Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Better Way to Define the Sacraments

In scholastic theology, sacraments have been defined by their category of having a visible sign or action associated with them. The theological question then becomes the relationship of the visible sign (water in baptism, for example) to the grace imparted. Herman Sasse, for one, has criticized this mode of argumentation for starting with a genus (sacrament) and then arguing from the genus "sacrament" to the characteristics of the species (say, baptism)

Near the end of Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church (most easily available in his Three Treatises), he too offers a similar definition. He argues that there are only two sacraments, since only baptism and the Lord's Supper have the defining characteristics of a sacrament, that is, a divine (i.e. Biblical) promise of grace, and a visible sign. Absolution has a divine promise, but lacks a visible sign and is hence not a sacrament. This has generally been followed in Evangelical theology.

Embedded within the Babylonian Captivity is, I think, actually a better definition, one according to which absolution is indeed a sacrament. Repeatedly, Luther distinguishes between sacramental actions, whose efficacy depends not at all on the faith of the officiant, but only on the faith of the one receiving the sacrament, and prayer, whose efficacy depends not at all on the faith of the one for the prayer is being offered, but only on the faith of the one praying.

Even within a single complex of actions Luther holds that this distinction must be maintained. Thus in the Lord's Supper, the communicants receive the forgiveness of sins with the body and blood of Christ, regardless of the faith of the pastor. But if the pastor at the Lord's Supper is a faithful pastor and prays in faith (say, for bodily healing, for salvation of a certain person, for relief from natural disaster), then the object of that prayer (the sick person, the unbeliever, the disaster victims) will be helped regardless of his or her faith, indeed even without his or her knowledge. Similarly, while a baptized child receives the benefits of baptism solely by faith in the sacramental action, without any need for saving faith on the part of the pastor, Luther says that the prayer of the church for the newly baptized child, if done in sincere faith toward God, can convert that child and sustain his or her faith.

(What is the connection of the sacrament and the prayers then? Those who pray are partakers in the sacrament -- receiving that promise then builds their faith to offer sincere prayers for their neighbors, who may not have faith yet.)

In other words: in a sacramental action, faith is needed only by the receiver of the action, not the doer. But in a non-sacramental action, faith is needed only by the doer of the action, not the receiver.

This definition eliminates entirely the whole need to distinguish what each sacrament's visible sign is, how it is or is not efficacious, and so on. All communication of God with man is by promise and faith. In the sacrament, as in Gospel preaching, this promise is directly given by God (through the mere agency of man) for us to have faith in. In prayer, we seek, in accordance with God's promise, the benefit of our neighbor through asking God to help them -- whether they are believers and have faith or not.

By this definition, absolution is definitely a sacrament, since the promise of absolution is entirely irrespective of the absolver and depends wholly on the faith of the one absolved.

Perhaps Luther wished to preserve the visible sign definition, because it yielded a number for the sacraments even lower (only two, as opposed to three) than that of the Roman Catholic seven. But in terms of the structure of his sacramental theology, his focus in the Babylonian Captivity on where there is the need for faith seems a far more faith-and-works, rightly divided, and Evangelical way to define the place of sacraments than the presence or absence of a visible sign.

For a general introduction to my series on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and a guide to the posts so far, see here.