Archive Early Church Fathers Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

Sign Language: Augustine’s Use of Sacramental Speech

Sacramental theology in the early church can feel a bit like the Wild West, and the interpretations vary according to the number of interpreters. Pop apologetics works are, by all accounts, the worst on this score, and it is quite shameful that they are allowed to be circulated by humans with a straight face as often as they are. While we here at TCI do claim to stand as heirs of the whole church, including the patristics, we do not claim that the fathers are without problems (sometimes serious ones) or that later Reformation theology is any sort of repristination of the early church. Rather, all we claim is a harmony with the essential matters, along with a legitimate right to differ when the Scriptures and right reason lead elsewhere.

Even with that clearing of the throat, however, we do believe that Augustine is capable of being interpreted objectively and that this can be demonstrated without an overwhelming challenge. We may not wish to retain all that he proposed, but we do believe that what he proposed can be understood and demonstrated by normal methods. His theology of the sacraments is clearly united with his theology of “signs” in general, and this allows him to use “sacramental speech” along the lines of what is now commonly called the communicatio idiomatum. The 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith actually gives a pretty helpful definition of this rhetorical construct when it says, “There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.” Though the sign and the thing signified are distinct and even potentially separated by time and space, the names and effects can be communicated or applied from the one to the other, and this will be true and appropriate because there is a spiritual relation or sacramental union between the two. This is certainly a “rhetorical” feature, but given the nature of God’s promise and the work of the Holy Spirit, it is also an effectual means of grace when done in faith. It is not merely a matter of semantics but rather of Word.


To return to Augustine, we can show that he certainly does hold to a “rhetorical” view of sacraments, and this is especially evidenced by the fact that he considers them a species of “signs.” For context here, let us recall Augustine’s own distinctions:

All instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learnt by means of signs. I now use the word “thing” in a strict sense, to signify that which is never employed as a sign of anything else: for example, wood, stone, cattle, and other things of that kind… There are signs of another kind, those which are never employed except as signs: for example, words.  No one uses words except as signs of something else; and hence may be understood what I call signs: those things, to wit, which are used to indicate something else. (On Christian Doctrine 1.2.2)

And also:

For a sign is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself: as when we see a footprint, we conclude that an animal whose footprint this is has passed by; and when we see smoke, we know that there is fire beneath; and when we hear the voice of a living man, we think of the feeling in his mind; and when the trumpet sounds, soldiers know that they are to advance or retreat, or do whatever else the state of the battle requires. (ibid 2.1.1)

Conventional signs, on the other hand, are those which living beings mutually exchange for the purpose of showing, as well as they can, the feelings of their minds, or their perceptions, or their thoughts. Nor is there any reason for giving a sign except the desire of drawing forth and conveying into another’s mind what the giver of the sign has in his own mind. (2.2.3)

Of the signs, then, by which men communicate their thoughts to one another, some relate to the sense of sight, some to that of hearing, a very few to the other senses…  Our Lord, it is true, gave a sign through the odor of the ointment which was poured out upon His feet; and in the sacrament of His body and blood He signified His will through the sense of taste; and when by touching the hem of His garment the woman was made whole, the act was not wanting in significance. (2.3.4)

We see here the conventional distinction between the sign and the reality or thing signified, and we see that the entire point of the sign is to communication something, not about itself, but about the reality. It is a pointer, a symbol, a gesture of communication. It “causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself.”

Visible Words

Importantly, Augustine insists that the chief and most important sign is found in words. In fact, Augustine even claims that bodily and visible signs are themselves “visible words.” This is not limited to sacraments, but extends to many more human signs:

Of the signs, then, by which men communicate their thoughts to one another, some relate to the sense of sight, some to that of hearing, a very few to the other senses.  For, when we nod, we give no sign except to the eyes of the man to whom we wish by this sign to impart our desire.  And some convey a great deal by the motion of the hands: and actors by movements of all their limbs give certain signs to the initiated, and, so to speak, address their conversation to the eyes: and the military standards and flags convey through the eyes the will of the commanders.  And all these signs are as it were a kind of visible words. (2.3.4)

We can see that a visible word is meant to bring an idea into the mind by way of its visibility.

Augustine then, as is well known, goes on to apply this language of “visible word” to the sacraments. What should be observed, however, is this is directly tied to Augustine’s understanding of both signs and words. See, for instance, in his Reply to Faustus:

For if in language the form of the verb changes in the number of letters and syllables according to the tense, as done signifies the past, and to be done the future, why should not the symbols which declare Christ’s death and resurrection to be accomplished, differ from those which predicted their accomplishment, as we see a difference in the form and sound of the words, past and future, suffered and to suffer, risen and to rise? For material symbols are nothing else than visible speech, which, though sacred, is changeable and transitory. For while God is eternal, the water of baptism, and all that is material in the sacrament, is transitory: the very word “God,” which must be pronounced in the consecration, is a sound which passes in a moment. The actions and sounds pass away, but their efficacy remains the same, and the spiritual gift thus communicated is eternal. (19.16)

Here Augustine directly parallels grammar with the sacraments. In doing so, he stresses the sign-character of both, and he states that the material aspect of the sacrament is a symbol which is “changeable and transitory.” The efficacy is found in the spiritual gift, and this spiritual gift is the “thing signified.”

The sharpness of the distinction between the material and visible sign and the invisible reality comes out especially clear in Augustine’s Exposition of Psalm 99:

Understand spiritually what I have said; ye are not to eat this body which ye see; nor to drink that blood which they who will crucify Me shall pour forth. I have commended unto you a certain mystery; spiritually understood, it will quicken. Although it is needful that this be visibly celebrated, yet it must be spiritually understood. (Ex. of Psalm 99.8)

Notice here the negative qualifiers. “Ye are not to eat this body which ye see; nor to drink that blood which they who will crucify Me shall pour forth.” Those visible signs will have passed on. The thing which is “really” eaten and drunk is the thing signified, the reality to which those signs pointed.1 This sacrament is “visibly celebrated,” but it must be spiritually understood. And the spiritual understanding is precisely the understanding that makes distinctions between time and space and between material and spiritual.

Test Cases

Having given Augustine’s own rules for interpreting sacramental speech and conventional signification, we can now apply them to two of the more famous examples in his writing. There are many more, of course, but these two appear frequently in polemics and yet are very-often badly misinterpreted because they are forced through later polemical articulations, articulations which themselves come from a different framework of understanding. The first is from Augustine’s Exposition of Psalm 34, where Christ is said to have carried Himself in His hands:

“And was carried in His Own Hands:” how “carried in His Own Hands”? Because when He commended His Own Body and Blood, He took into His Hands that which the faithful know; and in a manner carried Himself, when He said, “This is My Body.” (Ex. of Psalm 34.1)

Here we see at least two qualifiers, “that which the faithful know” (which is to say, their spiritual understanding of the sacrament) and “in a manner.” If read in some sort of strictly “literal” or “realist” manner (as more than a few contemporary apologists attempt to do), then the result is fairly outrageous. One is forced to admit a duplication of realities, with Jesus (still in His body, of course) carrying that same body, or at least its substance, in His hands under a different outward form. This would leave two realities and no sign, at least not the kind of sign which Augustine promotes. The idea of a body which multiplies copies of itself which are nevertheless still “real” and “true” is entirely too complicated, and the entire method of explanation is far removed from Augustine’s rather straight-forward explanation of signs. The whole thing amounts to something of a theological just-so story.

By contrast, if we read this passage as a rhetorical use of signs, then it becomes simple. He, the real “thing”—Jesus, took in His Hands, also the real “thing”—hands, and in a manner carried Himself, the sign of Himself—the external form of the sacrament. Jesus carried the bread which He would then use as a symbol for His body, and upon using it as a symbol, He gave it the name of the thing it signified.

A second illustration will actually demonstrate Augustine explaining this kind of distinction at more length when questioned. The context is an exchange of letters between Augustine and Boniface, a fellow bishop. Boniface appears to have asked how it is that ministers can apply the names of things to subjects which do not seem to truly possess those things, in this case an infant and the sacrament of faith. Boniface wishes to know how it is that an infant be called a believer. Augustine answers with a doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s attachment to the sacrament, but he also adds an explanation of the rhetorical use of signs. This second part is what is relevant to our interest here. Augustine writes:

You know that in ordinary parlance we often say, when Easter is approaching, “Tomorrow or the day after is the Lord’s Passion,” although He suffered so many years ago, and His passion was endured once for all time. In like manner, on Easter Sunday, we say, “This day the Lord rose from the dead,” although so many years have passed since His resurrection. But no one is so foolish as to accuse us of falsehood when we use these phrases, for this reason, that we give such names to these days on the ground of a likeness between them and the days on which the events referred to actually transpired, the day being called the day of that event, although it is not the very day on which the event took place, but one corresponding to it by the revolution of the same time of the year, and the event itself being said to take place on that day, because, although it really took place long before, it is on that day sacramentally celebrated. Was not Christ once for all offered up in His own person as a sacrifice? and yet, is He not likewise offered up in the sacrament as a sacrifice, not only in the special solemnities of Easter, but also daily among our congregations; so that the man who, being questioned, answers that He is offered as a sacrifice in that ordinance, declares what is strictly true? For if sacraments had not some points of real resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all. In most cases, moreover, they do in virtue of this likeness bear the names of the realities which they resemble. As, therefore, in a certain manner the sacrament of Christ’s body is Christ’s body, and the sacrament of Christ’s blood is Christ’s blood, in the same manner the sacrament of faith is faith. (Letter 98.9)

This quote is particularly helpful because of the nature of the analogies. Notice that Augustine compares the use of names in the sacrament to the naming of holidays. He speaks, not of some highly-philosophical or mysterious construct, but rather of “ordinary parlance.” We are justified in calling Easter “Easter” (or Pascha) because there is a “likeness between them and the days on which the events referred to actually transpired.” Notice that it is readily granted that the event does not repeat or continue. Augustine says that “so many years have passed since…” He even says “it is not the very day on which the event took place, but one corresponding to it by the revolution of the same time of the year…” Easter Sunday, as we continue to celebrate it, is not the day on which the crucifixion or resurrection “really took place,” but rather when they are “sacramentally celebrated.” The same thing is then said to be true of the Eucharistic sacrifice.2 This is true because sacraments “have some points of real resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments.” They are signs. It is “in virtue of this likeness” that they “bear the names of the realities which they resemble.

None of this means that the sacraments are “merely” symbolic, nuda signa as it would later be termed. Augustine does believe that the Holy Spirit makes a real grace present in the whole sacrament, and yet it does not do this by circumventing or transforming the sign but rather precisely by using the sign as a sign. It does this precisely by causing something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself.


We have demonstrated the way in which Augustine uses “sign language” to promote his sacramental theology as well as his larger understanding of communication. He applies the name of the “real thing” to the symbol, and he maintains that this is a true way of talking because of the nature of signs. This explanation rather neatly explains the various instances of “realistic” language applied to the sacraments, and it keeps within the parameters Augustine himself sets. The signs do not become the things signified but rather bring them to mind and in doing so transfer their effects.

  1. Remember, also, that Augustine does not believe that literal flesh of Christ gives life. It was always only an instrument to convey the Word.
  2. For a further investigation of Augustine’s doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice see here.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

3 replies on “Sign Language: Augustine’s Use of Sacramental Speech”

Thanks for this. Always find myself wishing I had more time to give to Augustine when I read things like this. I’m stuck at Boniface’s question, though. What does Augustine say the sacrament of faith is that we are right to call faith? The bread signifies Christ’s body, the wine his blood, but I’ve missed what signifies faith.


According to the last quotation:

“As, therefore, in a certain manner the sacrament of Christ’s body is Christ’s body, and the sacrament of Christ’s blood is Christ’s blood, in the same manner the sacrament of faith is faith.” (Letter 98.9)

Seems like eating and drinking the elements could also be sacraments of faith though.

Howdy, Jonathan. Yes, that’s exactly the quote that threw me. I acknowledge that Steven is employing the quote to show the relation between sign and signified, and I’m thankful that he has. But I’m unfamiliar with what the sign/sacrament actually is that corresponds to faith. So Augustine’s logic seems to be that communion bread is to Christ’s body as communion wine is to Christ’s blood as X is to faith, with X representing the sacrament of faith. But what is X?

I’m sure I can track down Letter 98. Perhaps it’s time to make that time for Augustine I was saying I wish I had.

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