The Consolidation of the Church’s Sacramental System

One of the most significant theological achievements of the medieval period was the con- solidation of a theology of the church and its practices. In earlier periods, these ideas had tended to be treated in a somewhat disconnected way – for example, during the Donatist controversy (1.5.5). The great scholastic theological systems, in contrast, set out to provide an ordered and coherent account of God, the church, and the world – and saw the theo- logical consolidation of the life of the church as integral to this vision.


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One outcome of this was clarification of the nature of Christian ministry. Medieval theologians developed Eusebius of Caesarea’s fourth-century views on the orders of min- istry, recognizing seven distinct orders, in ascending order: sextons; readers; exorcists; acolytes; subdeacons; deacons; priests. Yet perhaps the most important systematic develop- ment was the construction of a sacramental theology which recognized seven sacraments: baptism; confirmation; eucharist; marriage; penance; ordination; and extreme unction.

These developments are to be regarded as the consolidation and extension of earlier approaches to the sacraments. Augustine of Hippo is generally regarded as having laid down the general principles relating to the definition of sacraments in the fifth century. Firstly, Augustine declared, sacraments are signs. “Signs, when applied to divine things, are called sacraments.” Secondly, he insisted that these signs must bear some relation to the thing which they are meant to signify. “If sacraments did not bear some resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all.”

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