The introduction of Greek thinking into the Church would immediately help to address one problem right off the bat. Even as early as St. Paul Christians could not help but notice that the experiences of baptism and eucharist did not always “take.” Baptized individuals returned to sin; in fact, some celebrations of the holy meal—notably Corinth’s—were undertaken in conditions of segregation and drunkenness. This obvious state of affairs was evidence that there might be some difference between the actual rite and the experience of the rite. Baptism, of its nature, would always “remake” the convert. Whatever a Christian might do after his baptism, even quit the Christian assembly, the sin could not undo what God had wrought.
Thus, in thinking about baptism and eucharist, early Christian theologians had to find language to describe the “stand alone” nature of these events, as separate from the fashion that Christians might live them. In fact, they actually had to find a common word for these two major rites of Christian identity, and in this they were helped by Greek thought and pagan practice, where the idea of a “stand alone” mystery—a divine truth separate from and above human experience was common. Christians began to adopt the term “mystery” to its rites of initiation, conveying at least in this sense a common understanding with pagans that religious reality and human experience were not always synonymous. St. John Chrysostom, a later father of the Church, puts this well: “A mystery is present when we realize that something exists beyond the things we are looking at.” (Martos, p. 31)
It was the Christian philosopher/theologian Tertullian who around 210 A.D. first coined the Latin word sacramentum in a Christian sense. “Sacramentum” was his translation of the Greek mysterion for Latin readers. Tertullian borrowed the term from the Roman army, where a recruit made a solemn pledge to the gods, the emperors, and his commanding officers; in many instances a new Roman soldier might be branded. Thus, a Roman officer might betray his state duties during his lifetime, but the pledge and the mark remained. (In retrospect, Jewish circumcision carries something of the same sacramental thinking.) The reality of the pledge was untouched by the subsequent conduct of the soldier.
Christian writers who followed Tertullian used the term sacrament to describe the triad of Christian initiation events—the immersion in water (baptism), the laying on of hands (eventually Confirmation of the Spirit) and participation in the Eucharistic meal. It is interesting, though, that Church fathers of time kept two words in circulation: sacramentum for the rituals, and mysterium for those things hidden from full human understanding. One could partake of the sacramentum without grasping the full mysteries of the divine.
Tertullian and others thus started a line of sacramental thought and discussion that continues to this day. I am getting ahead of myself a bit, but this might help. If there are two dimensions to a sacrament—its objective reality, so to speak and the experience/participation of the worshipper--how much of each do you need to have a “real sacrament” in contemporary Christian thinking? There are two positions, hot button points in the Reformation dialogues of the 1500’s and beyond. Catholic sacramental theology holds to the principle of ex opere operato. Loosely translated from Latin, this means that the spiritual effects of the sacrament come “from the work of the work,” that is, when the sacrament is celebrated by its Church approved format. Christ’s saving grace is present. The faith of the people, or even of the priest, is not the determining factor in whether a sacrament has the power to save or not.
Classical Protestantism, on the other hand, holds to the principle of ex opere operantis, “by the work of the one doing the work.” In practice, this means that there is some correlation between the work of worship and the disposition of the clergy and the congregation, individually and as a group. We will look at these positions more closely with Martos in weeks to come, as you can probably see arguments for and against each position. The Catholic legal teaching is the first position, but the liturgical reforms of Vatican II speak significantly to the actual experience in every sacrament as critical to an encounter with Christ.
As Martos explains, early Christian fathers drew heavily from the actual biblical witness of Christ. “Take and eat….” Of course, even the New Testament clarity of Christ could be mysterious on certain points, as in John 6 when many of Jesus’ followers left him because he had commanded them to eat his flesh (literally, in the Greek vocabulary.) Again St. John Chrysostom to the rescue: “Let us believe God in all things and deny him nothing, even when what is said seems contrary to our judgment and to our senses.” (p. 32) On the other hand, the same fathers were deeply influenced by their own experience of baptismal conversion and the rite of Eucharist, which was now becoming a rather impressive affective ritual. In other words, experience was enlightening theory as theory clarified experience.
By the fourth century the Church had arrived at a working definition of sacraments that is not very distant from our catechetical definitions today. Martos summarized it well: “…the principal theologians of the early Church accepted and developed the idea that sacramenta were effective symbols: they actually caused what they signified. Or rather it was God who ultimately caused those effects, for only God could touch people’s souls, forgive their sins, impart the Spirit to them, or make the Son present to them.” (p. 33)