Wednesday, March 06, 2019

'Signify by Their Institution'

Thinking about today's Lenten quote from St. Bonaventure, and particularly the point where he says that sacraments signify by their institution, I suddenly saw something that I probably should have seen before, but only just realized. That sacraments signify by their institution is a standard position (as positive signs, it's obvious that they get their primary meaning from institution), but on Bonaventure's account of institution, it's not something that happens all at once. There is no single moment of institution. Christ did not, one day, out of the blue, suddenly say, "From now on, do this thing you've had no inkling of before." Rather, the institution as Bonaventure describes it (1) is a multi-stage action that (2) can be done in more than one way. In every case it involves some kind of build-up to a completion, and in every case the kind of institution is appropriate to the role of the sacrament in the overall sacramental economy of the Church.

Bonaventure divides the sacraments into several groups in terms of the kind of institution they received. Matrimony and Penance go together, Confirmation and Unction go together, and Baptism, Eucharist, and Order go together.

Matrimony and Penance: Bonaventure says that the kind of institution Matrimony and Penance have was that Christ "confirmed, approved, and brought [them] to perfection" (p. 221). The build-up to Matrimony and Penance is a very, very long build-up. Alexander of Hales had argued that Matrimony and Penance were both instituted as sacraments in Paradise, before the Fall, and after the Fall they were modified to be remedial, without becoming entirely different. Bonaventure doesn't go that far with Penance, but he does with Matrimony; he states multiple times that Matrimony is a paradisial sacrament. And he thinks there was a sacramental form of penance predating the Incarnation. God had already initiated sacraments of Matrimony and Penance, concerned with procreation and repentance. So what Christ does is confirm and complete these long-building sacraments, making them sacraments of the New Covenant "by preaching repentance, attending the wedding feast, and reasserting the command concerning the marriage" (p. 223). There wasn't much he actually had to do in order to institute Matrimony and Penance as evangelical sacraments; he just had to give them the final touch by making repentance a gospel precept, giving his example at the wedding at Cana, and establishing the conditions for marriage under the gospel.

Confirmation and Unction: Confirmation and Unction are very different sacraments but they do have definite similarities -- they both use oil, and they both have historically been adjunct to other sacraments (Baptism for Confirmation and Penance for Unction) -- so it's interesting that Bonaventure also groups them together for independent reasons. Bonaventure says that Christ instituted these two sacraments by insinuation and introduction. These sacraments had their essential features put together during Christ's life, when the disciples were participating in the work of the Holy Spirit but in an incomplete and anticipatory way. Thus the institution of some sacraments partakes of this anticipatory character. Confirmation was instituted "by imposing his hands on the little ones, and by foretelling that his disciples would 'be baptized with the Holy Spirit'" (p. 224); thus Christ gives his example and alludes to Confirmation. Unction was instituted "by sending the disciples to cure the sick whom they 'anointed with oil'" (p. 224); thus Christ combines the example and the allusion by giving his disciples the pattern that they will use.

Baptism, Eucharist, and Order: Christ instituted Baptism, Eucharist, and Order in a full and complete way; he "inaugurated, brought to perfection, and received" all three. Baptism as a distinctive sacrament was inaugurated and received by Christ's Baptism in the Jordan; he also completed it by giving it a definite form (the Trinitarian forum) and making it a precept. Order was instituted first by giving the power of the keys, and then by giving the power to confect the Eucharist. The Eucharist was instituted by Christ's comparing himself to a grain of wheat in John 12:24-25 (which is an odd choice, but I take it that this is supposed to be representative of Christ's Eucharist-relevant claims, rather than the sole component) and by the Lord's Supper. Bonaventure's view is that these sacraments were given special institution by Christ, to emphasize that they are the essential evangelical sacraments. (This contrasts with common Reformation and Counter-Reformation discussions which take Baptism, Eucharist, and sometimes Order to have the paradigmatic institution. Protestants would argue, for instance, that other sacraments were not sacraments because they were not instituted the way Baptism and Eucharist were; Catholics would disagree, but they still tended to take these two as being the standard pattern for sacramental institution. There is no standard or paradigmatic kind of sacramental institution on Bonaventure's account, however, since the institutions vary for reasons having to do with the different ways the sacraments are supposed to work, and the institution of these three is so far from being the standard template that their institution is extraordinary specifically to emphasize that they are especially central.) For the same reason, these three have the most Old Testament prefiguring.

Since sacraments signify by their institution, and since Bonaventure, unlike many, takes institution to be a multi-part thing, on Bonaventure's account, the signification of each sacrament has multiple elements. Marriage in the Garden of Eden does not merely anticipate sacramental marriage; it is actually part of the sacramental sign, as is the wedding at Cana. Christ's Baptism is part of the sacramental sign in sacramental Baptism. And so forth. And the differences in how each sacrament has traditionally been found in the Gospels are essential components in how they differ in signification. Christ didn't give Anointing the Sick a defective institution by never saying "Do this in memory of me" or "Go out and do this to all nations", the way he did with the Eucharist and Baptism; he gave it the institution that was appropriate to it as a very different kind of sacrament with a very different role in the sacramental economy. And so forth. It's a very interesting approach.


St. Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Monti, ed. and tr., Franciscan Institute Publications (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005).

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