Christian Theologies of the Sacraments

A Comparative Introduction

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Editor(s): 
Justin S. Holcomb, David A. Johnson
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , July
     2017.
     416 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780814770108.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christian Theologies of the Sacraments: A Comparative Introduction, edited by Justin S. Holcomb and David A. Johnson, is a compendium of essays that explore the historic development of sacramental theologies, the major contributors to the field of sacramental theology, and the denominations and movements that came from them. Reading this book was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, sparking insights and further questions to explore. I will be adopting it for classroom use due to its fine scholarship, inner coherence, ecumenical tone, and reading accessibility.

The chapters are authored by a myriad of scholars from a variety of theological and denominational backgrounds. Due to the fact that there is not a single author, or even a very small team of authors coming from a single denominational perspective, one might expect each chapter to be a stand-alone essay that reveals the point of view or denominational preference of the author, to be disjointed from the other chapters, or to have varying levels of reading accessibility, but that is not the case. Instead, this book is a testament to scholarly ecumenical collaboration that results in a highly usable text for a wide audience.

The book itself is divided into three parts, each corresponding to a historical period: patristic and medieval, Reformation and Catholic counter-Reformation, and the 18th to 21st century. The first chapter of each section gives an introduction to the period, then every chapter that follows is about a particular theologian or theological movement within that period.

In the first chapter on patristic and medieval theology, Ryan Reeves notes the monumental and difficult task of writing a history of patristic and medieval theology, which in many ways applies to the project of the entire book: “It takes hubris to attempt a history of the patristic and medieval views of the sacraments. Here be dragons. Scholarly debates over theologians, or major turning points over the centuries can bewilder as much as they can clarify. The risk is creating genealogies that stretch over fourteen hundred years, giving the impression that doctrine is driven by great figures adding their perspective at regular intervals. Still the fear of anachronism need not paralyze us. We must begin somewhere, and color is best to add to a portrait only after the broad strokes are applied” (15).

In many ways, the book reads like a history of sacramental theology, as each chapter prepares the reader for the theological development coming in the next one. At the same time, each chapter shows a deep historical understanding of, and even sensitivity to, each theologian and movement discussed. Overall, the authors fairly portray the concerns of each sacramental theologian and how they sought to answer those concerns through their various theological formulations. Further, the authors write in such a way that people from other denominational perspectives can appreciate, and even sympathize with, the sacramental theologians being discussed. Many texts explain what a thinker said, but do not get to the heart of why they said it and why they thought their solutions were the best. The authors also show the interconnections of various sacramental theologies instead of just focusing on where they diverge, which testifies to a certain level of unity among Christians in the celebration of the sacraments.

There is one area that the book neglects: Eastern theologies of the sacraments. Besides an early chapter on Basil the Great, and the use of Eastern patristics in later Western theology, there is not much discussion of the East. In particular, I would like to have seen space devoted to the idea of sacraments as icons, sacraments as agents of theosis, grace working as energies, and the sanctification of the body through the sacraments. The theological developments due to the Hesychast controversy that defend the goodness of the body and its transformation through the sacraments are especially relevant to the issues raised by feminist and liberation theologies, which strive for a greater recognition of the spiritual and physical equality of all people. Further, Eastern theology offers different and important insights into the sacraments of initiation, marriage, and ordination, which may be helpful in current debates concerning these sacraments. Also, a better understanding of Eastern theology is helpful not only in regard to pursuing a greater degree of unity with their churches, but also to provide insights that lead to greater unity among the Western traditions.

Lastly, the book is extraordinarily accessible. Sacramental theology can be a topic that is difficult to explain, especially when dealing with medieval theology. While some chapters were more dense than others, overall the book was very understandable. There is no doubt that a graduate student could easily digest the content of this book, but an undergraduate major in religious studies or theology could understand it as well. As a Roman Catholic professor teaching at a Roman Catholic college that is only 30% Catholic, a text like this is ideal for me. It would also be very appropriate for my students in diaconate studies who come from diverse academic and religious backgrounds. I will definitely be adopting this book for use in my courses and expect it to become a classic sacramental theology text.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melissa Smeltzer is Assistant Professor of Theology at Ancilla College in Donaldson, TN.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justin S. Holcomb is affiliate professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Canon for Vocations in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, and editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture (2006) and Christian Theologies of Sacraments (2017), both of which are available at NYU Press.

David A. Johnson is an Episcopal priest.  Previously he served as Associate Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  His books of collected sermons include Grace upon GraceThe Good News of God’s GraceThe Grace of God Has Appeared, and By Grace You Have Been Saved.

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