Review of Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental TapestryJun 2nd, 2013 | By Guest Author | 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.
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?