The sacraments (4): outward signs of an invisible reality

A sacrament without signum and without res? That’s impossible. At least that is what the Catechism of the New Apostolic Church says. Sounds strange? Maybe, but there are good reasons for it. Join us for an excursion into the fifth century.

There is no doubt about it, baptism and Holy Communion are firmly established in the Bible. But the very term “sacrament” not appear in the Bible. The word only began to be used among Christians when the legal concept of sacramentum and the biblical concept of mysterion were blended.

This was the work of Tertullian, who has been called the “father of Latin Christianity”, at the beginning of the third century. He did not, however, leave an elaborate sacramental doctrine. This is something that Augustine of Hippo did almost 200 years later. He is considered the most influential of the Latin Church Fathers.

Standing for itself or for something else

The basis for his sacramental doctrine is a universal theory of signs and signification. Basically it distinguishes between things (res) and signs (signum). A thing can only stand for itself: a piece of wood is a piece of wood, an animal an animal, a stone a stone.

Signs, on the other hand, refer to something other than themselves. This characteristic also turns things into signs. As examples Augustine mentions the piece of wood that Moses threw into the water to remove any trace of bitterness, the animal which Abraham sacrificed in place of his son Isaac, or the stone on which Jacob laid his head.

A question of intention

He goes further and divides signs into two main classes of natural and given signs. Natural signs refer to something without conscious intent, such as smoke, which is a sign of fire. Given signs, on the other hand, pursue an intention, namely to make something known.

For the Church Father, the purest form of sign is the word. For the sole purpose of the word is to designate something else.

It is down to the word

And this is how Augustine also defines the sacraments: as consciously given signs, which make an invisible divine reality (res divinae) visible. For him they are more than symbols, for they produce exactly what they indicate. Baptism therefore not only represents the new covenant with God, but also justifies it.

There is more to a sacrament than meets the eye: an act performed with the element of water does not yet constitute a baptism. It requires the word based on faith, which reveals the significance of the event.

The Bible as proof

A natural thing to which a concrete act is added gives spiritual power: this is the formula of Augustine which constitutes the sacrament. And it is precisely this concept that we find in the New Testament—especially when Paul asks: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10: 16).

And the efficacy of the word Augustine finds with Christ Himself, for example when Jesus said to His disciples in His farewell discourse: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15: 3).

Augustine’s sacramental doctrine is so fundamental that no one dared to touch the subject again until centuries later. But at some point a dispute arose over what makes a sacrament valid and how many sacraments there should be. This will be the subject of the next two articles in this series.

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Andreas Rother
sacraments, Doctrinal statements