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Library: Sacraments (2ch)
Title:      Sacraments (2ch)
Categories:      Theology
BookID:      7
Authors:      Kevin Wall, O.P.
ISBN-10(13):      0000000007
Publisher:      Western Dominican Province
Publication date:      June 18, 2018
Number of pages:      13
Language:      Not specified
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Picture:      cover

Essay on the sacraments. 


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Title: Sacraments
Project Title: Sacraments, Two Chapters
Author: Kevin Wall, O.P.
Published online: June, 2018
Previously unpublished
Rights: Copyrighted 2018. Rights are owned by Western Dominican Province. Copyright Holder
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with the user.
Nature of Sacra- A theology of the sacraments is a rational reflection upon their na-
mental Theology
ture which takes its point of departure for a traditional believer whose
belief is sacramentally based upon that belief itself. The belief
therefore comes before the theology and grounds it. Theology of this
sort is thus not a proof that sacraments, understood as efficacious
signs, really exist and really effect what they signify but rather an
endeavor to say, supposing this to be the case, how they then relate to
other human phenomena. This relation is obtained through comparison,
metaphor and analogy. All of these seek to find the unity between the
sacramental phenomenon and as much as possible of the rest of reality
particularly in so far as this impinges upon the human condition, human
life and the ultimate purpose of human life. Since these are the content
of anthropology and ontology, sacramental theology thus seeks to find
the unity behind human existence and all of being in so far as belief in
the efficacy of the sacraments points to this.
Such a methodology in the theology of the sacraments makes it logi-
cally similar to empirical science rather than to mathematics. It does
not, as mathematics does, start with insights and then reason to conclusions
but rather starts with "conclusions" and then endeavors to tailor theories
or a theory to them. This methodological reflection pertains to the theory '
of the nature of theology itself and, more broadly, to the theories concerning
the nature of theology, which reflection we presuppose here. That being so
it suffices for our purposes here to indicate that the theory which this
discussion presupposes and therefore that one in the light of which it reasons,
is the one just described, that is to say, the one which holds theology
to be akin to empirical sciences in its methodology. This being so, it
1 2
starts .with "data" given in the faith experience as this is filtered through
a community guided by the Spirit (as empirical science starts with induced
data based upon observation) and then tries to find, through comparison with
common experience, artistic experience, philosophical experience and even
personal experience as such, what other phenomena coming under human purview
are in anyy 4, similar. This is an exercize in integration and, as such,
has as much justification at least as the integrative effort which is sci-
ence. Science seeks to reduce the sheer multiplicity of the things it studies
to the smallest possible number of theories - ideally, to one theory, as
Einstein tried to do in his long endeavor to find a unified field theory to
reduce gravitation and electromagnetic theory to the same original insight.
The theology of the sacraments seeks to do the same.
And just as scientific theory not only integrates and unifies through
comparison but also suggests experimentation - that is to say, controlled
observation with a view to finding new anticipated data - so also theological
theory suggests parallel experimentation, likewise with a view to discovering
new "data". In this way one form of growth of doctrine occurs. And, under
the guidance of the Spirit, the church community discovers new riches in the
sacramental system not previously known. The theologian may anticipate these
and prophetically call them to the attention of the church community. But
it is only when the community accepts these as true to the original datum
that they become authoritative - that is to say, contents of faith for
the community and for the theologian as part of the community. This itself
is a faith commitment of one part of the christian coi aunity- not of all -
and it is in the light of this commitment that the present discussion is
carried out.
1 3
Nature of
According to this commitment, the datum itself is that a sacrament
is an efficacious sign. It produces what it signifies. That it signifies
something and that this something is relatively clear is not a point of
division among christians. But that the sign effects what it signifies
is. Those who hold that it does not often then see the cbnviction that
it does as a magical conceptualization of the sacraments. Since the use
of the sacramental signs, even when they are not at first held to be effective
or "magical", tends to lead to the "magical" conceptualization, some then
hold that perhaps it would be better to do away with the symbolism entirely.
This would have no effect upon the truth of salvation and grace but it would
remove a temptation toward magic, superstition and idolatry. Those who reject
such tendencies but also hold to the efficacy of the sacramental symbol
as in continuity with the belief of the church from the earliest times
and therefore not within the power of the community to reject, try to pro-
tect the practice of the sacramental system from any such corruption. That this
is not always easy and requires continual vigilance on the part of the
community is evident from the situation at the time of the great Reformation
although exactly what that situation was is not easily determined by histori-
cal studies which often, although carried out with good intentions, mirror
the biases which caused the division of the christian community of the west
at that time. Depending upon one's faith judgment, one could say that the
abuses found in the administration of the sacraments showed that they were
radically wrong and therefore to be more or less abandoned or, at the very
least, not looked upon as efficacious signs. The embracing of this view
of the rites could itself lead to an exaggeration of the "abuses" as a
justification for giving up what the church community had held for so many
years. The traditional Roman Catholic, who admitted abuses, but would not
give up belief in the efficacy of the sacraments, took those abuses as
vicious perversions to be expurgated without prejudice to the substantial
traditional faith and not as a proof that the traditional faith was wrong
or that it was an innovation of the community without basis in the message
of Christ.
One could well argue, in the same vein, that it was basically a faith
judgment against the sacramental system together with the conviction of
the authority of Christ's message that led Harnack to reject the sacraments
as coming from Christ and to view them rather as an importation into the
christian community from the Greek mystery religions through the Hellenic-
Jewish community which importation perverted the original message. There
was an ecclesiology directly connected with this view, as Harnack so lucidly
demonstrated. But Hugo Rahner, seeing the situation from a different faith
stance, interpreted the same historical facts as Harnack not as a perversion
of the original message but as its flowering and saw the Harnackian perversion
as the manifestation of sacramental assimilation and dynamism. Neither
historical criticism nor biblical criticism can ground either faith convic-
tion in the sense of proving it to be right. The faith conviction is the
matrix within which both take place. They are not the matrix in which it
blossoms. In the traditional formula faith is the jumping off point for
seeking some understanding, not insight the ground for belief.
From the point of view which this discussion presumes this must be
\, taken into account in the contributions which contemporary studies in
symbolism, the phenomenon of magic in its connection with religion, socio-
logy and Structuralism have to offer. These various studies do not ground
1 5
a faith conviction in the efficacy of the sacraments nor do they prove
it irrational. Rather, supposing this conviction, they can be used to
relate it to human culture at large. This makes the phenomenon of belief
in the sacraments not an isolated human commitment but an integrated one.
The search for such integration by which a human being links his or her
sacramental life with the concrete historical human situation is therefore
not only permissible but laudable and helpful. It is, after all, diffi-
cult to sustain a crucial human attitude in an intellectual and volitional
atmosphere where it seems not to be able to breathe. A human person cannot
easily be immersed totally in the contemporary scene in part of his or her
being and totally unrelated to it in another part. Sacramentality must
assimilate art and morality and science (by which I mean pre-eminently
philosophy). Sacramentality must in this way be incarnational, suffusing
all that is human.
In particular it must in this way assimilate history. This was a cru-
cial insight for the Fathers of the church. St. Augustine argued from the
practice of infant baptism that even an infant comes under the general hu-
man need for salvation. This follored for him from the practice of the
church which he therefore took as authoritative and revelatory of the mess-
age of Christ through the guidance of the Spirit. If this guidance is
assumed and the rite is therefore taken as authoritative and revelatory, it
then signifies that a child, before rational consciousness and the consequent
capacity actually to choose, incurs guilt of some sort such that he or she
merits punishment unless it is removed - unless, therefore, salvation is
afforded. This, the rite then signifies, is given through its application.
And since this rite is not reiterated, once properly performed, it therefore
leaves some permanent effect in the soul.
Moreover, since it could not be that God made man essentially as
under this guilt, it must be that he made human beings as essentially
1 6
free of guilt and that then they incurred its onus by action in some way
free. Human history could therefore be understood as divided into a period
before the incurring of the guilt; the subsequent action through which the
guilt was incurred and for all humanity; the preparation for the coming of
Jesus; the coming of Jesus and the effecting of salvation through his
life, death and resurrection; the living out now of the life of the community
within which this salvation is achieved; the final realization of the
purpose of salvation is union with God in the beatific vision.
The reconciliation of this picture of human history with the picture
presented by science and specifically by the science of history is not
impossible but is certainly difficult. This being so one has then to
decide whether, despite the difficulty, the sacramental view is to be
sustained whether a reconciliation can be worked out or not, or whether
science and the science of history are to determine the faith view or
to be assimilated by it. This decision is crucial for theology and for
the understanding of the faith. One has primarily to decide whether
faith stands first and then leads to the search for some understanding
or whether understanding - from philosophy, science or human experience
in general - grounds faith and causes assent or causes dissent.
This being presupposed, the sacramental conviction must then be taken
as indicative of human culpability before God - not merely ontological
deficiency or the ontological fact of human finitude - which culpability
every person acquires at birth (supposing the validity and authoritative
character of infant baptism as conveying the truth of revelation, as Augus-
tine argued that it did against the Donatists). This is part of what
the sacrament says by way of sign. By the same way it also says that
recovery from the culpability is possible and actually afforded through
the ritual washing itself.
1 7
From the comparative study of the history of religions, it is clear
that this conviction is not peculiar to christianity. One might conclude
from this that christianity is not unique or even that it is a derivative
religious belief. Such a conclusion makes the comparison of christianity
with other religions ground the belief that it is not unique. The chris-
tian sacrmanental belief inverts this reasoning. It does not argue from
the comparison to either the uniqueness of the similarity of christian-
ity with other religions but rather begins with the supposition of unique-
ness as contained within the sacramental symbolism - salvation only through
Christ - and then interprets the similarity with other religions, which
comparison makes evident, as best it can. Uniqueness is thus neither
argued to nor argued against, but presupposed as part of the faith con-
viction. This being so, the christian sacramental theologian endeavors
as best he can to interpret other religious phenomena in the light of
this conviction.
The sacramental phenomenon, taken in its full generality, and ab-
stracting / christian convictions as such, is a fascinating study. It
indicates that there is a common development of human consciousness from
an original stage in which there is no conviction that anything is wrong
or that one is culpable before God merely by being born into the world
as a human person. In this original stage, human beings seek human
happiness and security with the conviction that it can be attained and
that the attainment is within human powers. There comes a point in
the developement of each society in which this is no longer believed to
be the case. In traditional christian belief, the cause of this impasse
has been conceptualized as "original sin". This is to assert that there
is in fact an impasse and that it has moral roots with the attendant
responsibility. In Plato, it is conceptualized as the "fall" from
1 8
a previous purely spiritual state whose result is imprisonment in the
body. Escape is sought from this through mystery religion lustrations
which, as washings, are similar to the christian baptismal rite. And both,
in so far as they begin the state of purification, are naturally thought
of and called "initiation rites".
Not every people considered such rites to be necessary or useful.
Some held that the "fall" was simply human actual defectiveness which
could be reversed through human freedom. Those who believed this there-
fore quite naturally preached a return to pristine values and they be-
leived that this was possible simply through human choice. That was
a conception similar to christian Pelagianism. And it quite logically
led to the conception of the history of the human race as one which began
in a Golden Age, when human beings observed the law and didwhat was
right, but which progressed to ages of more debased metals. This falling
off was progressive, for this point of view, and was due to actual human
sin and could be reversed by the free choice to do what is right.
Others became convinced that free choice could no longer restore
the pristine state of goodness - that one consequence of the "fall" had
been free will's loss of this power. Such a conviction could lead to
p essimism, as it often did or it could lead to the hope that God or
the gods would intervene and rectify the situation. This would then
point toward a special intervention of the divinity for some or all human
beings effecting their "salvation". When this is thought to take place
through the special presence of the divine power in this or that place,
in this or that action, then sacramentality arises as it did among the
believers in the mystery religions and christians who believed that
salvation was achievable through the christian sacramental system.
1 9
This belief is the conviction that through symbolic ritual and the use
of specific material things one effects salvation. The total ritual
action thus signifies a result and causes it to come about. The similar-
ity of this phenomenon to magical action within a religious context and
for the purposes of religion is obvious. At the time of the Reformation,
this was pointed out strongly in order to call into question either some
or all of the Roman Catholic sacraments. Those who refused to accept
this conclusion did so on the basis of tradition. These actions, for
such believers, had the sanction of ancient practice and were in con-
tinuity with the church from its origins. They were therefore self-
validating and no comparison of them with magical actions could call this
into question. To take this route would be to make such a comparision
the arbiter of what should be done rather than tradition. This would
be a calling into question of the value of tradition and of the pre-
sence of the Spirit in the community guaranteeing the substantial valid-
ity of its sacramental life. This was a faith declaration. Those who
made it admitted that abuses could creep into the sacramental life and
that it could lead to "magical" misconceptions. But they held that these
should be and could be purified without jeopardizing its substantial
validity. In this way divisions occurred within the faith community
which were more or less latent in it throughout all its history. The
ecumenical movement today is an endeavor to try to heal / divisions.
One important movement or conceptualization of the faith which has
always, in one way or another, disturbed its unanimity, and which has
fluctuated in its influence down through the ages, is that of Gnosticism.
This doctrine, which was rejected in antiquity as heresy, holds that
salvation is through the action of God upon the intellect and will of
1 10
human beings, with the stronger stress upon the intellect - hence the name
Gnosticism. For this doctrine, such action is brought about/through
the use of ritual but without its use. In other words, it holds that
what sacramental christians claim occurs through ritual actions, it
claims occurs by revelations and movements of the higher portion of a
human being without any reference to the lower material portion and
without any use of matter such as water or the consecrated bread and
wine. The effect of this divine action is higher than what christians
call faith and is peculiar to an elect. God causes in them a higher
knowledge (gnosis) - an insight which illuminates beyond the illumination
of christian faith and which, in illuminating, purifies.
Down through the ages, theologians have argued that this is, in
itself, possible. But those who have held to the tradition have argued
1\ from this that it has not in fact occurred. Adhesion to the tradition
is adhesion to this. Alb that God has chosen to do involves the humanity
of Christ, with all that that implies for matter, and the extended appli-
cation of the sufferings and death of Christ through the sacraments.
Both from the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox point of view,
to mention just two of the christian churches which are agreed on this,
the understanding of the scriptures is had through the tradition and
ccripture is not used to prove or ground the tradition independently
of that tradition itself.
Seen in this light, Gnosticism is then rejected as de facto false
to the essential faith not only in its attitude toward matter but also
in its claim to a knowledge which surpasses faith.
1 11
The Position of Sacramental Theology in Theology as a Whole
If we assume the nature of the theology of the sacraments and
the nature of the sacraments themselves, such as we have postulated
this on the basis of the faith conviction of a particular faith commun-
ity, then we may locate the theology of the sacraments in one of three
places with respect to Trinity/ Christology. We may position it after
both, or before both or in between.
In the first case, we set the sequence as: Trinity, Christology
and the Sacraments. This sequence indicates the formal order of the
three. Trinity comes first since it is the ultimate sense of Christology.
Christology comes before sacramental theology since the sacraments are
conceived of as the extension of Christ, his presence and his power as
saving God-Man. In this sequence, Christ is thus what some call today
the "Ursakrament" or the foundation sacrament. Through the totality
of his being, he does, in his own person, what the sacraments also
do in so far as they are an extension of that total being in which the
power of that being is present and operative. Thus, in this sequence
one indicates that Trinity is the grounding of Christology, and Christology,
the grounding of sacramental theology. Taking this from the ultimate point
of view - the point of view of God - Trinity gives being and intelligi-
bility to Christ (and all creation) and Christ gives being and intelligi-
bility, within the action of the. Trinity, to the sacraments. This means
that, in one way or the other, Trinity is the subject of all theological
statements, either explicitly or implicitly. This is what classical theo-
logians meant when they said that Trinity is the formal subject of
If we position sacramental theology before Christology and Trinity,
1 12
we then indicate the psychological order of our present access to Christ
and, through him, to the Triune God. We indicate by this that we have
access to Christ through the sacraments and that through him, we have
access to the Trinity. In this sequence, we take sacramental action
as revelatory of both and, thereby, of all being and of history.
Finally, if we position the theology of the sacraments between
Christology and Trinity, we indicate the historical genesis of the
particular faith. It began with attachment to the person of Jesus
and to his message. This then led, through the authority of Jesus,
to the command to live the sacramental life and through it to be in
contact with him. That sacramental life is then taken as revelatory
of Jesus and of the Trinity.
A formal classical theology follows the first sequence. A theolo-
gy taking its point of departure in praxis follows the second and a
biblical or genetic theology, the third. Thus there are the three
sequences: the logical, the psychological and the historical.
There is also a fourth sequence which is of interest. In this
sacramental praxis comes first but then Trinity, as interpretative ul-
timately of that. Then comes Christology and sacramental theology
(seen here as speculative) as intelligible in the light of Trinity and
Christology. This is the sequence which the evolving consciousness of
the faith community followed. Trinitarian doctrine first came into
contention and only after it, Christological.
The Presence of God in the Sacraments and the Presence of Christ
1. The unique or the many sacramental actions.
2. If divided into many, on what principle?
3. Thus, entrance or initiation into; lustration or washing; the
repeated sacraments by which one lives; the actions of one's life
so that washing and eating become sacramental; the establishment of
the priesthood because of the sacrificial nature of the thing eaten
and the eating; the terminal sacrament; the extraction of penance
and of confirmation; the establishment of matrimony as sacramental.






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