Saturday, October 20, 2007

Augustine and the Sacraments

I've been reading and thinking a great deal about the sacraments lately, which has been interesting due to the sheer variety of positions that have been adopted by Christians through the centuries regarding what the sacraments are and mean. It seems that sacramentology is an area of theology where confusion has generally trumped consensus, often because people can use the same language but mean something entirely different (just think, for example, of the various ways that the word "presence" can be (mis)understood). Despite this diversity, no matter which book I turn to, I invariably encounter St. Augustine's definition of a sacrament: "The Word comes to the element; and so there is a sacrament, that is, a sort of visible word." That is, every sacrament has two components: the physical object(s) - the sign (signum) - and the invisible reality (res) that is thereby signified and proclaimed. Thus, in baptism, the element of water signifies the res, which in this case is the word of justification (or participation in the church of Christ).

At first glance, Augustine's definition of sacraments as "visible words" seems admirably straightforward, until one realizes that every faction in the history of Western Christianity - regardless of their sacramentology - has claimed to be faithful to it. Of course, by the standards of modern ecumenism, this may be considered a good thing; after all, if everyone agrees with Augustine, then perhaps we can leave behind the divisive battles of the past. But, to my way of thinking, such universal consensus merely points to the inadequacy of Augustine's thinking on the sacraments. Any definition that can encompass both Luther's and Zwingli's positions on the Lord's Supper is dangerously vague.

The medieval scholastics implicitly acknowledged this shortcoming when they introduced a third sacramental reality that is both sign and res (signum et res). This signum et res is most obvious in the case of the Lord's Supper, as concisely described by Robert Jenson in his Systematic Theology:
"There are of course many sorts of signifier-signified relations, most of them involving nothing remarkable beyond the wonder of language itself. The relation between the bread and cup as signum and Christ's mystical body as res is exceptional in the way called sacramental in that there is a middle reality between what is simply sign and what is simply res; this is the body and blood of Christ. The body and blood are at once signum et res: they are the thing the bread and cup signify but in turn they are signs, the visible Word of God that promises our communion with God and with one another.

To be signs Christ's body and blood must be there, available to our apprehension. Yet they are no more apparently present than is the mystical body they signify; they are visible only as the bread and cup that signify them. It is this identify between being visible only as signified and being visibly present so as to signify that makes the peculiar sacramental reality."
Jenson thus locates the essence of sacrament in the "middle reality" of the signum et res, and he goes on to show how it applies to all traditional sacraments.

Of course, this raises the question: why is it necessary to invoke this middle term, the signum et res? Why isn't Augustine's definition sufficient? The complete answer to these questions, which I hope to provide in a latter post, is grounded in Christology and our understanding of the incarnation. But suffice it to say, the signum et res is essential for any doctrine of the sacraments that affirms the real presence of Christ's body. As Jenson puts it, the signum et res is the sacrament's true "character," its "potentiality." It is that thing "in, with, and under" the element that makes it an effective sign, and not just a sign. It thus allows the elements to actually "contain the grace they signify" (a formulation from the Council of Trent that Lutherans can also affirm).

From this, we can conclude that any account of the sacraments that takes Augustine's definition as exhaustive is bound to end-up with a non-realist (Zwinglian) sacramentology. The common feature of all such teachings is that they dismiss the signum et res, leaving only the signum and res of Augustine's formulation. But this vitiates the sacrament. The signum is inevitably regarded as secondary to the res and eventually the element is trivialized or discarded altogether. It is no wonder, then, that Hermann Sasse in This is My Body blames Augustine for the anti-sacramentalism that has been so prevalent in the Reformed tradition from Zwingli to Barth.

Much more needs to be said, particularly concerning the intimate connection between the sacraments and the incarnation. But this post is already too long, so it will have to wait.


Anonymous said...

Hey, maybe you should look into the Salvation Army's stance on Sacramental/incarnational living. It's a way different perspective (maybe heretical) but it might be worth your time.

Pontificator said...

I am looking forward to your follow-up posts. I agree with you that Augustine's sacramentology is problematic, as was discerned by the medieval Church.

I'm also a great fan of the writings of Robert Jenson.

amarie said...


For many centuries, Roman Catholicism has been teaching the doctrine of transubstantiation, that the wine and bread of the Mass literally become the blood and body of Christ, so that they are no longer wine and bread. Many teachers of this doctrine appeal to Christ's words about his blood and body recorded in John 6, and claim that the early church also believed it. There are several problems with this view.

First, transubstantiation does not agree with Christ's words of institution: "And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom'" (Matt. 26:27-29). He called what was in the cup "fruit of the vine" even after its consecration, but he could only have called it "blood" had he held to transubstantiation.

[Further study of Christ's discourse in John 6 led to the removal of two paragraphs on May 1, 2005.]

A further problem with transubstantiation is that Paul's words do not allow for it. Paul, followed by Augustine and others, referred to the bread as "bread," even after it was consecrated: he said the bread is the communion of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). Paul did not say "will be" or "becomes," but he said "is." Consistently, he said the partakers ate bread, not that they ate what merely appears to be bread (11:26-27).

The Protestant Reformers taught that participation in the Roman Catholic Mass is idolatry. Indeed, to honor something that is not God, as if it were God, is to worship an idol. Thus, if what appears to be bread is not really transformed to God, then honoring it as God is a form of idolatry