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date: 12 August 2020

Introduction: The Handbook’s Three Purposes

Abstract and Keywords

The sacraments are supposed to be the source of Christian unity, but all too often, and especially since the Reformation period, they have been a major part of Christian division. While in some ways poignantly manifesting these divisions, the chapters in this Handbook also indicate the fruitfulness of the ecumenical movement and it makes manifest the common threads binding together sacramental theology in the various Christian traditions. Alongside this ecumenical purpose, the Handbook also aims to make a historical and a missional contribution. Together, these three purposes suggest the ways in which study of the sacraments, from an explicitly theological perspective, may serve the self-understanding and unity of Christians today.

Keywords: sacraments, historical, ecumenical, missional, beauty, hope, division, unity

The vast subject of the sacraments of the Christian churches cannot be exhausted by one Handbook, valuable though we hope it will prove to be. As a multi-faceted introduction to sacramental theology, the purposes of this Handbook are threefold: historical, ecumenical, and missional. In this brief Introduction, therefore, we wish to briefly explain these three purposes.

First, of the 44 chapters that comprise our Handbook, 28 are historical. By devoting two-thirds of the Handbook to historical surveys, we are able to introduce readers to the historical roots and development of Christian sacramental worship. That history is testified to in the various writings of the New Testament, and it has important background both in the Old Testament and in Second Temple literature (some of which finds a place in the Catholic and Orthodox canons of Scripture). The contributors to this Handbook explain the diverse ways in which believers have construed the sacraments, both in inspired Scripture and in the history of the church’s practice. In Scripture and the early church, Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics all find evidence that the first Christian communities celebrated and taught about the sacraments in a manner that Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics today affirm as the foundation of their own faith and practice.

Over time, the diverse Christian churches have developed their own theological conversations, so that an expert in the sacramental theology of one ecclesial tradition or time period may devote a lifetime to studying a set of figures who may be almost unknown within other ecclesial traditions or time periods. Yet the historical surveys in this volume also show that in the diverse ecclesial traditions, the reception history of the scriptural testimony exhibits strong family resemblances. Furthermore, in each historical period, among Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics we observe cross-fertilization and mutual indebtedness in the face of the problems and issues common to the historical period. Put simply: historical studies, including historical research into Scripture, exhibit not merely differences but also the seeds and evidence of unity.

(p. 2) Thus, for those who want to understand what has been taught about the sacraments in Scripture and across the generations by the major thinkers of the various Christian traditions, this Handbook provides an introduction. However, the volume also contains 16 chapters that are not classified as historical. These include a chapter on liturgical theology and the sacraments; constructive chapters on each of the sacraments (including the ecumenically contested ones); and theological and philosophical chapters that reflect on the sacraments in light of other theological loci (eschatology, the Trinity, and so forth). Not surprisingly, these chapters, too, reflect the divisions and distinctions that we find in the explicitly historical sections; and these constructive chapters also draw upon and develop the major sources that the historical chapters present to the reader. Not least because the authors of these constructive chapters are ecumenically diverse, the challenge of the historical chapters persists: where is Christian unity in worship to be found? As a second purpose, therefore, this Handbook is intended to be a contribution to Christian ecumenism.

How could it be otherwise, as Christians arrive at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation divisions? And at the same time, how could it be otherwise, given that the Christian gospel is as compelling as ever and Christ calls us to be one (John 17:22)? Ecumenically, the editors of the Unitas Books series—a series that like the present Handbook is a fruit of the great twentieth-century ecumenical movement—remind us that “[d]‌ivision has become deeply embedded in the everyday life and thought of the churches” (Hjelm, Root, and Rusch 2004: iii). A Handbook on sacramental theology, even more than on most other Christian topics, makes poignantly manifest these divisions. They are not “mere” theoretical divisions but divisions at the level of basic Christian practice. Indeed, they involve our very unity with the crucified and risen Lord through the means by which he wills to unite us to his own self-offering to the Father in the Spirit. Yet the present Handbook also exhibits powerful streams and sources of unity in Christian sacramental faith and practice. The ecumenical organization and thrust of this Handbook need not lead us to seek a common denominator, whether found in Scripture or in the histories of the sacramental theologies of particular Christian communities. Rather than taking such an approach, we have sought instead to involve contributors whose sympathies and perspectives lie firmly within a particular Christian community. As a gift of the Holy Spirit, Christian unity requires learning how to perceive each other’s gifts, which can be done only when these gifts are fully and faithfully presented.

Experience has also shown that the ecumenical movement falters when it becomes focused upon the churches themselves, rather than upon the Lord and upon bearing witness to his conquest of death, his call to charity in and through his Holy Spirit, and his invitation to everlasting sharing in the life of God. Thus, insofar as our Handbook has an ecumenical purpose, it unavoidably also has a missional dynamism. We are not suggesting that these chapters, or the volume as a whole, stand in for catechesis or have a catechetical intention. But the task of writing about Christianity, even in a painstakingly objective manner, inevitably invites the sharing of the gospel, the message of joy, and consummation and communion that lurks behind even the driest or (p. 3) most critical description. Moreover, this Handbook has been prepared and published during a time of religious transition and turmoil in the world. On the one hand, there are energetic and growing Christian movements, especially Pentecostal ones, for which many of the structures known to traditional ecumenism have become otiose. These new movements are present in a Christianity that is becoming more global than ever. In this global context—either paradoxically or predictably, depending upon one’s perspective—hierarchical structures (not least the papacy) are demonstrating their relevance and their power for energetic intellectual and pastoral renewal. On the other hand, other religions, such as Islam, and the rising popularity of atheism as a counter-religion, are also radically reshaping the landscape, not least in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.

A Handbook with a historical trajectory invites questions about the nature of history, which Christians understand to be guided and unified, in an often mysterious manner, by divine providence. Kevin Vanhoozer observes, “The Christian story—the grand narrative that encompasses the histories of the cosmos, of Israel, of Christ, and the church—has a beginning, middle, and end” (Vanhoozer 2010: 316). Written in the “middle,” this Handbook may turn out to be an instrument for the communication of Christian realities to societies and peoples who have turned away from the gospel or who have never truly heard it, or who have embraced the gospel but without historical knowledge of its Spirit-guided reception. In the midst of the Second Vatican Council, Yves Congar wrote, “Two-thirds of the world’s population live in Asia. It follows that we must rethink everything in terms of a mission and of a mission that is world-wide” (Congar 1963: 75). Indeed, no Handbook on sacramental theology can be truly historical and ecumenical without having also a missional dimension, a sense of the gospel as something not simply for the churches but something to be shared.

The connection between the gospel, sacraments, and mission is made explicit by the Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos, who like Congar (and not coincidentally) was writing during the Second Vatican Council: “The Resurrection constitutes the backbone of Orthodox worship. … Orthodox hymnology—that of the period of Pentecost, as well as that of the Sunday Vespers and Matins—proclaims it as the very center par excellence of the salvation of all humankind and describes the missionary obligation that arises from this unique historical event” (Yannoulatos 2010: 28). Again, we trust readers will recognize that the Handbook has not been conceived as a labor of catechesis, however laudable such an endeavor may be. The point, rather, is that a work such as this, precisely as conceived with historical and ecumenical purposes, also by its nature has missional implications.

In short, while the divisions in Christian sacramental understanding and practice are certainly evident in this Handbook, the Handbook is not thereby without ecumenical and missional value. Ecumenically, division cannot be the focus, but rather the Lord’s gifts must be. In a chapter on the relationship of spirituality and theology, Alejandro García-Rivera offers a conclusion that we can apply to the situation encountered by an ecumenical Handbook on the sacraments, since the sacraments are sites of serious division and disharmony in Christian history that are nonetheless, and simultaneously, (p. 4) markers and instruments of unity and harmony: “We are, in the language of Vatican II, pilgrims, communities of discernment in the midst of a great suffering. Suffering, an ever present reality, is not the foundation of our discernment. Rather, the Glory of the Lord, Beauty itself, charges the world with values as signposts to a vision scarcely imagined” (García-Rivera 1998: 133). The sacraments are such signposts; the Lord, Beauty itself, has indeed charged the world with signposts. Death is not the end of the story. The material cosmos is not a site of endless, meaningless entropy, distance, and annihilation. The story of the Christian sacraments is, despite divisions in interpretation and practice, one of tremendous hope.


Congar, Yves (1963), Report from Rome: The First Session of the Vatican Council, trans. A. Manson (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1963).Find this resource:

García-Rivera, Alejandro (1998), “Wisdom, Beauty, and the Cosmos in Hispanic Spirituality and Theology,” in El Cuerpo de Cristo: The Hispanic Presence in the U.S. Catholic Church, ed. Peter J. Casarella and Raúl Gómez (New York: Crossroad), 106–133.Find this resource:

Hjelm, Norman A., Michael Root, and William G. Rusch (2004), “Unitas Books,” in Ola Tjørhom, Visible Church—Visible Unity: Ecumenical Ecclesiology and “The Great Tradition of the Church” (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press).Find this resource:

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. (2010), Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find this resource:

Yannoulatos, Archbishop Anastasios (2010), ”Orthodoxy and Mission,” in Yannoulatos, Mission in Christ’s Way: An Orthodox Understanding of Mission (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press), 25–37.Find this resource: