Ascribed Or Inherent Value?

The question of whether sacraments possess value that is ascribed to them from outside or value that is inherent in them by their very nature drove an immense amount of theological debate in the 12th and 13th centuries. William J. Courtenay explores this debate in his article “The King and the Leaden Coin: The Economic Background of ‘Sine Qua Non’ Causality.”[1]Prior to 1250, Courtenay writes, the doctrine of sacramental efficacy was not well understood or defended. In the ancient Church only baptism had received detailed theological development. Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries a number of factors conspired to create serious reflection upon the very nature of sacraments. Numerous heretical sects, like the Petrobrusians and the Albigensians, simply rejected sacraments because they kept the soul imprisoned in flesh. The Waldensians and the Arnoldists rejected the control of the sacraments by the priestly hierarchy. The Brethren of the Free Spirit and the Greek Church posed serious challenges to Western sacramental theology in its then-underdeveloped state. Not even the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), with its dogmatic definition of transubstantiation, managed to entirely re-secure the Catholic Church’s doctrine against its detractors (pp. 188-189).

In addition to these external difficulties, there were internal ones. First, Augustinian theology held that God alone could create and give grace. How then could any human involvement in a sacrament really matter? Second, no one was sure how a physical action could actually produce a spiritual effect. Third, the Neoplatonic view of creation came under increasing suspicion thanks to the Church’s battle against Avicenna and Averroes. Fourth, during the 12th century Hugh of St. Victor’s definition of a sacrament as a receptacle of grace enjoyed popularity, but many theologians felt a deep need for the sacraments not merely to contain grace, but to effectively confer it. Fifth, the “sacraments of the new law,” as the New Testament era sacraments were called, possessed both similarities and differences to those of “the old law. For instance, the eucharist had material elements whereas marriage did not (pg. 189). Between these external and internal difficulties, 12th and 13th century theologians often felt hard pressed to develop a really workable understanding of sacramental efficacy.

One early solution was to posit a distinction between creation and causality: that is, only God creates grace, but the sacraments can cause it. This distinction was then augmented with the idea of a “material cause or disposition,” and by dual concept of the operations of the sacraments. The sacraments, that is, “effected grace only indirectly; they caused a disposition which, in turn, required the presence of grace” (pg. 190). Though developed before Aquinas, via such worthies as William of Auxerre, Alexander of Hales, Roland of Cremona, and William of Melitona, thanks to Albert the Great and Thomas himself this theory came to be the accepted theory of Thomists into the 14th and 15th centuries. Other theologians did not feel that it properly safeguarded sacramental efficacy, so they developed another theory which defined the sacraments as instrumental causes of grace. Aquinas would adopt this theory later in his life, in the Summa theologiae.

But neither of these two theories achieved universal support, and yet a third one was created to combat the seemingly “mechanistic” tenor of the physical-instrumental views. The third view focused attention not upon nature and a presumed direct connection between it and reason, but upon will and its covenantal effects in the world. Covenant, not ontology, ruled this scheme. In other words, the sacraments are efficacious because they have ascribed value, not intrinsic value. According to Richard Fishacre, to whom Courtenay attributes the first appearance of this view, sacramental efficacy is sine qua non, or a voluntate Dei (pp. 191-192). Courtenay produces several passages describing this third theory. These were written sometime around 1240, by Richard Fishacre and Robert Kilwardby:

Richard Fishacre, commenting on The Sentences IV, Dist. 1: “Est enim haec relatio non a natura aliqua–in natura autem est–sed a voluntate, ut denarius fit pretium, nulla in eo facta mutatione vel superadditione alterius quam relationis. Foedus ergo pactum est inter Deum et homines, in sacramentis est. Unde ratione talis relationis est in signis illis sanctitas et eis, quod Dei est, attribuitur.” Additionally, “…si tunc stetisset, quod nunc baptismus, sicut si aliquis minister regis distribueret signa stanea pauperibus, quae si servarent, per illa reciperentur ad prandium regis, sed non statim, sed cras, quando comedet rex, et deinde minister alius regis daret, hora prandii, consimilia vel alia signa allis pauperibus, posset dici quod signa prius data essent eiusdem efficaciae cum ultimo datis, quia utraque faciunt intrare et eodem tempore, scilicet ad horam prandii.”

Robert Kilwardby, commenting on the same section: “Secundi dicunt quod sacramentum sensibile vere dicitur iustificare et vere dicitur causa et vere dicitur disponere ad iustitiam sed extendendo nomina ista. Non enim disponit vel efficit vel causat tamquam qualitatem vel potentiam activam in se habens qua alteret et qualificet animam, sicut ignis agit per inditum vel innatum calorem, sed tamquam habens sibi assistentem virtutem divinam, quae ad eius praesentiam facit et causat iustitiam et haec habet ex institutione divina et pactione eius, qua instituit, ut qui rite susciperet suum sacramentum, susciperet internam occultam operationem virtutis divinae iustificantis. Nihil igiture in se habet sacramentum sensibile nisi quandam relationem qua associatum est, ex divina pactione, virtuti divinae iustificativae, per quod vel propter quod dicitur iustificare vel disponere ad iustitiam vel huismodi. Et ponunt [Fishacre and others] exemplum tale: Litterae regis liberant de carcere non per aliquam virtutem activam illis insitam, quae procedit ad liberandos solvendos et extrahendos, sed per significativam potentiam quae est relativa et instituta ad hoc. Similiter si institueret rex signum aliquod obtinendi coronam vel primatum, illud signum causaret habenti ipsum coronam vel dignitatem non efficiendo in ipsum aliquid per influentiam sed significando per regiam institutionem, cui scilicet significationi adnexa est vel sociata alia virtus a rege ordinata ad efficiendum, quod ex pactione signi debet fieri….sed secunda [opinio] versilimior est….”.

Fishacre uses two biblical examples as support. First, Naaman was cured of his leprosy by bathing in the Jordan river at the command of the prophet of God; he was not cured because there was virtue inherent in the water, but because the prophet had said he would be cured if he fulfilled the condition. Second, just as in Christ’s parable of the vineyard laborers invited to the king’s dinner at different times regardless of the actual time they spent laboring, a king might give such people otherwise worthless leaden tokens which would gain them entrance to the feast after the condition was fulfilled. The cause of entering the feast was not in the worthless token, but it was ascribed to it by the king, who had the authority to do so. The value of the sacraments, then, “depend not on the inherent or natural value of the unit of exchange, but rather on the nominal value and on the ultimate redeemability of such a sign, a redeemability that depends on the good faith, the trustworthiness of the person or agency issuing it” (pg. 193).

This theory, though new as an explanation of sacramental efficacy, was not unprecedented in Medieval experience. Already, by 1200, economic use of credit instruments, promissory notes, letters of credit, and bills of exchange, permitted the trading of goods in the absence of gold and silver coinage. Kings were already using this system in emergencies, as the example of the notes used to ransom St. Louis in 1250 shows. Such “fiduciary currency” enjoyed widespread acceptance in the 13th century, and were often supplemented with “token coinage,” or worthless pieces of metal, functioned as counters in the bookkeeping of both secular and monastic concerns. Additionally, “charity tokens” were often distributed to the poor so that they could redeem them with merchants who would then redeem them for substance from religious organizations. The mere possession of such tokens entitled the bearer to receive a stipulated amount of food, drink, or even real money (pp. 194-196). In Fishacre’s sacramental analogy, it must be stressed that it was not merely the token that was important, but the authority and character of the king who issued it (pg. 200).Interestingly, Fishacre’s analogy was subsequently developed into a “theory of a negotiable currency of ascribed value” by Franciscans in Paris, and most notably by Bonaventure. Bonaventure alters Fishacre’s analogy in two ways. First, he expands the example of Naaman so that God would cure anyone who entered the waters by the word of Elisha. Second, rather than having to redeem a token directly from the king, by the king’s command anyone bearing the otherwise worthless leaden token would be entitled to receive 100 marks or pounds anywhere in the king’s domain (pp. 201-202).[2]

Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, believed instead in the idea of inherent natural value (bonitas intrinseca). For Aristotle, money had to possess an equivalent natural value (a value that made it actually worth possessing) to that of the goods it was used to purchase. This value, for Aquinas, was not according to “absolute inherence”–a standard which would make a mouse, endowed with sense, more valuable than a pearl, not endowed with sense. “Value is rather determined by the usefulness of the item for man,” and yet, “that usefulness is based on something within and inherent to the object itself.” This means that the bonitas intrinseca is not arbitrary: the value in the object determines the value of it. Only in this way could money, especially as backed by gold or silver, both measure value and be used as a medium of exchange (pp. 203-204). Nevertheless, for both Aristotle and Aquinas, “money and monetary value are human conventions” in the sense that while they do possess inherent value, their value in terms of exchange is determined by man (pg. 205).

Having surveyed these two different Medieval theories of economics, Courtenay asks whether Aquinas’ rejection of the analogy of the king and the leaden coin is just an economic theory, or a sacramental one as well. He answers that it was a sacramental theory as well, as is proven by Aquinas’ belief that commercial transactions would be unjust and fraudulent if the money used in them did not have bonitas intrinseca.[3] By extension, “Just as Thomas believed in the economic necessity of intrinsic value rather than ascribed value, so also there was no way of giving validity and efficacy to the sacraments apart from affirming some created virtue, albeit supernatural, that inheres in the sacrament itself and that causes its effect” (pg. 206).

Courtenay summarizes:

The general intellectual shift of the early-thirteenth century of which Thomas was a product, a shift from a world dominated by the mysterious and miraculous to a world ordered according to natural and divine laws, where most phenomena could be understood in terms of cause and effect, made it all the more difficult for Thomas and others like him to understand a causality based on ascribed value and covenant…In Thomas, the needs of a strong, apologetic defense of sacramental efficacy, fused with earlier, less sophisticated ideas of commercial contract and currency value (especially as reinforced by his study of Aristotle), caused him to support first the dispositive and then the instrumental theory of sacramental causality. (pg. 209)

However, contrary to the perception of Thomas and others like him that covenantal causality was “occasionalism” or divine arbitrariness, “The concept of covenant or pact stands behind the concept of sine qua non causality in theology, a causality resting on the good faith and recognized wealth of a human king like St. Louis or, in the case of the sacraments, on the trustworthiness and beneficence of God” (Ibid.).


  1. Traditio Vol. 28 [1972], pp. 185-209.
  2. And, although the main issue here is sacramental theory, Courtenay notes [pg. 202] that the development of this theory of causality in the 13th century laid the theoretical justification for the currency issues of Modern nations from the 17th century on.
  3. As an aside of my own, one can perhaps see in this trajectory of reasoning why Catholic theology, which has often so closely followed Aquinas, has concluded that the Protestant theology of justification involves God in soteriological injustice.
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