Sacraments In Protestant Practice And Faith

Sacraments In Protestant Practice And Faith

by James F. White

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The sacraments were a major factor in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Ever since, they have been an important part of Protestant church life. Major changes have occurred in our time as most traditions have revised their sacramental rites and experienced many changes in sacramental practices. This book traces the most significant practices in the past five


The sacraments were a major factor in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Ever since, they have been an important part of Protestant church life. Major changes have occurred in our time as most traditions have revised their sacramental rites and experienced many changes in sacramental practices. This book traces the most significant practices in the past five centuries, explains how they often led to controversies, and examines the faith that was expressed and experienced in the sacraments. James F. White attempts to depict the whole sweep of Protestant sacramental life, so that an overall picture is possible. And he outlines the possibilities for future developments.

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The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith

By James F. White

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1999 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-03402-4



The term sacramentality is relatively modern. One does not find Reformation treatises using this terminology. Yet there are a number of high-profile issues in the sixteenth century for which this modern term is appropriate. Although this may seem an anachronism, it is also helpful in showing both how much and how little has changed in nearly five centuries of Protestant sacramental life. By sacramentality we mean the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God's love made visible.

It must be borne in mind that sacramentality is not confined to Christianity or even to religion in general. We have seen in our own time efforts to sacramentalize the American flag. For some, competitive sports take on a sacramental character. Football weekends on some college campuses have all the aura of the great holy days of the liturgical year.

Our purpose in this chapter is to describe those factors that unite the sacraments in various Protestant churches. It is natural to begin with the writings of the sixteenth-century Reformers since many of their statements still have a normative quality. But even where nuances have shifted over time, a chronological sequence seems the best way to trace these changes. Thus the sixteenth-century stratum will receive more attention than the strata laid down in subsequent centuries even though only the more recent layers may be operative today.

We begin with a brief survey of the inherited tradition of the church in the West. Then we examine some concerns about the purposes and functions of sacraments in general. This inevitably leads to the question of how many observances are to be counted as sacraments. From there we may survey how the concept of sacramentality has gradually come into its own. All this will give us background for examining the sacraments individually in subsequent chapters.


Most of the leaders of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation were priests. Both they and their flocks were deeply imbued with the sacramental life of the late medieval church of the West. For the most part, the sacramental life of the Eastern churches was not on their screen at all. It was not until the nineteenth century that reliable information about this major segment of Christianity began to be readily available and appreciated, if not appropriated. So we are dealing with the legacy of the Western half of Christianity only.

By the sixteenth century, the public worship life of Christian laity in the West was almost monopolized by the sacraments. Clergy and members of religious orders might recite the daily offices of prayer in community or, increasingly, in private. A few laypersons might own and use in private books called primers with devotional materials largely from the psalter. But these were for the literate and the affluent. The public worship of the village or city focused on the sacraments, particularly the mass.

One's entire life from cradle to grave was ministered to by the sacraments. They formed the basis of pastoral care and provided resources for each stage of life passages as well as for the day-in and day-out journey. By the late Middle Ages, birth was greeted within a very few days by baptism. Marriage was considered a sacrament, and death was preceded by a final anointing and followed by a requiem mass. In between birth and death, one might receive confirmation if a bishop chanced by and throughout life one found a remedy for sin in confession. The mass provided weekly, if not daily, encounter with Christ. Ordination was for the clergy only but they constituted a much higher percent of the population than today, in some cities 10 percent of the population. The sacraments were the chief system of ministering to the people and of sustaining their religious life.

But as with all systems, there were omissions and disfunctions. The system often seemed more efficient for the work of the clergy than for the religious life of the people. The sacraments were in Latin, except for the marriage vows. What participation there was at the mass consisted largely in seeing the consecrated host, the so-called ocular communion. One sixteenth-century bishop said that "it was never meant that the people should indeed hear the Matins or hear the Mass, but be present there and pray themselves in silence." Most people received communion once a year and councils had to urge them to keep even this minimum. Baptism was largely a private family ceremony, increasingly performed with a minimum of water. Confession was mandated yearly but had moved increasingly into a perfunctory juridical mode with no sense of community. Protestants were not the only critics of sacramental practice; the Council of Trent (1545--1563) called for an end to all that smacked of "'avarice,' ... 'irreverence' ... [and] 'superstition'" in the mass.

From the late fourteenth century onwards, a covert form of rebellion preceded the Reformation in the form of the devotio moderna. This was a move of piety inward, disputing the necessity, if not the efficacy, of the outward and visible sacraments. By no means a repudiation of the sacraments, it was an appeal to what seemed a more immediate reality of inward encounter with the risen Lord. Although not necessarily a precursor of the Reformation, the devotio moderna had many characteristics in common with movements that surfaced in the sixteenth century.

Increasingly, the sacraments had been the subject of intellectual debate. Some of this was necessitated by the proliferation of miraculous stories of bleeding hosts, kneeling donkeys, and Jews converted by the consecrated hosts. For the first eight hundred years, there had been no systematic treatise on what believers experienced in the eucharist. For nearly twelve hundred years, there had been no consensus even on how many sacraments there were. Augustine had mentioned several dozen. But this freedom had come to an end in the thirteenth century with the scholastic urge to define things. A major impetus came through what became the standard theological textbook, The Sentences, written about 1150 by Peter Lombard, briefly bishop of Paris. Lombard tells us that "the sacraments of the new law ... are: baptism, confirmation, the bread of blessing, that is, the eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, marriage." Yet as late as 1179, the Third Lateran Council mentioned "enthronement of ecclesiastical persons or the institution of priests, ... burying the dead" as sacraments.

This freedom of interpretation was ended by the later scholastics. The seven that Lombard enumerated became definitive, and the Catholic Council of Trent said no "more, or less, than seven." Lombard had said that extreme unction "is said to have been instituted by the apostles" (James 5). A momentous shift occurred in the thirteenth-century agreement that all seven were instituted by God. Thomas Aquinas tells us that "since, therefore, the power of the sacraments is from God alone, it follows that God alone can institute the sacraments." This statement was taken with utmost seriousness by the Protestant Reformers. The freedom that had prevailed for three-fifths of church history to speak of a wide range of activities as sacraments and not have to base them on institution by God had ended in the thirteenth century. Augustine could call the ashes of Ash Wednesday a sacrament; by the thirteenth century one could not.

And the scholastics, in trying to fit all seven sacraments into a pro-crustean bed of form (words), matter (physical elements), and minister had imposed on them definitions which were not intrinsic to them. What is the matter of marriage except the conjugal act, which was rather difficult for the church to perform? And if each sacrament had to have a precise form, does that not render actions and prayers essentially indifferent? The way was open to a sacramental minimalism in which baptism could be valid even if performed with a medicine dropper. The sign value of the acts and matter was basically indifferent.

A more serious problem lies in the fact that abstract theology now shapes experience rather than vice versa. It may be optimistic to say that in earlier periods the experience of the divine in the sacraments had shaped reflection upon them. But the scholastics, in their rational probing into the effects of grace in each sacrament, reversed the equation that praying shapes believing. Very likely this shift never happened in the East, which to this day has refused to define how many sacraments there are or the precise operation of grace in them. When Aquinas defines "the principal effect of this sacrament [extreme unction]" as "the remission of sin as to its remnants," that becomes how anointing is experienced. The experience of the sacraments by sixteenth-century Christians was thoroughly shaped by the intellectual baggage they brought to church with them. And this formed a major part of the inheritance of the Reformation from the medieval church.


It is only in recent times that rather abstract treatises have been written on the purposes of sacraments in general. Most Protestant writers on the subject have been more concerned to correct existing practices or to encourage certain forms of piety. And no one writes hymns about sacraments in general!

At the same time, by examining proposed reforms, we can detect across the centuries various purposes coming to the forefront and motivating change. Thus we shall be looking at matters usually incidental to writers' intentions but nonetheless echoing like a recurring theme through their arguments for reform.

The most significant document in Protestant reforms of the sacramental system was Martin Luther's treatise The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, first published on October 6, 1520, in Latin. It had been foreshadowed by a series of three sermons on penance, baptism, and the eucharist the previous year. They are relatively mild teaching sermons. A more radical tone appears in A Treatise on the New Testament, That Is, the Holy Mass, written in June or early July of 1520 and published in July. Luther begins to attack various abuses such as misconceptions about the mass as sacrifice, masses for the dead, withholding the cup from the laity, and the words of institution said silently. By September, when he was writing The Babylonian Captivity, his thought had developed even farther.

The Babylonian Captivity stands as the most important single treatise shaping all Protestant sacramental life. It articulates concerns that are still intact among most Protestants. Though frequently not acknowledging the source, virtually all Protestant theologians reflect the treatise's main points. It is not surprising that it was vigorously opposed by his Catholic contemporaries. The greatest irony is that Henry VIII of England attempted to refute it by a treatise, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, for which he and his successors were given the title "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X in 1521. Obviously, no one foresaw what faith that would be for Henry and all but two or three of his successors!

The very title, Babylonian Captivity, is a very unsubtle reference to the captivity of the Jews in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. But Luther probably knew that Petrarch had also used it to refer to the Avignon papacy during which fourteenth-century popes had moved to France and there were two or three rival popes simultaneously. The image is that the eucharist and the whole sacramental system (save baptism) had been held in bondage to grievous errors of doctrine and practice.

Our concern here is with the positive aspects of this document. Luther did not seek to abolish any of the sacraments although he certainly sought to reform them and determine if they all deserved to be called sacraments. He even speculates whether other things such as prayer, the Word, or the cross might be sacraments since they, too, are based on divine promises.

And that word promise is the key to Luther's understanding of the chief purpose of sacraments. He concludes, after some equivocation about penance, that "it has seemed proper to restrict the name of sacrament to those promises which have signs attached to them."

Sacraments are promises connected to visible signs, and those promises are contained in scripture. They are the explicit words of Christ found only in scripture. Luther concludes that only two meet this test: baptism and the eucharist, "for only in these two do we find both the divinely instituted sign and the promise of forgiveness of sins." Penance lacks the visible sign and is "a return to baptism." The promise focuses on the forgiveness of sins: in the eucharist "the word of divine promise ... sets forth the forgiveness of sins"; with baptism, "the first thing to be considered ... is the divine promise" of salvation through God's forgiveness. The promise is essential to salvation: "For it is not possible to believe unless there is a promise, and the promise is not established unless it is believed. But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments." Sacraments are scriptural promises to which Christ has given a visual sign.

The concept of sacrament as promise or testament remains a main feature of Luther's sacramental theology. Word and promise seem synonymous. His Small Catechism of 1529 asks with regard to baptism, "What is this Word and promise of God?" and the answer is Mark 16:16, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved." This is usually paired with Matthew 28:19, the command to make disciples and baptize all nations in the name of the Trinity. Without the Word, the water is only water, but with the Word of God, "the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save."

The same is true of the eucharist. Like baptism, it is "both the commandment and the promise of the Lord Christ." We have from "Christ's lips" a promise attached to the commandment ("do this"). The words are "'This is my body, given for you,' 'This is my blood, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.'" They are the words of Christ himself, and as such, they are infallible promises.

This became the basis of official Lutheran teaching. The Latin text of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 affirms that the sacraments are "signs and testimonies of the will of God toward us," and that they demand "faith, which believes the promises that are set forth and offered." This is not simply an intellectual acceptance of the reality of the promise but a deep sense of assurance that the sacrament actually conveys the promise that accompanies it. Sacraments at heart are the offer of forgiveness of sin whether given in baptism or constantly repeated in the eucharist. Thus the sacraments are not "merely ... marks of profession among men." God acts in them.

It is characteristic of Ulrich Zwingli, the chief reformer of Zurich, that he should give a linguistic analysis of the Latin word sacramentum. He found it an inadequate translation of the Greek mystérion. Zwingli failed to grasp the salvific power of Luther's emphasis on promise. Rather, for Zwingli "a sacrament is nothing else than an initiatory ceremony or a pledging." The sacraments, he concludes, are "signs or ceremonials ... by which a man proves to the Church that he either aims to be, or is, a soldier of Christ, and which inform the whole Church rather than yourself of your faith." There has been an important shift from Luther's dependence on divine promise of forgiveness to mere "marks of profession," of public information. But the sacraments do have power to "augment faith and are an aid to it." The sacraments have "virtue or power" intrinsic in themselves, such as having been instituted and received by Christ, historical factuality, taking the place and name of what they signify, representation of high things, analogy between sign and signified, and as an oath of allegiance. There seems to be a basically cerebral quality about most of these powers, as if the role of sacraments is primarily to communicate information, not just to the believer but to the community to which he or she belongs.


Excerpted from The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith by James F. White. Copyright © 1999 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Meet the Author

James F. White holds the Bard Thompson Chair of Liturgical Studies at Drew University. He previously taught at the Perkins School of Theology for twenty-two years and was professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame until 1999. He has served as president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and received its Berakah Award. He also chaired the editorial committee of the Section on Worship of the Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Dr. White holds an A.B. from Harvard, a B.D. from Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Duke University.

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