirely different. Had St. Paul not recognized the primary importance of Baptism as the sacrament of initiation into the Church, had he not supposed that his administration of it was more liable than his preaching to encourage the party watchword-‘I am of Paul,’ he would not have adverted to his apostolic practice in this connexion. He thanks God that he baptized few of the Corinthians himself, just because he knows the supreme incorporating significance of that ordinance, and perceives the misinterpretation which party-spirit might have put upon any special diligence shown by him as a minister of the actual rite of Baptism-‘lest any man should say that ye were baptized into my name’ (1 Corinthians 1:15).

(c) The observance of sacramental rites based itself in the Apostolic Church upon the authority of Christ’s institution. The question which concerns us here is not that as to the origin of these rites. The sacraments meet us upon the very threshold of the Apostolic Church; and the discussion of their institution and of their relation to contemporary Jewish customs belongs to the province of Gospel study. What we are here concerned with is the authority which secured or sanctioned their observance in the Church. Only one such authority-that of the apostles-can in the first instance be imagined. Whether that authority was official or not, it must still have been effective. The apostles were believed to know the mind of Christ. They were the companions of His ministry. They were the witnesses of His resurrection. Without their injunction or approval sacramental observance could not have been introduced. But their authority was not original. It was derivative. They were ἀπόστολοι of Christ (Clem. Rom. Ep. ad Cor. i. 42). The things which they taught the Church to observe were the things which Christ commanded (Matthew 28:20). Hence the sacraments must have been supposed to possess the authority of our Lord Himself; and this is the belief upon which sacramental observance was established. Apart altogether from historical criticism of their contents, the Gospels bear testimony to the convictions which held sway in the Apostolic Church. St. Matthew’s record (Matthew 28:16-20), whatever view be taken as to the textually unassailable Trinitarian formula, proves that the Christian observance of Baptism was referred directly to the appointment of our Lord; and this conclusion is confirmed both by the description of baptism as ‘in (ἐπί, εἰς, ἐν) the name of Jesus Christ’ (Acts 2:38; Acts 8:16; Acts 10:48, etc.), and by the distinction insisted upon between Christian baptism and the baptism of John (Acts 18:25; Acts 19:3-5, Hebrews 6:2). The combined witness of the Synoptists leaves no doubt that our Lord’s own institution was believed to be the origin of the Eucharist. Luke 22:19 b, Luke 22:20 may be indebted in some way to 1 Corinthians 11:24-25; but there is no ground for the conjecture that St. Paul’s account diverges at this point from the tradition of the Church at Jerusalem; while his own emphatic declaration-‘I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you’ (1 Corinthians 11:23)-whether referring to a special revelation or not, indicates clearly the supreme authority consistently presupposed as the foundation of sacramental observance. More than the bare command of Christ was contemplated as investing the sacraments with their authority. It was His command, surrounded in either case with circumstances of incomparable solemnity. If St. Matthew represents the belief of the primitive Church, Baptism was conceived of as an ordinance of the Risen Lord, delivered by Him on an occasion of transcending importance, decreed in the same breath with a claim to universal authority in heaven and on earth, associated with an imperial charge to make disciples of all the nations, and accompanied by a promise of His unfailing presence all the numbered days until the completion of the age. If the Synoptists and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 represent the belief of the primitive Church, the Eucharist was conceived of as an ordinance appointed by the Lord upon the eve of His sacrifice and in anticipation of it, upon an occasion of unique and consummating intimacy of self-revelation to His disciples, an occasion overshadowed, indeed, by the approaching betrayal and crucifixion, and therefore filled to overflowing with recollections inexpressibly moving and poignant, but consecrated also as the inauguration of the present communion of His body and blood, and radiant with the assurance which it contained of the impending triumph of His Kingdom. The sacraments, thus regarded as ‘holy ordinances instituted by Christ,’ afford an indication that the idea of positive ordinance, side by side with and counter -balancing the idea of individual charismatic freedom, was part of the essence of Christianity from the first. For the new ‘way,’ Christ had appointed beforehand certain definite rites which all life quickened by the Holy Spirit should observe. And the extraordinary solemnity of circumstance with which their appointment had been emphasized secured for these observances, even apart from discernment of their meaning or experience of their virtue, and without the original aid of any formulated sacramental theory, the homage of unquestioning practice. The sacraments of Christ may be said to resemble the words of Christ in this, that, while filled by Him with manifold grace and truth, the wealth of their contents would not be appropriated otherwise than gradually, and at the first, in consequence, their reception rested for its assurance chiefly upon the strength of that sovereign authority to which they owed their promulgation. In the apostolic belief that they were holy ordinances instituted by the Founder and King and Head of the Church we find the one sufficient explanation of their earliest prevalence. The faith of apostolic times saw the authority of our Lord’s Person standing as fountain-head at the beginnings of sacramental observance; and, were it not for the demand made upon faith by the miracles of Pentecost and the Resurrection, the credibility of this historic witness to the actual institution of the sacraments by Christ would never in all probability have been seriously challenged.

2. Inferences as to sacramental doctrine

(a) As ritual acts of faith and obedience towards God, the sacraments possessed the character of worship from the first. True sacraments are always capable of consideration under two aspects: a Godward aspect and a manward aspect. In the former they appear as acts of worship; in the latter they appear as means of grace. There is, indeed, a third aspect in which they are sometimes considered-that in which they become cognizable as forms of public or mutual self-expression. The last, however, is really an incidental accompaniment of the first, and quite subordinate to it. Only when the devotional life of the Church grows cold are the sacraments much thought of in this light. In the Apostolic Church they were not contemplated as formal means by which either the corporate religious consciousness or the decisions and experiences of personal religion received expression. That they did express such consciousness-the consciousness of blessings enjoyed, of the reality of ‘the re-birth which is typified by the Church’s sacrament of initiation’ and of ‘the participation in the Divine Life which is dramatised in its sacrament of communion’ (E. Underhill, The Mystic Way, London, 1913, p. 33 f.)-may be in a sense true; but this was not regarded as their purpose. The decisions and experiences of personal religion, indeed, could not fail to be shown forth or implied in the sacraments. Inasmuch as these observances were distinctive and elementary acts of Christian faith and love they became at once prominent tokens of the Christian profession; and to this circumstance, no doubt, they owe in some measure their investment with the designation sacramenta. In the case of the initiatory rite, the rupture with the past (Romans 6:2, Ephesians 4:20-22, Colossians 3:9, etc.) and ‘the good confession in the sight of many witnesses’ (1 Timothy 6:12) and the new habit of life (Romans 6:4-6, Ephesians 4:23-24, Colossians 3:10, etc.) were circumstances so arresting that Baptism must always in those days have worn the complexion of an open avowal. In the case of the Eucharist, that rite which postulated devotion to Him whose memorial it was, in which also declared fellowship with the one Body was time after time renewed, participation became not only a badge of continued fidelity and an example in perseverance calculated to encourage others (Hebrews 10:24-25, where it is surely natural to understand as included a reference to the eucharistic service), but, at a later date, a criterion as well by which adherence to sound doctrine (Ignatius, Smyrn. vi.) might be tested. Nevertheless, as an observance of personal faith, neither Baptism nor the Eucharist was an act of self-expression otherwise than incidentally. Both, primarily, were solemn acts of worship performed towards God. But both did not fulfil this character in the same way. The germ of a future classification of rites into sacraments singular and sacraments capable of repetition is already latent in their divergent types. Baptism is worship in the form of definitive self-surrender to God in Christ, accompanied with repentance and acknowledgment of faith. It is the dedication of a living sacrifice, the acceptance of office in a holy priesthood, the response to a calling of God to become the ‘lively stones’ of ‘a spiritual house,’ and, indeed, to be a temple bodily through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist, on the other hand, as the distinctive Christian form of stated common worship, was to be taken part in continually. By it the worship of the Church was differentiated from the worship of the synagogue; and it became at an early date the central act of the whole Christian cultus. This aspect of the observance connected itself from the first with the offering of the thanksgiving in accordance with our Lord’s example; and the rapid specialization of the name εὐχαριστία, applied therefore to the sacrament regarded as worship, may be traced from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 14:16) through St. Clement of Rome (Ep. ad Cor. i. 41 [see Lightfoot]) to its precise and settled use in Ignatius (Eph. xiii. 1, Philad. iv. 1, Smyrn. vi., viii. 1) and in the Didache (ix. 1, 5). The Eucharist was the culminating point of Christian worship. Elements of service-‘lections, chants, homilies, and prayers’-might be and were borrowed from the Jewish liturgy (L. Duchesne, Christian Worship, Eng. translation 4, London, 1912, p. 47 f.). But ‘the eucharistic celebration … was the new and vivifying principle, the centre round which these adopted elements ranged themselves’ (J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. i., ‘St. Clement of Rome,’ London, 1890, i. 393).

(b) In their aspect as means of grace the sacraments were regarded as symbolical but not merely symbolical, as effectual but not magical, as both sealing and applying the spiritual benefits which they outwardly represented but in a way not yet strictly defined nor yet explained in terms of relative doctrine. The sacraments were looked upon not only as human acts but also as Divine instruments. The grace of God wrought through them, and wrought by means of symbols. The method of instruction by parable habitually employed by our Lord on earth had already taught His disciples to view external nature as a shadow of the Kingdom of Heaven, and had encouraged the conviction that ‘everything, in being what it is, is symbolic of something more’ (R. L. Nettleship, quoted by W. R. Inge, Christian Mysticism, London, 1899, p. 250). ‘God omnipresent was so much in all their [the early Fathers’] thoughts, that what to others would have been mere symbols, were to them designed expressions of His truth, providential intimations of His will. In this sense, the whole world, to them, was full of sacraments’ (R. Hooker, Works2, ed. J. Keble, Oxford, 1841, vol. i. p. xcii). In harmony with our Lord’s didactic method, and as a continuation of it, the sacraments instituted by Him took their place in the Church as permanent and embodied parables of the Kingdom. Symbolism was inherent in the use made by them of ‘sensible signs.’ Their elements and their actions were filled with ideas both obvious and more recondite. The water, the bread, and the wine, and the whole ritual associated with them spoke eloquently of invisible things and spiritual processes. Illustrations of a tendency to pass even beyond the similitudes primarily suggested, and to elaborate particular details of the imagery for purposes of doctrine, may be found not only in the age succeeding the apostles (the Didache, Hermas, Barnabas, Ignatius), but already in the apostles’ writings themselves (1 Peter 3:20-21, Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12, 1 Corinthians 10:17, etc.). Care, however, must be taken not to read the modern acceptance of the term ‘symbolical’ into the primitive view of the sacraments. According to modern habits of thought, symbols which speak outwardly to the senses operate upon the soul exclusively through the association of ideas. They make their address to the intellect, and only through the intellect influence the affections and the will. They are nothing more, in fact, than a language of signs. That this was not how the Apostolic Age regarded them, that they were always looked upon as having more than mere intellectual potency, research into the contemporary forms of popular religion claims to have established. Harnack, who both in History of Dogma and in Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (Eng. translation , 2 vols., London, 1904) repeatedly emphasizes the assertion that the symbol was uniformly contemplated as possessing a vital and not only a figurative significance, thus represents the primitive view, at least in the field of Gentile Christianity: ‘Although Christian worship is to be a worship in spirit and in truth, these sacraments [Baptism and the Lord’s Supper] are sacred transactions which operate on life.… No doubt, the elements of water, bread, and wine, are symbols, and the scene of operations is not laid in externals; still, the symbols do actually convey to the soul all that they signify. Each symbol has a mysterious but real connection with the fact which it signifies’ Expansion of Christianity, i. 286). Lake goes so far as to express the opinion that ‘this position [the purely symbolical view of the sacraments] has received its death-blow from the modern study of the history of religions’ (The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul, p. 389). Gentile Christians in contact with the pagan mysteries, and habituated to the conception that symbols carry with them vital effects, would not, unless expressly taught to do so, divest the sacraments of that deeper than emblematic significance which they naturally assumed them to contain; while for Jewish Christians a merely emblematic interpretation of the sacramental symbols would have appeared to attribute to these symbols the very character which stamped the legal worship, now abrogated because fulfilled in Christ, with imperfection-the character, namely, of ‘a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things’ (Hebrews 10:1; Hebrews 8:5, Colossians 2:17). When we find the Didache prescribing careful ceremonial in relation to Baptism (vii.) and applying to the Eucharist the Dominical word ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs’ (ix. 5), and Ignatius speaking of our Lord purifying the water by His suffering (Eph. xviii. 2) and exhorting ‘Let your baptism remain as your arms,’ i.e. as your shield (Polyc. vi. 2), and describing the Eucharist as ‘the medicine of immortality, the antidote that we should not die’ (Eph. xx. 2), we feel that we are in a region of sacramental ideas lying quite beyond the superficial theory of symbols. But we are really in the same region before we leave the canonical books. Those who contend that the purely symbolical is the only view of the sacraments entertained by NT writers cannot make good their contention except by denying a plain sacramental reference to John 3, 6, and by employing ingenious exposition to empty one after another the entire series of express NT references to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper of any other than a figurative implication. But there can be little doubt that the first readers of the Fourth Gospel would perceive in John 3 a direct allusion to Christian Baptism and in John 6 a direct allusion to the Eucharist; and, while all the express NT references to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are quite compatible with higher than figurative conceptions of the sacraments, in the case of a number of them (e.g. Romans 6:1-14, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:26-27, Ephesians 4:5; Ephesians 5:26, Colossians 2:11-12, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:20-21, Hebrews 6:1-2) the straightforward interpretation is one clearly involving that higher sacramental conception, to which also the consensus of the whole series points and testifies.

The sacraments, while regarded as more than empty symbols, while looked upon as really effectual, and tending to combine with the nature of dramatic παραβολαί the nature also of σημεῖα (in the sense of the Fourth Gospel) permanent in the Church, were not, however, thought of as having any kind of magical affinity. The precise meaning of the word ‘magic’ is difficult to define; and in this connexion its elasticity has led to a controversial use much to be deprecated. The characterization of sacramental theory as magical too often takes the place of serious argument. But the spiritually effectual and the magical are not synonymous terms. The really salient feature of magic, which ‘has been ingeniously defined as the strategy of animism’ (F. Cumont, Les Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain, Paris, 1906, p. 224), may be recognized in its claim to possess the secret of commanding unseen powers. From the sacraments this feature is excluded by the institutional authority which they assert. The sacraments obey; they do not command. They operate not of necessity, but through the unconstrained agency of the Holy Spirit, who chooses them as His instruments. Their virtue resides not in material elements or ritual actions, but in the covenant of promise attached to their faithful observance. To magic, unless the name be stretched beyond its legitimate connotation, the sacraments of the Apostolic Church have no more substantial resemblance than prayer has to incantation. It is beyond doubt that in the world which Christianity entered the practice of magic and the circle of ideas associated with it were familiar. But the stories of Simon Magus (Acts 8:5-24), of Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:6-12), of the damsel possessed of a spirit of divination (Acts 16:16-18), of the magicians of Ephesus (Acts 19:13-19), as well as the condemnations of idolatry and sorcery contained in the Epistles (Galatians 5:20, 1 Peter 4:3, 1 Corinthians 10:14, Colossians 3:5; cf. Revelation 9:20-21; Revelation 18:23), illustrate the attitude of antagonism which the Church assumed towards magic from the first. Nor was this antagonism that of rivalry. Christianity was in no true sense a mystery-religion. Its sacramental system differed fundamentally from that of the mystery rites (but see J. E. Harrison’s derivation of μύστης, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Cambridge, 1903, p. 153 f.). Except when forced into seclusion as a religio illicita, it worked openly. It knew of no magical secrets to be kept from all but the initiated. It knew only of life-giving secrets to be declared. In the Apostolic Church no trace exists of the disciplina arcani; and even when, at a later date, that disciplina was introduced, it was introduced in connexion with the institution of the catechumenate, and was employed as a method of education, as a device of rhetoric, as an expedient for the promotion of reverence, and, not as implying any esoteric cult (see Batiffol, Études d’histoire et de théologie positive, pp. 1-41). It is perhaps only fair to add that, in the opinion of some competent scholars, the mysteries themselves, in their ultimate forms, and as understood by cultivated votaries, seem to have outgrown their original magic, and to have approximated, at least, to a sacramental character. The Christian polemic directed against them in the early centuries implies alleged resemblances. ‘In the sacraments of Mithra, Tertullian and other Apologists perceived a diabolic parody of the usages of the Church’ (S. Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, London, 1904, p. 613). Modern apology will incline rather to interpret such resemblances as disclosing in the sacramental system of the faith a Divine adaptation to the experienced requirements of human nature, a Divine response to the longing of the human heart for assured cleansing, for help in the pursuit of holiness, and for the promise of eternal life. That which the more refined mystery conceptions sought after, the sacraments actually supplied. It may well be that, not only in the syncretistic philosophies of the Roman Empire, but also in its ‘conflict of religions,’ the Spirit of Truth was secretly at work, opening many doors of prepared receptiveness for the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven. From any alliance with magic the Christian sacraments, at any rate, were safeguarded from the first by the personal relation which they involved as between members of the Church and the Person of her living and exalted Head, by the predominant emphasis laid upon the grace of Christian faith as an indispensable condition of every spiritual blessing, and by the intensely ethical requirements which were invariably associated with their observance.

The effect ascribed to the sacraments was partly of the nature of Divine assurance and promise. They operated so as to establish or confirm a new relationship of privilege which contained in posse a dower of future blessings-grace to be realized in this age and the hope of the world to come. The specific use of the word σφραγίς to designate the initiatory rites-a use common in post-apostolic times-does not yet appear as conventional. But the idea-more probably connected with Jewish revelation than with mystery conceptions-is already found in St. Paul’s Epistles (2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Ephesians 1:13; Ephesians 4:30). Baptism is the outward sign of the Divine calling and election. By it those sealed are marked by God as His. They are enrolled in ‘a nation from the midst of nations.’ They are made members of the Body of Christ. And the gift of the Holy Spirit accompanying their initiation is a gift of ‘the Holy Spirit of promise,’ the ‘earnest’ (ἀρραβών) of an ‘inheritance.’ The Lord’s Supper, again, is a seal of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, an assurance of eternal life now, an anticipation of the Parousia, a promise of resurrection, a pledge of the Messianic triumph, a foretaste of the great Supper of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 26:28-29, Mark 14:24-25, Luke 22:20; Luke 22:16-18, John 6:54, 1 Corinthians 11:26; also Matthew 22:1-13, Luke 14:15-24). But the actual bestowal of the blessings represented by the sacraments was also regarded as an effect of their observance. They operated respectively as veritable means of their own distinctive grace. And they accomplished this not through any natural psychological process-an explanation which really reverts to the theory of empty symbols-but by the power of the Holy Ghost. They acted not upon intellect only, but upon the person, upon life. Baptism was the actual occasion of those effects which it represented-of the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16, Ephesians 5:26, Titus 3:5), of the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 1 Corinthians 12:13), of the dying and burial with Christ (Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:12), and of regeneration (John 3:5, Titus 3:5). The Eucharist was the actual occasion of the communication and communion of the body of Christ and of the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16) and of all that was represented by the ministration and reception of the bread and wine in the sacrament (see also John 6:53-58, and Ignatius, Rom. vii. 3, Philad. iv. 1, Smyrn. vi.). How the sacraments become thus effectual; what relation exists between the elements and that which is bestowed through them; in particular, what the body and blood of Christ precisely signify, and how such sacred realities ought to be conceived of as related to the consecrated bread and wine-these are questions which do not expressly emerge in this period. But, although no theory of sacramental grace is formulated as yet, the materials for its future construction are already provided. Among the prolegomena of sacramental theory, the doctrine of the Incarnation must always hold the place of supreme importance. That doctrine, not so much in its bearing upon the earthly life of our Lord as in its bearing upon His heavenly state and ministry, and in the conclusions to be drawn from it as to the perpetuity of the human nature assumed, as to the permanent relation of that human nature to His Divinity, as to its glorification, as to its endowment with the power of the Holy Spirit in full measure, and as to its potential omnipresence, constitutes the very basis of the whole sacramental fabric. And not only was that doctrine, uncodified as yet in creeds, and waiting still to be followed into its consequences, fundamental in the faith and teaching of the Apostolic Church, but certain aspects of it, which, as challenged by Docetic tendencies, receive marked prominence in the Johannine writings (John 1:14, 1 John 4:2, 2 John 1:7) and prominence at least not less marked in the Epistles of Ignatius, are the very aspects which look in the direction of sacramental theology, and in the light of which sacramental theology was afterwards developed (e.g. see Justin Martyr, Apol. i. 66, and J. H. Srawley’s comment, The Early History of the Liturgy, Cambridge, 1913, p. 35). In one place, indeed, in which Ignatius refers to Docetic separatists in such terms as to suggest that the Eucharist implies the reality of Christ’s flesh (Smyrn. vi.), the doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Eucharist are brought into a closeness of contact which illustrates the derivation of the sacramental principle from the contents of the truth that ‘the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.’ In the two natures united in our Lord’s Person, the two parts of the sacrament, its outward sign and its invisible grace, found their analogy. Our Lord’s bodily presence was in fact the compendium of all sacraments; and all sacraments were the virtual extension of our Lord’s bodily presence and activity. Of doctrine such as this the foundation had been laid already in the Apostolic Age, and the material provided. But it was left to subsequent centuries of constructive faith and devout reflexion to rear upon that foundation and with that material the doctrinal edifice of the sacramental system.

(c) Although either sacrament was regarded as the specific means of its own appropriate grace, both had a common reference to the whole way of salvation in Christ; and, while the complexity of this reference permitted certain aspects of it to receive peculiar prominence from time to time, there is no sufficient ground for the assumption that all were not equally implied in the nature of the institutions from the first. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper had each its own distinctive purpose in the economy of grace. But they possessed in common similar general relations to the entire scheme of redemption. Both were means towards the fulfilment of the mystical union with Christ. Both had respect to the sacrifice offered by Him on the Cross. Both were inseparably connected with the cardinal fact of the Resurrection. Both looked up to a Prince and a Saviour by the right hand of God exalted. Both were dependent for their vitality upon the operation of the Holy Ghost sent forth from Him. Both had in view the constitution and service of the body corporate and the communion of saints. Both belonged to a new and spiritual order which bore witness to the one hope of the coming and kingdom of the Christ of God. Their common outlook was thus not in one direction only but in many-an outlook so comprehensive that it is strictly accurate to describe the blessings represented, sealed, and applied by them as being nothing less than ‘Christ and the benefits of the New Covenant’ (Shorter Catechism, Q. 92). This manifoldness of the sacramental outlook is, indeed, made evident in the facility with which each succeeding modern hypothesis as to what was ‘central’ in primitive Christianity can claim the witness of the sacraments for its support. If, e.g., the gospel of the Kingdom was mainly eschatological in its contents, there is no difficulty in showing that the sacraments looked forward to a Kingdom yet to come, of which they were the seals. If, on the other hand, the gospel of the Kingdom was mainly spiritual in its contents, it is equally easy to demonstrate that the sacraments as means of grace find their purpose in a Kingdom of God realizing itself gradually here and now. It may quite well be that at different periods, in different Churches, and by different teachers, particular aspects of the sacraments-whether the personal aspect or the corporate, the commemorative, the mystical, the ethical, or the prophetic-may have been given superior prominence. The Pauline theology may have laid more stress upon their relation to Christ’s death, and the Johannine upon their relation to Christ’s life; but it is not necessary to assume that only one aspect can be primitive, that all others were superinduced and represent deflexions from the original ordinance. It seems to be more reasonable to attribute the real variety of meaning and purpose which may be assigned to the sacraments to the intrinsic wealth of the sacraments themselves. If they were, as the Apostolic Church believed, the very institution of Christ Himself, it is not surprising to find that they exhibit the same many-sidedness of significance which characterized all the words which Christ spoke and the same many-sidedness of effect which characterized all the works which He performed. As ‘holy ordinances instituted by Christ’ they combine simplicity with mysterious depth; and from many sparkling facets, with iridescent doctrine, they reflect the light.

Literature.-In addition to books cited above see Literature appended to articles Baptism, Eucharist, Eschatology; articles Sacraments, Baptism, Eucharist, Symbol, Magic, Mystery in other Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias; A. V. G. Allen, Christian Institutions, Edinburgh, 1898; P. Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism, Eng. translation , London, 1914; W. Beyschlag, NT Theology, Eng. translation , Edinburgh, 1895; C. Clemen, Primitive Christianity and its Non-Jewish Sources (the introduction to which contains an extensive bibliography), do., 1912; L. R. Farnell, The Evolution of Religion, London, 1905, ‘Sacrificial Communion in Greek Religion,’ J. Hibbert Journal ii. [1903-04] 306 ff.; Percy Gardner, Origin of the Lord’s Supper, London, 1893, Exploratio Evangelica, do., 1899, The Growth of Christianity, do., 1907; T. R. Glover, The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire, do., 1909; E. Hatch, Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, do., 1890; J. R. Illingworth, Divine Immanence, do., 1898; F. B. Jevons, An Introduction to the Study of Comparative Religion, New York, 1908; H. A. A. Kennedy, St. Paul and the Mystery-Religions, do., 1913; A. Loisy, ‘The Christian Mystery,’ J. Hibbert Journal x. [1911-12] 45 ff.; Lux Mundi10, ed. C. Gore, London, 1890, pp. 401-433; A. C. McGiffert, History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897; W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the NT, London, 1915; W. Sanday, The Life of Christ in Recent Research, Oxford, 1907.

Roger S. Kirkpatrick.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sacraments'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/sacraments.html. 1906-1918.

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