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Religion Library: Protestantism

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Ted Vial

The two most important rites in Protestant churches are the two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Many of the most contentious theological issues in Protestantism have centered on or been related to the understanding of these sacraments (or ordinances), which have divided not only Protestants from Roman Catholics, but Protestantism into its incredible variety.

A sacrament is an action in and through which God's grace is conveyed to people. Roman Catholics have seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, confession, Lord's Supper (Eucharist), marriage, ordination, and extreme unction (or anointing of the sick, formerly referred to as last rites). Luther cut this list down to the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. He believed that, to be a sacrament, a ritual had to be explicitly instituted for the Church by Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus tells his disciples to go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19), and at the Last Supper as he breaks bread he tells them to "do this in remembrance of me" (Lk. 22:19). Other rituals, while important, do not meet this criterion. They are rites but not sacraments. Rites that are for specific occasions such as marriage or ordination take place during "occasional services." All Protestant churches followed Luther's lead on this.

Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist Christians continued the practice of infant baptism, though they disagreed with the Catholics that baptism was strictly necessary for salvation (thus they discouraged emergency baptisms of sick infants). For Luther, infant baptism was a sign that salvation was purely a gift from God, not an act of human understanding. Calvin in addition argued that there was only one covenant between God and humans, the sign of which for the Israelites was circumcision, and now for Christians is baptism. Baptism was the precise functional equivalent of circumcision among the Jews, and so Christians ought to baptize at about eight days of age, as the Jews did.

Anabaptists and Baptists argued that, if salvation was by faith alone, a rite symbolizing the forgiveness of sins was meaningless if performed for someone too young to understand the predicament of sin and the promise of forgiveness. They therefore baptize only those who can responsibly acknowledge sin and ask for forgiveness (typically about 13 years of age at minimum). Lutherans and Reformed theologians argued that, to require human understanding was precisely to make salvation dependent on a human capacity or act, which contradicted the meaning of the forgiveness being presented and symbolized.

The meaning of the Lord's Supper was the issue that initially kept Protestants from forming one Church. Luther believed that the body and blood of Jesus were physically present with the elements (the bread and the wine). Though it was impossible for humans to fully comprehend this, Jesus did not lie when he said, "This is my body," as he held up the bread. Jesus was "in, with, and under" the elements.  Zwingli said that the Lord's Supper was only a symbol and this, for Luther, called into question the reliability of the promises found in scripture. If that was lost, everything was lost.


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