“Christ as Primary Sacrament”

Ways to Ecumenical Convergence in Sacramental Ecclesiology
  • C. Pierson Shaw
Part of the Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue book series (PEID)


As part of its endeavor to “return to the sources,” the Second Vatican Council spoke of the “Church as Sacrament” and provided a critical element of ecclesiology, offering great ecumenical promise. Lumen Gentium refers to the Church as “sacrament” at least three times (LG 1, 9, 48). This concept was repeated in Sacrosanctum Concilium (5, 26), Gaudium et Spes (42, 45), and Ad Gentes (1, 5). While the Church is understood as sacrament, Lumen Gentium states that the Church is centered in Christ. Christ, not the Church, is the light of the world. The Church is the body of Christ and Christ is the primordial Sacrament. The notion of the Church being a Sacrament is rooted in Augustine and his medieval interpreters. One modern interpreter, Hans Urs von Balthasar, similarly writes, “The sending (missio) has its roots in a primordial proceeding (processio) from God… This in turn presupposes that the Son was always, and has always been, ‘with’ God (Jn 1:1, 18).”1 While the documents of the Second Vatican Council do not specifically use the term primordial, clearly what is behind the use of the phrase “Church as Sacrament” is in the Son’s “primordial proceeding,” which Balthasar had understood in terms of Irenaeus’s theology of recapitulation.


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© C. Pierson Shaw 2016

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