Dr. Roger Nutt Answers Questions about His Latest Book: "General Principles of Sacramental Theology

Dr. Roger Nutt Answers Questions about His Latest Book: "General Principles of Sacramental Theology

Dr. Roger Nutt, associate professor of theology here at AMU, has a new book out, General Principles of Sacramental Theology (available here). This book is an important contribution to theology and gives a little insight into how fortunate students are to study sacramental theology with Dr. Nutt. Recently, Dr. Nutt very graciously agreed to answer some questions put to him with regard to his book. His responses are below.

1. What was it that inspired you to write General Principles of Sacramental Theology and what do you hope it adds to contemporary theological understanding?

There are two primary points of inspiration for this work, and they are interrelated and overlapping. First, I have had the privilege of teaching sacraments at the BA, MA, and Ph.D. levels for over a decade. Secondly, I have always struggled to find one good unified text treating the material pertaining to “general sacramental theology.” There are many fine books on liturgical topics and individual sacraments, but when it comes to general sacramental topics such as signification, sacramental grace, sacramental causality, the necessity of the sacraments, and sacramental character good secondary literature has declined significantly over the last 50 years. 

My hope is that this book fills the current gap in the literature, and that my treatment of these topics helps to indicate to contemporary readers their foundational importance.  I am especially concerned that sacramental theology becomes better integrated with other moral and ecclesial topics. The doctrine of grace is a sine qua non of the Christian moral life, for example, and it is intimately related to the causality of the sacraments, while the causality of the sacraments cannot be understood apart from the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinitarian missions. I work very hard to draw out these connections in the book so that students of theology can once again see the sacraments in light of the organic relation that they have with other basic Christian doctrines.

2. In your introduction, following Thomas Aquinas, you reference John 15:15 where Jesus calls his disciples friends, and you indicate that this is foundational to understanding the how the Church understands her sacraments. Could you briefly elaborate on the role that friendship has in understanding the sacraments?

Truth be told, “friendship” was originally in the title. Both Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP and the publisher, however, wisely intuited that the title should more straightforwardly indicate the subject matter treated in the book—I was being too cute with the title! Also, the title “General Principles of Sacramental Theology” plays off of the title of the last great book published in English on this subject, B. Leeming’s “Principle of Sacramental Theology.” Friendship was a much more important philosophical and theological category in the ancient, biblical, patristic, and medieval periods than it is for us today. Something important is lost when the true meaning and role of friendship is forgotten. Christ himself uses the word to describe his relationship to his followers in John 15:5, “I have called you friends.” The Christian tradition developed this in many different directions, in particular as a means of understanding charity and the institutions in the Church, such as the sacraments. St. Thomas invokes friendship as the primary reason why Christ left the Church with the gift of the Real Presence before ascending into heaven. His reason is that true friends “remain together.”  Thus the Eucharist, and all of the Sacraments, are not merely static, external institutions. Rather they are means by which Christ communicates the gift of friendship to his disciples. This is important today because people are suspicious of religious rites and institutions, which they perceive to be cold and impersonal. In reality, though, these rites and institutions are the means by which God and man are joined together in the intimacy of true, charity-based friendship.

3. How is Aquinas’ theology, particularly his sacramental theology, able to utilized and explained in a way that is not fundamentally “archeological” or simply a restatement of what has been said before? In short, how is your book more than a history?

There are many ways to answers this question. What comes to mind first is that Aquinas helps us to see how the many objections to the sacraments which have been levied over the centuries and many current ambiguities can be cleared away with his insights. That is: with St. Thomas we can consider problems and objections that prevent people from appreciating the gift of the sacraments and provide cogent responses. Furthermore, Aquinas teaches us to see what Divine Revelation teaches about the sacraments—he is a great reader of the Bible and the Catholic theological tradition. Many of the specific aspects of Thomas’s teaching, his own positions and the objections that he considers, are deeply relevant to contemporary theological discussions. He often intuited and anticipated the logical outcome of certain theological positions, so many of the stances that people take today against the sacraments are variations of things that Thomas and his contemporaries dealt with in the 13th Century. Vatican II reminds us that St. Thomas is a great teacher in the area of perceiving the “interconnectedness” of the mysteries of faith. Finally, one of the central teachings of the Second Vatican Council is the “universal call to holiness.” It goes without saying that in so far as the sacraments are ex opere operato causes of grace, they are absolutely foundational to the pursuit of holiness by the faithful. St. Thomas’s exposition, for example, of sacramental causality provides the connecting member between the “universal call to holiness” and the primary means—sacraments—by which the faithful receive the grace that makes holiness possible. Thomas’s exposition of sacramental causality in the question of sacramental grace is a tremendous resource for understanding and proclaiming these connections. 

4. In the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas treats Sacraments under the formality of “signs”, and accordingly the second part of you book you likewise treat of the sacraments as signs. This mode of approaching the sacraments is rather distinct from Aquinas’ approach in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences where he treats the sacraments under the formality of causes of grace. What do you think is gained, specifically, by considering the sacraments principally as signs? Does this ultimately found the sacraments more thoroughly in the Incarnation?

There are many important reasons and advantages for understanding the sacramental realities within the category of sign. It allows St. Thomas to join the causal aspect with the participatory aspect. A sign is both a reality itself and as a sign of other realties, like Christ and grace, sacraments point beyond themselves. Sacramental effects come through the sign’s power of signification. So the sacraments are multi-layered realities and the doctrine of signs is a fine way of articulating this in that a sign is both distinguishable from the reality that it refers to and a participant in what it signifies. On one level they signify Christ’s life, ministry, and death, from which they derive their power; on another level they indicate what is happening to us in the moment of reception (sanctification); they also signify what the grace conferred in the sacraments is ordered to, namely, eternal life. So the causal efficiency of the sacraments is important, but it cannot be understood without reference to the reality of sign. There is nothing conferred in the sacraments that is not given through the power of signification. As multi-layered realities—signs–, therefore, they give us a participation in the work of the Incarnation and in Christ’s ongoing priestly ministry from heaven, by which he sanctifies us in grace and draws us to himself.