1. The Term:
The word "sacrament" comes from the Latin sacramentum, which in the classical period of the language was used in two chief senses: (1) as a legal term to denote the sum of money deposited by two parties to a suit which was forfeited by the loser and appropriated to sacred uses; (2) as a military term to designate the oath of obedience taken by newly enlisted soldiers. Whether referring to an oath of obedience or to something set apart for a sacred purpose, it is evident that sacramentum would readily lend itself to describe such ordinances as Baptism and the Lord's Supper. In the Greek New Testament, however, there is no word nor even any general idea corresponding to "sacrament," nor does the earliest history of Christianity afford any trace of the application of the term to certain rites of the church. Pliny (circa 112 AD) describes the Christians of Bithynia as "binding themselves by a sacramentum to commit no kind of crime" (Epistles x.97), but scholars are now pretty generally agreed that Pliny here uses the word in its old Roman sense of an oath or solemn obligation, so that its occurrence in this passage is nothing more than an interesting coincidence.
It is in the writings of Tertullian (end of 2nd and beginning of 3rd century) that we find the first evidence of the adoption of the word as a technical term to designate Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and other rites of the Christian church. This Christian adoption of sacramentum may have been partly occasioned by the evident analogies which the word suggests with Baptism and the Lord's Supper; but what appears to have chiefly determined its history in this direction was the fact that in the Old Latin versions (as afterward in the Vulgate) it had been employed to translate the Greek musterion, "a mystery" (e.g. Eph 5:32; 1 Tim 3:16; Rev 1:20; 17:7)--an association of ideas which was greatly fostered in the early church by the rapidly growing tendency to an assimilation of Christian worship with the mystery-practices of the Greek-Roman world.
2. Nature and Number:
Though especially employed to denote Baptism and the Lord's Supper, the name "sacraments" was for long used so loosely and vaguely that it was applied to facts and doctrines of Christianity as well as to its symbolic rites. Augustine's definition of a sacrament as "the visible form of an invisible grace" so far limited its application. But we see how widely even a definition like this might be stretched when we find Hugo of Victor (12th century) enumerating as many as 30 sacraments that had been recognized in the church. The Council of Trent was more exact when it declared that visible forms are sacraments only when they represent an invisible grace and become its channels, and when it sought further to delimit the sacramental area by reenacting (1547) a decision of the Council of Florence (1439), in which for the first time the authority of the church was given to a suggestion of Peter Lombard (12th century) and other schoolmen that the number of the sacraments should be fixed at seven, namely, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony--a suggestion which was supported by certain fanciful analogies designed to show that seven was a sacred number.
The divergence of the Protestant churches from this definition and scheme was based on the fact that these proceeded on no settled principles. The notion that there are seven sacraments has no New Testament authority, and must be described as purely arbitrary; while the definition of a sacrament is still so vague that anything but an arbitrary selection of particulars is impossible. It is perfectly arbitrary, for example, to place Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which were instituted by Christ as ordinances of the church, in the same category with marriage, which rests not on His appointment but on a natural relationship between the sexes that is as old as the human race. While, therefore, the Reformers retained the term "sacrament" as a convenient one to express the general idea that has to be drawn from the characteristics of the rites classed together under this name, they found the distinguishing marks of sacraments (1) in their institution by Christ, (2) in their being enjoined by Him upon His followers, (3) in their being bound up with His word and revelation in such a way that they become "the expressions of divine thoughts, the visible symbols of divine acts." And, since Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the only two rites for which such marks can be claimed, it follows that there are only two New Testament sacraments. Their unique place in the original revelation justifies us in separating them from all other rites and ceremonies that may have arisen in the history of the church, since it raises them to the dignity of forming an integral part of the historical gospel. A justification for their being classed together under a common name may be found, again, in the way in which they are associated in the New Testament (Acts 2:41,42; 1 Cor 10:1-4) and also in the analogy which Paul traces between Baptism and the Lord's Supper on the one hand, and Circumcision and the Passover--the two most distinctive rites of the Old Covenant--on the other (Col 2:11; 1 Cor 5:7; 11:26).
3. Institution by Christ:
The assumption made above, that both Baptism and the Lord's Supper owe their origin as sacraments of the church to their definite appointment by Christ Himself, has been strongly challenged by some modern critics.
(1) In regard to Baptism it has been argued that as Mk 16:15 f occurs in a passage (16:9-20) which textual criticism has shown to have formed no part of the original Gospel, Mt 28:19, standing by itself, is too slender a foundation to support the belief that the ordinance rests upon an injunction of Jesus, more especially as its statements are inconsistent with the results of historical criticism. These results, it is affirmed, prove that all the narratives of the Forty Days are legendary, that Mt 28:19 in particular only canonizes a later ecclesiastical situation, that its universalism is contrary to the facts of early Christian history, and its Trinitarian formula "foreign to the mouth of Jesus" (see Harnack, History of Dogma, I, 79, and the references there given). It is evident, however, that some of these objections rest upon anti-supernatural pre-suppositions that really beg the question at issue, and others on conclusions for which real premises are wanting. Over against them all we have to set the positive and weighty fact that from the earliest days of Christianity Baptism appears as the rite of initiation into the fellowship of the church (Acts 2:38,41, et passim), and that even Paul, with all his freedom of thought and spiritual interpretation of the gospel, never questioned its necessity (compare Rom 6:3 ff; 1 Cor 12:13; Eph 4:5). On any other supposition than that of its appointment by our Lord Himself it is difficult to conceive how within the brief space of years between the death of Jesus and the apostle's earliest references to the subject, the ordinance should not only have originated but have established itself in so absolute a manner for Jewish and Gentile Christians alike.
(2) In the case of the Lord's Supper the challenge of its institution by Christ rests mainly upon the fact that the saying, "This do in remembrance of me," is absent from the Mark-Matthew text, and is found only in the Supper-narratives of Paul (1 Cor 11:24,25) and his disciple Luke (Lk 22:19). Upon this circumstance large structures of critical hypothesis have been reared. It has been affirmed that in the upper room Jesus was only holding a farewell supper with His disciples, and that it never occurred to Him to institute a feast of commemoration. It has further been maintained that the views of Jesus regarding the speedy consummation of His kingdom make it impossible that He should have dreamed of instituting a sacrament to commemorate His death. The significance of the feast was eschatological merely; it was a pledge of a glorious future hour in the perfected kingdom of God (see Mt 26:29 and parallels). And theory has even been advanced that the institution of this sacrament as an ordinance of the church designed to commemorate Christ's death was due to the initiative of Paul, who is supposed to have been influenced in this direction by what he had seen in Corinth and elsewhere of the mystery-practices of the Greek world.
All these hypothetical fabrics fall, of course, to the ground if the underlying assumption that Jesus never said, "This do in remembrance of me," is shown to be unwarrantable. And it is unwarrantable to assume that a saying of Jesus which is vouched for by Paul and Luke cannot be authentic because it does not occur in the corresponding narratives of Matthew and Mark. In these narratives, which are highly compressed in any case, the first two evangelists would seem to have confined themselves to setting down those sayings which formed the essential moments of the Supper and gave its symbolic contents. The command of its repetition they may have regarded as sufficiently embodied and expressed in the universal practice of the church from the earliest days. For as to that practice there is no question (Acts 2:42,46; 20:7; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:26), and just as little that it rested upon the belief that Christ had enjoined it. "Every assumption of its having originated in the church from the recollection of intercourse with Jesus at table, and the necessity felt for recalling His death, is precluded" (Weizsacker, Apostolic Age, II, 279). That the simple historical supper of Jesus with His disciples in the upper room was converted by Paul into an institution for the Gentile and Jewish churches alike is altogether inconceivable. The primitive church had its bitter controversies, but there is no trace of any controversy as to the origin and institutional character of the Lord's Supper.
In the New Testament the sacraments are presented as means of grace. Forgiveness (Acts 2:38), cleansing (Eph 5:25 f), spiritual quickening (Col 2:12) are associated with Baptism; the Lord's Supper is declared to be a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). So far all Christians are agreed; but wide divergence shows itself thereafter. According to the doctrine of the Roman church, sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato, i.e. in virtue of a power inherent in themselves as outward acts whereby they communicate saving benefits to those who receive them without opposing any obstacle. The Reformed doctrine, on the other hand, teaches that their efficacy lies not in themselves as outward acts, but in the blessing of Christ and the operation of His Spirit, and that it is conditioned by faith in the recipient. The traditional Lutheran doctrine agrees with the Reformed in affirming that faith is necessary as the condition of saving benefits in the use of the sacraments, but resembles the Roman teaching in ascribing the efficacy of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, not to the attendant working of the Holy Spirit, but to a real inherent and objective virtue resident in them--a virtue, however, which does not lie (as the Roman church says) in the mere elements and actions of the sacraments, but in the power of the divine word which they embody.
See BAPTISM; LORD'S SUPPER.
Candlish, The Christian Sacraments; Lambert, The Sacraments in the New Testament; Bartlet, Apostolic Age, 495 ff; Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, chapter xx.
J. C. Lambert