Is the Church the Primary Sacrament? Implications of this understanding for traditional Sacramental models

Essay, 2010

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Is the Church the Primary Sacrament? What implications does this understanding have for traditional Sacramental models?

At its dawn, the twentieth century was hailed as the century of the Church.[1] As a result, in recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the Church, both in terms of its role and functions, but also in terms of its nature and ontological sacramentality. Of particular interest is the emerging concept that the Church may be the primary or primordial sacrament. This understanding, if correct, has considerable implications for traditional models of sacramentality, both in the seven-sacrament tradition within the Roman Catholic Church, and also the understanding of sacramentality represented by Reformed and Protestant models. Furthermore, this approach has implications for the Church’s approach to missiology, especially regarding inclusivity and ecumenicalism. Therefore, the extent of the Church’s sacramental nature- or lack thereof- is a critical issue for the contemporary Church.

The historical development of the concept of Church as primary sacrament has been protracted. The concept does not occur in Scripture, and is mentioned infrequently in the works of the Church Fathers,[2] although this could be because the early Church saw little distinction between the Holy Spirit and the Church.[3] The earliest known mention of the Church as sacrament occurs in the third century, when Cyprian (d.258) refers to the Church as a “sacrament of unity”[4] (although the original term, sacramentum, had a different meaning that contemporary usage). In the middle ages, the increasing temporality of the Church’s theological priorities, coupled with an intensive literalism and Eucharistic focus in the Church’s theological thought, meant that the relationship between the Church and the sacraments was difficult to discern.[5] However, with the advent of the twentieth century, and in particular after the developments of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65),thoughts regarding the Church’s sacramental nature and its relationship with the traditional sacraments has been further examined. Therefore, the sacramental nature of the Church is of renewed importance to the Church’s contemporary context.

Although the concept of “sacrament” is notoriously difficult to define in terms which transcend theological conceptuality, and considerably differs between denominations, classically, a sacrament is considered to be an action which is a visible sign of an invisible reality. The Anglican tradition has historically expressed this as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and visible grace”.[6] In the modern context, of particular interest is the definition put forward by Edward Schillebeeckx (1987), who defines a sacrament as “the saving action of Christ in the visible form of an ecclesial action”.[7] Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church recognises seven sacraments (first proposed by Peter Lombard, c.1155),[8] whilst the Anglican Church recognises two- Baptism and Eucharist- on account of their clear Scriptural justification (although all seven traditional sacraments point to some scriptural reference).[9] Furthermore, Catholic theology suggests that in order for an action to be sacramental, it must have a matter, form and function, and Macquarrie (1997) argues that a true sacrament must include a res, or an inward reality.[10] The ways in which the Church meets these sacramental criteria is highly debatable.

Based upon Schillebeeckx’s definition, it could be claimed that the Church is indeed the primary or primordial sacrament. Firstly, this can be seen in how the Church arguably generates all other sacramental life, and therefore without the Church, other sacraments do not have the potential to be efficacious. Christ unifies all sacraments, and all sacramental power emanates from Christ, without whom sacramental action would not be possible.[11] In the same way, the Church serves as a unifying element to the continuation of sacramental action; without the Church, other sacraments cannot be effective, just as without Christ they are devoid of grace. Indeed, if the Church is to be believed as the Body of Christ, as named by Paul (e.g. Romans 1:12; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Colossians 1:18), it can be concluded that the Church arguably is the sacramental Christ in a very real way, and in a greater depth than other sacraments.[12] In this way, the Church is the primary and primordial sacrament just as Christ is. Therefore, if Christ is to be considered the primordial sacrament, then it is reasonable to suggest that the Church is the fundamental sacrament.[13] The Church, as the metaphorical and mysterious body of Christ, forms a basis from which all other sacramental ministry proceeds. Other sacraments are efficacious only because they are acts of Christ working in and through the Church.[14] The Eucharist, for example, is only valid when performed by the whole Church; this suggests a Eucharistic dependence on the ecclesial body.[15] The faith of the Church is required in order to generate sacramental signs,[16] and the other sacraments rely on the Church to function. This would potentially point to the sacramental primacy of the Church. This is certainly scripturally defensible; Christ chose his disciples at the beginning of his ministry, effectively establishing his Church at a primordial stage.[17] There is, therefore, a significant connection between the Church, as primordial sacrament, and other sacraments that serve to express the Church as a whole.[18] This can be seen in how the propitiation of the Church is arguably the end to which all other sacraments are a means.

It can also be argued that the primary purpose of other sacraments is to bring Christians into a fuller relationship with the Church.[19] This understanding is supported by the historical corpus of Christian theology; Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that the ultimate effect of other sacraments is the unification of the mystical body.[20] Based upon this framework, the traditional sacraments exist for the life of the Church,[21] and the other sacraments serve to intensify the Church’s own sacramentality. In this regard, it can be argued that all of the sacraments are essentially sacraments of the Church,[22] and exist in dependant relationship with the ecclesial body, both building the Church and deriving their own efficacy from it. As a result, the Church is highly sacramental in nature, and based upon this understanding, arguably more so than all other sacraments, including the Eucharist.[23] This concept also clearly seems to suggest the generative primacy of the Church in relationship to the other sacraments.

The Church can also be seen as a sacrament in a functional sense, in that its life and actions are in themselves sacramental.[24] Arguably, the Church perpetuates Christ’s sacramental character in its life and ministry;[25] the Church’s ministry has the power to be sacramental through preaching, pastoral care and prayer,[26] and its ministers are understood to be able to inhabit the persona Christi through the Church’s liturgy. Indeed, several traditional sacraments, including Eucharist and Penance, are only considered to be valid and efficacious if performed by an authorised minister of the Church. Therefore, through its sacramental ministry, the Church both generates and promulgates a sacramental nature, because ministry itself, which proceeds from the Church, is an efficacious sacramental activity. In this way, the Church is, indirectly at least, deeply sacramental in its material function, as well as its underlying nature.[27]


[1] H. De Lubac, The Motherhood of the Church (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 24.

[2] M. Schmaus, Dogma: the Church as Sacrament (Maryland [US]: Sheed and Ward, 1975), 5.

[3] V. De Waal, What is the Church? (London: SCM Press, 1969), 85.

[4] H. Vorgrimler (trans. L. M. Maloney) Sacramental Theology (Collegeville [Minnesota]: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 35.

[5] E. J. Mascall, Corpus Christi (London: Longmans, 1960), 37.

[6] J. Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments (London: SCM Press, 1997), 4.

[7] E. Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Maryland [US]: Sheed and Ward, 1987), 54.

[8] Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments, 45.

[9] Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments, 35.

[10] Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments, 47.

[11] Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments, 37.

[12] Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament, 49.

[13] Vorgrimler, Sacramental Theology, 36.

[14] Mascall, Corpus Christi, 43.

[15] P. McPartlan, The Eucharist Makes the Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 106.

[16] Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament, 96.

[17] W. Kaspar, Sacrament of Unity (New York: Crossroads, 2004), 135.

[18] A. Dulles, Models of the Church (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1974), 60.

[19] De Waal, What is the Church?, 37.

[20] Mascall, Corpus Christi, 36.

[21] Mascall, Corpus Christi, 45.

[22] H. De Lubac, Catholicism (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1950), 35.

[23] Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, 133.

[24] E. Mersch (trans. C. Vollert), The Theology of the Mystical Body (London : B. Herder, 1951), 549.

[25] Mersch, The Theology of the Mystical Body, 549.

[26] P. T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1953), 144-145.

[27] Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, 132.

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Is the Church the Primary Sacrament? Implications of this understanding for traditional Sacramental models
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Andrew Lythall (Author), 2010, Is the Church the Primary Sacrament? Implications of this understanding for traditional Sacramental models, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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