Project Canterbury

The Faith of an English Catholic
by Darwell Stone, D.D.

London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1926.

Chapter V. The Sacramental Principle

A MARKED feature in Anglo-Catholic thought is the value assigned to the sacramental principle. In the sacraments material things are used as means of spiritual processes. This is in accordance with the use of matter in all religion. Prayer and communion with God find expression by means of the material brain, and a further expression in the speech which the body makes possible. Spiritual instinct and thought might indeed exist without the brain or any organs of speech; but, at any rate in our present state of existence, they would be greatly limited and hindered.

The Incarnation supremely illustrated the sacramental principle. It showed that, whatever the ravages of sin, matter had not become necessarily evil, had not lost the capacity of being used for good which God had given to it in the creation. For in becoming Man the eternal Son of God made the whole of human nature His own, and took a human body no less than a human soul as the dwelling place and instrument of His divine Being, indissolubly one with Himself. In His body and by means of His body He lived and taught and worked miracles. In His body and by means of His body He redeemed mankind. He indeed received that body without taint of sin from His virgin mother. But His body was as really material as is the body of anyone of ourselves, and in the work of His incarnate life He used this material body to accomplish the highest spiritual ends.

As it was in the Incarnation, so it is in the sacraments. The end is spiritual but there are material means. The water of Baptism is applied by a bodily hand, and words are spoken by a bodily voice; and the soul of the baptized person receives spiritual benefit. In Confirmation the recipient of the sacrament is touched by the hand or is anointed with oil, and the spiritual strength of the sacrament is received. In the Holy Eucharist words are spoken in regard to bread and wine, and the bread and wine are themselves spiritually transformed and become means of spiritual grace to those who use and receive them. In Penance words spoken by the mouth are the instrument for spiritual forgiveness. In the Unction of the Sick, spiritual blessings are conveyed through the use of material oil. In Orders the laying on of hands and the words of the Bishop are used by the Holy Ghost to empower the ordained with spiritual gifts. In Matrimony the outward contract is so blessed by God that the relation of the married to one another is spiritual as well as bodily.

The sacraments are not magical. Unlike the processes of magic, they are not used to bend an unwilling god to the will of the worshippers. Rather, they are the provision of the loving God, who wills by means of them to help His creatures. Unlike the processes of magic, they are not devised to produce mechanical effects in those who use them. There are indeed objective results. Those who are baptized or confirmed or ordained are and must remain baptized or confirmed or ordained persons even though there is no spiritual response in them to the administration of the sacrament. But the lack of spiritual desires in the case of an adult prevents him from being spiritually benefited by the sacramental gift. The consecrated bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ even if the officiating priest is faithless, and if the recipients are without repentance for wilful sin. But the reception of spiritual benefit is dependent on the presence of right conditions in the soul. In the middle ages, when the insistence on the objective value of the sacraments was at its height, the terror of unworthy reception ran like a nightmare through theology and devotion. "Let it not be to me for judgement and condemnation" are words which express a thought constantly found and deeply felt. And, moreover, throughout the middle ages the notion of magic was rejected in the habitual teaching that, when sacramental communion cannot be received, all the benefits of it may be obtained by a communion wholly spiritual. The sacramental principle, then, involves the use of material things as means of spiritual processes in a way that is not magical. Another element in the principle is the value of priesthood. The idea of priesthood is very deep in human life. In ordinary affairs, one human being represents another, and one human being helps another. The State, the society, the family, the great man, the father, the mother, afford instances at every turn. In religion the same principle is at work. The priest is the representative of God to man, and the representative of man to God. The priest is the helper by whom the oblations of man are offered to God, and by whom the gifts of God are conveyed to man. The priest is between man and God not as one who severs or interrupts or divides but as one who conveys those appointed means of divine succour which are the stay and strength of the inner and unseen communion of the soul with God. Again, the rites are not magical. There is power in them which is not of man but of God. There is grace in them which man could not create. The power and the grace call out what is best in man himself. They make demands on his whole being and challenge the strength of his spiritual resources. In themselves always the same, their effects in those who receive them are proportionate to the good will and the right desire of the recipients.

Further, the sacramental principle is the principle of society. Hebrew and Greek alike knew that it is not good for man to be alone, and that man is a social animal. Individuals realize their proper being in community with others. One does not stand alone, and he does not fall alone. He is dependent on the help of his fellows. He is affected both by his predecessors and by his contemporaries. There is no such thing as a wholly self-contained life. And the sacraments are social. In Baptism God admits the baptized into a society. In Confirmation God strengthens the social relation. In Communion God unites communicants with one another as well as with Himself. In Penance God restores the social life which sin had broken. In Unction, in Orders, in Matrimony, God treats the soul as one living and dying in the life of a society. There is nothing lost of that which is individual. Each one is as near to God and as much the object of His personal care as if there were no other. But, as in human societies, the life of the one is enriched by his union with others in the divine society of the Church.

There are many analogies between the Christian sacraments and the Jewish rites which were their precursors. In particular, the Christian sacraments, like the Jewish rites, are symbols. But they are symbols of a far higher kind, of fuller significance, of greater power. For they are filled with the force of the incarnate life of the Son of God and with the strength of the Pentecostal gifts of the Holy Ghost. They are symbols with that rich meaning in which the word symbol was used in the ancient Church, and not in the bare and narrow sense given to the word by many Protestant divines. They effect that which they signify. They renew those who receive them. In the case of one of them, the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament itself is transformed. [See, e.g., K. R. Hagenbach, A History of Christian Doctrines (English translation, 1880), i, 286-297, A. Harnack, History of Dogma (English translation, 1896), ii, 144, 145: iv, 289, note 2; C. H. Turner in The Journal of Theological Studies, vii, 595-7 (1906); and the present writer's A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (1909), i, 29-31, 61-67.]

All this is the commonplace of Catholic theology. The Tractarians found the doctrine of the sacramental principle in Holy Scripture and in the tradition of the Church. This doctrine gave to their teaching its life and its power. The Anglo-Catholics have inherited the doctrine from the Tractarians. For them, as for the Tractarians, it takes its place in the ordered sequence of a true theology, following from the dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, and leading on to the doctrines and the use of the separate sacraments.

The sacramental principle is of vital importance. Questions about the number of the sacraments have often been given an undue prominence. The answers to those questions depend on definition and terminology. In the ancient Church, the use of the word was so wide that the Incarnation itself was described as a sacrament, and that, on the other hand, the word was applied to the salt given to catechumens. As the use was narrowed, and there was a tendency to limit the number to seven, theologians did not at first agree as to the details of inclusion. From the twelfth century in the West, and considerably later in the East, it became customary to describe Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Unction, Orders, and Matrimony as sacraments to the exclusion of other rites. This terminology has great and obvious convenience. It is in accordance with the usual practice of the East and the West. It groups together a set of rites which are akin. It makes teaching about the sacraments easier. It avoids the difficulties which hamper either a wider or a narrower use. But no Catholic theologian would deny great differences among the seven. Baptism and the Eucharist stand out from the rest as ascribed in the Gospels to the express institution of our Lord with visible signs attached, and as necessary for all Christians in a degree and to an extent to which other sacraments are not necessary. Differences are asserted between sacraments of the living, which are for the use of those already in grace, namely, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Unction, Orders, Matrimony, and sacraments of the dead, which are for those who are not yet in grace or who have fallen from it, namely, Baptism and Penance. Another line of division is between sacraments which confer "character" and cannot be repeated, namely, Baptism, Confirmation, Orders, and those which do not confer "character" and therefore can be repeated, namely, the Eucharist, Penance, Unction, Matrimony. In the course of their study of the ancient Church and of contemporary Catholicism, the Tractarians came to recognize the sacramental nature of the seven rites; and it is the habitual practice of most Anglo-Catholics to speak of the seven sacraments, namely, the two greater, Baptism and the Eucharist, and the five less, Confirmation, Penance, Unction, Orders, Matrimony.

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