From Arthur Rowe's book The Essence of Jesus, in chapters 5 and 6, what is the significance of the Sacraments?

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Rowe has little to say about the sacraments in chapter 5, although he does mention that showing the sacramental bread during processions was one way the medieval church offered people "real contact" with Jesus. In chapter 6, however, Rowe turns his attention to the sacramental issues.

In chapter 6, Rowe shines a light on the sacraments. He defines them as "the use of something material like bread, wine or water as a sign of God's blessings to those who received them." Sacramental objects had to be properly authorized and bear some resemblance to what they represented. For example, the wine used in the Eucharist looked like the blood of Jesus, the bread somewhat like Jesus' body.

During the Reformation, when the Protestant church broke from the Catholic Church, controversies about the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, moved to center stage and became far more intense. Different groups fought, sometimes violently, over whether the sacraments were literal or symbolic. Catholic doctrine had long held that the bread and wine of the Eucharist actually became the body and blood of Jesus. The Protestants, such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, interpreted the blood and wine as symbols of Christ's body and blood rather than the thing itself. Martin Luther, while moving in the direction of symbolism, insisted that "Christ was mysteriously present" in the Eucharist elements.

Protestants also emphasized that the entire congregation be allowed full participation in the Eucharist, whereas the Catholic Church had restricted the sacramental wine only to the priests. The Protestants also reduced the number of sacraments: in most Protestant denominations, only baptism and the Eucharist were considered sacraments while the Catholics had five more. The Anabaptisms rejected infant baptism as a sacrament. 

As Rowe points out, these intense debates over the exact nature of the sacraments can seem trivial or unimportant to us. However, they lay at the heart of how Christians in the 16th and 17th center understood the nature of God's presence in the world.

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