Is Ordination a Sacrament?

Is ordination a sacrament? That’s the question I want to explore today. These debates are in part a divide between Protestants and Catholics, but we can’t neglect that there are many Protestants who actually hold to seven sacraments. Today, I’m just going to focus on one, ordination, and I’ll look at two pieces of evidence commonly used to argue for sacramental ordination. I’ll also briefly look at the issue of magisterial infallibility.

Does 1 Timothy 4:14 teach that ordination is a sacrament?

The first piece of evidence to consider is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. > Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. — 1 Timothy 4:14 ESV There are several things to note here.

Contemporary evangelical scholars are kind of all over the place about what exactly “the gift” is. I’ve consulted every evangelical commentary I can get my hands on, and there’s no clear answer to the nature of the gift. The tendency is just to be kind of vague and quickly move on to the next thing.

But John Calvin takes a different perspective. In his commentary on 1 Timothy, he says: > He put the ceremony for the very act of ordination; and therefore the meaning is, that Timothy — having been called to the ministry by the voice of the prophets, and having afterwards been solemnly ordained was, at the same time, endued with the grace of the Holy Spirit for the discharge of his office. Hence we infer that it was not a useless ceremony, because God, by his Spirit, accomplished that consecration which men expressed symbolically “by the laying on of hands.” Sounds sort of sacramental, doesn’t it? We have, by Calvin’s admission, a visible sign of an invisible grace. By his own definition, ordination or Holy Orders must be a sacrament. So why doesn’t he accept it?

In the Institutes, Calvin elaborates: > As far as the true office of presbyter is concerned, which is commended to us by Christ’s lips, I willingly accord that place to it. For in it there is a ceremony, first taken from Scripture, then one that Paul testifies not to be empty or superfluous, but a faithful token of spiritual grace [I Tim. 4:14]. However, I have not put it as number three among the sacraments because it is not ordinary or common with all believers, but is a special rite for a particular office. — Institutes IV.19.28 In other words, his reasoning is simply that not all Christians can or should receive ordination.

But Calvin doesn’t include universality in his own definition of a sacrament (see Institutes 4.14.1). If he were to consistently apply his definition and sound exegesis of 1 Timothy, he ought to conclude that ordination is a sacrament. For Calvin’s position to hold, he must revise either his use of the term sacrament or his exegetical conclusions.

In fact, Calvin himself contradicts the qualification he offers that sacraments must be available to all Christians. He says: > For there, as far as regards baptism, the Lord makes no selection of age, whereas he does not admit all to partake of the Supper, but confines it to those who are fit to discern the body and blood of the Lord, to examine their own conscience, to show forth the Lord’s death, and understand its power. — Institutes IV.16.30 For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, but it is not common to all believers. Instead, there’s a big segment of believers who are barred from the Supper for what Calvin would consider legitimate reasons.

So if we take 1 Timothy 4:14 at face value, and if we hold to the classical Protestant definition of a sacrament, we have to acknowledge that the consecration Paul describes here meets the sacramental criteria.

Does Irenaeus teach that ordination is a sacrament?

The second place to look is in Irenaeus. He says: > Wherefore we should hearken to those Presbyters who are in the Church; those who have their succession from the Apostles, as we have pointed out; who with their succession in the Episcopate received a sure gift of the Truth [charisma veritatis certum], at the good pleasure of the Father… — Adv. Her. IV.26.2 (Keble translation)

It seems that this is referenced at least twice in official documents of the Roman Catholic Church. You can find it in Pastor aeternus IV and Dei verbum 8. Pastor aeternus asserts the strongest link between this charism and magisterial infallibility. This was reasserted by Pope John Paul II in a 1988 address to the American bishops: > This magisterium is not above the divine word but serves it with a specific charisma veritatis certum, which includes the charism of infallibility, present not only in the solemn definitions of the Roman Pontiff and of Ecumenical Councils, but also in the universal ordinary magisterium, which can truly be considered as the usual expression of the Church’s infallibility.

But is Irenaeus actually arguing for infallibility?

If we examine the context for Irenaeus’ use of this phrase, it’s actually a weaker piece of evidence for the sacramental nature of Holy Orders, much less infallibility. If we back up just one paragraph, it becomes clear that Irenaeus understands this charism of truth to simply be the gospel and true doctrine. From my perspective, it’s very strange to me that the Roman Catholic councils, Pope John Paul II, and theologians like Avery Cardinal Dulles would attempt to ground their argument in Irenaeus.1

Untangling the Knot

Confused yet?

When I dove into this, I was not at all expecting the complexity that I would find. So is ordination a sacrament? That question is a really difficult knot to untangle, so let me just lay out some of the conclusions I’ve drawn.

  1. 1 Timothy 4:14 seems to teach that ordination has a sacramental nature.
  2. The phrase charisma veratatis certum from Irenaeus does not seem to teach that ordination has a sacramental nature.
  3. Roman Catholics ground their sacrament of Holy Orders and their doctrine of infallibility on Irenaeus despite the uncertainty we find there.
  4. John Calvin came very close to admitting that ordination was a sacrament, but other presuppositions he held prevented him from coming to such a position.
  5. Other Protestants have tended to take Calvin’s theological position but have departed from his exegesis.

So what’s my conclusion? I think ordination/Holy Orders has a sacramental nature, although I hesitate to call it a sacrament properly. That’s the conclusion we have to come to if we want to read 1 Timothy 4:14 consistently. Clearly, Timothy received some special gift of the Holy Spirit at his ordination that he did not have before. The Church performed a visible sign, and he received an invisible grace by faith.

If you want to read more, I recommend checking out the new Anglican catechism, To Be a Christian. I basically agree with the section on the sacraments (see Questions 121-125 and 140-145).

Some Things to Check Out

  1. Read Calvin’s Institutes online here or get a hard copy here.
  2. You can also find Calvin’s Commentaries here.
  3. I highly recommend To Be a Christian, available online or in hard copy.
  4. Finally, if you want to understand the Catholic view of the Magisterium, check out  by Cardinal Dulles.

  1. While I think this is a weak place to draw an argument from, I am not implying that Irenaeus held to a non-sacramental ordination. He clearly held Holy Orders and apostolic succession in very high esteem.↩︎