For many Christians, sacraments are really important. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others often emphasize how precious their sacraments are, and sometimes criticize other church traditions for not being “sacramental” enough. There is a lot of disagreement on what a sacrament is though: Catholic teaching states that there are seven sacraments, whereas most Protestants argue that there are two – baptism and communion – and eastern Orthodoxs usually claim that there are countless! The Catholic council of Trent states that both the Protestant and eastern Orthodox views are unacceptable, condemning anyone who says that there are “more, or less, than seven” sacraments.
This is just ridiculous. Jesus and the apostles never talked about “sacraments”. Yes, they baptized, broke the bread, annointed the sick and so on, but they never grouped these activities in one category of “sacraments”. Nothing in the Scriptures indicates that communion and baptism had any other role or importance than other things Jesus commanded His disciples to do, like helping the poor, pray and share the Gospel.
“Sacrament” is really a creative Latin translation of the Greek term mysterion, a word that does appear in the Scriptures never referring to church activities but to the Gospel (e.g. Col 4:3, 1 Tim 3:16). The one responsible for the translation was Tunisian church father Tertullian (155-240 AD), who often was creative with his translations (“sacrament” didn’t really mean mystery but rather referred to an oath), and he used it when describing baptism because he thought that baptism was a mystery.
So far so good. However, another African church father, Augustine, took some more freedoms with the word around 200 years later, using it as a category to include not just baptism but also communion, the Nicene creed and the Lord’s prayer. He was also the first arguing that a sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace, which of course is true for those things but not exclusive to them – Bibles, sermons and a hug can also be visible signs of invisible grace.
700 years later, in the twelth century, theologian Peter Lombard in Paris decided that there are seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, annointing the sick, marriage and ordinance. The Catholic church recognized it as its doctrine some 300 years later and, as we saw, condemned Protestants and Orthodoxs who didn’t agree as anathema.
Now, the Protestant definition isn’t much better, because the caegory of “sacraments” is still unbiblical even if one narrows it down to two things. I’m not saying that baptism and communion are unbiblical, but placing them in a seperate, sacred ategory apart from other things Jesus commanded us to do, is.
The Augsburg Confession, which dictates Lutheran doctrine, states: “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” Since street evangelism, helping the poor or healing aren’t viewed as sacraments, these things are suddenly optional or even unnecessary, because what defines a Lutheran church is whether the priest preaches correctly and arranges baptisms and communion. To first pick a few Biblical commands, call them “sacraments”, and then argue that it is they, not necessarily other things that Jesus told us to do, that defines the church is a bad way of following Jesus.
Let me use an analogy. Say that a theologian called Bob, who lives 1100 years after Jesus, suddenly states “There are four holy clonky-clonks that the church should do: prayer, fasting, helping strangers and drinking wine. Then, 400 years later, a guy called Max comes and say “No! There are two clonky-clonks: fasting and prayer!” Then they violently argue against each other, condeming each other to hell, and neither care very much about other things that the Bible says are important, like baptism and communion, because clonky-clonks is suddenly what the church really is about.
God bless sacramental churches, but their focus has quite often made them very bad at things like evangelism or Spiritual gifts. It’s time to get rid of the confusing and dividing term “sacraments”, and instead focus on everything Jesus said that we should do.