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How Many Sacraments Are There?

Well, that depends.

If we could travel back in time and ask the apostles how many sacraments there are, we couldn’t use the word “sacrament,” because that word is Latin, and the language of the apostolic Church was Greek. “Sacrament” did not come into wide use until Latin Christians began to use it in about the third century. The earliest Christian writer who wrote in Latin and popularized the use of the word “sacrament” for church rites was probably Tertullian.

So when arrive in the first century in our time machine, we’ll have to rephrase our question and ask the apostles how many mysteries there are. For them that would be a very confusing question. One apostle might reply that it isn’t a sensible question, because mysteries aren’t discrete countable things; another might wonder why on earth would anyone think to ask such a question; and a third would probably say that there is only one Mystery, our Lord Jesus Christ, because He is the perfect revelation of God and the fulfillment of all prophecies. Or as we say today in church, the mystery of our faith is “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” At that point, they would probably all nod in agreement.

We would get back into the time machine and return to our own century without the information we sought—however, we might be humbled by the realization that the ancient Church was centered on Jesus Christ more than we are.

By the beginning of the third century, Christians used the word “mystery” (and its Latin translation “sacrament”) often enough to refer to church rites that it became sensible to count them.

St. Augustine of Hippo, highly regarded by both Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers, said that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, a phrase that reappears in Catholic Sunday Schools today. However, Augustine had something entirely different in mind than the seven-sacrament system of the modern Roman Catholic Church, because he considered the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer to be sacraments. This wide application of the word sacrament in the western church persisted for about 1,000 years and reflected the usage of the word mysterion in the Eastern Church.

The first person to think about the sacraments systematically was Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite around AD 500. He listed the sacraments as consisting of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Anointing, as well as ordination, monastic consecration, and funerals. This scheme shows up in Christian writers as late as the fourteenth century.

In the west, a larger number of church rites were considered sacraments, but the number got whittled down because of the general feeling that in order to be considered a sacrament, the rite had to have been instituted by Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry. It wasn’t long until the current list of seven sacraments became prevalent. The list appears in Thomas Aquinas’ writings, and was formerly adopted by the Catholic Church at its Council of Florence (1439) and were finally settled at its Council of Trent (1545-63), which also effectively ejected Protestantism and made it a separate movement outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Notice that a sacrament was supposed to have been instituted by Jesus Christ, even though many of them were not explicitly instituted by Him at all, so far as we know. So the rationale was that Jesus instituted them by implication, or indirectly through the apostles, or He instituted them explicitly, but we know it from the apostles, not Scripture—and from there we could get mired down in an argument about the authority and trustworthiness of the apostles. It is on these issues that the debate on the sacraments turns during the time of the Protestant Reformation.

It isn’t an easy debate. For example, is anointing the sick for healing a sacrament? Jesus instructed the disciples to heal the sick, and in Mark 6:13, they did so by anointing the sick and praying for them. In James 5:14, we find this is a routine practice in the church. Is confession a sacrament? Jesus told everyone to repent in Mark 1:14, and 1 John 1:9, which is written to Christians, makes it sound like a continual process. Is a funeral a sacrament? Jesus was involved with funerals in John 11:1-44 and Mark 5:35-43 and experienced a rushed funeral Himself in John 19:38-42. While we certainly do not find a commandment to hold funerals, we can scarcely imagine Jesus forbidding them! All Christians are eligible for funerals, at which our bodies and souls are commended to the Lord.

Figuring out how many sacraments there are requires us to figure out which church rites are sacraments, and that requires us to figure out just exactly what a sacrament is. As you see that is not easy to do. We could argue back and forth on just about any church rite. Sometimes it is even difficult to agree with yourself! In Luther’s book, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he starts out by arguing there are three sacraments: Baptism, Communion, and Confession, but by the end of the book, he argues that there are two: Baptism and Communion.

For Protestants, there are generally two rites called sacraments: Baptism and Communion. There are even Protestants who reject the word “sacrament” altogether and speak of “ordinances of the church” instead, in which case they are generally not very picky as to which church rites belong in the list.

For Anglicans, the term sacrament is more fluid. Some Anglicans speak of the two sacraments of the Protestants, others accept the Roman Catholic list, and still others speak of the difference between the two as ‘rites of the church commonly called sacraments.’

While western Christians can get very passionate about what a sacrament is, how many sacraments there are, and whether there are even sacraments at all, the Eastern Orthodox have a laid-back attitude about it.

The Eastern Orthodox have occasionally used the Roman Catholic list of seven sacraments beginning about the 16th century, but only for convenience in an informal, unofficial way. In general, the Orthodox generally prefer to call them mysteries rather than sacraments, and they don’t share the western obsession for defining and enumerating them. If an Orthodox lay people should happened to refer to, say, a funeral as a sacrament in the presence of their parish priest, the priest probably wouldn’t mind.

I’m grateful to Robert B. Kelly, who contributed to this article.

See also:

Ancient World Views and the Sacraments
What is a Sacrament?
What about baptism “in Jesus’ Name”?