Hugh of Saint Victor - On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis)

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Hugh of St. Victor (1096–1141) was a renowned medieval philosopher, theologian, and mystical writer. Because of his great familiarity with the works of St. Augustine, he is sometimes called “the Second Augustine.” His work On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei), composed about 1134, is his masterpiece as well as his most extensive work. It is a dogmatic synthesis unrivaled in Hugh’s time.

By “sacrament,” Hugh means not only grace-giving ceremonial signs and actions but also all “mysteries” of the Scriptures, the natural world, and the Church by which God draws humankind into His life. Hugh’s theology draws on Augustine, Gregory the Great, Anselm, and Abelard; and Hugh was also in contact with Bernard of Clairvaux. In the De Sacramentis, Hugh separates all of history into the “work of creation” and the “work of restoration.” The work of Creation is the triune God’s creative activity, the natures of created things, and the original state and destiny of humanity. Hugh’s description of the Six Days of Creation is heavily influenced by Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis. Divine Wisdom is the archetypal form of creation. The creation of the world in six days is a “sacrament,” that is, a spiritually-illuminating mystery for man to contemplate. God’s forming order from chaos to make the world is an instruction that guides human beings to rise in love from their own chaos of ignorance to become creatures of Wisdom and therefore beauty. This kind of mystical-ethical interpretation is typical for Hugh, who finds Wisdom’s instruction everywhere in creation and in the Scriptures.

The work of Restoration includes the Incarnation of God the Son “with all its sacraments.” Here the word “sacrament” refers to the means of salvation that flow from the Incarnation itself, including what are now called the traditional “seven sacraments.” Hugh reflects on the mystery of God’s freedom—why the Son came into the world even though this was not strictly necessary. Over all, Hugh’s work is both an exegetical treatise and a work of spiritual instruction—an example of the inseparability of doctrinal reflection and spiritual growth as understood by this great twelfth-century theologian.

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