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5 Stars Out Of 5
Best Book On Sacraments
August 22, 2014
This book was recommended to me by an Anglican deacon (now priest) and I am very impressed by it. In fact, I believe it to present the best theology of the sacraments I have read thus far.
Leonard Vander Zee admittedly comes from a Reformed perspective and so he favours infant baptism and relies heavily upon the use of John Calvin in his understanding of the sacraments, particularly the Lord's Supper. However, he also draws upon other thinkers, such as the Church fathers (noting Calvin's own debt to the Eastern fathers in his understanding of communion as heavenly participation, where believers are "lifted up" by the Spirit in divine worship of Christ), Catholic theologians, the Reformers and particularly among modern theologians, T.F. Torrance. Despite his own theological loyalties, Vander Zee is diligently respectful of other traditions, clearly explaining the reasons why Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation (his contrast of Platonic vs. Aristotelian thinking is extremely helpful) and why many evangelicals hold to believer's baptism as well as laying out a understanding of the sacraments he believes is biblically and theologically faithful (e.g. for instance, he cites Calvin's concern regarding the "real presence" of the Eucharist that it did not properly honour Jesus' humanity if his physical presence is scattered all over time and space while his physical body ascended only once - as we await his return). While Vander Zee disagrees with certain traditions and thinkers, he notes that in many cases they altered course with the best of intentions (e.g. the use of grape juice to replace wine in the Lord's Supper for fears of intoxication). He convincingly demonstrates that the passage in 1 Corinthians referring to "discerning the body" is NOT referring to the physical properties of the bread but the community (the church in Corinth was divided between rich and poor and this communal aspect of the sacrament is stressed by the author).
Vander Zee structures the book by lamenting how the practice of the sacraments among evangelicals have languished (chiding churches for serving communion only once in a blue moon) and by setting up Jesus Christ as the ultimate sacrament. He spends the rest of the book discussing baptism and the Lord's Supper, starting with their Biblical background and then explaining practice and any changes to the practice that have since occurred. He concludes by stating that the Lord's Supper is the meal of the church and should thus be reserved for believers (I think I'm more radically open than he).
Vandee Zee writes out of a deep sense of grief over the evangelical denial/neglect of the Sacraments. This is what truly drives him to write this informative book. In his own words, Evangelicals apparently are not very interested in the sacraments, which seems to correspond to their lack of interest in ecclesiology in general. Vander Zee masterfully exegetes what is at the heart of this great Protestant abandonment of a robust view of the waters of baptism and the Eucharistic meal. The church is deeply offended by things that are beautiful. Instead, they have made the preaching the center of all worship, and the Lords Table an unfortunate monthly/quarterly inconvenience. The evangelical (broadly speaking) world needs to be called back to where the Scriptures and the church have been calling for centuries: to the frequent table feast and the powerful sign and seal of baptism. Vander Zee helpfully reorients the reader to see in these sacraments more than mere church activities or necessary duties, but rather a life transforming and soul changing rites that impart to the elect real grace. The book is divided into 12 chapters. Each chapter focuses on a particular dimension of sacramental theology. The reader who has had little exposure to this topic will find himself familiarized with historical, theological, and existential levels of sacramental thinking after reading this tome. As a result, he will become aware of different theological traditions, and, furthermore, of why the church from her early days has made these sacraments an essential part of their worship.Vander Zee approaches these topics from a distinctly Reformed perspective. Nevertheless, he has carefully analyzed other traditions where the Eucharist and Baptism are inextricably tied to their liturgy and life.
This book was recently awarded the Christianity Today 2005 Book Award for it's category. Here's the comment: "Clear as air and brilliantly organized and written, this book offers sources and insight to pastors of any Christian tradition, including the emergent church."