The Disciples of Christ and the Sacraments -- Initial Comments

Note: This post is a continuation of exploration of theology from within the context of the Stone-Campbell Movement/Disciples of Christ. 
            The church is a body that is marked by its sacraments and rituals—two of which have become preeminent within Protestantism: Baptism and the Eucharist. The Stone-Campbell Movement, of which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a branch, have placed great emphasis on these two sacraments, though by tradition that have been referred to as ordinances rather than sacraments. The word sacrament was seen as non-biblical and carried baggage of tradition that early Disciples like Alexander Campbell sought avoid. Nonetheless much of the Christian community speaks of these two elements of Christian experience as Sacraments.

In part two of this discussion, I will explore each of these two sacraments in greater detail, but in this posting I’d like to focus on the meaning of the term sacrament and how it is generally used, including within Disciples contexts. The word sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum, which originally meant an oath, especially an oath of allegiance.  However, it also was used to translate the Greek word musterion (mystery).  During the patristic era the church began to refer to the external rites or mysteries that Christians believed conveyed grace to the believer as sacraments. Another definition of sacrament focuses on two things: an outward sign and an inward work of God.  The Anglican Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." While most Protestant groups, as we will see, limit the number of sacraments to two, historically the number has not been as limited, with churches and theologians have proposed a wide variety of possible candidates, including marriage, ordination, penance, last rites.
         Some Protestant groups have used the word have used the term "ordinance" in place of sacrament, because they equate sacrament with Roman Catholic ideas. This usage developed originally among the more radical reforming groups, such as the Baptists.  An ordinance is usually seen as a symbol or sign "ordained" or instituted by Christ to strengthen and encourage Christians in their faith.  Stan Grenz points out that involved in the idea of ordinance is the sense of obedience, that is, they are signs of obedience.  Most groups that use this term see sacraments as more human than divine, that is, they do not see them as "means of grace." [Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994), pp. 670-671.] It is possible, though one needs to do this cautiously, to distinguish the terms from each other according to who initiates the action.  Sacrament has more the sense of divine initiative, whereas, ordinance has the sense of human initiative.  It is probably good to note that there is probably much truth in both perspectives.

Biblical Foundations

            The Stone-Campbell tradition, because it is non-creedal, has sought to define the elements of the Christian faith in biblical terms. Although restorationism can take extreme forms, at the heart of the restorationist vision is the call to listen carefully to Scripture, most importantly to the New Testament, which in the words of Thomas Campbell is a “sufficient formula for the worship, discipline, and government of the Christian Church” [“Declaration and Address,” in C. A. Young, Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union, (College Press, 19850, p. 159]. It is important to note that neither sacrament nor ordinance, as specific or generic terms of description, are used by the New Testament.  Both terms were developed by theologians to catch the overarching sense of what happens in baptism and the Lord's Supper. 
           Although the word sacrament doesn’t appear in the New Testament, the Greek word mysterium (mystery) does appear. According to Donald McKim this term was used in classical Greek to speak of "something that touched the center of one's life and raised one into an experience of the divine."  As for the Old Testament (Septuagint), mysterium is most often found in connection with the wisdom and apocalyptic traditions. There it has the sense of the "divine secrets" (Wisdom of Solomon 8:4; Dan 2:28).  Paul sees Jesus as the mysterium, a mystery revealed in God's timing (1 Cor. 1:1-2; Col 2:2).  The mysterium is the wisdom of God, which had been hidden, but now is revealed (Col 1:26-27). While the word is not used in the New Testament regarding Baptism or the Lord's Supper, over time the church began to use the term to describe rites that served to reveal and seal the believer in the things of God. [Donald J. McKim, Theological Turning Points, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), p. 116]. In the Protestant tradition, by whatever name they are referred to by, there are but two rites understood to be explicitly ordained/initiated by Christ, and these are baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Mt. 28:19-20; Lk. 22:19-20).          

Historical Development of the Sacraments

            Although the concept of sacrament preceded him, Tertullian was probably the first Christian to use the Latin sacramentum in the context of the rites of the church. In his case, the reference was to Baptism. In this case as in others, Tertullian developed vocabulary that would be used by the Western Church, but even as late as the fifth century the church did not have a fully developed systematic sacramental theology, nor had it decided upon the precise number of sacraments, though baptism and Eucharist were always included. While the definition remained vague, most theologians spoke of baptism and Eucharist as outward, visible signs of God's inward work of grace. Augustine spoke of the sacrament "as one thing, and the power of the sacrament another." Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of three sacraments, baptism, Confirmation/Chrism, and the Eucharist. Gregory of Nyssa included ordination and Chrysostom included penance. [ J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, HarperOne, 1978), pp. 193-194, 422-423]. 
        During the middle ages, the concept of sacrament became more fully developed. Peter Lombard offered a list of seven sacraments that became official doctrine. These included:  baptism; confirmation, communion, marriage, penance, extreme unction, and ordination. Each of these sacraments was to be administered by a bishop or one authorized by a bishop, that is, a priest. On two of these, confirmation and ordination, the bishop alone had the authority to administer them. 
         At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers rethought the idea of the sacraments and decided that the number should be limited to those rites initiated by Christ, and so the number was reduced to two. The Reformers also rejected the idea that had emerged during the Patristic and medieval eras, which held that the sacraments worked ex opere operanto (lit. "By the work performed).  That is, God works through these rites/signs simply through the act of administering the outward sign.  Instead, they began to teach that the efficacy (effectiveness) depended on its being received in faith.  Of course, the medieval theologians added the qualification that the sacrament worked if there wasn't an impediment in the person's life that stood in the way.
      Since I’m writing with Disciples in mind, we need to look specifically how Disciples have understood the concept of sacrament/ordinance. While rooted in the Reformed tradition (the Campbells, Walter Scott, and Barton Stone had all been Presbyterian), they developed theologies of the sacraments that had their flavor.

Sacraments in the Stone-Campbell Movement

            For this part of the conversation, I will focus on two figures, one from the nineteenth century—Alexander Campbell— and one from the twentieth—William Robinson, and then end with a word from Ronald Osborn. In a subsequent posting we will look in more depth at baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

·         Alexander Campbell

            Alexander Campbell did not use the term sacrament in his discussions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in large part because he didn’t consider it a biblical term. He also avoided it because of the baggage attached, that is, because of what he perceived were medieval catholic misuses of the sacraments.  But as we will see, the term that Campbell chose to use—ordinance—essentially carried the meaning traditionally attached to sacraments, and it did not appear in the Scriptures as a term either. [Richard Harrison, "Early Disciples Sacramental Theology:  Catholic, Reformed, and Free," in Classic Themes in Disciples Theology, Kenneth Lawrence, ed., (Fort Worth:  TCU Press, 1986), p. 50.]
When Campbell used the term ordinance, he did not mean by it a mere form or sign. Writing in the Millennial Harbinger, he defined ordinances as "pregnant institutions, filled with the grace of God. Forms, without meaning, are nothing." Campbell sees baptism and communion communicating in some way God's grace. Writing in the Millennial Harbinger in 1843, he states:
We say, a law or ordinance of religion is THE MODE IN WHICH THE GRACE OF GOD ACTS UPON HUMAN NATURE. The ordinances of Christianity are, therefore, the powers of the gospel of the grace of God. Every law of nature is a specific demonstration of divine power in reference to some effect no other way attainable. So every ordinance of the gospel is a specific demonstration of divine grace or spiritual power in reference to some effect no other way attainable. 
Although God's grace acts on us through the ordinances, for them to be valid in our lives, we must receive them by faith. 
. . . the validity of all Christian ordinances, so far as spiritual or evangelical benefit is concerned, must always depend on the faith of the subject, and neither on the faith or the piety of the administrator.  [Royal Humbert, The Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, (St. Louis:  Bethany Press, 1961), pp. 183-185.]

·         William Robinson

            One of the most important twentieth century Disciples figures to explore the nature and purpose of sacraments was the British Disciple theologian William Robinson. Robinson’s views were forged in conversation with his own Disciple tradition, as well as within the ecumenical community.  Being that he was British, he was able to stand somewhat apart from the North American ethos that characterizes much of early Disciple theology. However, he did take Alexander Campbell's ideas seriously. When it came to the question of sacraments, he broke with tradition and used a term Campbell was uncomfortable with. Thus, he used the word sacrament rather than ordinance to describe what Campbell and his descendants believed about baptism and communion.  Byron Lambert suggests that Robinson returned to the term because it served as a bridge between, the Stone-Campbell tradition and the rest of the Christian community.  [Byron Lambert, The Restoration of the Lord's Supper and the Sacramental Principle; with Special Reference to the Thought of William Robinson, (Los Angeles: Westwood Christian Foundation, 1992), p. 19.]
            Robinson grounded his understanding of the sacraments, both baptism and the Eucharist, in terms of his definition of the church as community or fellowship (koinonia). He saw a close identification existing between Christ and the church. Therefore, he believed that the "key-notions lying behind sacramental theory in the New Testament are `personal,' `ethical' and `concrete' as over against `mechanical', `legal' and `abstract-mystical'." He goes on to state how the sacraments exhibit the essence of Christian faith. In other words, sacraments are relational, connecting church with God and members of the body with each other. Robinson also writes: “In Sacraments rather than creeds, at first, the Faith (in the sense in which I have described it) was preserved and dramatically set forth.” [William Robinson, "The Nature and Character of Christian Sacramental Theory and Practice," in The Lord's Supper, Charles Gresham and Tom Lawson, eds., (Joplin: College Press, 1993), 223.] 

           Robinson did not believe that sacraments had true efficacy unless they were entered into in a responsible way by the participant. Therefore, there is not a place for a passive reception. Robinson also believed that sacraments had an active ethical component, in that those who freely participated in the sacraments are shaped by that act.  Both Baptism and the Lord's Supper served God's purpose in this way, calling for commitment and urging moral reform. [Lambert, Restoration of the Lord's Supper, 19].

         Robinson saw sacraments providing support for ethical life in three ways. First, he believed that worshiped provided support for memory. He saw human beings being "memory preserving, memory hallowing" beings, and further, he believed that without this ability to remember, human cognition could not exist. Second, he believed that worship must provide worshipers with symbols that carried feelings and meaning that lay beyond words. Third, there is the need for action, and worship must provide the "instruments." Baptism and Eucharist provide these instruments that seal faith in the person.  [Lambert, Restoration of the Lord’s Supper, 20].

            By whatever name Disciples call these two elements of Christian experience, they provide an important foundation to the life of the church as the body of Christ. As Ronald Osborn reminds us, the church is a covenant community that is brought into existence by God, and that “together with God and with one another, we voluntarily assume a sacred bond.” We do this through the sacraments, which he suggests are covenant-making acts. Noting the debate over word choice, sacrament might not be a biblical word, but we continue to engage with these practices for reasons beyond simple commandment on the part of Jesus. So, he writes: “we have come to settle for sacrament, an oath of allegiance,” so that the church “is a covenant-sacrament-community” [Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, (Chalice Press, 1979), pp. 56-57].


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