July 18, 2013
ii. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.
This section has been called "the sacramental principle" - functioning in a similar way to a synecdoche where the term for a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something (e.g. referring to the police as "the law"). Similarly, in the Covenant of Grace, the signs and seals signify so closely what is promised by the covenant and received by faith that the one is often attributed to the other. So, for example, in the Abrahamic Covenant, God institutes circumcision, saying: "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised" (Gen. 17:10). Here, circumcision is the covenant. Similarly, the "bread" is Christ's "body" and the "cup" is Christ's "blood of the new covenant" (Matt. 26:26-28). The same is true of the expression "the washing of regeneration" (Tit. 3:5).
Behind this "sacramental principle"/hermeneutic lies memories of the Reformation debates surrounding the meaning of "is" (Lat. est). The Marburg Colloquy in 1529, for example, demonstrated the failure of Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther to agree on the meaning of the expression hoc est corpus meum. Did the bread and wine represent Christ's body and blood or were they (somehow) the actual body and blood of Christ? In order to avoid baptismal regeneration or sacramental transformation (consubstantiation, transubstantiation), the employment of an interpretive principle is essential. It is necessary, therefore, that the next section deal with the issue of the efficacy of the sacraments. If, for example, a baby receives baptism - a sign and seal of regeneration and forgiveness of sins, justification and adoption, perseverance and glorification - how do we avoid the conclusion that the baby is regenerate? The important point to bear in mind is that sacraments say nothing as to the condition of the recipient.
Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is Minister of Preaching and Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.