Kevin IRWIN. The Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical Theology. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2016. $39.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8091-4955-1. Reviewed by Nathaniel MARX, Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, 200 Hill Drive, St. Meinrad, IN 47577.


For thirty years, Kevin Irwin has been teaching students to understand the sacraments by paying attention to their liturgical celebration. He distills the fruit of his pedagogical and pastoral experience into a volume that university and seminary teachers will warmly welcome as a worthy, even necessary addition to the many introductory texts on sacramental theology and history already available. Irwin’s contribution stands out as an accessible yet thorough primer that is current, historically informed, and well-rounded.

After an introduction in which he proposes a working definition of “sacrament” and offers some initial advice for studying the sacraments as liturgy, Irwin surveys the scriptural foundations and historical evolution of sacramental worship in eight brief chapters. From the start, he aims to make the biblical and historical experience of sacraments come alive for contemporary readers. In a chapter on scriptural foundations, he cites examples from the current Roman Missal and Liturgy of the Hours to show the influence of biblical themes such as covenant, salvation, and memorial. In chapters on the early church, he frequently points out the impact that patristic sources have had upon modern liturgical revisions. Irwin’s purpose is not to review the most up-to-date research in historical liturgiology. Some influential but debatable assumptions (such as the ascription of the Apostolic Tradition to Hippolytus of Rome) go unchallenged. Nevertheless, Irwin emphasizes authors in each historical period who are indeed “representative voices” that exemplify the evolution of sacramental practice and theology. Students and readers unfamiliar with the primary sources will find this an accessible introduction. For those who wish to read further, Irwin supplies notes in outline form on a major primary document from each historical era. Teachers thinking of assigning Irwin’s text should be aware that his notes assume that students have the primary source at hand. In every case, however, Irwin recommends an English translation that is widely available.

Part Two of the book consists of two short chapters that set out the precedents, premises, and sources for the kind of sacramental theology that Irwin intends to elaborate in Part Three. The fundamental justification for pursuing a “liturgical sacramental theology” is the famous dictum, lex orandi, lex credendi. Irwin is careful not to elevate the authority or priority of the church’s liturgy beyond that of the church’s doctrine or ethical praxis. “Liturgy is a theological source to the degree that it is founded on Scripture and is the expression of the faith of the praying church beginning with the prayer and belief of the apostles.” Still, recourse to the church’s liturgy to “ground the articulation of its faith” is in continuity with efforts before and after Vatican II to overcome the post-Tridentine “divorce” of dogmatic sacramental theology from liturgical sources (169-70, 177). For most of his own theological reflection on the sacraments, Irwin turns to the Missal, Lectionary, and other liturgical books revised after Vatican II for use in the Roman Rite. His “theology from the rites” is therefore largely a theology from the texts of the rites, with scripture readings and prayer formulas figuring prominently. At the same time, he gives more than usual attention to “sacramental signs, gestures, and postures” as they are described in the books and experienced in actual celebrations (194-98).

In Part Three, Irwin employs this liturgical theological method in four chapters that explain “the way sacraments work” and four more that elaborate “what always happens in the celebration of sacramental liturgy” (202). His account of how sacraments work proceeds from the general to the particular, beginning with a description of a “sacramental worldview.”  Irwin relies on Edward Kilmartin’s notion of “mediated immediacy,” explaining that “the Catholic liturgical experience is always a mediated experience,” (215; Irwin’s emphasis). Regrettably, he does not deeply probe the paradox implied in Kilmartin’s phrase—that this “mediated experience” is nevertheless a “direct encounter and experience with the saving deeds of our salvation” (215). Instead, Irwin proceeds to a rich, multi-layered exploration of the sacramentality of primal elements and of human work. The possibility of multiple meanings that are nevertheless “tethered” to Jesus Christ characterizes the liturgical experience of the sacraments. This “multivalence” also applies to the “word events” of scripture proclaimed and prayers voiced in the context of different sacramental liturgies.

Proceeding from how sacraments work to what happens in the sacraments, Irwin elaborates four theological topics: the action of the Trinity, the memorial of Christ’s paschal mystery, the manifestation of communion, and the eschatological outlook of the sacraments. These are familiar themes in modern sacramental theology, but Irwin is unusually generous in showing how they infuse the words and actions of the liturgy. He hardly goes a page without quoting a Eucharistic Prayer or other text from the Missal. Texts for sacraments other than the Eucharist appear less frequently. However, discussion questions at the end of each chapter often encourage readers to examine the words and actions of other sacramental liturgies.

The discussion questions are one more strategy that Irwin deploys in an effort to get readers to do liturgical sacramental theology for themselves. The author has given us an opportunity to reflect more deeply on what we celebrate, but his further vision is of active participants transformed by sacramental liturgy into living “witnesses in the world” (373). Any Christian who embraces the book’s concluding slogan—“lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,”—will find much nourishment here.