In this, the 70th Episode of CS , we take a look at Sacramentalism; a mindset that dominated the religious landscape of late Medieval Christianity.
The question that consumed Europeans of the Middle Ages was, “How can I be saved? What must I believe and do that will preserve my soul from the torments of hell?”
Rome answered that with what’s called Sacramentalism.
Now, let me be clear; the basic answer was, “Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.” But the Church went on to define what that trust looked like with a set of rules and required practices. Yes, people are saved by grace through faith, but that grace is received by special acts only authorized clergy may conduct. These acts were called “sacraments” from the word “sacred” meaning holy. But there was a specific flavor to the word sacrament that carried the idea of mystery. Precisely HOW the sacraments communicated grace was unknown, while that they did was a certainty. So while salvation was by grace, one had to go to the Church to get that grace. The sacraments were channels of grace and necessary food of the soul. They accompanied human life from the cradle to the grave. An infant was ushered into the world by the sacrament of Baptism while the dying were sent on their way out by the sacrament of Extreme Unction.
While all the sacraments were important, the most essential were Baptism and the Eucharist.
Baptism was thought to open the door to the Kingdom of Heaven by removing the stain of original sin. But that door to glory was only opened. The baptized needed to follow up their baptism as an infant with later sacraments like Confirmation, Marriage and others. So important was baptism, in an emergency, when an infant appeared to be in distress and a bishop wasn’t close enough to perform the rite, the Church allowed the nearest available pious person to baptize.
The Lord’s Table, Communion, or as it’s referred to by some churches, the Eucharist, was the sacrament of grace by which people nourished and nurtured their spirits and progressed in sanctification.
Besides these, other rites were called sacraments, but until the time of the Scholastics, there was little agreement as to the proper number. Before the Scholastics, the number of sacraments varied from four to twelve.
Bernard of Clairvaux listed ten and including foot-washing and the ordaining or as it was called, “investiture” of bishops and abbots. Abelard named only five. A mystic theologian named Hugo of St. Victor also gave five but went on to suggested thirty possible means by which the Church dispensed special grace. Hugo divided the sacraments into three classes,—
First were the sacraments necessary for salvation; Baptism and the Eucharist.
Second were those which sanctified the worshipper and made spiritual progress possible. This includes holy water and the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
A third class prepared the way for the other sacraments.
Though Thomas Aquinas listed seven sacraments, he recognized some of the lesser rites as quasi-sacramental in character.
The uncertainty concerning the number of the sacraments was a heritage from the Church Fathers. Augustine defined any sacred rite as a sacrament. In 1179, the Third Lateran Council used the term in a wide sense to include the investiture of bishops and burial. The Catholic Church today makes a distinction between certain sacred rites, called sacramentalia, and the seven sacraments. Aquinas gave as the reason for the proper number to be seven—saying that three is the number of Deity, four of creation, and seven represents union of God and man. A rather interesting “reason” for the supreme Scholastic to make since it sounds far more like the work of one of the Mystics.
Following the inquisitive nature of the Scholastics however, ingenious and elaborate attempts were made to correlate the seven sacraments to all the areas of mankind’s spiritual need. They were understood as undoing the Fall and its effects.
Seven corresponds to the seven classic virtues. Bonaventura allegorized the sacraments to a military career. He said the sacraments furnish grace for the spiritual struggle and strengthened the warrior on the various stages of his/her conflict. Baptism equips him on entering the conflict, confirmation encourages him in its progress, extreme unction helps him at the finish, the Eucharist and penance renew his strength, ordination introduces new recruits into the ranks, and marriage prepares men to be recruits. Augustine compared the sacraments to the badges and rank conferred upon a soldier, a comparison Thomas Aquinas adopted from him.
By the authority of the well-regarded Peter the Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, seven was chosen as the sacred number. The seven sacraments are Baptism, Confirmation, Penance which includes confession and absolution, Eucharist, Marriage, Ordination, and Extreme Unction; sometimes called Last Rites.
Confirmation was closely connected with baptism as a kind of supplement. It was a way for someone who’d been baptized as an infant to personally appropriate the faith of his/her parents by endorsing baptism as their own choice. They “confirmed” their faith in God and His Church. In the Greek Church, Confirmation can be performed by any priest, but in the Latin church, only by a bishop.
Penance was deemed necessary for sins committed after Baptism and Confirmation. The penitent confessed his/her sins to a priest, who then prescribed certain acts that were understood to mark genuine repentance, such as praying the rosary or performing some compensatory act that rectified the error. Either upon completion of the penance, or in anticipation of its completion, the priest would announce the confessor absolved of the confessed sins. Being thus morally and spiritual clean the penitent was qualified to partake of the Eucharist.
Ordination is the sacrament by which priests are authorized to their office.
Marriage lies at the basis of the family and society in Church and State, and the rite of marriage was jealously guarded by the Church against any and all forces that would weaken it. The Church sanctioned marriage and it was to the Church one had to appeal to have a marriage annulled.
In the Middle Ages, ordination and marriage were mutually exclusive. Since priests were to be celibate, they were ordained, and since lay people weren’t ordained, they were provided the sacrament of marriage. The idea back of both was the sense of divine call and fitting to the role each was to play in the plan of God.
Extreme unction was first mentioned as a sacrament in the Synod of Pavia in 850. Originally it was a special prayer for someone gravely ill. It was meant to replace the use of amulets and incantations and could be applied by both laymen and priests. Later, priests alone were permitted to offer it and it was only given to those about to die.
The Scholastics taught that the effectiveness of the sacraments were ex opere operato, meaning that their virtue as channels of special grace were inherent in them and independent of the moral character of the priest or recipient. The only requirement was that they be performed in the proper manner with right intent.
If this sounds familiar, you may remember the Donatist controversy that so incensed Augustine. The Donatists of North Africa insisted that Baptism and Communion, the only sacraments or ordinances they recognized, were invalid if performed by a derelict priest or unqualified bishop. Augustine upheld the idea that the sacraments carried inherent virtue. His ideas shaped the theological base of Sacramentalism.
Thomas Aquinas said the sacrament imparts its virtue without the operation of faith on the part of the recipient. Protestant scholars have often claimed the Scholastics ascribed a magical virtue to the sacraments that was unaffected by the attitude of the recipient. But that’s not really their view. Aquinas said it was the activity of God that made the sacrament efficacious, not the rite as divorced from Him. The Scholastics maintained Christ gave the Sacraments to the Church, to give to the people as a way to convey saving and sanctifying grace. Only the duly ordained church hierarchy of Pope, Cardinals, bishops and priests, possess the power to administer the sacraments. Under Sacramentalism, salvation is by Christ alone, but through the mediation of the Church.
This is why and how the Medieval Church was able to exert such tight control over the lives of the people of Europe. They were the spiritual gatekeepers of heaven, declaring who was in and who was out.
To the mediaeval mind, the sacraments were essential food of the religious life, and, in building up the sacramental system, the mediaeval theologian thought he was strengthening the Church. In the authority to administer them lay the power of the priesthood to open and shut the kingdom of heaven.
Duns Scotus, whose opinions were set aside by the Church for those of Thomas Aquinas, insisted that God can confer grace apart from the sacraments, and their efficacy is dependent on the will of the recipient. Scotus said the sacraments acted indirectly. They weren’t supernatural vehicles of saving or sanctifying grace. They were symbols used to affect a change of heart and mind in someone so an opening could be made for God’s grace.
The relation the priest sustains to the sacraments is a vital one, and except in extraordinary cases his administration of the rites is essential. As already said, their effectiveness doesn’t depend upon the priest’s personal character; it’s only important that he perform them according to proper procedure. An immoral priest can confer sacramental grace. To use the mediaeval illustration, pure water may be conveyed through a lead pipe as well as thru a silver. The priest acts in the name of the Church, and in uttering the sacramental formula gives voice to the Christ-ordained authority of the Church. That’s enough for bestowing a perfect sacrament.
Bonaventura said that in the event of an emergency, when a sacrament was necessary but a priest wasn’t available, the ritual could be performed by laymen outside the Church, IF the recipient then re-enacted the rite within the Church as soon as possible.
Three of the sacraments; baptism, confirmation, and ordination, were thought to confer an indelible mark on the soul. Once baptized, always baptized. Once confirmed, forever confirmed. Once ordained, permanently ordained. However, in extreme cases, the state these marks ushered one into could be forfeited by becoming an apostate and being excommunicated.
While Sacramentalism dominated the theology and practice of the Medieval Church, the Reformers set about to dismantle it. They claimed it was based on a faulty interpretation of Scripture. Martin Luther called Sacramentalism the Church’s Babylonish captivity, in which the rights and liberty of believers were fettered by the traditions of men.
In our next episode we’ll take a look at another theological strain that operated at this time – The Medieval Mystics.
As we end, I want to once more thank those who’ve donated to CS to help defray the cost of maintaining the site and server. Every bit helps.