Saturday, July 14, 2007

On the number of the Sacraments
Excerpt from The Christian Faith, by Claude Beaufort Moss, D.D.

[NOTE TO READER: I thought I would put this out here because it sets forth a position that makes a lot of sense to me, and conforms very well to the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion. In fact, I feel comfortable adopting it for my own at this stage in my theological life. Enjoy! -Fr. McGrath.]

The number of the sacraments has been reckoned differently at different periods. It is universally agreed that Baptism and the Eucharist stand in a class by themselves. They are distinguished by two marks: an outward and visible sign ordained by Christ Himself, and their necessity to salvation for all men. ("Generally" necessary to salvation does not means "usually", but "universally" necessary).

There are other rites of the Church, mentioned in the New Testament, which are commonly called sacraments. Peter Lombard (about 1150) was the first to define the number of sacraments as seven: Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Penance, and Unction of the Sick. This number is accepted by both the Orthodox and the Roman Communions. The Council of Trent laid down that there are seven sacraments, neither more nor less, all ordained by Christ Himself; but it distinguished the two greater sacraments from the five lesser. [My Note: Trent also anathematized those who make the 7 sacraments of equal importance.]

The Church of England, in Article 25, says that the five "commonly called sacraments" have not like nature of sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper: it does not say that they are not sacraments. ("Commonly called" cannot mean "commonly but wrongly called": compare with "The Nativity of Christ, commonly called Christmas Day" in the BCP!) As far as the article goes, it agrees with the Council of Trent.

That there are seven sacraments is not a dogma, except in the Roman Communion. But it is convenient to speak of seven sacraments: we need not hesitate to do so. It is certain that Confirmation and Ordination are outward visible signs conveying grace; though we have no proof that they were commanded by our Lord Himself, they rest on the authority of the Apostles, directed by the Holy Ghost (Acts viii. 17; II Tim. i. 6). Marriage is called a sacrament because St. Paul calls it "a great mystery", (mysterion) being the Greek word for sacrament. Some have denied that Penance is a sacrament, because it has no outward sign; others, that Unction is a sacrament, because it is for the healing of the body. (I am inclined to think, with some medieval writers, that the Anointing of a King [I Kings i.39; etc.] is a true sacrament conveying grace.)

But though there are differences about the precise number of the sacraments, it is necessary to hold that Confirmation, Ordination, Matrimony, Penance or Absolution, and Unction are means by which God's grace is bestowed upon us, ex opere operato; that is, that the reception of Divine grace is guaranteed in these cases by a Divine promise.

Luther taught that there were only three sacraments, the same three which, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, are necessary to salvation: Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance.