- The New Creation by Herbert McCabe
This handsome paperback is a reprint of Herbert McCabe’s study of the sacraments and sacramental life, which first appeared in 1964, and complements the five volumes of posthumous work recently published by Continuum under the editorial leadership of McCabe’s former student, confrere, and literary executor, Brian Davies. It also complements current theological trends, evincing ecumenical concerns, a strong “communio” ecclesiology and, above all, a biblically informed approach to the sacraments.
Over the course of ten chapters, McCabe offers us an insightful and biblically informed look at the sacramental life from the perspective of the sacraments as “mysteries of human community,” i.e., the church (xii). The first two chapters introduce the reader to the principles of McCabe’s sacramental theology, while the rest treat the sacraments themselves.
In chapter 1, “The Word of God,” McCabe attempts to ground the sacraments and the very church itself in the interaction of word and deed inherent in the revelation of God, thereby precluding any opposition between word and sacrament from the outset, while also setting up the reader for the close affinity between the two that marks the biblical flavour of his work. In chapter 2, “The People of God,” his focus is on the sacramental nature of the church, and how the sacraments emerge from the church not as “a quasi-political entity,” but as “the sacramental presence of Christ in the world” (32). In his understanding of revelation and the church as sacrament, readers will find resonances with the Second Vatican Council documents Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium.
The remaining eight chapters deal with the sacraments themselves, six of which are devoted to particular sacraments. Following the principles laid out in chapters 1 and 2, the various sacraments are treated in terms of the church as a community, as is evident from chapter titles like “The Eucharistic Community” and “Penance, First of the Sacraments of Return.” McCabe is comprehensive in his treatment of the traditional aspects and themes of the sacraments, but he does so all with a view to what they say about the church. Indeed, at some points this book reads less like a study in sacramental theology than it does a study in ecclesiology. But perhaps McCabe would be open to this reading, since he tells us that his book is “a study … of the sacraments as constituting the Church, for the Church is nothing but the community which sacramentally foreshadows the life for which God has destined man” (xii). The remaining two chapters supplement the chapters on marriage and anointing respectively. Chapter 7, titled “Sex and the Sacred,” is an extended discussion on the place of sex within the divine plan, while chapter 9, “Life after Death,” follows from the chapter on anointing.
The greatest shortcoming of McCabe’s treatment of the sacraments in this book is the lack of any chapter on confirmation. The general neglect of this sacrament in theology is well known, and the only discussion to be found in this book is in the chapter on holy orders. But at least McCabe is aware of this shortcoming, for he recognizes that confirmation has received little study in general. His explanation for this neglect is that confirmation is the “sacrament of lay witness” (152), and only in “modern times” has the laity, according to McCabe, “begun to play its proper part in the life of the Church” (153). Perhaps he felt ill-equipped to address this issue; but, whatever the reason, he does little to address the neglect in this book.
Overall, as an introduction to sacramental theology, the strength of this work is in its readability—McCabe’s writing is a lesson in eloquence and wit—and in its coherent presentation of the sacramental life. Nevertheless, it is far short of a textbook on the subject. McCabe makes no effort to engage or even enumerate the various schools of thought within sacramental theology. Nor is there any scholarly apparatus included to aid the [End Page 169] reader, such as notes, bibliography...