The Sacraments and Ecumenical Possibilities
We Stand Together on Uncommon Ground
By Paul Lehninger
Yesterday at a conference of the Association of Confessional Lutherans I presented almost the same paper I am presenting here today, but under a different title. The title of that paper, “The Difference between the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Doctrine of the Sacraments,” was exactly the wording of the topic I was asked to write on. The organizers of the Festival of the Resurrection graciously permitted me to get a “twofer” out of my paper presentation, but suggested that I re-title the paper, so as not to give the impression that I would be rehashing the same old polemics.
I’m no nominalist, and I’ve never agreed with Juliet; I think there’s a lot in a name, and merely slapping a different title on the same paper won’t do. So I’ve solved my dilemma by adding a subtitle to this paper: “We Stand Together on Uncommon Ground.” Please permit me to unpack this.
“We stand” refers both to the fact that after close to five hundred years of division, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, in its various bodies, are both still standing, are both still going propositions, and to the fact that each one takes a distinctive stand on the issue of the sacraments. In what way do we stand together? The schisms of 1054 and of 1530 both occurred in the context of largely Christian cultures, but in the post-Christian West of the third millennium, we find ourselves sharing more similarities with one another, especially in contrast to the neo-paganism that surrounds us, than we have for a long time.
And yet, we stand together on uncommon ground, in two senses.First, from a negative perspective, with the passing of time we have become grounded in differing approaches to Scripture, dissimilar traditions, divergent histories, and dissonant practice. But second, from a positive perspective the ground we stand on is uncommon because it is holy, the holy ground of the sacramental life of the Church.
In this paper I intend to compare the Lutheran and Roman Catholic doctrine of the sacraments, pointing out both differences and similarities, following for the most part a historical approach. At the outset, a consideration of basic information from Scripture and the early Church will prove helpful. For practical purposes, the historical overview must be sketchy. It will culminate with current Roman Catholic teaching regarding the sacraments.
Because of the shared pre-Reformation heritage of the Roman Catholic Church and confessional Lutheranism, and because of the resourcement and re-evaluation of Reformation-era condemnations on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, contemporary confessional Lutheranism has been presented with an opportunity for making progress in healing the division with the Roman Catholic Church over the matter of the sacraments as has not existed since the de facto division of the Western Church at the time of the Reformation.
Concepts from Scripture
The New Testament uses the Greek word musthvrionto signify something previously unknown that could only be known by revelation, such as the gospel, antichrist (2 Thess. 2:7), or more generally, a “hidden meaning” (Rev. 1:20; 17:5-7) or “secrets” (1 Cor. 13:2; 14:2). Although the New Testament mentions various customs and ceremonies, and two rites instituted by Christ, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, stand out from the rest and form a class by themselves, these are never designated by the term musthvrion.In Eph. 5:32, St. Paul uses this term not to refer to Holy Matrimony as a sacrament, but to indicate that the union of man and wife as an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church was not recognized previously, but now had been revealed.The New Testament never defines, classifies, or numbers sacraments. It does describe manifold ways in which the Father through the Son in the Spirit reveals his saving grace to mankind.
Sacramental Theology of the Early Church
The early Church also was slow to formulate definitions of sacraments or develop a sacramental theology.Rather, sacramental theology developed from the sacramental life and practice of the Church.1 This was especially true of divine worship; the worship of the early Church was saturated with Scripture, and its confession regarding the sacraments was formed as much by this lived experience of the gospel in worship as by rational considerations.2Clement and Origen appear to be the first to use the term musthvrion to apply to the rites practiced by Christians.Both use the term to refer to something visible that represents something else, especially something sacred.Origen first applies this to baptism and eucharist.3
The Latin word sacramentum had a variety of meanings in secular context; for purposes of this paper, it is only significant that this was the word used to translate the Greek musthvrionof the New Testament. Tertullian is the first to apply this word to both baptism and eucharist. In addition, he does so in a double sense: a sacramentum is both the sign of a greater reality, and something that sanctifies by virtue of that reality. This use was continued by Cyprian and laid the groundwork for Augustine’s sacramental theology.4Augustine uses both sacramentum and mysterium very broadly, but his major contribution to sacramental theology is his definition of a sacrament as a sacred sign, 5 as the visible Word, 6 and his formula, accedit verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum.7
Early Middle Ages and Hugh of St. Victor
Augustine’s sacramental theology was developed further beginning in the early middle ages.
Omnis mundi creatura
Quasi liber et pictura
Nobis est, et speculum8
“Every creature in the world is, for us, like a book and a picture, and a mirror as well;” a mirror or sign, of course, of divine truths. Alain of Lille stated it in poetic, euphonious Latin, but before him, Hugh of St. Victor had said, “The entire sense-perceptible world is like a sort of book written by the finger of God,” an idea he borrowed from Augustine, who of course was vividly aware from Scripture that Christ is the Word of God, by whom and for whom all things were made.9 Hugh of St. Victor masterfully developed the biblical, patristic, and Augustinian broad definition of sacramentum. In his De tribus diebus he presents the reader with a meditation on created nature that is also an interpretation of Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that have been made . . . .” This text is Hugh’s underlying principle for his subsequent meditation on the visible things of creation, through which he arrives at a fully instructed perception of the invisible things of the Creator.10
Hugh develops these ideas further in De sacramentis christianae fidei. Despite the title, the book is what is usually considered a Summa. After a brief discourse on the Scriptures and revelation, Hugh lingers on the six days of creation. Here he continues in the patristic tradition of lengthy commentaries on the hexaemeron. From the medieval perspective, those things that can be known of God from his creation, the vestigia Dei, are all contained as in a nutshell in these six days.The whole created order is, in this sense, sacramental. As he proceeds through creation, fall, and restoration, he arrives at the specific topic of the sacraments, and states that he is content with the traditional definition of sacrament: “A sacrament is the sign of a sacred thing.” He then defines “more fully and more perfectly” what a sacrament is: “A sacrament is a corporeal or material element set before the senses without, representing by similitude and signifying by institution and containing by sanctification some invisible and spiritual graces.”11 So, for example, the wine of Holy Communion resembles blood; Christ in the upper room called it his blood, and he said it was the new testament in his blood for the forgiveness of sins.
Although from a post-medieval viewpoint this may seem to severely limit what can be considered a sacrament, Hugh’s perspective is still broad and inclusive. Along with the sacrament of baptism in water, unction in oil, and the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine, he includes making the sign of the cross (whether in opposition to evil or to bless and sanctify), stretching out hands in prayer, bending, standing erect, or any other action, posture, or spoken word used to express something sacred.12 Apparently an action or gesture can constitute the materia of the sacrament.Lest this be too confusing, Hugh then classifies sacraments in three categories. First are those by which salvation is principally accomplished, for example, the water of baptism and receiving the body and blood of Christ.Here it is significant both that Hugh recognizes, as did patristic authors, the pre-eminence of baptism and Eucharist, and that he says, “for example;” there is no attempt to limit the sacraments to these two, or, indeed, to number them at all. The next group consists of those things which, although not necessary for salvation, are of benefit to sanctification, because through them virtue can be exercised and a fuller grace acquired. His examples are the water of aspersion and the reception of ashes. Although Hugh says that grace can be acquired through these, he is not thinking in terms of what later confessional Lutheranism defined as “means of grace,” but more along the lines of what are sometimes called sacramentals, those things that stir up remembrance of the gospel and are handmaidens, as it were, to the gospel, the means of grace properly so called. Hugh’s third classification consists of those things that appear to have been instituted only to make preparation for the other sacraments, for example, the vestments of the ministers.13
This third category is an important reminder that Hugh, like the fathers, was not unconcerned about the relationship between the lex orandi and the lex credendi of the Church. The postures of worship, the balance between voices excited to devotion in song and the silence which composes hearts for rest, the interplay of readings from Scripture with hymns and songs, exist in great variety so that faith “may find perfect matter for exercise and a cause for restoration. For thus the faithful mind, while it is being led without to various pursuits of holy exercise, is ever renewed more and more within from its own devotion unto sanctity.” 14Rites and ceremonies appropriate for the Word and the sacraments are themselves sacraments in the broad sense, signs that foster contemplation first of the visible and audible, the Word and the sacraments, and through them what is invisible, the grace of God and God himself.In other words, the worship surrounding the sacraments, while not legislated, is also not arbitrary, because it is a mirror of divine realities and both exercises and affects faith.
Without doubt, the theologian of the middle ages who had the greatest and most enduring impact on sacramental theology was Thomas Aquinas.Thomas accepts the traditional definition of a sacrament and quotes Augustine’s words that it is a “sacred sign.”15 He emphasizes the necessity of the use of the word in the sacrament (again quoting Augustine), affirming that the word joined to the sensible sign is analogous to the Word of God being united to sensible flesh in the incarnation and to the union of body and soul in the human person.16 Moreover, it is necessary to use specific words, the words of institution, in consecrating Holy Communion and in baptizing. According to Thomas, a sacrament, like all things, is composed of form and matter, and for something to exist the determinate form is necessary before the determinate matter. Since in the sacraments determinate matter (water, bread, wine) is required, much more do they need a determinate form (the words of institution).17
Although not the first to propose seven as the specific number of those rites of the Church which can be considered most fully sacramental in character, Aquinas established the argumentation that would most frequently be repeated in affirming the position of the Roman Catholic Church. His argumentation is eminently reasonable, given the assumptions of the symbolist mentality of the middle ages.18 For example:
We may likewise gather the number of the sacraments from their being instituted as a remedy against the defect caused by sin. For Baptism is intended as a remedy against the absence of spiritual life; Confirmation, against the infirmity of soul found in those of recent birth; the Eucharist, against the soul’s proneness to sin; Penance, against actual sin committed after baptism; Extreme Unction, against the remainders of sins — of those sins, namely, which are not sufficiently removed by Penance, whether through negligence or through ignorance; Order, against divisions in the community; Matrimony, as a remedy against concup-iscence in the individual, and against the decrease in numbers that results from death.19
Another example is the analogous relationships that can be determined between the three theological and four cardinal virtues, and each of the seven sacraments.Although Thomas can provide no clear support in Scripture or the fathers for specifically limiting — or expanding — the number of the sacraments to seven, his approach is clear, reasonable, and satisfying. It also will lead to confusion and dissension from the time of the Reformation to the present.
Melanchthon and the Augsburg Confession
The Augsburg confession affirms the core teachings of the Church regarding the sacraments. They are signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us, but not mere signs, because they are efficacious: they awaken and strengthen faith, or, as Melanchthon clarifies in the Apology, they are not mere marks of profession among men, but through them God “moves men’s hearts to believe.” Moreover, the proper use of the sacraments requires faith.Both of these emphases are prominent in scholastic theology, and Melanchthon implies that the reformers have no argument with the “opponents” in this area.20
In the Apology, Melanchthon’s chief concern is with the Confutators’ insistence that there are seven sacraments — no more, no fewer. In discussing this matter, he makes several important points. First, he refuses to be straightjacketed by a specific enumeration of sacraments, acknowledging that the enumeration varied among the fathers.Second, he suggests a simple definition, “rites which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added.” 21“Command of God” (the institution) and “promise of grace” (the invisible reality) are two of the characteristics of a sacrament that were firmly established as part of the Christian tradition.Melanchthon’s use of the term “rites” is significant. Whereas Luther speaks of “our two sacraments, instituted by Christ” in the Large Catechism, 22 Melanchthon considers act as well as matter validly to constitute the materia of a sacrament, and accordingly can state, “The genuine sacraments, therefore, are Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution (which is the sacrament of penitence), for these rites have the commandment of God and the promise of grace, which is the heart of the New Testament.” 23 These are sacraments “in the strict sense.”
But there appears to be still more flexibility in the list; Melanchthon meant what he said when he refused to accept a specific enumeration.Since the Roman Catholic party did not understand the priesthood in reference to the ministry of the Word and administration of the sacraments, but in reference to sacrifice, such priesthood could not be accepted as a sacrament. However, if ordination is understood in reference to the ministry of the Word, there was no objection to calling it a sacrament, because “God approves of this ministry and is present in it.”24 Matrimony, although it was instituted by God, is not a “sign of the New Testament” because it does not offer grace and the forgiveness of sins. Confirmation and extreme unction, as practiced in the Church at the time of the Reformation and as understood by Melanchthon, do not have a straightforward command of God and a clear promise of grace. Here again, as was the case with the fathers and many of the scholastics, the question is not so much how many sacraments there are, as acknowledging that certain New Testament rites that have God’s command and the promise of grace are preeminent.
Melanchthon states that he is more concerned with the proper use of the sacraments. He insists on the centrality of faith, and the relationship of faith and promise.The sacraments are signs of God’s gospel promises. But a promise is useless unless faith accepts it. So in order for the sacraments to have their intended effect, the recipient must have faith “which believes these promises and accepts that which is promised and offered in the sacrament.”25 At the same time, he rejects in the strongest terms the idea that unless there is some obstacle (non ponere obicem), the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato, without a good disposition (sine bono motu). It is worth considering these three Latin terms.
The term “without a good disposition” appears to have entered general usage with Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel. Their purpose in using this term was to emphasize that the sacraments were effective without any preceding meritorious act of the will on the part of the recipients.26 Apparently, this was meant to safeguard the sacraments as efficacious means of grace, and not make them dependent on human merit for their effectiveness.Melanchthon, however, appears to understand it as referring to an automatic or mechanical view of the sacraments, that they justify by virtue of the ceremony alone, without the necessity of the hand of faith receiving the promised mercy.
“Unless there is some obstacle” was used by the scholastics to affirm that the sacraments could not be used beneficially — their grace could not be received — if one lived in conscious, unrepentant sin. Although it is not entirely clear how the reformers interpreted this phrase, Holsten Fagerberg refers to Ap XXIV, 63 and 96, where the mass is criticized because it provides benefits even for wicked people, if they do not put an obstacle in its way.27 Apparently, the reformers understood the meaning of the phrase to be that as long as one was not living in mortal sin, one received the benefit of the sacrament, whether or not one had faith in the gospel promise connected to the sacrament.
The greatest misunderstanding resulted from the use of the phrase ex opere operato.Originally it was used to safeguard the objective nature of the sacraments as means of grace.28 Since God’s command and promise are connected with the sign whenever the sacraments are used according to their institution, God’s promise of grace is always present, regardless of the disposition of the recipient or the worthiness of the officient. The reformers, however, always interpreted this phrase as an affirmation of the automatic, quasi-magical working of the sacrament, and regarded it as an extreme example of works righteousness.
Council of Trent
One would hope, and expect, that the Council of Trent would clear up this confusion. In fact, the opposite was the case. Session VII, On the Sacraments in General, Canon VI states:
If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or, that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto; as though they were merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith, and certain marks of the Christian profession, whereby believers are distinguished amongst men from unbelievers; let him be anathema.29
This canon confuses the position of the enthusiasts and fanatics, which the Lutheran reformers expressly rejected, with the Lutheran reformers’ rejection of the phrase non ponere obicem in the Apology. This was pointed out by Martin Chemnitz.30 Canon VIII is more clearly directed to the objections stated by Melanchthon:
If anyone saith, that by the said sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred through the act performed (ex opere operato), but that faith alone in the divine promises suffices for the obtaining of grace; let him be anathema.31
Nevertheless, it is clear that the Catholic theologians regarded the objection to ex opere operato in the Apology as an attack on the objective nature of the sacrament, and did not recognize the true nature of the reformers’ objection. Finally, in the first canon of this section, the theologians at Trent officially fixed the number of sacraments at seven, and condemned those who teach otherwise.32
It is important to note that theologians inclined toward nominalism constituted a majority at the Council of Trent.33 Nominalism did, indeed, interpret the language of earlier scholastics, including Aquinas, in the mechanical sense that resulted in the objections of the reformers.That Aquinas used the term opus operatum in his Commentary on the Sentences but never in the Summa may indicate that he did not regard the use of the term as necessary for expressing genuine sacramental doctrine. His use of the term in the Commentary is meant to stress the objective nature of the sacrament: the justifying grace of the sacrament is God’s work, not man’s work; its effect does not depend on the merits of the recipient, but on the merits of Christ. The benefit of the sacrament, however, does depend on the faith of the recipient.34
Although this faith may be regarded as a “contribution” by Aquinas, nevertheless what he understood by ex opere operato and opus operatum was not what the later nominalists taught, not what Melanchthon understood, and not what was affirmed at Trent. In addition, what Aquinas says about the benefit of the sacraments has greater affinity with what was affirmed by the Council of Florence, that the sacraments give grace to those who receive them worthily.35 This is especially significant for contemporary ecumenical dialogue, since the Council of Florence technically possesses the same authority as the Council of Trent. What is clear is that both sides were concerned that both the objective nature of the sacraments and the necessity of personal faith for beneficial use of the sacraments be affirmed.
It is worth noting that the Lutheran view of the enumeration of the sacraments did not remain as open as Melanchthon presented it in the Apology. Melanchthon’s Locus on this topic in his Loci communes is in full accord with what he states in the Apology. Chemnitz’s commentary on Melanchthon’s text in his Loci theologici is worded somewhat differently, however. Chemnitz clearly wants to limit the sacraments, properly speaking, to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Absolution lacks an external rite commanded by God, and so is not properly a sacrament; nevertheless, because it shares certain features with the other two sacraments, Chemnitz notes that the Apology refers to it as a sacrament.36 Ordination, or the ministry of the Word, is not even mentioned as a candidate for inclusion. This inclination to favor Luther’s numbering of the sacraments in the Large Catechism over Melanchthon’s approach in the Apology is even more obvious in Chemnitz’s Examination of the Council of Trent. He appears to determine the number at two by definition, not merely by alluding to their preeminence, and cites Alexander of Hales in support of this position.37Furthermore, his definition of a sacrament is complex. There are eight requirements for a sacrament, and these are arrived at by first specifying baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the only true sacraments, and then determining what qualities are specific to these two rites alone.38 The boundary between Lutheran confessionalism and Lutheran scholasticism begins to narrow at this point. Fixed, formulaic doctrinal positions in opposition to what Lutherans understood to be official Roman Catholic teaching became entrenched, and progress toward resolving doctrinal disagreement was stifled.
Twentieth Century Developments
The twentieth century witnessed a dramatic increase in creative study of the sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Historical study of the sacraments clarified that only baptism and Eucharist were clearly instituted by Christ and universally acknowledged by the early Church as uniquely conveying grace. The remaining five sacraments were only recognized gradually, over a period of centuries, and even then the enumeration of the sacraments differed among theologians.As noted earlier, until Augustine there was no attempt to formulate an overarching doctrine of the sacraments.The sacraments were not defined, they were celebrated. The encouraging implication of this return to concern for understanding the historical development of theology is that it is not limited to a single faith tradition.This is not the study of the development of sacramental theology in the Roman Catholic Church, in Eastern Orthodoxy, in Lutheranism, in Anglicanism, etc.; it is the study of this theology in the history of the Church.
Another significant development in Roman Catholicism, associated primarily with Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, was the idea of Jesus as primordial sacrament and the church as a basic sacrament. The concept is based upon the human nature of Christ being the sign of his invisible divine nature. Schillebeeckx’s Christology is thoroughly Chalcedonian:
Because the saving acts of the man Jesus are performed by a divine person, they have a divine power to save, but because this divine power to save appears to us in visible form, the saving activity of Jesus is sacramental. For a sacrament is a divine bestowal of salvation in an outwardly perceptible form which makes the bestowal manifest; a bestowal of salvation in historical visibility.39
Schillebeeckx argues that Christ as primordial sacrament establishes the basis for all other sacraments. Although the glorification of Christ’s body [following his ascension] has made him invisible to us, and he does not show himself to us in his own flesh, he does make himself visibly present by taking up earthly realities into his saving activity. These are the sacraments, in which we truly encounter the living Christ. “The heavenly saving activity, invisible to us, becomes visible in the sacraments.”40 Carl Rahner similarly emphasizes that the human nature of Christ is the sign, or visible, perceptible reality of the sacrament. In this sacramental presence, Jesus is also the res sacramenti, the reality to which the visible sign refers; in this case, the divine nature.41
This concept of Christ as primordial sacrament leads logically to the concept of the Church as a basic sacrament. The divine life of Christ is offered to, and through, the Church. The Church is a visible assembly of people, but the life of grace in which those people share is hidden and intangible.They are a dwelling of God in the Spirit, but this is manifest only through word and embodied action. The Second Vatican Council referred to this “mystery of the Church” in numerous official documents.42 Perhaps the most striking is Lumen Gentium. Although this document is the constitution on the Church, the title refers to Christ, the Light of the World. If it is not understood that Jesus is the Light of the World, and the Church is the messenger of that Light, then neither Jesus nor the Church can be understood correctly.43 Or, as Kenan Osborne states, “The Church as a basic sacrament, in many ways, sacramentalizes each and every aspect of Church life, since Church itself can only exist when it sacramentalizes the primordial sacrament, Jesus.”44 Christ as primordial sacrament is affirmed, at least implicitly, by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1088, 1115. Although John Paul II makes little, if any, reference to Christ as primordial sacrament, he clearly accepts the teaching of the Church as basic sacrament, and has referred to the Church as the sacrament of salvation and the sacrament of unity in a recent encyclical.45
The understanding of Christ as primordial sacrament resonates with currents in Eastern Orthodox theology. This is immediately obvious from the title of Nicholas Cabasilas’ study of the sacramental life of the Church, The Life in Christ.According to Nicholas:
. . . righteousness stooped down from heaven and, for the first time, appeared to men in its reality and perfection. We were justified, first by being set free from bonds and condemnation, in that He who had done no evil pleaded for us by dying on the cross. By this He paid the penalty for the sins which we had audaciously committed; then, because of that death, we were made friends of God and righteous. By his death the Saviour not only released us and reconciled us to the Father, but also “gave us power to become children of God” (John 1:12), in that He both united our nature to Himself through the flesh, which he assumed, and also united each one of us to His own flesh by the power of the Mysteries [sacraments].
In this way, then, He makes His own righteousness and life to rise, like the sun, in our souls. Thus it became possible for men, by means of the sacred Mysteries, both to know true righteousness and themselves to practice it.46
Being united to the flesh of Jesus by participation in the sacraments, and through this flesh which he assumed being also united to his divine nature, is in clear agreement with Schillebeeckx and Rahner.
It is also in agreement with Luther. David Yeago writes of Luther’s struggle with sacramental theology in 1517-18, and his final conclusion that every sacramental act in the Church is the act of Jesus Christ in the Church; when we come to the sacrament, we encounter Christ.47 Luther states this in stronger and more concrete terms when, quoting Hilary of Poitiers, he says that the Word became flesh, and the Church receives this same incarnate Word in the sacrament. As a result, Christ dwells in believers by nature. Luther cites this statement of Hilary against his opponents — the “fanatics” — who insisted that Christ was only received spiritually in Holy Communion.Since the nature of Christ’s flesh is “mingled” with the nature of his divinity in the sacrament, we must also receive both. He wants no one to be mistaken about the nature and effects of this sacrament: “God is in this flesh, it is a ‘flesh of God,’ it is a spiritual flesh, it is in God and God is in it. Therefore it is living and gives life to all who eat it, both to their bodies and to to their souls.” 48
At the beginning of this paper I claimed that confessional Lutheranism has been presented with a unique opportunity to make progress toward healing its longstanding division with the Roman Catholic Church. We appear to share, or at least to be conscious of sharing, more common ground than ever before. Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1113, 117, continues to define dogmatically the number of the sacraments, “in the strict sense of the term,” as seven, and much of Lutheranism continues to insist, “as we define and understand the term, there are but two sacraments,”49 there is widespread awareness among Catholic theologians that if Christ is the primordial sacrament, and the Church is the basic sacrament, then at least nine sacraments must be dealt with.Some Lutherans are paying more direct attention to Melanchthon’s rationale in the Apology rather than viewing it exclusively through the lens of later Lutheran Orthodoxy. Roman Catholicism especially appears to be open to the early and high medieval perspective of the entire created order as sacramental in character.50 This has long been an emphasis of Eastern Orthodox theology:
Between the wider and the narrower sense of the term “sacrament” there is no rigid division: the whole Christian life must be seen as a unity, as a single mystery or one great sacrament, whose different aspects are expressed in a great variety of acts, some performed but once in our life, others perhaps daily.51
It appears that this perspective has not borne much fruit in Lutheranism.
At any rate, it is essential that any reconsideration of the definition or enumeration of the sacraments be done for sound theological reasons, not merely on the basis of “agreeing to disagree.” Common ground which denies the truth soon becomes sinking sand. On the other hand, stubbornly returning to misunderstandings of the past while refusing to examine them in the light of contemporary definitions may leave one with a foundation of solid rock, but it will be a solitary rock. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1128, says this of ex opere operato:
This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed” ), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
Surely there is fertile ground here for substantive reconsideration of the understanding of ex opere operato expressed in the Lutheran confessions, and of the condemnations made at Trent, a reconsideration of theological substance that goes beyond a well-intentioned blanket lifting of condemnations. And surely these discussions must precede any honest declarations of fellowship, rather than being carried on in the context of implicit unity, as Gerhard Forde suggests.52
Confessional Lutherans who read the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox literature on the sacraments will note the absence of the Worttheologie of Luther and the confessions. That this is central to a Lutheran approach to theology is evidenced by the Lutheran World Federation response to the document of the World Council of Churches, “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.”53 But Lutherans should also note that both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have a high view of Scripture and affirm its authority and inspiration.Perhaps each faith tradition can make an important contribution in this area: Lutheranism with its emphasis on the centrality of the Word, Roman Catholicism with its developing theology of Christ, the Word made flesh, as primordial sacrament, and Eastern Orthodoxy with its Logos theology. We could each do so independently, romantically freezing ourselves in a point in our respective histories that we identify as a golden age. We could do so by blending — and blanding — our distinctive characteristics until they become unrecognizable, which seems to have been the goal of much of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century. Or we could remember that in a theology we all share, there is a pattern for mutual interpenetration, perichoresis, and circumincessio, distinct, yet acknowledging a common ground of unity.Surely our life in the sacraments, our life in Christ, would be deepened and enriched, whether or not such discussions would lead to ecumenical rapprochement.
For the most part, sacramental theology as it relates to individual sacraments has not been dealt with in this paper. How sacrifice is understood in the Eucharist remains problematic. Mention the historic episcopate, the doctrine of the ministry, and ordination, and a roomful of Lutherans becomes instantly polarized. And what exactly is confirmation, anyway? In addition, the relationship between sacrament and worship lies at the heart of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sacramental theology; Lutheranism could only profit from an in-depth study of this perspective.
Further comparative study of sacramental theology will at times be disappointing, at times rewarding, and always challenging. When Jesus — whom we recognized in the breaking of the bread, and who made us glad when we saw him in the upper room — is on the shore preparing our feast, some of us will rush headlong and cloakless into the water; others will slowly and carefully make progress in our boats with our almost-bursting nets intact. But we all must head in the same direction and stand on common ground. It is the Lord. And we have sheep to feed.
- Kenan B. Osborne, Sacramental Theology (New York: Paulist, 1988), 6.
- “The Gospel and dogma are expressions of the same Spirit of the Church. The Church is not producing literature when it writes the Gospel nor engaging in philosophy when it formulates dogma, but in both cases it is expressing the fullness of the new life hidden within it. For this reason, the Gospel cannot be understood outside the Church nor dogma outside worship.” Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 18.
- Michael G. Lawler, Symbol and Sacrament (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1995), 30.
- Lawler, 31.
- “A sacrifice, therefore, is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice.” De civ. Dei 10, 5.
- Tractate 80 on John 3.
- Alain of Lille, De planctu naturae, in Th. Wright, The Anglo-Latin Satirical Poets and Epigrammists of the Twefth Century (London, 1872), n.p.
- Marie-Dominique Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century (Toronto: Medieval Academy of America, 1997), 117.
- Wanda Cizewski, “Reading the World as Scripture: Hugh of St. Victor’s De tribus diebus,” Florilegium 9 (1987): 67.
- De sacramentis I, 9, 2 in Roy J. Deferrari, Hugh of St. Victor: On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1951), 155.
- De sacramentis I, 9, 6, Deferrari 164.
- De sacramentis I, 9, 7, Deferrari 164.
- De sacramentis I, 9, 3, Deferrari 158-59.
- Summa theologica, quaes. 60, 1.
- Summa theologica, quaes. 60, 6.
- Summa theologica, quaes. 60, 7.
- For a discussion of the symbolist mentality see Chenu, 99-145.
- Summa theologica, quaes. 65, 1.
- AC/Ap 13.
- Ap 13, 3.
- LC 4. 1.
- Ap 13, 4.
- Ap 13, 12.
- Ap 13, 20.
- Holsten Fagerberg, trans. Gene J. Lund, A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972) 168.
- Fagerberg, 169.
- J. Waterworth, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Chicago: The Christian Symbolic Publication Society, n.d.), 55.
- Martin Chemnitz, trans. Fred Kramer, Examination of the Council of Trent (St. Louis: Concordia, 1978), 71.
- Trent, 54.
- Lawler, 37.
- Lawler, 38.
- Lawler, 40.
- Martin Chemnitz, trans. J. A. O. Preus, LocI Theologici II (St. Louis: Concordia, 1989), 721-22.
- Examination 35.
- Examination, 38-39.
- Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), 15.
- Schillebeeckx, 43-44.
- Osborne, Theology, 71.
- Kenan Osborne, Christian Sacraments in a Postmodern World (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1999), 21.
- Osborne, Theology, 88.
- Osborne, Theology, 97.
- John Paul II, Ecclesia de eucharistia, 35; 41.
- Nicholas Cabasilas, trans. Carmino J. deCatanzaro, The Life in Christ (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 53-54.
- WA 23:237.8-32.
- “Es ist Gott in diesem fleisch, Ein Gotts fleisch, Ein geistfleisch ists, Es ist ynn Gott und Gott ynn yhm drumb ists lebendig und gibt leben allen die es essen, beyde leib und seelen.” WA 23:243.35-245.2.
- E. W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine (St. Louis: Concordia, 1939, 1952), 200.Koehler has enjoyed great longevity as a standard textbook for doctrine classes in the WELs and the LC-MS.
- Osborne, Sacraments, 50-53.
- Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997), 276.
- Gerhard O. Forde, “Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much?” Lutheran Quarterly XVII, 4 (2003): 438-39.
- Michael Seils, Lutheran Convergence? LWf Report 25 (Rolle, Switzerland: Imprimerie La Colombiere, 1988), 146-47.
Alain of Lille, De planctu naturae, in Th. Wright, The Anglo-Latin Satirical Poets and Epigrammists of the Twefth Century. n.p., London, 1872.
Archimandrite Vasileios. Hymn of Entry. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984.
Augustine. Tractate 80 on John 3.
Augustine. De civitate Dei.
Braaten, Carl E. and Robert W. Jenson. The Catholicity of the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
________, eds. Christian Dogmatics. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.
Chemnitz, Martin. Examination of the Council of Trent, trans. Fred Kramer. St. Louis: Concordia, 1978.
Chemnitz, Martin. LocI Theologici II, trans. J. A. O. Preus. St. Louis: Concordia, 1989.
Chenu, Marie-Dominique. Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century. Toronto: Medieval Academy of America, 1997.
*Cizewski, Wanda. “Reading the World as Scripture: Hugh of St. Victor’s De tribus diebus,” Florilegium 9 (1987): 67.
Deferrari, Roy J. Hugh of St. Victor: On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith. Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1951.
Fagerberg, Holsten. A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions, trans. Gene J. Lund. St. Louis:Concordia, 1972.
Forde, Gerhard O. “Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much?” Lutheran Quarterly XVII, 4 (2003): 436-55.
Ignatius Press, ed. Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994.
John Paul II. Ecclesia de eucharistia. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/special_features/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_20030417_ecclesia_eucharistia_ en.html
Koehler, E. W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia, 1939, 1952.
Lawler , Michael G, Symbol and Sacrament. Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1995.
Luther, Martin. “That These Words of Christ, ‘This Is My Body,’ Still Stand Firm against the Fanatics,” in Luther’s Works 37. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959.
Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology. New York: Fordham University Press, 1974, 1979.
Nicholas Cabasilas. The Life in Christ, trans. Carmino J. deCatanzaro. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.
Nichols, Aidan. Discovering Aquinas. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Osborne, Kenan B. Sacramental Theology. New York: Paulist, 1988.
Osborne, Kenan. Christian Sacraments in a Postmodern World. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1999.
Ratzinger, Joseph, ed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, trans. United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994.
Schillebeeckx, Edward. Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963.
Seils, Michael. Lutheran Convergence? LWF Report 25. Rolle, Switzerland: Imprimerie La Colombiere, 1988.
Tappert, Theodore, ed. and trans. The Book of Concord. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologica. Gervase, OR: Harmony Media, 1998.
Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin, 1997.
________. The Orthodox Way. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990.
Waterworth, J., trans. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Chicago: The Christian Symbolic Publication Society, n.d.