Demonstrating the Sacraments as the Spiritual Heartbeat of the Church

Roger W. Nutt’s new work, General Principles of Sacramental Theology, is a significant and timely contribution to the field of sacramental theology, one which will fill a long-standing void in the Thomistic theological landscape.

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Perhaps the most important aspect of the work is its salient analysis of modern thought and its relation to the pursuit of wisdom. In general, the field of sacramental studies in recent years has largely stood as a sort of microcosm for the wide-ranging contemporary predilection to de-spiritualize everything which it touches. However, what Nutt has done is to properly situate the sacraments within a worldview which strives toward wisdom and real spiritual progress. This ultimately lays the ground work for an understanding of the sacraments which transcends modernity’s proclivity to see even religious practice as entirely experiential, technocratic, and ultimately anthropocentric. The fundamental claim that the sacraments are "visible tokens of God's action"(21) in the world animates the particular theological analyses which comprise the book, allowing them to speak once again to the human desire for wisdom and virtue (rather than remaining dusty, old Thomistic principles of interest only to the curator of ideas). Proper sacramental theology is indeed wedded to Christianity’s claim that mankind is drawn in a supernatural way toward union with God.

Nutt roots sacramental efficacy in the power of Jesus Christ and the Paschal Mystery which is the center point of salvation history. The problem of sin is met with the salve of the sacraments, which not only heal but also elevate man to communion and participation with the divine life itself.

As such, Nutt provides an overview of the sacraments which includes careful considerations of each essential element of Thomistic sacramental theology. For the sake of brevity, I will simply list the most important of those principles: an historical and speculative treatment of the sacraments as signs, sacramental form and matter, ministerial intention, the necessity of the sacraments, sacramental causality and grace (ex opera operato), sacramental character, the institution and authority of the sacraments, and the tripartite sacramental formula of the sacramentum tantum, rest et sacramentum, and res tantum.

While Nutt gives a detailed primer on each principle, he also explores the thought of contrasting theologians and theories. For example, after considering St. Thomas’ theory of instrumental efficient causality, Nutt examines the occasional causality of Duns Scotus, the moral causality of Melchior Cano, as well as some of the views of the Reformers. This analysis not only aids the reader in providing a broader context within which to situate St. Thomas’ views but also helps to clarify those views by way of contrast.

Throughout the work, Nutt cites major figures of the Catholic intellectual tradition but remains in fruitful dialogue and contact with a varied group of modern theologians such as Bernhard Blankenhorn, John Gallagher, Reginald Lynch, Thomas Weinandy, and Sr. Judith Kubicki.

It seems that Nutt’s work has been highly successful in what it sought to achieve, that is to “to address a current lacuna in English-language theological literature” which has been present largely since the publication of Bernard Leeming’s Principles of Sacramental Theology some six decades ago. I believe that it may even be said that Nutt's work transcends Leeming’s work in multiple ways, not least of which with its clarity, coherence, and purposeful consideration of the very foundational principles of solidly Catholic, Thomistic sacramental theology.

The book works at once both to reinvigorate the mind of the sacramental scholar and to introduce the novice to the basic precepts which are fundamental for sacramental study. This book is a must-have for anyone interested in sacramental theology, and ought to immediately become the go-to authority and text for introducing students to the sacramental theology of St. Thomas and its relation to competing sacramental theologies. As such, it appears to me that this work will become an absolutely essential and formative piece of the discussion of sacramental theology for years to come.

It must, of course, be noted that the work is not simply a manual of important sacramental principles. General Principles is itself a speculative contribution to the field insofar as it re-engages fundamental questions in light of what Nutt characterizes as the via moderna of seeing all sacramental practice through the lense of experience, mere history, or anthropology.

Instead, Nutt has re-established the sacraments as the font from which the Church draws her hope and through which she is drawn back to God. Nutt states at the outset that “vital sacramental spirituality constitutes the very heartbeat of the Church,” (6). Rather than relegating sacramental theology to an examination of human ritual or seeing the sacraments as merely an extension of liturgical studies, General Principles restores sacramental study to its legitimate, theo-centric character. With controversies continuing to upset the Church regarding the theological understanding of the operation and reception of the sacraments, Nutt’s work is a true service and offering to the Church, guiding it back toward the Thomistic principles which demonstrate the sacraments and their life-giving pulse.