Monday, March 4, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we head to the mailbag to answer a question about the sacraments.

It is the 4th of March 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Happy Monday! I’m back from Bentonville, a combination of Seahaven Island from the Truman Show and Mayberry with bikes. Let’s head to the mailbag. I got this question while on the road and spent a good amount of time reading up on it on planes and during layovers- it comes from Eric in Corvallis- he says it home to a wad of cash now that it’s one of the two remaining schools in the Pac-12 and that they have a “meat lab” there at the University which sounds… scientific. It was also the home of the original Holy Rollers and Edmund Creffield, probably too heterodox to deal with on the show but a heck of a weird story…

Eric writes:

I know some theological differences and practices of sacraments and various churches, but I don't know the historical development and use of the sacraments. I know some historical issues related to the Reformation but, as an example, I know very little of how marriage became a sacrament in the West and East. Has the Eastern and Western churches shared a similar history or has their historical setting led to different understanding or practices? How has the term been defined historically and what has that led the church to teach and practice? Has there been a thing called a sacrament historically that isn't recognized anymore? 

Great questions! Ok- first, is the term “sacrament” in Scripture? Well, it comes from “sacramentum” a Latin term first used by Tertullian around the year 200. It was a military term for an oath- but translated from the greek word “mysterion” which occurs 28 times in the New Testament. For our purposes, it is Ephesians 5:31 that is interesting because Paul is speaking of marriage and calls it a Mystery, translated into Latin as Sacramentum.

Sacramentum also conveys, a la Tertullain an oath or official act. So- a “sacrament” was a mystery, marriage was such a mystery and it was an oath or act. Confused? It’s okay; the development of doctrine is rarely linear and neat. So, the early church decided because “sacrementum” had “sacra” as a root- the word “Holy” that these were the “holy acts and oaths”. By the 400s, Augustine says what much of the church has been saying ever since: a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. That is, it is a physical “holy” thing we do that testifies to God working within us. So when the priest marries two people he says words that signifies the spiritual union of two people. When the person is baptized, that’s something physical: water, and in it, the person…well, uh… lots of fighting here, but the act signifies conversion. What about anointing the sick with oil? That’s biblical, and a physical thing so it got marked as a sacrament as well. There was initially no “numbering” of the sacraments- they were simply physical things with a spiritual benefit. A monk getting tonsured (his head shaved) or the washing of feet (also Biblical and commanded of us).

It wasn’t until the 12th and 13th centuries that the church of the Latin West (they already broke from the East) decided there were exactly 7. Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Penance, Marriage, Holy orders and Unction (that’s the anointing of the sick and “extreme unction” is done at ones deathbed).

And it wasn’t until the 16th century and the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church officially nailed the number down to those 7.

So, in the East those were practiced but they would include other things- the blessing of a church, making the sign of the cross, foot washing and the like.

At the Reformation, these were pared down to… well, it depends. The Lutheran confessions don’t give a number and many Lutherans see confession and the words of absolution to be a third sacrament after Baptism and the Lords’ Supper. In the Reformation traditions, a sacrament was something ordered by Christ- a physical thing we do that signifies an inward grace. So, marriage isn’t required, and not everyone takes holy orders.

Others, wanting to “reform more” got rid of the “sacrament” word and switched it for “ordinance”- something “ordained by Jesus” that we do- and in many of these traditions these are symbols and memorials (After all, Jesus says, every time you eat the bread and drink from the cup you do this in memory of him… to which others say “but there’s more” and sacrament fighting amongst Protestants ranks up there with provoking pitbulls and licking sandpaper on my list.)

So- 7? 10? 12? 2? 3? None; they are ordinances (and usually two) and then groups that said “none!” As they believed them to have morphed into something resembling more a superstitious rite and means of manipulation. I think I got all the answers there to your questions, Eric and I wish you well in the new Pac-2.

You can send me your questions at


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary and one of my favorite passages from 1 Corinthians 3:

18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of March 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who thinks if sacraments are just mysteries, then he considers the greatest sacramentum why there is only one monopolies commission….. he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man pondering the mystery of the word “monosyllabic” having five syllables- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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