The discomfiture in the Roman Church caused by the Eucharistic writings of Berengar of Tours around 1050 roused new theological energies toward a clearer understanding and articulation of sacrament. The natural starting point would have been St. Augustine, whose definition of a sacrament as an “outward sign of an invisible reality” had been the gold standard for about 600 years. The Berengar episode had proved that a greater degree of precision was necessary, but there were other nagging questions aside from Berengar’s, and some of these ironically could be traced back to Augustine’s own theology and pastoral practice. During the Donatist controversy, Augustine maintained that “traitors to the faith” during Roman persecution did not need to be rebaptized nor did the clergy need to be reordained, and that sacraments celebrated by turncoat clergy were valid.
Implied in Augustine’s thoughts and directives is the nature of some kind of immutability or changelessness in at least some sacraments. Once baptized, always baptized. Once a bishop, always a bishop. Augustine was most likely following St. Paul’s definition of baptism as a new creation of a human being that could never be reversed. The problem here, as medievalists would point out, is understanding the nature of this permanence. By Augustine’s standards, one should be able to see a visible manifestation of a permanent sacrament. But as Berengar had observed, the bread and the wine consecrated by a priest look exactly like bread and wine, and no more. And even more to the point, a corrupt clergyman actually looked more like an “anti-sign” of his permanent identity as an alter Christus or “other Christ.”
Thus, in the post-Berengar era, Christian medieval theologians set to work on a new and logically consistent manner of defining the nature of the sacraments, a two-century process that would culminate in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). At the risk of serious simplification, suffice to say that the key to the process was the accessibility of the works of Aristotle, whose place in Western thought is so pivotal that he came to be known as simply “The Philosopher.” Aquinas essentially adopted Aristotle’s anthropology and metaphysics, most importantly in matters pertaining to the human soul.
Aristotle’s anthropology is a brilliant description of the real, i.e., material life, and the metaphysical, the invisible world of universals. In Aristotle’s view, all material things could be broken down into form and substance. Something’s form was its classification in the immaterial world of ideas: thus, while humans differ in countless ways from each other, they are united by the fact that they are all humans, a reality that is unchangeable and immutable. Aristotle’s definition allowed for a natural explanation of how a human can participate in both the material world—which changes—and the perfect world of universals, which did not.
Aristotle, of course, was not a Christian, having lived four centuries before Christ. But it did not take Thomas Aquinas and others long to connect the dots to Christian belief and experience, which was both visible and invisible. The invisible, timeless element of a human, his participation in the world of universals, became his soul, and thus the Church could more easily talk about the interconnection of observable human life and internal realities that rested upon faith.
Aristotle’s writings were not available to the Christian West until Islamic scholars introduced sound translations not long before Aquinas’s lifetime. The use of The Philosopher in Christian theology was a cause of some nervousness in the Church until Aquinas was able to demonstrate how useful Aristotle’s definitions might be in understanding sacramental action and correcting previous errors. A good example is the sacrament of baptism. Both St. Paul and St. Augustine defined the sacrament as a “rebirth,” an event that could happen only once in a lifetime. Historically, this belief was challenged in the Donatist Controversy of Augustine’s day.
Aristotle provided Aquinas with a vocabulary to describe baptism. When one is washed in the baptismal font, the effects of God reach the inner essence or form of the baptized. Medieval theology used the term “sealing” (like an impression in soft wax) to describe God’s action. God’s seal is, one could say, God’s universal mark that alters the very form of a man. And since Aristotle held that universals are unchangeable, a human cannot undo what is in Aristotelian thought impossible to change. Joseph Martos observes that since, in Aquinas’s day, there were three sacraments held to be unrepeatable, the Aristotelian principle was applied to them as well. If one listens closely to the Confirmation rite, one hears the phrase “be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” As a student for the priesthood I was taught that the Sacrament of Orders effected an “ontological change” in me, or a change in my very being. My soul would be sealed as an alter Christus with the power to consecrate and absolve, for example, and this reality can never be changed. (In a dire emergency I can still absolve sin, for example, although I have been laicized.)
Aristotle’s metaphysics also inspired the medieval Church to understand all of its sacraments in a threefold way (as opposed to Augustine’s outward sign and inner reality.) Martos uses the Eucharist as a good example. The Church came to divide each sacrament into three parts: sign only, sign and reality, and reality only. With regard to the Eucharist, the (visible) sign only was the bread and wine and the words of institution, “this is my body….” The sign and reality was the consecrated bread and wine, both food and the Real Presence of Christ; the (invisible) reality only was God uniting life-giving grace and life to the human soul. Martos concedes that this three-fold understanding of sacraments serves some sacraments better than others.
It is important to note here that one of the three parts of every sacrament is its visible ritual. The Thomistic synthesis of sacramental life would be followed by what I might call the “age of the lawyers” in which the format and formulas of the visible rite came under significant scrutiny, leading to the later medieval problems of “ritualism.” But I think we’ve done enough heavy lifting for one day. To use Aristotle’s anthropology, I’m going now to “activate my potential” for about four miles.