July 18, 2013
iv. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.
There is something both expected and unexpected about this section. First is the statement as to the number of sacraments. Medieval Rome espoused seven. In addition to baptism and the Supper were Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction. Luther, in the Large Catechism (IV:74-75) added "repentance" ("Confession" and "Absolution" are referred to as the "Third Sacrament"). In contrast, the Confession insists that there are only two sacraments. Foot-washing, as Calvin made clear in his Commentary on John 13, is not a sacrament because it was not viewed as such in the on-going life of the early Christian community.
The "unexpected" aspect is the statement regarding who may lawfully dispense the sacrament. Only a lawfully ordained "minister of the Word" may officiate in the sacraments. Since the Directory for the Public Worship of God, advocates a separate office of elder and minister, this explains the reason why in Presbyterian churches ruling elders may not administer baptism or the Lord's Supper. Congregations without a minister must therefore engage an "interim minister" of some kind in order to administer the sacraments. This, on surface reading, seems to highlight a difference between ruling and teaching elders that cuts across current understandings of the parity of the eldership in some Presbyterian polities.
Does this statement in the Confession raise the specter of clericalism? However we answer that question, the reason for the statement is clear enough: no sacrament may be dispensed without an adequate explanation of its meaning, i.e. a lawfully ordained minister of the gospel.
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.