Is marriage a sacrament? And is that bad?

In the Vatican, the second week of the Extraordinary Bishop’s Synod about the Family has begun. One of the topics covered is the place that remarried divorces within the Roman Catholic Church can, may or must have. And that discussion focuses on whether people who enter into a new relationship after a (civil) divorce can also be admitted to the “table of the Eucharist”.

From the Protestant Churches there is often a bit of compassion for all this “Roman Catholic haggling”. In the vast majority of the current Protestant Churches, access to the sacraments is not hampered by the failure of a marriage and the decision to enter into a new relationship – perhaps including a civil marriage. These “second marriages” can often be blessed without problems in a Protestant wedding celebration.

In general, the cause of this distinction is explained by observing that marriage is understood as a sacrament within the Roman Catholic tradition, but not within the Protestant Churches.

But is that actually that simple? Marriage is also a sacrament within orthodox and old catholic traditions, where the question of separation and new relationships is dealt with in a completely different way. [More about that next week] And can you really say that marriage is completely non-sacramental within the Protestant tradition?

This “ecumenism on Monday” attempts to provide some clarity in the discussion.

The marriage with Luther and Calvin

In 1520, a year before his final condemnation by the Pope, Luther wrote his famous Von der babylonischen Gefangenschaft der Kirche. He disputes the idea that marriage would be a sacrament.

Although for Luther marriage is “an image of the relationship between Christ and the Church” (see Eph. 5), it is not a sacrament instituted by God. He calls this an “invention of people.” Nowhere in Scripture does Luther read an “institution” of the marriage sacrament through Christ.

Because in the Old Testament and with the Gentiles too, marriage is to be assumed, according to Luther, that it belongs to the “natural, worldly order,” and not to the sacraments. Or to put it differently: marriage may have been founded by God, but from natural order: “Nowhere [in the Bible] does one read that someone who takes a wife will receive grace from God”.

Johannes Calvin thinks in the same way. For him, too, marriage was nothing more than a basic form of human life going back to God, without being directly related to “justification grace” and “salvation ordinance.” [3]

Because marriage is not a sacrament, it is not governed by ecclesiastical law, but by civil law. That is why Luther calls it “a weltlich Geschäft”. A marriage ceremony therefore takes place before the civil status, about which the two spouses in the Church ask for God’s blessing.

The reaction of the Council of Trent

Reformation thinking about marriage is being contradicted by the Council of Trent. In contrast to a marriage of the Reformation, which is wanted by God, but still human, the council proposes a different, “more elevated” idea of ​​marriage, to which the Roman Catholic Church has remained faithful ever since.

In the Tametsi decree [4], the council stated that Christ not only wanted marriage to have the goal of depicting the unity between Christ and his Church, but that he had given effect to this sacrament to strengthen the bond between the two spouses. to take in, and share in, the grace given by God in Christ. Marriage not only portrays the bond between Christ and his Church, but also actively participates in it.

This sacramental view of marriage has since given it a “sacred and definitive character” within Roman Catholic theology.


In the first instance, both positions appear diametrically opposite each other. But whoever dares to look further may come to the conclusion that the boundaries between the two theological traditions may not go where we thought they were.

Within the ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestants, the discussion about the sacramentality of marriage has yielded surprising results. So surprising that for many specialists the differences that still exist at this point no longer have a “church-separating character”.

In order to arrive at that conviction, let’s break the question of the sacramentality of marriage into two sub-question areas:

  • -why do Protestant churches recognize only two of the Roman Catholic (and Orthodox and Old Catholic) sacraments? And what is the meaning of this? Are there opportunities for opening here?
  • -What is the peculiarity of the Christian marriage? Can Christian marriage be given a “sacramental character” within the Protestant tradition?

Seven or two sacraments?

As strange as this may sound to many believers: the number of sacraments has been subject to quite a bit of inflation and deflation in the course of church history. In response to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent definitively set the number of sacraments at seven, and this number was undoubtedly not chosen without regard to biblical symbolism.

In the previous centuries, many theologians applied the classical definition of a sacrament (a God-given, external sign of internally bestowed grace) only to Baptism and the Eucharist. However, other theologians, particularly in the Middle Ages, stretched the term to such an extent that rituals such as washing the feet, giving alms, or kneeling during prayer were included.

For example, during the twelfth century, Lafranc argued for four sacraments. Abelardus counted five, Bernardus van Clairvaux ten and Petrus Damianus twelve. One of those great 12th century theologians is Hugo van Sint-Victor, whose sacramental theology was recently put in the spotlight by Pope Benedict XVI. His definition of a sacrament [2] enables him to draw up a list of almost thirty sacraments. And with other theologians, this number can rise to as much as forty.

At the same time that the number of seven slowly crystallized out, a similarity developed within Western theology about the nature of a sacrament.

Around 1160 Peter Lombard finally provided the list of seven ecclesiastical rites that are signs and instruments of divine grace and can therefore be called sacraments in the strict sense. This list is then mentioned in the texts of the Councils of Latrans IV (1215), Lyon II (1274), Florence (1439) and finally in Trento (1547).

The reformers had quite a bit of criticism of the practice of sacraments in the 16th century Western Church. They saw two problems in this. On the one hand they found an undervaluation of the Word of God in the practice of sacraments. After all, didn’t Augustine say that “when the Word comes to the element” something becomes a sacrament?

On the other hand, they found that the sacraments left too little room for the subjective engagement of the recipient. They were often administered and experienced as a kind of panacea, magical acts.

Because they again wanted to place Scripture as the norma normans (the normative norm) of the Christian faith at the center of all theology, only two sacraments remained: Baptism and Supper / Eucharist. These two sacraments were recognized as “instituted by Christ,” based on the reformational interpretation of Scripture.

The other sacraments were therefore discarded as “human inventions”, although it must be said that confession and (priest) consecration are still in doubt for a while.

For example, Luther himself for a long time did not want to remove the sacrament of confession from the list, and in Confessio Augustana, written by Melanchton in 1530, confession is even fully and explicitly recognized as a sacrament and even recommended the use of private confession in to maintain the Protestant parishes [this is one of the confessional writings of the PKN]. In 1562 Calvin acknowledged the laying on of hands as a sacrament.

[C] Again: two or seven?

Does this traditional Protestant criticism of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments hold? Has Jesus actually instituted two sacraments and are the other five merely “human inventions”?

In medieval theology, the “institution by Christ” was often not understood as a historically determined and dated institution by Jesus of Nazareth. For these medieval theologians, the sacraments were primarily founded in the salvation given by Christ, in his death on the cross, in his resurrection and in the mission of the Spirit. The “institution by Christ” could also be thought of as post-paschal (= “after Easter”) development.

For some sacraments the biblical “proof” of an institution by the “historical Jesus” was missing. But when these have their origin and basis in the salvation work of Christ and are based on a “divine mandate” (mandatum Dei), then these signs of salvation could still be characterized as a sacrament.

Modern exegesis seems to support medieval – and therefore Catholic – theology. It has been difficult, if not impossible, to make a clear distinction between what the historical Jesus himself actually taught and lived, and the context in which the writings originated, and thus with the references to the concrete situations of the young Christian Churches. In other words: some stories in the New Testament sometimes respond less to what Jesus really, literally and historically said or did, than to the way in which the young churches, in the Spirit of Jesus, and true to his message, shaped their faith .

To what extent can one then certainly assume a historical “institution” of baptism and sacrament? And should it ever turn out that this “historical institution” may never have taken place, are both then no longer a sacrament? This problem is exacerbated by the fact that even in the gospels the “institution of baptism” is done by the Risen Christ.

If this is true and accepted – and the latter is the case in the vast majority of Lutheran and Reformed churches – then there may also be openings for Protestants to recognize “sacramentality” outside the two traditional sacraments.

During the Middle Ages, prominent theologians made a distinction between sacramenta maiora (or principalia) and sacramenta minora. Baptism and the Eucharist were counted among the two “major sacraments,” the other five among the “minor sacraments.” This shows that a differentiated view of the seven sacraments is not only possible, but even desirable.

Cardinal Walter Kasper therefore explicitly asks whether this scholastic distinction can be helpful for further dialogue. The two sacramenta maiora in the Roman Catholic tradition coincide precisely with the two sacraments that have preserved reformational traditions. They have their own special status within the seven sacraments.

And if indeed (as indicated above under [C]) it is possible for Protestants to recognize (and acknowledge) “sacramentality” outside of the two sacraments of baptism and sacrament, then it is possible to recognize that sacramentality by the five Catholic sacramenta minora to grant?

A new look at the Christian marriage

Marriage was also looked at in the famous German study Lehrverurteilungen – Kirchentrennend ?, in which a group of Protestant and Catholic theologians examined the current value of 16th-century ecclesiastical convictions (back and forth).

Its writers convincingly demonstrated that

Although Luther’s marriage is a “weltliches Geschäft”, we cannot read “profanization of marriage” in it. For Luther, marriage is also “holier”. It is indeed an image of the reciprocal love and surrender between Christ and his Church. Marriage with Luther – as with Calvin – is also explicitly in a christological and ecclesiological context.

All in all it can be established that, even if marriage is not characterized as a “sacrament”, it is nevertheless accompanied by a promise of salvation that is substantively close to the Catholic concept of “sacrament“.

According to this study, the question is therefore more of a linguistic rather than a theological one. When a strict “sacramental concept” is used, which attempts to accept (and must have) an “institution by Jesus” on a biblical basis, then only two sacraments qualify. However, if a broader concept of sacrament is accepted and used, and also an “indirect institution” is accepted in the developing young Church, then it is legitimate to acknowledge seven sacraments.

Cardinal Kasper summarizes it in the following question:

The term sacrament is of secondary importance. The number of seven too. The question is about the sacramental reality in which baptized women and men in Christ participate.


All of these considerations do not provide a direct answer to the question of whether or not divorce is biblical or moral theologically justified, and even less to the questions about second marriages and admission to communion.

They do show that the dividing lines between the Protestant and Catholic traditions are much less carved in marble on this point than was often assumed – and is – accepted.

Further theological research is needed. Further dialogue within our churches and between our churches too. The Spirit must have something in store for us.

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