All confessional forms of Christianity affirm at least two sacraments: Baptism and Eucharist. While degraded forms of Protestantism may no longer even affirm these any longer, all forms of confessional Protestantism (i.e. Confessional Reformed, Confessional Lutheran, Confessional Baptist, and Confessional Anglicans) do. Catholicism and Orthodoxy affirm seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Anointing of the sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders.
Sacraments are the highest form and most particular realization of sacramented theology. The sacraments relate only to the Christian religion. Where sacramentality and sacramentals can serve all humanity, the sacraments are the specific and normative means by which God enters all lives. In Catholic thought, the movement from sacramentality to sacramentals logically concludes with the sacraments. That is, one’s journey from sacramentality to sacramentals ought to bring one to the truths of the Catholic Church found most particularly in the sacraments.
While many evangelical Protestants may even reject baptism and Eucharist as sacraments, historical (i.e. confessional) Protestants do not—though they may have varied understandings of the sacraments. For instance, Calvinism denies the real physical presence but affirms the efficacious transformative nature of Eucharist through “spiritual presence.” That is, Reformed sacramental theology concerning the Eucharist sees the Eucharist as a purely spiritual connectivity apart from the real matter. Christ is present, spiritually, with those who partake in the Eucharist in good faith and grow in their faith as a result.
Likewise, Calvin taught that baptism was the visible sealing of one with the worldly church. Through one’s baptism one also entered union with Christ—through the promise of the covenant and of faith. As God has predestined his Elect to faith in him, even infants are baptized for the remission of the stain of original sin and as the outward beginnings of the slow unfolding movement to embodying the promise of eternal faith granted onto the Elect.
I pivoted here to, ever so briefly, explain Calvinist Sacramental theology because even Protestantism retains sacramental theology though it is spiritualized more than corporealized as in Catholicism and Orthodoxy (and High Anglicanism).
Catholic sacramental theology also affirms the spiritual regenerative aspects of the sacraments—since good Protestant sacramental theology simply takes those spiritual cues from Catholicism. But unlike Calvinist—or broader Protestant—sacramental theology, Catholic sacramental theology retains the element of corporeality to it. Recall that that which exists is simultaneously thing (matter) and sign (spiritual signifier). What the Reformers feared was that Catholic sacramental theology concentrated on the corporeality of the sacraments rather than the spiritual reality of the sacraments. Catholics respond that such a shift Gnosticizes the sacraments and moves us down the slippery slope of denying the beauty and goodness of the material world. One should never, in Catholic sacramental theology, confuse the corporeality of the sacraments for God Himself, but should always see how God becomes present and uses material substances for his grace and goodness to enter in the world.
Sticking with these two universal sacraments, Catholicism does not see baptism as simply a spiritually regenerative and cleansing act or a promise of faith to the Elect. While that is entailed in baptism, baptism is the normative, corporeal, means by which God’s grace renews and purifies. God’s Spirit over the watery deep brings creation into a new state. Throughout the Bible, Catholics maintain, God used water and Spirit as a means of purification and new creation: The creation, Noah’s flood, Exodus, Jesus’ baptism, being “born again,” etc. God uses water as a sacrament of purification but also as the instrument of new creation when coupled with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The new creation emerges out of the immersion of water and Spirit which God uses to bring about this new creation via purification.
Likewise, God becomes present in the Eucharist (real presence) which is taught by all the historic and orthodox church fathers and reiterated by Jesus himself in the gospel of John when he declares that the bread and cup are his body and blood—something which was seen as blasphemous by devout Jews who did not recognize Jesus as the messiah and left the Supper precisely because of what Jesus was saying. As God is the only Thing that can sustain humans and bring fulfillment to humans, the logic of the Eucharist must be either God is present, or God is not present. If God is not present the Eucharist doesn’t achieve anything. If God is present the Eucharist becomes the key moment in Christian worship and liturgy where God is present, and God and man unite as one. As even Martin Luther said in his battles with the Calvinist Reformers, “Hoc est enim corpus meum.” This is my body. God uses the bread and wine to become present in the world and in our lives and nurture humans. This is not a re-sacrifice, as the Catholic Catechism definitively states though some Protestants charge otherwise.
The rest of the seven sacraments follows this sacramental logic. The sacraments are visible, corporeal, material—that is, physically real—manifestations of God’s grace and activity in the world. Marriage is not just a spiritual union but a physical union as well and God uses this corporeal reality of marriage to bring his grace and love into the world: The growing love between spouses, the love between parent and child, and the love between child and parent, which manifests Love. This is why marriage is a sacrament in Catholic theology. Indeed, the whole cosmos is married to God (cf. CCC no. 32). God has instituted marriage from the very beginning (with Adam and Eve) as a medium for his grace and love to enter the world. The same goes for all the sacraments which have real, visible, and material substances and realities to them and instituted by God.
The sacraments, which are particular to the Church, are the normative means by which God utilizes to bring his presence and achieve his will in the world. The sacraments are not the Thing itself in the Objective sense. Rather, God manifests himself, utilizes, and becomes present, through the sacraments. God at once utilizes the sacraments for his ends, becomes present in the sacraments for his ends, and directs humans to himself through the sacraments. According to Catholicism, it is through the sacraments that a more beautiful, and richer, God is experienced—a God who is at once imminent and transcendent. Catholic sacramental cosmology and theology attempts to preserve mystery and enchantment in the world rather than empty it of spiritual meaning in the post-Newtonian mechanical and Protestant world which strips the wealth of nature and imagery and symbolism naked.
There is a mystery to the sacraments. That’s the point. That’s what makes the sacraments sublime. It is the closest return to the primordial reality of creation—which began in darkness and the formless void to bring a world of remarkable beauty out of it. The darkness is sacred because it forces us to ponder the mystery of it all. The sacraments, according to Catholics, have their roots in creation itself. That is, the very cosmos has the seed of the sacraments.