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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. (more…)