Thursday, March 29, 2007

Two or Seven Sacraments?

Anglicans of various backgrounds have for quite a while argued over whether we have two sacraments or seven. I might as well be very up front and say that the argument for two sacraments gets us into the realm of the ridiculous, the theatre of the absurd. Furthermore, if I am wrong about the meaning of Article 25 then the Article is wrong, and that is because it would contradict Scripture and Right Reason beyond any doubt, as I shall demonstrate. If I am right about the Article itself, well then, Anglicanism did not err. However, we do not have to live with the meaning of all the Articles, only with what they say. That’s good, because they were meant to be unintelligible to the point where that deliberately vague quality could prevent civil war.

Now, why does the argument for two sacraments take us into the theatre of the absurd? And should I dare to be so bold as to risk causing offense? First of all, we must define what a sacrament is. It is a means of grace that is charismatic in nature, and therefore depends upon the Holy Spirit. In a sacrament it is God who works through the material world by making use of the Form, Matter and Intention provided to the Church. The Bible never comes out and says this. Instead it simply demonstrates that God has always worked this way, not only in the New Testament, but as far back as the Book of Genesis. (When Saint Paul described marriage as a mystery in Eph. 5:32, he took all the air out of the low Church room, since he called it a musterion.)

According to the Low Church view, the way that the Catechism sheds light on this is by adding to the definition of the word "sacrament" the stipulation that, to be a sacrament, a charismatic work of God by means of Form, Matter and Intention through the Church must also be “generally necessary for salvation.” Really, that was a new twist, assuming that it was ever meant that way at all. So, even with the Bible demonstrating the very real charismatic nature of 1) ordination (II Tim. 1:6), 2) the anointing (James 5:14f), 3) absolution (John 20: 23), 4) confirmation (Acts 8: 17, 18), and 5) marriage (Eph. 5: 32- think about it, just think about it- musterion), we cannot call them sacraments any more because, in the 16th Century, somebody decided arbitrarily to change the definition, to add a new meaning to an old word without universal consent? Yes, that is ridiculous and absurd. To say that we do not have seven sacraments is to contradict what the Bible says, even if it were, somehow, “authentic Anglicanism.”

As for the rest of what the Article says (and what I said it said) about Communion, it is simply a fact of history that the English Reformers wanted very much to correct the practice of “hearing” Mass without receiving the sacrament. Why should it be a strange thing and a wonder that I am aware of this when reading about the purpose of the sacrament in Article 25?


poetreader said...

My reaction to all this is, "Only seven?" There are indeed two chief sacraments, which may be described as 'generally necessary to salvation'. But I know of no use of the Latin 'Sacramentum' or of the Greek 'Mysterion' which is restricted to these two. The same might be said BTW of the hyper-Protestant insistence on 'Ordinances'. None of these terms are logically that exclusive, but even appear to say more than Protestants would allow them to. Are even the seven to be seen as the only "outward and visible sign[s] of an inward and spiritual grace"? These seven have been identified by the Church as sacraments, and the term itself seems never to have been more closely defined than that before the Reformation, and even Luther preached at least three (including "The Office of the Keys", or Confession). Moreover, the sacramental principle is so much a central part of the Faith that an almost identical role has been given to many things and actions through the centuries and millenia, from icons to holy water and even relics. The transcendent God is so very immanent, and the veil so very thin that there is no end to the possibilities of the sacramental principle in our definition. Thus the Latin Church has developed the term 'sacramentals' to describe this wider sphere, and the Eastern Church has allowed the term Mystery to spill over in informal ways beyond the seven. How many sacraments are there? "At least seven," I have to say, "and in some respect, perhaps yet more."


ACC Member said...

Denying that the Sacraments exist is in fashion among Protestants now as much as ever. A prominent Methodist official informed me recently that there is no such thing as a Bishop in the scripture!(I wonder why the sciptures use the word so often if there is no such thing! lol) He let me know that(in his opinion-and that of the UMC)there is no such thing as a tactile succession. He informed me that a bishop os just an elected supervising Elder; and that Ordination is just a "commissioning" by the church and means nothings in the eyes of God. That, in ordination, or confirmation, no spiritual grace is even conferred. I know that many Protestants have always believed that. I was shocked that a UMC official was saying such a thing. They certainly didn't use to think such apostasy. Father John Wesley would be shocked, I'm sure. He begged the English government to send a bishop to America for the Methodists after the Revolution!

Anonymous said...

Augustine saw almost everything that went on during services as sacramental. I agree with Augustine.

Anonymous said...

I have just placed my own, rather "cross-grained," comment over at the "Reformed Catholic" blog. wjt

Fr. Robert Hart said...

If we insist on redefining the word "dog' in such a way that, to be a dog, the animal has to be a French Poodle, we can then speak of why there is only one species of Dog. But, God is not the author of confusion, so I don't suppose we have any right to make a doctrine out of the one species of Dog theory.

If the Reformers really were teaching that there are only two sacraments, then they descended to this level of silliness.

Laurence K Wells said...

I seriously doubt that any of us could say anything new on the threadbare question of Two vs Seven.

But I strongly suspect that Protestants of the Reformed camp strenously insist on their "Two" simply because they are basically uncomfortable with the sacramental dimension of Biblical faith. Some of their own best theologians (and how many they truly have!) have pointed out that Protestantism, especially in its Reformed expression, is shot through with a gnostic-Manichaean dislike of material things, which makes them uneasy with the very idea that God can communicate His saving love by means of nasty material things like water, bread, and wine. Karl Barth, after years of rejecting Infant Baptism, shortly before his death concluded that the very idea of a sacrament was Biblically impermissible. (Had he lived longer, he might have rejected the Incarnation as well.) More extreme Protestants of the Baptistic type go the full distance and repudiate the word sacrament from their vocabulary, substituting "ordinance." Even more extreme Protestants, Salvationists and Quakers, dispense with these ceremonies altogether (although Salvationists occasionally baptize).

So when I argue with a Protestant I do not waste time on the Two vs Seven debate. Its better to get down to brass tacks and discuss what a sacrament is anyhow and what, if anything, does a sacrament contribute to the whole economy of salvation. If the sacraments have any reality about them, then Seven is no problem. But where Two is the limit, there is probably something seriously amiss in the basic concept of a sacrament.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Hart,
All domestic dogs are one species--I think you meant breed rather than species.

As far as the Article goes rather than splitting hairs on the English version (which is fraught with the problems of an evolving, living language) why have you learned men not been discussing the "official" theological text in Latin? In some ways it seems clearer to me in my poor broken understanding of the Latin text. And, no one seems to have read (or at least admit to having read) Bicknell's reasonable writings on this article.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

But where Two is the limit, there is probably something seriously amiss in the basic concept of a sacrament.

This point is profound, and exactly where the discussion needs to go. The warning of Saint John in the fourth chapter of his first Epistle was the basis for Chalcedon and Nicea II; and though the Protestant camp does confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, nonetheless, they seem not to like the Incarnation. Many of them still confess it, but step back from it to a safe distance.