Swear To God: The Promise And Power Of The Sacraments, by Scott Hahn
It should be noted that I have read quite a bit from this author , and my feelings about the author are mixed. His writing shows, as a pattern, no great fidelity to the Bible and some truly lamentable habits as an interpreter of scripture and tradition. Over and over again the author talks about his own regression to Catholicism and tends to, as one might imagine a convert to do, cherry-picks conversion stories for others to add to his unfortunately triumphalist rhetoric. Yet these are aspects of the writer’s thinking that remain constant through his body of work, at least so far as I am able to tell. The larger question is, is there anything in this Popish writing aimed at a Catholic audience to instruct them about the seven Catholic sacraments that is of value to a non-Catholic audience? The answer is a qualified yes. Again, a great deal has to be taken with more than a little bit of skepticism or criticism, but there is enough here to be worth reading for someone who wants to encounter a Catholic perspective and who is interested in the larger question of covenants and oaths and the power that results from them, even when there is much to disagree with.
This book consists of fifteen chapters (some of which, along with many of the headings within chapters, are full of punny titles) that take up about 200 pages of text. The book begins with a discussion of how sacraments used to bore the author (1) as well a discussion of signs and mysteries (2) and a look at how the sacraments of baptism, laying on of hands, the Passover, ordination, marriage, healing, and confession appear in scripture (3). The author then looks at why there are seven counted (4), even if there are more rituals called “sacramentals” that he fortunately doesn’t go into in a lot of detail. A look at the connection between sacramentals and covenants then follows (5) along with a look at sacraments as covenant oaths (6) and the phenomenon of words being deeds (7). The author looks at oaths and their importance as the engine of history (8) and looks at the question of trustworthiness and treachery as making it important that oaths are taken seriously and said conscientiously (9). The author examines the critical aspect of truth in making oaths (10) and makes some critical comments about those who compartmentalize their lives between being religious only some of the time and irreligious and faithless the rest of the time (11). The author looks at questions of the connection between sacraments and sexuality and lying (12) and the realm of risk (13) before closing the book with a look at the “real presence” of God in the oaths made by believers (14) and the way that oaths and sacraments look toward eternity (15).
In the main, approaching this subject, I would look at the sacraments as being aspects of covenants that are made where an oath creates a reality that was not the case to begin with. There are strong cases to be made for five of these seven oaths. Three of them, of course, are matters that every believer is subject to: the baptism and laying on of hands (here called confirmation), both done at the same time, one of them an oath on the part of a believer to repent of his sins and accept a new life and the other an oath on the part of the one doing the baptism to proclaim the entrance of the believer into God’s family with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The third of these universal sacraments is the eating of the unleavened bread and the drinking of the wine at the Passover, which puts us in a right relationship with God and serves as a memorial as well as a proclamation of the death of Christ and brings believers under judgment if they have taken the cup or partaken of the bread in an unworthy manner. Two of the sacraments are oaths that are taken by some believers but not by all of them and are also covenants. The first of these is marriage, where there is a oath between a husband and a wife to remain loyally united together until death do they part, an oath far too many do not take seriously at present. The second of these is ordination, where people enter into church offices and make a vow to serve God’s people loyally and faithfully. While I have some serious questions about the way that confession and anointing are, I see both of these as aspects of healthy Christian practice that I have sought myself on occasions as a way of appealing to God and seeking to reconcile with others. While I find a good deal to criticize about the approach of the author, the fact that I consider much of his statements about sacraments and what separates them to be worthwhile of thinking about is, perhaps the highest praise a reader like myself could be expected to give.