Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Numbering of Sacraments in the Orthodox Church

How many sacraments are there in the Orthodox Church? The answer varies according to what one believes. The number, according to the various Greek Fathers, varies dramatically. Some claim there are five, others follow the Western tradition where seven is the number, others claim there are thirteen, ten, nine etc. Following is an interesting abstract written by Dr Nikolaos Matsoukas who gives an interesting explanation of this key topic.


‘In the scholastic manuals of dogmatic theology it is said that priesthood is one of the seven sacraments. This numbering originates in the scholastics of the West, led by Thomas Aquinas. Since the 14th century the Orthodox church imperceptibly allowed the circulation of this view, which was later imposed mainly by academic theology. The fullest theological analyses of the sacraments are found in two works by Nikolaos Kavasilas, About Life in Christ and Interpretation of the Holy Liturgy. A numbering of the sacramental ceremonies is not even implied there. On the contrary, Kavasilas emphasizes that the entire body of the church is expressed through the sacraments. In other words, the church itself as body is sacramental life in its gathering, participating in the glory of the divine kingdom. No sacrament can be autonomous, since sacraments are members and not parts of the ecclesiastical body. Thus Kavasilas (a) by using wonderful pictorial illustrations tells us that the sacraments are like chambers of the heart, like the branches of a tree and like vines spreading from a single root; and (b) by adopting a language of physiology he tells us that baptism is birth, chrism is movement and the eucharist is nourishment. No one can move or be fed without having been born!
Therefore the numbering of the sacraments may result in isolation or separation of the individual sacramental ceremonies, which merely participate in the body, but are not the body itself; it may convey the opinion that these are mechanical or magic ceremonies. Numbering may also result in the adoption of the unacceptable distinction between obligatory and voluntary. However, even the choice of a chaste life constitutes a marriage with the church. Thus we come to realize that the sacraments are not mechanical or magical, or symbolic rituals, because they grew and still grow in natural and historical events: in the history of divine economy, which is the continuous course of a living historical community through constant epiphanies, Christ is the master of ceremonies and high priest. In the gathering of the church body, the deacons, presbyters and bishops perform the sacraments as charismatic ministers who received the necessary grace through the ordination. In other words, there is no mediating priesthood in the Orthodox church. All the members of the church participate in all the sacraments and their participation in the gathering for the performance of a sacrament is necessary – the presence of at least two or three members is necessary. This is the meaning of royal priesthood, or of general priesthood.’[1]



[1] Matsoukas, Nikolaos, ‘Women’s Priesthood as a Theological and Ecumenical Problem’, in Tamara Grdzelidze (edit.), One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – Ecumenical Reflections on the Church, (Geneva, WCC Publications, 2005), pp.218-219. 

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