Christian history can be divided into two main epochs: premodern and modern. In premodern culture, ritual, symbol and metaphor were employed to express realities that could not be fully expressed in words. For premodern cultures, symbols were not merely notions; symbols were powerful mediators of divine activity. Patristic Christian writers used words to discuss Christian sacred actions but they did so in a multilayered, metaphorical, evocative manner, frequently employing the symbolic...
Sacred actions, however they may be named, have been significant in every worship tradition. This article examines the history and meaning of such actions as they have functioned in the Christian community.
Understanding the sacred actions of the early church requires a short language lesson. Two words, the Greek word mysterion, and the Latin word sacramentum, are important to this discussion. This article describes the history of these terms in early Christian thought and gives clues to their meaning and significance for the Christian tradition.
The Middle Ages witnessed some far-reaching developments in the theology and practice of the sacraments. This article traces these developments and explains the nature of the Reformation debate which arose out of them.
This article traces the development of a Catholic view of the sacraments since the medieval period. This development shows a great respect for the tradition which has shaped it, but also shows new emphases offered in response to the Reformation and later theological thought.
The Eastern Orthodox churches did not develop scholastic, logic-based systematic theologies like those of late medieval and modern Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe. Many of the differences between Eastern and Western explanations of the sacraments can be traced to this historical divergence. Moreover, the sacramental life of worship in the Eastern churches retains an important role for fasting at certain times in the church year and for the veneration of icons.
Many of the differences between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in sacramental practice stem from changes that developed in the West after the patristic period. Chrismation, originally part of baptism, became a separate rite of confirmation in the West. This led to a delay in one's first Communion, which originally took place at the time of baptism. Other differences surround the use of leavened and unleavened bread; plural and singular, first- and third-person language in baptism and reconciliation; attitudes toward remarriage after the death of a partner; and the marital status of clergy. In each case different theological assumptions underlie these variations in practice. The paragraphs that follow devote attention to Eastern practice and theology as a way of coming to understanding the differences in Roman and Eastern practice.
Protestant emphasis on the Word of God affected the role played by sacraments in Christian life. The more extreme Protestants (Zwinglian Reformed and Anabaptists) generally rejected the idea that God's grace was mediated to people through created things employed in sacraments. Although Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans retained a place for sacraments, they insisted that sacramental practice be reformed according to the Word of God. They insisted that the New Testament authorized only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. An emphasis on Word is also evident in the increased importance that all Protestants attached to preaching.
The emphasis on words and the Word of God in Reformation theologies and the adoption of a fundamentally scholastic method by Protestants developed, under the impact of the Enlightenment, into modern Protestant rationalism. But Protestant scholasticism and rationalism provoked experience-based responses: Pietism (seventeenth century), Methodism and revivalism (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries), and a variety of efforts at worship renewal (nineteenth century).
Ever ready to adopt new methods, Protestants have been affected by new means of communication and contemporary cultural trends during the twentieth century. In addition, powerful movements of liturgical renewal, combined with the twentieth-century Pentecostal and charismatic movements have changed the face of Protestant worship.