The Lord's Supper is Not a Sacrament

by Vernard Eller

["Sacrament"] was introduced as the Latin successor to the Greek word mysterion (mystery), and obviously the two words carry much the same feel and flavor. Theologians might insist that they denote quite distinct concepts; but the "layman", I would guess, sees them as coming to pretty much the same thing. A mystery is that which is strange, awesome, unfathomable, and ineffable. A sacrament is a ritual using cult objects as vehicles of the sacred - which is itself strange, awesome, unfathomable, and ineffable.

However, our contention is that neither of these terms was applied to the sacraments until after the sacraments already had lost their original significance. (You see, I am forced to use the word in the very effort to reject it. The sacraments were never meant to be "sacraments", and what they were meant to be will take us a book's worth of words to discover.)

The New Testament does use the word "mystery", but never in connection with the so-called sacraments. Further, it almost invariably uses the term in reference to a mystery that Christ has exposed rather than one He presents. Christ is seen as a demystifier, the end of mystery, a solver of mysteries rather than a maker of them.

If one of Jesus' most innovative usages was to address God as "Abba!" (dear Father) and invites His followers to do the same, it can hardly be that He instituted sacraments which present deity under the form of mystery. If the good news of the gospel, regarding the word of life, is that "we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands" (1 John 1:1), it cannot be true that the New Testament sacraments elevate it back into the realm of altar and incense.

Then again, recent research indicates that the N.T. use of the term "mystery" is derived from its Judaic-Semitic background rather that having been taken over from the truly sacramental thought-world of the Greek mystery religions. This means that in a very real sense the N.T. word "mystery" is not even the same word that later came to be used to identify the sacraments; the two usages reflect entirely different contexts and connotations.

Actually, the whole style of thought that goes along with the concept "sacrament" is just plain foreign to the N.T. Jesus was a Jew (a matter which ought never be overlooked). His disciples were Jews. The earliest Christians were Jews. The Apostle Paul was a Jew. The tradition underlying the N.T. is predominantly Jewish, and the greater number of the N.T. writers themselves thought Jewish.

Now among the religions of the world, Judaism is notoriously anti-sacramental. Sacramentalism specializes in holy objects, holy things. These things, then, possess special power - strange, supernatural, unearthly power. They carry a mysterious patina, radiate numinousness, vibrate with an awesome aura of divinity. Judaism had never been enthusiastic about this kind of business. It was content to let God be the one true "holy" - and He is a person, not a thing. Things are merely things, and only God is God. Holiness, divinity, and awesome glows, there fore, have to do with personal relationships, with human beings relating to God and to one another before God, rather than with things. Once let things become the focus of a holiness of their own and it isn't long before persons are made subordinate to them, before they are being used to manipulate persons...

Yet this is the Judaism out of which Jesus and the early church were born. And the evidence is that the church was just as little, if not even less, sacramental than its progenitor. For example, the Christian church started out as a most rare phenomenon, a religious sect with no concept of a sacrosanct priesthood at all. Indeed, Christianity was ahead of Judaism in this regard; the Christians had practiced priestless and sacramentless worship for forty years before the Jews took it up. The sad sequel is that although the Jews have stood by this position, the Christians very shortly backslid from it.

But against this background, whatever they were that Jesus instituted in baptism and the Lord's Supper, it is inconceivable that they should be called "sacraments". If such had been Jesus' intention (or the understanding of the early Christians) the N.T. necessarily would show marks of a struggle to convince unsacramental Jews that in accepting Jesus as the Christ they had to reject their earlier understanding and adopt a most obtrusive form of sacramentalism, namely the doctrine that ordinary bread and wine could be transformed into divine substance. The N.T. does evidence such a struggle in getting Jewish Christians to accept the un-Jewish idea of Gentiles being accepted into the faith. But of a similar struggle over the Lord's Supper, there is not a trace - which would seem proof enough that the rite carried no sacramental overtones at all. (When, after N.T. times, the sacramental understanding did gain dominance in the church, it was because the constituency was so largely Greek rather than Jewish that sacramental modes of thought no longer posed any difficulty.)

"Sacraments" do not fit the historical context of original Christianity; neither do they fit the theological context. Sacraments constitute about as "religious" a technique as can be devised; and original Christianity was religion-less.

We must pause to define "religion" in this negative and contracted sense, for the intention certainly is not to outlaw religion according to the broad understanding that covers any and all relations between God and man. No, religion now denotes that thought and action which carries with it the implication that God's grace and favor, His will and power, to some degree or other have come under the control of man and his institutions.

Wherever there stands the implication that man can do something which directly and automatically guarantees that God will perform a desired action in response, there is "religion". Thus, when a man makes a wax doll, pokes it full of pins, mutters incantations, and believes that God is thus put under obligation to punish his enemy, this is a "religious" act. But likewise, when a specially endowed holy man utters a formula over bread and wine and believes that God thereby changes them into divine substance which ineluctably has an ameliorative effect on those who partake, this is a "religious" act. And likewise again - although perhaps to a lesser degree under the somewhat lesser sacramentalism of more distinctively Protestant doctrine - when a Christian believes, quite apart from theories about divine substance, that the very fact of going to communion makes God more favorable toward one than He otherwise would be, this is a "religious" act.

And there is something about Christianity - namely a respect for the freedom and sovereignty of God - that does not like religion. The Christian religionlessness would seem to outlaw any idea of sacraments, that is, of holy things which because they are amenable to the manipulation of men in effect put God's action under human control. However, it does not follow that the Lord's Supper is itself outlawed thereby. It can be performed as a celebration of the grace and love that God has bestowed and is bestowing quite independently of any human ritual, and as a means by which we open ourselves to the blessings God has made accessible entirely without our doing. The Supper now is directed toward our thanking God (which is what the word "Eucharist" implies) and exciting our own receptivity rather than trying to elicit responses from Him. The Supper can be religionless; but the religionless Supper surely ought not be termed a "sacrament".

There is another respect in which sacrament and the Christian gospel do not fit well together. The inevitable imagery that lies behind sacramentalism is that of the abnormal, the exceptional, the esoteric, the supermundane breaking into the sphere of normal life. In the more highly liturgical churches the entire ecclesiastical staging (altar, vestments, lighting, music, the works) is designed to foster such a mood; in less liturgical churches the pastor tries to create the same effect by sliding into unctuous language and a "reverent" tone of voice. But stage it as you will, there is no denying that for people to come together to eat the body and blood of their leader (whether he be man or God, or both; whether it be done in actuality, in symbol, or in drama) - this fairly can be described as nothing other than the Great Abnormality, if not the Greatest Abnormality.

That's the way it is: but this book is dedicated to the proposition that such an approach has the gospel turned on its head. The goal of the gospel - and of the sacraments, which are intended as concise, and precise statements of that gospel - is not to lend variety to normal life by introducing occasional experiences of divine abnormality. Rather, it starts from the premise that the present life of mankind is the great abnormality, a whole pole away from what life could be, should be, was created to be, and in God's grace is destined to become...

The word "sacrament", then, is a bad one; it says all the wrong things - although the tragedy is not simply that it's a poor word but that the word all too accurately describes the current practice of the church. So what word shall we use?

That's a problem. The New Testament is no help; it has no covering term that includes the various rites of the church. I happen to come from a religious tradition, the Church of the Brethren, which felt the problem even at its founding over 250 years ago. Consequently the Brethren adopted the term used by their spiritual forefathers, the Anabaptists of the Reformation era, who had felt the problem before them. That term is "ordinance". Dictionaries do allow the term this ecclesiastical meaning, and it does represent a real gain: these rites are now identified not as sacred things but as performances which have been ordained or commanded by Christ. Further, they can be understood as the means by which the church orders its own life and points itself toward the existence that God has ordained for mankind.

[This article is from In Place of Sacraments (Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 9-15, and is used with permission].