The Origin of Teaching on the Seven Sacraments in the Eastern Orthodox Church

The Origin of Teaching on the Seven Sacraments in the Eastern Orthodox Church

As anyone who studies the doctrines of the Eastern Orthodox Churches knows, different teachers believed other sacraments existed in addition to the seven that are now officially recognized. Such is the example of monastic tonsures (cutting the hair of initiates into life in the monasteries). However, under the influence of Roman Catholic theology, the Orthodox Church adopted the number of seven Holy Sacraments. Ernst Benz says this:

“Orthodoxy characteristically does not strictly adhere solely to seven as the number of the Sacraments in the Church. However, the theology of the Orthodox Church
later came under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and adopted the definition of Seven Sacraments identical to those of Rome. However, Orthodoxy does not recognize the principle of a strict distinction between the Sacraments and sacramentals, in other words, devotional acts of the church that are not sacraments in the true sense.”

This author also confirms the fact presented by evangelical Christians (the so-called “Protestant schismatics”) that the doctrine of the Sacraments developed gradually over many centuries, including various views by church authorities on their number. The dogma of the “Sacraments” found in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism appeared only 1200 years after Christ’s ascension into heaven:

“In a certain way, the Church in its entire sphere of ‘mysteries’ brought out of its charismatic fullness could always devise a new mystery. While the old church resolved its acceptance of the books of the New Testament canon in the Fourth Century, its establishment of church dogmas in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, and the simplification of the church liturgy in the Seventh Century, the number of Sacraments had not yet been defined until the end of the first millennium. This always signified its creative liveliness in this sphere.

One of the renowned teachers of the Orthodox Church, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (6th Century) listed six sacraments in his work The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, priesthood, the consecration of monks, and rites for the dead. Another teacher revered by Orthodoxy, John of Damascus, two centuries later mentions only two sacraments: Baptism together with the corresponding chrismation and the Eucharist (Communion). Only during the Council of Lyons in 1274 did Greek theologians, who discussed the possibility of uniting with Rome, accepted the number of Sacraments to be seven, which is slightly before the West accepted scholastic theology: Baptism, Confirmation (Confirmation), Eucharist, Penance, Priesthood, Marriage, and Anointing of the Sick. Even today there are many Orthodox theologians who do not hold strictly to the scheme of the seven ‘Sacraments’ established by the Roman Catholic Church. This discord indicates a much more comprehensive range of Orthodox mystery.”

St. John of Damascus was one of the most respected theologians in Orthodox history, particularly for his views on icon veneration. Yet, it is remarkable that even his view of the sacraments bears strong parallels to that of the Protestants. Like the Protestants, St. John only recognized two sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper). Yet the list of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, two centuries earlier contained some sacraments that are accepted today and others that are omitted, a total of six sacraments. These facts cited in the quote above are sufficient to demonstrate that the number of “Holy Sacraments” are not based on the teachings of Christ and His apostles. Rather, the seven Sacraments are based on the opinions of Church Fathers and the decisions of later ecumenical councils. By the time the Orthodox Churches settled on “Seven Sacraments,” they decided on that number based on the anathematized “brethren” of the Western Roman Catholic Church.

Because of the weight of these historical arguments, we ought to be careful with passively accepting the accuracy of other claims regarding the Orthodox teaching about the sacraments. Earlier in this chapter, we saw the text from Religion in the Home assuring us that Christ established the seven sacraments as a “lifeline” from heaven. However, we just saw that the Church Fathers wove this “lifeline” through the centuries, but one faction stayed in the West while the other faction switched to the East. Scripture nowhere mentions a word about “Holy Sacraments”, especially nothing about those religious activities or actions that Roman Catholicism of the West or Orthodoxy of the East practice. However, although the Bible does not use the term “Holy Sacraments,” some mysteries are still revealed. What do the apostles show us about the mysteries which are mentioned in the Bible?

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