The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin, sacramentum. This word had a long history before the New Testament was written and before any sort of “sacramental theology” was developed. One of its uses, dating back to the Punic wars, was the military oath of allegiance. By the time of Augustus, this was sometimes used as an oath of allegiance to the emperor, the supreme commander or ultimate imperator of the Roman troops. This oath was sometimes taken in the presence of the emperor himself, and was an annual obligation.
During this period, the word began to be used for a solemn oath of the highest order, even in non-military situations. It took on the connotations of being “sacred,” something that was tied to inviolable personal honor. It also began to have the sense of being “secret,” a private oath that was nevertheless binding and obligatory. By the time of Jerome’s Latin translation of Scripture (called the “Vulgate” and from the 5th century), the translator was able to use sacramentum to translate the Greek word musterion [mystery] (see Ephesians 1:9), although Jerome did not do this consistently.
During the medieval period, church theology recognized certain practices as “sacraments.” There were two “dominical” sacraments [given by the Lord]: baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and other sacraments that were “ecclesial” [given by the church]. These dominical sacraments began to be seen as having saving significance or power. Baptism was understood to be a “cure” for the illness of original sin, therefore to be administered to infants so that they would not be damned. The Lord’s Supper was understood as necessary spiritual nourishment, sustaining and saving the soul on a weekly basis. One early Christian author called it the “medicine of immortality.” To be barred from taking the Lord’s Supper (or Communion) was to be ex-communicated, and thereby deprived of salvation. By controlling both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the medieval priesthood wielded great control over European society, for it was understood that the church itself could determine who would be saved and who would be damned after death.
In the case of the Lord’s Supper, this was further confused by an extremely literalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” A primary function of the church’s priest was to reenact the sacrifice of Jesus on the altar (communion table) and through this ceremony, transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation). In the superstitious milieu of medieval Christendom, this was seen as a kind of magic by the common people. It may even be that the magical term “hocus pocus” is a parody on the Latin terms “Hoc est corpus meum,” [This is my body], supposedly the words that transformed bread into the body of Christ. All of this shows how far the Lord’s Supper had gotten from its origins in the Upper Room: now a celebration controlled by a priesthood, using words that were neither in the language of Jesus or the people, and understood as essential for maintaining one’s salvation.
The church reformers of the sixteenth century rightly objected to these things. These guys (Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, and the later reformer, John Calvin) were driven by many things, but my analysis is that there were two things that were paramount for them. First, they did attempt to return to Scripture as a guide for church practice and doctrine. In my opinion, this was often flawed by a proof-texting approach to theology and by a failure to distinguish adequately between the Old and New Testaments. Second, there is no question but that they were also driven by an abhorrence for and bias against the medieval practices of the Roman Catholic church. Zwingli and Luther were both dissenting Roman Catholic priests and Calvin had been on a priesthood track for his education at an early age (although his father switched him to law). They were insiders in this and knew the abuses intimately. So while they all wanted to retain some form of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the church, they wanted to unchain them from the church’s priesthood as a way of determining salvation.
Were these reformer correct to condemn the misuse of the sacraments as tools of church control? Yes, absolutely. Were they correct to disconnect these sacraments from salvation in every way (although Luther did not quite do this)? Not so sure. More to come in the next blog.
Nebraska Christian College