Posted by: mattcolvin | January 5, 2010

How sacraments work

It has always been puzzling to me why both Zwinglians and transsubstantiationists have such a hard time understanding the sacraments.

Unless we have a Marcionite hermeneutic of radical discontinuity, we should assume that the sacraments of the New Covenant work in the same manner as the sacraments of the old.

Moses sprinkles the people with blood from a hyssop wand and says “This is the blood of the covenant.” He is referring to the blood that was put on the doorposts and lintels at Passover.

How did that blood work at Passover? Did it transform into something? Did it work by the Israelites meditating on it? Was it a sort of gory flashcard to remind them of things?

Of course not. It worked because God saw it and responded to it.

This involves a low view of the elements themselves. They aren’t changed. God uses bread. God uses water. God uses lamb’s blood.

Hugh of St. Victor taught that sacraments work like containers; that there is an invisible grace contained in the visible elements: “Vases do not cure the sick but medicine does.” Leithart footnotes a Latin passage from Hugh, which I translate thus:

“God is the doctor, man is the sick person, the priest is the assistant or messenger, grace is the medicine, and the sacrament is a container. The doctor gives, the assistant dispenses, the container perserves that which cures the sick man who perceives the spiritual grace. Therefore, if sacraments are containers of spiritual grace, they do not heal of themselves, since containers do not cure a sick man, but medicine does… In order to display his skill, the doctor has concocted his cure from that very thing, by which a sluggish man received the cause of his disease. For since a man had become corrupt by longing for visible things, it was fitting for him to be cured in a symmetrical way, and receive the cause of his health in the same visible things, so that he might rise up whole through the same things through which he had fallen sick.”

Note the prominence of the dichotomy beetween visible and invisible. By this distinction, Hugh locates the sacrament’s efficacy in something supernatural located within the elements themselves, yet invisible to the senses.

Leithart says, “Methodologically, Hugh’s formulations imply that one cannot conduct an inquiry into the ‘how?’ or even the ‘what?’ of Christian sacraments by examining the ‘how?’ of Old Testament rituals.” Thus, Romanist sacramentology is semi-Marcionite.

I would add that Baptist sacramentology commits the same error in the opposite direction. It shares with Rome the assumption that mere water, or mere bread and wine, cannot possibly effect what the Bible says the sacraments do. It therefore simply denies that the sacraments do these things. If you have been clothed with Christ, or if you have been buried with Christ, or if you have received remission of sins, it cannot have been by pouring water on a head in obedience to Christ’s command. It must be by the exercise of mental faith. If you share in Christ’s body and blood, it cannot be by eating bread and wine. So it must be by thinking about Jesus during communion.

Accordingly, Baptist theology is also unwilling to entertain that the NT sacraments work the same way as the Old Testament’s rituals. Contributing to this unwillingness is the very common Baptist belief that the rituals of the Old Covenant were able to be physical because that covenant was inferior to the “more spiritual” New Covenant. Yet the apostle Paul insists that the Old Covenant was not inferior to the New in precisely this respect (1 Cor. 10:1-3).

Passover worked, not by some grace inherent in the lamb’s blood, but because God is a real person, who really sees, and really acts. The elements do not change. Baptism is effective, not because it is water poured on a person, but because it is water poured by God’s command. The Lord’s Supper conveys Christ to us not because the bread has become something more or other than bread, but because we eat it by God’s command.

The Lord’s Supper conveys real blessing and real judgment because God is real, and He polices the boundaries of His people. Baptism really ingrafts us into the church and makes us members of Christ because God is real, and He polices the boundaries of His people. And Paul actually states outright that the Lord’s Supper works this way: “For this reason many among you are sick and some have fallen asleep…If we judged ourselves, we would not be judged with the world.”

Sacramental semi-Marcionism and Deistic anti-supernaturalism are two sides of the same coin. They both teach us that God’s involvement in the sacraments is not that of a person who acts. Either He is packaged as wafers (Rome), or He is merely the absent object of our thoughts.

This is why I say that both Romanism and Baptist theology are anti-covenantal. The essence of covenant is real relationship between persons. These theologies do not take the sacraments as rituals that function as signs between us and a living, present God. He is either shrunk to a wafer or banished to be the absent object of our meditation. He is not taken seriously as our covenant partner, present and active and powerful.

In a future post, I’d like to consider how both Romanism and Baptist theology fail to make the historical Christ the object of their sacramental theology.



  1. “gory flashcard” — great image.

  2. In the past, you have never had a kind word for Lutheran sacramentology (at least in connection with the Lord’s Supper), but it seems to me that Luther’s “in, with and under” the visible forms is entirely consistent with the exposition of Hugh St. Victor that you quote.

  3. Right, Dad. Luther and Hugh St. Victor are both on the same page. Luther is still captive to the same medieval assumptions that Hugh promoted. Both of them are about as far from Hebraic sacramentology as they could possibly be. The disciples reclining at the Last Supper could never have imagined any such nonsense as the Victorine theory of the sacraments as “containers for grace”. This container-theory is what Leithart calls “semi-Marcionite sacramentology”. That is, it theorizes the sacraments in such a way that we cannot look to the rituals of the OT in order to learn anything about the “mechanics” of the NT’s sacraments.

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