Attempts in Reconciliation

On Numbering the Sacraments

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

I. Introduction

It has long been the custom of Churchmen to make the most trivial contentions in doctrine out to be the most controversial. These trivialities have become far too many to enumerate here. What’s more is the stock Christians have placed in such tertiary matters. A single breath out of order may become an occasion for schism for some unlucky bishop. In such circumstances, what are the successors to the Apostles to do except pander to their Presbyters, and Presbyters in kind to their laity? As I described in my previous piece A Brief Treatise on Unity, which perhaps can be described best as indirect ranting than actual theologizing, a “methodology of unity” is needed. This metaphorical swamp we call “Anglicanism” is in dire need of bridges, dams, canals, and quite frankly, any other pithy analogy we can lay our hands on. To accomplish this it is my great belief that what we most desperately need is synthesis. We are quick to write off the deeply-held convictions of other churchmanships (my interactions with Fr. Wilgus have shown this to be a particular vice of my own). This is a sin against charity. Every once in a blue moon there is a theologian who acquaints himself with the diverse opinions of his peers. This is a marvelous quality, but very few make any attempt to reconcile the diversity of opinions with one another. This is my complaint against Herman Bavinck. Despite his profound learning (a body of knowledge I could never hope to ascertain), no effort is made to show the agreement between the branches of the faith, even when it is readily apparent. Unlike Bavinck and others, this was the particular brilliance of St. Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologiæ. He truly was the “great synthesizer” of his day. He and Dante are in a class all their own for their great commitment to the unity of truth. And yet, even those among us who have prided themselves in taking their cues from the Catholicity of St. Thomas and others like him have failed in emulating this principle as they ought. I mean here such men as the dogmatist Francis J. Hall who time and again rejects traditions not his own (often via false claims) even when they agree with him. This is a sin against the unity Our Lord petitions for in His High Priestly prayer (John 17:21). St. Justin Martyr (perhaps the first Christian synthetist after St. Paul) said long ago while the Church was just learning to take her first steps: “Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians” (Second Apology §13). If St. Justin is to be taken seriously, then there is a Christian expectation to encounter some truth in any faithful musing on the Divine. It would be absurd to apply such principles only to other philosophies in their diversity, and not to the lesser degree of diversity which we find within the Church we all inhabit by virtue of our common baptism.

This leads us to the topic at hand. A point of contention that I have encountered frequently, and which (for some odd reason or another) is employed as some sort of test of “Catholicity” or “Protestanticity” (a false dichotomy, to be sure) is the numbering of the Sacraments. The points on which Christians (especially those within our communion) choose to identify themselves will forever be a mystery to me. “There are only two sacraments!” exclaims those of an Evangelical persuasion. “The Church has always held to seven!” retorts the “Catholic Anglican” (or some other ridiculous redundant title). “You’re a Papist!” cries one brother and “Puritan!” sneers the other. These have not taken into account that their traditions are in more agreement than they might think. Rather, both assertions reveals a fundamental ignorance of the subject. It is surprising that a dispute which is supposedly founded upon a superior understanding of the Christian Sacraments is really in and of itself an indication of lack of study and a commitment to partisan polemics rather than historicity. It is my intention to show how the two factions are in substantial agreement and that one ought to inform the perspective of the other. It is my great hope that the reader will come to see just how silly the whole ordeal is once all is said and done. If this is accomplished as I aim, Lord willing, we might have some semblance of peace before the next controversy rears its inevitable head.

II. Ambiguity

Before anything else takes place we must first look at the very name “Sacrament”. The term is derived from the Classical Latin sacramentum which meant a sacred pledge. Something that was devoted or committed to something else. It was often used within the Roman military for the oaths taken by a soldier to his superior and the empire. The first time it is ever applied to Christians is in Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan in around 112 A.D. He writes:

“[T]hey were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath [sacramento], not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” (Emphasis my own)

Pliny’s use is clearly that of the classical definition, that being a solemn pledge or promise. It wasn’t until the Greek texts of the Bible began to be translated into Latin by North African Christians in the 3rd and 4th Centuries that we see the term take on a new use. The Latin sacramentum was used in place of the Greek musterion (mystery). This Greek word did not denote something mysterious as we would often think of the term in English (contra Bavinck), but rather something that was protected and hidden. “Safeguarded” may be the most fitting word given the context. The term was used to describe those Christian Rites which were only known to those initiated into the faith. It was the common practice of the Ancient Church to dismiss the Catechumenate (those preparing for baptism, but who had not yet been engrafted into the Church) after the Liturgy of the Word and before the consecration of the elements of Bread and Wine. The Liturgies of St. James and St. Mark have the Deacon proclaim: “Let none remain of the catechumens, none of the unbaptized, none of those who are unable to join with us in prayer! Look at one another. The door!” The precious things of the Church; the Sacraments (even the very knowledge that bread and wine were used), the Creeds, the Prayers, et al. were mysteries permitted to be known only by the Christians. When musterion was inevitably translated into the Latin vernacular, sacramentum retained the same use as its Greek counterpart. Here then we have encountered our first conundrum: classically speaking, the term “Sacrament” is unquestionably vague. Throughout the writings of the Latin Fathers either the Classical Latin definition is used (that of an oath) or any Christian truth, ordinance, or rite is meant. Tertullian applies the term to the Baptismal Vow itself rather than to Baptism. Likewise he notes that the Romans falsely accused the Christians of the “Sacrament” of infanticide. St. Cyprian “speaks of the Lord’s Prayer as containing many great ‘sacraments’, of the three hours of prayer as ‘a sacrament of the Trinity,’” and Pope Innocent makes mention of two sacraments in the Eucharist, referring to the Bread and Wine (These examples are taken from Bicknell’s A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England 3rd Ed, “The Sacraments” §1 n.2). Alongside these our Book of Homilies touches upon this diversity within antiquity and notes that not only are the Seven Sacraments (which will be treated later) enumerated by the Ancient Church, but likewise such things as holy oils and even the act of foot-washing were accounted by them to be “sacraments.” Thus “in a general acception, the name of a Sacrament may be attributed to any thing whereby a holy thing is signified” (Homily on Common Prayer and Sacraments). In agreement, John Calvin, “the wisest man that ever the French Church did enjoy, since the hour it enjoyed him” (Hooker, Preface to Laws), states: “I confess, indeed, that they [the Fathers] sometimes use freedom with the term sacrament, but what do they mean by it? all ceremonies, external writs, and exercises of piety” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 19 §3). “In this sense all that was in any way related to God and his revelation could be called a ‘sacrament’-the revelation itself and its contents, a doctrine, the Trinity, the incarnation, and so forth, as well as an assortment of signs, such as the sign of the cross, the salt given to the catechumens, finally all sacred actions, the consecration of a priest, marriage, exorcism, the celebration of the Sabbath, circumcision, and all ceremonies.” (Bavink, Reformed Dogmatics Volume IV, Chapter 9 §1) This murkiness remains among the Fathers until the time of St. Augustine in the 6th Century. Thus, up until what many would consider the close of the Patristic Age, there is no resolution on the matter; no clear definition, let alone an authoritative numbering, is to be found.

III. Saint Augustine’s Clarification

St. Augustine is the first of the Church’s Doctors to attempt to determine just what a Sacrament is. As was the Patristic custom, this was primarily accomplished by making recourse to what was found within the Old Testament Scriptures. Within the passages of the Israelite narrative could be found many suitable examples of what St. Augustine came to term “signs” which he distinguished from “things.” Things are Signs in that they point beyond themselves to another Thing. This is in fact quite in line with the Classical Latin meaning of the word sacramentum, which as said before, was an oath; a presentation of another reality. St. Augustine’s chief text on this matter is his magnificent book On Christian Doctrine. Therein he explains the use of signs:

“For a sign is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself: as when we see a footprint, we conclude that an animal whose footprint this is, has passed by; and when we see smoke, we know that there is fire beneath; and when we hear the voice of a living man, we think of the feeling in his mind; and when the trumpet sounds, soldiers know that they are to advance or retreat, or do whatever else the state of the battle requires.” (Book 2, Chapter 1)

This becomes St. Augustine’s method for understanding the Holy Scriptures in their entirety. The Literal, the Typological, the Analogical, et al. find themselves quite at home within this use of “signs.” The passages of the Old Testament richly and elaborately reveal to us the significant truths of the Gospel and the work of Christ Jesus. Those rites of the Hebrews are not efficacious in and of themselves, but rather the signs pertain to the reality that is to be found in the New Testament and the life wrought in the Church by the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Our Lord. The temple “sacrifice, therefore, is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice” (City of God, Book 10 §5, Emphasis my own). When we read of the ministry of the temple found within the Old Testament Church, when we are confronted with the oracles of the Prophets and the acts of the Patriarchs, we are to remember that they served sacramentally; they are presenting the reality of the graces offered to God’s people as they are found in the New Testament. The sign pertains to the future reality. Here is one such example given by St. Augustine:

“Under the sacramental sign of the flood, however, in which the righteous were rescued by the wood, there was also a fore-announcement of the Church which was to be, which Christ, its King and God, has raised on high; by the mystery of His cross, in safety from the submersion of this world.” (On Catechizing the Uninstructed, Chapter 19. Emphasis my own)

It is from these gathered truths that St. Augustine then goes on to link this methodology of Old Testament exegesis with the Sacraments of the New Testament Church. In On Christian Doctrine Book 3, Chapter 9, he directly references Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and ascribes to them the same sacramental character as those “signs” which were found under the Old Testament administration. These too operate as signs presenting and communicating to the recipient the reality which they represent.

“On the subject of the sacrament, indeed, which he receives, it is first to be well impressed upon his [the uninstructed] notice that the signs of divine things are, it is true, things visible, but that the invisible things themselves are also honored in them, and that that species, which is then sanctified by the blessing, is therefore not to be regarded merely in the way in which it is regarded in any common use.” (On Catechizing the Uninstructed, Chapter 26)

Therefore, in any Sacrament there is composition of sorts, a mystical union of the sign and what it represents, and by virtue of this union the elemental thing is identified with and ascribed the dignity of the reality it represents. In the West we have articulated this formula thusly: A Sacrament consists of “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”. This quote (and variations of it) are frequently attributed to St. Augustine. However, those who have ever tried to cite the passage in question will be the first to tell you that this is not an easy task. This is because he never said it. This phrase which has come to be known by every Scholastic, Reformer, and First Year Seminarian, was falsely attributed to St. Augustine by Berengar in the 11th Century. It is really a conflation of St. Augustine with the definition given by St. Isidore of Seville in his Etymologies in the 7th Century. Quoting from St. Augustine, St. Isidore writes:

“A ‘sacrament’ takes place in a particular liturgical rite when an action is performed in such a way that it is understood to signify something that ought to be received in a holy way… These things are called sacraments (sacramentum) for this reason, that under the covering of corporeal things the divine virtue very secretly brings about the saving power of those same sacraments – whence from their secret (secretus) or holy (sacer) power they are called sacraments.” (Book 6, §19)

Though, as the examples drawn from Augustine above show, the definition given by Berengar that the West has inherited, falsely attributed as it may be, remains a faithful description of St. Augustine’s theology; clearly presenting his definition (Sacrament as “sign”) and the distinction made between Sacrament (Elements) and the Virtue of the Sacrament (Grace). Whatever the case, this is the formulation that the Western Church has used to express Her understanding of what a Sacrament is. This articulation can be found presently within just about every Western catechism and Dogmatic Theology, Roman and Protestant alike. But what of the rest of the Church?

Though not articulated exactly as we have come to understand the principle in the West, the view of the Eastern Church has remained the same in substance. The canons issued by the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 against the supposed heresies of St. Cyril Lucaris state: “the Mysteries consist of something natural, and of something supernatural; and are not bare signs of the promises of God’ (Decree 15, Emphasis my own). This same document was later sent to us Anglicans in reply by our Eastern brothers as expressing their fundamental beliefs. Similarly, Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky (Russian Orthodox) gives the following definition: “a mystery (sacrament) is a sacred act which under a visible aspect communicates to the soul of a believer the invisible grace of God” (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Part II, Chapter 8 §2, Emphasis my own). And finally, A Catechism of the Coptic Church assembled by the Very Rev. Abouna Filothaus reads: “They were called sacraments because the Lord handed them over by material means jointly with Divine spiritual graces” (Second Division, Emphasis my own). Vox populi, vox Dei. The voice of the People is the voice of God. The formulation of outward thing (element) united to inward reality (grace) has been universally received by all Christians in all places, encompassing East, West, and even the Oriental brethren. Thus our Western Articulation represents the voice and consensus of the entire Catholic Church.

A brief note: The fact that this sacramental formula has been accepted by the Church in its entirety (and the Biblical precedent from which St. Augustine derived it) is sufficient to show its correctness. Moreover, this definition is entirely fitting when we consider our own anthropology. As the Rev. G.D. Carleton wrote in his brief yet insightful (and unfortunately Romanist) exposition of the Catholic Faith, The King’s Highway:

“We ourselves are sacraments -outward body and inward soul joined in one, in a union which we cannot explain. From one point of view, we appear to be altogether material; from another altogether spiritual. We are not spirits, like the angels; but we are beings in whom the spiritual is so entirely united with the material that the actions of our souls necessarily find expression through our bodies, as a thought is expressed by a word. Because we are sacraments, God deals with us sacramentally.” (Chapter 6, §1)

Now, having already begun our move out of the Patristic Age into the Medieval, we may conclude that at long last the Church had some semblance of a working definition. The thing to notice, however, is the considerable vaguery that the Doctor of Grace (and his expositors) allowed to remain. The definition we are left with allows for (as in the primitive Church) just about any Christian endeavor to be considered “sacramental.” Though despite this, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who wrote contemporaneously with St. Augustine, manages to number six Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Holy Orders, Monastic Consecration, and Funeral Rites. St. Augustine, however, neither leaves us with an authoritative list (though he does treat in various places what we might consider to be sacraments), nor does he place any limits on his definition other than the assertion that there ought to be fewer Christian Sacraments than there were under the Mosaic Law. Therefore, within the Augustinian tradition, there may be any number of Sacraments insofar as they do not surpass 612 (as there are traditionally 613 commandments or “sacraments” within the Torah), but even this may be conservative. Our definition is of no help at all. The topic remains nebulous to be sure.

IV. Peter Lombard, Master of the Sentences

It wasn’t until the Medieval period that theologians began, taking their cue from St. Augustine, to wrestle with formulating an exact definition for what ought to be included within the sacramental system. This was eventually finalized in the writings of Peter Lombard and his famed Sentences. Until the time of Lombard, however, and throughout the writings of his contemporaries, there was a large degree of variance in defining the Sacraments and especially in their numbering. The Theological Landscape was fraught with disagreement and uncertainty. Bonizo, Bishop of Piacenza, in the 11th Century is perhaps the first in a long line of Ecclesiastics who have set pen to paper in working out this age old mystery. Writing in his Libellus de Sacramentis ([Little] Book on the Sacraments) he notes a distinction between the Sacraments instituted by Christ, those being Holy Baptism and the Supper, and the Sacraments of the Apostles. In this latter category Bishop Bonizo includes rites such as the imposition of salt (representing faith) and oil (distinguishing between the oils of Exorcism, Chrism, and Unction). This distinction between those Sacraments instituted by Christ and those instituted by the Apostles (or the Church) came to represent the common belief of the age, directly contradicting later Scholastics and the Council of Trent (Session 7, Canon 1) which taught that all of the Church’s Seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ.

This commonality among Medieval Theologians, as shall be shown, is where the agreement ends. It is Abelard (sometimes Abaelard), also known as “Master Peter”, who is generally considered the colorful next “step” in the development of Medieval Sacramental thought. Brilliant as he was, so far as Philosopher Clerics go, his antics are second to only that of Giacomo Casanova. It was primarily his text Sic et Non (Yes and No) which inspired following generations of synthesizers, though he himself made no attempt at reconciliation in Patristic Theology. This work in particular was rather a grouping together of the myriad of contradictory sayings from among the Fathers accompanied with probing questions of doubt. Master Peter writes in the prologue to this work “By doubting we are led to inquire, by inquiry we perceive the truth.” This set the stage for men such as Roland Bandinelli, Peter Lombard, and St. Thomas Aquinas who saw reconciliation among the patristic and early Medieval texts as necessary. Alongside this masterful work, Abelard brought to the Western Church his work titled Theology, often called his Introduction to Theology, though, this latter title is not correct. This second work was intended to be a manual on how to read the Holy Scriptures. We know of this text primarily from the writings of Peter Lombard. Together, these two writings significantly shaped the many Sentences that were to come after him. It is important to note that in his writing, Abelard made use of the definition Berengar earlier attributed to St. Augustine:

But a sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible grace of God, just as when any one is baptized, the exterior ablution of the body, which we see, is the sign of the interior ablution of the soul, since the inner man is so cleansed from sin, as the outer from bodily stains.” (Theology, Emphasis my own)

Later in The Sentences of Master Abelard (often called The Epitome of Christian Theology) which was written by a student of Peter and not by Abelard himself, the same definition is given: “A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace”. It is in this work where most of our understanding of Abelard’s sacramental theology is derived. Though returning once more to the universal understanding of the Sacraments as described by St. Augustine and later codified by Berengar, the Abelardian School does offer some clarifications of their own: According to their Sentences, the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation (Chrismation), and the Eucharist are “major Sacraments”, thus following somewhat the distinction of Bishop Bonizo made earlier between the Sacraments of Christ and those of the Apostles. It is these “major” sacraments that cannot be repeated. That is, one does not re-consecrate the elements of Bread and Wine in the Supper, nor is anyone to be baptized a second time. Though, according to St. Vincent of Lorins (Commonitory, Chapter 6), Anabaptsim was condemned as far back as the third century, Abelard applies the same principle to all of the Sacraments of the Gospel (Chrism being seen as a part of baptism). Elsewhere the same Abelardian Sentences speak of Holy Matrimony and the three Oils of Exorcism, Chrism, and Unction. Thus this school held to Five Sacraments.

To the Evangelical-leaning party, five Sacraments must seem absurd! That is far too many for a good Bible-Believing Christian to stomach. The Catholic-leaning Party would be just as outraged as their “Evangelical” rivals, but for the exact opposite reason! How could there be so few? In the context of history, this number is quite conservative! This brings us to the thought of our own Robert Pullus (sometimes “Pullen”), the first English Cardinal and a supposed founder of Oxford University. He wrote an incredibly difficult book titled Opinions, though often incorrectly translated as Sentences. Unlike Abelard, ol’ Cardinal Pullus was severely challenged when it came to organizing his writing in a coherent manner. Pollus did not bring anything new to the Sacramental discussion but rather republishes much of what came before him. He gives, with resounding chagrin to “Anglo-Catholics” and “Evangelicals” alike, 6 Sacraments: Holy Baptism & Holy Confirmation (Book 5), Holy Communion (Book 8), Holy Matrimony & Holy Orders (Book 7), and Holy Confession & Absolution (Book 6). His writings were incredibly popular but were quickly surpassed by Lombard.

Now, the progression thus far may lead one to conclude that there was a consistent and steady development within the Sacramental System. The jump from five to six is quite easy to stomach after all. Unfortunately, this subtle advancement in numbering is deceiving, as our next theologian will demonstrate. It is at this point in history that we finally come face to face with Hugh of St. Victor, perhaps the most important sacramental theologian before Peter Lombard himself. In fact, both Philip Schaff and the contemporary Church Historian Alister McGrath in his Christian Theology, primarily deal with Hugh’s theology before introducing the reader to Lombard’s thought. Have we finally arrived at the famed “Seven Sacraments of the Undivided Church”? Heavens no! In fact, by now the reader should begin to see how absurd such an assertion is. Rather, it is quite possible that Hugh of St. Victor is the one Medieval Theologian capable of uniting the “Evangelical” Party and the “Catholic” Party in shared frustration which, to be fair, oftentimes proves to be a powerful method for Church unity.

Unlike Abelard, Hugh was entirely orthodox and immensely esteemed by his contemporaries and successors alike. He, being a good scholastic, considers the varying sacramental theologies in his famous text On the Sacraments of the Chrisitan Faith. Being thoroughly Augustinian, and setting aside the Isidorian definition we have inherited from Berengar, he writes:

“Not every sign of a sacred thing can properly be called a sacrament (for the letters in sacred writings, or statues and pictures, are all ‘signs of sacred things,’ but cannot be called sacraments for that reason)… Anyone wanting a fuller and better definition of a sacrament can define it as follows: ‘a sacrament is a physical or material element set before the external senses, representing by likeness, signifying by its institution, and containing by sanctification, some invisible and spiritual grace.’” (This translation is taken from McGrath’s Chrsitian Theology: An Introduction, Chapter 16 §3)

Hugh then goes on to give the reader three different types of Sacrament. Like Bishop Bonizo and Abelard he notes that there are (1) Sacraments necessary for Salvation: Baptism and the Eucharist. (2) There are those of a sanctifying character: the imposition of ashes at the beginning of Lent and rites of the like. And (3) preparatory Sacraments which prepare you for the reception of the others: this would include the consecration of objects for holy use. At last! This is the most precise definition the Church has produced in some 1,200 years. Alleluias abound. But alas, the surprising devastation to note is that despite this supreme articulation, Hugh of St. Victor still manages to go on and number 30 different Sacraments (some count 32) throughout his writing! And despite this sacramental excess, Hugh manages to exclude penance from his number as it does not contain a physical or material element to serve as a sign. This far exceeds the systems of Abelard and Pullus. Despite being a paramount synthesis of the theological precision which came before him, it appears that Hugh has returned us once more to an all-inclusive definition that rivals that of the Patristic Age!

Thus we have traversed from an infinite Patristic numbering, to Augustine’s (at most) 612, to Pseudo-Dionysius’ 6, to Bonizo’s indefinite numbering, to Abelard’s 5, to Pullus’ 6, finally to Hugh’s 30-32. Laborious as this has been, our historical excursion is by all accounts a brief survey of Sacramental thought. There are many more variations and developments that, in the spirit of charity towards my editor, I have omitted. What are our warring Churchmen to make of this? Who can possibly set the tiresome issue aright? Peter Lombard is the man.

If St. Peter is the Prince of the Apostles, then Peter Lombard is the Prince of the Scholastics (sorry Thomas). His Libri Quatuor Sententiarum, simply called the Sentences, quickly becomes the collection to formalize the consensus of Western Christian thinking. Though later outshone by St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiæ (which often merely reiterates the Sentences), Lombard’s work has yet to lose its significance. It has been quoted as an authority by Roman Divines and Protestant Reformers alike, and, having since been translated into English, there is little doubt that it will continue to hold a place of prestige within the Western Canon. It is Book IV, On the Doctrine of Signs, of this series that is chiefly relevant to the current inquiry, though all four volumes are enlightening and excellent reading for any student of Christian Theology.

Lombard’s definition is one of slow progression. He moves from St. Augustine’s definition of “Sign” to Berengar’s “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” From here he differentiates between mere signs and Sacraments themselves. A Sacrament does not merely signify something, but also sanctifies. It accomplishes what it represents. Therefore Peter Lombard writes:

“For that is properly called a sacrament, which is in such a manner the sign of the grace of God, and the form of invisible grace, that it bears its image, and is its cause.” (Sentences, Distinction XXII §3)

Thus a Sacrament represents the Grace of God by a correlation between the Grace and the Element (for example, Baptism uses water to signify the washing of the spirit and the eucharistic wine to signify the Blood of Christ), and also effects that grace (i.e. Baptism truly washes & the Eucharist truly feeds). This definition intentionally omits Hugh of St. Victor’s insistence that a Sacrament must be a corporeal sign. This, quite brilliantly, allows for Lombard to include Penance and Marriage within his enumeration of the Sacramental System. Thus Lombard’s magnificent definition is at once clear, and, in the words of Elizabeth Frances Rogers: “elastic.” This then is how Peter Lombard finally deposited within the Western Church the Seven Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, “the Blessing of Bread” (i.e. Eucharist), Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Marriage.

This is the tipping point of Medieval sacramentology, though it took some time for Lombard’s thought to catch on. The Third Lateran Council in 1179 AD (19 years after Lombard’s death), for example, still referred to enthroning of bishops, abbots or ecclesiastical persons, the installation of priests in a church, burials and funerals, and the blessing of weddings as Sacraments (Canon 7), though, the Council at times writes “we believe with Peter Lombard.” It is unclear why the Fathers of that synod deviated from him elsewhere. Whatever the case, the sevenfold-numbering truly becomes normative by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Peter’s Sentences serving as the textbook of the Middle Ages, and required reading for all Medieval students of theology, by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiæ the seven Sacraments given by Master Lombard are the predominant, and quite frankly assumed sacramentology. There is little that need be said about St. Thomas on this point as he does not introduce anything new to the sacramental ordering given by Lombard. When it comes to numbering the Sacraments, St. Thomas opts to explain and defend their significance rather prove the numbering he presents (Summa Theologiæ Part III, Question 65). It is simply taken for granted that Lombard is correct on this point. This is later ratified as the official Western Position at the Council of Florence in 1439 (Session 8). Deferring to my betters, the conclusion of this age may be summarized thusly:

“Through the influence of Peter the Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, the number of the sacraments was fixed at seven,—baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, extreme unction, ordination, marriage. Bernard [of clairvaux?] had spoken of many sacraments and enumerated ten, including footwashing and the investiture of bishops and abbots. Abaelard had named five, —baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, marriage, and extreme unction. Hugo de St. Victor in his Summa also seems to recognize only five —baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, and extreme unction, but in his work on the Sacraments, in which he brought together all he had said on the subjects in other writings, he enumerated thirty.” (Philip Shaff, History Of the Christian Church, Emphasis my own)

V. The Reformers

The Seven Sacraments served splendidly for a time, but they carried with them their own deficiencies. The years leading up to the Reformation we fraught with abuse, especially in sacramental matters. In no small part, abuses arose due to an inordinate fixation on the scholastic doctrine of ex opere, operato (from the work worked). That is the belief that the Sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves due to the work (or “merit” as St. Thomas writes) wrought by Christ and not the human involvement in the rite. Many took this to mean that there was nothing required in the disposition of the recipient of the Sacrament in order for grace to be conferred, that is, without a true and lively faith (though this is a misunderstanding of the doctrine), “No one can express in words what abuses in the Church this fanatical opinion concerning the opus operatum [the work wrought], without a good disposition on the part of the one using the Sacraments, has produced.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics) The Church kept the laity in ignorance when it came to properly receiving the Sacraments: “Aforetime satisfactions were immoderately extolled; of faith and the merit of Christ and the righteousness of faith no mention was made” (Augsburg Confession XXV). Thus the Sacraments were sought without feeling, understanding, or proper reverence. Such notions quickly become an occasion for Antinomianism, the belief that the Graces of God allow for the rejection or willful transgression of the moral law. Any sin becomes permissible so long as one remembers to make a trip to the confessional afterward. Such refuge too was sought in the sacraments themselves that Christ, their efficient instrumental cause, was left to the wayside. An unfortunate consequence of such thought was the sin of simony, “For it is not unknown how far this abuse obtains in all the churches by what manner of men Masses are said only for fees or stipends, and how many celebrate them contrary to the Canons” (Augsburg Confession XXIV). But what other option was there? The hordes needed masses said for their sake, the re-sacrificing of Christ for the forgiveness of sin, and by golly they were willing to pay! This sentiment likewise created and multiplied the strange and improper custom of private masses. What was once the common worship of the People of God became by necessity the privilege of some. “There was also added the opinion which infinitely increased Private Masses, namely that Christ, by His passion, had made satisfaction for original sin, and instituted the Mass wherein an offering should be made for daily sins, venial and mortal” (Augsburg Confession XXIV). According to the reports of the Reformers, there arose a doubt among the laity as to whether the common mass of the people was as efficacious as the special intentions offered during private masses. Thus in one fell swoop Christ is robbed of His honor, the mass of its power, and the people of their common inheritance. The dignity of Christ was transferred to His instruments and the gifts of God were mired in the Church.

It was then necessary to supplement these deficiencies introduced into the Crucifixion, Supper, and Baptism. If the Crucifixion and Baptism only dealt with Original Sin, then the endless sacrificing of the mass was necessary to atone for actual sin. However, strangely enough, it was believed that the reception of the Supper (which, tragically, rarely took place) only forgives venial sins and thus the grace of Baptism (which is truly for the forgiveness of sins) is partially transferred to Penance which alone remedies mortal sins. This is quite strange even from Roman standards. How is the very presence of Christ in the Sacrament; Body, Soul, and Divinity (as they suppose) afforded a lesser forgiveness of sins than the ecclesiastical presence of Christ in the priest giving absolution? It is unfortunate that this is still the opinion of Rome. Thus a dishonor was done to the two Dominical Sacraments (those two Instituted by Our Lord in the Gospels). The Holy Baptism and Holy Communion were brought down to the level of the “other five, which are vulgarly classed with the true and genuine sacraments of the Lord” (Institutes Book 4, Chapter 19 §1). What’s more, the abuses did not cease at the conflation of the Supreme Means of Grace with those lesser sacred rites, but even those things that were not deemed a Sacrament by the elaborate Scholastic system contributed to robbing the institutions of God of their worth. “Thus they made men believe that the profession of monasticism was far better than Baptism, and that the monastic life was more meritorious than that of magistrates, than the life of pastors, and such like, who serve their calling in accordance with God’s commands, without any man-made services. None of these things can be denied; for they appear in their own books” (Augsburg Confession XXVII, Emphasis my own). It is one thing to think Monasticism good (and I readily admit I do), even permissible to reckon Religious Consecration a Sacrament in some regard (as done by Pseudo-Dionysius), but it is absurd to equate such things with the Grace of Baptism and entirely unthinkable to elevate such life above it. This is a sacrilege of the highest order. And the buffoonery does not stop here. Even the lesser rites were deprived of their own prestige! Their Holy Orders were malformed and incomplete. The Diaconate was (and until recently remained) no true Diaconate but merely a precursor to the priesthood! Such men did not serve the poor as they ought, nor tended to widows, but simply assisted at the altar. “They, therefore, delude the Church by that lying deaconship.” (Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 5 §15) It is a sad report that we have received from the Late Middle Ages. The Sacraments instituted by Our Lord are minimized, the other rites elevated above their stature even to the point of robbing the former of their own particular graces yet in such a way that they themselves were diminished, and finally, Ecclesiastics were even so bold as to place those rites residing outside of their own Sacramental definition to a degree above that which was commanded by Christ Himself.

It is in this context that the Reformers began their labors. It is fitting to begin any discussion of the Reformers Proper (excluding predecessors such as Jan Hus) with the Lutherans. After all, they started this whole ecclesiastical experiment called “Protestantism.” And in my estimation there’s no better Lutheran than Philip Melanchthon (no offense to Chemntitz). Master Philip, “the quiet Reformer”, writing in the Lutheran Confessions, kicks off the conversation for us by saying:

“But here they bid us also count seven sacraments. We hold that it should be maintained that the matters and ceremonies instituted in the Scriptures, whatever the number, be not neglected. Neither do we believe it to be of any consequence, though, for the purpose of teaching, different people reckon differently, provided they still preserve aright the matters handed down in Scripture.” (Apology of Augsburg, XIII, Emphasis my own)

Rather bold statements to be sure, but entirely accurate considering all that we have explored thus far. It is this principle of variance in history that Melanchthon slowly and thoughtfully unfolds throughout his Apology. The brilliant bit is that, unlike what we have seen so far, rather than beginning with an exceedingly great number of Sacraments and narrowing down his definition, Melancthon begins with those which are unquestionably established means of grace. He writes: “Therefore, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly Sacraments.” In this regard, the Lutheran Party is playing the part of the good Scholastic (though don’t tell them I’ve said so). The three Sacraments of the Gospel enumerated here are identical to the three Sacraments “necessary for salvation” given by St. Thomas Aquinas. (Summa Theologiæ, Part III, Question 65, Article 4) Philip seems to acknowledge such when having immediately giving this number he differentiates these Sacraments from Confirmation and Unction, which “not even the Church requires as necessary to salvation”, a clear head nod toward the Summa. Many of the “Evangelical” Party may be surprised to see three Sacraments given, but this is simply the ordinary Proto-Protestant Sacramentology. This is really just a clear reiteration of what the Augsburg Confession teaches: “Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved” (Article XXV). In addition to these three, Master Philip goes on to add that, articulated correctly, Holy Orders may also be reckoned as a Sacrament. He says: “But if ordination be understood as applying to the ministry of the Word, we are not unwilling to call ordination a Sacrament. For the ministry of the Word has God’s command and glorious promises…If ordination be understood in this way, neither will we refuse to call the imposition of hands a sacrament.” (Apology of the Augsburg XIII)

Melanchthon then touches upon Holy Matrimony saying: Wherefore, if any one should wish to call it a sacrament, he ought still to distinguish it from those preceding ones, which are properly signs of the New Testament, and testimonies of grace and the remission of sins. It would seem that Melanchthon’s numbering is entirely in keeping with the tradition we have have spent several pages and numerous volumes exploring. Even Marriage may be counted a Sacrament in so far as it is distinguished from those Sacraments of the Gospel which are necessary for Salvation. Master Philip does give a word of warning, however, in that he notes that if the definition of Sacrament be extended so far as to include Holy Matrimony (being a Divine Command), then one may also count such things as the Magistrates, Prayers, Alms-Giving, and Afflictions to be Sacraments on the same grounds. Thus Melancthon’s brilliance brings nuance to the discussion which few, even today, are willing to allow for. In this treatise he has shown, by variance of degree, how each one of the Scholastic Seven Sacraments may rightly be counted as a Sacrament if understood correctly. In this discourse Master Philip manages to sidestep the Medieval abuses prominent in his day. It is likewise evident that in doing so he has remained faithful to the Catholic Tradition that he has inherited, but I will leave this for the reader to decide.

From the Lutheran Confessions it is only right to sojourn into the writings of our Reformed kindred. This is only proper as the “Reformed”, if that title has any meaning whatsoever, are really “Reformed Lutherans.” Having renounced Zwingli and all his ways, I’d like to dive directly into the writing of Mr. John Calvin, the “unexpected Thomist” and “last of the Greek Fathers” (The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, 2016 Hulsean Lecture). Calvin’s magnum opus known commonly as the Institutes is a magnificently inconsistent thing, as is Calvin himself at times. It is easy for one to find arguments that seem to contradict others or opinions not entirely reconciled. It is my belief that this is why so many of John’s spiritual descendants have strayed significantly from his sacramentology. You really have to root around for a while, but underneath all of that text is a breathtakingly Catholic Frenchman committed to the purity of the One Church under the authority of Holy Scripture. It is this text that I will be treating.

Though before diving into the Institutes directly, it should be noted that our Calvin subscribed to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (letter to Shallingius) we explored previously. Thus the three Sacraments necessary for Salvation given by Melanchthon and St. Thomas, I argue, are likewise held by Calvin. That being said, Calvin takes an approach quite different than Master Philip, and rather begins quite like ourselves with the largest definition and work our way inward to the principle number. He writes:

“The term sacrament, in the view we have hitherto taken of it, includes, generally, all the signs which God ever commanded men to use, that he might make them sure and confident of the truth of his promises… Of the former class we have an example, in his giving the tree of life to Adam and Eve, as an earnest of immortality, that they might feel confident of the promise as often as they ate of the fruit. Another example was, when he gave the bow in the cloud to Noah and his posterity, as a memorial that he would not again destroy the earth by a flood. These were to Adam and Noah as sacraments: not that the tree could give Adam and Eve the immortality which it could not give to itself; or the bow… could have the effect of confining the waters; but they had a mark engraven on them by the word of God, to be proofs and seals of his covenant.” (Institutes Book 4, Chapter 14 §18)

In this regard Calvin, like St. Augustine, is including all of the “signs” of both the Old and New Testaments within the broad definition of “Sacrament.” This broadness, as history has shown, simply will not do. It is here that Calvin specifies his aim. He writes: “But my present purpose is to discourse especially of those sacraments which the Lord has been pleased to institute as ordinary sacraments in his Church, to bring up his worshipers and servants in one faith, and the confession of one faith.” (Institutes Book 4, Chapter 14 §19, Emphasis my own) We therefore have something new introduced into the working definition: a Sacrament is instituted by Christ. This only allows for the two Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Whether it is the Westminster Confession (Chapter 27 §4) or the 39 Articles of Religion (Article XXV), this specification has remained within the Reformed Tradition. Now it is no secret that generally speaking, Calvin only allowed for the numbering of these two Sacraments, although the nuance is often ignored. Calvin’s argument against any sacrament other than Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is quite profound and faithful to the Medieval tradition. Citing Peter Lombard himself, John points out that the Scholastics do not believe that the Sacraments of the Old Testament were efficacious, whereas those of the new were. So, the question then is: how is it that “the symbols which the Lord has consecrated with His own lips, which he has distinguished by excellent promises, should be regarded as no sacraments, and that, meanwhile, this honor should be transferred to those rites which men have either devised of themselves, or at least observe without any express command of God?” (Institutes Book 4, Chapter 19 §1) How is it that an explicit command, rite, and corresponding promise attached to said rite, is of no avail but those Sacraments implicitly established in the New Testament often without command, rite, or promise, are? This is simply inconsistent to Calvin.

Calvin then goes on to give one reason or another as to why the other five Sacraments are really no Sacraments at all. Here I’d like to point out that Calvin’s complaints are not so much against the Sacraments themselves, but the Medieval Roman abuses of the rites. For example, it was maintained that oil was necessary for the rite of Confirmation (a rite Calvin approved of), though the Biblical precedent for the practice mentions none. The Romanists were arguing the necessity of ecclesiastical additions to the rites, and therefore poor Calvin never quite found himself at the heart of the issue. Instead he was pulled this way and that into one argument or another by Roman excesses. It should be noted that Lombard’s Sentences embarrassingly neglect to mention the laying on of hands in ordination. Such de-emphasis of the biblical precedence of a rite and the elevation of adiaphora (indifferent) rites to the degree of lex divina (divine law) simply would not do for this Frenchman. Calvin likewise enters these conversations with his own biases, such as a staunch cessationism (the belief that miraculous gifts have ceased from the Church). Therefore, Unction cannot be a Sacrament as it is accompanied by the promise of physical healing which, according to Calvin, has ceased. The preeminence must always be given to those two Sacraments instituted by Christ. But this does not mean that they are the exclusive means of grace within Calvin’s system or even the only Sacraments numbered by Calvin.

Many are not aware that according to Geneva’s Reformer, Holy Orders may rightly be counted as a Sacrament. I consider this to be yet another instance wherein Calvin’s Lutheranism shines through his writing, though I doubt that many will agree. Whatever the case, ol’ John of Geneva writes:

“For the laying on of hands, by which the ministers of the Church are initiated into their office, though I have no objection to its being called a sacrament, I do not number among ordinary sacraments.” (Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 14 §20)

So then Calvin, the Evangelical Champion, has counted three Sacraments like Master Philip, St. Thomas (as necessary for salvation), and others. This, to me, establishes him well within the Medieval system. What’s more, Calvin is careful to distinguish degree of the Sacrament. Just as Bishop Bonizo and St. Thomas Aquinas specified those necessary for Salvation, so too has Calvin and the rest of the Protestant Tradition continued to maintain a clear demarcation within their Sacramentology. But these are not alone in the rites of the Church. Calvin writes concerning Penance not only that he approves of the concept, but that he wished that the Church might return to the primitive practice of public repentance, considering “of which Cyprian speaks to have been holy and salutary to the Church”. But this does not mean the he rejected private form found in Rome, rather he approves with a slight caveat saying: “The more modern form, though I dare not disapprove, or at least strongly condemn, I deem to be less necessary.” (Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 19 §14) Who would have thought that Calvin would have defended auricular confession? And again, if his affirmation of Augsburg is an indication, he takes it to be a Sacrament. He likewise defends Confirmation and other rites, though not granting them the title of Sacraments. So then, much to the frustration of the “Evangelical” and “Anglo-Catholic” alike, Calvin’s system allows for three (possibly four via Augsburg) Sacraments and other good rites, some of which are a means of grace. Surely Calvin has satisfied neither camp.

It would appear that these two diverging traditions have offered no real solutions to the problem at hand. If anything, all they have done is highlight the deficiencies of the theologians that have come before them. Even though Calvin and Melancthon address the same issues and abuses they arrive at different, although similar, solutions. The emphasis, however, is the same: the primacy of the Dominical Sacraments. Like many aspects of the Reformation, the Reformers in their wisdom withdrew to whatever offers a genuine surety. Just as God’s Word written offers the surest transmission of Divine Revelation, so too are the Dominical Sacraments the sure means of grace within the Christian community. Thus we are left with an emphasis rather than a solution.

VI. How Should We Count?

Twelve pages in and the persistent questions remains. What on earth are we supposed to do? Fortunately there is at last a solution, or rather, there isn’t one. In the words of the late (and beloved) dogmatist Robert W. Jenson: “As for the question: ‘How many sacraments are there really?’ -It is totally meaningless. There are as many sacraments as we polemically define the word to cover” (Visible Words 1§6). It must be recognized that different parties import entirely different definition into the word “Sacrament” and operate under that definition without considering that their opponent is operating under a completely different set of parameters. Thus when the Protestant says “there are only two Sacraments”, what he means is “A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace instituted by Christ.” Whereas when the Catholic-leaning Party says “there are seven Sacraments”, what they really mean is: “a Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” which allows for the the seven rites that they hold so dear. Such debates rarely, if ever, include an examination of the other’s meaning behind the terms employed. For if the Evangelical were to take the broad term given, they could not in good faith contend with the number seven. The inverse is likewise true. Thus both parties truly agree with one another. Now, to the many skeptics this may sound a lot like the often demonized Tractarianism, and to be quite honest, it is. John Henry Newman wrote in the devilish Tract XC:

“The Roman Catholic considers that there are seven [sacraments]; we do not strictly determine the number. We define the word generally to be an outward sign of an inward grace, without saying to how many ordinances this applies. However, what we do determine is, that CHRIST has ordained two special sacraments, as generally necessary to salvation. This, then is the characteristic mark of those two, separating them from all other whatever; and this is nothing else but saying in other words that they are the only justifying rites, or instruments of communicating the Atonement, which is the one thing necessary to us.” (§7)

Newman recognizes that the definition given by the Articles is accurate; “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.” (Article XXV) However, this assertion (as even Melancthon and Calvin exemplify) does not negate the broad sacramental character of the other five “commonly called Sacraments.” This may be troubling to some, and I am quite sympathetic. Given that Newman would eventually make Rome his spiritual home and renounce all semblance of Protestantism, this can be taken to be nothing more than Romanism in Anglican guise. It is perhaps necessary then to show that this distinction is not new to Newman. Rather, he (despite other more questionable sections of Tract XC) has remained faithful to English Protestant Tradition. The Puritan Theologian Richard Baxter, “the chief of English Protestant Schoolmen”, writes on the numbering of the Sacraments:

“The Papists tell us of seven Sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, the Eucharist, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction. Calvin sticks not to yield them three. The name Sacrament being not in Scripture, but of meer Ecclesiastic use, and being a word that will stretch, I distinguish between three sorts of Sacraments.” (Confirmation and Restoration, Proposition 10)

Mr. Baxter first notes that the term “Sacrament” is not derived from Scripture, but is rather an ecclesiastic category established for certain rites found within the Scriptures. This term then, as he says, “will stretch.” It can be broad or specific depending on its use. He then goes on to distinguish his different categories, which are really different definitions of the term, each allowing for an even broader numbering within the term. The first, and the broadest, he notes are those rites instituted by God Himself, including those of the Old Testament. Of such he says “I doubt not but there’s more than seven.” This category finds itself in the realm of St. Augustine and Calvin’s broad treatment. The second and narrower category consists of “investitures” of individuals with certain privileges. This would include five Sacraments:

“Christ by his Ministers doth first by Baptism invest us in our Church-state, and Infant-privileges: and by Confirmation, confirm us in our Church-state, and Invest us with a Right to the Privileges of the Adult: and by Absolution reinvest us in the Privileges that we had forfeited: and by the Lord’s Supper Deliver to us Christ and his Benefits, for our ordinary nourishment, and growth in Grace: and by Ordination he Invented the pardon ordained with Ministerial Power. (Emphasis my own)

Finally there is the last and narrowest of Baxter’s categories, the Strict sense:

“But taking the word Sacrament in that strictest sense, as our Divines define a Sacrament, as it is an outward sign of Christs Institution, for the obsignation of the full Covenant of Grace, betwixt him and the Covenanter, and a delivery, Representation, and Investiture of the Grace, or Benefits of that Covenant; thus we have only two Sacraments, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. But truly I would not quarrel with them [Roman Catholics] for the meer name, as to the five which I mentioned.” (Emphasis my own)

So Baxter, a Puritan, is able to engage in the conversation in such a way that he may provide a provision for Seven Sacraments. What’s more, his discourse is identical to the method of reconciliation outlined by Newman in the infamous Tract XC. There must be an examination of the definitions imported into the term, and when this is done, one may readily agree with the numbering that definition allows for. When one uses the strict Protestant definition, then one ought to rightly reckon two Sacraments. If one uses a broader “Catholic” definition (though it is foolish to take this as any more “Catholic” than the Protestant numbering) then one may have no issue with counting seven or even more Sacraments. The real issue is that we do not conflate the dignity and importance of the rites, as was done in the Middle Ages. As Philip Melancthon writes:

“But concerning this number of seven sacraments, the fact is that the Fathers have not been uniform in their enumeration; thus also these seven ceremonies are not equally necessary.” (Apology of Augsburg, XIII, Emphasis my own)

Where the Reformers, a Puritan, a Tractarian-turned-Papist, and a Lutheran Dogmatist (to name but a few) speak in unison, I am more than inclined to agree. So then let us cease in quarreling over the number of the Sacraments. Neither scripture nor history allows for a set number. One enumeration is no more “Catholic” than the other, and any assertion to the contrary is quite frankly silly. There is far too much nuance wrapped up in an all too common word. And it is this realization which proves the profundity of our Formularies. Article XXV is always clear to specify that it is commenting on those two Sacraments instituted by Christ. That they are those “generally necessary for salvation” (generally in this sense meaning “all”. All are in need of these two Sacraments). It then distinguishes these two from the “other five commonly called Sacraments.” They “are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel.” It is the distinction that is important, but neither the Articles nor the Homily on Common Prayer and Sacraments negates the Reformed and Catholic belief that there are other rites, that these other rites may convey grace, and that generally speaking they may be counted as Sacraments. To be sure there will be those who will disagree, but such opinions are far from the facts of history, the Catholic Fathers, and the minds of the Reformers.

VII. Conclusion

All can agree, whether “Evangelical” or “Anglo-Catholic” that the Eucharist, as the Medievals taught, is potissimum -the chief and highest of the Sacraments. It together with Baptism constitute the Dominical Sacraments. These two are never to be neglected throughout our churches. These two magnificent gifts of the Gospel, the Water and the Blood that flowed from Christs’ side, are the principal Mysteries of the Christian Religion. From this position of unity, the Catholic-leaning Churchmen ought to applaud when his “Evangelical” counterpart extols the virtues of the two Sacraments, all the time knowing that he is speaking of the Sacraments of the Gospel as defined by our formularies, a definition which renders only two Sacraments an indisputable fact. Likewise, when the Evangelical-leaning Churchman hears his “Catholic” brother speak of the mysterious graces communicated to the Chrisitian soul by virtue of the “five commonly called Sacraments” he may heartily say “amen” in agreement, all the while knowing that there is no conflation with the Dominical Sacrament nor are Christ’s gifts diminished in any way. Rather, we may all agree that our Prayer Book expects the communication of grace, whatever it may be, in those other five rites having been purified of the corruption they experienced in former times. But above all this, such men must put an end to needless disputes on the matter. In substance the two parties agree. Our formularies make any disagreement impossible. However one counts the sacraments matters little when we consider that what we believe concerning them is the same in substance. It is to my dismay that such societies such as Forward in Faith (a society I admire) are needlessly divisive among those who might prove to be their allies by requiring an assent to Seven Sacraments, as if it means anything. It is equally a disappointment that I have heard preaching against Seven Sacraments from the pulpit when there is real sin in need of revealing and life-giving Gospel in need of preaching. Both are tragedies and foolishness. Let the “Evangelical” realize that he can faithfully affirm Seven (or more) Sacraments in some manner or other as even Baxter and Melanchthon could. In fact, such persons should as the “Seven Sacraments” have taken on a ecumenical character. There is no member of the Apostolic Churches, of which we are one, who do not (now) reckon in this way. Conversely, let the “Anglo-Catholic” understand that he has no real disagreements with his brother who is proud of their indisputable and shared Reformation heritage, nor are such persons les-Catholic by any means. Rather, two Sacraments merely follows the most precise definition and is nothing to poke fun at. Such a definition is accurate and has allowed for greater agreement among the many Protestant sects than all the Fathers and early Scholastics. Let us follow the wisdom of the Church in frequinting the means of grace instituted by Christ, and partaking of those other rites when they are applicable. We do not need to bother with disputes over titles when our faith and practice is the same. “For it is not the number of the sacraments that is decisive, but the institution of Christ and the fullness of grace he imparts in it.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume IV, Chapter 9 §5)

Further Reading:

  1. Alister McGrath, The Christisn Theology Reader, 8.16, 8.17, 8.21

Christian Theology: An Introduction, Chapter 16

  1. Carl E. Braaten; Robert W. Jenson. Christian Dogmatics, Volume 2, Locus 10 §1
  2. Elizabeth Frances Rogers, Peter Lombard and the Sacramental System
  3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume IV, Chapter 9
  4. John Henry Newman, Tract XC, §7
  5. Peter Lombard, The Sentences, Volume IV

Brandon LeTourneau

Brandon is your typical pseudo-intellectual who knows more than he should and less than he thinks. An Anglican Seminarian, known for his assertions of the Catholicity of the Reformation and his abiding love for the oddest bits of Church History. He hopes to one day serve the ACNA in an ecumenical capacity. Pray for him, a sinner.

'Attempts in Reconciliation' have 3 comments

  1. November 16, 2019 @ 4:36 pm Christopher Cox

    I’ve always hoped an Anglican author would point out that the numbering of the sacraments has changed over time! Hopefully, this is an aid to unity.


    • Brandon J LeTourneau

      November 17, 2019 @ 8:58 pm Brandon J LeTourneau

      Yes indeed! It’s unfortunately become one of those hills to die on without any scriptural or even historic precedence. Hopefully, the Church will learn from Her history and recognize the unity in substance we all share, even if articulated somewhat differently within different traditions.


  2. November 22, 2023 @ 4:33 am Petros

    Though you wrote this over 4 years ago I have just read it now. The articles was excellent! I have always believed that this debate was a needless debate in our communion. It is fight over a “distinction with no real difference “. It is not the counting of the sacraments but making the sacraments count. I really believe this article should be read by every seminarian, priest, and layperson in the Anglican communion. It is one debate that needs to be put rest. Thank so Brandon. A
    Job well done.


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