Review of Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry

Jun 2nd, 2013 | By | Category: Blog Posts

This is a guest post by Daniel Edward Young. Daniel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern College (Iowa) where he teaches political theory, international relations, and comparative politics. He received his Ph.D. from Temple University. His scholarly interests include the intersection of political theory and international relations, the history of political thought, and contemporary democratic theory. His most recent publication is “Escape from Machiavellianism? Thomist Themes in Twentieth Century Political Realism” in Politics and Religion 4:3 (December, 2011). His current research is on the relationship of political liberalism and natural law. Below is his review of Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans, 2011).


Hans Boersma has written a fine book in Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Boersma is a Christian Reformed theologian who is the J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, and Co-Director (with Matthew Levering) of the Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue. Boersma’s recent work is an engagement with the twentieth-century nouvelle théologie or ressourcement movement in Catholic theology exemplified by Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and others. Heavenly Participation contends that both evangelicals and Catholics need to appropriate the “sacramental ontology” formulated by the early Christian Fathers and recovered by the ressourcement theologians. The sacramental ontology of the early Church was generated by the encounter of Platonism and Christianity. While many evangelical theologians argue that the encounter with Platonism corrupted a pure biblical worldview, Boersma contends instead that Platonic philosophy gave the early Christian theologians the conceptual tools to express the fundamental truths of the Christian faith.

Heavenly Participation is written by an evangelical for his fellow evangelicals. Specifically, Boersma calls for evangelicals to recover a view of creation as a “sacramental tapestry.” What does Boersma mean by this?

“The ‘sacramental tapestry’ of the subtitle speaks of a carefully woven unity of nature and the supernatural, according to which created objects are sacraments that participate in the mystery of the heavenly realty of Jesus Christ. [Orthodox theologian Alexander] Schmemann makes the point that everything in the so-called world of nature is meant to lead us back to God. In that sense, created matter is meant to serve eucharistically. By treating the world as a eucharistic offering in Christ, received from God and offered to him, we are drawn into God’s presence” (p. 8). “The entire cosmos is meant to serve as a sacrament: a material gift from God in and through which we enter into the joy of his heavenly presence” (p. 9).

Boersma summarizes the project of the ressourcement theologians and its significance for today’s evangelicals:

“They [the ressourcement theologians] recognized in the Platonist-Christian synthesis a sacramental ontology that they believed had been lost through the modern separation between nature and the supernatural. As a result, nouvelle théologie set out to reintegrate the two by pointing to the sacramental participation of nature in the heavenly reality of Christ. The ressourcement theologians were convinced that the vision of sacramental participation was the only viable answer to the secularism of the modern age” (p. 16).

Furthermore, Boersma sees an evangelical appropriation of the ressourcement theologians as a fruitful avenue for ecumenical dialogue with Catholicism.

The organization of the book echoes the received-from-God-and-back-to-God pattern. Part One of the book, titled “Exitus: The Fraying Tapestry,” sketches out the contours of this sacramental worldview in its classic patristic form, traces the fraying of this “tapestry” in the Middle Ages and its final cutting by the “twin blades” of modernity: the emergence in medieval theology of the philosophical doctrines of univocity and nominalism. Univocity means that “[a]ll being is being in the same sense. Put philosophically, all being is univocal in character.” Thus we exist in the same sense that God exists (p. 74). Nominalism is the belief that “universals were simply names (nomina) that we apply to individual objects that happen to look alike.” In this view, universals don’t have existence in the mind of God. There is no common humanity; we only are alike because of the will of God. “In no way was their [human beings’] likeness based on a sacramental connection with the eternal Word” (p. 80-81). The two doctrines framed the relationship between natural and supernatural in non-sacramental terms. These doctrines challenged the older doctrines of the analogy of being and realism. Nominalism challenged the analogy of being, where “…the being of creation (as well as its truth, goodness, and beauty) was similar or analogous—and thus not identical—to the being (and the truth, goodness, and beauty) of the Creator. Analogy (or sacramentality) implies that, while creatures may be similar to the Creator, they are in no way identical to him” (pp. 70-71). This doctrine was classically expressed by Thomas Aquinas (p. 72). Nominalism challenged realism, which held that universals such as “humanity” or “felineness” had real existence, an existence rooted in the eternal Logos. “This christological anchor made it possible to assert, for example, that human beings participated in a common humanity” (p. 80).

Boersma contends that both Catholicism and evangelicalism have suffered from this loss of a sacramental worldview: the loss of the sense of the sacramental connection between nature and the supernatural has enabled the secularization of the modern world as well as leading to some distorted theology. Because of the decline of the doctrines of analogy and realism, a sharp distinction between nature and supernatural was drawn, eventually leading to strong claims about the autonomy of the natural and the dispensability of the supernatural. Boersma argues that despite the Reformers’ attempt to critique late medieval scholastic philosophy, they were unsuccessful in fully recovering the patristic Platonic-Christian synthesis. For Boersma, Calvin seems more successful than Luther; he contends that Luther’s account of justification by faith alone seems more strongly nominalist, while Calvin’s tighter link between justification and sanctification seems closer to the patristics’ participatory ontology (pp. 91-94). On the other hand, “[t]he Fall, according to Calvin, had rendered the human will radically incompetent. The resulting opposition between human inability and divine grace caused Calvin—despite his best humanist intentions—to pitch grace over against nature. Calvin’s theology was unable to avoid the desacramentalizing of nature that late-medieval nominalism had introduced” (p. 92).

In Part Two, “Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads,” Boersma contends that both evangelicals and Catholics need a revitalized sacramental ontology. In particular, evangelicalism needs to rethink its views on the Eucharist, tradition, scriptural interpretation, and truth. In all four of these areas, Boersma calls on evangelicals to reappropriate the patristic Platonic-Christian synthesis. Boersma draws on the ressourcement theologians, especially de Lubac, to argue that standard evangelical positions are inadequate. Perhaps most strikingly, Boersma contends that “it is time for evangelicals to celebrate much more unambiguously the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” (p. 119). He refuses the standard evangelical opposition between scripture and tradition, seeing them as inextricably linked. He also calls for the recovery of patristric and medieval modes of biblical exegesis which involve the multiple senses of scripture. Finally, Boersma presses for the recovery of the idea of “truth as a sacramental reality that lies anchored in the truth of the eternal Word of God” as a contrast to modern rejection of mystery and postmodernism’s skepticism of truth claims (p. 169).

In his Epilogue, Boersma concludes:

“Christology, then, lies at the heart of the Christian transposition of the Platonic tradition. Past, present, and future cohere in Christ, the eternal Word become flesh. The Incarnation becomes the norm and standard that reaches backward and forward, redeeming past and future through God’s gracious entry into the created order. It is by taking the Word, incarnate in Christ, as the interpretive key to all reality that we will be able to make theological progress and draw evangelicals and Catholics closer together. This is what I have tried to make clear throughout part 2 of this book. The church is the body of Christ, and thus does the church make Christ present in the world. Through the Eucharist, the unity of the church takes sacramental shape” (pp. 188-189).

In sum, Boersma’s aim is to re-catholicize evangelicalism. (I use the lower-case “c” catholic as inclusive of the patristic theologies of East and West.)

Boersma’s call to re-catholicize evangelicalism is the most radical and profound one that I have come across. There has been a “catholic turn” in evangelicalism in recent decades, first manifested in the turn toward liturgy and sacraments in the “evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” movement. That has been followed by a massive growth in interest by evangelicals in the patristic era. Books by evangelical scholars on topics such as patristic theology, biblical exegesis, and the nature of tradition are flowing from evangelical presses such as InterVarsity and Baker Academic; these books make arguments that signal a convergence with Catholic and Orthodox thinking on these topics. However, Boersma tops them all in essentially calling for a fundamental rethinking of evangelicalism’s identity. Here the crucial question confronts us.

Daniel Young

Boersma calls on both Catholicism and evangelicalism to reappropriate the Platonic-Christian synthesis of the early Church. This seems to have happened to some extent in Catholicism, given the influence of the ressourcement movement on Vatican II and after. However, as Boersma notes, Protestantism was born in the midst of the modern revolution and its foundational thinkers were unable to escape the “twin blades” of univocity and nominalism. The key question is whether Protestantism’s fundamental identity is bound up in a rejection of the Platonic-Christian synthesis. In other words, is evangelicalism of its very nature committed to an anti-sacramental worldview? Or as Boersma argues, can the fundamental insights of the Protestant Reformation be strengthened and corrected by their reintegration into a sacramental ontology? And if they can, do traditional evangelical arguments against restored communion with the Catholic Church hold any weight?

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  1. I truly am sympathetic to some of the conclusions and goals expressed here, but I’m confused by the use of words in this book/review: is analogy being equated with sacramentality? And how is sacrament being used? Is it in the sense of the seven sacraments or in the looser sense of mystery? Also how has there been a decline in analogy, when a book defending it seems to get published every five minutes?

  2. I think this is spot on. Over the past few years in my studies in occult philosophy, comparative religion and mysticism, I have come to the conclusion that the fundamental and essential problem that divides Protestants from Catholics is differences in cosmology before all else. I think this is at root in the division between east and west as well but in a more nuanced way. However, I also think that to go down this path on both sides would eventually lead to an inevitable reevaluation of Gnosticism and a necessary inquiry into the Jewish esoteric tradition if this would ever be resolved. I think this is definitely the key subject to consider in dialogue not only with Protestants but also the EO, as the essential paradigm differences that duke it out in the various theological subjects are found here.

  3. I think analogy and sacramentality are appropriately linked here because they both exhibit the quality of being truly “like” something but not “identical” to that thing. Analogy and sacrament reveal the ontological nature of participation, that is the “real” relationship between nature and grace, the natural and the supernatural.

  4. […] Weaving a Sacramental Tapestry Daniel Edward Young, Called to Communion […]

  5. Being aware that the mention of de Lubac is likely to bring about the debate on the relationship between nature and grace, and having been reading on the subject lately, I’d like to say this:

    De Lubac’s position may very well be incorrect, but it cannot be accused of denying or blurring the Creator-creature distinction, on the grounds that being naturally ordered to a supernatural end is proper only to that which is divine by nature. Because “ordered to” has two possible meanings: “able to attain” and “in need of”, and de Lubac meant only the second whenever he spoke of human nature being ordered to the supernatural.

    This quote from de Lubac may be in point:

    “Between nature as it exists and the supernatural for which God destines it, the distance is as great, the difference is as radical, as that between non-being and being: for to pass from one to the other is not merely to pass into ‘more being,’ but to pass into a different type of being. It is a crossing by grace of an impassable barrier. … In short, for Christians created nature is no kind of divine seed. . . . The longing that surges from this ‘depth’ of the soul is a longing ‘born of a lack’ and not arising from ‘the beginnings of possession.’” (The Mystery of the Supernatural, 83, 84)

  6. I’ve tracked with Boersma’s thoughts on parts of this subject previous to his publication of this volume, which I have yet to read. Not only were his criticisms and exhortations toward his fellow evangelicals very similar to what you’ve noted above, Daniel, he also had a few for Catholics as well. I wonder, since you didn’t mention any, if he follows suit in Heavenly Participation?

    In short, de Lubac, so the argument goes through Boersma, thought his Catholic compatriots focused so much on what made a legitimate Eucharist, and zeroed in so much on the Eucharistic body, that they forgot that the sacramental purpose of this Eucharistic body was to create the ecclesial body. In other words, and this is for Roman ears, as much as it is for Constantinopolitan and Protestant ears, the sacramental reality to which the Eucharistic body pointed and which it made present was the ecclesial unity of the church.

    Symbol in Eucharistic doctrine is not to be feared. Contra Protestantism, symbols did not just relate to some completely different, distant reality. The symbol and the reality were not to be strictly separated; the symbol (sacrament) shared or participated in the reality to which it pointed. But contra the neo-scholasticism of his Catholic compatriots (and I’m quoting from Boersma here) “the symbols only gave us a small inkling of the great sacramental reality that upheld them. De Lubac’s problem with neo-Thomism was that its ‘realism’ completely identified symbol and reality. . . . This approach insisted that once we have grasped the symbol, we have comprehended also the Body of Christ; there was no sacramental reality reaching beyond the human symbol.”

    Boersma argues (through de Lubac), that this leads to a truncated ecclesiology, if not cuts any authentic ecumenicity off at the knees.

  7. Chris,
    Boersma does indeed restate the themes you mention above. “Heavenly Participation” seeks to restate his scholarly work in a way accessible to the layperson, so if you’ve read his academic tome (“Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery” published by Oxford) you will find the same themes. He definitely makes note of the ressourcement theologians’ critique of neo-Thomism that you outline.

    What I’ve long found interesting is the apparent overlap between the critique of neo-Thomism by the ressourcement theologians and the Kuyperian strand of Reformed theology. Both schools of theology are strong critics of any sort of notion of autonomous nature. It seems to me that there is a lot of fruitful research to be done on how much genuine common ground between the two there is.

  8. Just saw this reply, Dan. Thank you for it. The apparent overlap you mention is interesting indeed.

    Without really knowing it (at first), my days during seminary (RTS-Orlando) were largely filled with that Kuyperian strand (Frame, Pratt, et al.), rather than the “neo-Thomism” of the early Reformed resurgence (Sproul, et al.), which filled my work days. I was new in the early 2000s to this close-up view of the Reformed tradition(s), and I was always curious about and then somewhat disinterested in the (unfortunate) lack of unity that resulted in the intramural conflict.

    Perhaps an interesting inquiry might be to look at where on the continuum Reformed Kuyperians and neo-Thomists stand on sacramental ontology in general and eucharistic doctrine in particular? (It may be that Mathison’s Given For You implies something of an answer, but I don’t recall.)

  9. Some of you might be interested in this review of Boersma’s latest book, “Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa.”

  10. […] the weaving of a sacramental tapestry (Eerdmans 2011). I had read some favorable reviews (here and here) of the book. I’d been looking forward to the reading of the book, not in the least because […]

  11. I just finished reading this book and have some questions. What is Boersma referring to when he speaks of the Platonist-Christian Synthesis of “The Great Tradition?”This makes it sound like there was some kind of grand unified view, when as I understand it, significant differences in understanding existed between the East and West. Didn’t the Eastern Fathers differ with Augustine re: his idea of divine simplicity vs. their distinction between of energeia and ousia and also about the nature of achieving the beatific vision? According to David Bradshaw, the Eastern and Western traditions developed differently because many of the texts available in the East weren’t known to the West until the 12th century so how could there be one “Great Tradition” before then? And when did the fathers ever reach consensus that Plato’s Forms and Yahweh were similar concepts? If you have more info, I would be interested in reading up on this. Also, I’m confused–first Boersma says that by and large Christians rejected the excesses of Platonism . . but later, he takes the Reformers to task for not going far enough in recovering the Platonist-Christian synthesis of sacramental ontology, and says Calvin’s emphasis on the “pervasiveness of human sin, on the radical dependency of the human will on divine grace, and especially on the doctrine of double predestination meant that Calvin did not share with the Great Tradition the view that human beings had a natural desire for the beatific vision.” Surely, he knows some of these views were based on Augustine’s Platonist-influenced reading of Paul. And because this, the West inherited a bundle of unresolved conundrums . Unless he is only narrowly referring to the issue of a sacramental ontology, to hold out a Platonist-Christian Synthesis as hope for going forward without also exploring the problems that resulted as a result of this synthesis is of concern. Another thing to consider as we are having conversations about these things is that as several scholars (i.e. Pelikan, Cary) have pointed out, the Jewish context of scripture was lost for the most part by the second century. Pelikan notes that as a consequence many of the church’s doctrines were formed with limited knowledge of the Hebraic concepts that shaped the message jesus and his disciples proclaimed.(VI, 58, 76-80). I think Harnack’s theory was wrong, so I am not one of those who wants to scrub philosophical language out of doctrine, but when we are thinking of foundational matters, somehow, doesn’t this need to be taken into account. One last thing–I see why Boersma wants to recover sacramental ontology and the concept of participation, but why do we have to go to Plato for this? Isn’t it right there in scripture? Just some thoughts. . .

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