Counting sacraments, tidying up grace

sacramentsThe first of the thirty-nine articles to deal with the sacraments is a long one, which offers a definition of sorts, then a listing of the sacraments (and a note on what are not to be so considered) and then a note on their use (aimed primarily at the Eucharist). I expect to have to carry these reflections over more than one post, since I see problems with this article at every stage. In this first post I note some general issues about the problem of defining and classifying sacraments.

XXV. Of the Sacraments
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

To this article one should probably also add the more famous definition in the Catechism.

What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.
How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace

One of the features of this definition (shared by article and catechism) is determined by the desire to define and catalogue (and restrict) the number of sacraments, namely the idea that a sacrament must have been ordained by Christ. Even with this narrowing, the earlier Luther included penance, seeing the divine institution of it given in the command to bind and loose (Matt 16:19).

It would also not take too great a work of interpretation to move from Christ’s practice of healing, through his giving his disciples power and command to heal (Matt 10: 1,8), to the command of James to anoint (James 5:14) and argue, if not for unction, at least for a sacrament of healing (with variable outward sign).

Similarly, one could work from the calling of the apostles, the seventy and others, through the practice of apostolic laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 2 Tim 1:6) to a sacrament of orders. The connections are not entirely tenuous. I am not making the argument here, but suggesting rather that the definition is to some extent an imposition on the biblical material to organize it in a way that suits the Reformers’ polemic.

Despite the form of medieval arguments, one cannot help get the feeling with, for example St Thomas, that the whole point of the argument is to get to seven sacraments, as a number symbolic of perfection. In the same way, one can’t help but feel here that the whole point of the definition is to get the number down to two. The later debates and arguments of the Reformation are shaped by being a response to the medieval desire to count, classify and catalogue into one coherent system. It is unclear to me that this does justice to the biblical record, the experience of the church, or the manifold nature of grace.

It seems that either one starts with some general principle or definition, as the article appears to do, or one starts with the ritual acts generally held to be sacraments, as in the end, I feel the mediaeval writers do. Neither seem entirely satisfactory: to some extent the starting point presupposes and anticipates the conclusion. Perhaps the best starting point will lie in exploring the Eucharist. Not only is it generally agreed to be a sacrament, but, by being the most repeated and experienced of the sacraments, it is realistically the ritual act that simply by sheer familiarity colours our definitions and our understanding of other Christian rituals. In a subsequent post I will take up this exploration.