The Soft Spoken Sola

An African proverb says in part, ‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick…’ American President Theodore Roosevelt popularized this proverb by his ‘big stick diplomacy’ of anticipating foreign aggression with pre-laid plans to repel it. Surely there’s something to be said for speaking softly. A biblical Proverb advises us, ‘He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be reckoned a curse to him.’ (Prov. 27:14) Speaking softly is advised when others in our houses or neighborhood are still yawning. It’s proven wise, too, for U.S. foreign policy when accompanied by a big stick. There’s a Reformation Sola that speaks softly. (Truth be told, it also carries a big stick.) This soft-spoken Sola has five other friends. By comparison, they are more vocal, and people hear their voices more easily. Their names are Sola Gratia (‘grace alone’), Sola Fide (‘faith alone’), Solus Christus (‘Christ alone’), Sola Scriptura (‘scripture alone’), and Soli Deo Gloria (‘To God alone glory’).

Among this august company stands an often overshadowed and therefore, by comparison, ‘soft-spoken’ Sola personage: Sacramentum Duo Tantum (‘only two sacraments’). ‘Tantum’ is an adverbial syno-name to Sola, given later in his life.[1] But let’s abbreviate, and call him S.D. Tantum. If we ask him, ‘How many sacraments hath Christ instituted in his church under the New Testament?’ this soft-spoken friend replies, ‘Under the New Testament Christ hath instituted in his church only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper.’ (WLC, 164) ‘I’m sorry, I may not have clearly heard you,’ we respond politely. ‘There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord,’ he repeats with more volume. (WCF, 27:4)

Now we hear the truth loud and clear, but notice what looks like a stick at his side. We might expect, that as ‘a gentle answer turns away wrath’ (Prov. 15:1), S.D. Tantum would set people at ease. Regrettably he doesn’t. Indeed a significant number are more agitated by the truth he conveys. The Church of Rome holds S.D. Tantum and his biblical brothers in contempt, and quite sadly surrounds this soft-spoken voice with its own band of brothers – five sacramental knaves, and another two imposters who dress up in the same outfit S.D. Tantum wears. Rome officially dispatched these knaves at the Second Council of Lyon (1274), again at the Council of Florence (1439), and especially again at the Council of Trent (1547) because of Tantum’s unbroken fellowship with the other Solas.

Of the two imposters, Rome’s Baptism has all the dress of water, cleansing, its foreshadowing in various Old Testament events like the Flood and the Exodus through the Red Sea, and even the Trinitarian name. But his outfit is a mere costume, in that he speaks of this sacrament’s cleansing of the soul as justification. Here a sinner is regenerated by grace infused into the soul. This justified man, now cleansed, must keep himself clean; and if he doesn’t, then his justification might be restored through Rome’s other sacraments. It is no wonder that the Sola brothers lift their voices to preach justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scripture alone, and for God’s glory alone. And as they do, S.D. Tantum adds, ‘Only two sacraments.’

The other imposter, Mass, dresses up in Supper attire, rightly speaks the language of eucharist, but speaks of the bread and wine as a propitiatory sacrifice offered to God, the substance of whose elements transubstantiate (change) from bread and wine to Christ Himself by a word of consecration. Here Christ’s historic work at the cross is not accurately represented, because it is instead re-presented. Quite unlike the nature of sacraments, the sign here becomes the thing signified. Thus Rome’s official language of the cross and their Mass is, ‘one single sacrifice’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367).

But S.D. Tantum particularly addresses the other five with his three-worded message. He rejects Confirmation, in which a bishop lays hands on the baptized now professing faith, to anoint him with oil, and thereby serving as the channel by whom God bestows the Holy Spirit to the now confirmed. Rome claims this Confirmation is seen in Peter and John laying hands on the newly baptized believers in Samaria in Acts 8, but it can hardly be, since this was not the regular practice for converts, but a specific manifestation of the Spirit to demonstrate the unity of the Church among the culturally disagreeable groups of Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile – a situation relevant to the apostles’ action. Even so, everything Confirmation might hold out is already contained in Baptism, and activated through faith, which is evident at Acts 8.

Tantum also confronts Penance, the sacramental means by which justification is restored in a lapsed member. He does so because Jesus didn’t send priests, but preachers with a ministry of reconciliation. By this Word preached, as Christ’s ambassadors, they ‘bind and loose’ (Matt. 16:19; 18:18) and ‘forgive or retain sins’ (John 20:23). As for Confirmation, so for Penance: Rome presumes to offer in these ‘sacraments’ what properly is brought in relation to Baptism. As John Calvin observed, ‘You will therefore speak most aptly if you call baptism the sacrament of penance, since it has been given to those who are intent on repentance as a confirmation of grace and a seal of assurance.’ (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.19.17; emphasis added.)

Tantum also rejects Marriage, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction for three reasons. First, they lack a sign that accompanies the sacrament (like water for Baptism or bread and wine for the Supper). What is more, Jesus ordained none of these (true also for Penance and Confirmation). Finally, since Jesus ordained sacraments for His Church, the alleged sacraments of Marriage (for couples), Holy Orders (for the clergy), and Extreme Unction (for the imminently dying) by their very nature exclude some within the Church. S.D. Tantum stresses the point that true sacraments, then, being for the Church as a whole, are limited to ‘only two sacraments’ – Baptism for entrance into the Church, and the Supper for edification amidst the Church, the first portraying union with Christ and the second communion with Christ.

By these simple points, S.D. Tantum firmly sets down his ‘big stick theology’. He helpfully draws our attention to the subtle fact that, since medieval times, Rome has positioned its sacraments to be involved at the key points of a person’s life from cradle to grave, from womb to tomb: birth’s baptism, first communion, adolescent confirmation, lifelong penance, adult marriage, adult holy orders, and often-geriatric last rites. By these, Rome controls and keeps its members in its sacramental yet artificial system of religion.

But back to the soft-spoken Sola. S.D. Tantum could be viewed as ‘soft-spoken’ today in view of the relative success and advance of the Reformed faith since the early 16th century. His word has put the knaves to some measure of flight from Protestants; they’ve now had significant measure of grace brought to them through the gospel’s ‘sacramentum duo’ for centuries. Many might therefore conclude – wrongly – that S.D. Tantum has little need to speak to them anymore, and not because he’s hoarse. If he speaks, it should be softly. And certainly, keep the stick out of sight. As Reformed Protestants, we’ve heard what he has said. We believe it. It’s not likely that we would add more sacraments to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Remember, however, that even in Protestant circles some Anabaptists considered footwashing as a sort of third sacramental ordinance, and that S.D. Tantum answered them: Jesus gave the disciples ‘an example’ (John 13:15) – not a sacrament – that they do as He did to them. Even today Evangelicals, while generally committed to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, readily add modern ‘sacraments’ that appeal to the eye, are considered a means of blessing, and accompany the preached Word: special music, skits, religious gestures, religious symbols or pictures, and images vividly and electronically projected to the audience to stir their affections. We ought beware of Romish principles here sprouting. ‘Only. Two. Sacraments.’ For now, S.D. Tantum’s message among Protestants of ‘only two sacraments’ is easily heard and readily remembered. The time may come, however, when we hear this ‘soft-spoken’ Sola speaking up in our midst, and uncovering his big stick among his other Sola brethren. Fear nothing about it, for the concluding words of the African proverb remind us, ‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ May God give the Reformation of Jesus’ Church a ‘going far’ with the soft-spoken Sola of only
two sacraments.

[1] The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms were translated from English into Latin, and first appeared as such in 1656 in Cambridge, in 1660 in Glasgow, and in 1694 in Edinburgh. Before these, Patrick Adamson translated the Scots Confession (1560) into Latin for the Kirk in 1572. He rendered the phrase, ‘We have two chief Sacraments, which alone were instituted by the Lord Jesus,’ with sola.

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