The Christian clergy could hardly have attained their great power had they not been essential intermediaries between this visible world of actuality and an invisible other world that, to the devout Christian, is as real as this one. In Christianity certain important ideas about the other world are embodied in ritual acts called sacraments. These sacraments, administered by the clergy, are central to an understanding of Christian doctrine.
The central sacrament of Christianity was the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. It stems from Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, where he took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying,
“Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
By the third century, the Eucharist had become a ceremony that made the Christian believer feel a personal link with God and experience the wonder of salvation. If the sacrament of baptism figuratively washed away the stain of original sin and made a person a Christian, then the sacrament of the Eucharist enabled one to remain in Christian communion and to sustain its faith and fellowship. The Eucharist has remained central to the Christian faith even when, as for some Protestants, it is simply a commemoration of the Last Supper.
Theological explanations were given for this symbolic act. Adam, who began with the chance for a perfect life on earth in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God, was driven from Eden, and was exposed to death and suffering on earth. This was Adam’s “original sin,” and all his descendants shared his fate. But the Jews kept alive their faith in God; after generations of suffering, God took mercy and sent to earth his only son, Jesus. By suffering on the cross, Jesus atoned for human sins and made it possible in the future for faithful Christians to be saved, despite Adam’s sin. After death the faithful would enjoy in the other world after death the immortal happiness they could only anticipate in this one.
Even so elementary an outline of the doctrine of salvation bristles with the kinds of difficulties Christians have been arguing about for centuries. What was the original sin? How did one attain salvation? Was it enough to belong to the church, or must there be some inward sign? This last question raises what has been for two thousand years perhaps the central point of debate in Christianity—the problem of faith versus good works.
Those who believe that salvation is primarily an emotional matter for the individual Christian—a matter of faith—tend to minimize the importance of outward acts. Those who believe that a person must behave in strict accordance with God’s directions to be saved put more emphasis upon good works. Either position, carried to its logical extreme, poses great dangers: on the one hand, the taking over of the priestly role by the individual believer; on the other, dictatorship over daily behavior by the clergy.
As time passed the sacraments grew in number to seven: (1) baptism, by which a person was washed of the stain of original sin and brought into mystical union with Christ; (2) confirmation, by which one was formally brought into the discipline of the church; (3) the Eucharist, the central act of Christian observance; (4) penance, whereby a confessed and repentant sinner was granted absolution (forgiven) by the priest; (5) extreme unction, a ceremony performed by the priest at the dying moments of the Christian in preparation for the life to come; (6) ordination, the ceremony by which a candidate was made a priest; and (7) matrimony, holy marriage.
Baptism and the Eucharist have remained as sacraments in almost all the Protestant groups. Of the other sacraments, the one that has been most heavily attacked and most vigorously rejected by Protestants generally is that of penance.