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Volume 15, Issue 2: Liturgia

Why Sacraments are not Signs

Peter Leithart

I admit it: sacraments are signs. Though the New Testament never speaks of baptism or the Lord's Supper as "signs," Old Covenant "sacraments" are given this designation. Following Genesis 17:11, Paul writes of "the sign of circumcision," which was "a seal of the righteousness" that Abraham possessed by faith before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:11). The blood of the Passover lamb was a "sign" (Exod. 12:13), and the Passover meal together with the Feast of Unleavened Bread was permanently "a sign to you on your hand" and "a reminder on your forehead" (Exod. 13:9). Still, I stand by the title of this essay, which is not meant merely as a provocation. Though sacraments are called "signs" in Scripture, we need to explore what"sign" means, because many Christians, both today and in the past, have understood "sign" in an unbiblical fashion. Popular conceptions of "sign" and "symbol" are erroneous in a number of respects, but in this essay I discuss only one error, namely, the tendency to treat signs rationalistically, purely as means of communicating ideas from one mind to another mind. In this sense, the title is completely accurate—sacraments are not signs.

For many, signs function cognitively or didactically, enabling us to pass on ideas to other people and to remember or consider concepts, ideas, and things. Applied to the sacraments, this view of signs implies that baptism teaches us about our state of original sin, our need for cleansing, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the sprinkling of our hearts with the blood of Jesus. Baptism exists mainly to teach us something. (Obviously, this conception raises unanswerable questions about infant baptism.) The Lord's Supper, similarly, reminds us of the death of Jesus and teaches us that He is our life.
Sacramental theology has employed this idea of signs for many centuries. Augustine defined a sign as "a thing which of itself makes something come to mind, besides the impression that it presents to the senses" (On Christian Teaching, 2.1), and Augustine's definition was the basis for sacramental theology throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. The seventeenth-century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin explained that sacramental signs work in such a way that "the thing promised is so represented to our minds that it is caused also to be truly communicated."
Though not wrong as far as he goes, Augustine does not go nearly far enough, and his definition of sacraments has been the source of much confusion. To be sure, the Bible does speak of signs that "call things to mind and memory." The rainbow was set in the sky as a reminder of Yahweh's covenant (Gen. 9:12-13, 17), and Aaron's budding rod was kept as a memorial of Aaron's status and God's judgment against rebels (Num. 17:10). Frequently, however, "signs" in Scripture are given not to be looked at or contemplated but to be done. Sabbath is a sign (Ezek. 20:12, 20), and this sign would certainly teach the Israelites something about Yahweh's salvation of Israel. Yet, Israel would not have been faithful if they had done nothing more than contemplate or think about the Sabbath; they had to keep and sanctify the Sabbath. Applied to the Sabbath, a "sign" is not something that brings another thing to mind, but a significant practice, an enacted sign.
Many uses of "sign" in Scripture, moreover, refer to God's actions, particularly His works of power against Egypt (Deut. 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 11:3; 26:3; 29:3; 34:11; Ps. 78:43) or Jesus' miracles among the Jews (Jn. 2:18, 23; 4:48, 54; 6:26; 9:16). Again, Augustine's definition of "sign" doesn't easily fit these passages. God did indeed communicate with Pharaoh through plagues of frogs and lice and pestilence. Far more than that, however, God did something to Pharaoh, and by doing that demanded that Pharaoh do something in response.
Another problem with Augustine's definition of sign is brought out explicitly in the quotation from Turretin. As Keith Mathison has put it in his fine recent study, Given For You, "For Turretin, the connection between the signs and the things signified is a connection that occurs in our minds." Turretin claims that there is a "spiritual presence" in sacraments but only in the sense that "the things signified are present by their signs, whose nature is to make another thing come into the mind and so place the thing before the senses or mind." Mathison shows in detail that this was not Calvin's teaching about the relation of signs and things or about "spiritual presence," but Turretin's conclusion seems almost inevitable if we start from Augustine's definition of signs. If a sign is given "to bring something else to mind," then the marriage between the sign and reality takes place within our heads. Augustine's definition robs sacraments of any objective, real-world efficacy. On these assumptions, sacraments do nothing but provoke pious thoughts.
From a biblical perspective, then, to call sacraments "signs" brings out several different dimensions: a) as signs, sacraments do communicate, they mean something, bring something to mind, are intended to teach; b) but also as signs sacraments are actions performed at God's command by the church; and c) as signs sacraments are mighty acts of God for the redemption of His people and the world.
In these senses, sacraments most definitely are signs.

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