From the beginning, the Scriptures make it clear that God has always been in the practice of blessing human beings through matter. God makes a material world that is “very good” and gives human beings a beautiful garden for a home, an elaborate banquet table at which they find nourishment and offer their abundant gifts back to their divine company. The man and woman enjoy God’s presence in and alongside his creation as they share evening walks through the garden, and participate in the governing of it by naming the plants and animals. Thus the broad definition of “sacrament” offered by Dennis T. Olson to describe the Eastern tradition proves most faithful to the biblical understanding of the relationship between God and matter: “any physical or material event or object through which God is perceived as present, revealing or offering grace or blessing.”
The truth of the matter is that all of creation may be seen as sacramental. There is no location where God is not present, and there is no activity in which God is not working. Jesus Christ is the perfect demonstration of this as “‘the quintessential sacrament,’ that place where heaven and earth meet.” He is the ultimate proof that God works with human beings through matter, the way we can most easily understand. Thus this world is not a necessary evil; it is, for humanity, a necessary good. Orthodox sacramentology accounts for this understanding of creation most fully, but the question remains: why does the West reserve the term for only seven—or two—rites? Why has recognition of the presence of God in the world been limited in such a dramatic fashion?
The development of “sacrament” as a theological term may explain why it is a narrower concept in Western theology and ecclesial life. It finds its root in the Greek word mysterion (mystery), which carries a wide range of application. Unlike the contemporary understanding of mystery, a mysterion is not something that remains beyond the realm of human knowledge. It is something transcendent that has been revealed. Early theologians give the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and the hidden meaning of Scripture as examples of mysteria. (Paul also famously refers to Christ’s self-sacrifice for the Church as a mysterion in Ephesians 5.) Thus a mystery is not something one cannot know; it is something one can know endlessly. It is an invitation to notice God’s presence and action in the visible and material.
The shift to Latin as the primary language for theological writing was a catalyst for the more restricted understanding of the sacraments found in the West. Sacramentum, the Latin translation of mysterion, has a much more limited meaning, denoting “a sacred military oath, or solemn sign of security.” It carries a performative connotation, and the word from which it is derived, sacrare, means “to set apart" (it's where we get the English word "sacred"). It is quite easy to see, then, how this translation of mysterion lends itself to the systematization so prevalent in Western Christianity.
In looking for ways to determine what is “set apart,” four criteria for sacraments emerge: a material element, a liturgical rite, a minister, and a particular grace imparted to the believer. These may be seen as early as Hugh of St. Victor, but most medieval scholastics find their source for these criteria—and most of their sacramental theology—in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the standard work of systematic theology on which every theological doctor was required to write a commentary. He is the first to list the seven sacraments recognized by Rome: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, and marriage. Important also is Lombard’s understanding that sacraments offer a specific kind of grace—saving grace. They are effective remedies for sin, assisting the believer in overcoming the power of sin in daily living.
This presents another point of departure between the East and West that has, at its root, a difference in theology of atonement. While the East regards salvation as a restoration of that perfect communion between God and humanity lost in the garden, a gravitation towards courtroom language leads Western theologians to limit the scope of sacramental grace to that which gives the believer good standing in the eyes of God. Therefore, while myriad opportunities for grace may be presented in ordinary life, sacraments proper deal only with this specific kind of grace. This understanding comes to its climax and finds its most dramatic example in the father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther.
Due to this intermingling of a forensic understanding of justification with sacramental grace, Luther’s reconfiguration of the doctrine of justification necessarily leads to adjustments in the realm of sacramental theology. Luther retains a forensic model of justification, but rejects an infusion of saving grace in favor of imputation of Christ’s merits. Justification is not a process, but an event—a laying hold of Christ’s promises, which transfers the benefits of his saving work to the believer. Rather than transformation, it deals with forgiveness, a concept that will become the cornerstone of all Lutheran theology.
This obsession with the forgiveness of sins leads Luther to pare down his list of sacraments to two: baptism and Eucharist. As Christ is the particular person of the Trinity through whom human beings are saved, he is the one who must ordain them. Though fewer in number, it must be understood that for Luther the sacraments are still necessary, efficacious, and representative of objective realities. Rather than denying the efficacy of the sacraments, Luther simply restricts their function to the forgiveness of sins.
Unfortunately, the insistence on verbal institution by Jesus himself betrays an incomplete biblical theology—the same method progressive Christians of today use in their attempt to justify homosexual practice (“Jesus never explicitly talked about it”). The verbal commandments in the Old Testament—and indeed, all the words of Scripture, which is “breathed out by God”—carry just as much weight as do the words of Christ. Thus, the directive to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28 allows a sacramental understanding of marriage, and the same may be said for the establishment of anointing the sick in James 5, as both activities are divinely instituted, make use of matter, and—as far as there is a certain “rite” necessary for procreation—ritual action.
Furthermore, presuming to have an exhaustive list of the particular forms of matter God may choose to make use of, and limiting the kinds of grace God may give through these forms, encourages the development of what Émile Durkheim has referred to as the sacred-profane dichotomy. To assert that God does not give grace through oil, verbal confessions, or sexual union introduces the possibility that matter is a superfluous component of God’s work in the world—that God could work through the material, but there is no reason to expect it. The natural conclusion of this is a spiritualistic expression of the faith that claims externals are only used “for the sake of the weak.” (Robert Barclay)
But this view of the sacraments simply does not do justice to the overarching biblical narrative, in which God uses the material world to bless, nourish, save, and restore his people. Whether it is a tree in a garden, manna raining from the sky, a pillar of cloud and fire, a bronze serpent, or the river Jordan, it must be understood that God’s presence and grace are nearly always mediated to his people through matter.
The sacraments are a necessary component of a Christian theology that seeks to take seriously the biblical understanding of the nature of reality, the divine-human relationship, salvation, and the restoration of the cosmos. They are efficacious signs of divine grace imparted to the believer, and they uncover the “sacramentality of creation itself.” (Schmemann) They are, as Augustine put it, “visible words,” that not only recount the salvation story, but also embody the overarching biblical witness to the God who “became flesh and dwelt among us.” They are, as Bonaventure described, “remedies,” that infuse grace into the believer while more broadly signifying and re-presenting the fundamental remedy for sin and death: the Incarnation.
Christ’s incarnation is more than an event that affords human beings forgiveness from their sins; it effectively reconciles God and the material creation that spurned him in an attempt at self-sufficiency. Just as the fall of humanity occurred through matter, it is through matter that God reconciles humanity to himself. Once again, in baptism the Holy Spirit breathes over the face of the waters. Once again, human beings commune with and worship God seated around the dinner table. But this is not all; the entire created order may again be seen as sacramental.
Baptism and Eucharist are not the only sacraments; they are the founts from which our recognition of a sacramental world flows. These specific sacramental rites of the Church are in fact revealing the sacramental nature of creation, making enumeration and distinction unnecessary—and indeed impossible. In walking through through the woods, meditating, enjoying art/music, sharing a meal with family and friends—even waking from sleep—human beings commune with God and receive his grace. “The whole earth is,” indeed, “full of his glory.”
For further reading, see:
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World.
Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology.