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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K091-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

The Christian theory of ‘sacraments’ underlies ideas of a general ‘sacramentality’ in the universe whereby ordinary things have religious significance by their own nature or by virtue of some hidden power within them. The pre-Christian Latin word sacramentum meant a non-returnable gift marking the taking on of some binding obligation; more informally it meant an oath, and later a secret or mystery. Latin theology turned it to Christian use, initially in rough translation of the Greek mysterion, applied to the Church, to the Scriptures and to Old as well as New Testament rites. The word then became the predominant medieval and modern term specifically designating those rites in permanent use in the Church which human authority was conceived not to be free to abolish, add to or change in their essentials.

Each such rite presupposes that the creaturely things used have some aptitude which allows or invites the particular ritual use concerned, that is, which presupposes some more general sacramental potential in natural things. The conceptual tools developed in Catholic theology – ‘effective sign’, ‘matter and form’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘authority’, ‘power’ and ‘institution’ – sharpen enquiry into the phenomenology of rituals within many different religious traditions.

Citing this article:
Braine, David. Sacraments, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K091-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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