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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 113. The Seven Sacraments.


As the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ were wrought out in the Nicene and post-Nicene periods, so the Schoolmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries wrought out the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments. At no point were the mediaeval theologians more industrious or did they put forth keener speculative force. For the Roman Catholic communion, the results of this speculation continue to be of binding authority. The theologians most prominent in developing the sacramental system were Hugo of St. Victor, Peter the Lombard, Alexander of Hales, and Thomas Aquinas. Hugo wrote the first treatise on the sacraments, De sacramentis. Thomas Aquinas did little more than to reformulate in clear statement the views propounded by Hugo, Peter the Lombard, and especially by Alexander of Hales, and with him the development comes to an end.16111611    Some idea of the importance attached to the subject of the sacraments may be derived from the space given by the Schoolmen to their treatment. Hugo of St. Victor gives 440 columns, Migne’s ed., 176. 183-617, the Lombard 90 columns out of the 462 of his Sentences, Bonaventura 1003 pages out of 3875 of his System of Theology, Peltier’s ed. and Thomas Aquinas 670 columns out of 4854 of his Summa, Migne, IV. 543-1217. Dr. Charles Hodge’s System. Theol. devotes 207 pages out of its 2260 to the sacraments, Dr. Shedd’s Dogm. Theol. 25 pages out of 1348, Dr. E. V. Gerhart’s Institutes 84 pages out of 1666, and Dr. A. H. Strong’s Sys. Theol. 30 out of 600 pages.

Through the influence of Peter the Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, the number of the sacraments was fixed at seven,—baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, extreme unction, ordination, marriage.16121612    Others about the time of Peter the Lombard had given the number as seven, as Rolandus (afterwards Alexander III.) in his Sentences and Otto of Bamberg in a sermon, 1158, reported by his biographer Herbord.g and the investiture of bishops and abbots. Abaelard had named five, —baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, marriage, and extreme unction. Hugo de St. Victor in his Summa also seems to recognize only five, —baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, and extreme unction,16131613    Migne, 176. 127 sqq. Hugo follows up the treatment of the five sacraments with a treatment of marriage, but I do not see that he calls it a sacrament.. Hugo divided the sacraments into three classes,—sacraments which are necessary to salvation, baptism and the eucharist, those which have a sanctifying effect such as holy water and the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and a third class which prepares for the other sacraments. He called the sprinkling with water a sacrament.16141614    De sacr., II. 9, Migne, 176. 473. The aqua aspersionis, or water of sprinkling mixed with salt, Hugo derived from Alexander, fifth pope from Peter. The sprinkling of ashes on the head, susceptio cineris, he placed under "the minor sacraments," but in his definition calls it an "ecclesiastical rite," as he does also the use of palm branches on Palm Sunday; Migne, 176. 423.16151615    Migne, IV. 597, 1025.

The uncertainty concerning the number of the sacraments was a heritage from the Fathers. Augustine defined any sacred rite a sacrament. The Third Lateran, 1179, used the term in a wide sense and included the investiture of bishops and burial among the sacraments. The Catholic Church today makes a distinction between certain sacred rites, called sacramentalia, and the seven sacraments.16161616    Hergenröther, Kathol. Kirchenrecht., pp. 667 sq.16171617    Alb. Magnus has a long treatment, Cur sint sacr. septem, In IV. Sent., I. 2, vol. XXIX. 6-11.

Ingenious and elaborate attempts were made to correlate the seven sacraments to all of man’s spiritual maladies and to show their "congruity" or adaptation to meet all the requirements of fallen and redeemed human nature.16181618    SeeBonaventura, Brevil., Vl. 3, Peltier’s ed., VII. 314; Thomas Aq.,Summa, Migne’s ed., IV. 594. sq. weakness found in those recently born, the eucharist to the temptation to fall into sin,—labilitas animi ad peccandum,—penance to sins committed after baptism, extreme unction to the remainders of sin not cleared away by penance, ordination to the lost condition of mankind, matrimony to concupiscence, and the liability of mankind to become extinct by natural death.

The number seven also corresponds to the seven virtues,—baptism, extreme unction, and the eucharist to faith, hope, and love, ordination to enlightenment, penance to righteousness, marriage to continence, and confirmation to endurance. Bonaventura elaborates at length a stimulating comparison to a military career. The sacraments furnish grace for the spiritual struggle and strengthen the warrior on the various stages of his conflict. Baptism equips him on entering the conflict, confirmation encourages him in its progress, extreme unction helps him at the finish, the eucharist and penance renew his strength, orders introduce new recruits into the ranks, and marriage prepares men to be recruits. Augustine had compared the sacraments to the badges and rank conferred upon the soldier, a comparison Thomas Aquinas took up.16191619    Bonaventura, Brevil., VI. 3; Th. Aq., Summa, III. 63. 1, Migne’s ed., IV. 571.

The sacraments were not needed in man’s estate of innocence. Marriage which was then instituted was a "function of nature" and nothing more. There were sacraments under the old covenant as well as under the new. The Schoolmen follow Augustine in declaring that the former prefigure the grace to come and the sacraments of the New Testament confer grace.16201620    Th. Aq., Summa, III. 62. 6, Migne, IV. 569, Sacramenta veteris legis non habebant in se aliquam virtutem qua operarentur ad conferendam gratiam justificantem. See for quotations from the Sentences of Thomas, Loofs, p. 301.16211621    In IV. Sent., I. 21, vol. XXIX. 37.

In defining what a sacrament is—quid est sacramentum — the Schoolmen started with Augustine’s definition that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace,16221622    Abaelard, Introd. ad Theol., Migne’s ed., p. 984, had quoted this definition. Albertus Magnus and other Schoolmen subsequent to Hugo, after quoting Augustine, usually quote Hugo, e.g. Peter the Lombard and Th. Aq, III. 66. 1.tiam, —the language afterwards used by the council of Trent. They have a virtue inherent in themselves. The favorite figure for describing their operation is medicine. Hugo16231623    De sacr., I. 9. 4, Migne, 176. 325.essenger, grace is the antidote, the sacrament is the vase. The physician gives, the minister dispenses, the vase contains, the spiritual medicine which cures the invalid. If, therefore, the sacraments are the vases of spiritual grace, they do not cure of themselves. Not the bottle, but the medicine, cures the sick. Bonaventura entitled his chapters on the sacraments "Sacramental Medicine."16241624    Brevil., VI., Peltier’s ed., VII. 311-330. The Lombard, Alb. Magnus, Th. Aquinas, etc., also use the illustration of medicine.

The sacraments are remedies which the great Samaritan brought for the wounds of original and actual sin. They are more than visible signs and channels of grace. They do more than signify. They sanctify. They are the efficient cause of gracious operations in the recipient. The interior effects, Thomas Aquinas says, are due to Christ,16251625    Interiorem sacramentorum effectum operatur Christus, III. 64. 3, Migne, IV. 583., to the blessing of Christ and the administration of the priest conjoined. The mode of this efficacy is ex opere operato. This expression, used by William of Auxerre and Alexander of Hales, Thomas adopted and says again and again that the sacraments make righteous and confer grace, ex opere operato, that is by a virtue inherent in themselves.16261626    Sacr. justificant et gratiam conferunt ex opere operato. See references in Schwane, p 581.

By this, Thomas Aquinas does not mean that the religious condition of the recipient is a matter of indifference, but that the sacrament imparts its virtue, if need be, without the operation of an active faith. The tendency of Protestant writers has been to represent the Schoolmen as ascribing a magical virtue to the visible sacramental symbol, if not irrespective of the divine appointment, then certainly irrespective of the attitude of the recipient. Such is not the view of the Schoolmen. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between the original cause of grace, which is God, and the instrumental cause, which is the sacrament. The virtue of the latter depends upon God’s appointment and operation.16271627    Summa, III. 62. 1, Migne, IV. 562, causa vero instrumentalis non agit per virtutem suae formae sed solum per motum quo movetur a principali agente.16281628    Migne, IV. 568 sq. Virtus passionis Christi copulatur nobis per fidem et sacramenta.16291629    Ecclesia sicut sacramenta a Christo accepit sic ad fidelium salutem dispensat. Breviloq., VI. 5, Peltier’s ed., VII. 316.raments are efficacious only to those who are of a religious disposition.

Duns Scotus, whose opinions were set aside at the council of Ferrara for those of Thomas Aquinas, insisted that God can confer grace apart from the sacraments, and their efficacy is dependent upon an action of the will. They act indirectly, not directly. Duns controverted Thomas’ view that the sacrament is a visible sign containing supernatural virtue in itself absolutely.16301630    See Seeberg, Duns Scotus, pp. 356-358.. As symbols, they remind the soul of God’s grace and attract it. A good state of the heart, however, is not a meritorious cause of their efficacy. For their reception, it is sufficient if there be no moral impediment, obex, that is, no impeding indisposition.16311631    Non requiritur bonus motus qui mereatur gratiam sed sufficit quod suscipiens non ponat obicem. In Sent., IV. 1. 6, quoted by Schwane, p. 581. Nisi impediat indispositio, quoted by Seeberg, p. 343.16321632    Susceptio est dispositio sufficiens ad gratiam. Seeberg, p. 349. For the differences between the Thomists and Scotists on the sacraments, see also Harnack, II. 483

The relation the priest sustains to the sacraments is a vital one, and except in extraordinary cases his ministration is essential. Their efficacy does not depend upon the priest’s personal character, provided only he administer according to the rite of the Church.16331633    Ministri ecclesiae possunt sacramenta conferre etiamsi sint mali. Th. Aq., Migne’s ed., IV. 586. 821, 824. may be conveyed through a leaden pipe as truly as through a silver pipe. Even if the intention of conferring grace is absent from the mind of the officiating priest, the efficacy of the sacrament is not destroyed. The priest acts in the name of the Church, and in uttering the words of sacramental appointment he gives voice to the intention of the Church. This intention is sufficient for the perfection of the sacrament in any given case. Ultimately, it is Christ who works the effect of the sacrament and not the priest through any virtue of his own.16341634    Ministri non gratiam conferunt sua virtute, sed hoc facit Christus sua potestate per eos sicut per quaedam instrumenta. Th. Aq., III. 64. 5, Migne, IV. 586.

On this point also, Duns differed from the great Dominican by declaring that "a virtual intention" on the part of the celebrant is essential to the efficacy of the sacrament. He illustrates his position by a pilgrim on the way to the shrine of St. James. The pilgrim may not think of St. James during the whole progress of his journey, but he starts out with "a virtual intention" to go to his shrine and keeps on the way. So a priest, during the progress of the sacramental celebration, may allow his mind to wander and forget what he is doing, but he has the virtual intention of performing the rite.16351635    Seeberg, p. 350.

The sacraments may be "useful," said Bonaventura, if performed outside of the Church, provided the recipient afterwards enter "holy mother Church." This he illustrates by Augustine’s comparison of the sacraments to the four rivers of paradise. The rivers flowed into different lands. But neither to Mesopotamia nor Egypt did they carry the felicity of life, though they were useful.16361636    Brevil., Peltier’s ed., p. 317. The illustration is carried out at length and is very interesting as an example of pious mediaeval homiletics.

The sacraments are not all of equal necessity. Baptism alone is indispensable to eternal life. Baptism and the eucharist are the mightiest, but of all the most mighty—potissimum — is the eucharist, and for three reasons: 1. It contains Christ himself after a substantial manner. 2. The other sacraments are preparatory to it. 3. All the faithful partake of it—adults who are baptized, as well as those who are in orders. Three sacraments have an indelible character,—baptism, ordination, and confirmation. Their mark cannot be effaced nor may they be repeated. They are related to salvation as food is related to life. The other four sacraments are necessary to salvation only in the way a horse is necessary to a journey.16371637    Th. Aq., III. 65. 4, Migne, IV. 601.

The Schoolmen were not fully agreed as to the author of some of the sacraments. Peter the Lombard expressly said that extreme unction was instituted by the Apostles. Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas held they were all instituted by Christ.16381638    See also Duns Scotus, see Seeberg, p. 338.

Hugo of St. Victor said, God might have saved man without the sacraments but no man can be saved who rejects them.16391639    De sacr., II. 9, 5, Migne, 176. 325. potuit Deus hominem salvare si ista non instituisset, sed homo nullatenus salvari posset si ista contemneret. They were to the mediaeval mind the essential food of the religious life, and, in building up the sacramental system, the mediaeval theologian felt he was fortifying the very fabric of the Church. In the authority to administer them lay the power of the priesthood to open and shut the kingdom of heaven, to pass the judgment of bliss or woe for this life and for the life to come. This sacramental theory, based now upon a false now upon a one-sided interpretation of Scripture, and compactly knit by argumentation, substituted the mechanical efficiency of sacramental grace for the Saviour into whose immediate presence the soul has a right to approach through penitence of heart and prayer. The sacramental system became the Church’s Babylonish captivity, as Luther called it in his famous tract, in which the rights and liberty of the Christian believer are fettered by the traditions of men.



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