Anglican Sacramentalism

The Biblical and Patristic Foundations
of Anglican Sacramentalism
as Understood by the English Reformers


Robert D. Crouse


“Sacraments, by reason of their mixed nature, are more diversely interpreted and disputed of than any other part of religion besides…”.  So pronounces Richard Hooker, in the course of his lengthy discussion of Sacraments in Book V of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  “By reason of their mixed nature,” he says; for sacraments are somehow by their very nature a mixture or conjunction of the natural and the supernatural, of the divine word and the natural element, of the finite and the infinite, of the outward sign and the inward grace.  They are means or instruments of human participation in the divine life.  “And forasmuch as there is no union of God with man without that mean between both which is both, it seemeth requisite [says Hooker] that we first consider how God is in Christ, then how Christ is in us, and how the Sacraments do serve to make us partakers of Christ.  In other things we may be more brief, but the weight of these requireth largeness.”


Thus Hooker prefaces his discussion of the sacraments by six chapters devoted first to an exposition of Chalcedonian Christology, showing how the divine and human are conjoined in Christ without confusion of natures, and then to a consideration of our participation in Christ, “partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth, and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory.” (p. 254)  The sacraments are not merely teaching devices, “to teach the mind, by other senses, that which the word doth teach by hearing” (p. 255) but “means effectual whereby God when we take the sacraments delivereth into our hands that grace available unto eternal life, which grace the sacraments represent and signify.” (p. 258)


Hooker’s careful grounding of sacramental theology in orthodox Chalcedonian Christology is no doubt peculiar to him in its systematic character, but at the same time represents a constant theme in reformed Anglican doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, drawn from Patristic sources.  The authority of the ancient Fathers in the interpretation of Scripture is fundamental for these Reformers.  Bishop Jewel, Hooker’s early patron, puts it this way, in his Treatise of the Sacraments:

That which I shall utter herein shall not be of myself, but of the fathers of the church; not those which have been of later years, but of the most ancient…I am only a finger: these are clear and bright stars.  I do but shew them unto you, and point them, that you may behold them.  God give us grace that we may see them truly, and by them be able to guide and direct our way!  (p. 1109)


Prominent among those patristic authorities is, of course, St. Augustine, from whom the English Reformers derive their doctrine of the sacraments as the words of God made visible – a concept which they sometimes present in most dramatic forms.  “For as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears, [says Archbishop Cranmer] so likewise these elements of water, bread and wine, joined to God’s word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses.” (p. 411)  “When we hear Christ speak to us with his own mouth, and show himself to be seen with our eyes…what comfort more can we have?” (p. 366)  Bishop Jewel speaks in even more fervid language:

Here in a mystery and sacrament of bread is set before us the body of Christ our Saviour, and his blood in the sacrament of wine.  We see one thing, we must conceive another thing…There may we see the crucifying of his body, and the shedding of his blood, as it was in a glass…There let us say, This is the ransom of the world…By this body I am no more earth and ashes: by this I am not now a bondman, but made free.  This body hath broken the gates of hell, and hath opened heaven…In this body shall Christ come again to judge the quick and the dead. (pp. 1122-24)


It would, indeed, be hard to imagine a more graphic expression of the Biblical and Augustinian concept of sacramentum memoriae  – a concept at the heart of the sacramental theology of the English Reformation, as expressed particularly in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.


Archbishop Cranmer, chief architect of that liturgy, was accused by his critics of denying the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of holy communion.  Against those critics, Cranmer protests vigorously:

In my book I have written in more than an hundred places, that we receive the self-same body of Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary, that was crucified and buried, that rose again, ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and the contention is only in the manner and form how we receive it.  For I say (as all the old holy fathers and martyrs used to say), that we receive Christ spiritually by faith with our minds, eating his flesh and drinking his blood: so that we receive Christ’s own very natural body, but not naturally nor corporally. (p. 370)


Against a superstitiously materialistic notion of the Presence, popularly associated in his time with a debased idea of transubstantiation, Cranmer insists on both the truth of the Presence and the spiritual character of it: “The same flesh that was given in Christ’s last supper was given also upon the cross, and is given daily in the ministration of the sacrament” (p. 24). “I do not say that Christ’s body and blood be given to us in signification and not in deed.  But I do as plainly speak as I can, that Christ’s body and blood be given to us in deed, yet not corporally and carnally, but spiritually and effectually…” (p. 37). Following Eusebius and Ambrose, Cranmer speaks of “sacramental mutation”, and argues that “this mutation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is a sacramental mutation, and that outwardly nothing is changed.  But as outwardly we eat the bread and drink the wine with our mouths, so inwardly by faith we spiritually eat the very flesh and drink the very blood of Christ…” (p. 269). “Through grace there is a spiritual mutation by the mighty power of God, so that he who worthily eateth of that bread, doth spiritually eat Christ, and dwelleth in Christ, and Christ in him” (p. 276).


Archbishop Cranmer’s preoccupation with the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of bread and wine was by no means singular, but was shared by most of the reforming English theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who saw this as a key issue, in regard to which an error would be (in the words of Bishop Latimer (II, p. 252)) “the mother and nurse of all other errors.”  Thus, Cranmer and his colleagues – but especially Cranmer himself, in his apologetic writings, liturgies, homilies and articles – inaugurated a distinctive tradition of sacramental theology, firmly grounded in the Scripture and the ancient Fathers, which remained remarkably consistent through the theology of the Elizabethan Settlement and the Caroline Divines, so as to constitute a defining characteristic of Classical Anglicanism.


Torrance Kirby, in his studies of Richard Hooker, has demonstrated how the categories of Chalcedonian Christology serve as a paradigm for Hooker’s doctrine of the Church – visible and invisible; and (as Kirby remarks in passing) “It is a commonplace of Reformation divinity to supply the analogy of Christology to the interpretation of the Sacraments” (p. 64).


Thus, Archbishop Cranmer, in his refutation of Bishop Stephen Gardiner, remarks that

…the old catholic authors, to declare that two natures remain in Christ together, that is to say, his humanity and his divinity, without corruption or wasting of any of the said two natures, do give two examples thereof: one is of the body and soul, which both be in a man together, and the presence of the one putteth not away the other, the other example is of the Lord’s supper, or ministration of the sacrament, where is also together the substance and nature of bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ; and the presence of the one putteth not away the other, no more than the presence of Christ’s humanity putteth away his divinity…And then if there remain not the nature and substance of bread, it must follow also, there remaineth not the divine nature of Christ with his humanity, or else the similitude is clearly dissolved. (I p. 284)


“The old catholic authors” of whom Cranmer speaks are many, but chiefly St. John Chrysostom, writing against the heresy of Apollinaris, and Gelasius and Theodoret, writing against the heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches.  In each case in the Patristic texts, the duality of the sacrament is employed as an analogy to illustrate the duality of Christ as God and man without confusion of natures; by Cranmer and the other reforming divines, the analogy is turned around, so as to see Chalcedonian Christology as paradigmatic for sacramental theology.


As Chrysostom explains the matter,

For as before the consecration of the bread, we call it bread, but when God’s grace hath sanctified it by the priest, it is delivered from the name of bread, and is exalted to the name of the body of the Lord, although the nature of bread remain still in it, and it is not called two bodies, but one body of God’s Son; so likewise here [in Christology], the divine nature resteth in the body of Christ, and these two make one Son, and one person.  These words of Chrysostom declare [says Cranmer] …that after the consecration the nature of bread remaineth still, although it have a higher name, and be called the body of Christ, to signify unto the godly eaters of that bread, that they spiritually eat the supernatural bread of the body of Christ, who spiritually is there present, and dwelleth in them, and they in him, although corporally he sitteth in heaven at the right hand of his Father. (p.286)


“The nature of bread remaineth still,” insists Cranmer, and he goes on to develop the argument much more fully in connection with texts drawn from the writings of Gelasius and Theodoret against Nestorius and Eutyches, the point being to show how, according to these patristic authorities,

if the bread and wine remains not,…but be swallowed up in the body and blood of Christ, then likewise in the principal mystery [i.e., the Incarnation, which the sacrament illustrates] either the deity must be swallowed up of the humanity, or the humanity of the deity.  The contrary whereof is not only against the Eutychians, but also against the Nestorians, Marcionists, and all other that denied any of his two natures to remain perfectly in Christ. (p. 301)


“For all these old authors agree, that it is in the one, as it is in the other.” (p. 299)


The same argument, with the same patristic authorities, appears, at least briefly, in the works of Cranmer’s colleagues, Bishops Ridley, Latimer, and Hooper; and in the next generation, in the works of Bishop Jewel, who multiplies patristic authorities, notably from St. Augustine, and from St. Leo the Great, who in his sermons and letters employs the analogy of the dual reality of the sacrament to illustrate the two natures doctrine of Chalcedonian Christology.

Thus, by the judgement of these learned fathers, [says Jewel], Eutyches the heretic, or any other, that denied either the body or the death of Christ, might soon be reproved, even by the receiving of these holy mysteries. (II p. 700)

But to return to that we have in hand, whether the bread and wine in the sacrament remain in their proper nature: yes, verily; for so it is avouched by our Saviour, by St. Paul, by Ignatius, Justinus, Irenaeus, Origen, Dionysius, Cyprian, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, Gelasius, Theodoretus, Cyrillus, Bertramus, and Rabanus.  By so many good and lawful witnesses it appeareth, that the bread and wine remain in the same nature and substance as before…(II p. 1116)

And yet…we say they are changed, that they have a dignity and preeminence which they had not before…one thing is seen, and another understood…[we] see the bread and wine, but with the eyes of our understanding we look beyond these creatures; we reach our spiritual senses into heaven, and behold the ransom and price of our salvation… (II. p. 1117)


Richard Hooker, who venerates his early patron, Bishop Jewel, as “the worthiest divine that Christendom hath bred for some hundreds of years,” (Jewel I, xxiii) advances the patristic argument already familiar from Cranmer and Jewel, setting the whole matter clearly in the context of Chalcedonian Christology:

Touching the sentence of antiquity in the cause [he says], first forasmuch as they knew that the force of this sacrament doth necessarily presuppose the verity of Christ’s both body and blood, they used oftentimes the same as an argument to prove that Christ hath as truly the substance of man as of God, because here we receive Christ and those graces which flow from him in that he is man.  So that if he have no such being, neither can the sacrament have any such meaning as we all confess it hath.  Thus Tertullian, thus Ireney, thus Theodoret disputeth. (V, 67, 11 p. 357)


In accord with the Chalcedonian paradigm, the sacrament has both natural and supernatural dimensions:

…Christ assisting this heavenly banquet with his personal and true presence doth by his own divine power add to the natural substance thereof supernatural efficacy, which addition to the nature of those consecrated elements changeth them and maketh them that unto us which otherwise they could not be; that to us they are thereby made such instruments as mystically yet truly, invisibly yet really work our communion or fellowship with the person of Jesus Christ as well in that he is man as God, our participation also in the fruit, grace and efficacy of his body and blood, whereupon there ensueth a kind of transubstantiation in us, a true change both of soul and body, an alteration from death to life. (p. 358)


Although the natural elements acquire supernatural efficacy – in sacramental theology as in Christology – they retain the integrity of their nature, without confusion.  “Supernatural endowments”, says Hooker, “are an advancement, they are no extinguishment of that nature whereto they are given” (V, 55, 6 p. 241)


The Christological analogy which so consistently governs the sacramental theology of Cranmer, Jewel and Hooker also appears in Lancelot Andrewes; for instance in Sermon XVI of his Sermons of the Nativity, where he says,

…From this Sacramental union do the Fathers borrow their resemblance, to illustrate by it the personal union of Christ—I name Theodoret for the Greek, and Gelasius for the Latin Church, that insist upon it both, and press it against Eutyches, that even as in the Eucharist neither part is evacuate or turned into the other, but abide each still in his former nature and substance, no more is either of Christ’s natures annulled, or one of them converted into the other, as Eutyches held, but each Nature remaineth still full and whole in his own kind.  And backwards; as the two Natures in Christ, so the signum and signatum in the Sacrament e converso. (More and Cross, p. 466)


The Chalcedonian analogy points to the conjunction of outward sign and inward grace, each in the substantial integrity of its own nature, while the manner of the conjoining is hidden in mystery.  As George Herbert puts it,

Only thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privy key,
Op’ning the souls most subtle rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at door attend
Dispatches from their friend. 

(“Holy Communion” vs. 4)


Thus, in the works of the English Reformers and the Caroline Divines, following the Christological paradigm, the Anglican conception of the nature of a sacrament is developed.  Characteristic of that conception is the insistence that the natural element, the outward and visible sign, retains always its natural integrity, while it becomes the instrument of a supernatural presence; thus exemplifying the basic Augustinian and Thomistic theological principle, that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.


There are, of course, other important issues in sacramental theology which might profitably be traced through the complex history of Reformation and Caroline controversy—such, for instance, as baptismal regeneration and Eucharistic sacrifice—but it is the conception of the nature of a sacrament which is foundational for all the rest; and Bishop Latimer was no doubt astute in his observation that error in this regard might be “mother and nurse of all other errors.”  Indeed the implications of the conception are so vast that one may see the whole of Caroline theology and piety as profoundly qualified by this sacramental principle.  How else could one understand the gentle humanism of George Herbert’s Country Parson, where all the outward and visible forms of daily life become means of inward and spiritual grace?

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest…

(“Prayer I” p. 186)


Or how else is one to understand Thomas Traherne’s celebrations of the whole creation as visible signs and means of grace?

          From dust I rise
    And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes
          A gift from God I take:
     The earth, the seas, the light, the day, the skies,
     The sun and stars are mine; if these I prize.


          Long time before
     I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God preparing did this glorious store,
          This world for me adorn,
     Into this Eden so divine and fair,
     So wide and bright, I come, his son and heir,


          A stranger here
     Strange things doth meet, strange glories see,
Strange treasures lodg’d in this fair world appear,
          Strange all and new to me:
     But that they mine should be who nothing was,
     That strangest is of all; yet brought to pass.

(from “The Salutation” Oxford Book, p. 272)


The sacramental principle, drawn from the Scriptures and the Fathers, and expressed not only in theological treatises, but in Prayer Book liturgies, homilies, and Articles of Religion, becomes so pervasive as to constitute a world-view, a way of seeing and interpreting the whole of experience.  Not just Herbert’s Bemerton or Traherne’s Credenhill, but the whole of creation is seen as sacramental.  Sacramentalism is not just an aspect of Anglicanism, or a party platform; it is “mere Anglicanism.”


In the Chalcedonian sacramentalism of our Reformation Fathers, we have a rich legacy, Biblical and Patristic, which has shaped the mind and heart of Anglicanism; and in this time of disruption and a fragmenting church, we would do well to refresh ourselves in that inheritance.  We need to recollect ourselves, to remember whence we have come, and to live afresh in that tradition.  As memory is in personality, so is tradition in the church’s life.  Tradition is the church’s memory, and without that recollection, it suffers a crippling amnesia: its judgements become arbitrary and capricious; it becomes—quite literally—idiotic.  That point is clearly illustrated in the Scriptures.  Israel is faithful when, and only when, Israel remembers.  “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”  “Thou shalt remember.”  Passover recalls Israel’s deliverance from bondage, and that commemoration of the past defines both Israel’s relation to God in the present, and Israel’s messianic expectation.  And the New Israel also remembers, for we too celebrate a Passover, to remember, to commemorate God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, and to anticipate the fullness of his kingdom.


As our Reformation Fathers understood, at the centre of our religious life must be that sacramentum memoriae, that looking upon Calvary, that holy recollection.  That must be the ground of our discernment in the present and our expectation for the future; for thus the Holy Spirit works to bring to our remembrance all that Christ has taught us, to show us things to come, and thus to lead us into all truth.  That is the necessity of sacraments.  But on that point, let Richard Hooker have the final word:

This is therefore the necessity of the sacraments.  That saving grace which Christ originally is or hath for the general good of his whole Church, by sacraments he severally deriveth into every member thereof.  Sacraments serve as the instruments of God to that end and purpose, moral instruments, the use whereof is in our hands, the effect in his; for the use we have his express commandment, for the effect his conditional promise: so that without our obedience to the one, there is of the other no apparent assurance, as contrariwise where the signs and sacraments of his grace are not either through contempt unreceived, or received with contempt, we are not to doubt but that they really give what they promise, and are what they signify.  For we take not baptism nor the eucharist for bare resemblances or memorials of things absent, neither for naked signs and testimonies assuring us of grace received before, but (as they are indeed and in verity) for means effectual whereby God when we take the sacraments delivereth into our hands that grace available unto eternal life, which grace the sacraments represent or signify. (V, 57, 5 p. 258)


That is Anglican sacramentalism; but that is “mere Anglicanism.”

O God, who in a wonderful sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion, Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption; who livest and reignest with the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.  Amen.

Logo Ascension Optima skewed transparent 2 black


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