“The Indelible Mark”

Sacramental Character in Patristic and Scholastic Theology

The history of the development of doctrine is, in many ways, a history of language. It is a story of the perpetual struggle to adequately communicate the divine realities in human words, or at the very least, to attempt to do so without falling into serious error. Every word, even every letter, can be crucial in deciphering the true meaning—for instance, the orthodox belief concerning the relation of the Son to the Father once turned on a single iota. The terms can change over time, but the idea they communicate can be the same, provided the words used are capable of pointing to the same referent.

To take one example: the Church has recognized in its teaching that in the three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders there is—in addition to the effect of sanctifying grace which can be lost through mortal sin—a permanent effect which cannot be lost. As this doctrine has developed, the effect has been described by various terms as: a spiritual seal, an indelible mark, a character, or an ontological change. How do these terms relate to one another? What common threads unite them? What different emphases are present in each?

The New Testament

The New Testament uses many different phrases to express the relationship between the Christian and Christ. Some phrases fit into a category referring to metaphors for clothing or covering. The members of the Roman church are told by St. Paul to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,”1 while the Ephesian church is told to “put on the new self.”2 The message to the Galatian church uses this same image, but explicitly connects it to Baptism: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”3 To be a Christian, then, creates a connection between Christ and the Christian in which Christ touches the Christian and maintains this contact with the Christian—the contact is so intimate as to create a “new self” who is “no longer I, but Christ {who} lives in me.”4

St. Paul would employ an even stronger phrase with his use of forms of the word “σφραγίς,” or “seal,” which denotes a mark of identification and/or possession. In Second Corinthians, St. Paul writes that “the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal {sfragisamenoV} upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.”5 Likewise, he writes to the Ephesians: “You were signed {esfragisqhte} with the holy Spirit of promise,”6 and “Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby you are sealed {esfragisqhte} unto the day of redemption.”7 All three of these passages indicate that in being “sealed,” one is marked by God’s Spirit as belonging to God—it is “his seal.” This last passage, wherein the Christian is said to be “sealed unto the day of redemption,” is reminiscent of the Book of Revelation when it speaks of the seal which will be set upon the foreheads of those who belong to God.8

Elsewhere we find language similar to that of “seal.” The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ “who is the refulgence of {God’s} glory, the very imprint {carakthr} of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.”9 In fact, we can see a link between this phrase and the Gospel of John, which says of Jesus that “on him the Father, God, has set his seal {esfragisen}.”10 This connects to a similar usage in Romans 8: “For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image {eikonoV} of his Son.”11 Here we are presented with language of representation, and these three terms are related. A seal often bears an image and leaves an imprint; likewise, the Son is sealed by God and bears the Father’s imprint, and the Christian, in turn, is an image of the Son.

At what point does this sealing of the Christian with the seal of Christ take place? Thomas Marsh concludes: “There can be no doubt, I think, that in St. Paul the seal is a reference to the sacrament of baptism. It is through baptism, therefore, that the Christian first comes to share in the sealing of Christ.”12 The sealing is equivalent to “putting on Christ,” which St. Paul says happens in baptism. Thus, we are sealed at baptism.

St. Paul is clear enough on baptism, but he leaves us little explicitly regarding confirmation and ordination. Further reflection by the Church Fathers, however, would begin to address these questions.

The Patristic Period

This concept of “seal” was to have a long life among the Fathers. It was the preferred descriptor for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation for nearly four hundred years. Already in the apostolic age, we see the Shepherd of Hermas making a clear identification between the seal and baptism: “The seal, then, is the water: so they go down into the water dead, and they come up alive. Thus, to them also, this seal was preached, and they availed themselves of it that they might enter into the kingdom of God.”13 To identify the seal with “the water” indicates a relationship not simply between the seal and the sacrament, but between the seal and the rite of the sacrament. This notion would appear elsewhere, as in Tertullian: “The flesh is washed that the soul may be made stainless. The flesh is anointed that the soul may be consecrated. The flesh is sealed that the soul may be fortified. The flesh is overshadowed by the imposition of hands that the soul may be illuminated by the Spirit.”14 Tertullian, too, seems to identify the “seal” with the sacramental ritual—the flesh, not the soul, is “sealed”—and the sacrament in question appears to be confirmation, not baptism, as it is distinguished from the washing mentioned earlier. Yet in both cases, the sealing is associated with salvation, with “entering the Kingdom” or “illumination by the Spirit.”

Other third century fathers state more directly that the seal has a direct effect on the soul. St. Cyprian writes that “they who are baptized in the Church are presented to the bishops of the Church, and by our prayer and imposition of hands, they receive the Holy Ghost and are perfected with the seal of the Lord.”15 To say that the individual is “perfected” by the seal implies more than a mere participation in a ritual. St. Irenaeus likewise says: “When, therefore, did we bear the image of him who is of the earth? Doubtless, it was when those actions spoken of as bear the image of the heavenly? Doubtless when he says, ‘Ye have been washed,’ believing in the name of the Lord, and receiving his Spirit.”16 Returning to the language of “image” seen earlier in St. Paul, St. Irenaeus says that this image is communicated by the rite—it is not the rite itself. And this image is the image of God. As Edward Kilmartin writes, that for St. Irenaeus, in baptism “the important thing is the gift of the Spirit which gives man a resemblance to God, whereby man is made spiritual and perfect.”17 With St. Irenaeus, we begin to see language of conforming and configuration.

The fourth century fathers are more detailed in their descriptions of the effect of the seal. St. John Chrysostom continues this language of configuration by stating, “If Christ be the Son of God, and thou hast put on him, thou who hast the Son within thee, and art fashioned after his pattern, hast been brought into one kindred and nature with him.”18 St. Ambrose of Milan adds a Trinitarian dimension when he writes, “And then remember that you received the seal of the Spirit…. God the Father sealed you, Christ the Lord strengthened you, and gave the earnest of the Spirit in your heart.”19 Here, the seal is “of the Spirit,” but it is the Father who seals, and Christ who strengthens in the sealing. The recipient is now the subject of the action of the whole Trinity, and brought into the life of the Trinity. Likewise, as Marsh notes, the Alexandrian school teaches that “we are, therefore, marked with the seal of God and the Trinity.”20

Most Fathers, though, tended to predicate the sealing action of the Spirit, as did St. Cyril of Jerusalem. He spoke of the Spirit as the one “who now also at the season of baptism seals your soul,”21 and elsewhere told his catechumens, “the Holy Ghost is about to seal your souls: you are to be enrolled in the army of the Great King.”22 This notion of being “enrolled in the army” would be of great importance to St. Augustine, who gives us what was to become the standard term by reintroducing the term “character,” previously seen in Hebrews, in the context of baptism. In fact, “Augustine is the first author to use the term ‘character’ in connection with baptism.”23

“Character” was the name of the brand given to soldiers to mark them as belonging to their general. In this, St. Augustine saw a fitting analogy to the sacramental seal, since a seal also denotes belonging, and the sacramental seal marks the Christian as belonging to God; yet “character” adds a further dimension of association with the soldier: by the sacramental seal, the Christian is drafted for spiritual warfare and thus, in the above words of St. Cyril, “enrolled in the army of the Great King.” Though St. Augustine occasionally made the term to refer both to the ritual (as Tertullian did) and to the spiritual mark, there is no question that it primarily refers to the mark left by the ritual action.

St. Augustine presents his doctrine most clearly in his book, Against the Letter of Parmenian. Combating the Donatist heresy, St. Augustine says that the spiritual character effected by baptism and holy orders is not less long-lasting than the bodily mark or “character” placed on soldiers, and thus is, in fact, indelible. For this reason he argues against the practice of re-baptizing or re-ordaining schismatic or heretical Christians: “just as with their baptism, so too their ordination remains whole; because the defect was in their separation which is corrected by the peace that comes of unity, and not in the sacraments, which, everywhere they are found, are the same.”24 Here, we begin to see a resolution to some of the questions St. Paul had left us: the seal or character imparted by certain sacraments is a reality which is associated with the individual permanently (and thus ought not to be repeated),25 and thus it is distinct from the grace of the sacrament, which can be lost. By the sacramental character, the Christian is marked as belonging to Christ in a most profound and radical way, irrevocably and indelibly. Marsh writes of Augustine that “his great contribution was his identification of seal and character, and his clear demonstration that the character is a permanent reality distinct from grace.”26 St. Augustine’s terminology and conception would set the parameters for all subsequent debates and discussions on the issue of the sacramental character, as can be seen in the Scholastic period.

The Scholastics

The assimilation of the philosophy of Aristotle into the Christian mind introduced a number of critical aspects to the development of the notion of sacramental character. One aspect was a more comprehensive anthropology, especially concerning the nature of the soul, which led to certain conclusions. Hylomorphic theory, which conceived of the human person as a unified composite of co-equal principles, was a sharp contrast to the Platonist “dualism” that animated the minds of many of the Fathers and, subsequently, shaped their discussion of the sacramental seal. All of these factors were to have an impact on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

It first should be noted how St. Thomas appropriates the language of St. Paul. In one place he quotes the above-mentioned passage from 2 Corinthians, and identifies the seal with the spiritual character. Further, he cites the reference from Hebrews 1 to Christ as the “character” of the Father as an example of how a character can be real without being sensible. As Dauphanais notes, “The sacramental character as used by Aquinas conforms to St. Paul’s usage of the term ‘in Christ.’”27 Further, Donahue argues, “when the Pauline teaching of incorporation into Christ and his priesthood is seen as a configuration to Christ which implies a permanence, the biblical foundations of the Thomistic development of the sacramental character are more clearly seen.”28 This point will be explained further below.

St. Thomas’ teaching is also deeply patristic. As John M. Donahue notes, “St. Thomas’ doctrine of the character’s configuration to Christ, or participation in the priesthood, is seen in the doctrine of incorporation into Christ in St. Justin Martyr, recapitulation in Irenaeus, the image of God in Cyril of Alexandria, and the solidarity of mankind in Christ in Gregory of Nyssa.”29 Still, it is clear from the beginning that St. Thomas primarily follows the lead of St. Augustine, while expanding upon the thought of the Doctor of Grace. Several times he quotes from Against the Letter of Parmenian as an authoritative proof for his position: that certain sacraments do confer a character; that the character is indelible; that it marks the Christian as belonging to Christ just as the military brand marked soldiers. St. Thomas carries on the Augustinian position, yet he also develops it, and adds several new elements.

For one, “Thomas added an altogether new dimension to the character by considering all three characters as orientated toward Christian worship.”30 St. Thomas conceives of the character not only as an orientation, but as a deputation to worship.

Now, whenever anyone is deputed to some definite purpose, he is wont to receive some outward sign thereof; thus, in olden times, soldiers who enlisted in the ranks used to be marked with certain characters on the body, through being deputed to a bodily service. Since, therefore, by the sacraments men are deputed to a spiritual service pertaining to the worship of God, it follows that by their means, the faithful receive a certain spiritual character.31

St. Thomas utilizes the “military brand” analogy of St. Augustine, but further defines it by denoting just what sort of service these “soldiers of Christ” are to give: the “spiritual service” of the worship of God. The worship of the individual is assimilated to the eternal worship offered by Christ through the individual’s incorporation into Christ via the character. The next step St. Thomas takes seems to follow quite logically: if Christians are marked with a spiritual character that deputes them to the worship of God, and that character is the character of Christ, then it would seem most fitting to attribute this character to Christ in his priesthood. As St. Thomas writes: “it is clear that the sacramental character is specially the character of Christ, to whose character the faithful are likened by reason of the sacramental characters, which are nothing else than certain participations of Christ’s Priesthood, flowing from Christ himself.”32

This notion draws together elements previously seen in St. Paul and the Fathers: Christ is the imprint {Greek: “carakthr”} of the Father, and the Christian, through the sealing by the Spirit, is marked at the most fundamental level with the imprint {Latin: “character”} of Christ, particularly in Christ’s role as priest. We might be tempted to be drawn into a false line of reasoning which would have us think that if Christ is the imprint of the Father, and Christians the imprint of Christ, then Christians are the imprint of the Father, thus leading to a strong, divinizing theology of character; rather, “the character… gives a special configuration to Christ, which is that of a participation in an exemplar.”33

St. Thomas “is speaking of the character as a permanent quality,”34 and this is the result of another quite logical conclusion drawn by the Angelic Doctor. Christ’s priesthood is eternal, and every sanctification wrought by his priesthood, is perpetual, enduring as long as the thing sanctified endures. This is clear even in inanimate things; for the consecration of a church, or an altar, lasts forever unless they be destroyed. Since, therefore, the subject of a character is the soul as to its intellective part, where faith resides, as stated above (4, ad 3); it is clear that, the intellect being perpetual and incorruptible, a character cannot be blotted out from the soul.35

Christians become consecrated to the worship of God by the sealing action of Christ the High Priest, whose consecrations are as permanent as the matter consecrated; and since that which is consecrated is the imperishable soul (not, pace Tertullian, the flesh), the consecration, too, is imperishable. The character, the spiritual seal, is an imprint on the soul that cannot be blotted out—it is an “indelible mark,” a phrase that was to have a long life in the history of theology.

The theology of St. Thomas, utilizing Aristotelian anthropology, is even so specific as to determine which part of the soul is sealed by the character. As William Monahan summarizes it, “the character received in certain sacraments is imprinted on the rational soul by way of an image. And as the image of the Blessed Trinity in the soul is seen in the powers of the soul, therefore, a character is in the powers of the soul.”36 St. Thomas’ argument for the positionthat the character is to be found in the powers of the soulderives from his position on the end or purpose of the character: if the character is for the worship of God, and worship is an act, then the character must be seated in the center of action: the powers of the intellect. While others took the character to be a habit, Thomas “regards character as a capacity, not to do something well or ill (and so, “a habit”), but to do something at all.”37 In defending this position, St. Thomas also makes an important and necessary clarification:

…a character is a kind of seal by which the soul is marked, so that it may receive, or bestow on others, things pertaining to Divine worship. Now, the Divine worship consists in certain actions: and the powers of the soul are properly ordained to actions, just as the essence is ordained to existence. Therefore a character is subjected not in the essence of the soul, but in its power.38

St. Thomas is equally clear on what the character is not. Though being sealed by the character of Christ, the High Priest, affects Christians profoundly, enabling them to unite their worship to that of Christ, this sealing does not take place at the level of existence; it does not instantiate a new being; it does not destroy human nature.

Another contribution of St. Thomas is the distinction between the character and grace. While the difference was often ambiguously present in the Fathers, St. Thomas is explicit and clear: Both grace and character are in the soul, but in different ways. For grace is in the soul, as a form having complete existence therein: whereas a character is in the soul, as an instrumental power.39

In fact, St. Thomas conceives of the relationship between grace and character such that one is ordered to the other: character is productive and dispositive of grace,

…accordingly the character is at once a reality, since it establishes an objective bond between God and the soul, and at the same time a sign or earnest {i.e., pledge or token} of God’s grace since it is the ultimate disposition for grace.40

This further orders the relationship between the character-giving sacraments, and the other sacraments, since “man is naturally capable of grace, but he requires a further disposition to be capable of sacramental grace. This further disposition is his passive power of receiving the sacraments,”41 as well as the active power of dispensing the sacraments in the case of the ordained.

St. Thomas’ chain of reasoning links together the various elements in play: the nature of sacraments and sacramental grace; their relationship to Christ’s Passion; and the bridge that the character provides between them. Perhaps, St. Thomas’ most important contribution to the understanding of the sacramental character is his locating it in the priesthood of Christ. It is his conception of the character as a conformation to Christ as the High Priest that serves as the lynchpin for his arguments on the character’s deputation to worship, indelibility, and disposition to grace. If the character is a sealing unto salvation, it is fitting that it be the character of the suffering Christ, priest and victim, offered for our redemption.

It should be noted that, while St. Thomas’ position would become standard, not all in the scholastic period held the same beliefs concerning the sacramental character. Both St. Albert and St. Bonaventure held “that the character is an imperfect habit—imperfect in the sense that it demands the full perfection of grace, although it can exist without it. It likens the soul to God inasmuch as it is a step towards grace.”42 St. Thomas, on the other hand, held that the character itself not only disposed toward grace, but was actually productive of grace.

The opponent of St. Thomas who was to have the most lasting influence among later theologians was Blessed John Duns Scotus. In Scotus’ conception, the sacramental character was limited to the notion of “seal as sign of belonging,” and did not have any further role to play in the Christian’s life. It was a mark identifying the Christian as having been incorporated into the Body of Christ, and though this in itself was a real effect, we find nothing of the disposition for grace, or the power to enact proper worship of God, that we find in St. Thomas. Scotus falls into a sort of sacramental occasionalism in which the sacraments are not themselves productive of grace (via their connection to Christ), but are merely the moments in which God directly pours out grace onto the individual. Without these dispositive and productive aspects, the sacramental character loses its connection to the other sacraments, and is emptied of much of its importance.

Despite this difference of opinion, the Thomistic view became the standard in the Church. This was evidenced in subsequent centuries by, for example, the documents promulgated by the early modern ecumenical councils. The Council of Florence in 1439 in its Decree for the Armenians affirmed the indelibility and unrepeatability of the three character-conferring sacraments,43 and the seventh session of the Council of Trent in 1547 anathematized those who did not hold to this position.44 Even today, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find these same terms: seal, character, indelible mark.45 These statements from the Church employ the language used by St. Thomas, gleaned and developed from Scripture and the Fathers and, thus, can be expected to carry the same substantial meaning: that the character is an indelible reality that conforms the Christian to Christ, the High Priest, thus deputing the Christian to worship, and ordering the Christian within the Church’s structure.

  1. Romans 13:14. All biblical quotations are from the New American Bible, chosen because it is the version used in the Lectionary and, thus, most familiar to the readers’ ears.
  2. Ephesians 4:24.
  3. Galatians 3:27.
  4. Galatians 2:20.
  5. 2 Corinthians 1:21-22.
  6. Ephesians 1:13.
  7. Ephesians 4:30.
  8. Revelation 9:4.
  9. Hebrews 1:3.
  10. John 6:27.
  11. Romans 8:29.
  12. Thomas Marsh, “The Sacramental Character,” in Sacraments: Papers of the Maynooth Union Summer School 1963, ed. Denis O’Callaghan (Dublin: Gill & Son, 1964), 113.
  13. Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 9, Ch. 16.
  14. Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 8.
  15. St. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 73.
  16. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses V, 11, 2.
  17. Edward Kilmartin, S.J. “Patristic Views of Sacramental Sanctification,” in Readings in Sacramental Theology, ed. C. Stephen Sullivan, F.S.C. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1964), 150.
  18. St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians, 3.27.
  19. St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Mysteries VII, 42.
  20. Marsh, 116.
  21. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 4.
  22. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 3.
  23. John M. Donahue, O.P. “Sacramental Character: The State of the Question,” Thomist 31, no. 4 (October 1967), 452. 
  24. St. Augustine, Against the Letter of Parmenian, II, 13, 28.
  25. Already two decades prior to this letter from Augustine, the First Council of Constantinople had affirmed the Church’s belief in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
  26. Marsh, 116.
  27. Michael Dauphinais, “Christ and the Metaphysics of Baptism in the Summa Theologiae and the Commentary on John,” in Rediscovering Aquinas and the Sacraments: Studies in Sacramental Theology, eds. Matthew Levering and Michael Dauphinais (Chicago: Hillenbrand, 2009), 20.
  28. Donahue, 450.
  29. Donahue, 453.
  30. Paul F. Palmer, S.J. “The Theology of the ‘Res et Sacramentum,’” in Readings in Sacramental Theology, ed. C. Stephen Sullivan, F.S.C. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1964), 109.
  31. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, 63, 1, c.
  32. ST III, 63, 3, c.
  33. Colman O’Neill, O.P. “The Instrumentality of the Sacramental Character,” in Irish Theological Quarterly 25 (1958), 264.
  34. Ibid., 265.
  35. ST III, 63, 5, c.
  36. William Monahan, St. Thomas Aquinas on the Sacraments (Worcester, UK: Baylis and Son, 1943), 23.
  37. Guy Mansini, O.S.B. “A Contemporary Understanding of St. Thomas on Sacerdotal Character,” in Thomist 71 (2007), 180.
  38. ST III, 63, 4, c.
  39. ST III, 63, 5, ad. 1.
  40. Palmer, 108.
  41. Stephen McCormack, “The Configuration of the Sacramental Character,” Thomist 7 (1944), 484.
  42. McCormack, 460-61.
  43. Excerpts from Council of Florence, “Decree for the Armenians,” in The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, eds. Josef Neuner, S.J. and Jacques Dupuis, S.J. 6th edition (New York: Alba House, 1996), 520-21.
  44. Excerpts from Council of Trent, “Decree on the Sacraments,” in Neuner and Dupuis, 523.
  45. CCC 1272, 1295, 1304, 1570.
Nicholas Senz About Nicholas Senz

Nicholas Senz is a husband and father, and is the Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA. He is a managing editor at Catholic Stand and a Master Catechist. Nicholas holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA, and blogs at Two Old Books. (http://nicksenz.blogspot.com/)