A core principle of Reformational sacramentology was that the “presence” of the Lord was in the rites themselves as performed rather than (statically) in the elements themselves, and was to be accessed by faith. Or, to put it another way: that Christ was exhibited and offered objectively in the rites, but was appropriated subjectively by faith, without which it is impossible to please God. The heart of the believer was the terminus of sacramental action, and where the “reality” was grasped–it did not sit “out there” in a font or chalice, circumscribed as to place.
An intimation of this view is perhaps found in one of Thomas Aquinas’ articles on baptism. I do not say, n.b., that it is identical to the Reformed view (for example, Thomas says the mark of baptism is indelible but that its justification can be lost); only that there are threads of it on which the Reformed could profitably tug, draw out, and tighten.
I refer to Summa theologiae III, Q. 66, A. 1, “Whether Baptism if the mere washing?” The question with which Thomas is dealing is whether the sacrament is to be identified with the element itself, or the action performed via the element. Thomas affirms the latter and denies the former. (Interestingly, one of the objections raised comes from the very passage in Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 80.3, used by Calvin for a defense of his views–legitimately, in my view, given what he wants to prove in that passage–discussed recently here.)
Thomas formulates the problem and response as follows below, distinguishing three different points of view from which the rite can be observed (sacrament only, reality and sacrament, and reality only). The first is just the outward sign; the second is the outward sign and its corresponding inward grace or effect taken together (sign and signified); the third is that which is effected, or the signified (i.e. the reality) only. Observe, further, (1) that he uses the language of “seal” (ultimately drawn from Paul in Romans), which would become a central part of Reformed accounts of the sacraments; and (2) how amenable to the Reformed view of sacraments in usu–that is, that their efficacy is found in the whole sacramental action and its reception by faith, rather than in the consecrated elements themselves–is his reply to the objection from Augustine, with which I don’t think Augustine himself would have disagreed: “When the words are added, the element becomes a sacrament, not in the element itself, but in man, to whom the element is applied, by being used in washing him.”
Article 1. Whether Baptism is the mere washing?
Objection 1. It seems that Baptism is not the mere washing. For the washing of the body is something transitory: but Baptism is something permanent. Therefore Baptism is not the mere washing; but rather is it “the regeneration, the seal, the safeguarding, the enlightenment,” as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iv).
Objection 2. Further, Hugh of St. Victor says (De Sacram. ii) that “Baptism is water sanctified by God’s word for the blotting out of sins.” But the washing itself is not water, but a certain use of water.
On the contrary, It is written (Sirach 34:30): “He that washeth himself [baptizatur] after touching the dead, if he touch him again, what does his washing avail?” It seems, therefore, that Baptism is the washing or bathing.
I answer that, In the sacrament of Baptism, three things may be considered: namely, that which is “sacrament only”; that which is “reality and sacrament”; and that which is “reality only.” That which is sacrament only, is something visible and outward; the sign, namely, of the inward effect: for such is the very nature of a sacrament. And this outward something that can be perceived by the sense is both the water itself and its use, which is the washing. Hence some have thought that the water itself is the sacrament: which seems to be the meaning of the passage quoted from Hugh of St. Victor. For in the general definition of a sacrament he says that it is “a material element”: and in defining Baptism he says it is “water.”
But this is not true. For since the sacraments of the New Law effect a certain sanctification, there the sacrament is completed where the sanctification is completed. Now, the sanctification is not completed in water; but a certain sanctifying instrumental virtue, not permanent but transient, passes from the water, in which it is, into man who is the subject of true sanctification. Consequently the sacrament is not completed in the very water, but in applying the water to man, i.e. in the washing. Hence the Master (iv, 3) says that “Baptism is the outward washing of the body done together with the prescribed form of words.”
The Baptismal character is both reality and sacrament: because it is something real signified by the outward washing; and a sacramental sign of the inward justification: and this last is the reality only, in this sacrament–namely, the reality signified and not signifying.
Reply to Objection 1. That which is both sacrament and reality–i.e. the character–and that which is reality only–i.e. the inward justification–remain: the character remains and is indelible, as stated above (III:63:5); the justification remains, but can be lost. Consequently Damascene defined Baptism, not as to that which is done outwardly, and is the sacrament only; but as to that which is inward. Hence he sets down two things as pertaining to the character–namely, “seal” and “safeguarding”; inasmuch as the character which is called a seal, so far as itself is concerned, safeguards the soul in good. He also sets down two things as pertaining to the ultimate reality of the sacrament–namely, “regeneration” which refers to the fact that man by being baptized begins the new life of righteousness; and “enlightenment,” which refers especially to faith, by which man receives spiritual life, according to Habakkuk 2 (Hebrews 10:38; cf. Habakkuk 2:4): “But (My) just man liveth by faith”; and Baptism is a sort of protestation of faith; whence it is called the “Sacrament of Faith.” Likewise Dionysius defined Baptism by its relation to the other sacraments, saying (Eccl. Hier. ii) that it is “the principle that forms the habits of the soul for the reception of those most holy words and sacraments”; and again by its relation to heavenly glory, which is the universal end of all the sacraments, when he adds, “preparing the way for us, whereby we mount to the repose of the heavenly kingdom”; and again as to the beginning of spiritual life, when he adds, “the conferring of our most sacred and Godlike regeneration.”
Reply to Objection 2. As already stated, the opinion of Hugh of St. Victor on this question is not to be followed. Nevertheless the saying that “Baptism is water” may be verified in so far as water is the material principle of Baptism: and thus there would be “causal predication.”
Reply to Objection 3. When the words are added, the element becomes a sacrament, not in the element itself, but in man, to whom the element is applied, by being used in washing him. Indeed, this is signified by those very words which are added to the element, when we say: “I baptize thee,” etc.