What is a Sacrament? (for my Stone-Campbell Movement friends)

24 Jun

When I was in high school, the only thing I knew about my friends who went to the Norton Christian Church in my hometown of Norton, Kansas, was that they seemed to have an unusual view of baptism, that it was the moment of salvation, and also that they loved to argue about it.  As it turns out, I would later find out that the movement this church congregation found its ancestry in was founded as an attempt to restore the unity of the Church (universal) by shunning denominational allegiances and adhering to Scripture alone (as they interpreted it).  It also turned out that I joined that same church late in high school and attended a college in that same tradition (the Stone-Campbell movement, or “Restoration Movement”, named after its founders Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_Movement). It was this same desire to see the people of God, the universal Church, united that later led me to join the Catholic church.  But because I was a part of this ecclesial tradition for so many years, especially in my formative years in bible college, many of my friends are also a part of or somewhat associated with this tradition, and it is for you that I write this post.

If you are unfamiliar with Catholic theology, like I was before I began exploring Catholicism, the word “sacrament” may be generally associated with Catholicism, but it is usually not clear exactly what a sacrament is.  A common definition of sacrament is that given centuries ago by St. Augustine, defining it as an outward sign of an invisible grace.  But the best way to describe it is to go back to one of the main theological issues that distinguishes the Stone-Campbell movement from the mainstream of Evangelicalism.  That issue is baptism.  One often hears passages like Romans 6:4-6 quoted by Restorationists (rather than something like John 3:16), which explicitly links the joining of a believer to Christ’s death, resurrection and life by the means of baptism.  That is to say that this movement sees in baptism not just an empty, ineffectual symbol in the act of baptism, a nice reminder, if you will, of what really happens only in the heart.  Based on the New Testament, baptism is seen as the actual time and place in which one is united to Christ, and thus “saved”.  It is not seen as something that is only a physical act, as if the act of getting wet did something for a person, but neither is it seen as just a purely external symbol that has no real effect.  This causes considerable conflict with the broader Evangelical tradition, especially the strains of the Evangelical tradition that see a strong conflict between faith and works, with works being defined as anything someone “does”, anything physical. The reason why I go into this detail of explaining what this movement tends to believe about baptism, is because in this specific area, this Protestant, Evangelical movement has a very “sacramental” view of baptism, but without the larger theological framework in which the sacraments of the Church fit in Catholic theology.

As I said before, the Catholic church sees the sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace, or as I heard recently in a homily (sermon), a sacrament, “is a sign that does what it means”.  Baptism doesn’t just signify the uniting of the believer to Christ’s death and resurrection, it makes that a reality, it does what it symbolizes. A sacrament is a moment and a place wherein God and his divine grace bursts through into our physical world, mediated by the very elements of creation such as water, oil, bread and wine.  The sacramental view sees that God gives His graces to His people through physical things.  This is rooted in the belief that God has created us as embodied creatures; we are both physical and spiritual, not just purely spiritual beings temporarily trapped in our physicality; thus, God does not give us His graces apart from, but precisely through the physical elements of creation.  This sacramental view is also rooted in the belief in Christ’s incarnation. God did not rescue His creation from afar, but came in Person in Jesus of Nazareth, meeting humanity in His own creation; similarly, God gives His people His grace through the sacraments, through the physical elements of creation like water, bread, wine, oil, etc.  These not only symbolize the reality of God’s grace, but effect their reality. (The Catholic church sees seven official sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation (by anointing), Penance, Last Rites (with oil), Holy Orders (like ordination and religious orders), and Marriage.) If you study Catholic theology more, you will learn the difference between the sacraments and sacramentals, with the latter being something that gives grace by lifting the mind to God, such as icons, statues, gestures, crucifixes (an Evangelical equivalent to a sacramental would be something like a WWJD bracelet.)

The main difference however, concerning the view of baptism between Restorationists and Catholics is that the former tend to see baptism as a stand-alone issue that concerns an individual and his/her relationship with God, while Catholics see baptism, and all of the sacraments, in the context of the Church and the authority given to the Church (see for example Matthew 18:15-19).  While the ecclesiology of the Stone-Campbell movement is certainly much closer to the rest of Protestantism than Catholicism, especially Evangelicalism, its view of baptism is surprisingly sacramental for a movement within Protestant Evangelicalism.  This is why I thought it would be helpful to use this example to help explain what exactly a sacrament is to my friends in the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement.  Understanding this sacramental mentality can be helpful for explain something like transubstantiation, the idea that the communion meal is a real experience of Jesus and His body, not just a symbol or remembrance alone; Catholics believe that as a sacrament, the eucharist really is Christs’s body and blood; it is/does what it symbolizes.  While differences will inevitably remain, understanding what Catholics mean when they speak about the sacraments will help to better understanding between those in the Stone-Campbell movement and Catholics. And better understanding will bring us one tiny step towards what we both desire and pray for, unity among Christ’s followers.


3 Responses to “What is a Sacrament? (for my Stone-Campbell Movement friends)”

  1. Dan's shunned lover June 24, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    Great post Dan – I think you should consider podcasting, I would listen to this stuff every day! Loved to argue about it? I can’t imagine who you may be referring to? ;-). Sacraments are a big missing puzzle piece for a lot of Protestant theology. The absolute bifurcation that has arisen between the material and spiritual ( as you mentioned) has had a devastating effect on the understanding of sacrament And eschatology. I believe this is why the freshest and best work on the latter in recent times has comefrom the church of England wing of the Protestant church which has always maintained a rich and traditional understanding of the sacraments. They never abandoned the reality of the physical and thus are the leaders in restoring its place in the eschaton.

    Questions I have: I know very little of modern Catholicism, I know that the ancient catholic church held that (after the donatist controversy) that sacraments performed outside of the church and by bishops outside the church were. valid for those that rejoined the church. But (Augustine’s resolution) it only became efficacious, once the (let’s say) baptized individual “rejoined” the church. Thus, my baptism is only valid in the eyes of the church if I became a catholic. Is this still in effect. Is it correct to say that the position of the catholic church is that my baptism is invalid?

    Have you assimilated to the point that you believe the infant is the correct subject for the particular sacrament of baptism? – for the reccord, you brought it up

    • danielericcummings June 25, 2012 at 10:57 am #

      While I’m not sure on all of the sacraments, I can say that for the sacrament of baptism, it is considered valid both if you join the Catholic church (as was my case, I was not rebaptized), and also if you do not. Here is a passage from the 2nd Vatican council that talks about non-Catholic Christians (see: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html)

      Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts,(19) which the Apostle strongly condemned.(20) But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church-whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church-do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body,(21) and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.(22)

      Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.

      The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.

      It follows that the separated Churches(23) and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church..


      19. Cf. 1 Cor. 11, 18-19; Gal. 1, 6-9; 1 Jn. 2, 18-19.

      20. Cf. 1 Cor. 1, 11 sqq; 11, 22.

      21. Cf. CONC. FLORENTINUM, Sess. VIII (1439), Decretum Exultate Deo: Mansi 31, 1055 A.

      22. Cf. S. AUGUSTINUS, In Ps. 32, Enarr. 11, 29: PL 36, 299

      23. Cf. CONC. LATERANENSE IV (1215) Constitutio IV: Mansi 22, 990; CONC. LUGDUNENSE II (1274), Professio fidei Michaelis Palaeologi: Mansi 24, 71 E; CONC. FLORENTINUM, Sess. VI (1439), Definitio Laetentur caeli: Mansi 31, 1026 E.

    • danielericcummings June 25, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      As for the 2nd question, baptism of infants: while I don’t think the New Testament offers evidence for or against infant baptism (either is an argument from silence, and I would agree with you that the “household” passages are not convincing for infant baptism), I do find it very interesting just how early in church history that we find this practice. For example, Irenaeus speaks of infants being “born again to God” (Against Heresies 2.22.4; http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103222.htm). Also, Origen is quoted by the venerable scholar Wiki Pedia as saying “The Church had a tradition from the Apostles, to give baptism even to infants” and “Infants are baptized for the remission of sins … That is the reason why infants too are baptised” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_baptism#cite_note-14). So I find it hard to believe the the Church would fall into such error by the 2nd century, and that the Spirit would allow her to fall into error, only to bring about the correct doctrine 1500 years later after the Reformation. While I certainly understand the argument about whether or not one should be baptized if they cannot understand the act or the meaning of the act, I will defer to the church fathers and the 95% of church history that has held this to be acceptable. I guess my belief that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church and will not allow her to fall into doctrinal error trumps the particular arguments in this case (though there are good arguments in favor of infant baptism).

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