Commentators on the Scriptures and theologians almost unanimously assert that there were sacraments under the law of nature and under the Mosaic Law, as there are sacraments of greater dignity under the Law of Christ.
Under the law of nature so called not to exclude supernatural revelation but because at that time there existed no written supernatural law salvation was granted through faith in the promised Redeemer, and men expressed that faith by some external signs.
Martin Luther's Catechism, the Augsburg, and later the Westminster, Confessions are strongly sacramental in their tone, putting to shame the degenerate followers of those who compiled them" (ibid., p.
7, 8) The reasons underlying a sacramental system are as follows: Taking the word "sacrament" in its broadest sense, as the sign of something sacred and hidden (the Greek word is "mystery"), we can say that the whole world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men the signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity.
"The heavens show forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands" (Psalm 18:2). God], from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity" (Romans ).
The redemption of man was not accomplished in an invisible manner.
Thomas (III:61:3, ad 3; III:65:1, ad 7) as external observances which may be considered as the sacred signs of that time, prefiguring future sacred institutions: hence, he adds, they may be called sacraments of the law of nature. As the time for Christ's coming drew nearer, in order that the Israelites might be better instructed God spoke to Moses, revealing to him in detail the sacred signs and ceremonies by which they were to manifest more explicitly their faith in the future Redeemer.
Those signs and ceremonies were the sacraments of the Mosaic Law, "which are compared to the sacraments which were before the law as something determined to something undetermined, because before the law it had not been determined what signs men should use" (The ceremonies by which men were made and signed as worshippers or ministers of God.
"So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world. Thomas (III:61:2) and theologians generally there were no sacraments before Adam sinned, i.e., in the state of original justice.
Thus we have (a) circumcision, instituted in the time of Abraham (Genesis 17), renewed in the time of Moses (Leviticus 12:3) for all people; and (b) the sacred rites by which the Levitical priests were consecrated.
The ceremonies of purification from legal contamination, i.e.
(a) for the people, various expiations, (b) for the priests, the washing of hands and feet, the shaving of the head, etc. Augustine says the sacraments of the Old Law were abolished because they had been fulfilled (cf.
Matthew ), and others have been instituted which are more efficacious, more useful, easier to administer and to receive, fewer in number ("virtute majora, utilitate meliora, actu faciliora, numero pauciora", XIX.13). The Decree for the Armenians, published by order of the Council of Florence, says that the sacraments of the Old Law did not confer grace, but only prefigured the grace which was to be given by the Passion of Christ.
Of this there is no reasonable doubt, as regards the very ancient days, of which St. Cyril's catechetical lectures may be taken as characteristic documents.