What are Symbols, Sacred Actions and Sacraments?

An Introduction to Sacramental Theology



As with most studies related to Christianity, we must begin with Christ Himself in order to be oriented correctly. Specifically, His incarnation is the event that will necessarily guide much of the consideration given to the topic of sacramental theology. The fact that God has somehow enfleshed Himself in order to connect to His creatures gives permission, and perhaps precedent, for the creatures to enflesh their response to Him in return. The dangers of Sacred Actions and Symbols are well known: idolatry; form over spirit; repetition over response; and perhaps worst of all, apathy. Yet, Hebrews 1:3 states “And He [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.”[1] In other words, as Andrew Hill stated, “Christ is the icon of God.”[2]

To study the Sacred Actions of the Church, one must learn to rest well with paradox, as Christianity is full of paradox. For example, Christ is 100% Man and 100% God. Whenever one is emphasized over the other, we depart from orthodoxy and distort His person. Likewise, Mankind is saved by grace (an act of God), through faith (a gift of God and an act of Man) (Ephesians 2:8). When we exaggerate one over the other, we either destroy His sovereignty or diminish our humanity. Finally, God is both transcendent and immanent. He is above all, yet not removed; next to, yet not common; beneath all, yet not suppressed; within all, yet not contained. The acceptance of paradox seems to be a prerequisite for the finite to live in relationship with the Infinite.

As Christians attempt to worship in both “Spirit and Truth” (perhaps another paradox), they realize that “there is a physical side of being spiritual.”[3] Robert Webber states, “The nature of faith demands the transformation of supernatural concepts into visible images and symbols.”[4] Symbolism must be appropriated to communicate, because finite language cannot express supernatural truth. Evelyn Underhill notes that “In every human society which has reached even a rudimentary religious consciousness, worship is given its concrete expression in institutions and in ritual acts: and these institutions and acts become in their turn powerful instruments, whereby the worshipping disposition is taught, stimulated, and maintained.”[5] She further explains that these ‘concrete expressions’ have a social quality, a two-fold quality (visible and invisible) and belong to two worlds (sense and spirit).[6] Human Beings employ rituals, signs and symbols in order to incarnate their response to God. Historically, many Christians have also believed that God participates in this communication in a special way through the performance of what are called “sacraments.”

A problem inherent in expressing worship to a Being Who is wholly other-than is that Humans must use that-which-is-finite to express that-which-is-infinite. In his essay entitled “Transposition,” C. S. Lewis describes the difference in these two realities as the difference between hearing an orchestral piece as it was intended and then hearing it in its reduced state, played as a piano reduction. He observes “If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning.”[7] Lewis’ observations describe well the process of Sacred Action. In worship, Humans employ words, objects and elements that have an original intent or meaning, and then inject a fresh or representative significance into them. In this way, Humans are enabled to stand for a few moments at the intersection of time and eternity.


Humans, however, do not want to stand at this intersection alone. Along with Underhill, Philip Pfatteicher notes “Spirituality is usually marked by an awareness of other believers.”[8] There appears to be a need or drive to experience this “otherness” with others of our own kind. This social aspect of worship reveals itself in the term “ritual,” which the dictionary defines as “an established and prescribed pattern of observance, for example, in a religion.”[9] Robert Weber offers a definition that is more on-point: “a corporate symbolic activity in which people engage when they worship.”[10] This corporate activity takes many forms. Liturgies are written, movement is prescribed, and sacred acts are performed.

“Liturgy” is a word with which the student of Sacramental Theology must become familiar. The Latin word Leitourgia roughly means “the work of the people.” The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann defines it as “an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals – a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”[11] Liturgical activity is so central to a people’s identity that one could not accurately study a culture without also examining its cultus.

Judaism, for example, is a both a culture and a religion which is rife with ritual. The ancient tabernacle and temple rituals were detailed, and pregnant with meaning. The Jewish calendar included various sacrifices, festivals and remembrances that ordered both the week and the year. Family and the priestly actions were precisely prescribed, and initiation was strictly regulated. An important element in the consideration of Sacramental Theology, then, is the use of sign and symbol in a People’s cultus.

Sign and Symbol

Ritual almost always employs the use of various signs and symbols. A sign usually does not look like what it represents, and may not be biblically based. A ‘sign’ is “something that indicates or expresses the existence of something else not immediately

apparent.”[12] In other words, it points beyond itself, like the Nike stripe. When one sees the logo, one is reminded of either the slogan (“just do it”) or of the shoes themselves. Christian history has also employed signs; as marks of affiliation (the fish), prayer (hands), resurrection (the phoenix bird) and baptism (the scallop shell), among many others. These signs referred to or reminded people who “knew the code” of a certain piece of information.

Alternately, a ‘symbol’ is defined as “something that stands for or represents something else, especially an object representing an abstraction.”[13] The difference between a sign and a symbol is that a sign points to something, but is not necessarily related to it. A symbol stands for, or represents something. Leonard VanderZee states that “While the sign bears no necessary relation to that to which it points, the symbol participates in the reality of that for which it stands.”[14] One may think of a symbol like a stunt-double: it stands-in for the real thing in order to represent the presence of that thing. Underhill notes, “A symbol is a significant image, which helps the worshipping soul to apprehend spiritual reality.”[15] Finally, Schmemann weighs in regarding the use and meaning of Symbol by stating that “The purpose and function of the symbol is not to illustrate but rather to manifest and to communicate what is manifested. Schmemann adds, “the symbol does not so much resemble the reality that it symbolizes as it participates in it, and therefore it is capable of communicating it in reality.”[16]

It is at this point that the experience (and perhaps knowledge) of most people from the Free-Church tradition, including many Western Evangelicals, will begin to taper off. It is not my intention to convince or transform a person’s worship tradition, but rather, to inform them of an essential development in the history of worship and liturgy that has affected all Christian worship traditions in existence today. The study of Sacramental Theology is universally considered to be essential in the understanding of the development of historical Christian worship.


The necessity to employ the ‘tangible to make the spiritual present’ leads one naturally to the study and consideration of the concept of the sacrament. Though not in the Bible, this word has become essential to the understanding of historical worship and liturgy. The word originates from the Latin Sacramentum, and was originally a military term, referring to the oath of allegiance and obedience a soldier swore to his commanding officer. VanderZee notes “Tertullian (b. about 160) first prominently used this term and applied it to the pledge of faith and allegiance made by candidates for baptism.”[17] When the Bible was translated into Latin (the Vulgate) the word Mysterion was used as a translation of “sacrament,” in order to refer to the mystery of Christ’s sacred actions. VanderZee adds that the word was perhaps “later applied to the sacraments because of a vague resemblance they have to some of the mysteries in the Greek religions.”[18]

The concept of the sacrament adds an additional meaning to the use of sign and symbol: that of the dispensing of grace. Calvin states “A sacrament is a sign whereby God effects in us the promise that God signs and seals to us with that sign.”[19] Augustine defined a sacrament as “a visible form of an invisible grace,” but it was not all about the symbol for him. He believed, as did Calvin, that faith enabled us to receive grace through the sacraments, but that faith itself did not make the sacraments effective. Only God did that. Augustine’s famous dictum is “The word is added to the element and there results the sacrament.”[20] Schmemann wrote, “A sacrament is both cosmic (embraces all of creation) and eschatological (oriented toward the kingdom which is to come).”[21] Donald Hustad states that a sacrament is “God’s grace extended to human beings,”[22] while Underhill simply says “Symbols represent and suggest, whilst sacraments work.”[23] In all definitions, God is the One who acts to give grace through the Sacraments. That, however, is where the similarities end. As we shall see upon examining both baptism and communion, each historical tradition has observed and interpreted the sacraments through a different lens.

A quick and simplified overview will initiate our thinking in these matters (giving just enough information to be dangerous), with more information to be added in the ensuing lectures. The Disciples of Jesus viewed the sacraments through the lens of being a participant in the new covenant, while the Early Church looked through the lens of both Jewish and Apostolic example. In the East, the Orthodox tradition interprets the Sacraments through the lens of the Divine Liturgy, while in the West, the lens is sacerdotal, meaning that the sacraments depend on the Priest (who exercises the power of the Church) to grant grace. In the Reformed tradition, the sacraments are viewed through the lens of prevenient grace, while the Anabaptist and Free-Church traditions view both baptism and communion as ordinances. It should be mentioned that there are a very few sects of Christianity (Quakers and Salvationists), who do not observe the sacraments at all, as they believe these actions to be only and always spiritual, rather than tangible.

One important issue to be mentioned at the outset has to do with the term Ex opere operato, which means, “by the work being worked,” or “done in the doing.” As applied to Sacramental Theology, it means that the sacramental act produces the rendering of grace regardless of the faith of the recipient. This doctrine developed as an unfortunate side effect of Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin during the 4th century. This doctrine led to the practice of grace being conferred upon any recipient, apart from conscious faith, thereby escorting the sacraments into both superstition and abuse.

One last differentiation must be made between the terms ‘sacrament’ and ‘sacramental.’ Schmemann notes that “a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself . . .”[24] VanderZee remembers that “Calvin also suggests a good way to distinguish between what we will call the sacramental from a sacrament. All created things are sacramental in the sense that as God’s creatures they point to, or signify, their Creator. . . A sacrament, however, is a particular created thing to which God attaches a word of promise.”[25] In other words, God extends grace through all of creation. An important question that the student of the Sacraments must ask, then, is regarding the efficacy of the Sacred Actions. The question is not “are they efficacious?” but “must they be efficacious?”




The use of water in rituals has generally held one of three meanings: bath (purifying), burial (destroying) or birth (life-giving). A search for words related to baptism in the Bible will reveal no Old Testament references whatsoever. Still, it does appear that the Jews practiced baptism and ceremonial washing throughout the pre-Christian era. Ron Moseley, Ph. D. writes, “Dr. Merrill Tenney, the editor of the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, said ‘Baptism as a rite of immersion was not begun by Christians but was taken by them from Jewish and pagan forms….’”[26] The pagan forms may have included baptismal practices from Zoastrianism, a Persian religion to which the Jews were exposed during their exile in Babylon.

Regarding Jewish forms of baptism, “Orthodox and Conservative Rabbis require both male and female conversion candidates to immerse themselves in a ritual bath called a mikveh. This ceremony is called tevillah.”[27] Moseley notes, “Historically, we know that there were many ritual immersion baths (mikvaot) on the Temple Mount including one in the Chamber of Lepers situated in the northwest corner of the Court of Women (Mid. 2:5). Josephus, a Jewish historian, tells us that even during the years of war (66-73 A.D.) the laws of ritual immersion were strictly adhered to (Jos. Wars, 4:205). The Temple itself contained immersion baths in various places for the priests to use, even in the vaults beneath the court (Commentary to Tam. 26b; Tam. 1:1).”[28]

The Gospel Accounts

It is into this setting that John the Baptizer appears in the opening account of each of the four Gospels. We can assemble a profile of the baptism of John by a quick survey of the various accounts. Matthew states, “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (3:1). Luke divulges the content of the Baptizer’s preaching: “And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). Mark reveals the overwhelming public response, saying “And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (1:5).

Though the act of baptism was not itself thought of as strange, John (the Gospel writer) does note that it aroused certain questions from the religious authorities. He writes, “They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (1:21), revealing that the Jews expected a variety of appearances to be associated with the coming of the Messiah. Though he did not fit neatly into their expectations, we learn that the Baptizer had been supernaturally appointed to baptize (1:33), and had been given a sign so that he would recognize the Christ. This reveals that, even though John and Jesus were half-cousins, they must not have spent much post-womb time together (see Luke 1:36-44).

Besides calling for confession and repentance, we learn that John’s baptism was an incomplete baptism. The Gospel writers all include statements of another baptism that was to follow John’s: a baptism of “the Holy Spirit and of fire” (Matthew 3:11). Finally, we discern the purpose for which John had been sent to baptize. All four Gospel writers invoke the words of Isaiah the prophet regarding the Baptizer: “I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:23). John’s role, then, was to help usher in the new and coming Kingdom of Heaven.

As the Gospels unfold, baptism continues to be a focal point. It is notable that after Jesus’ baptism, John continued to baptize even though Jesus’ disciples were also baptizing in the same general area (John 3). In this same chapter, Jesus makes an allusion to being born of “water and the spirit” (John 3:5) when explaining the new birth to Nicodemus. At the end of His earthly ministry, we hear Jesus’ command that baptism was to be administered in the name of the Triune God (Matthew 28:19). In his account, Mark connects belief and baptism to salvation (Mark 16:16). Finally, Jesus appropriates the term “baptism” when referring to the process of his coming passion (Mark 10:39; Luke 12:50).

One question plagues all who consider it: “Why was Jesus baptized?” The Baptizer, himself, protests at the thought of baptizing the Christ (Matthew 3:14), and Jesus’ rationale leaves much to speculation. He simply replies “Let it be so for now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Leonard VanderZee speculates that Christ’s purpose in being baptized was to identify with sinners.[29] Others have wondered if Christ was exemplifying submission, humiliation or obedience. In this regard, Bridge and Phypers note “Jesus was not a sinner, but in order to save sinners according to the purpose of God, he had to take his place alongside sinners, becoming, to the causal observer at least, completely indistinguishable from them.”[30]

Apostolic Application

The book of Acts, also written by the Gospel writer Luke, reveals the act of baptism to be both a sign and the means of repentance. He documents that Peter first administered Christian baptism during the Jewish Pentecost celebration. Peter had preached publicly, employing John the Baptizer’s words “repent and be baptized,” connecting baptism to the washing away of sins (2:38; 22:16). A cursory reading of the book of Acts reveals that baptism seems to be the first and most natural step after receiving forgiveness. It was withheld from no one who repented, regardless of race, status or gender.

Both Peter and Paul used baptism to interpret and apply an historical Theophony. Peter, in speaking of salvation, refers to the story of Noah, writing “. . . when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:20-21). In like manner, Paul speaks of baptism as an escape, this time from bondage, when he refers to Moses and the Egyptians at the Red Sea, stating “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).

The Water-Spirit Connection

There are numerous references throughout the Epistles that may also refer to baptism. Words and phrases like “washing,” “cleansing,” “dying to self” etc. are often interpreted as having baptismal connotations. Since these references are a bit more open to interpretation, they have not been included in this general overview. The reader, however, will recall that John the Baptizer knew his baptism to be incomplete, stating that the Christ would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire” (Matthew 3:11). Examples of this connection between water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism are, therefore, too important to neglect herein.

In the story of his conversion experience, water and spirit are linked as Saul receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized (Acts 9:17, 18). Again, at the house of Cornelius, the family receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized (Acts 10:44,47). At Corinth, Paul stumbles upon a group of heretofore-unknown followers of Christ. They had repented and been baptized, but had not received the Holy Spirit. Paul then rebaptized them, and they immediately received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:5,6). The connection of Spirit and water is also evident in 1 Corinthians 12:13, which says “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Finally, Titus 3:5 also makes this water-Spirit connection, stating, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.”


In summary, the ritualistic use of water either refers to a bath (sanctifying), burial (destroying/redemption) or birth (salvation/life-giving). Biblical examples can be categorized as follows:

Bath (Sanctification)

-A sign of repentance or ritual cleansing (Luke 3:3; 1 Cor. 6:11)

-Preparation for the Messiah (John 1:23)

-A sign of belief (Colossians 2:12)

Burial (Redemption)

-Death to self (Romans 6:3-4)

-An escape from bondage (1 Corinthians 10:1-6)

-Unites to the death of Christ (Romans 6:3-4)

Birth (Salvation)

-New birth (John 3:5-7)

-Entrance into the new covenant (Colossians 2:12)

-Initiation into the Christian Community (1 Corinthians 12:13)



The word baptize (baptizein) means to submerge a cloth into dye in order to change its color. This connotation, in addition to the numerous references to baptism as burial, tells us that immersion is the logical mode of baptism. Still, this was probably not practical in all circumstances. For example, if people who lived during biblical times did not live near a river, immersion would have presented a great difficulty. Additionally, a situation such as the one recorded in Acts 2, where 3,000 people were converted and baptized, would not likely have been possible using the mode of immersion. Two other modes of baptism developed either during or directly following the Apostolic era. A second mode of baptism is called “affusion,” and refers to the pouring of water over the head of the candidate, perhaps portraying the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that, as mentioned previously, was closely linked to water baptism. Affusion was usually performed with the candidate standing in water. The third baptismal mode is sprinkling, and probably looks to the sprinkling of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 12:24 and 1 Peter 1:2) for its proof text.

It has been mentioned that the ritualistic use of water usually falls into the categories of “bath, burial or birth.” An interesting way to discern how various Christians have understood the rite is to look at the design of their baptistry. Peoples who have understood baptism as a “bath” have generally constructed a rectangular baptistry, or have baptized in “living” i.e. running water.

A “burial” interpretation of baptism often found expression in either a cruciform or hexagon-shaped baptistry. The six-sided baptistry correlated to the 6th day, the day on which Christ was crucified.

The “birth” understanding of baptism produced either a round baptistry (probably representing the birth canal) or an octagonal design. The eight-sided baptistry drew a parallel to the 8th day, the day of resurrection, also known as the day of new creation.

Baptismal Practice in the Early Patristic Era

A brief review of early Church writings will provide a glimpse into the developing theology of baptism. The first and perhaps earliest document to be considered is the 1st century document The Didache, which purports to be The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.” It states:

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before. (Chapter 7)

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs. (Chapter 9)

Items of note include the invocation of the Triune God, the allowance of affusion and the preparation of the baptismal candidate (whereas no preparation was present in the New Testament). Of special interest is the fact that baptism entitles one to participate in the act of Communion.

The mid-2nd century document, The First Apology of Justin Martyr refers to baptism in chapters 61 and 65 as the means whereby men and women are dedicated to God and made new through Christ. It is given to as many as are persuaded and believe that the things are true which the Church teaches, and who undertake to live accordingly. It is preceded by prayer and fasting by both the candidates and the congregation. The candidates are then “brought where there is water and are born again, being washed in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Justin explains:

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. (Chapter 65)

A significant development is the process in which a convert becomes a member of the Christian community. There are now, in the mid-2nd century, four stages through which converts must pass: 1) Seeker (energumens); 2) Hearer (illuminands); 3) Kneeler and Baptism; 4) Faithful (continuing). Only one-half century after the last Apostle died, the Church has developed a required path toward initiation and piety. The reasons for this are probably a combination of Man’s natural tendency to institutionalize, and the intense persecution the Church was enduring at the time.

At the beginning of the 3rd century, the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus reveals the practice of the church in Rome, where baptism had evolved into a 3-year initiation process. Herein are the pertinent writings:

On preparation for baptism: “Catechumens shall continue to hear the word for three years. But if a person is keen, and perseveres well in the matter, the time shall not be judged, but only his conduct…. When the teacher has finished giving instruction, let the catechumens pray by themselves, separated from the faithful…And when they have finished praying, they shall not give the Peace, for their kiss is not yet holy.”

“And when those who are to receive baptism are chosen, let their life be examined: have they lived good lives when they were catechumens? Have they honored the widows? Have they visited the sick? Have they done every kind of good work? And when those who brought them bear witness to each: ‘He has’, let them hear the gospel.”

“From the time that they were set apart, let hands be laid on them daily while they are exorcized. And when the day of their baptism approaches, the bishop shall exorcize each one of them, in order that he may know whether he is pure….”

“Those who are to be baptized should be instructed to bathe and wash themselves on the Thursday…Those who are to receive baptism shall fast on the Friday. On the Saturday those who are to receive baptism shall be gathered in one place at the bishop’s decision. They shall all be told to pray and kneel. And he shall lay his hand on them and exorcize all alien spirits…

“And they shall spend the whole night in vigil; they shall be read to and instructed. Those who are to be baptized shall not bring with them any other thing, except what each brings for the Eucharist. For it is suitable that he who has been made worthy should offer an offering then.

This baptism service was to eventually become the Easter Vigil, wherein candidates (catechumens) were baptized on Easter Sunday morning. The service began with prayer over the water at cockcrow. Candidates disrobed completely, including jewelry. Baptism was preceded by anointing with the oil of exorcism and prayer for the departure of spirits. A threefold baptism by immersion was then accompanied by interrogation and affirmation of belief in the clauses of the Apostles’ Creed. The newly initiated Christian was then clothed, followed by a further anointing with the oil of thanksgiving, and the laying-on of hands by the bishop. They were then able to participate in the kiss of peace, and in a triple communion (bread with three cups).

Baptismal Understanding in the Late Patristic Era

Baptismal practices during the Early Patristic era evolved in both the extent of baptismal preparation and in the actual administration of the rite itself. During the Late Patristic era, a third development had to do with what the various Church Fathers understood to be happening during the rite. Though the formal schism would not take place for another 700 years, differences in understandings began to separate themselves into West (which would become Roman Catholic) and East (which would become the Orthodox church).

In the West, Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) describes the process of baptism as a way for a living person to die and to rise again, stating, “the font is a kind of grave.” He writes:

To break the hold of the devil in this world as well, a means was found for making a living man die and a living man rise again…[in baptism] the heavenly sentence is thus served, without the loss of consciousness involved in death. Because you are immersed, the sentence, ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’, is served. With the sentence served there is room for the gift and the heavenly remedy…the conditions of life did not permit us to be covered by the earth and then rise again from it….so it is that the font is a kind of grave.”

The Eastern understanding comes to us by way of Cyril, the 4th century Bishop of Jerusalem. He notes, “We are handing on to you a mystery, a hope of the Age to come. Guard the mystery from those who would waste this prize.”[31] For Cyril and the East, baptism is not only a symbol of death and resurrection with Christ (taking place on Easter Sunday at a place believed to be the site of Christ’s tomb), but also carried an eschatological meaning. He writes “Christ is here in your midst . . .He is ready, O you who want to be baptized, to bring you by the Holy Spirit into the presence of the Father.”[32] A further development in the East was the importance of chrismation (anointing) and renunciation of the Devil. Cyril writes:

“That tyrant of old pursued the ancient Jewish people as far as the seas, and here and now the devil, bold and shameless, the source of all evil, followed you up to the waters of salvation. Pharaoh was submerged in the sea, and the devil disappears in the waters of salvation.

Nonetheless, you are told to stretch out your hand, and to address the devil as if he were before you: I renounce you, Satan. I will tell you now, for you need to know, why you face westward. The west is the quarter from which darkness appears to us; now the devil is darkness, and wields his power in darkness. So we look to the west as a symbolic gesture, and renounce the leader of shadow and darkness.”

An overview of baptism during the Late Patristic era would be neither possible nor complete without the contribution of the great Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His doctrine of Original Sin unwittingly birthed the sacramental principle of Ex opere operato (“by the work being worked,” or “done in the doing”) and became the theological modis operandi throughout the entire Medieval period. The understanding that the outward action produces the fact of the inward change “developed quickly from about the time of Augustine, when the doctrine of original sin had become clearly formulated and widely accepted.”[33] This continues to be the sacramental understanding of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox.


Paedobaptism triggered the formulation of the doctrine of original sin. This term refers to the baptism of infants, and was an extant practice of the Patristic era. A short review is necessary in order to understand the circumstances of Augustine’s arrival at this doctrine and its subsequent results. Origen (circa 185), commenting on Romans 6:5-7 (dealing with the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection) states “For this reason the Church received from the Apostles the tradition of baptizing children too.”[34] However, Tertullian (circa 205), while acknowledging the existence of the practice, expresses doubts about the wisdom of infant baptism. He writes “It follows that deferment of baptism is more profitable, in accordance with each person’s character and attitude, and even age: and especially so as regards children. . . All who understand what a burden baptism is will have more fear of obtaining it than of its postponement. Faith unimpaired has not doubt of its salvation.”[35] Still, within 30 years of Tertullian’s comments, infant baptism is the unquestioned rule for both the East and the West.

Augustine, then, inherited the custom of infant baptism as the standard practice, but wondered how it could be a baptism for repentance, since babies had not consciously sinned. His answer was to separate the conscious sin of adults from the inherited sin of Adam (see Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22), thus revealing two types of guilt; inherited sin and personal sin. Thus, thought Augustine, the sacrament of baptism, when bestowed upon an infant, cleanses the infant of their inherited sin, clearing their way to heaven. In a time of high infant-mortality, this must also have given great relief to grieving parents. Unwittingly, however, Baptismal Sanctification was born! Personal faith was taken out of the equation, leaving the ceremony itself to grant grace to the recipient. Infant baptism, then, found its rationalization in the doctrine of original sin after the fact. An unfortunate by-product of this doctrine was the concept of ex opere operato, where the sacraments could communicate grace apart from faith. Rather than starting with Scripture to form doctrine, Augustine, in this case, began with the accepted practice of infant baptism and then tried to proof text its existence. Though the Doctrine of Original Sin is widely accepted, ex opere operato is widely contested. This was not Augustine at his most Biblical.

Rationalizations for paedobaptism still abound. One perspective embraces the practice because it emphasizes the objective, prevenient fact of God’s grace, rather than the subjective response of the baptized. “If Christ has redeemed Mankind,” they might say, “then the only requirement is membership in the sinful race of humanity, which infants also possess.” A second explanation has to do with what is known as covenant theology. This interpretation does not separate the two testaments, but takes them as one continuous witness. Baptism, in this view, is a continuation of circumcision (Acts 2:39; Colossians 2:11-12), where God included Hebrew infants in the blessings of His covenant. Baptism, then, is a kind of invisible tattoo that God puts on the infant. Objections to this view include the fact that the candidate is missing both repentance and a profession of faith. VanderZee states “There are not two kinds of baptism, one for infants and one for adults, with different premises . . . If infant baptism cannot be supported on the same basis and with the same understanding as adult baptism, then it is unacceptable.”[36] Paedobaptism is a very emotional issue, and has deep theological implications for both the Church and the individual.

Baptismal Understanding in the Reformation

Martin Luther’s understanding of the necessity of a personal faith led him to reject baptismal sanctification. Yet, he made allowance for infant baptism, because he believed it best expressed the true relationship of the sinner to God. He explains: “The sinner does not so much need to be washed as he needs to die, in order to be wholly renewed and made another creature, and to be conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, with whom he dies and rises again through baptism.”[37] He focused on the promise of God from Mark 16:16, which says “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” which he took as a guarantee from God Himself. Pfatteicher notes, “Luther taught us not just to remember our baptism but to glory in it.”[38]

Though Luther (1483-1546) was the main Protest-ant, many thought he did not take his protest far enough. The Anabaptists were one such group who felt the Reformation to be incomplete. They rejected paedobaptism, insisting instead upon a regenerated church membership. Zwingli (1484-1531), though not always associated with the Anabaptists, considered the acts of baptism and communion to be ordinances, rather than sacraments. “Ordinance is an alternate word used by many Protestants (especially Baptists) signifying baptism and communion to be acts which are ordained by Christ and are to be done within the community of the Church. Though Protestants, even today, use the word sacrament in the sense of a vow of loyalty, they don’t mean that the acts convey grace apart from the faith of the individual. It is in this sense that R. S. Wallace defines a sacrament as a “religious rite or ceremony instituted or recognized by Jesus Christ.”[39] John Hammett defines the meaning of baptism as “representing or symbolizing the identification, purification and incorporation of the believer into the Body of Christ.”[40] Objections to Ordinance Theology have generally centered on the fact that the sacred actions depend too much upon the work of Man rather than the work of God.

Calvin (1509-1564) was a second generation Protestant who attempted to take a mediating position between Luther and the Anabaptists. He built his Sacramental Theology upon the prevenient grace of God, contending that God’s grace precedes both personal conversion and baptism. He states “A sacrament is an external sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences His promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in turn testify our piety towards Him, both before Himself, and before angels as well as men.”[41] Calvin accepted the practice of paedobaptism because it put God in the correct position as the grace-giver. He explains “Infants of Christian parents are to be baptized for future repentance and faith, while unbaptized adults . . . are required to display signs of repentance and faith . . .”[42]

John Wesley (1703-1791) believed in a personal, subjective experience of conversion and pardon. He, as an unconverted Anglican priest, believed in baptismal regeneration (ex opere operato), but after his conversion, he arrived at a completely original understanding of baptism, which also allowed for his acceptance of paedobaptism. He suggested that in baptism “infants are born again of the Holy Spirit and cleansed from inherited sin. But as a matter of observed fact, each then grows into a life of personal sin, forfeiting their eternal life. Each then needs to be regenerated a second time by adult conversion.”[43] Wesley accepted Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, but with the caveat that one could lose their salvation, and must be regenerated once again through a subjective conversion experience.

Closing Thoughts

Each tradition brings a unique perspective to the act of baptism. Similarities are few, but there are some to considered. Baptism has always been considered the individual’s initiation into the Body of Christ. It should therefore take place in the presence of the gathered believers, rather than in isolation. Additionally, in all times, baptism has represented bath, burial or birth, with the understanding of the rite often revealed in the design of the baptistry itself.




In the book of Leviticus, Moses received from the LORD (Lev 23) a mandate regarding what are called “holy convocations” (verse 4 ff). This list included Sabbath, the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First Fruits, Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah, or the New Year), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Feast of Huts, Sabbath Year, and the Year of Jubilee. These Feasts connected the worship of God with concrete historical events, provided annual opportunities for theological instruction, and often included a symbolic communal meal.

Three of the above-mentioned feasts were considered pilgrimage feasts because “every male Jew of twelve years and older was obliged each year to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for at least one of these feasts.”[44] These particular festivals were connected to flocks or crops, and included Passover (which fused with the Feast of Unleavened Bread during the Exodus event), The Feast of Weeks (later called Pentecost) and the Feast of Huts. The additional feasts of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Purim were feasts that commemorated God’s saving events.

The Covenantal Meal

The typical Jewish meal was far more than a mere nourishing necessity. It must be understood as an act of fellowship and acceptance; in its eating, a community was formed. The meal was also used as a covenant meal, and as such was integral in the sealing of a covenant. Psalm 23, for example, is exemplary in its covenantal language, listing the many benefits of making a covenant with the Shepherd-King, Jehovah-Raah (the LORD my Shepherd). Verse two of Psalm 23 speaks of being led to places of restful provision, while in verse three the subordinate is guided to successful living (leads in paths of righteousness). Verse five reinforces the Shepherd-King’s presence and protection in dangerous places, and then describes a typical covenant meal between a vassal and his overlord (prepares a table in the presence of enemies).

The Christian Feasts

During the Apostolic era, the early Church gradually laid the Jewish feasts aside. The reason for this is twofold: Jesus became the once-for-all sacrifice (Heb 9:10; 10:10), and his resurrection canceled the requirement of ceremonial law (Col 2:13-14). Still, Jesus was well aware of the Jewish calendar, and it is an interesting sidelight to examine certain New Testament events within the context of the pilgrimage feasts. During the Feast of Booths, for example, Jesus taught and prophesied in the temple (Jn 7:14-39). The Holy Spirit descended (Acts 2) during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost and, later, Paul hurried to Jerusalem for its remembrance (Acts 20:16). Within the context of Passover, Jesus (age 12) talks with the teachers in the temple (Lk 2:41 ff), cleanses the temple (Jn 3:13-17) and endures his passion (Mt 26:17 ff). It is also within this cultural context that Jesus chose to institute a new feast.

The Gospel Accounts

Matthew, Mark and Luke all say that Jesus chose to institute his feast squarely on the first day of the Feast of the Passover, also known as the feast of Unleavened Bread (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). The feast would no longer be simply a time to remember an event; it would now represent an entirely new covenant! The sacrificial undertones of this new feast are unmistakable, as this is also the day on which the Passover lamb was to be sacrificed. John’s Gospel, however, is different from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). In his account, John states that the supper happened “before the Feast of the Passover” (13:1). John focuses on the fact that, at this supper, Jesus washed his Disciple’s feet,. He does not even mention Christ’s covenantal reinterpretation of bread and wine. This difference in timing is a small but curious inconsistency in the Gospel accounts. John, however, does mention with the others that Jesus exposes his betrayer at this supper. Also, the synoptic accounts of this covenant meal have an eschatological element, as each reports Jesus saying He will not drink wine again until He is rejoined with those present in his Father’s kingdom.

During the supper, Jesus utilizes terms from the Jewish table blessing (berakah) as He distributes the elements of the covenant meal to the Disciples. The Synoptic accounts record Jesus’ actions with the words “took; blessed; broke.” Then He gave the bread to those at the table. Interestingly, John records the terms “took; blessed; gave” in his account of Jesus feeding the five thousand (6:11).

The institution of this new-covenant meal is best left to the words of Jesus himself.

Matthew 26:26 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.

Mark 14:22 While they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is My body.” 23 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 And He said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

Luke 22:19 And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 20 And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.

Interestingly, John also makes reference to the eating of the body of Jesus, and the drinking of His blood. In the previously mentioned account of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6), Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (v. 53). Whether Jesus meant for the bread and wine to actually become his body, or merely to signify it, has led to much interpretation, division, superstition and abuse. It is the intention of this particular lecture to simply state what is, reserving various interpretations for the final lecture in this series. Perhaps, however, the covenant that Moses ushered in will shed some understanding upon Jesus’ reference to the blood of the covenant.

Exodus 24:5 He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Jesus employs the words of Moses (“blood of the covenant”) when instituting His new-covenant meal. Rather than a bull’s blood, however, He would use his own blood, which would be represented in the new-covenant meal by wine. Whether this “last supper” was a Passover meal or simply a typical Jewish meal just before the Passover, there can be no misunderstanding that Jesus meant it to be a covenant meal, built on the foundation and imagery of the Passover Feast. Exodus 12 tells the story of the Israelites’ deliverance, and the utilization of both blood and bread. They are told in 12:14: “Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance.”

This verse has two important words regarding the Feast. “Memorial” is from the Hebrew root word zeker, meaning “a memento; by implication, commemoration:—memorial, memory, remembrance, scent.”[45] “Ordinance” is the second significant word for our purposes. It is from the Hebrew root choq, meaning “an enactment; hence, an appointment (of time, space, quantity, labor or usage):—appointed, bound, commandment, convenient, custom, decree(-d), due, law, measure, x necessary, ordinance(-nary), portion, set time, statute, task.”[46] In this way, the Israelite was to use the Feast of Unleavened Bread to remember so as to reenact, as if they themselves had gone through the Red Sea. It is a remembering as though it were happening again.

Anamnesis is the Greek word for “remembrance” and means “recollection: — remembrance (again).”[47] When Jesus institutes His new-covenant meal based upon the Passover, He says “do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19), invoking the same kind of remembering which is applied to the Passover event. Regarding this remembrance and celebration of Passover, the Jewish Mishnah instructs “in every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt . . .He brought us out from bondage to freedom.” This new-covenant meal, then, is to be understood as an extension of the

Feast of Unleavened Bread, where bread and wine are used as a way to personally participate in the event of deliverance through an active and reenacting type of remembrance.

Though John’s Gospel does not include the actual words of institution, he clearly delineates both the example of the new covenant and the stipulation of this covenant. He records Jesus saying “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (13:14-15). At the supper, John witnesses the Initiator of the new covenant on his knees washing feet. The stipulation of this covenant is the command to love as He has loved, and is at the heart of this new-covenant meal. Jesus says “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34-35). Additionally, VanderZee states “As a covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper has the character of a pledge, an absolute commitment on God’s part . . . the believing community dedicates itself anew to the service of God.”[48]

Apostolic Application

Ten days after Christ ascended bodily into His Father’s kingdom, the full weight of the new covenant was released and realized in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as thousands responded in both repentance and baptism. Luke, in Acts 2:42, documents that these new followers immediately incorporated the covenant meal into their gatherings, recording, “they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Additionally, Jude 12 tells us that agape feasts were taking place among the Christians. As the infant Church celebrates the new covenant meal, the New Testament writers employ four different terms to refer to the feast, according to its context. They are:

· Breaking of bread (Acts 2:42), indicating the presence of Christ.

· The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11), remembering the death of Christ.

· Communion (1 Cor 10:16), suggesting a union with both Christ and others.

· Eucharist (1 Cor. 14:16); the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew berakah
(the blessing prayer), indicating thanksgiving for the Christ event.

When the new sect begins to grow exponentially, new problems arise having to do with the covenant meal, and a new Apostle is ordained to deal with these problems. In the process, the covenant meal gets interpreted for the expanding Church. The apostle Paul continues Christ’s sacrificial tone when speaking of the covenant meal. For example, in dealing with latent immorality in the Corinthian Church, he appeals to both the new covenant meal and the Passover meal in his exhortation. In 1 Corinthians 5:7 he writes “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.” He references the use of unleavened bread in the covenant meal to remind the Church at Corinth of their new life, purchased by the sacrifice of Christ, the Passover Lamb. In this usage, leaven represents the blatant immorality mentioned in the prior verse. Continuing in verse 8, Paul says “Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Paul exhorts the Church to be in the process of living out their new lives as they partake of the covenant meal, perhaps seeing obedience as the people’s role in the covenant.

The behavior at this time in the Corinthian Church is an historic parallel to the Children of Israel. In Exodus 24 the Jews had been released from bondage and had entered into covenant with the Living God. Yet, because Moses took a while to get the instructions for their worship (40 days) the people grew impatient and fell into both idolatry and immorality (Exodus 32). In the Apostle Paul’s next allusion to the covenant meal, he references the Israelite’s behavior. 1 Corinthians 10:6-11 says:

6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

Paul exhorts the Corinthian Church to flee from idolatry on the basis of the covenant meal. He interprets it both as a participation in the body and blood of Christ, and as a sign of their unity. In 1 Corinthians 10:14-17 he states:

10:14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.

Paul chastises the Corinthian church not only for their idolatry and immorality, but also for their division at this covenant table.

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. 19 For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. 20 Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, 21 for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? (1 Cor. 11:18)

The Corinthian’s failure was that they were not saving food from the Agape feast for those who arrived later (presumably those who were servants or slaves). Additionally, it appeared that they were making distinctions between various classes of people. While they may have used the bread and wine and said the right words to remember Christ’s act of deliverance, they had completely neglected the larger covenant stipulation to “wash one another’s feet.”

It is in the wake of this church’s disunity that Paul gives a new set of instructions for the new-covenant meal. He says “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:23-26). This passage impels the follower to full-orbed participation in the covenant meal. The eating of the covenant meal is done squarely in the present; while at the same time it was to be a sign remembering and reenacting the past act of deliverance. Finally, the eating is counted as a proclaiming of the past deliverance until the future return of the Covenant-Maker.




The rite of Communion has undergone much transformation and interpretation; certainly more than has Baptism. While both rites were affected by shifts in piety and the development of Sacramental Theology, Communion has suffered the most amplification in both meaning and usage, and has, therefore, been subject to much superstition and abuse. This lecture will consist predominantly of an overview of the centuries with regards to Communion. Like the lecture on Baptism, I will let the main thinkers from each age explain their beliefs in their own words whenever possible. Additionally, the prayers that were prayed as an introduction to the rite itself will be included. This introductory prayer is known as the “anaphora,” and is helpful in offering an additional glimpse into what the Church believed itself to be doing. Noted historian James White believed that an historical understanding is comprehensive when a student can identify the anaphora of the various periods and traditions.[49]

Early Patristic

The earliest non-Biblical document, the Didache, seems to emphasize both the communal and eschatological nature of the covenant-meal.

Chapter 9. The Eucharist. Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory forever.

And concerning the broken bread:

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr’s (100-165) First Apology describes the anaphora by saying “There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.”[50] Two elements of his prayer are notable: the thanks and praise to the Triune God, and thanksgiving for being counted worthy to take communion. Additionally, Justin also links Communion with the incarnation of Christ, offering this word of explanation:

And this food is called among us the Eucharist . . . For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”[51]

Irenaeus (130-200) was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Revelator. Irenaeus’ main concern was to oppose the Gnostics, who were intent on separating the two natures of flesh and spirit. He appeals to the covenant meal in his argument by noting “For, as the bread that comes from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God is no longer ordinary bread but the Eucharist which comprises two elements, an earthly and a heavenly, so our bodies which participate in the Eucharist are no longer corruptible, since they now have the hope of resurrection.”[52]

The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus records an anaphora that was probably used at the Church in Rome near the beginning of the 3rd century. Hippolytus mentions the creation, the incarnation and the redemption of Mankind in his opening prayer. He then prays the words of institution, finally going into a very telling explanation of what the Church thought they were doing. He prays:

Remembering therefore his death and resurrection, we offer to you the bread and the cup, giving you thanks because you have held us worthy to stand before you and minister to you. And we ask that you would send your holy Spirit upon the offering of your holy Church; that, gathering her into one, you would grant to all who partake of the holy things to partake for the fullness of the holy Spirit for the strengthening of faith in truth . . .”[53]

“Remembering . . .we offer!” To Hippolytus , it is both a memorial and an offering back to God of the elements of the covenant meal.

Origin (c. 152-253) was a Platonist, meaning his Christian thinking was colored by Plato’s notion of the world of ideas, of “ness.” Plato taught, among other things, that physical things were merely variations on an original, which existed in “heaven.” His analysis of Communion, therefore, emphasizes the spiritual nourishment of the Word over and above the physical action of partaking. He explains “It is not the material bread that profits the person who eats the bread of the Lord, and does so worthily: rather it is the word which is spoken over it.”[54]

Late Patristic

The student of Christian history will know that a great many things changed at the dawn of the 4th century. A person would no longer be killed for being a Christian, since Constantine had legalized the religion in 313 A.D. Christianity spread quickly, and the Bishops of the regions became the new nobility. Hustad notes that they “adopted the symbolism of the state which was now available to them because of their power and wealth: vast buildings and properties, lavish furnishings and vestments, and impressive pageantry.”[55] Public worship became more formal, ornamented and priest-centered.

The various families of rites began to divide themselves into “East” and “West.” The Doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and defended during this time, and it began to be incorporated into various rites of both liturgies. In the East, Basil the Great (d. 379) emphasized the single operation of the Trinity in the sacraments, and adjusted his anaphora accordingly. He also began to emphasize the “epiclesis,” or, invocation of the Holy Spirit as the One Who transformed the elements of bread and wine into agents of communion with Christ. The Apostolic Constitutions, a late-4th century Syrian text, documents one such Eastern Eucharistic liturgy. The anaphora progressed as follows:

· Remembrance of creation

· Remembrance of the Old Covenant

· Sanctus

· Remembrance of the New Covenant

· Remembrance of the Last Supper

· A statement of offering in light of this remembrance

· Epiclesis

At this point, a summary of the Eastern Orthodox understanding can be put forth and then left, as this branch of the Christian Church has not changed significantly in the last 1500 years. Schmemann defines the Orthodox Church as any church that celebrates the Divine Liturgy. There are actually two liturgies (Basil and Chrysostom), and the chief difference is their anaphora. The Eastern idea of worship is always ascending into heaven’s worship, rather than God joining their earthly worship. Schmemann says “It is not “grace” that comes down; it is the Church that enters into “grace,” and grace means the new being, the Kingdom, the world to come.”[56] Therefore, when the Orthodox Church speaks of the Eucharist, it is from a heavenly perspective. Schmemann explains: “Only in the Kingdom can we confess with St. Basil that “this bread is in very truth the precious body of our Lord, this wine the precious blood of Christ.” What is “supernatural” here, in this world, is revealed as “natural” there. And it is always in order to lead us “there” and to make us what we are that the Church fulfills herself in liturgy.”[57] Communion, in the Orthodox understanding, is inseparable from its context within the Divine Liturgy.

In the West, Ambrose (339-397) of Milan wrote that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ “by the word of prayer.” Leo I of Rome, in the 5th century, states during an Ascension Day sermon “What was conspicuous in the Redeemer has passed over into the sacraments.” Augustine, however, tends toward the symbolic or spiritual transformation of the bread and wine. He explains:

“My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped…So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: ‘You are the body of Christ, member for member (I Cor 12:27).’ If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table!…When you hear ‘The body of Christ’–you reply ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your Amen may ring true!

Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain but from many. When you received exorcism, you were ground. When you were baptized, you were leavened. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were baked. Be what you see: receive what you are.”

These three Western thinkers seem to contradict one another, but “their fundamental interest is in the reality of participation in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, rather than the transformation of the bread and wine.”[58] Augustine used the word Sacrementum to unpack the way in which “things or actions could have the extra dimension of a sacred meaning.”[59] He conceived of a two-fold link between the visible and the invisible, according to VanderZee. The first link was that the sacrament had to hold a likeness to what it signified. The second link was that the Sign had to be identified as a sign by a spoken word about it.[60] Because of his great influence, Augustine’s overemphasis of the invisible over the visible sent his successors down the path of separating the physical from the spiritual. Thus, the deity of Christ overshadowed the humanity of Christ in their thinking. This, coupled with the previously mentioned priest-centered worship, eventually led to an inflated view and abuse of the authority of the Church.


By the time of the Great Schism (1054) when Orthodox and Roman Catholicism officially separated, Western attention had shifted to questions about the transformation of the bread and wine. The Western (Catholic) Church had effectively divided Communion into two parts: the sacrifice (consecration and transubstantiation) and the Communion (the meal is distributed and eaten). Michael Welker summarizes the division. “Is Christ charging the Disciples to keep the shared celebration of the meal, or to consecrate bread and wine?”[61] He notes that if it is the later, then the priest performs the central event in Communion. This opened the way to the practice of missa privata (mass held for private devotion) and missa solitaria ( priest alone), completely eliminating the community from Communion!

By the 11th century, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) used the term “transubstantiation” to describe the change of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. Originally, it is believed that this view was put forth to “combat the overly realistic view of the Eucharistic presence.”[62] The Platonist thinking of Augustine, however, was not sufficient to explain this new understanding of transubstantiation, so Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) employed Aristotelian philosophical categories. Aristotle divided all things into substance (a thing’s essential reality), accident (that which is perceptible), and matter. According to Aquinas, in transubstantiation the accidents of the bread and wine do not change, but the substance is transformed into the body and blood of Christ. These philosophical nuances were difficult to put into common terms, and the original intent of counteracting an overly realistic view of the transaction was completely overshadowed by the thought of the actual presence of the body and blood of Christ.[63] This incredible mystery caused the table to morph into an altar of sacrifice, and it was subsequently moved farther away from the congregants. A second result was that people took communion less often, and there was great superstition that surrounded the consecrated elements. Instead of consuming the elements, some kept them, perhaps as a sort of good-luck charm.

The Reformers

Some of the main abuses of the Roman Church had to do with the theology and administration of Communion. Communion had become a priestly function in which the congregation participated by observance, actually eating the meal only once per year. Rather than being a joyful action, it had become an additional sacrifice of Christ. Whereas the Early Church Fathers focused on what the covenant meal did to the Believers, the Medieval church focused upon the transformation of the meal itself.

Luther (1483-1546) attacked the Mass as a sacrifice of Christ. He explained that that “we do not offer Christ as a sacrifice, but that Christ offers us. And in this way it is permissible, yes, profitable, to call the mass a sacrifice; not on its own account, but because we offer ourselves as a sacrifice along with Christ.”[64] He maintained the concept of the presence of Christ at the Communion table, utilizing the term “Consubstantiation.” This is the belief that the body and blood of Jesus Christ coexist in the consecrated elements with the natural elements of bread and wine. His formula of Christ’s presence declared that Christ was present “under the bread, with the bread, in the bread.”[65]

A colloquy was held between the various leaders of the Reformation in the year 1529, in Marburg, to discuss their mutual understandings on 15 separate issues. The one issue they could not agree upon was what happened at the Communion table. Luther’s chief opposition was Zwingli (1484-1531), who thought the Reformation had not gone far enough. According to Zwingli, “the Lord’s Supper was only the congregation confessing its faith in obedience to our Lord’s command.”[66] His views form the underpinnings to the view of Communion as an Ordinance, rather than a Sacrament.

The chief debate had to do with how to interpret the word “is,” (“est” vs. “significant”) from Jesus’ phrase “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26). While Luther took the phrase literally, Zwingli took it to mean, “This signifies my body.” He contended that the elements memorialized the Christ event; that bread and wine were mere signifiers, rather than the work of God in the recipient’s soul. Some consider this view to reflect the Enlightenment’s separation of matter and spirit, while others regard this to be an appropriate application of Holy Spirit-inspired anamnesis. Suffice it to say that good Men do not agree.

John Calvin (1509-1564) took a mediating position between Luther and Zwingli by loosely aligning with both the Augustinian and Orthodox concept of Christ’s presence. Though his intent was unity, both Luther and Zwingli rejected his view. Calvin took the phrase “This is my body” as a promise from God that He would be present, and considered “Communion as God’s way of bending to our weakness”[67] Calvin insisted there was some form of real presence of Christ at the table, but (unlike the Roman Catholic position) did not try to explain what or how it happened. “How this is done, some may deduce more clearly than others. But be this as it may, on the one hand we must, to shut out all carnal fancies, raise our hearts on high to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus Christ is so abased as to be enclosed under any corruptible elements. On the other hand, not to diminish the efficacy of the sacred mystery, we must hold that it is accomplished by the secret and miraculous virtue of God.”[68] Calvin saw the Supper much the same as he saw the Word of God, and said the elements had no power apart from this Word. He explained in his Institutes of Christian Religion, 4. 17.

-“…the Lord also intended the Supper to be a kind of exhortation for us, which can more forcefully than any other means quicken and inspire us both to purity and holiness of life, and to love, peace, and concord. For the Lord so communicates his body to us there that he is made completely one with us and we with him. Now, since he has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation.”

-“…the right administering of the Sacrament cannot stand apart from the Word. For whatever benefit may come to us from the Supper requires the Word….”

-“…the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace…”

In England, the Reformation was embodied in the Anglican Church, with Archbishop Cranmer (1489-1556) taking leadership of the Church after King Henry’s death in 1547. His main tool of reform was The Book of Common Prayer, which he published in 1549. The title indicates that worship was to be communal, rather than a performance of the priest. He retained much of the Roman rite, but changed the Eucharistic language to reflect the reforms of the time. References to transubstantiation were omitted, and the sacrifice was of “praise and thanksgiving” rather than of the body and blood of Christ. The offertory was now the congregation, who offered themselves “as a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice to God.”


The spectrum of belief regarding the sacraments is wide, and sometimes difficult to articulate. The Orthodox and Roman churches operate under ex opere operato, meaning that the Sacraments communicate grace apart from the presence or lack of faith on the part of the recipient. Luther insisted on the presence of Faith within the believer, while maintaining the concept of consubstantiation. Calvin took a mediating position by teaching the real presence of Christ at the table without explaining how it happens. Zwingli insisted the covenant meal to be a memorial feast and an act of obedience, in line with Ordinance Theology. Not mentioned until now are the Society of Friends and the Salvationists, who do not observe the rites at all, believing them to be done spiritually rather than physically.


In regards to the study of Sacred Action, this has been an invaluable class for me. The early part of my life was relatively unchurched. After conversion, I was discipled in a parachurch organization, then served in several Free-Church denominations whose theology was largely Baptist. I was steeped in an ordinance-experience of baptism and communion, but was devoid of Ordinance and Sacramental Theology or training.

When I began this study, I was deeply intrigued by Calvin’s view of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the sacraments, and anticipated converting to this perspective. Unfortunately, I was never persuaded that God had promised to act in the sacraments. My question regarding the efficacy of the Sacred Actions remains: it is not “do they do anything?” but “must they do anything?” As a result of these studies, I have become personally convinced of the “Ordinance” point of view, and emphasize a full-bodied celebration of anamnesis and prolepsis as I lead and participate in communion.

The differences between the various traditions depend heavily upon the cultural perspective taken by each. The lens of culture and context through which each perspective looks dramatically affects their sacramental understandings. I was especially amazed at the way a fundamental doctrine like Original Sin could, because of context, waylay the Church for a millennium.

I am what might be termed a sacramentalist, in that God often pours out a sense of his grace to me through his Creation. I have a deep and consistent devotional life, and present myself daily at the intersection of time and eternity, hoping to drink from the river of life. Sometimes I taste the water, sometimes I swim in it, and sometimes I just know it is there. As in baptism and communion, these experiences are unpredictable, and are always subject to the Sovereignty and grace of God.

[1] New American Standard Bible, Update.(Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation; All rights reserved).

[2] Taken from lecture notes on Sign and Symbol by Dr. Jack VanMarion, presented at the Institute of Worship Studies, January, 2005.

[3] C.H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Ill: IV Press, 1996), 119, quoted in Anthony Cross and Philip Thompson, ed., Baptist Sacramentalism (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003), 2.

[4] Robert Weber (ed), Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship: The CompleteLibrary of Christian Worship, Vol. 6 (Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 40.

[5] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (Guildford, Surrey: Eagle, 1991 (orig. 1936)), pp.

[6] ibid. 16-19

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory & Other Addresses (San Francisco: Eerdmans, 1965 (orig., 1949)), 99.

[8] Philip H. Pfatteicher, Liturgical Spirituality (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1997), 5.

[9] Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

[10] Weber, 139.

[11] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NT: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 25.

[12] Encarta® World English Dictionary.

[13] Encarta® World English Dictionary.

[14] John E. Burkhart, “The Meaning and Mystery of the Sacraments,” Reformed Liturgy and Music 29, no. 1 (1995): 7. Quoted in Leonard J VanderZee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2004), 31.

[15] Underhill, 33.

[16] Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 38.

[17] VanderZee, 28.

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 80.3 4, 166.

[21] Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, 33.

[22] Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1993), 186.

[23] Underhill, 33.

[24] Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, 33.

[25] VanderZee, 23.

[26] Ron Moseley “The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism.” Sherwood, Arkansas: Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies, 2002. Database on-line. Available from http://www.Haydid.org.html. Accessed 8 September 2006.

[27] Advisory Board of the Conversion to Judaism Resource Center, Baptism – – Jewish; Immersion Conversion to Judaism Resource Center. Database on-line. Available from http://www.convert.org/process.htm. Accessed 8 September 2006.

[28] Ron Moseley, “The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism.”

[29] VanderZee, 80.

[30] Donald Bridge & David Phypers. The Water That Divides: A Survey of the Doctrine of Baptism (Downers Grove, Illinois: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), 18.

[31] Catechetical lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem, 9. 79.

[32] Bridge & Phypers, 14.

[33] Ibid

[34] Jeremias, Infant Baptism, 65. Quoted in VanderZee, 127.

[35] Tertullian, De baptismo, X III. 19-34.Quoted in VanderZee, 74.

[36] VanderZee, 121.

[37] Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther’s Works 36.58, quoted in Pfatteicher, 234.

[38] Pfatteicher, 235.

[39] R. S. Wallace, “Sacrament,” in Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1047. Quoted in John S. Hammett Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal) 259.

[40] Hammett, 264.

[41] John Calvin, Institutes, IV. xvi,21.

[42] Bridge & Phypers, 123.

[43] Bridge & Phypers, 140.

[44] Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1981), 9.

[45] Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament, H2146.

[46] Ibid. H2708.

[47] Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, G0364.

[48] VanderZee, 155.

[49] White, 317.

[50] Justin Martyr, The First Apology, Chapter LXV.

[51] Ibid, LXVI

[52] Irenaeus, Against the Heretics, 5.2.3. quoted in VanderZee, 4.

[53] Robert Weber (ed), Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship: The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol. 2 (Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 151.

[54] Origin’s Commentary on Matthew 11:14, quoted in VanderZee, 165.

[55] Hustad, 165.

[56] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NT: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 31.

[57] Ibid. 43.

[58] Lester Ruth, Lecture on the sacraments during class 701 at the Institute of Worship Studies, given in January, 2005.

[59] VanderZee,166.

[60] Ibid. 166.

[61] Michael Welker, What Happens in Holy Communion? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 69.

[62] Webber Vol. 6, 213.

[63] Webber Vol. 6, 213.

[64] Pfatteicher, 195. quoted from Martin Luther, Treatise on the New Testament, that is the Holy Mass, in Luther’s Works 35:98.

[65] Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII, in The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert, et al. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 575. Quoted in Pfatteicher, 199.

[66] Hustad, 191.

[67] VanderZee, 137.

[68] John Calvin “Short Treatise on the Holy Supper,” 540. Quoted in VanderZee, 177.

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