"Olsen's Standard Book of Christian Sacraments" (with apologies to Monty Python)

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: O-L-S-E-N?
Man: Yes.
Bookseller: S-A-C-R-A-M-E-N-T-S?
Man: Yes.
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?
Man: Ordination?
Man: Anointing?
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.

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9 Responses to "Olsen's Standard Book of Christian Sacraments" (with apologies to Monty Python)

  1. Peter says:

    Love your work David!

  2. Past Elder says:

    The skit has it backwards — not uncommon for Rome. What would represent the situation is jamming chapters in, not ripping them out!

  3. Schütz says:

    Past Elder, I would not put it past you to try and prove that black was white and to get yourself killed on the next zebra crossing (to coin a Douglas Adamsism). I can hardly believe you had the temerity to make that claim.

    Whereas Protestants ignorant of history like to claim that Catholicism = Biblical Christianity Plus (or to put it another way: Catholic > Biblical Christianity), anyone who knows even a modicum of history knows that Protestantism = Historical Christianity Minus (or Protestant < Historical Christianity). To be sure, the “book of faith” has grown over time, but this is natural for any book in the process of being written or story in the process of being told. I don’t think it is historically inaccurate to describe the Protestant Catechism as the “expurgated version” of the Catholic one.

  4. Past Elder says:

    Relax — I used to think that too! The way I used to put it was, Protestantism (understood as referring to any non Roman or Orthodox form of Christianity) is basically whatever of the Catholic Faith they did not dispute along with whatever Reformer’s ideas to replace the rest they accept. Be your own pope, or rather, assume powers beyond anything any pope ever claimed.

    Since we’ve gone from analogies to equations, for your equations to work as a refutation, one must assume that “Catholicism” and “Historical Christianity” are co-terminous, which it was one of the points of the Lutheran Reformation to refute! Or in other words, the “book of faith” if you will grew over time, incorporating elements both consistent and not consistent with the faith of Christ. Any expurgation is to remove the latter. “Historical” is no guarantee of catholic or orthodox, just of historical. (Lower case intended.) I stand by what I wrote.

    But, you’ll find all this laid out much better in the Book of Concord, or the essay “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”. I like the Adamsism though!

  5. Schütz says:

    Okay, PE, I think we have hit upon a useful analogy here. I take you do not dispute the necessity for the “book” to grow–the “deposit of faith” was received in the form of a “seed” (to use another analogy), and, being a living thing, naturally grew in the process of living. The question is not whether the plant should grow or not, but rather what belongs to the plant and what in fact is an alien parasite growing upon the plant. The latter is always to be removed in the “semper reformanda” (or, as we prefer, the “semper purificanda”) of the Church, but branches of the plant itself are not to be lopped off. (I can see you will be tempted to bring in the John 15 passage here about fruitlessness, but I am not talking about individual souls at this point–rather about the Faith itself). Or to return to the “book” analogy, this is the real “Never-ending Story”, and, as it is still being told, the story is growing. The task of “reforming” or “purifying” is thus (in this analogy) a case of “editing” out material that does not futher the story or is not consistent with it.

    So given all that, the real matter is one of deciding what belongs to the plant/book as a legitimate growth and what is illegitimate. In this judgment, the protestants have been more radical than the Catholics, although the event you refer to as “The Revolution”, ie. the 2nd Vatican Council, was also an attempt to prune and edit as appropriate.

  6. Past Elder says:

    OK, I’ll bite!

    Since it’s Easter — Quasimodo Sunday actually, but since Introits have been chopped in the Bogus Ordo for “Entrance Songs” I suppose it’s Easter 1 now or some other packing list term like that — let’s see if we can start with agreement on an instance of illegitimate growth by either Roman Catholic or Lutheran lights.

    When I took The Historical Jesus and The Christ of Faith in my Benedictine sponsored university, the following was offered about the Resurrection of Jesus, with the voice of neither abbot nor bishop nor anyone else saying this was not acceptable Catholic teaching offered in a Catholic theology course, in fact the course was aproved for what we once called “philosophers” — which meant college theology majors on the way to being seminarians or “theologians”, although use the terms advisedly now as you may find yourself excommunicated latae sententiae but probably toleratus, oops, we don’t have that any more with the 1983 Code, but then again who needs it now that everything is tolerated, hey, how about an aggiornamento of the old “Bell, Book and Candle”. If your masters didn’t tell you about this stuff, hit Contact Us on the SSPX site.

    But I digress. You’re too much fun, and impossible to get mad at. OK, the Bible says Jesus rose from the dead. What does this mean? (That it means he rose from the dead is not considered.) The Bible is a record of the experience of the believing community (communio ecclesiology here we come!) and the believing community experienced an overriding significance to Jesus after his death. In the context of Jesus’ time and culture (that Jesus chose this precise time and culture is not considered), this would be as if he rose from the dead and would be expressed as a rising from the dead. Therefore, we can read the Biblical statement equally as a statement that he literally rose from the dead, though we are in doing so likely imposing our cultural understanding of language on statements uttered in a quite different one, or as a statement of the continuing overriding significance of Jesus to the believing community and not a literal statement of resurrection. As the believing community grows in its understanding, in its faith, and in its understanding of its faith, it is not bound to simply repeat earlier statements but to express its deepened understanding in terms of its current time and culture. Therefore, the believing community being an organic thing, we may along with them say “Christ is risen” because it designates the overriding significance of Jesus for us as for them, and we may say “Christ is risen” with equal validity whether understood as a literal statement of fact or a statement of faith, neither one contradicting the other as valid statements of the experience of the community of faith over time.

    Thus I was taught by the Catholic Church after the Revolution. Not a renegade theologian in a renegade institution, not in a class in theology as a purely academic discipline, but a class approved for pre seminary education in a Catholic university. Call it individual souls if you like, but I hope you don’t, since the individual soul teaching the class did so not on his own but with all those approvals and was considered one of the most brilliant minds on the faculty whom we were lucky to have.

    Can we agree that this is an illegitimate “growth”, that it is not a development in our theological consciousness — though presented as such?

  7. Schütz says:


    The Catechism of the Catholic Church (which you have else where so fervantly abjured as worthless) declares that:

    643 Given all these testimonies, Christ’s Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order, and it is impossible not to acknowledge it as an historical fact. …Far from showing us a community seized by a mystical exaltation, the Gospels present us with disciples demoralized (“looking sad”504 [Lk 24:17; cf. Jn 20:19]) and frightened…

    644 Even when faced with the reality of the risen Jesus the disciples are still doubtful, so impossible did the thing seem: they thought they were seeing a ghost. “In their joy they were still disbelieving and still wondering”507 [Lk 24:38-41]. Thomas will also experience the test of doubt and St. Matthew relates that during the risen Lord’s last appearance in Galilee “some doubted”508 [Cf Jn 20:24-27; Mt 28:17]. Therefore the hypothesis that the Resurrection was produced by the apostles’ faith (or credulity) will not hold up. On the contrary their faith in the Resurrection was born, under the action of divine grace, from their direct experience of the reality of the risen Jesus.

  8. Christine says:

    Hi folks,

    As regards the Catechism of the Catholic Church, well, wonderful if it were applied evenly.

    I have to agree with Past Elder. Take a look sometime at the catalog of the Liturgical Press run by the Benedictines in the U.S. Lord, the heterodoxy is mind boggling.

    As more and more U.S. Catholic parishes are run by either lay or Religious administrators, things are going to change considerably.

    As I posted on Pastor Weedon’s blog, the last Catholic parish I belonged to has tailor made its liturgy to the audience at hand; at the earliest “traditional” Mass we sang “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth; at another Mass it was “Glory to God in the highest and peace to GOD’S people on earth; at Mass number 3 it morphed into “Glory to God in the highest and peace to ALL people on earth.” Pro multis, anyone?

    I don’t know the situation of the Catholic Church in Australia, but here in the U.S. it’s not good. Plenty of priests simply ignore the Catechism — and the Holy Father. Years ago, before I entered the Catholic Church I read Anne Roche Muggeridge’s timely book “The Desolate City.” Much of it remains with us. The sexual abuse scandals are but the tip of the iceberg.

  9. Schütz says:

    You cannot judge the Catholic Church on the basis of those–clerical or lay–who fail to apply or live out its teaching. There are sinners in the Church (self included) and some of these folk lead the people astray (I pray that I am not included among these). But the teaching of the Church remains clear and it is to that faith–not its abuses–that we hold. The Church is always in need of purification (or semper reformanda as the protestants put it), today no more than in the past. Nevertheless the fact that the Catholic Church HAS clear teaching on most matters is one great gift of the Holy Spirit for which to be thankful. Now it is the task of all the faithful–not just the clergy–to BE FAITHFUL!

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