Edited by Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering
Oxford, U.K., 2015
736 pp. | $150
The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology is an ambitious project seeking to overview biblical, historical, dogmatic, and philosophical issues related to sacramental doctrine. The co-editors of the volume, Hans Boersma (J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College) and Matthew Levering (Perry Family Foundation Professor of Theology at Mundelein Seminary), describe the purposes of the Handbook as threefold: historical, ecumenical, and missional.
In terms of structure, the Handbook is divided into six parts. The first part grounds the sacraments in Scripture, parts two, three, and four trace the sacraments through history, part five concerns dogmatic approaches, and part six is about philosophical and theological issues. Of these, the historical entries receive the lion’s share of space, with twenty-eight (or about two-thirds) of the total forty-four chapters being dedicated to such matters. So much of the Handbook is allocated to historical issues in order to trace the development of sacramental theology, and to fairly present “the diverse ways in which believers have construed the sacraments” (p. 1).
In scanning the totality of the volume, it is clear that the work is intentionally ecumenical, with contributors from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant backgrounds. The list of contributors to the Handbook reads as a veritable who’s who of biblical scholars, philosophers and theologians (both historical and systematic). Those who have penned chapters include Walter Moberly, Craig A. Evans, Richard Bauckham, Luke Timothy Johnson, Lewis Ayres, Michael Allen, Scott R. Swain, George Hunsinger, Thomas Joseph White, Khaled Anatolios, and Peter J. Leithart.
As regards the missional purpose of this work, the editors maintain that a historical and ecumenical perspective on sacramental theology ought to carry with it “a sense of the gospel as something not simply for the churches but something to be shared” (p. 3). This missional emphasis stems from the notion that the doing of sacramental theology is no mere end in itself. Rather, thinking well about the sacraments has practical implications for how God’s people seek to carry the gospel beyond the walls of the church.
With these more general statements having been made, I would like to highlight a few of the standout sections that readers should take special note of:
- Edith Humphrey’s chapter on sacrifice and sacrament is superb. In it, she gives a concise yet thorough historical overview of how sacramental theology is construed within various traditions.
- Andrew Louth’s chapter is also of interest, where he traces late Patristic developments in sacramental theology in the East. He contends that up until the end of the fourth century, the focus is on baptism, but at the beginning of the fifth century the focus moves to the Eucharist.
- Scott Swain argues in his chapter on Lutheran and Reformed sacramental theology that to place the blame on the Reformation and its traditions for the desacramentalizing of the Western mind is not quite fair. He notes that Lutheran and Reformed theologians have regularly drawn upon a wealth of patristic and medieval sacramental resources in their writings.
- The overviews of Protestant sacramental theology by both Martha L. Moore-Keish and George Hunsinger gave some helpful categories for thinking about the nature of sacraments, and how Protestants have conceived of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
- David Brown’s chapter provided some helpful points about lagging attitudes for a sacramental world in modern Western society.
In terms of ways in which this Handbook could have been improved, I do wish this volume had provided a categorization or definition of sacramental theology (either in the introduction, or in a chapter dedicated to this task). A definition of ‘sacramental theology’ is hard to come by due to the various views on the sacraments in the different traditions. Still, that is precisely why a chapter on how diverse traditions conceive of the nature of sacrament theology would have been helpful: it would serve to provide some Velcro for readers as they parse through the various interpretations of the sacraments within the Handbook.
Overall, with the minor critique noted above, this resource would make an excellent contribution to the library of anyone interested in the topic of sacramental theology. In the final analysis, the Handbook lives up to the stated purposes of the editors, namely, to provide a historical, ecumenical, and missional treatment of the subject at hand.
About Patrick Schreiner
Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He completed his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Seminary. In addition to his pastoral ministry experience, Patrick also enjoys writing. You can follow Patrick's journey and his thinking online at his blog, Ad Fontes. You can also follow him on Twitter.