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How Many Sacraments? follow-up

My replies to Bradley's questions ended up being rather too expansive for the comments section, so I figured I'd best just make it another post.


1. Perhaps we can think of Unction like a mini-baptism. Or more accurately, like a metaphorical baptism. It heals a man and thereby brings him back to meet with God's people on Sunday. It restores fellowship and strengthens it as we all pray for our sick brother. And it's quite clearly a redemptive act (healing the sick is part of the redemptive narrative, right?). I think Unction fits in quite nicely with your definition.

Thanks. I think that works well. I figured that something like that could be found with a bit more attention to the problem, which I didn’t have time to give before. Of course, this does make me wonder again whether we could start finding an example of these five criteria in other rites that haven’t been traditionally considered sacraments, which makes me a little leery.

2. You define sacraments as actions "...carried out by lawfully ordained ministers of the Church." I'm not sure this should be a strict part of the definition. Sure, *some* sacraments can only be carried out by ministers, but not all of them. What about baptism? Lay baptisms are valid. Certainly not preferable, but valid and sacramental just the same. Even Roman Catholics accept them (I just made a short blogpost about that, actually). Perhaps it'd be simpler to say, "a ritual enactment carried out by the Church."


This is a fair point…though the Roman Catholics, I think, would like to articulate this in terms of lay baptisms only being valid because this authority has been specifically delegated from the lawfully ordained ministers, so that sacraments still remain under the exclusive authority of the ordained ministers. At least, that’s my impression, and I’m not sure which direction I’d like to go on this myself. But sure, your definition works, especially since it guards against the main thing I was trying to guard against, which was any Christian just taking it upon himself to carry out the ritual and calling it a sacrament.

3. I don't agree with your fourth "in which." You say a sacrament must "restructure in some way the relations within the whole community of believers"? Why? Why can't a sacrament just bless one individual at a time, and thereby bless the whole community of believers?

Well, I included this because traditionally this has been a way of trying to limit the sacraments to only two. The Eucharist and Baptism, it is said, are rituals that are common to all believers, that belong to the whole covenant people, whereas marriage, unction, and ordination, at least, are received only by certain members. I’m not certain that the participation of the whole community is necessary for the definition of a sacrament but since it has often been insisted upon, I wanted to see if, using that criterion, the other five could still fit in. Thus I used the language of “restructuring” which I intend in a rather broad sense—“altering the relationships within the body of believers, either between all and all (as in the Eucharist) or between one and all the rest (as in Baptism, Ordination, Confirmation). When you look at it that way, it is clear to me that, for at least six of them (and quite possibly for Unction) as you mentioned, the whole body participates in the ritual act and is changed thereby. And if this so, I don’t see why we should want to take it out of the definition.

4. I think my definition of the word "sacrament" is wider than yours. But what's the difference? How is that any better or worse than folks who strictly teach only two sacraments? Every Presbyterian wedding I've attended has had a Minister of the Church presiding; what does it matter if they don't call it a sacrament? It works out the same anyway. Plenty of Baptist Ministers perform Unction, they just wouldn't call it a sacrament. So long as we have a sacramental view of the world, why does it matter how narrowly or broadly we define the noun "sacrament"? I enjoy this discussion--like I do any theological discussion--but I have difficulty seeing its applications. Practically speaking, I can see that it might influence what we incorporate into our worship service on Sunday, but that's about it. (Remember, this paragraph is a question.)

Yes, this is the key question. I agree that, since, Biblically, no strict definition is offered (indeed, the concept or category is not even clearly given in the Bible), then we should, in principle, be able to be flexible about the terms we use, as long as we can agree about the realities involved. That seemed to be one of Dr. Leithart’s tentative conclusions. But there’s at least two problems with that apparently simple solution. The first is that, although, if we were starting from scratch, with just the Bible, we might be relatively free to categorize and define these rites in a number of different ways, we’re not. We cannot pretend as if Church history has had nothing to say about this matter…for better or for worse, the Church thought it important to come up with a theological category here, and to treat certain things as belonging in that category, and other things as not belonging. There has not always been agreement about the conclusions of the discussion, but the terms of the discussion have been rather constant…rarely have more than seven rites come under consideration, and rarely have numbers between two and seven been proposed (though occasionally they have been). We have the freedom, I think, to venture toward new ways of discussing these issues (is “sacrament” a helpful category? What other terms might be valuable? Are there more than seven rites of this sort?) but we cannot be so bold as to do this unless we have first been willing to grapple with the question in the terms that have come down to us, and have tried to make sense of what the traditions that have come down with us were trying to say by their affirmations or denials on this issue.
Second (and here is the biggie, which preoccupies me a good deal)—naming matters. This is rather obvious when we encounter questions such as gay marriage…both sides in the debate realize that it really does matter whether we name what is going on “marriage.” The same is true here, especially because the terms have such a long history of theological usage by the Church. The problem is that, when the Reformers denied that marriage was a sacrament, for example, they were not intending to say, “Oh yes, it’s a sacred rite with all these features—corporate act by the Church, channel of God’s blessing, picture of God’s redemptive work, etc., etc., we just would prefer not to call it a sacrament.” No, they were saying, “Uh-uh. It’s a secular contract, it is not an act of the Church per se, it does not have these distinctively sacred features…the Church need have little or nothing to do with it”—the intent was to change the social meaning of marriage, and they succeeded. And many would still agree with that view of it, Pastor Wilson included. So there’s a lot of baggage attached to the desacramentalization of marriage, and it’s not that easy to just say, “Oh, we’re going to reattach all the sacred significance and make it a responsibility of the Church again, but we’ll continue to avoid using the language of sacrament.”
It is instructive to note that, with the other rites, like Confirmation, Penance, Ordination, Unction, etc., although the intent was not to say “Let’s get rid of them,” but rather, “Oh, they’re still important rites that we want the Church to keep doing, they’re just not sacraments,” they rapidly disappeared after their desacramentalization. Ordination has still held on in a very watered-down form, though many sects have tried to dispense with it, confirmation hangs on in certain traditions, but not others, unction is rare, and penance almost nonexistence. So, naming is important. For whatever reason, Protestants have been very hard-pressed to maintain much of the meaning and practice of these rites, once they took away the name. So I tend to think it is safest to return to the ancient landmarks.
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