Oddvar Moi


"An outward sign of inward grace ordained by Jesus Christ."
What do you understand by this definition of a sacrament?

An essay presented for a course in Sacramental Theology at Allen Hall Seminary, London

October 1997. - Oddvar Moi


Working on this essay on the sacraments I have discovered that the topic is immense and that my words on the topic will have to be very fragmentary and not very satisfactory. Even though the practical implication at the end of the essay is not more than an afterthought, I have written a much longer essay than was asked of me. So with the limited time and space I had to my disposal, this was the best I could do.


It is proper to start this essay on the meaning and importance of sacraments with this sentence from the Second Vatican Council: (In Christ's body, the Church) .. "the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ in his passion and glorification. Through baptism we are formed in the likeness with Christ: .... Really sharing in the body of the Lord in the breaking of the eucharistic bread we are taken up into communion with him and with one another. ..."

My task in this essay is to interpret the following definition of a sacrament: "An outward sign of inward grace ordained by Jesus Christ." I will first try to trace down the sources of this traditional definition of a sacrament, then go on to interpret the different elements of the sentence. In the second main part of the essay I will present an introduction to "The sacraments" to a parish group, using the conclusions I reached in the first part of the essay.

1.1 The origin of this definition of a sacrament

This very traditional definition of a sacrament is usually attributed to Augustine, and with him there occurred a truly epochal point in Christian sacramental understanding by the introduction of the concept "a sacred sign" as a definition of a sacrament. But his definition was much wider than our understanding and this essay's definition; the closest Augustine came to our understanding is that a sacrament is a "sign of a sacred thing."

I have looked at his letter 138 (to Macellinus, AD 412) where he deals with the issue of the sacraments, mainly how the Old Testament and the New Testament sacraments are different. Here he also writes: " .. therefore God did not stand in need of those sacrifices, nor does He ever need anything; but there are certain acts, symbolical of these divine gifts, whereby the soul receives either present grace or eternal glory, in the celebration and practice of which, pious exercises, serviceable not to God but to ourselves, are performed." About the difference between the Old and the New Testament he also writes: "It was fitting that Christ's future coming should be foretold by some sacraments, and that after His coming other sacraments should proclaim this."

In his book On Christian Doctrine Augustine writes at length about the use of signs, mostly in the context of understanding language and interpreting the Bible. But he does also write something specifically about the sacraments as signs.

Now he is in bondage to a sign who uses, or pays homage to, any significant object without knowing what it signifies: he, on the other hand, who either uses or honors a useful sign divinely appointed, whose force and significance he understands, does not honor the sign which is seen and temporal, but that to which all such signs refer. ... (O)ur Lord Himself, and apostolic practice, have handed down to us a few rites in place of many, and these at once very easy to perform, most majestic in their significance, and most sacred in the observance; such, for example, as the sacrament of baptism, and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord. And as soon as any one looks upon these observances he knows to what they refer, and so reveres them not in carnal bondage, but in spiritual freedom.

In fact, to find the origin of the sentence I have been asked to analyse, we have to look at people that developed Augustine teaching - especially Hugh of St. Victor (†1141) and Peter Lombardus (†1160), both working at the University of Paris.

It actually took over 700 years after Augustine before there was any real development in the theology of the sacraments. In fact there was a notable negative development after Augustine, since his theology had an inner tension between the sacraments only being interpretative symbols (from his neo-Platonist philosophy) and them communicating objective grace (from his faithfulness to Scripture). Later theologians couldn't keep on to both of these aspects at the same time and tended to be either massive realists or held to "various forms of symbolism or spiritualism."

Hugh of St. Victor defined the sacraments as "receptacles of grace" and contributed to the gradual fixation of the number of sacraments to seven - by focusing on their institution. Others also say that he made the definition stricter by claiming that not all signs are sacraments, they need to be efficacious signs. In any case, Hugh had started out with a very wide definition of what was a sacrament, just like Augustine himself, including rites that we today call sacramentals, but ended with a reduced number. Later on Peter Lombardus' work led to attempt to define sacramental causality. He coined a definition that maintained its dominance for centuries, at least until Trent. "One speaks of sacraments in their proper sense when a symbol of God's grace, which is a form of invisible grace bearing its likeness and being its source, is present."

Others quote another definition by Peter Lombardus: "A sacrament, properly speaking, is a sign of the grace of God and the form of invisible grace in such a way that it is its image and its cause." None of the definitions seem to include the phrase 'ordained / instituted by Christ' even though this concept had been introduced by Hugh of St. Victor. Maybe we have to go all the way to the council of Trent to find this definitively stated.

So much for trying to trace the origin of this essay's definition of a sacrament. I will end my historical search here, since there is no time in this paper to go into Thomas Aquinas' theology and what comes after him. I will instead turn to the individual elements of our definition.

1.2 The distinct elements of the definition

1.2.1 Sign

Michael Lawlor has a very interesting chapter on the meaning of a symbol. Symbols in the Jewish and the Christian tradition are much richer than simple signs, and really make present what they symbolise, and a sacramental ritual is much richer than the sign it consists of. Symbols communicate at the level of sense and image and may be grasped only personally. "True love tends to concrete representation" , as in all human relationships this is the case also in the relationship between God and man. Symbols open up dimensions of reality which the human being cannot reach otherwise. Symbols are necessary since the reality of God can never be mastered by man. Western mentality traditionally separates the 'real' and the 'symbolic', while this is not the case in the eastern or the Semitic mind. Lawlor's own definition is also that a symbol is "fully real".

Lawlor makes a point of the difference between a symbol and a sign, but often the two words are used interchangeably (as in this essay's definition). The Catechism often uses the two words together when it as Lawlor focuses on the importance of signs/ symbols. "As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for his relationship with God."

Downey says that a sign, a symbol, a word or an action is determined in large part by the situation or context in which it is used. He then mentions three types of contexts; ordinary day-in, day-out affairs, the world of science, or with a symbolic, poetic meaning - and these signs often have multiple meanings. "(T)he concrete signs, gestures, actions, and words which form the heart of the sacramental life of the church are symbolic realities. .. They have to do with meaning and value. Sacraments are not mere signs, whose purpose is to relay precise information." Sacraments are symbolic in nature and it is important for communication that they are given multiple meanings. But often "people try to tie down the meaning and significance of a symbol to just one meaning. .. Liturgy and sacraments suffer when people try to restrict their meaning to a uniform, preconceived understanding." But there really are several / multiple meanings in a symbol and saying only that Jesus is the bread in the Eucharist is very simplistic and not very helpful. It is like saying that love is the rose given.

Augustine's role in constructing a both philosophical as well as theological theory of sacramentality is stressed by Ganoszy. Former attempts had severe weaknesses; the Latin theologians understood everything from a standpoint of practical conduct, while the Greeks spoke of the sacraments in terms of the mystery cults. Augustine's "treatise De Magistro on signs, the 'signa', is considered a fundamental theology of sacramentality in general. .. Sacramentum is for him a specific species of the family of symbols belonging 'to the divine things' and which has to do with the realm of the sacred."

1.2.2 Outward/inward

I will more or less skip this issue of inward and outward, refer to the previous chapter and just say the most obvious. Outward signs can be take from creation (a rock, water, bread), from social life (a kiss, a handshake, a dance) or they can be words, expressing feelings, ideas or information. Inward in our definition is the spiritual side of man, the fact that man is more than just his outward parts, certainly a very important concept in our Christian faith. It is inwardly, spiritually, that we are given grace through the outward signs, the sacraments.

1.2.3 Grace

The concept of 'grace' could be considered as less important for this essay, less important than 'sign', since the latter is more central in the traditional definition of a sacrament. I still want to look at it and I start with a definition from the Catechism. "Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life." I am from my (Lutheran) background more used to thinking about grace in terms of justice and forgiveness of sins, and I see that I have a lot to learn from this more dynamic understanding.

Häring also writes about what grace is in the same dynamic way, under the heading; the 'Signs of Grace':

"Grace (charis) means the graciousness of God in turning his countenance to man. It is a sign of God's nearness, a word of love which arouses in us the answer of love. Grace means gentleness, the attractive energy of true love; it means alliance, a reciprocal relationship which, however, remains wholly the gift of God. On man's part it is received with the awareness that it is an undeserved gift and this awareness energises us, teaches us, disciplines us, gives us orientation to our whole life."

Rahner also discusses this issue, more in the context of cause and effect, and says that signs pay no part in explaining sacrament's causality (i.e. them conferring grace). God does not will grace because of the sign, but he has tied grace to the sign. It is possible to say that the sacraments are a 'cause' of grace, because grace is conferred "on account" of the sign.

It would also be helpful to look at the distinction between sacramental grace and sacramental reality. If we go to St. Thomas and the theologian following him, this issue is quite extensively discussed. It was easy to find out if a sacrament was valid, since a valid sacrament was one which met the minimal ritual requirements; i.e. proper matter and form, proper minister and proper intention. But since grace was a hidden reality, freely given by God, one could never be certain whether or not a person had actually received sacramental graces. "One could be certain that God offered the graces through the sacramental reality since God always offers his gifts freely, but it was always possible that the person who received the sacrament was not also open to receiving the sacramental gifts."

This issue is also raised by Corbon in a book that is very much concerned with the dynamics and the power of the liturgy. He asks if some Christians are not cut of from the source of the 'sacramental well', by really seeking a well in themselves, even when they are present in church. They sometimes only notice the outward forms of the liturgy, and have less interest in what Christ gives us through the sacramental sign.

1.2.4 Ordained by Christ

I have mentioned that Hugh of St. Victor discussed the institution (I will use ordained and instituted as synonyms) of the sacraments by Christ to some extent, but that the matter wasn't finally settled until Trent.

Some modern theologians find it harder to prove that Christ instituted at least several of the sacraments. Rahner says for example; "we must ask how it is possible to demonstrate in an historically credible way the sacramentality of matrimony, holy order, extreme unction ... We have no sayings of Jesus about these sacraments." He still finds a solution to the problem if the issue of institution is "approached from the standpoint of the Church as the primal sacrament, with certain fundamental and essential acts in which her nature finds actualisation, as the sacraments."

Downey writes something that I think sums up this issue well:

"To institute means to begin, to initiate, or to establish. As research in the fields of biblical studies and liturgical studies comes up with new and fresh insights, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus did not lay out a blueprint for the development of the sevenfold sacramental system of Roman Catholicism. ... Rather than trying to guarantee that the sacraments were instituted by Christ in a very narrow sense, we need to view the question on institution in light of the whole life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. The sacramental life of the church finds its origin in the entire mystery of Jesus Christ."

1.2.5 A deeper understanding of the word 'sacrament'

I feel that it is necessary also to look at other definitions of 'sacrament' than the one given in the essay title. 'Vatican II' theology, drawing on first of all Edward Schillebeeckx, often talks about a Principle of Sacramentality, and this helps enormously to prevent a simple mechanical view of the sacraments. The Eucharist is very much more than transforming bread into the body of Christ and baptism is more than the washing away of sins. In this new understanding a "sacrament is the point of connection between the invisible and the visible ... It is the point of encounter with God and human persons in community."

Vatican II itself very clearly has this dynamic and deep understanding of the sacraments, as seen in this quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium:

"The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen and express it."

It is also very helpful to speak about Christ as the first sacrament and to identify several distinct levels of sacramentality. 1) Jesus, Sacrament of God - this says that Christ's humanity is the primordial sacrament. 2) Church, Sacrament of Christ - the Risen Christ brought about this radically new community of faith and discipleship. 3) The (Seven) Sacraments of the Church. Only understood on the basis of 1) and 2) is the sacramental system of the catholic Church intelligible.

1.3 Summary

Focusing only on the most important insights I have gained working with this definition of a sacrament - excluding everything else, as interesting as it might be - I will mention four things:

1 We have noticed how importance Augustine's introduction of the word sign in the definition of a sacrament has been. We also looked briefly at the historic development after Augustine.

2 We have seen how the concept of sign/ symbol can help us to understand the richness of the sacraments. The sacraments are dynamic powers that can transform our lives, it is much to narrow to focus only on transubstantiation, on the mere presence of Christ or similar things.

3 A dynamic understanding of grace - as a life-giving and transforming power - is also an important insight from the work so far.

4 Finally we have also seen that a wider understanding of sacraments, Christ and the Church as primordial sacraments, gives us a much better understanding of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.


Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Geoffrey Chapman, London 1994)
Augustine, St. Christian Doctrine. (De Doctrina Christiana) In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2, First Series. (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts 1995 (1887))
Augustine, St. Letters of Augustin. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, First Series. (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts 1995 (1887))
Corbon, Jean The Wellspring of worship. (Paulist Press, New York, 1988)
Crichton, J. D. Understanding the Sacraments. (Geoffrey Chapman, London/ New York, 1973/93)
Downey, Michael Clothed in Christ. The Sacraments and Christian Living. (Crossroad, New York, 1987)
Ganoczy, Alexandre An Introduction to Catholic Sacramental Theology. (Paulist Press, New York/Ramsey, 1984)
Flannery, Austin (Ed.) Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents.. Study Edition.(Dominican Publications, 1987/92)
Häring, Bernhard The Sacraments in a Secular Age. (St. Paul Publications, Slough, 1976)
Lawlor, M. G. Symbol and Sacrament. (Paulist Press, New York, 1987)
Martos, Joseph Doors to the Sacred. A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. (Image Books, New York 1982)
Rahner, Karl The Church and the Sacraments. (Burns & Oates, London 1963/66)
Rist, John M. Augustine. Ancient thought baptised. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994)


[Lumen Gentium. Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, No. 7, page 355. In Flannery, Austin (Ed.). Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents.. Study Edition.(Dominican Publications, 1987/92)]
[Lawlor, Michael G. Symbol and Sacrament. (Paulist Press, New York, 1987) p 32]
[From Augustine's letter 138, quoted in Martos, Joseph, Doors to the Sacred. A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. (Image Books, New York 1982) p 59.] ]
[In Letters of Augustin. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, First Series. (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts 1995 (1887)) Letter 138.I.6 p 482.]
[Letters of Augustin Letter 138.I.8 p 483.]
[In Christian Doctrine (De Doctrina Christiana) In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2, First Series. (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts 1995 (1887)) Book III.9.13 p 560.]
[Ganoczy, Alexandre An Introduction to Catholic Sacramental Theology. (Paulist Press, New York/Ramsey, 1984) p 24.]
[Ganoczy p 25]
[Ganoczy p 26]
[Lawlor, Michael G. Symbol and Sacrament. (Paulist Press, New York, 1987) p 33]
[Ganoczy p 25]
[Lawlor p 34]
[Lawlor p 34]
[Material in this whole paragraph is taken from Lawlor p 6- 28]
[Lawlor p 24]
[Lawlor. p 28]
[Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Geoffrey Chapman, London 1994) No. 1146, p 263]
[Downey, Michael Clothed in Christ. (Crossroad, New York, 1987) p 22]
[Downey p 23]
[Downey p 24]
[Downey p 29]
[Ganoczy p 20]
[Catechism of the Catholic Church. No. 1996, p 434]
[Häring, Bernhard The Sacraments in a Secular Age. (St. Paul Publications, Slough, 1976) p 98]
[Rahner, Karl, The Church and the Sacraments. (Burns & Oates, London 1963/66), p 36]
[Rahner p 37]
[Martos, Joseph, Doors to the Sacred. A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. (Image Books, New York 1982) pp 87-89]
[Rahner p 88]
[Corbon, Jean The Wellspring of worship. (Paulist Press, New York, 1988) p 8 and p 12]
[Rahner pp 41-42]
[Rahner p 73]
[Downey p 31]
[Downey p 33-34]
[Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 59, p 20. In Flannery, Austin (Ed.) Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents.. Study Edition.(Dominican Publications, 1987/92)]
[Downey p 34-3

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