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The word "sacrament" came into usage in the church's vocabulary because the church of the West translated the word "mystery" used by the Greek Mystery Religions for their initiatory rites with the word sacramentum and applied it to baptism and the Lord's Supper. As is the case with many other terms in Western Christendom, the man mainly responsible for its adoption into Christianity is Tertullian. The term had a legal and military connotation and involved the idea of commitment or responsibility, often being used for an oath.

The term embedded itself in the Christian Church so securely that even during the Reformation period it was never questioned, although there was considerable discussion as to the significance of the practices it referred to. While Luther declared that the church is present wherever the Gospel is truly preached and the sacraments correctly administered, and Calvin as where the Gospel is truly heard and the sacraments correctly administered, Anabaptists took over this same term (Rothmann, Marpeck, and Menno Simons) but defined it to fit their own view of the sacraments.

The Confession of Schleitheim discusses both baptism and the Lord's Supper but does not accord them the constitutive role that they had in the larger Reformation. Conrad Grebel called them simply "ceremonies," and for the most part Anabaptism was heavily indebted to the symbolic interpretation of Zwingli as far as the Lord's Supper is concerned. Baptism was for them a deeply moving experience, the first baptism having been preceded by a genuine time of penitence and real searching (see Blanke, below). Full appreciation has never been given to the vital place that both sacraments played in early Anabaptism; certainly no slavish literalism prompted such a radical break with tradition.

The term "ceremonies" is used also by Hans Denck, along with a certain depreciation of their place in the religious experience of both the individual and the church, which is continued and hardened in men like Jacob Kautz and Hans Bünderlin, both of whom insisted (the essence of religion being spiritual) that there was no need for the external ceremonies in the life of the mature church. Bünderlin insisted that the ceremonies in the apostolic church were a concession to its Jewish members and that these rites were no longer needed. His book Erklärung durch vergleichung (1530) is meant to show the folly of continuing to use the ceremonies. The same stress is seen also in his other books.

Since the Anabaptist brotherhood at Strasbourg read Bünderlin's books in their meetings, and Pilgram Marpeck attempted to organize the brotherhood there in 1530, it was necessary to take a position on the place of the sacraments. The result was the publication of the Clare verantwurtung of 1531, which dealt with all of Bünderlin's major arguments not only in his books but also in conversations. It may be that this is the booklet Schwenckfeld says was written against him (in a letter to Johann Bader, dated 24 September 1531) since it certainly does deal with some of the arguments Schwenckfeld advanced against the Anabaptists. At any rate the Clare verantwurtung represents the clearest argument in Anabaptism for the practice of the ceremonies such as baptism and the Lord's Supper, as well as footwashing, etc.

Marpeck uses the word "ceremonies" rather than "sacraments" in his confession and also in some of his later writings (Kunstbuch, fol. 44b and 46b). However, in his most important works, both the Vermanung and the Verantwortung, he uses the term "sacrament" and accepts Rothmann's long section which explains the term and justifies its use by Christians as long as it is correctly interpreted. Here the explanation is the same as that offered by Oswald Glait in 1527, i.e., that sacramentum means a vow or an oath, and so the element of commitment (verpflichtung) must be taken seriously. This is indicative of the ingenuity with which a term was taken and redefined, the traditional wrappings having been removed to open the way for what the Anabaptists considered a Biblical interpretation of these practices in the life of the church.

One of the alternatives open to the Anabaptists was to accept the sacraments as "mere symbols," as was done by Bucer and Zwingli. The spiritualistic tendency which both Zwingli's and Bucer's attacks against Anabaptism took made them wary of taking this approach. If the sacraments are "mere symbols," Bucer's argument that a mere symbol should not divide the Christian brotherhood has some force. Over against this Marpeck insisted in his Confession (1532) that the sacraments, specifically baptism, should not be called a sign or symbol but rather a "witness." In all of his writings he stressed this aspect of the sacraments again and again, and the term "cotestimony" (Mitzeugnis) became central in his thought. At one point in his revised translation of the Bekentnisse (see Vermanung) he translates "teken" (sign) as "Mitzeugnis." This is evidence of the fundamental importance that Marpeck attributed to the sacraments of the church. Inner experience demands an external witness; if none is forthcoming, the inner experience is belied. For this reason he was so sharp in his criticism of Schwenckfeld, whose approach to the sacraments could lead only to their complete cessation. Marpeck insisted that until Christ returns we have need of these external rites that serve us in that they witness to the world and to the church that we accept the order of Christ. Along with this is a sense of realism in the performance of the sacraments, baptism becoming a part of Christ's body, the Lord's Supper a testimony to the unity of Christ's body that we share. Needless to say he rejects all sacramentarian views in that he does not see the metaphysical presence of Christ in the bread, but rather sees Christ present in the gathered church and in His preached word. Hence the "real presence" is taken seriously by Marpeck; but not in a mechanical way, but rather in the experience of the participating believer. Where the element of cotestimony is lacking, there sacraments are merely external acts without any meaning whatever. While Marpeck says that perhaps it would be better not to use the term "sacrament" since it does not occur in Scripture, he says further that the same is true of the term "sign"; hence the usage of the term is not the decisive matter. His close co-worker who probably collaborated in all of his writings, Leopold Scharnschlager, stressed the idea that baptism is a covenant, and in this he was following the main stream of Anabaptism.

In Dutch Mennonitism the position does not differ greatly from the Swiss-South German views. Menno Simons uses the word sacrament in his writings, sometimes also the term "sacramentelycke teeckenen" (Sacramental symbols) and repeatedly warns against Roman Catholic views on baptism and communion (Mass), which he considered idolatrous. Occasionally he uses the word "ordinantie" (ordinance). See Index to Opera Omnia (1681) and to Complete Writings (1956). Dirk Philips is somewhat more precise in his terminology and usually avoids the word sacrament, instead by preference speaking of "de Goddelijcke Ordeninghe(n) van der Doope ende des Nachtmaels" (the divine ordinance(s) of baptism and communion). The Dutch confessions of faith scarcely deal with this theme, obviously because it was not necessary to discuss the question, in which all Mennonites of the several branches agreed. The Olijftack Confession (1626) speaks of "uytwendighe sienlijcke teeckenen" (external visible signs), which are ordinances of Jesus Christ. The Jan Cents Confession (1630), Article XI, has "baptism, the Lord's Supper, and other Christian ordinances." The Dordrecht Confession (1632) calls them "uytwendighe ceremonies" (outward ceremonies). The Flemish preacher Claes Claesz uses the term "ceremoniale geboden" (ceremonial commands).

The sacraments, particularly the Mass, were a frequent topic in the discussions of the Roman Catholic clergy with the Anabaptist-Mennonite martyrs during their trials. The martyrs all reject the Roman Catholic doctrines, often in bold and rude expressions: "I have never read in the Scriptures of a Holy Sacrament, but of the Lord's Supper" (Elisabeth); the sacrament is "a God of bread" (Jeronimus Segersz); "the sacrament is an idol, only a bit of flour" (Joos Kint), and Jacques d' Auchy, upon being asked his opinion of the sacrament (Mass), frankly replied, "Do you mean the breakers of the bread?" Except for Joriaen Simansz no martyr found in the Offer des Heeren uses the word sacrament. For the martyrs baptism and communion are "ordinances of Christ," signs, ceremonies; the Lord's Supper is "a memorial sign," a symbol.

The early Waterlander Mennonites with their spiritualistic tendencies avoided the word sacrament; baptism and communion are "mere symbols." Hans de Ries in his confession (1610) calls them ordinances (insettingen), together with footwashing as "the service of love." Galenus Abrahamsz (Korte Grondstellingen, 1699, No. LI) speaks of "ceremonial or solemn commands." In later Dutch Mennonitism there is practically no discussion about the character of the "sacraments."

There never has been any question of overestimating them. Occasionally baptism and the Lord's Supper were undervalued. This was a result of mystical or spiritualistic individualism, already found in Obbe Philips, in this point a follower of Sebastian Franck, who was opposed by Dirk Philips, and like Menno Simons attacked all those who depreciated the ceremony of baptism, saying, "What is the use to us of a handful of water?" This dislike of the "sacraments" in 19th-century Dutch Mennonitism sometimes led to making baptism optional or even to abolishing baptism and the Lord's Supper altogether. This radicalism is now past. In varying degrees later Mennonitism has attempted to prevent a degeneration into any idea that sacraments are inherently efficacious. The use of the term "sacrament" is however more or less incidental to this attempt as is seen by its use interchangeably with "ordinance" in a recent Mennonite book on theology (see Wenger).

As in the other aspects of worship, a major problem in the use of the sacraments (ordinances) has been to maintain a balance between undervaluation and overvaluation. Mennonites have been more inclined to the latter. Too little attention has been given to a good theology of the sacraments that will prevent a lapse into mere traditionalism.


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Author(s) William Klassen
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Klassen, William and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Sacrament." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 6 Jul 2022.

APA style

Klassen, William and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1959). Sacrament. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 397-398. All rights reserved.

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