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The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter III. The Number of the Sacraments

THERE has been a great deal of fruitless and unmeaning controversy over the question of the number of the Sacraments. The controversy is and must be fruitless for the simple reason that our answer to the question will be dependent upon our definition of a Sacrament. Thus if we define a Sacrament in its broadest sense, merely as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace," then it is evident that our list of Sacraments will number not two, nor seven, nor even seventy, but an almost infinite number. A spoken prayer, an uplifted hand in blessing, an act of kindness to another, any ceremony or part of a ceremony which is intended to symbolize a spiritual reality, becomes a Sacrament. As a matter of fact, as late as the time of St. Augustine (4th Century) or even later, the word "sacrament" was used in this very general way and consequently the number of the Christian Sacraments was indefinite. Gradually, however, the influence of the scholastic theologians brought about that the Catholic Church in the West came to reckon as the Sacraments par excellence:--Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Holy Communion, Matrimony, Orders and Unction, thus making up the mystic number seven. The Eastern Orthodox Churches also, though separated from the West since the eleventh century, came to designate as Sacraments the same seven rites. Even if we make our definition of a Sacrament hinge, as it should, upon the Divine institution of the rite, these seven rites, all having some foundation in the pages of the New Testament, can properly be so described.

The reaction at the time of the Protestant Reformation led the Continental Reformers, as a rule, to reject as Sacraments all of these rites excepting only Baptism and the Lord's Supper. If the procedure of isolating seven rites as Sacraments be regarded as arbitrary, it should be noted that the claim that there are two--and only two--Sacraments is equally arbitrary. As a matter of fact, Protestant thought had but little use for the Sacraments--even the two retained--as it did not feel at home with the sacramental philosophy lying behind them. In much Protestant thought the outward and the inward, the material and the spiritual, were often set in sharp opposition one to the other. The old Jewish and Christian idea that for us men the material is the usual vehicle of the spiritual, was lost. Baptism and the Eucharist were retained merely because the New Testament seemed to declare so plainly that Christ Himself commanded them. But even these two Sacraments remained as an awkward appendage to Protestantism. Later the Quakers logically rejected Sacraments altogether, and the recent theories which we have outlined which derive the Sacraments from Pagan Mystery Religions may owe part of their popularity to the fact that they are thought to furnish a thorough-going Protestant with a rational reason for abolishing even those two Sacraments thought to be founded by Christ. Our own Church--as represented by the Church of England--did not escape altogether from the effects of the Protestant revolt. If it be true, as it is, that our Church does not teach in explicit terms that there are two Sacraments only, neither does she teach in explicit terms that there are seven. Many Episcopalians are of the firm opinion that the Church does teach that there are but two Sacraments. They remember learning in their childhood in the Church Catechism the question "How many Sacraments has Christ ordained in his Church?" and the reply "Two only." Of course the reply is not "Two only," but "Two only as generally necessary to salvation," which is quite a different thing. No one has ever suggested, for example, or thought of suggesting, that Matrimony or Orders is "generally necessary to salvation," that unless a man or woman be married or ordained he cannot be saved! It is undoubtedly true that here the Church Catechism was purposely framed so as to seem to be Protestant, while, in reality, it leaves room for a Catholic interpretation. This procedure, which is characteristic of Anglican formularies, may not seem to us a very honest or even decent method of teaching religion, but, unfortunately, it was the method which the peculiar conditions of that time in England made necessary. In the same way, the twenty-fifth Article of Religion "Of the Sacraments," very carefully avoids saying that "Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony and Extreme Unction" are not Sacraments, though it speaks of them somewhat disparagingly as "being such as have grown, partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly as states of life allowed in the Scriptures," neither description being applicable to the Sacrament of Confirmation. In practice, the Anglican Church after the Reformation continued to use and value all the seven rites which were commonly designated Sacraments in the Mediaeval Church. The Sacrament of Holy Unction, however, since the Church failed to set forth any authoritative form for its use after the First Prayer Book of 1549, unfortunately fell into neglect until very recently. It is now happily being revived amongst us.

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