The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology

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Hans Boersma, Matthew Levering
Oxford Handbooks
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     736 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The genre of the handbook often appears as something akin to a eulogy: an homage to a long life that has produced much good fruit, and has now come to an end. All of the major milestones are noted, and if done well, it provides an admirable portrait of the deceased. This handbook, however, gives the impression that sacramental theology is not only very much alive, but also still capable of generating new insights and perspectives. In addition to the standard components of any handbook, such as reliable historical essays written by some of the best scholars in the field and helpful bibliographies at the end of each article, this handbook does more than simply digest and repackage previous research; it lays the groundwork for further exploration.

The handbook's forty-four chapters are divided into six main parts, the first four of which are historical surveys of scriptural, patristic, medieval, and modern sacramental theologies, while the last two collect constructive proposals regarding a whole host of issues in sacramental theology. While some of the historical essays—especially in the section on scripture—are redundant, and others barely skim the surface of the historical epoch in question, the majority give theologically rich expositions that serve as accurate introductions to non-specialists, while also shedding new light that would benefit even trained sacramental or liturgical theologians. One good example is Trent Pomplun’s analysis of post-tridentine Roman Catholic theology, which dispels the reflective dismissal of this era of sacramental theology with a compelling reading of the sophistication and originality of these often caricatured theologians. Another example covers the same historical period, but from the perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy. Here Brian Butcher shows how the Orthodox responded, sometimes by rejection, sometimes by various degrees of incorporation, to Western sacramental theology, both as found in Catholic scholasticism as well as in the theology of the Reformers. These essays, along with the great majority of the others, illustrate the fecundity not only of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, but of lesser-known figures such as Guitmund of Aversa (Mark G. Vaillancourt), Williamson Nevin (E. Brooks Holifield), and Constantin Andronikof (Peter Galadza). Many sacramental treasures are uncovered throughout the text.

The last two sections give space for original theological essays on each of the seven (Catholic) sacraments, and on a variety of issues related to the sacraments and the liturgy, such as the relationship between sacramental theology and philosophy (Thomas Joseph White) and the question of development of doctrine (Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole). Some of these contributors are leading sacramental and liturgical theologians, such as David W. Fagerberg, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Gordon W. Lathrop, while others are well-regarded systematic theologians who have turned their attention to the sacraments, such as Bruce D. Marshall and Francesca Aran Murphy. What all of these essays demonstrate is that the question of the sacraments cannot be separated from a whole network of theological doctrines and assumptions. Whether as agent or as patient, how one views the sacraments shapes one’s conception of metaphysics, the Trinity, ecclesiology, and eschatology. The handbook, in each of its parts, gives us a better sense of the magnitude of the question of the sacraments, and does this in a manner that is as ecumenically sensitive as it is globally representative. This text will prove to be a standard resource for sacramental theologians, and perhaps the first place to turn for those who want to ask—even if for the first time—why and how Christians have always believed that God works in and through matter.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Martin Ciraulo is a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans Boersma is the J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. Before coming to Regent College in 2005, Boersma taught for six years at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He also served several years as a Pastor. Boersma has written of a number of books, most recently Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach. He is also the author of Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry; of Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery; and of Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition.

Matthew Levering is Perry Family Foundation Professor of Theology at Mundelein Seminary. He serves as co-editor of two theological quarterlies, Nova et Vetera and The International Journal of Systematic Theology. He has authored numerous books, including PredestinationBiblical Natural Law, and (with David Novak and Anver Emon) Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue. With Matthew L. Lamb, he edited Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition. His works in sacramental theology include Sacrifice and Communion: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist and Christ and the Catholic Priesthood. Since 2007 he has been Chair of the Board of the Academy of Catholic Theology.



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