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Faith and Learning - Reformed Sacramental Theology

What is a sacrament?

The term "sacrament" is derived from the Latin sacramentum, meaning "a consecrating"; Sacramentum is, in turn, derived from sacrare, meaning "to consecrate", which itself was a Church Latin translation of the Greek mysterion, meaning "mystery".

Thus, an understanding of the etymology of the term can be helpful in bringing us back once again to what lies at the heart of all sacramental theology, that is, that God works and that he works mysteriously.

The historic Reformed understanding of the sacraments has always employed the descriptors "sign" and "seal" when speaking of what the sacrament accomplishes. And although these are helpful terms, the Reformers themselves interpreted them in widely differing ways.

One of the Dean of the Chapel's goals in 2003-2004 has been to clarify John Calvin's particular understanding of the sacrament of the Lord's supper and to explore some of the more salient applications of Calvin's view for our perspective on the reality of God's world.

Below is the abstract to a paper presented by Dr. Laura Smit on March 31, 2004 for the annual spring Meeter Center lecture:

"In my work defending an Augustinian theology of beauty, I often find more support from Roman Catholic theologians than from my fellow Calvinists. In much contemporary Catholic theology, particularly in theological aesthetics, the doctrine of transubstantiation carries a lot of weight, serving as the basis of a sacramental understanding of reality within which created beauty is valued as a symbol of God's own Beauty. Yet it is my conviction that a Calvinist understanding of the real presence of Christ in the supper is at least as conducive to such a sacramental and symbolic metaphysics, and perhaps more so. My effort in this paper is therefore to go where many of my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have gone, but by a Calvinist route. I briefly set out Calvin's understanding of the real presence in the Lord's Supper, then attempt to draw out a sacramental and symbolic metaphysic that is still genuinely Calvinist. I realize that the conclusions I reach are not all Calvin's own conclusions, but I believe that they are coherent conclusions for someone who embraces a Calvinist/Reformed understanding of real presence."

Get the full transcript of the lecture (129kb pdf).