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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. The term . Although applied by common consent to certain institutions of the NT, the word ‘sacrament’ (Lat. sacramentum ) is not a Scriptural one. In classical Lat. sacramentum (fr. sacrare , ‘to consecrate’) is used esp. in two senses: ( a ) passively, as a legal term, to denote a sum of money deposited by the parties to a suit, which was forfeited by the loser and appropriated to sacred uses; ( b ) actively, as a military term, to denote the oath taken by newly enlisted soldiers. When it came to be applied to Christian uses, the word retained the suggestions of both of those earlier employments. A sacrament was something set apart for sacred purposes; it was also, in certain cases, of the nature of a vow of self-consecration, resembling the oath of the Roman soldier (cf. Tertullian: ‘We were called to the warfare of the living God in our very response to the sacramental words,’ ad Mart . iii.). But the application and history of the word in the Christian Church were determined chiefly by the fact that in the Old Lat. and Vulg. [Note: Vulgate.] VSS [Note: SS Versions.] it was repeatedly employed ( mysterium , however, being employed more frequently) to render the Gr. mystçrion , ‘a mystery.’ [Thus Vulg. [Note: Vulgate.] tr. [Note: translate or translation.] St. Paul’s ‘This mystery is great’ ( Ephesians 5:32 ) by ‘Sacramentum hoc magnum est’; a rendering that had not a little to do with the subsequent erection of marriage into a sacrament.] This identification of the idea of a sacrament with that of a mystery was carried still further by Tertullian, and was greatly fostered by the fact that about this time a tendency was rapidly growing in the Church to an assimilation of Christian worship to the Mystery-worship of the Græco-Roman world (see art. Mystery). Tertullian (end of 2nd cent. and beginning of 3rd) is the first writer to apply the name ‘sacrament’ to Baptism, the Eucharist, and other rites of the Christian Church.

When Pliny ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 112), in his account of the worship of the Christians of Bithynia, describes them at their morning meetings as ‘binding themselves by a sacramentum to commit no kind of crime’ ( Ep . x. 96), it has been suggested by some that he was using the word in the Christian sense, and was referring either to the baptismal vow or to participation in the Eucharist. The fact, however, that we do not find such a use of the word, even in Christian writers, for nearly a century afterwards makes this extremely unlikely; and the probability is that Pliny intended it in the old Roman sense of an oath or solemn obligation.

2. Nature and number . (1) Though used especially of Baptism and the Eucharist, the application of the term by Christian writers was at first exceedingly loose, for it was taken to describe not only all kinds of religious ceremonies, but even facts and doctrines of the Christian faith. The vagueness of prevailing notions is illustrated by Augustine’s remark that ‘signs pertaining to things Divine are called sacraments,’ and by his well-known definition of a sacrament as ‘the visible form of an invisible grace.’ It is otherwise illustrated by the fact that Hugo of St. Victor (12th cent.) enumerates about 30 sacraments that had been recognized in the Church. The Council of Trent defined the nature of a sacrament more closely, by laying it down that not all signs of sacred things have sacramental value, and that visible forms are sacraments only when they represent an invisible grace and become its channels. It further delimited the sacramental area by re-enacting in its 7th session (1547) a decision of the Council of Florence (1439) in which effect was for the first time authoritatively given to the suggestion of Peter Lombard (12th cent.) and other Schoolmen that the number of the sacraments should be fixed at 7, namely, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony a suggestion that was evidently influenced by the belief that 7 was a sacred number.

(2) In the Reformed Churches criticism of this scheme was based on the fact that it proceeds on no settled principle. The number 7 is perfectly arbitrary; while the definition of a sacrament is still so vague that anything but an arbitrary selection of particulars is impossible. While, therefore, the Reformers retained the term ‘sacrament’ as a convenient one to express the general idea that has to be drawn from the characteristics of the acts classed together under this name a term, moreover, that is sanctioned by the usage of the Church from the days of Tertullian they found the distinguishing mark of a sacrament in the fact of its being instituted by Christ Himself and enjoined by Him upon His followers. And as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the only two rites for which this can be claimed, it follows that there are only two sacraments in the proper sense of the word. The uniqueness that belongs to these as resting upon Christ’s personal appointment and being bound up with His own words ( Matthew 28:19 , Mark 16:1-20 [16]; Matthew 26:26; Matthew 26:29 ||, 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 ) justifies us in separating them from all other rites and ceremonies whatsoever, however seemly and suggestive any of these may appear to be, and raises them to the dignity of forming an integral part of the historical revelation of God in Christ, and so of being not signs merely, but in very truth, in Augustine’s phrase, ‘the word made visible.’ A justification of this segregation of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper from all other rites, and their association together under a common name, is furnished in the NT by Acts 2:41-42 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 . A further justification may perhaps be found in the fact that St. Paul traces an analogy between Circumcision and the Passover the two most distinctive rites of the Old Covenant on the one hand, and Baptism ( Colossians 2:11 ) and the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7 with 1 Corinthians 11:26 ) respectively, on the other.

3. Efficacy . According to the Roman view, sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato , i.e. by a power inherent in themselves as outward acts. The Reformed doctrine, on the other hand, maintains that though they are Divinely appointed channels of the heavenly grace, their benefits to the recipient are contingent upon subjective spiritual conditions, and above all upon the exercise of faith in Christ Himself. See, further, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Laying on of Hands.

J. C. Lambert.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sacraments'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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