views updated May 23 2018


From the Latin word sacramentum, meaning oath, a sacrament is an outward sign or ritual (signum ) connected to an invisible reality (res ). In Christian context, it bears a promise from God for the comfort and encouragement in faith of the believer. Augustine of Hippo (354430) was among the first of Christian theologians to propose a theory of sacraments, and his proposal has been most influential: "The word [of God] comes to the element and it becomes a sacrament." Peter Lombard (c.11001160) then added the idea of causation to sacramental actions; thus the popular definition in virtually all Christian traditions: A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace of God and causes what it signifies (efficit quod figurat ).

Whereas Eastern Christianity understands sacraments as primary media for God's continuing creation of authentic humanity (theosis, or divinization, often misunderstood as a qualitative changing process of natural humanity into nonhuman divinity), Western Christianity, because of its understanding of sin as a rupture in the relation between God and humanity, would come to emphasize the assurance of forgiveness through the sacraments. Protestantism would add to this perspective the criterion that a sacrament be clearly mandated by God through Holy Scripture, thus always tying sacraments to God's word. This definition led to a Protestant narrowing of the number of acts identified as sacraments to two or possibly three (baptism, Eucharist, and penance), though the Council of Florence (14381445) fixed the number for Roman Catholicism at seven (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, ordination, and marriage). Some Protestant perspectives, especially within Radical Protestantism movements, hold that sacraments are more symbolic than actually bearing and effective of divine presence.

Cross-cultural perspectives

Judaism does not have sacraments per se, but the philosophy of time involved in such celebrations as the Passover meal enables the Jewish believer to claim participation in holy historical events, like the deliverance from captivity (Exodus). Islam is deeply suspicious of anything that could be interpreted as an image and therefore idolatrous. Even so, the practice of salat, disciplined prayer five times a day, is deeply sacramental. Salat is said to mimic the Prophet's mystical experience of receiving prayerfulness as a gift and then with prayer ascending through the heavens to the divine throne. Turning to the East, though Buddhism generally insists on the ephemeral and transitory character of nature, the practice of Tantric pancamakarapuja in both Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Jainism, places the goddess directly or symbolically (depending upon the sect) within forms of nature. These love feasts, guarded carefully against purely sensualist interpretations, display a deeply embodied sensibility about divine presence, and are echoed in the better known phenomena of ritual river washings. Daoism's belief that all nature is united in the Dao, with concern that the forces of nature be properly directed within one's own body, also suggests a profoundly personalized as well as embodied concept of divine presence. Nevertheless, a formally sacramental character about these examples cannot be claimed, though their consonance is noteworthy.

Sacraments in the science-religion dialogue

The use and theology of sacraments (sacramentology) begs the question of the relation between nature and grace, also known as the question of the relation between nature and supernature or between matter and spirit. Where theologians and scientists may agree that their disciplines are neither merely opposed nor in mutual avoidance, use of sacraments may be the most palpable example of how theology and science might converge, particularly as new theology informed by science proposes integrated or complementary descriptions of what happens and how in sacramental practice. Christian tradition often has invoked imagery from the natural world metaphorically to commend the value and meaning of sacraments. Still, religion and science are careful not to overemphasize their common grounds. Theologians and scientists are usually wary of conflating their disciplines with one another, and such wariness is hardly more evident than with sacramentology. Thus, Christian theology normally would not advert to the ultimate authority of a scientific explanation, nor would such explanation presume to "prove" the Christian claim.

But religion could and increasingly does explore how the meaning of its dogmatic claimsas with what happens in the Christian Eucharistmight be more illumined in engagement with scientific observation. For example, the quantum physical phenomenon of particle entanglementwherein the actions of one particle in relation to another have ineluctable influences on all other particles both have encounteredsuggests a physical image of the depth and breadth of relationship between all believers initiated in Baptism, which the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is believed to sustain and deepen.

Contemporary sacramentology also, with much help from the sciences, prefers to speak of the sacramental phenomenon in more holistic terms, rather than speaking in a reductionistic way of only the elements and words themselves. Even the most solitary act, like extreme unction, is to be seen, like Baptism and Eucharist, as one around which the whole community of believers is marshaled. Borrowing from evolutionary biology and contemporary sociology, one might say that a sacramental action is an emergent event, irreducible to its parts, that is a unique collective of worshipers and their gifts gathered in dedicated spaces around central rites and forms. As a collective representation in a gathered community of diversity, a sacrament represents something of divine activity, and even of divine character (e.g., God as a community of diversity, as Trinitarian theology suggests).

The collective representation thus both creates and extends the reality it expresses, though it does not understand the creation to be de novo as much as it is an incarnation. Sacramental change, then, is not so much a matter of what happens to the material foci of the sacramental act, as it is especially a matter of what happens in the relations to and of all the people gathered into and around the act, and so also to the world brought with them. The language of relations softens categorical distinctions. Perhaps more than analogously, the terminology of phase transitions in scientific description suggests the same point. Indeed, such is the conclusion of much ecumenical conversation, which advances Christian theology well beyond the medieval doctrines of substances and accidents that dominated sacramentology until the mid-twentieth century.

Sacraments are not concerned only with human relations, however. Nor are they conceived to be mere bridges between the evidently natural and the divine. They are believed indeed to be those occasions most expressly where the divine and human intimately relate and wherein the distinction between divine and natural can be ambiguous. Sacraments express a primary conviction that nothing human or natural is alien to God. In no way, however, do sacraments allow simple identification of divinity with the natural, otherwise known as pantheism. They are, according to their traditions, promises of tangible times and places where the divine may be encountered and mediated. Thereby sacraments suggest how God intends divine and natural relation in the rest of the world.

Personal sacramental understanding is a matter of faith's being informed by experience, and perhaps theory, but finally resting in the mystery of God. Science may illuminate for religion something of sacramental meaning, and even suggest modes thereby of God's action in the world. But neither science nor religion could reasonably or dogmatically claim absolute comprehension of the topic of sacraments, related as they are to God, who is by definition ultimately transcendent as well as immanent. There also remains for the believer nurtured by sacraments the significant ethical charge to carry forward and enact the divine will in the natural world. This charge includes the creation and care of a materially and spiritually just and peaceful world. Sacraments, so it would appear with Christianity and analogous activities in most other religions, intend the re-constitution and nurturing of divine/human community.

See also Sacramental Universe


gunton, colin. "relation and relativity: the trinity and the created world." in trinitarian theology today, essays on divine being and act, ed. christoph schwöbel. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 1995.

jenson, robert. "sacraments." in christian dogmatics, vol. 2, carl braaten and robert jenson, eds. philadelphia: fortress press, 1984.

lindberg, david c., and numbers, ronald l, eds. god and nature: historical essays on the encounter between christianity and science. berkeley: university of california press, 1986.

mcmullen, clarence o. rituals and sacraments in indian religions. delhi: indian society for the publication of christian knowledge, 1979.

duane h. larson


views updated May 23 2018

Sacrament. Any of certain solemn religious acts, usually associated with Christianity. The Lat., sacramentum (in secular usage, ‘oath’), acquired this technical sense by its use to translate the Gk., mystērion, in the Latin New Testament. The exact reference has varied. Augustine defined it as the ‘visible form of invisible grace’, picked up in the Anglican catechism as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace … ordained by Christ himself’. He applied it to formulae such as the creed and Lord's Prayer; and this wide application was maintained into the Middle Ages. However, by the time of Peter Lombard, seven particular sacraments have become traditional and are enumerated: baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and marriage; in E. Christianity, they retain their Gk. names, i.e. baptisma, chrism, koinōnia (as well as eucharistia), metanoia, euchelaion, hierosunē, gamos.

The traditional Catholic theology of the sacraments holds that they are channels of God's grace to the recipient. The right ‘matter’ (bread and wine for the eucharist, etc.), the right ‘form’, and the right intention are essential for the sacrament to be ‘valid’. In addition, the recipient must be in a proper state of faith and repentance for it to be ‘efficacious’.

In Anglican tradition (Art. 25 of the Thirty-Nine Articles) baptism and the eucharist are distinguished as having been ordained by Christ (i.e. Dominical sacraments), from the other five so-called sacraments. Protestant theology generally speaks of these two sacraments only.

‘Blessed Sacrament’ (or ‘Sacrament of the altar’) refers specifically to the eucharist, or the bread and wine consecrated at it.

The term ‘sacrament’ is then applied to actions and substances in other religions where fundamental meaning is expressed through non-verbal languages (even if accompanied by words). The term is thus commonly applied to the Hindu saṃskāras.


views updated Jun 27 2018

sacrament any of certain sacred rites of the Christian Church XII; spec. the S., the Eucharist, Holy Communion XIII; (arch.) sacred or solemn pledge XIV. ME. sacrement (also sacra-, by assim. to L.) — (O)F. sacrement — L. sacrāmentum solemn engagement, caution-money deposited in a suit, military oath, (in ChrL.) used to render Gr. mustérion MYSTERY1, f. sacrāre hallow, consecrate, f. sacer SACRED; see -MENT.
So sacramental adj. XIV; sb. rite analogous to a sacrament XVI. — OF. or late L. sacramentarian XVI. f. modL. sacrāmentārius, applied to those denying the Real Presence. sacrarium sanctuary of a church. XVIII. — eccl. use of L. sacrārium place in which sacred objects were kept. sacred consecrated, dedicated to XIV; dedicated to a religious purpose XV; reverenced as holy, secured against violation XVI. orig. pp. (see -ED1) of †sacre consecrate — (O)F. sacrer — L. sacrāre consecrate, dedicate to a divinity, f. sacer, sacr- consecrated, holy, rel. to sanctus sacred (see SAINT). sacrifice offering of a slaughtered animal, etc. to a deity; that which is so offered XIII; Jesus Christ's offering of himself XIV; applied to the Eucharist; gen. (so self-s.) XVI. — (O)F. — L. sacrificium; see -FIC; hence vb. XIII. sacrificial XVII. sacrilege violation of a sacred person or thing, prop. theft of a sacred object XIII; profanation XIV. — (O)F. sacrilège — L. sacrilegium, f. sacrilegus one who steals sacred things, f. sacer, sacri- + legere take possession of; hence sacrilegious XVI. sacring (hist.) consecration of the Eucharist. XIII. f. †sacre consecrate + -ING1; hence sacring-bell XIV. sacrist one having charge of sacred vessels, etc. XVI. — (O)F. sacriste, or medL. sacrista. sacristan XIV. — medL. sacristānus. sacristy repository in a church for sacred objects. XVII. — F. sacristie, It. sacrestia or medL. sacristia. sacro- used as comb. form (see -O-) of SACRUM in anat. terms. XIX. sacrosanct secured by religious sanction. XVII. — L. sacrōsanctus, f. sacrō, abl. of sacrum sacred rite, sb. use of n. of sacer + sanctus sacred (see SAINT). sacrum (anat.) lowest bone of the spine. XVIII. Short for late L. os sacrum, tr. Gr. hieròn ostéon ‘sacred bone’.


views updated May 23 2018

sac·ra·ment / ˈsakrəmənt/ • n. a religious ceremony or act of the Christian Church that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace, in particular: ∎  (in the Roman Catholic and many Orthodox Churches) the rites of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony. ∎  (among Protestants) baptism and the Eucharist. ∎  (also the Bless·ed Sac·ra·ment or the Ho·ly Sac·ra·ment) (in Roman Catholic use) the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, esp. the Host: he heard Mass and received the sacrament. ∎  a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol.ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French sacrement, from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (from sacrare ‘to hallow,’ from sacer ‘sacred’), used in Christian Latin as a translation of Greek mustērion ‘mystery.’


views updated Jun 11 2018

sacrament Symbolic action in which the central mysteries of a religious faith are enacted and which, on some accounts, confers divine grace upon those to whom it is given or administered. For Protestants, there are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper (see Last Supper). In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, the sacraments are baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, holy orders, matrimony, penance, and the anointing of the sick.


views updated May 18 2018

sacrament a religious ceremony or act of the Christian Church which is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace, in particular (in the Roman Catholic and many Orthodox Churches) the seven rites of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony, and among Protestants, the two rites of baptism and the Eucharist. In Catholic usage, sacrament (or the Holy Sacrament or the Blessed Sacrament) also denotes the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, especially the bread or Host.

The word comes (in Middle English) via Old French from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (ultimately from sacer ‘sacred’), used in Christian Latin as a translation of Greek mustērion ‘mystery’.

See also seven sacraments.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Sacramentals. In Christianity, acts or objects resembling (but less important than) the sacraments. Their number is not agreed, but they include the sign of the cross, grace at meals, stations of the cross, litanies, the angelus, rosary, etc.


views updated May 29 2018


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christian sacraments

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