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A Catholic/Evangelical Theology

Hans Boersma's Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry
A Catholic/Evangelical Theology

Hans Boersma, the J. I. Packer professor of systematic theology at Regent College, has written a book that is fast becoming a sine qua non for thoughtful evangelicals. His ideas on embodiment, sacramentalism, and the connection between evangelicals and Roman Catholics are being discussed in church and para-church alike. The book is an important read for anyone with an interest in the future of the evangelical movement in America.

Boersma seeks to do nothing less than redirect the foundations of Christian theology in respect to its relation to historical-critical exegesis of Scripture and what he calls the Great Tradition, or “the broad consensus of the church fathers and medieval theologians” (Loc. 40 of 2745, Kindle edition). But one would make a mistake, if one thought he was seeking to do something new; Boersma is emphatic that what he is proposing is not new at all, but rather a return to what he calls the Platonic-Christian synthesis of the early church. In response to a considerable reaction among younger evangelicals to what Boersma perceives as the dominant form of interpretation in evangelical exegesis and its bad fruit, he proposes a return to the spiritual exegesis of an earlier age. Influenced strongly by the Roman Catholic movement of ressourcement (retrieval) especially as it is found in the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, Boersma speaks of the necessity of recovering the Great Tradition, if we are to be delivered from the Scylla of liberal modernism and the Charybdis of truth-defying postmodernism. He emphatically denies being “on the road to Rome”. Though he borrows liberally from nouvelle théologique ideas, he attempts to put those in a broadly Christian framework.

Crucial to understanding the structure of Boersma’s argument are two concepts: sacrament and Christological centrality. Using the metaphor of a tapestry, which he considers the theology of the early church until the late middle ages to have been, he advocates the re-weaving of a sacramental tapestry, fully integrating once again the natural and the supernatural so that “created objects are sacraments that participate in the mystery of the heavenly reality of Jesus Christ” (Loc. 141). In doing so, he argues that the entire Bible has Christ as its central focus. Early on he asserts,

As the Psalmist puts it, in the words quoted in the epigraph, “your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures.” Prior to the advent of modernity, few people would have been able to read these words [Psalm 119:89-90], of the psalm without thinking of Christ as the eternal Word. (Loc 29)

Everything Boersma writes hangs from these two anchors.

Participation is a shorter, more accessible version of Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (OUP, 2009), but it doesn’t leave out anything of the essential elements of the more technical work. Organized in two parts, the first spends considerable time investigating the weaving, elucidating, unraveling, cutting and attempting to put back together of the tapestry. Here Boersma follows a loose chronological scheme to illuminate the origins of sacramental theology in the early church and its ultimate demise in the late middle ages. A final chapter in this part is dedicated to the failed attempt of the Reformers to mend the tapestry. In Part Two, entitled “Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads”, he depends largely on Dubac, Congar, and others to articulate how the tapestry weaving the supernatural and the natural seamlessly together should be repaired.

Boersma sees as crucial to the task four subjects needed to “inform our understanding of theology: the way we approach Eucharist, tradition, Scripture, and truth gives direction to the process of initiation [into the discipline of theology]” (Loc. 2019). A chapter is devoted to each and explicating the nouvelle théologie understanding of each. Together they participate in the melding of the natural and the supernatural, but Boersma rarely speaks to how they do so in any practical fashion. Using analogies like the film Babette’s Feast, he discusses the views of various theologians in a careful fashion, but the book in this section is not a manual for theological life, but rather a discussion of the foundations of that life.

There is a lot with which to argue in Boersma’s book, but the arguments are no newer than the ideas he presents. To his proposal, for instance, that biblical interpretation return to allowing for a variety of meanings in any one Scripture, one would ask how one can control the multiplying of meanings ad infinitum; Boersma readily admits that levels within levels of meaning eventually resulted in medieval exegesis. To then argue that the Church as represented by the tradition would control wanton multiplication of meanings is to play into the hands of the question: like it does today?! Additionally, to argue that incarnation as a principle argues for spiritual meaning in a text in addition to historical meaning, the reply could be made that, no, in fact, incarnation argues for the importance of historical meaning, just as Christ coming into history argues for the supremacy in interpretation of the historical Jesus, His words and His deeds. Similar unanswered questions abide with his views of the other elements of his four pillars.

Importantly, the two mainstays of Boersma’s argument, the unity of the natural and the supernatural and the centrality of Christ in all of reality, are agreed upon by all evangelicals. They are not understood in the same ways, perhaps, but they do not form the basis of such a divide as he supposes.

Fundamental disagreement on the Catholic answers to the questions raised by the present crisis in Evangelical biblical interpretation does not make Boersma’s book unimportant. It is filled with good ideas that we need to take into account, and the need for continued and increased dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics, another strong emphasis of Boersma’s book, remains compelling. A constant assessment of our understanding of Eucharist, tradition, Scripture and truth will stand us in good stead as we continue on our journey towards Christ, and Boersma’s book will spark a lot of useful discussion toward that end.

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