The Sacraments

The great tumult of the early sixteenth century that gave birth to Protestantism was not simply about how ideas are developed or what those ideas might be. It concerned actions—the way in which the Christian faith was manifested through the worship of the church in a series of rites that were held to be of particular importance to affirming the identity of the Christian faith, the place of the church in the scheme of salvation, and the deepening of faith and commitment on the part of the individual Christian. These rites are traditionally known as "sacraments."20

The word "sacrament" needs an explanation. The word comes from the Latin term sacramentum, meaning "something that is consecrated." The word was regularly used in the church to refer to a series of rites or ordinances that were regarded as having special spiritual qualities, such as the ability to convey the grace of God. In secular Roman use, the term had come to mean "a sacred oath" sworn by soldiers and state officials. The word "sacrament" is not found in the Bible, although most Protestants were content to retain the term while reinterpreting it in ways they regarded as consistent with the Bible.

So what is a sacrament? That is precisely the question raised during the Reformation, which witnessed a major debate over how a sacrament was to be defined. During the Middle Ages, Catholicism set out a comprehensive view of the ministry of the church that recognized seven sacraments: the mass, baptism, confirmation, ordination, marriage, penance, and unction (anointing with oil). These played a significant role in how the church was experienced by ordinary people—in other words, in how the church manifested itself.

To reform the sacraments was thus to make obvious changes to the life of the church and community. For most laypersons, the main point of contact with the church was through church services on Sundays. The pulpit was one of the most important public platforms of the medieval period for this very reason—hence the desire of both reformers and city councils to control what was said from the pulpit. Yet the church's impact on the people transcended preaching; by far the most important experience for laypersons was the rite or sacrament universally known as "the mass."

By the end of the 1520s, two fundamental changes to existing understandings of sacraments had emerged within Protestantism and achieved widespread consensus throughout the movement.

1. The number of sacraments was reduced from seven to two—the mass (but now generally known by other names) and baptism.

2. Whereas Catholicism allowed the laity to receive only bread at the mass, Protestantism insisted that the entire people of God should be allowed to receive both bread and wine.

Martin Luther argued that a sacrament is essentially an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. The core component of a sacrament is a physical sign that points to a promise on God's part— such as forgiveness of sins, or the hope of eternal life. Yet while all sacraments might be signs, not all signs are sacraments. In his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther argued that a sign can only be regarded as a sacrament if there was an explicit command from Jesus of Nazareth that his followers undertake such an action. Applying this criterion, Luther declared that there were only two sacraments of the Christian gospel—the mass and baptism.

Luther's defense of the principle of "communion in both kinds"— that is, the laity being allowed to receive both bread and wine—is based on his theology of how signs work. The bread and the wine, he argued, are signs of God's grace and forgiveness. To deny the laity access to a sign is tantamount to denying them the greater reality to which the sign points. In addition to lacking biblical warrant, the practice of "communion in one kind" appeared to imply that the laity are excluded from at least some aspect of God's promises of grace and are thus to be regarded as second-class Christians. Since Luther's doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" affirmed the equal spiritual dignity and value of all Christians, this medieval practice was to be rejected as unacceptable.

Yet while consensus was achieved on these two highly significant matters, Protestantism found itself unable to agree on a wide range of additional issues, some of which became so controversial that they occasionally caused, and regularly contributed to, divisions between denominations. Once more, the divisions primarily concerned the interpretation and application of the Bible to the social contexts in which Protestantism found itself.

First, Protestants were agreed that Christians should meet regularly to share bread and wine, as Jesus of Nazareth had commanded, but what was this practice to be called? Luther was prepared to retain the older term "mass" (the Latin term missa literally means "a service"), regarding it as unproblematic if properly explained. Most Protestants, however, held that the word "mass" carried baggage with it from medieval Catholicism and was best discontinued. The New Testament did not prescribe any specific terms for such gatherings, tending to use simple terms like "breaking bread," so there was no obvious alternative. A number of terms were explored, including the Lord's Supper, communion (or Holy Communion), eucharist (from the Greek verb eucha-ristein, "to give thanks"), and remembrance. A less significant disagreement emerged over the word "sacrament," which some found to be too heavily freighted with Catholic assumptions to be acceptable; the term "ordinance" was proposed as an alternative.

Second, a major debate erupted during the 1520s—and continues unresolved to this day—over how the bread and wine relate to the spiritual realities they represent. Luther held that the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ; Zwingli held that they are symbolic representations.21 Other Protestant writers took intermediary positions—for example, Theodore Beza proposed the notion of an "efficacious sign." The serious dispute between Luther and Zwingli raised serious questions about the clarity of scripture: how could the Bible be "clear" when such totally different understandings were defended by leading Protestants on the basis of the same biblical texts?

Third, Protestants found themselves unable to agree on how often Christians should gather to break bread and drink wine. The New Testament gave no explicit ruling on the matter. The history of the early church strongly suggested that this gathering had rapidly become the main worship event of the church, taking place every Sunday. Luther retained this practice; Zwingli suggested that it was such a solemn event that it should be commemorated three or four times a year. Once more, Protestant writers have positioned themselves at various points on a spectrum of possibilities. The Church of England followed Zwingli's pattern until the nineteenth century, when the rise of the High Church "Oxford Movement" laid the foundations for reverting to the more ancient Christian practice of weekly celebration.

Other lesser debates concerning this sacrament may be noted in passing. Given that a sermon was invariably preached on these occasions, a debate arose over the relative importance of the sermon and the sacrament. Which took priority? Luther integrated the two superbly, speaking of the "ministry of the word" and the "ministry of the sacrament"; others, however, took different views. Another debate arose over concerns about whether the administration of wine to the laity might encourage alcohol addiction. Many Protestant groups thus stipulate that the "juice of the grape," not wine, should be administered at communion services. A further debate concerned whether there should be a common cup from which all would drink or whether the wine (or grape juice) should be administered in a separate vessel for each communicant. And should communion be open to all (a policy sometimes known as the "open table) or limited to those who had been properly instructed and admitted to full membership in their churches?

A further major debate developed within early Protestantism concerning the sacrament of baptism. Should infants be baptized? The historical evidence indicates that the church began baptizing the infants of Christian parents at a very early stage. The practice is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, although it is possible that references to the baptism of "households" (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Corinthians 1:16) might include children. The mainline reformers regarded infant baptism as a thoroughly authentic Christian practice and commended and practiced it. They did so, however, for different reasons. Luther regarded infant baptism as the means by which God brought about faith in individuals. For Luther, baptism was the cause of faith. Zwingli, on the other hand, saw it as a sign of the covenant between God and the church. Anabaptism regarded the practice as completely without biblical warrant. At no point, they argued, did the New Testament instruct Christians to baptize infants. Baptism was to be restricted to believing adults who were capable of making a confession of faith.

These differences led to a clear divergence within Protestantism on this matter, with important implications for the life of the church. The Church of England, for example, baptizes infants by the sprinkling of water. Since the infant cannot make promises of faith, "godparents" are selected to ensure that the infant grows up within the Christian faith, until they are ready to confess that faith for themselves. At this point, they are admitted to full membership in the church through confirmation.

Baptists, following their Anabaptist forebears, reject infant baptism. James Robinson Graves (1820-93), probably the most significant intellectual force in the early period of the Southern Baptist Convention, argued that only confessing believers should be baptized and that this baptism should take the form of total immersion.

A wide variety of attitudes toward the sacraments can be seen within Protestantism, and it is very difficult to see how any of these can be regarded as "definitive" for the movement. Lutheranism and sections of Anglicanism give particular emphasis to the importance of sacraments, stressing the interconnectedness of the ministries of the word and sacrament. Luther refused to accept any notion of either baptism or the Lord's Supper that saw them simply as external signs; to him, any such teaching was a gross distortion of the biblical witness. Luther's views, however, were regarded as dangerously close to those of Catholicism by many of his contemporaries within the Swiss wing of the Reformation, and in later Protestantism. The radical divergence within Protestantism on this point can be seen from the famous declaration of the great Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon that the idea of baptismal regeneration was a "deceitful invention of Anti-Christ."

The dominant—but not exclusive, nor even characteristic—tendency within Protestantism has been to see the sacraments as signs that point to the greater spiritual realities that lie beyond them but are not actually contained in them. This view can be seen as part of the tendency to "desacralize" the world, which writers such as Max Weber came to see as characteristic of Protestantism. Nature in itself cannot be seen as sacred; at best, it can point beyond itself to the realm of the divine or transcendent. Nature has been "disenchanted"; it can only play a symbolical role in reminding people of sacred realities or act as a signpost to where those realities may be found and encountered.

This position is seen at its most consistent in the theology of Huldrych Zwingli, who had a considerable impact on many sections of Protestantism. Zwingli's theology presupposes a fundamental separation of secular reality and sacred significance—a development that Charles Taylor has described as the "great disembedding."22 Zwingli subtly converted the sacraments from manifestations and disclosures of the sacred to communal signs of corporate allegiance. The idea of a "sacral society" was reinterpreted as membership in a covenantal community, and the sacraments as pledges toward that community.

Zwingli therefore tended to use political or social analogies for the sacraments, stressing in particular their role in fostering social cohesion and a sense of belonging to the community. A disconnection between the "spiritual" and the "secular" was presupposed from the outset. Whereas Luther saw the sacraments as proclaiming and confirming the commitment of God to believers, Zwingli tended to accentuate a somewhat different aspect of the sacraments—namely, the fostering of social cohesion and the confirmation of mutual loyalty within the community.

This trend is important because it points to one of the most significant, yet inadequately understood, aspects of the style of Protestantism that emerged from Zwingli's Zurich, and later from Calvin's Geneva— namely, a way of conceiving the world, the state, and religion that assumes that the "spiritual" or "sacred" cannot be directly encountered but are known indirectly, primarily in a logocentric manner, through personal reading of the Bible and the hearing of sermons on its themes.

It is instructive to consider changing attitudes toward the sacraments within English Protestantism, where the question of their symbolic and ceremonial role came to be of particular importance in the early seventeenth century. While most Elizabethan Protestants were happy to follow continental ideas, especially those of Calvin, their Jacobean and Stuart successors were increasingly aware of the need to symbolize the interaction and interpenetration of the sacred and secular. The poetry of George Herbert can be seen as an attempt to retain an essentially Calvinist theology of the sacraments, while developing its capacity to promote the church's social and confessional cohesion.23

This decoupling of the sacred from the quotidian, characteristic of certain types of Protestantism, accelerated the rise of a functionally atheist worldview in which God was not regarded as an active participant in the world.24 It is no accident that two sixteenth-century European centers of Calvinism—Geneva and Edinburgh—had become centers of rationalism two centuries later.

We shall have more to say about this development later. Yet it is important to appreciate here that one of the most fundamental characteristics of Pentecostalism is its insistence that the divine may be encountered in the secular realm. Its astonishing success points to the reversal of this trend and the emergence of a new form of Protestantism characterized by its expectation of the direct experience of the spiritual within the mundane.

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