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.