O’Donovan’s fourth sacrament

In The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan flies some spectacular lead balloons. One of which is his suggestion that rather than the traditional two sacraments, we might productively embrace four that enact the distinctive shape of the church’s identity (pp 174-192):

  1. Baptism reflects the fact that the church is a gathered community as a result of Christ’s coming in the flesh, identifying with humanity in our plight and with Israel in particular as its representative, the Messiah — in whom it is summed up.
  2. The Lord’s supper placards the church’s identity as a suffering community, recalling the passion of the Suffering Servant — the defining reality in the Christian life, corporately and individually.
  3. Our commemoration of the Lord’s day marks us as the glad community, filled with praise for — and a longing to be conformed to the likeness of — our risen Saviour, whose resurrection vindicates the created order and frees us to respond joyfully to it.
  4. The laying-on of hands expresses the fact that this community, upon which the ascended Lord has poured out His Spirit, speaks God’s words — in prayer and proclamation.

Now, I don’t know if the idea of four sacraments thrills you or just strikes you as mildly intriguing. But I reckon that O’Donovan’s fourth sacrament has got legs — whether or not you want to add it to the traditional Protestant list (or subtract it from the Roman Catholic one).

I know we get nervous about it. And the New Testament evidence about the laying-on of hands is pretty hard to pin down. It seems to mean different things in different circumstances.

But this moment, in which the whole community symbolically focusses on one or more of its members to pray for and/or (prophetically) commission them, proclaims a powerful truth. It declares that we believe in every-member ministry. That we’re convinced that the Holy Spirit gives us to each other. And gives each of us gifts for the common good. What’s there to be anxious about in that?

So … bring on the laying-on of hands!



  1. Ummm, I’m not sure I really wanted to get hung up on whether they were sacraments. I’m more interested in asking why we don’t seem to go in for the laying on of hands very much? As a practice it seems to have a nice symbolism.

    Matt: I think O’Donovan discusses the matter of Jesus ‘giving’ the sacraments in On the Thirty Nine Articles. I recall that he thinks it’s not really adequate, but I can’t remember why he thinks that. Maybe it has something to do with his emphasis on morality as reflective of reality — in this case the reality of what the church is and the shape it derives from the narrative of the gospel — and not just (arbitrary) commands?

    Michael: I could be misreading it, but when O’Donovan does refer to this in Ways of Judgement, I wasn’t sure if he was quite willing to give up his two additional ‘church signs’ or if he was just conceding that his attempt to ground a full-scale theology of ministry on the sacraments wasn’t quite compelling (thus raising some questions about what is sometimes made of the widely accepted two sacraments.

  2. I just thought I’d say how nice it is this post comes up number 1, five years after posting, when searching for ‘O’Donovan Four Sacraments’!

    I need to read his ’39 Articles’ but it seems he’s conflating Jesus’ water baptism with ours – which isn’t something I’ve ever picked up in the Scriptures (and have been further convinced away from by Donald Robinson). Rather, our baptism links to his death. That it takes the same form as his water baptism is then in a sense coincidental.

    1. That IS nice, Doug! I didn’t expect to turn up no. 1 in any searches. Ever.

      Wouldn’t you say Jesus baptism — especially in the sense of its enactment of his unnecessary but freely chosen solidarity with (sin-bound) Israel — also links with his death? Maybe not so coincidental after all!

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