by Ronald P. Byars
Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 350 pages
reviewed by MARTHA MOORE-KEISH
Early in this substantial volume, Ron Byars states: “The purpose of this book is to consider and reflect upon texts from both the Old and the New Testaments that provide an angle of vision that may help us to ponder the multidimensional characteristics of both baptism and Eucharist.” “Multidimensional” aptly describes not only the sacraments themselves, but this book that explores them with such depth and grace.
Byars, who has been pastor, scholar and professor of preaching and worship, shows the whole range of his skills in this work. There is no comparable volume in sacramental scholarship. Though all studies of baptism and Eucharist explore some biblical materials, I know of none that takes such care with such a comprehensive range of texts from both testaments. Though the theological focus and organization are different, the book brings to mind Paul Minear’s classic “Images of the Church in the New Testament” (1960) for its attention to the diversity of biblical witness on what it means to embody church both then and now.
The book is divided into halves: the first five chapters on baptism, the last four on the Lord’s Supper. Along the way, Byars attends to central biblical texts (e.g. baptismal texts on the river Jordan, the connection with death and resurrection, the flood and exodus and new creation; and Eucharistic texts on Passover, banquets in the kingdom of God, and the multiple institution narratives). But the distinctive gift of the volume lies in its attention to texts less frequently cited in sacramental discussions: for instance, the discussion of the contamination of death in Numbers 19 and the “counter-banquet” of Herod in Mark 6:21-29.
In the introduction, Byars quickly traces the shift from premodern to modern to postmodern worldviews, with an eye to how those shifts have affected sacramental theology and practice. He criticizes the rationalism and dualism of the modern period, which have devalued symbolic action. Our postmodern period, he contends, offers a possibility for new valuation of symbol, and hence opens the door for deeper appreciation of the multivalent symbols of baptism and Eucharist. Initially his optimism about the postmodern period seems one-sided, celebrating its openness to ambiguity and imagination and its appreciation for embodied ritual action. Are there not dangers in the postmodern approach as well? Is all ritual to be valued for its own sake? Later, though, Byars does acknowledge these dangers.
Throughout the book, Byars seeks to engage readers at multiple levels simultaneously: exegeting texts, tracing reception history, citing hymns and prayers, making specific suggestions about liturgical or educational practice. Occasionally the progress of his discussion is hard to follow, more of a montage than a linear argument. Yet this may be a virtue, for Byars is a wise and sure-footed guide capable of leading us into a clearer understanding of the multivalence of biblical narratives and symbols that meet in the sacraments.
MARTHA MOORE-KEISH is an assistant professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.