Understanding the sacraments: How many sacraments?

By Father Randy Stice

The final number was finally set after a centuries-long discernment process involving many suggestions

How many sacraments are there? Two? Five? Seven? Eight? Twelve?

Each of these answers has been proposed at some point by someone. This question was only answered after a long process, as the Catechism affirms: “The Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord” (Catechism, 1117). Here we will offer a brief overview of this centuries-long discernment process.

We find support for the seven sacraments in the writings of the earliest Church fathers. Tertullian (Catechism, 200), who made important contributions to the early Church’s understanding of the sacraments, wrote about baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, holy orders and marriage.

St. Augustine, who died in 430, listed all of the sacraments except for anointing of the sick. However, one of his contemporaries, Pope Innocent I, wrote about the sacrament of anointing in a letter in 416.

There is, in fact, no record of adulteration, falsification or controversy concerning any of the seven sacraments in the first five centuries. According to Johann Auer, “This entitles us to trace the Church’s silent tradition on the matter of the seven sacraments back to apostolic times” (A General Doctrine of the Sacraments and the Mystery of the Eucharist, 93).

It was during the Early Middle Ages that theologians such as Master Roland Bandinelli (later Pope Alexander III) and Hugh of St Victor began to affirm seven sacraments, although consensus had not yet been reached. Some medieval considered consecration of a king or queen the eighth sacrament, and St. Peter Damian (died 1072) counted 12 sacraments.

However, from the mid-13th century onward seven sacraments were considered a truth of the faith, a truth that was affirmed by the Council of Lyons in 1274: “The same Holy Roman Church also holds and teaches that there are seven sacraments of the Church.” In 1439 the Council of Florence listed the “seven sacraments of the New Law, namely Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order and Matrimony.” The orthodox churches also have affirmed the same seven sacraments since the 13th century.

Once the number of sacraments was set at seven, it was given a variety of interpretations and justifications, including the seven stars of Revelation 1:16, the seven lampstands of Revelation 1:13 and the seven pillars in the temple of wisdom (Proverbs 9:1-3). Others are seven Letters to Churches in Revelation 2-3 or the seven petitions of the Our Father.

Alexander of Hales in the 1220s associated them with the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues: Baptism instills faith, confirmation instills fortitude, the Eucharist love, penance justice, marriage temperance, priestly orders wisdom, and anointing of the sick hope. This association was affirmed by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor of the Church.

The number of sacraments was challenged by Reformers. After some vacillation (from two to five), Luther concluded that only baptism and Eucharist were sacraments. Later reformers such as Zwingli (died in 1531) and Calvin (died in 1546) accepted only Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “in a highly symbolic sense” (Paul Haffner, The Sacramental Mystery, 11). The Anglicans also traditionally affirmed two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The Council of Trent, the Catholic Church’s response to the Reformation, strongly condemned the teaching of the Reformers regarding the sacraments. In its Decree on the Sacraments in 1547 it stated: “If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law…are more or fewer than seven that is: baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, extreme unction, Order and matrimony; or that any one of these is not truly and properly a sacrament, he is cut off from the Church.”

The Catechism summarizes the Church’s discernment of the sacraments thus: “As she has done for the canon of Sacred Scripture and for the doctrine of the faith, the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her ‘into all truth,’ has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ and, as the faithful steward of God’s mysteries, has determined its ‘dispensation’” (Catechism, 1117).

The Church’s sacramental teaching is a beautiful and abiding testament to the way God cares for and guides his Church so that she always will be “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men” (Lumen Gentium, 1).

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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