Old Testament Sacraments? A Reformed Overview


Throughout five hundred years of Protestant theology, there are few questions about the sacraments which have not been litigated at great length. In the Reformation era, debates over the sacraments did not merely divide Protestants from Roman Catholics, but even divided Protestants among themselves. While these intense squabbles have long seemed alien, there is nonetheless a renewed interest in sacramental theology among some Reformed and evangelical Christians.[1] Often, however, there is not much clarity on what constitutes a sacrament, or from where in Scripture we should glean our sacramental theology. On the one hand, many people assert, in one way or another, that “everything is sacramental,” in an attempt to emphasize the goodness of creation and the fact that God speaks through all the things that he has made.[2] On the other hand, many good Protestants will assert that only the Lord’s Supper and baptism constitute a sacrament, and our sacramental theology should be derived only from a small selection of New Testament passages that speak directly of these.[3]

In this article I hope to navigate between these two extremes by posing an unexpected question: were there sacraments in the Old Testament? It may be surprising, but the answer for many Church Fathers, medieval scholastics, and even Reformed Protestant theologians is yes. Despite the seeming obscurity of the question, it pushes us to carefully consider the basic questions of our sacramental theology: what is a sacrament? How is a sacrament connected with God’s covenants? What is offered in the sacraments—and were the Old Covenant saints offered in their ceremonies the same thing that we are offered in the New Covenant sacraments?

This article seeks to demonstrate that the Old Covenant does contain sacraments in accord with a Reformed definition, and that this has been the conclusion of most of the great minds within that tradition. What’s more, Old Covenant sacraments—particularly the tree of life, the rainbow, circumcision, and Passover—enrich and deepen our understanding of what the New Covenant sacraments mean and achieve. For one thing, all of these sacraments serve as signs and seals of the respective covenants to which they were attached. More significantly, they both pointed forward to the fuller revelation of the New Covenant, and (most controversially) also provided spiritual union with Christ just as the New Covenant sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper do. By exploring in-depth these Old Testament sacraments, we gain a fuller and deeper understanding of the meaning of the New Testament sacraments which we enjoy today as Christians.

I only here attempt to lay the groundwork for a fuller doctrine of Old Testament sacraments. Fresh forays into sacramental theology will only come by looking back at how theologians of the past understood the meaning of Old Covenant signs and seals.

Definition of Sacraments

In the early church, most theologians were more concerned with the proper way to practice what we would term sacraments—such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper—than with clearly and narrowly defining the term.[4] The term sacrament, from the Latin sacramentum, carried several interrelated meanings for the early church. In the Latin Vulgate, the Greek mustērion was either translated as sacramentum (cf. Eph. 1:9, 3:3; Col. 1:26) or mysterium (cf. Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:4; 1 Cor. 4:1).[5] Because of mustērion’s broad use in reference to the revelation of the Gospel in Christ, many of the early Church Fathers used the word sacramentum to broadly refer to “any mystery or sacred and not obvious doctrine.” [6] John Chrysostom (c.347–407) calls the sacraments “covenants” that God uses to bind himself to men.[7] Cyprian (c.210–258) used the Latin term sacramentum to refer to “something that gives a teaching…particularly of Old Testament types that are referred to Christian practices.”[8] Cyprian’s definition connected the general sense of sacramentum as a spiritual mystery communicated through the Word with the idea of a sign or type that represents the Word and is carried out in Christian practice. His emphasis on the Old Testament signs is particularly relevant to our discussion.

Augustine (354–430) took Cyprian’s broad concept of sacramentum and narrowed it with a series of definitions. In a number of places, Augustine defines sacramentum as “a visible sign of a sacred thing” and “a visible form of an invisible grace.”[9] He also famously refers to a sacrament as “a visible word.”[10] In these instances, Augustine uses sacramentum to properly refer to visible signs that signify sacred doctrine and the gracious work of God in Christ.[11] Yet his use of sacramentum remains broad: he refers to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments, but also to the Church and Christ himself as sacraments.[12] This broader use of the term also included any “visible symbol” instituted under the law and prophets to “serve as a bond of union” in the “religious society” of the Old Covenant. Indeed, part of Augustine’s argument in Contra Faustum is that no religious society, whether the religion be true or false, is possible without sacraments. Under the Old Covenant, these were “types of Christ who was to come” that were fulfilled in Christ, being either abrogated (such as sacrifices) or superseded by something new (such as baptism for circumcision).[13]

The early and broad use of sacramentum contained the seeds for the much narrower definition of sacraments in the medieval scholastic period as being, according to Thomas Aquinas, “a sign of a holy thing insofar as it makes men holy.”[14] Following Peter Lombard and the official ruling of Lateran IV in 1213, Aquinas enumerated seven New Covenant sacraments.[15] Aquinas clarifies that sacramentum can refer to something with a “hidden sanctity,” something that is the cause of sanctity, or a sign of sanctity. He argues that the “special sense” of sacrament refers to signs “given to the Church to perfect man in things pertaining to the worship of God according to the religion of Christian life, and to be a remedy against the defects caused by sin.”[16] In keeping with this understanding, Aquinas and many other scholastic theologians considered there to be sacraments of the Old Testament.[17] Indeed, it is worth noting that, in Summa Theologiae III, where Thomas treats these questions, he does not lay out an argument for the existence of Old Testament sacraments as Augustine does in Contra Faustum—he simply assumes, as an heir to Augustine (and while citing Contra Faustum), that this is understood to be the case.

“The Old Covenant does contain sacraments in accord with a Reformed definition, and that this has been the conclusion of most of the great minds within that tradition.”

From the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Protestant theologians sought to narrow the definition of sacrament further. While the Lutherans came to confess three sacraments—baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution—the Reformed only recognize the former two.[18] But, as we will see, their definitions did not preclude the existence of Old Testament sacraments.

While the Reformers differed with Augustine on what constitutes a sacrament, Augustine’s three definitions, coupled with the connection of sacramentum to mysterion, created the necessary Reformation connections: Christ is the substance; sacraments are always attached to covenant words; they are related to salvation; and they are given to the Church. In keeping with the traditional notion of a sacrament as a “sign,” many early Reformed confessions narrowed the definition by connecting the sacraments to God’s promises, defining the sacraments as “holy signs and seals of God’s promises.”[19] Sacraments “seal unto us [God’s] promises,”[20] and are “symbols [that] have God’s promises annexed to them.”[21] These promises are most certainly covenant promises.

In this same vein, John Calvin (1509–64) calls the sacraments signs of a covenant, arguing that “since the Lord calls his promises ‘covenants’ [Gen. 6:28; 9:9; 17:2] and his sacraments ‘tokens’ of the covenant, a simile can be taken from the covenants of men.”[22] He further argues that “a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself.”[23] Because every sacrament is a sign of a covenant promise, “the testimony of the Gospel is engraved upon the sacraments.”[24] Calvin’s narrower definition places him firmly within the tradition of the early church, for he connects the sacraments with covenants (following Chrysostom) and with the testimony of God’s covenant promises (following Cyprian), identifying them as visible signs that ultimately signify Christ (following Augustine). This definition thus allowed Calvin to identify only two sacraments of the New Covenant as instituted by Christ: baptism (cf. Mt. 20:19) and the Lord’s Supper (cf. Mt. 26:26–29; Mk. 14:22–25; Lk. 22:17–23).

The definition of sacraments was further clarified with the writings of the Reformed Scholastics and Westminster Divines. The Westminster Confession defines sacraments as “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace.”[25] More broadly, Francis Turretin (1623–87) defines sacraments as “signs of the covenant” (cf. Gen. 9:12, 13), “signs and seals of the righteousness of faith” (cf. Rom. 4:11), and simply “signs” (cf. Ex. 12:13).[26] He applies Paul’s definition of circumcision (Rom. 4:11) to all sacraments as “sacred visible signs and seals divinely instituted to signify and seal to our consciences the promises of saving grace in Christ and in turn to testify our faith and piety and obedience towards God.”[27] The sacraments “signify and seal grace; this is the grace of God in Christ or Christ with all his benefits.”[28] He further contends that “the principle [of the sacrament] is the confirmation of the covenant of grace and the sealing on the part of God of our union with Christ (promised in the covenant) and of all his benefits.”[29] According to Turretin, in order for something to be a sacrament, the sign must cohere with the thing signified, and it must contain the promise of grace, be instituted by God, and be used in the Church.[30] 

In time, then, it became the dominant understanding of Reformed Protestantism that the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace, specifically connected to the redemptive work of Christ and his incarnation. The Reformers joined the sacraments to God’s covenant promises, founded on the bedrock of the work of Christ. The sacraments are a means of union with Christ and apprehension of all of his benefits. The sacrament is always joined to the word of promise and finds its substance in the whole Christ, a Christ of past, present, and future.

All this being the case, with the sacraments so connected with the work of Christ, one might assume that the Reformers only regarded the New Covenant institutions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as true sacraments. Yet many Reformed confessions, as well as major theologians, contended that there were numerous Old Covenant sacraments as well. The support for this came both from the connection of sacraments with God’s covenant promises and with the consensus that Christ himself is not merely prefigured in the Old Covenant but actually offered through the covenant and received by faith.

Old Testament Sacraments

Before we unpack the logic behind regarding Old Testament signs as sacraments—and which signs may constitute sacraments—we can first simply evidence the fact that Old Testament sacraments were attested by many of the major confessions and theologians of the sixteenth century. The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560, overseen by John Knox) and the Second Helvetic Confession (1566, penned by Heinrich Bullinger) affirm the existence of Old Testament sacraments, namely circumcision and Passover.[31] In both cases, this identification of circumcision and Passover as sacraments creates a simple correlation between the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments: for baptism replaces circumcision and the Lord’s Supper replaces Passover. This also combatted the Roman Catholic doctrine of seven sacraments, since most of these have no correlation with the sacraments of the Old Covenant.[32] The Westminster Confession also affirms the presence of Old Testament sacraments, but does not specify what constituted these.[33]

 “Aquinas does not argue for the existence of Old Testament sacraments as Augustine does—he simply assumes it, as an heir to Augustine.”

According to Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), many Reformers attested to the reality of Old Covenant sacraments, but could not agree on what qualified as such.[34] The differences, unsurprisingly, come down to what exactly one means by “sacrament.” Here, Calvin proves helpful. Although we have seen how he aided in the narrowing of the definition of “sacrament,” his definition still includes “all those signs which God has ever enjoined upon men to render them more certain and confident of the truth of his promises” (Institutes, IV.XIV.18). Within this definition he distinguishes between three types: 1) covenant signs attached to “natural things,” such as the tree of life in the covenant of works and the rainbow in the Noahic covenant;[35] 2) signs of faith “set forth in miracles,” such as the smoking oven in Genesis 15 and Gideon’s fleece;[36] 3) covenant signs willed by the Lord for his Church as “ceremonies” rather than “simple signs,” such as circumcision, Passover, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. [37] Through his threefold definition, Calvin covers the three different ways that the Reformers considered Old Testament signs to be sacraments. His first definition focuses specifically on the nature of the sign as attached to a covenant, while his second definition more broadly refers to Old Testament miraculous signs that confirm God’s Word, whether that Word is a strict covenant (as in Gen. 15) or simply a divine promise not specifically attached to a covenant (as in the case of Gideon); in both these senses, the sign is occasional and often given to a single individual. His third definition is the narrowest, and only refers to covenant signs given to God’s people as ceremonies of their worship and covenant renewal. When considering the nature of Old Testament sacraments, it seems that either Calvin’s first or third category coheres with most Reformed confessions and theologians on the nature of Old Testament sacraments. Both kinds of Old Testament sacraments bear two essential marks: they were signs of God’s covenants with his people and they were a means of spiritual union with Christ and all his benefits.

The Christological Nature of Old Testament Sacraments

Peculiar as it may seem, the Reformed consensus has been that the Old Covenant saints partook of Christ and his benefits in their sacraments just as we do in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In late antiquity, Christians began to understand the Old Testament connections with the New as typological, with New Testament doctrine being prefigured in the Old Testament. This figural and typological reading was centered largely on Old Testament liturgy and its connection with present practice.[38] By the time of the Reformation, the Christological link to the sacraments was firmly established: although the fullness of his person and work had not yet been revealed in the Old Covenant, in both the Old and New Covenant sacraments the substance is Christ—the precise point made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:3–4: “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (NIV). This mysterious yet glorious doctrine is well-attested among the major Reformed theologians and the Reformed confessions.

The explanations for the coherence between the grace offered in the Old and New Covenants center on the conviction that salvation has always and only come through the merits of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. He has always been our Mediator, the one mediator between God and mankind (1 Tim. 2:5); and this same Christ was offered even in the Old Covenant, although the nature of this grace was more obscure and the benefits were not as fully enjoyed. The Second Helvetic Confession explains at length:

But the principal thing which God promises in all sacraments and to which all the godly in all ages direct their attention…is Christ the Savior.…Now, in respect of that which is the principal thing and the matter itself in the sacraments, the sacraments of both peoples [of the old and new covenant] are equal. For Christ, the only Mediator and Savior of the faithful, is the chief thing and very substance of the sacraments in both; for the one God is the author of them both. They were given to both peoples as signs and seals of the grace and promises of God.[39]

Similarly, the Westminster Confession asserts that “the sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same as those of the new.”[40] The difference lies not in the substance or even the means of reception (faith), but in the lasting nature of the new sacraments—which will not be abrogated until Christ’s return—and the testimony that the promises have been fulfilled in Christ.[41] Thus, our faith is more sure, our sacraments more lasting, and Christ more revealed in the New Covenant; but in both dispensations, the grace of Christ is offered and received by faith.

“Many Reformers attested to the reality of Old Covenant sacraments, but could not agree on what qualified as such.”

This assertion directly strikes against the Roman Catholic doctrine that the Old Testament sacraments merely foreshadowed Christ, but did not offer true grace. Calvin states this firmly:

But we must utterly reject that Scholastic dogma…which notes such great difference between the sacraments of the old and new law, as if the former only foreshadowed God’s grace, but the latter gives it as a present reality. Indeed, the apostle speaks just as clearly concerning the former as the latter when he teaches that the fathers ate of the same spiritual food as we, and explains that food as Christ [1 Cor. 10:3]. Who dared treat as an empty sign that which revealed the true communion of Christ to the Jews? …Nor is it lawful for us to attribute more to our baptism than he elsewhere attributes to circumcision when he calls it the seal of the righteousness of faith [Rom. 4:11].[42]

Calvin further clarifies why this is the case, asserting that what is promised in every divine covenant is always Christ himself: “I say that Christ is the matter or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him.”[43] He continues that “those ancient sacraments looked to the same purpose to which ours now tend: to direct and almost lead men by the hand to Christ….no promise has ever been offered to men except in Christ.”[44] The difference between the Old and New Covenant sacraments is not what is offered—it is always Christ—but in the clarity of revelation, for in the New Testament sacraments Christ has been more fully revealed to us, and is thus remembered rather than anticipated.[45]

Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562) was also convinced of the unity of the testaments, because Christ, as the Word, was the res—that is the substance, or, more literally, the thing—of both.[46] Whether in the Old or New Covenant era, the “content of faith is always the same: union with Christ.”[47] The Old Testament signs and forms were thus the way in which Christ communicated himself prior to his incarnation: “That the Fathers were justified we doubt not: and they could not be justified without faith in Christ….[W]hat have we in our sacraments, which we receive as the chief and principal thing? Is it not Christ? But the Apostle testifies that the old Fathers received Him in their sacraments.”[48] The reason for this is that Christ has always been the one mediator between God and man: “Indeed there, as among ourselves, Christ Jesus is the same Mediator, outside whom there is no salvation. Therefore as to nature—or as I may say, substance and essence—the Church of the Jews is the same as ours.”[49] While the Papists argued that Christ could not be communicated in the Old Covenant because he had not yet taken human flesh, Vermigli disagreed, arguing that because God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and Christ is “the lamb slain before the foundations of the earth,” he communicates his benefits sacramentally outside of historical time. Hence, Paul can argue that the Old Testament fathers partook of Christ (1 Cor. 10:3).[50] Thus, for Vermigli, the distinction between Old and New Covenant sacraments was in their form, not their substance: “one and the same covenant between God and Man, are the old and new testament…what difference is between the testaments consists not in the substance of the covenant, but in the accidents.”[51]

Turretin also maintained the same Christological link between the Old and New Testament sacraments. Because Christ does not change, the benefits of his death and resurrection are always sealed by the sacraments: “This is the reason why with respect to the internal matter Paul ascribes the sacraments of the New Testament to believers under the Old (1 Cor. 10:1–3); and in turn the sacraments of the Old to believers under the New (Col. 2:11; 1 Cor. 5:7).”[52] Turretin connects these sacraments not only to Christ’s office as Priest, but also to Christ as King, for “Christ promises to the believers of the New Testament no other kingdom of heaven than that in which they sit down with Abraham and the other patriarchs (Mt. 8:11).”[53] While materially the Old Testament sacraments are different from the New, they are the same “formally” because they also sign and seal Christ, being of the same covenant of grace established with Abraham.[54]

Which Old Testament Sacraments?

Even if we can establish a Reformed consensus on the reality of Old Testament sacraments, the substance of which was Christ, we are still left with no small amount of disagreement among the Reformed. The major debate among the Reformers was not whether there were any or what they signified, but rather which Old Testament signs were properly sacramental. Herman Witsius (1636–1708) takes a narrow view, arguing that only the signs attached to the dispensations of the covenant of grace—such as circumcision in the Abrahamic Covenant and Passover in the Mosaic Covenant—constitute authentic sacraments. Others—such as Calvin and Vermigli—contended that the signs of the Adamic and Noahic Covenants (the tree of life and rainbow, respectively) also constitute sacraments, at least in some sense.[55]

Taking Calvin’s first definition of an Old Testament sacrament as a sign joined to a divine covenant, the majority view seems to be that the tree of life was the sacrament of the covenant of works: a sign and seal of the life God promised to Adam if he obeyed.[56] This view was present in the early church, and continued into the Reformation.[57] Of the Fathers, Augustine put forth the deepest understanding of the tree of life within the context of redemption and covenant as in fact conveying spiritual benefit to Adam.[58] By the time of the Reformation, Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus, Vermigli, and Turretin argued for the tree of life as a sacrament and type of Christ, for Christ as the second Adam is the fulfillment of the covenant of works and is, through the Lord’s Supper, our tree of life.[59] It is unclear, however, in what sense Christ either was offered to Adam and Eve through the tree of life when they still had permission to eat from it, or would have been eventually when they fulfilled the covenant of works.[60] Calvin simply asserts that the tree of life itself did not convey eternal life, but that it was a “pledge” and “seal” of the life they would derive from God himself.[61]

“The majority view seems to be that the tree of life was the sacrament of the covenant of works: a sign and seal of the life God promised to Adam if he obeyed.”

Among many Reformers, the sacramental nature of the rainbow is even more obscure. Although it is clearly a sign and seal of the Noahic covenant, this is not generally regarded as a dispensation of the covenant of grace. Witsius, for example, strongly argued against understanding it as such, although it is predicated upon the covenant of grace and in “supposition” of it—he calls it “an appendage of the Covenant of Grace.”[62] Rainbows, however, do not convey Christ and all his benefits. For this reason, Witsius argues that the rainbow should not be called a “sacrament” in the strict and proper sense, although it is a covenant sign. But, as a concession, he declares that “the signs of the covenant of grace, in a way of proportion, bear the very same relation that the rainbow bore in sealing or ratifying this covenant.”[63] He maintains that it functions as a type of the covenant of grace and a confirmation of it.[64]

Likewise, Calvin and Vermigli do not seem to regard the rainbow as the same kind of sacrament as those of the covenant of grace, or even the tree of life. Calvin calls the rainbow a “sign” and “pledge” and “seal.”[65] Vermigli argues that the Noahic Covenant foreshadows the redemption in Christ: “Though in this covenant, God promised to deliver men, as to their bodily life, that they should not perish in the waters; yet in this there was a shadow or type of the deliverance from eternal death; namely, they should not be overwhelmed with eternal damnation.”[66] The rainbow, as the sacrament of this covenant, functions as a sign and seal of God’s promise not to flood the earth again, which foreshadows his promise to renew the creation and redeem mankind rather than wipe it out, a renewal and redemption accomplished through Christ. Calvin argues that because the sacramental meaning of the rainbow is fulfilled in Christ, the rainbow relates to the New Covenant sacraments.[67] Nonetheless, it does not seem to be a sacrament in the strict sense, since it is not pertaining to salvation or offering Christ. As has been noted, of more universal consensus is the recognition of circumcision and Passover as bearing the same kind of sacramental nature as the sacraments of the New Covenant.

While recognizing that the precise nature of everything in the Old Testament that might qualify as a sacrament may be fuzzier than in the New Testament, it is clear that these Old Covenant signs are beneficial to study. Because of the direct link between Old and New Testament sacraments, many maintained that the Church could draw understanding of the meaning of the New Covenant and the New Covenant sacraments from a study of the Old Testament sacraments. Calvin especially set a precedent for discerning a deeper meaning of the New Covenant sacraments through study of the old.[68] Vermigli provides a helpful defense of this methodology, stating, “Christ has given to His Church the Old Testament, whose authority…is most stable and sure, inasmuch as by it the ancient Christians also discerned the New Testament.”[69] Even Witsius maintains that those covenant signs he doesn’t regard as sacraments foreshadow and typify what is offered in the sacraments of the covenant of grace.[70] Thus, the old corresponds to the new, and the new is discerned in light of the old.[71]


Alas, space does not permit a proper investigation of each potential sacrament of the Old Testament and the treasures it contains concerning Christ and his benefits. More work is yet to be done from a properly Reformed perspective investigating the significance of Old Testament sacraments and how they illuminate the meaning of New Testament sacraments and the redemptive work of Christ. Yet we should be spurred on by our forebears to continue mining these sacraments, for they reveal to us much about our Savior. If anything, we should meditate on these Old Testament sacraments while we participate in the sacraments of the New Covenant, for the Christ of the Covenants is our circumcision, our tree of life, our rainbow, and our Passover Lamb.

Nathan Johnson is Assistant Dean of Academics, Head of Program, and Teaching Fellow at New College Franklin. He holds two M.A. degrees in Biblical Studies and Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. He also serves as a Lecturer in Philosophy at Davenant Hall.

[1] One might consider Keith A. Mathison’s Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002) as a forerunner in this recent revival. Works such as Andrew Wilson’s Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018); Michael A. G. Haykin’s Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands: Recovering Sacrament in the Baptist Tradition (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2022); and Kevin Emmert’s forthcoming The Water and the Blood: How the Sacraments Shape Christian Identity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2023)evidence its ongoing development. Although, one might also see Mathison’s recent Ad Fontes piece for evidence that there is still a long way to go. See Keith A. Mathison, “Still Reclaiming the Lord’s Supper,”Ad Fontes, June 29, 2022, https://adfontesjournal.com/web-exclusives/still-reclaiming-calvins-doctrine-of-the-lords-supper/.

[2] For example, Hans Boersma, in works such as Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2011), and Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). Boersma speaks often of a broad “sacramental ontology.”

[3] This is evidenced by the fact that very few books on the sacraments speak at any length about Old Testament sacraments or even reference the Old Testament when developing sacramental theology.

[4] Cf. Didache, Book 2, and Justin Martyr’s First Apology, 61, 65–66.

[5] Sometimes these words are used almost interchangeably, as in Ephesians 3:3–4: “that is, the mystery (sacramentum) made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery (mysterio)of Christ” (NIV).

[6] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrace Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg: Puritan & Reformed Publishing, 1997), 3:338.

[7] John Chrysostom, Opera, ed. Erasmus (Basel, 1530), II.82.

[8] Everett Ferguson, “Sacraments in the Pre-Nicene Period,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, ed. Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 125.

[9] Augustine, De catechizandis rudibus, xxvi.50; cf. Letters cv.3.12; Questions on the Heptateuch III.84.

[10] Augustine, “Contra Faustum,” trans. Richard Stothert, Book XIX.16, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series1, vol. 4, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/140619.htm.

[11] Often Augustine refers to the Lord’s Supper and baptism as “sacraments” and he indicates that they both signify and seal God’s grace. See: “On the Eucharist—Easter Sunday”; “On the Eucharist II—Easter Sunday,” in Selected Easter Sermons of St. Augustine, ed. Phillip T. Weller (Herder and Herder, 1959); Contra Faustum, Book XIX. For an extended discussion of how Augustine connects the sacraments to the work of Christ, see Lewis Ayers and Thomas Humphries, “Augustine and the West to AD 650,” in Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, 156–69.

[12] C. Pierson Shaw, “Christ as Primary Sacrament: Ways to Ecumenical Convergence in Sacramental Ecclesiology,” in Pathways for Ecclesial Dialogue in the Twenty-First Century: Revisiting Ecumenical Method, ed. Mark D. Chapman and Miriam Haar (UK: Macmillan, 2016), 29–31.

[13] Augustine, “Contra Faustum,” Book XIX.11.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, ST, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, III, q. 60, Article 2, https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4060.htm.

[15] Aquinas, ST, III, q. 65, https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4065.htm.

[16] Aquinas, ST, III, q. 65, a. 1.

[17] Cf. Hugh of St. Victor, De Sacram. I; Aquinas, ST, III, q. 65.

[18] For an explanation of the Lutheran view on there being three sacraments, see Article XIII of the Defense of the Augsburg Confession, https://bookofconcord.org/defense/of-the-number-and-use-of-sacraments/.

[19] “Confession of Faith of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556),” in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 2, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), Section IV.

[20] “Belgic Confession (1561),” in Reformed Confessions, Section XXXIII.

[21] “Second Helvetic Confession (1566),” in Reformed Confessions, Section XIX.

[22] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1970), 4.14.6.

[23] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.3

[24] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, 2 Cor. 5:19, https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom40/calcom40.xi.iv.html.

[25] “Westminster Confession of Faith,” XXVII.1, https://thewestminsterstandard.org/the-westminster-confession/#Chapter%20XXVII.

[26] Turretin, Institutes, 3:338.

[27] Turretin, Institutes, 3:339.

[28] Turretin, Institutes, 3:339. This can apply to the OT as well, for each of the OT sacraments imparts grace found in Christ.

[29] Turretin, Institutes, 3:341.

[30] Turretin, Institutes, 3:342.

[31] “Scottish Confession of Faith (1560),” Reformed Confessions, Section XXI; “The Second Helvetic Confession (1566),” in Reformed Confessions, Section XIX.

[32] When detailing the seven sacraments, Thomas Aquinas admits that many of them (such as confirmation and extreme unction) do not directly correspond to Old Testament sacraments. This may be why many of the Reformed confessions emphasized two sacraments of the Old Testament—circumcision and Passover—that are replaced by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. See Aquinas, Summa, III, q. 65, a. 1 for his addressing of this question.

[33] “Westminster Confession of Faith,” Article XXVII.5.

[34] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 662.

[35] “These, Adam and Noah regarded as sacraments…because they had a mark engraved upon them by God’s Word, so that they were proofs and seals of his covenants.” Calvin, Institutes, IV.XIV.18.

[36] “Since these things were done to support and confirm their feeble faith, they were also sacraments.” Calvin, Institutes, IV.XIV.18.

[37] “They are testimonies of grace and salvation from the Lord, so from us in turn they are marks of profession, by which we openly swear allegiance to God, binding ourselves in fealty to him.” Calvin, Institutes, IV.XIV.19.

[38] R. W. L. Moberly, “Sacramentality in the Old Testament,” in Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, 8.

[39] “Second Helvetic Confession (1566),” Section XIX (emphasis added). This is also attested in the “Scottish Confession of Faith,” Section XXI.

[40] Westminster Confession, XXVII.5, https://thewestminsterstandard.org/the-westminster-confession/#Chapter%20XXVII.

[41] “Second Helvetic Confession (1566),” Section XIX.

[42] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.23.

[43] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.16.

[44] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.20.

[45] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.22.

[46] Joseph C. McLelland, The Visible Words of God: An Exposition of the Sacramental Theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli A.D. 1500–1562 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), 86.

[47] McLelland, Visible Words of God, 88.

[48] Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Rom. 8:15,” in Commentaria de Epistle of St. Pauli ad Romanos.

[49] Peter Martyr Vermigli, “1 Cor. 10:1,” in Commentaria de priorem Epistle ad Corinthios.

[50] Qtd. in McLelland, Visible Words of God, 90.

[51] Vermigli, “1 Sam. 2:10,” in Commentaria in Samuelis Prophet libros duos.

[52] Turretin, Institutes, 340.

[53] Turretin, Institutes, 373.

[54] Turretin, Institutes, 374.

[55] See Calvin’s comments on Genesis. 9:12 in his Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis,vol. 1, trans. John King, https://www.biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/genesis/9.htm.

[56] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 217.

[57] Theologians who regarded the tree of life as a sacrament include Bede, Augustine, Musculus, Perkins, Chytraeus, and (possibly) Luther.

[58] “God did not want man to live in Paradise without the mysteries of spiritual things made present in material things. Man, then, had food in the other trees, but in the tree of life there was a sacrament.” Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ed. and trans. John Hammond Taylor (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1982), vol. 2, VIII.4.8.

[59] For Wolfgang Musculus on this topic, see Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1–11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 1:80. See also Turretin, Institutes, 374; Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1953), 150.

[60] It is also unclear whether they had, in fact, ever eaten from the tree of life. 

[61] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Gen. 3:22, https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom01/calcom01.ix.i.html.

[62] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man,trans. William Crookshank (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2010), 2:240.

[63] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, 240–41.

[64] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, 240.

[65] John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1–11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (East Peoria: Banner of Truth, 2009), 298–99.

[66] Qtd. in Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, 240.

[67] Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1–11, 758–61.

[68] Randall C. Zachman, “John Calvin,” in Christian Theologies of the Sacraments: A Comparative Introduction, ed.Justin S. Holcomb and David A. Johnson(New York: New York University, 2017), 201.

[69] McLelland, Visible Words of God, 87.

[70] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, 240–41.

[71] McLelland, Visible Words of God, 97.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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