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.
Zwingli believed that when Jesus held up the bread and said, "This is my body," he was using a figure of speech. For Zwingli, those gathered at the table were present because they were already members of the body of Christ (through baptism). Celebrating the Lord's Supper is a commemoration of a past event (Christ's saving sacrifice on the cross), and a public declaration of membership in the community founded by Jesus. If one can speak of a divine presence, it is the presence of the Spirit that forms the Christian community. There was a sharp distinction for Zwingli between the sign and the thing signified. The sacrament does not impart grace—that is done directly by the Holy Spirit. It is an indication by believers that they have already received grace.
Calvin attempted to walk a middle path between these two positions, though he was closer to Luther than to Zwingli. Calvin agreed with Luther that the Lord's Supper was actually efficacious; it did not merely symbolize something that has already happened, it caused something to happen. He asked, "Why would the Lord put the symbol of his body in your hands unless to assure you of true participation in it?" But Calvin could not read the passage "This is my body" in the same way Luther did. At stake for Calvin was the location of Christ and the way Christ is present after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. If Jesus' physical, resurrected body "sits on the right hand of God the Father almighty," then it cannot, according to Calvin, be with the bread. Jesus was bodily present on earth for his thirty-odd years in the flesh, but now Jesus is in heaven. Calvin accused Luther of wanting to yank Jesus' body down from heaven and parcel it out bit by bit. For Calvin there was a real presence of Jesus in the elements, but it was a spiritual presence.
Contemporary practices of these two rituals (baptism and the Lord's supper) vary greatly, but the differences stem largely from the theological positions outlined by the early reformers. Those who call these rituals "ordinances" either follow or come close to Zwingli's view that they commemorate past events, and symbolize (rather than effect) the work of the Spirit. Those who call them "sacraments" are closer to Luther or Calvin, who believed that they are not mere symbols but also effective offerings of God's grace.
With regard to baptism, the most significant divide among Protestants is still between those who practice infant baptism and those who practice adult baptism. Both sides argue that their view best exemplifies the Protestant principle of "justification by faith." Those who practice adult baptism say that if people too young to confess their faith are baptized the ritual becomes some sort of magical rite. Those who baptize infants say that if one must confess one's faith to be baptized then salvation has become a human work rather than a gift from God. Most Protestants do not follow the practice, common in Roman Catholicism, of naming Godparents or sponsors for the baptized child. Following Zwingli's argument that baptism signifies membership in the Church community, one often sees in Protestant churches the entire congregation stand to signal their commitment to help raise the child in the community of the faithful.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries one of the great moral programs of many Protestant churches was to reduce alcoholism. In the wake of the modernism controversies in the early 20th century, many conservative churches set themselves off from the rest of society through strict moral codes, forbidding all alcohol (as well as smoking, card-playing, dancing, movies, etc.). One result of this history is that many Protestant churches began celebrating the Lord's Supper using grape juice instead of wine. Some also pass out small individual cups, rather than drinking out of a common cup. There is some disagreement about whether Jesus and the disciples drank from a common cup at the Last Supper, but the practice of individual cups is more directly a result of 20th-century reforms of hygiene. Some churches use unleavened bread in the ritual, believing the Last Supper was a Jewish Passover seder, which would have required Jesus to be eating unleavened bread. Others follow Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin in arguing that too much concern over what kind of bread to use misses the point of the ritual.
Contemporary ways of celebrating the Lord's Supper also tend to reflect theological debates of the reformers. Some churches continue the practice of having participants come forward and kneel at a rail at the front of the sanctuary to receive the elements (bread and wine). Reformed churches in particular have rejected this practice, arguing that it comes too close to the Catholic belief that the priest acts as intermediary between God and the participant. Instead they distribute the elements to participants who remain in their pews. Traditionally, participation in the Lord's Supper was restricted to believers; whatever the theological nuances, all agreed that its celebration was an act of faith in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Conservative Protestants retain this practice. Today, however, some liberal Protestants offer communion to any who wish to partake, thus making the rite less a personal and communal experience of faith and more an act of inclusivity and outreach.
1. How do Protestant sacraments differ from Catholic sacraments?
2. How has baptism replaced the significance of circumcision?
3. How did the Lord's Supper divide the Protestant Church? Describe the position of each of the three Protestant reformers.
4. Why is the grape juice used in communion tied to social activism?