Monday, December 15, 2008

Book Review: Sacramental Life by David deSilva

David A. deSilva, Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation through the Book of Common Prayer, IVP, 2008. Paperback, 288 pages.

Review copy courtesy of InterVarsity Press.)

Reviewed by Peter Sanlon, Cambridge University, England. Peter holds degrees in theology from Oxford and Cambridge University. He is currently writing a doctoral thesis on Augustine's expository preaching. He also blogs at Grace City and Still Deeper.

Purchase: IVP | Amazon | CBD

ISBNs: 0830835180 / 9780830835188


PDF Introduction
PDF Chapter Four: Union with Christ

David A. deSilva (Ph.D., Emory University) is Trustees' Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He is the author of over fifteen books including 4 Maccabees (Septuagint Commentary Series) (Brill Academic, 2006); An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (IVP, 2004); Introducing the Apocrypha: Context, Message and Significance (Baker Academic, 2002); New Testament Themes (Chalice Press, 2001); Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle "to the Hebrews" (Eerdmans, 2000); Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (IVP, 2000); and The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Michael Glazier Books, 1999). He is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.

As a lifetime member of the Anglican Church and a trainee minister in said denomination, I have a personal and ministerial commitment to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). I have known many of the liturgical prayers from the BCP since childhood and they remain my strongly favored method of worship.

In light of all this, I was excited to hear of, and be given a review copy of this book. Sadly, it has disappointed me. Reflecting on my reasons for feeling thus may be of theological and pastoral benefit to others.

The book opens with an introduction to liturgy, followed by four parts treating Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Marriage and Burial. The author, a Methodist minister and Professor, stated:

The aim of this book is to help both those who worship regularly in liturgical traditions and those whose worship style is non-liturgical to engage more fully the spiritual disciplines nurtured by those liturgies and experience the spiritual direction that these liturgies provide. (p. 13)

This statement of purpose hints at what I see to be a major flaw in the book – the author does not give due weight to critical theological evaluation of liturgy. Liturgy can be good or bad, spiritually healing or harmful. Many church services that are sparsely minimalist and atemporal in their worship styles eventually lead mature Christians to feel a certain dissatisfaction. As a result many turn to the Anglican Church for succor. (You are most welcome!) However in such a pastoral situation, it is all too easy for one to be overwhelmed by the rhythm, beauty and majesty of liturgy, and fail to bring theologically critical faculties to bear upon that which is said or sung.

Sacramental Life obscures the essentially theological nature of liturgy by giving an account of the BCP which elides the heartbeat of its theology, and commends a post-Reformation prayer book. This is done without admitting that said liturgy was an attempt to undo the reforms of Thomas Cranmer. So, it is noted that Mary Tudor ‘restored Catholicism and initiated a brutal persecution of Protestants’ but subsequent to the Elizabethan revision, the modern edition ‘represents only the current step in a long and ongoing evolution of liturgy.’ It is assumed to be a positive point that ‘inclusiveness across time and denominations is even more fully in evidence.’ (p. 14) Astute readers will notice the implicit Darwinian view of liturgy – it simply evolves and improves with time, getting all the more fit for its true purpose – the uniting of divergent traditions under one broad sacramental act. The introductory section on the BCP is, in the reviewer’s opinion, simply not adequate to account for the genesis of the historical text which is under consideration. Thomas Cranmer was an educated, timid and cautious man. Slowly and painfully he became a Protestant man. His liturgies were a majestic protest against the ‘Church of Rome, which has erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’ (Article of Religion, 19) The essential point may be put thus– there is Anglican liturgy and there is Roman Catholic Liturgy. Is the most significant thing that both are liturgical, or that one is a protest against the other? DeSilva’s approach strongly favours the common form. I believe Thomas Cranmer, to whom DeSilva is clearly indebted, would prefer to be known as a Protestant. His manner of death, burning at the stake in protest at Roman Catholic sacramentalism, suggests as much.

On point after point, DeSilva seems to be unaware that the Anglican heritage that so appeals to him, originated in a bloody protest against theological positions and dogmatic laxity, which he repeatedly affirms. This, is of course, how liturgical revision has progressed in the modern world. However it would be nice to have it acknowledged that the reformation of Cranmer is not being embraced, and a pan-theological posture which actually promotes lack of theological rigor is being promoted. One example of this is that we are warned that at Holy Communion, ‘We dare not neglect the other people around the table.’ (p. 87) Yet at the same time, the experiment of a private individual Eucharist is suggested. (p. 82) Failure to see the theological issues at stake here is a fundamental error. Liturgy ought not to be a panacea for theological confusion. As C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter to The Times in 1946:

I would ask the clergy to believe that we are more interested in orthodoxy and less interested in liturgiology than they imagine... What we laymen fear is that the deepest doctrinal issues should be tacitly and implicitly settled by what seem to be, or are avowed to be, merely changes in the liturgy. A man who is wondering whether the fare set before him is food or poison is not reassured by being told that this course is now restored to its traditional place in the menu.

There are many comments and insights which encourage spiritual reflection and growth, in this book. The author’s desire that we should ‘train our hearts and minds to live each day in the pursuit of eternity’ is wonderful. The section on death and burial in particular contains much helpful material. It is indeed the case that our culture avoids the reality of death, and a funeral service is an opportunity to bring the Gospel promises to bear upon that most horrid result of the Fall. The service is described movingly as a Christian version of the renaissance mediation upon a skull (p. 241) – with the joyful addition of hope beyond acceptance of mortality.

In the end, the most valuable thing this book can do, is encourage readers to peruse the Book of Common Prayer itself. This is something the author himself commends (p. 15). The reviewer hopes you do so theologically. Since the BCP was written by Thomas Cranmer, it is surely Anglican to go even further and commend not just liturgy in general, but Protestant liturgy in particular. Semper Reformanda.

Peter Sanlon, Cambridge University.