This is part of a series on the Roman Catholic sacraments. See the index.
In my previous post, “Why is the Sacrament of Marriage Important?” I explained the reasoning behind the Roman Catholic idea of grace. Today, in response to this comment, I will explain how the Roman Catholic understanding of sacraments led directly to its priesthood.
Note: Much, but not all, of what is written here also applies to Orthodoxy.
The Sacred Secret
In Ephesians 3:2-12, Paul describes a “mustērion”, a sacred mystery or secret. Please read that passage, if not the whole letter itself, so you understand exactly what Paul is saying in the full context of the passage, as I will only be sharing snippets.
First, the secret was once truly a mystery: hidden, unknown, and unknowable.
the sacred secret of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations
the good news to the Gentiles about the unsearchable riches of Christ
the sacred secret, which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things
Second, it has now been made known for all.
Surely you have heard of the administration of the grace of God that was given to me for you, and that the sacred secret was made known to me by revelation, as I have already written about briefly.
So when you read this, you will be able to understand my insight into the sacred secret of Christ
it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the spirit
…to bring to light for everyone what is the administration of the sacred secret
…through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God would now be made known to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.
In particular, we know that Paul received the direct revelation of Jesus Christ after he was visited by the Spirit on the Road to Damascus. So what is this secret that Paul speaks of in Ephesians? It is sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of his body, the church—congregation—of believers who put their faith in Christ in the promise of salvation, that is, a future resurrection after death. For Paul himself received this grace in order that he might share it to others.
…that in union with Christ Jesus and through the good news, the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise. I became a servant of this good news by the gift of the grace of God that was given to me by the working of his power
this grace was given so that I could proclaim the good news to the Gentiles
This was consistent with his purpose throughout the ages that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access to God with confidence through our trust in him.
In summary, the sacred secret of the Gospel of the Messiah, Jesus Christ was hidden in the Old Testament, but was revealed by Christ himself and fully revealed by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Through the Great Commission—the Administration of Grace or evangelism—the gospel is now revealed to all who would hear.
But this is not how the Roman Catholic reads the passage, for they do not read the Greek, but the official version of the Bible in Latin.
In Latin, the word sacramentum originally meant “oath or vow to the gods” or a “pledge”. In the late 2nd century, Tertullian is alleged to have translated the Greek musterion into the Latin sacramentum, bringing the sense of “secret; mystery” alongside the idea of an “oath, vow, or pledge”, even though the words did not mean the same thing. In the late 4th century—when Roman Catholicism arose—Jerome would conflate them explicitly when translating the Greek Bible into Latin in the Vulgate. Augustine would later identify hundreds of sacraments—rituals, ceremonies, and objects worthy of personal devotion. It wouldn’t be until the Council of Trent (1547) that the sacraments would be finalized into the seven we know today.
This meaning would eventually be translated into English where the meaning of “secret” (a thing hidden, but known and knowable) was replaced with “mystery” (a thing hidden, unknown, and unknowable). Indeed, the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass opens with:
“Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”
In Roman Catholicism (and Orthodoxy), the role of grace is a mystery. Remarkably, Roman Catholicism can no longer explain what Paul had stated was now made known to all, including the apostles (from whom Roman Catholics claim to have received the Word of God) and the Gentiles.
In any case, in conflating the sacred secret of the gospel of Christ with sacrament (“oath, vow, or pledge to God”), the idea of a sacrament took on a permanent ritualistic nature. The sacraments were made a type of vow to God. They were granted a physical manifestation of a spiritual mystery.
Baptism as a sacrament is a vow or pledge before God that is manifested in a physical act representing the underlying mysterious cleansing from sin. This is why in Roman Catholicism, you are not saved if you are not baptized, because the sacrament was not physically administered. A confession of faith is insufficient.
Marriage as a sacrament is also a vow or pledge. Like the ancient Roman oath upon which the Sacrament of marriage is based upon, the penalty for breaking the oath is greater than those who had not taken the sacrament. This is the reason why Roman Catholics separate sacramental and non-sacramental marriage. The sacred bond of marriage is thus contained within in the vow itself, not the physical act of joining.
Ultimately, however, Roman Catholicism only understands the outward—ritual—act and cannot explain the inward—mysterious—act of God. It can only blindly tell its congregants to do the thing, without fully understanding why. It is the blind leading the blind, for nothing is revealed by the church. It also cannot separate the two: in Roman Catholicism, one must participate in the outward sacrament in order to receive the inward effects. It is not, for example, sufficient to make a confession of faith before God for the salvation of sins.
And so we come to the priesthood. According to Roman Catholicism, when Paul speaks of the “Administration of Grace” and the “Administration of the Mystery” (for grace is the sacred secret or mystery), he is referring to the role of the church to, quite literally in the official Latin translation, administer the sacraments. In order to do this, a priesthood is required. It is thus the role of priests to administer Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and the Holy Orders. In general, the lay person does not administer the sacraments.
Roman Catholicism believes that Paul was establishing a priesthood to administer grace to the body of Christ. By selectively reading Paul, they can say that Paul was one of its first priests selected by God:
“the administration of the grace of God that was given to me for you [..] I became a servant of this good news by the gift of the grace of God that was given to me by the working of his power.”
Notice that Paul (supposedly) received a special grace, a unique ability that he received that was a working of God’s power that allowed him to reveal the sacraments. Does this sound familiar? It should. I wrote about this in my previous post. Recall that in his “Becoming Catholic” series, Joshua Charles makes a revealing comment in his commentary on Ignatius:
In the first chapter, Ignatius almost seems to beg the Roman church not to pray for him, as he seeks martyrdom for the sake of Jesus, and says that “it is easy for you to accomplish what you please.” This is, again, some sort of unique grace, or ability, he attributes to the Roman church. While Ignatius was headed to Rome for his martyrdom, his comment could not possibly refer to any sway the Roman church had with civil authorities, as this was a period of great persecution.
— Becoming Catholic #10: Church Authority, and Saint Ignatius the Red Pill, Part 5—Roman Finale
Like all Roman Catholics steeped in Roman Catholicism, Charles understands grace to be a means or ability that is possessed. This is no mistake, for it is the foundation of the priesthood, and indeed all of the sacraments, including marriage: only a priest can administer a truly valid marriage.
Such is the power of reading whatever you want to read into scripture. From Paul’s words that reveal the secrets of God to all Christians, Roman Catholicism has twisted the Gospel of Christ into a mystery and produced a closeted priesthood made up of elites who control who can receive the grace of God. This brings to mind the words of Christ to the Pharisees:
Matthew 23:4 (NIV)
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
The Roman Catholic teaching is confusing. It doesn’t make sense. Here are some sample comments:
“We are trying to box this in to our understanding, but cannot because it’s above our station. [..] I do not know exactly how marriage confers Grace, but I believe that it does.”
— comment by Bardelys the Magnificent
The error, of course, is that marriage does not confer grace any more than baptism confers salvation. The sacraments, as a concept, represent invalid reasoning from the words of Paul, especially with respect to Tertullian’s conflation of the Greek with the Latin because he viewed baptism as a pledge. Roman Catholics can’t figure out the mystery because it makes no sense to begin with. Even if baptism represented a public pledge of fealty to Christ, it wouldn’t make sacraments (i.e. a vow or pledge) out of marriage or the eucharistic tithe offering. Tertullian made the logical error of assuming the inverse: “A⟹B, therefore B⟹A.”
Then it occurs it me, its probably the same reason the words “sacrament” and “mystery” are synonymous. [..] All of the sacraments are mysterious acts of God. [..] We cannot understand the precise procedure [..] “We don’t know where grace isn’t. We only know where grace IS.”
— comment by Eye of Sauron
Again, the word “secret” and the word “sacrament” are not the same words. They have completely separate etymologies in two different languages and the latter only gained the meaning of the former after the two were conflated by Tertullian by secular analogy and fallacious reasoning. There is no such thing as a sacrament of grace. Of course sacred vows—sacraments—certainly exist, but Jesus explicitly told us not to make them. Lastly, we know precisely where grace is and isn’t: it is only found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for sin and in our faith in him as our Lord and Savior, for…
1 John 1:9 (KJV)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Grace—the sacred secret—is right there for all who seek it. It is like the washing of a dirty garment, made spotless and clean. In very real terms, it is the defeat of death and the promise of eternal resurrection in a new incorruptible body. In Ephesians 2, just one chapter earlier, Paul describes this grace:
Ephesians 2:1-10 (ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
That is grace.
“I don’t know all the ins and outs, but you can see the foundation of the logic pretty clear [..] Sacraments are symbols of divine realties. The OT and NT both use marriage as a metaphor of God and Israel or Christ and the church. How that developed historically I’m not an expert in.”
— comment by dpnonahan
The ins and outs of Roman Catholicism are complicated and difficult. They are a heavy burden to bear. But the real bond of marriage is not a mere spiritualized metaphor, but a description of a real spiritual joining that actually exists. Whether the joining of a husband and wife or the joining in a covenant between God and his people, that bond is not metaphor, but real.
After all this study and writing, I’m still confused about why the sacrament of marriage is so important to Catholics and Orthodox. I’ve tried searching for this online, but all I’ve found are vague statements like… [..] I’m just not seeing what’s so unique about sacramental marriage that sets it apart from an equally sanctified non-sacramental Christian marriage like what might be found among Protestants.
— comment by Jack
The reason every explanation is vague is because Roman Catholics have no answer. They can only offer you a mystery that you must blindly accept. By contrast, the mystery is solved in the words of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John. It is no longer a mystery to believers and has not been since Pentecost.
Do the rituals that the church performs add anything fundamental? Or are they historical artifacts related to legal and political considerations?
— comment by naturallyaspirated
The rituals of the sacraments add a vow, pledge, or consent (as in Marriage) to the saving grace of God. This is fundamental to the Roman Catholic understanding of what a sacrament is. Etymologically, they are historical legal artifacts of the Roman military oath.
As usual, the attacks on sacramental theology in the ping back have no bearing on Orthodoxy. The Church Slavonic word tainstvo which is older and always meant “mystey” has nothing to do with Tertullian. The term was used by Basil, Cyril, Methodius and John Crystossom in the liturgies they created.
— comment by Eye of Sauron
The brothers Cyril and Methodius (826-885)—who first translated the Bible into Slavic—came much to late to be relevant here. The development of the sacramental doctrine occurred long before the formation of the first Slavic Bible in 865 and the split of Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism in 1054, and so has no relevance to the association between the conflation of the sacred secret of grace described by Paul and the Roman sacred oaths, let alone deciding which rituals were sacraments and which were not, which came later.
Basil of Caesarea (330 to 378) and John Chrysostom (347-407) were from the period of the late-4th century, when the doctrine of sacraments as mysteries was primarily developed and Jerome made his translation. They were both native speakers of Greek, so it is unclear what the relevance of the Church Slavonic word is. Roman Catholicism arose in the late 4th century alongside a flood of doctrinal error, including development of idea of sacraments.
Perhaps the claim is that Orthodoxy was never influenced by the Latin usage of the term? This is plainly incorrect. The influence of the Vulgate on the church was indeed profound, and Tertullian’s use of both terms together clearly resulted in both the idea that the sacred secrets were sacraments and its inverse: that the sacraments were sacred secrets. These ideas would be firmly embraced and developed by native speakers of Greek. So strongly was this influence, that the Greek word took on the meaning of the Latin word!
It doesn’t matter that the Church Slavonic and English words for “mystery” do not mean sacrament, as these were not used to develop the doctrine. This is why Jack—using an English translation—did not understand that when Paul called marriage a mystery in Ephesians 5:32, he was also calling it a sacrament. Even though the official Roman Catholic and Orthodox belief is that “This is a profound mystery” is equivalent to “This is a profound sacrament”, the reason for this equivalence was lost with the translation, even as the doctrine itself was not.
Is it bad that I don’t really care anymore? Whether we think of it as a covenant or a sacrament, if we enter into marriage with a vow before God [..] does it really matter what the labels are? Make your vows. Live them out the best you can as a fallible human. Seek first the kingdom of God with your spouse. The whole thing isn’t that difficult to understand even if it is harder to implement.
— comment by Red Pill Apostle
Accepting God’s plan for marriage is not difficult to understand: be faithful to your spouse if you have one, otherwise live a pure and chaste life. But the idea of the ‘Sacrament of Marriage’ carries with it a great amount of baggage. Moreover, Christ—in Matthew 5:33-37—commanded us not to make vows but merely to answer truthfull in the simple affirmative: “I do.” Any ritual that demands a sacred oath—a sacrament—that is more than simple affirmation is disobedience to Christ.
 In Tertullian, “Prescriptions against Heretics“, Chapter 40, Tertullian compares pagan mysteries with Christian sacraments. Darius Jankiewicz, in “Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority” notes:
Tertullian appears to be the first Christian thinker to identify the Latin sacramentum with the biblical musterion, though in the NT musterion is used specifically with reference to the saving work of God and is never applied to such rites as the Lord’s Supper or baptism. See Tertullian, Praesn: 40, Bapt. 13, and Nat., where he appears to use these terms interchangeably, while comparing pagan “mysteries” with Christian sacraments, although he never designates pagan rituals as sacraments. For him, pagan rituals constitute a depraved imitation of the Christian sacraments.
Tertullian describes baptism and eucharist sacraments, but not as mysteries. He does not describe the pagan mysteries as sacraments, but merely draws parallels between the two. Jankiewicz affirms that most of the development occurred later on:
In the Christian church, the most significant development of sacramental theology occurred in Roman North Africa during the third and fourth centuries, especially in the writings of Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 225), Cyprian of Carthage (ca.200-258), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430).
 Tertullian only called baptism and thanksgiving (eucharist)—the sacrifice of praise and the tithe offering of food and drink—sacraments, that is, sacred oath pacts to God.
 According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1623, “the spouses as ministers of Christ’s grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.” A priest is involved in the administration and serves as a required witness, but he does not actually confer the sacrament itself.