Drs. Tim Gray and John Sehorn of the Augustine Institute are the editors for a new series from Baker Academic entitled A Catholic Biblical Theology of the Sacraments (CBTS). In December, the most recent volume of the series on the sacrament of reconciliation (written by Dr. James Prothro of the Augustine Institute) was published. Baker Academic kindly offered me a review copy, and I’ve just finished reading the book.

Purpose of the CBTS Series

The preface to the book is written by the editors (Tim Gray and John Sehorn), and it lays out very succinctly what readers should expect from the CBTS series. Overall, the series draws inspiration from Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a deeper investigation of the relationship between word (Sacred Scripture) and sacrament for both pastoral and theological purposes. Gray and Sehorn point out that the early Church Fathers saw a deep connection between Scripture and the sacraments and wrote abundant and fruitful reflections drawing on that foundational conviction. In modern times, the organic connection between the two has become less apparent to ordinary Catholics, so the editors believe it is time for a renewed effort.

Secondly, the editors outline the methodology that will be used throughout the series. Taking inspiration from St. Anselm of Canterbury’s dictum that theology is fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), the series takes the Catholic faith as a given—not something that needs to be demonstrated. The goal is not to prove the legitimacy or truth of the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament is taken as a given—as a gift of God and a font of grace. As Gray and Sehorn state, “The series does not aim primarily to demonstrate the truth of Catholic sacramental doctrine but to understand it more deeply. The purpose of the series, in short, is to foster a deeper appreciation of God’s gifts and call in the sacraments through a renewed encounter with his Word in Scripture.”

Overview of The Bible and Reconciliation

The present book is faithful to the above-stated goal of the CBTS series. It spends relatively little time delving into the history of the sacrament of reconciliation in the life of the Church (it gives a very brief overview of that). It provides a basic exegesis of the New Testament passages in which Jesus gives the apostles the authority to forgive sins, but this is in service to the broader goal of examining how the New Testament teaches us to understand sin, confession, repentance, and reconciliation. A person who comes to this book looking for apologetics or a detailed defense of apostolic authority against competing theological claims will likely not find the level of detail they are looking for.

What readers will find is an excellent survey of the entire biblical corpus, explaining and elucidating God’s approach to sin, repentance, and restoration for his people throughout salvation history. The author (Dr. James Prothro) begins with a brief description of the sacrament of penance, outlining its fundamental components. He then proceeds through the Bible in chronological order, beginning with the Pentateuch and working step-by-step through the historical books, wisdom literature, post-exilic literature, and finally the gospels and the New Testament letters (and Revelation). At each step, he examines the biblical text for the basic themes of sin, confession, repentance, and restoration.

Examples of Interesting Insights

There is a lot of food for thought in this book, and I found myself writing many notes as I read, trying to think through Prothro’s explanations and wrestle with his interpretations. I’ll highlight three areas where I learned from him:

Paying of Vows as a form of Penance in the Psalms
Prothro draws a connection between “paying vows” mentioned in multiple Psalms (such as Psalm 66, Psalm 116, and others) and the practice of penance after receiving absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation. He describes the psalmists’ vows as expressions of contrition and hope in God’s mercy and restoration. Their promises are expressions of hope and longing that look forward to being reconciled with God and praising him with song, prayer, and sacrifice.

In this way, the vows illustrate a key point for Prothro: reconciliation is about restoring a relationship with God, not simply about a “clean slate.” The vows anticipate a restored relationship, in which the psalmists take action to renew their relationship with God in prayer, praise, and sacrifice, responding to his forgiveness with gratitude. If we seek God’s forgiveness without any intention to seek a renewed relationship with him, we are treating him like a vending machine.

The Development of a Theology of Faithful and Obedient Suffering in Post-Exilic Literature
I especially appreciated Prothro’s excellent overview of the post-exilic period and the multiple theological developments that occurred during that time. He places Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs in the context of a broader movement toward personal and national piety that emphasized humble acceptance of God’s rebukes and continued repentance and turning toward God in faithful hope. His thematic presentation, tracing the development of these themes across multiple books of the Bible, was very helpful for seeing the bigger picture of how Israel was wrestling with its continued experience of sin after the exile and the ongoing need for repentance.

At the end of the post-exilic chapter, Prothro also provides a compelling summary of the themes of hope from the post-exilic period that began to crystallize into a hope for a future Messiah. He draws all these threads together to show how Jesus fulfills so many hopes simultaneously. This is a very well-written and compelling few pages.

The Power of Intercessory Prayer in the Letters of James and John
Prothro provides a surprising and nuanced exegesis of James 5:14-16 and 1 John 5:16 where he affirms the power of intercession of all Christians as efficacious for forgiveness of venial sins. He criticizes a Challoner Douay-Rheims footnote to James 5:16 which argues that James’s call to confess sins should be interpreted as applying only to priests because “to confess to persons who had no power to forgive sins would be useless.” In Prothro’s view, this footnote contradicts the clear meaning of the biblical text, which is explicitly referring to intercessory prayer. He says, “Biblical Christianity should aim to say yes to all the biblical data and give coherent expression to it in its forms of faith and practice.” Both extremes (either saying that James 5:16 only applies to priests absolving sins or saying that James 5:16 disproves the need for priestly absolution) should be rejected as not faithful to the biblical witness.

Prothro brings James 5:14-16 into dialogue with 1 John 5:16 to emphasize the efficacious nature of intercessory prayer for the forgiveness of venial sins and argues that John’s wording about mortal sins can be understood better through reference to James 5:14-16, where the prayer of presbyters is especially efficacious. Mortal sins require the action of God’s appointed stewards (priests and bishops) to reconcile a person with the Church and with God.

Imprimatur and Scripture Citations

The book bears a nihil obstat and an imprimatur from Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Colorado. The primary translation for scripture quotations is the NRSV, but Prothro cites the ESV and NABRE very extensively as well. Occasionally, he cites other translations like the NET bible and the Challoner Douay-Rheims.


What I like most about this book is its big-picture perspective. By treating the specific themes of sin and reconciliation throughout the Bible, it illuminates the bigger picture of God’s relationship with humanity throughout salvation history in a way that can be lost in a purely historical-critical focus on individual texts and understanding their uniqueness and particularity. This book is a good example of theological reflection on Scripture, seeing Scripture as a unified whole where multiple books inform our unified understanding of God and his mercy and judgment. Prothro’s engagement with the exegetical literature and scholarly debates around the meaning of passages is limited (he does comment on important debates and offers a few footnotes with pointers to more information), but that limited engagement helps Prothro to paint the bigger picture clearly without getting deeply entangled in detailed debates.

I’m interested to read other volumes in this series. The volumes on baptism and holy orders have been published, and a volume on marriage will be published in September.

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