Why Form and Matter matter. Bishop Martyn Jarrett has just one or two niggles with an otherwise excellent introduction to sacramental theology


Andrew Davison
SPCK, 200pp, pbk

978 0281071340, £12.99

Andrew Davison has given us a splendid introduction to sacramental theology. The book is written essentially from a Catholic perspective and, as might be expected from this author, the argument is often well grounded in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. We are treated to chapters on aspects of sacramental theology common to all seven sacraments. The argument is made for there being seven sacraments in number. There is a chapter devoted to each. These are thoughtfully interspersed among the other topics of sacramental theology. This is helpful as the more general thinking on the nature of a sacrament often is placed precisely where it might most help us in consideration of the next sacrament to be discussed.

There is, though, the occasional niggle. Thus, in a chapter on the anatomy of the sacraments there is an excellent discussion of form and matter. The reason, for instance, why uttering attempted gender neutral titles for the Persons of the Trinity will not suffice for the necessary words of the baptismal formula are set out clearly. We are warned that anyone who has received such a form of baptism cannot be considered to have been validly baptized since such a form of words deviates from what has been the ecumenical consensus of the Churches, both East and West. Again, the necessity for the correct matter is rightly emphasized. Pizza and Coke, we are rightly told, cannot take the place of bread and wine in the celebration of the Eucharist. It is a little galling then to find in the author’s otherwise fine treatment of ordination that no discussion is given to the appropriateness of ordaining women to the priesthood. The mention of this subject in a second chapter on the anatomy of the sacraments hardly fulfils the need. In the chapter on marriage, likewise, some sympathetic and sensitive consideration of same-sex unions fails to address widely held ecumenical concerns on form and matter as they relate to such a possibility. This is not to ask for a particular conclusion to such an exploration but, having seen baptism and the Eucharist so treated, the same rigour in exploring understandings of ordination and marriage would be welcome.

Such considerations, though irritating, are largely offset when measured against the essentially sound exposition of the sacraments that Davison offers. The opening chapter places sacraments clearly within the doctrine of the Incarnation and warns against a Gnostic approach to theology. We are not disembodied minds or even angels. God works through things. Christ’s Incarnation, Death and Resurrection are the starting points for the Christian faith. The consequences of this truth for an authentic understanding of the Eucharist are well set out in the relevant chapter.

The chapters on each of the sacraments are clear and insightful. The chapter on baptism reminds the reader that sacraments are the normal vehicle of God’s working. He may not be bound by the sacraments but that remains the route by which God normally calls us to travel. Baptism confers salvation from sin

and requires saying no to certain aspects of the world. There is also the need to say yes to the new life given in Christ. Davison reminds the reader of Bonhoeffer’s comments on ‘cheap grace’ and of how this new life is bought at great cost by Christ. Infant baptism is rightly defended. It would have been helpful if the autho

r had also shared his thoughts on indiscriminate baptism. The chapter on the Eucharist is clear on the doctrine of the Real Presence and on Eucharistic sacrifice. Following de Lubac there is a particular emphasis on the Church as the Mystical Body and a reiteration of de Lubac’s warning of how an over individualist approach to the Eucharist by certain French Catholics had left many open to Fascism in the Thirties and Forties.

The treatment of confirmation is possibly the least satisfactory. This sacrament is seen almost solely in terms of commitment made at a mature age. Though the position of Eastern Churches is noted, there is little recognition of what that tradition might have to offer. The section on ordination reveals a clear understanding of the priest as someone who is rather than who does. The examination of marriage is to be welcomed not least for the wider context in which it is set, the bridal image of Christ and the Church, that pervades much of Scripture. There is, too, a sensitive account of the call to celibacy. The treatment of both anointing and confession offers a clear and supremely pastoral exposition of Catholic teaching on these sacraments. Published as separate pamphlets, either chapter would provide the kind of material many a parish priest would often wish to put into the hands of someone wondering about receiving these ministries.

All in all Davison has provided a fine book, useful for theological students seeking better to understand Catholic sacramental theology. It is a work, largely free of undue theological jargon, that will also offer much to a wider readership that perhaps wants better to understand a sacramental life that is already being lived and practised. ND