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What is a sacrament? A short history

Updated on January 27, 2010

The medieval church looked at things that it found sacred and called them sacaraments. The reformers and the Protestant denominations have done and they generally accept only the two celebrations instituted by Jesus—holy communion and baptism—as formal sacraments, although the entire universe in “sacaramental”. And of course you could argue that there’s no such thing as a sacrament at all.

But the story is more interesting than that.

The Latin term sacramentum was used by Tertullian to translate a Greek word for a thing that would a secret but for God’s revelation (Mat.3.11; Ro.11.25; Col.1.26 and elsewhere), a concealed power or principle (2 Th.2.7) or hidden meaning of a symbol (Re.1.20; 17.7).

From the earliest times there had been an association between the "mystery" of God's saving work in Christ and the rituals of baptism and the eucharist. Some discussion of what came to be called sacraments is found in the Didache and in the works of Iraneus. Clement of Alexandria spoke of Christian rites as sacred mysteries. But it was in the church in North Africa in the third and fourth centuries that we find the first definitions of a sacrament.

The African church (under Cyprian, for example) emphasized solidarity in the face of persecution. The sacraments strengthened the unity of the faithful. Perhaps this is the reason for the development in North Africa of sacramental theology. In was in the midst of the Donatist controversy, a consequence of the persecutions endured there, that Augustine developed his understanding of the sacraments.

Augustine famously said that "A sacrament is a sign of a sacred thing," [Letters 138, 1.] His idea was that a sacrament required a relationship between a sign or symbol and the thing it signified. For Augustine, there are many signs pointing to different realities - as smoke is a sign of fire or words are a sign of that to which they refer. Famous among Augustine's expressions is his description of sacraments as "visible forms of invisible grace".

There are two principles to Augustine's understanding. Firstly, a sacrament is a sign. Signs, when applied to divine things, are called sacraments. Secondly, the sign must be related to the thing signified. If sacraments did not bear some resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all. This definition seems imprecise. Is every " sign of a sacred thing" to be regarded as a sacrament?

In the Middle Ages, Hugo of St. Victor (1140) defined a sacrament as "the corporeal or material element set before the senses without, representing by similitude and signifying by institution and containing by sanctification some invisible and spiritual grace. … For every sacrament ought to have a kind of similitude to the thing itself of which it is the sacrament, according to which it is capable of representing the same thing; every sacrament ought to have also institution through which it is ordered to signify this thing and finally sanctification through which it contains that thing and is efficacious conferring the sign of those about to be sanctified. [On the sacraments of the Christian faith, I, 9]

Thus Hugo required there to be (1) a physical element - such as water, wine or oil; (2) a likeness to the thing signified; (3) authorization to signify the thing in question; and (4) an efficacy, by which the sacrament is capable of conferring the benefits it signifies.

Yet this definition remained inadequate for the church, as it did not encompass all seven of what were by then generally accepted as sacraments — baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, marriage, ordination and extreme unction. By omitting reference to a physical element, Peter Lombard was able to bring practice and theory into line. A sacrament was indeed a "sign of a sacred thing", but the sign could, for example, be a sacramental act, such as laying on of hands. Peter Lombard's understanding was to remain virtually unchallenged until the reformation.

These ideas indicate aspects of the relationship between the "sign" and the "sacred thing" signified. The primary "authorization" was institution by Jesus himself (as in the eucharist). But church practice and tradition also contributed authority. The efficacy of the sacraments actually to perform the works of God's grace was also important in medieval theology. In the thought of Thomas Aquinas, for example, there is an aspect of instrumental causality in the carrying out of the sacraments. In the sacraments, Christ confers grace through the instruments of priest and sign. The efficacy of his passion is at work. Though signification and causality are closely related, they are not identical. Within Thomistic thought, the mere act of signifying does not confer grace.

Thomas observed an ambiguity in Augustine's use of the word sacrament. It could refer to the sacramental rite or it could refer to the character or primary spiritual effect of the rite. To Aquinas, one experienced the graces of the sacrament as a result of having the character, and one received the character by undergoing the rite. Thus the baptismal rite, for example, produced in the soul of the recipient a spiritual reality that was a "seal" or image of Christ (the sacramental character). Inherent in this character was the power, if exercised, to cooperate in God's works of grace in justification, sanctification, and the holy life.

The reformers were concerned to eliminate medieval additions to earlier, simpler, versions of Christian theology, including the sacraments. They challenged the nature and number of the sacraments, but the understanding of a sacrament as requiring a sign remained. The reformers saw the sacraments as an accommodation to human limitations. Ideally, we should be able to trust in God on the basis of the word alone.

Thus Philip Melanchthon wrote in his Propositions on the mass (1521) that, "Signs are the means by which we may be both reminded and reassured of the word of faith." "What some call sacraments, we call signs - or, if you prefer, sacramental signs.”

Similarly, Luther defined sacraments as, "promises with signs attached to them,"20 the function of which is to reassure believers that they are truly members of the body of Christ.21 Zwingli came to regard the sacraments as (divinely instituted) signs by which we demonstrate our loyalty and commitment as members of the community of faith.22 There was agreement as to the nature of the sacraments as signs. But there were strong differences as to what was signified and the relationship between the sign and the spiritual gift ("sacred thing", in Augustine's phrase) to which it pointed. These differences stood out in debate about the relationship between the body and blood of Christ and the bread and wine of the eucharist. For Luther, Christ was really present in the eucharist. For Zwingli, he was really present only the hearts of believers. The two reformers could not agree on the meaning of the words hoc est corpus meum ("this is my body") in Matthew 26.26. For Luther (though he rejected transubstantiation), est meant 'is' in a fairly literal way; for Zwingli it meant 'signifies'.

Aware of the differences between Luther, Zwingli and others, Calvin took a middle position. He argued that in the sacraments there is a very close connection between the symbol and the gift symbolized. The sign is visible and physical, but the thing signified is being visible and spiritual. Yet, because the connection between the two is intimate, one may be applied to the other. The sign effects the thing signified. Calvin thus maintained a difference between sign and thing signified. Yet the sign really points to the gift it signifies.

But not every sign indicates a sacrament. The reformers agreed with medieval catholic theologians that a sacrament is an instituted and authorized sign of grace. But there was disagreement on the basis of authorization. Baptism and eucharist were recognized by the reformers as the only true sacraments - both being attested in the scriptures as instituted by Christ. Baptism and the eucharist were accepted also because they each have an external sign (water and bread and wine). Thus in the Thirty-Nine Articles, for example, "sacraments" other than Baptism and the Lord's Supper are excluded "for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God."

Augustine's essential concept of a sacrament as a "sign of a sacred thing" stood the test of time. But it was refined by attempts to understand the nature of the sign and its relationship with the thing signified. The idea of a sacrament as "sign of a sacred thing" has also been supplemented by varying ideas of what must exist in a sacrament.

Contemporary Catholic writing, following Vatican II, has rediscovered the nature of the sacraments as signs of grace, signs of Christ, signs of God's love, signs of life, signs of faith, signs of the church, and signs of spiritual transformation.

In the 1950s and 60s Edward Schillebeeckx wrote of the sacraments as signs that reveal the transcendent, divine reality. Jesus himself was a sacramental sign to those who knew him in Palestine. He revealed to them the mystery of God. After his death, he remained a sacrament to those who believed him. In turn the Christian community is a sacrament to others. And in the church sacraments, the Christian community recognizes the presence of the redemptive mystery. [Christ the sacrament of the encounter with God / E. Schillebeecx. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963] Schillebeeckx's understanding of the sacraments was influential in encouraging liturgical changes of Vatican II. If the sacraments were to be effective signs of encounter with Christ, this had to be made possible in liturgy.

Karl Rahner speaks similarly of Christ and the church as sacramental signs. He accepts that there is no historical evidence that Jesus instituted all of the traditional sacraments. For him it is sufficient to show that Christ instituted a sacramental church. The church itself continues to be a sacrament and is itself a sign of Christ. Through a sacramental church Christ can be said to have instituted everything that the sacraments signify and make available.

We see the sacraments becoming, as liturgy, an expression and sign of the life of the whole people of God. Our communal life has been sanctified (made sacred) by Christ and sacramental liturgy is a sign of this.

Scripture suggests (e.g. Colossians 1.20) that Christ's redemptive work of reconciliation is directed towards all of creation. There is much in scripture that speaks of the creation as a sign of God's actions in grace and power (Amos 4:13 and 5:18; Jeremiah 27:5 and 31:35-37; Isaiah 40:4-5; Psalm 8:1,3-7; 19:1-2 and 24:1-2; Proverbs 8:1,22,24-31). God's creation is a sign and expression of relationship with the people of God and humankind as a whole. God redeems and restores the creation, including humankind.

Therefore it is not surprising that some theologians speak of the whole creation as sacramental. William Temple wrote of a "sacramental universe" in which the whole of material existence can be an effective medium of revelation and a means of grace. Similarly, Donald Baillie wrote: “The sacraments in the specific sense are but concentrations of something very much more widespread, so that nothing could be in the special sense a sacrament unless everything was in a basic and general sense sacramental. … Is the divine Word entirely absent from the wider world from which it singles out special elements for a specially sacred use? Is there not a basic reason why material things should be taken by the Word and consecrated the instruments of divine grace? Do they not lend themselves to such a use because God made them, because they are His creatures?” The Theology of the sacraments and other papers. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.

Even Calvin, in his Institutes, [Book IV, xiv, 18] placed the Christian sacraments on the broader basis of nature, recognizing that God can use one of God's created elements sacramentally - for example the rainbow given to Noah and his posterity as a sign of the continuing mercy of God. Similarly, in his parables, Jesus used natural objects as symbols of aspects of faith.

God created and blessed the world by filling all that exists with divine love and goodness. Our response is to bless and thank God and see the world as God sees it. We are by nature priests, standing in the centre of the world, unifying it in acts of blessing God, receiving the world from God and offering it to God. There can be no ultimate sacred/secular split. For instance, we recognize that food is the natural sacrament of family, friendship, and of life that is more than simply eating and drinking.

Many have written of the natural world as a place of personal encounter with the greatness and beauty of God in a way that is nonetheless intimate. The current revival of Celtic spirituality focuses on God as known and revealed in the natural realm. These experinces are "sacramental".

We might well say that, the whole of nature is a sign of a sacred thing, the divinity of God as creator and redeemer. There is room for sacraments as signs specifically instituted by Christ and his church. And there is room for an understanding of the whole of God's creation as a sacrament of divine beauty, glory, and goodness.


Baillie, Donald M. The Theology of the sacraments and other papers. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.

Browning, Robert L. and Roy A. Reed. The Sacraments in religious education and liturgy / Birmingham, Al.: Religious Education Pr., 1985.

Martos, Joseph. Doors to the sacred: a historical introduction to the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Rev. ed. Liguori: Triumph, 1991.

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation thought: an introduction. 2nd ed. Blackwell, 1993.

Nash, James A. Loving nature : ecological integrity and Christian responsibility. Nashville: Abingdon, 1991.

Power, D. The eucharistic mystery: revitalising the tradition. Dublin: Gill; & McMillan, 1992.

Rahner, Karl. Meditations on the sacraments. London: Burns & Oates, 1977.

Schillebeecx, E. Christ the sacrament of the encounter with God. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963.

White, James F. Documents of Christian worship: descriptive and interpretive sources. T & T Clark, 1992.


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