Lizette LARSON-MILLER. Sacramentality Renewed: Contemporary Conversations in Sacramental Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. xviii + 189. $29.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8273-9. Reviewed by Joseph MARTOS, Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, MO 63108.


            It would appear that the only thing worse than having a sacramental theology is not having one. The Roman Catholic Church is stuck in a medieval theology that cannot allow rebaptism, that cannot make sense of confirmation, that excludes people from the Eucharist, that is losing the sacrament of reconciliation, that requires a dwindling number of priests to anoint the sick but forbids women and married men to be ordained, and that cannot handle divorce. On the other hand, the English Catholic Church (Anglicans in the British Commonwealth and Episcopalians in the U.S.) has a very spare sacramental theology based on the little that is said about sacraments in the Book of Common Prayer.

In an attempt to remedy this deficit for her church, the author engages in an extensive review of what has been written about sacraments in the past few decades—whence the book’s subtitle about contemporary conversations, even though few of the theologians cited are actually in conversation with one another. Going through the book, the impression is rather one of an asylum of individuals speaking aloud even though no one is listening. Having done this sort of reporting in two of my own books, it is easy to recognize when others do it.

Among the topics treated are sacramentality, mystery, sacraments, sacramental theology, liturgy, liturgical theology, Christ and the church as sacraments, sacramentals, the Incarnation, soteriology, the paschal mystery, revelation, Christian ethics, God’s presence, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, participation in the life of the Trinity, real absence (à la Chauvet and others), kenosis, ecclesiology (or, rather, ecclesiologies), church architecture, and the liturgical year. On each of these topics, a number of contemporary voices are heard.

The author thus manages to assemble copious examples of theological speculation—theological, because it involves thinking about Christian beliefs and practices, and speculation, because most of it cannot be proven, nor is there any way to determine what would count as proof. Some statements are historically demonstrable, for example, that there are rituals called sacraments in many churches, that sacraments have been and continue to be written about, and that there is little agreement regarding what should be said about them. Statements made in response to the following questions, however, are hardly demonstrable. What is the nature of mystery? How do mysteries relate to sacraments? What happens during the liturgy? How does worship affect salvation? And how does the Trinity fit into all of this? About the answers to such questions one can speculate, but no definite answer can be given because no possible answer can be proven.

Indeed, what could be the criteria against which such speculation could be measured? In actuality, the criteria for acceptable speculation are authority (e.g., an academic degree or an ecclesiastical title), plausibility (i.e., an idea makes sense on the surface and it appears to fit in with accepted beliefs), and popularity (i.e., an idea has been widely accepted in the past or is currently in vogue). In short, most of the ideas found in this book (and in the others from which the author draws) are drawn from other people’s ideas.

Contrast this with how sacramental theology was done in the early patristic period and in the early scholastic period, when writers did not have many other writings on which to draw. When the fathers of the church developed theologies of the sacraments, they were writing about the rituals of their day, primarily baptism and Eucharist. Granted that what they wrote was often speculative (i.e., incapable of proof, and therefore able to be dismissed by theological opponents), what they were speculating about were real rituals about which there may have been a certain unclarity (for example, whether someone can be baptized more than once). Almost a millennium later, in the Middle Ages, Christian rituals had changed drastically, and the number of rituals of interest to scholars had grown to seven. Some of what the scholastics wrote about sacraments was verifiable in their personal and social experience, for example, there are seven sacraments, baptism makes one a member of the church and cannot be repeated, confession and absolution are needed for the remission of mortal sins, the devout find Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, marriage is indissoluble, and priests have special powers that lay people do not possess. Over and above such basic observations, much of the rest was speculation. Depending on the stature of the author, his ideas (there were no women scholastics) were taken to be authoritative and creditworthy. The nature of these ideas as speculation was generally not recognized, although theologians in opposing camps (Dominicans vs. Jesuits, Catholics vs. Protestants, Lutherans vs. Calvinists, and so on) could readily dismiss the speculations of their opponents.

Were Christians today to do sacramental and liturgical theology the way it was done in patristic or medieval times, they would begin by reflecting on the actual ceremonies themselves and on the effects they actually have on participants. Does baptism make one a Christian for life? Apparently not, going by available evidence. Does confirmation have any noticeable effect? Again, apparently not. What actually happens during a Eucharistic liturgy, in contrast to what is supposed to be happening in some spiritual realm as the service unfolds? Do people experience the presence of Christ or not, and if so, what does that presence feel like? What effect does the rite of penance actually have on people, if any? How does a Christian marriage actually differ from a Jewish marriage, a Muslim marriage, or a marriage of non-believers? Do priests actually receive spiritual powers that cannot be given to other ministers? How does anointing by a priest differ from anointing by an unordained hospital chaplain? The answers to these questions would not be speculative because they could be found in the lives of people and in the life of the church.

            To do real sacramental theology, we must start with what is real.