Review: The Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical Theology

The Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical TheologyThe Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical Theology by Kevin W. Irwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the most profound and insightful book on the Sacraments that I have read in a very long time. I suspect this is because the author treats the sacramental of the church not via the more traditional mode of sacramental theology but from a perspective that sees sacraments as enacted realities, as ‘events’ that can only truly be understood when exploring and reflecting on the liturgical celebration of the sacramental event.

For Irwin, sacramental theology is and must be a liturgical theology.

While all the more traditional and customary issues associated with the sacramental life of the church are present in Irwin’s latest contribution, they are framed with the ritual enactment to be found in the liturgical books of the church. There, through the mystagogical reflection methodology that Irwin sets out in the middle part of the volume, it is possible to go beyond ‘form’ and ‘matter’, beyond ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’, beyond the Augustinian and Thomistic understanding of the sacrament, Irwin suggests it is possible for the Christian believer to come to know the divine reality of God.

The book is divided into three major parts. The first part takes a look at the historical development of the understanding of sacrament across the major historical periods, looking at the ‘major players’ of each period and their contribution to the field. This historical survey provides a necessary background to the development of Irwin’s central thesis.

The middle part of Irwin’s volume sketches the methodology – a liturgical sacramental theology – that Irwin posits as the means by which liturgy becomes the basis for the engagement in sacramental theology. The methodology that Irwin proposes is attractive and eminently sensible.

The third part of Irwin’s book looks at some major themes, eight in total, that comprise a theology of sacramental liturgy that provides flesh for the bones of the methodology that he elucidated in the previous section. These themes, and Irwin’s treatment of them by drawing on reflections on liturgical rites, provide new insights into the theology of the liturgy and how theology is drawn from the liturgy and its enactment.

From the beginning of the book, Irwin makes use of the adage lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of praying is the law of believing”) but seeks to expand it to suggest – cogently, I believe – that both the lex orandi and the lex credendi together must lead to a lex vivendi, that is a “a law of living”. In other words, it is not simply enough to just pray and believe if that prayer and belief does not lead to a way of living that is consistent with both prayer and belief.

The design of the book is also worth considering. Irwin has specifically designed it for a number of different audiences, from university students, to parishioners and other interested ‘study groups’ who might use it to widen their knowledge of the area, to graduate students (particularly preparing for ordained or lay ecclesial ministry) for who it would be ‘primer’. The inclusion of study and discussion questions at the end of each chapter greater enhances the worth of this book for the first two groups, and the ability for the third group to explore the various original texts that Irwin considers in greater detail. I would suggest that Irwin has succeeded in his stated aim of providing a text that is multivalent in its audience.

For anyone interested in the sacramental life of the church, this book is a must read. Such a recommendation is completely independent of where a particular reader is ‘coming from’: anyone and everyone will gain something from reading this text from one of the world’s great scholars in the fields of sacraments and liturgy.

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