Past Elder’s latest comment (to the previous blog) puts me in mind of a variation upon a classic Monty Python skit:
Man: Do you have “Olsen’s Standard Book of Christian Sacraments”?
Bookseller: Yes, well we do have that, as a matter of fact…
Man: The Expurgated Version.
Bookseller: Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that…
Man: The Expurgated Version.
Bookseller: The expurgated version of “Olsen’s Standard Book of Christian Sacraments”?
Man: Yes, the one without Confirmation.
Bookseller: The one without Confirmation???! They’ve all got Confirmation in it! Its a standard Christian Sacrament! Confirmation is in all the books!
Man: Well, I don’t like it. Its a medieval invention.
Bookseller: Alright, I remove it! [Rippppppppppppp] Any other sacraments you don’t like?
Man: I don’t think Matrimony is a sacrament.
Bookseller: Matrimony? Right. [Rippppppppppppppp] There you are. Any others you don’t like?
Bookseller: There you are. No Confirmation! No Matrimony! No Anointing! No Ordination. There’s your book, now BUY IT!”
Man: I can’t buy that! Its torn.
I have, in the past, taught a course on sacraments for Catholic Adult Education Melbourne (CAEM–now defunct). In fact, I will be giving a shorter version of this course in term 3 for Anima Education (in conjunction with the Catholic Women’s League) here in Melbourne: “Ours is a Sacramental Faith”.
One of my main points in this course is that you cannot identify a sacrament by starting off with a list of criteria of what makes a sacrament and then pick up your binoculars and your copy of “Olsen’s Standard Book of Christian Sacraments” to go “sacrament-spotting”.
For instance, you will find several “definitions” of what a sacrament is in standard Christian denominational catechisms. You will find some definitions on this page. The one I grew up with said that a genuine sacrament had to have the following characteristics: 1) Physical matter (eg. bread and wine, water); 2) the promise of forgiving grace, 3) instituted by Christ. In practice that meant two only: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The argument over the number of sacraments among Protestants who hold to a Sola Scriptura line is very interesting because:
a) The bible does not give a list of criteria for determining a true “sacrament”
b) In fact the bible has no teaching at all about “sacraments”
c) Even the scriptures say that not all that Christ did and taught is recorded in the scriptures (eg. John 20:30, 21:25)
d) (and this is the really good bit) What does it mean when we say that Christ “instituted” a given a sacrament anyway?
From the Catholic side of things, there is always the temptation to stray into what I call “sacramental anthropology” as opposed to “sacramental theology“. One of the best examples of this is Brian Gleeson’s essay in the Australian Ejournal of Theology “Symbols and Sacraments: Their Human Foundations”. He defines a sacrament (following Augustine) as “a sacred sign”. In this scheme, anything and everything can end up being a sacrament–a hug, a sunbeam, a flower… etc. etc. It’s all mushy nonsense [Chuck, vomit].
For all these reasons, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
224. What are the sacraments and which are they? The sacraments, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, are efficacious signs of grace perceptible to the senses. Through them divine life is bestowed upon us. There are seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.
Note that the question “What” and “Which” belong together. The “What” explains the nature of the “Which”, not the way in which to identify the “Which”.
I’ll give an analogy: We might ask “What” are the Canonical Books of Scripture and “Which” are they? Our answer to the “What?” could be that the Canonical Books are the true written Word and revelation of God given to the prophets and apostles and our answer to the “Which?” would involve listing all 46 books of the Old Testament and 27 of the New. Of course, at this very point we see another analogy between the discussion on sacraments and the discussion of the canon: the Sola Scriptura Protestants recognise fewer scriptural books than we Catholics do–even though there is not list of the Canon in scripture itself. But to get back to the main analogy: one cannot start with a definition of what makes a book the authentic written Word and revelation of God, and then seek to find books that meet that criteria. One simply has to go with those books already recognised as such by the Church. The Catechism says as much:
1117 As she has done for the canon of Sacred Scripture and for the doctrine of the faith, the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her “into all truth,” has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ and, as the faithful steward of God’s mysteries, has determined its “dispensation” [Jn 16:13; cf. Mt 13:52; 1 Cor 4:1]. Thus the Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord.
Running with the “strict sense” therefore, we recognise that these seven, and only these seven, have been “instituted by the Lord”.
Of course, the Church does not fall prey to the Protestant reductionism that says that a particular rite can only have been “instituted by the Lord” if it is explicitly recorded as being so in sacred scripture. Nevertheless, scripture is a good starting point, and helps us to discern exactly what it means to say that such and such a sacrament was “instituted by the Lord”.
For all Christians, the one ritual that is most clearly “instituted by the Lord” (in the sense that he was the first one to actually do it and commanded the apostles to “Do this” in memory of him) is the Eucharist. But immediately, when we compare the institution of the Eucharist to the institution of baptism, we run up against the fact that the manner of “institution” is quite different. Firstly, if perchance we did not have Matthew’s account of the Great Commission (Matt 28), we would have no scriptural evidence at all that Jesus instituted Christian baptism. Moreover both the Eucharist and Baptism were being done by the Church long before the New Testament was written on the basis of the oral tradition of the Apostles. Secondly, Jesus most certainly never actually baptised anyone himself. Thirdly, we know that baptism existed before Jesus (eg. John’s baptism), but that Jesus’ death and resurrection gave it a new meaning. In this sense it is more like what we Catholics mean when we say that Jesus “instituted” the Sacrament of Matrimony: yes, it existed before Jesus, but his death and resurrection gave it a new meaning in a new context.
So “instituted” can have a variety of meanings. The Catholic Faith does not say that all sacraments were “instituted” in the same way, rather they say
they were instituted by the same person: Jesus himself. Even where the earliest evidence we have is a command or example from the Apostles (eg. anointing, James 5:13ff), we remain confident that the Apostles were simply doing what they had been commanded to do by the Lord. Laying on of hands in confirmation and ordination would be similar.
In the end, when we say that there are seven rites to which we give the name “sacrament”, and that all these rites were instituted by Christ, we are making a statement of faith. But it is a faith in the unbroken tradition of the Church, which includes the scriptural witness, but is not the scriptural witness alone. And this is for the simple reason that they were instituted BEFORE the New Testament scriptures were written.