Wolterstorff’s Kantzer Lectures

Wolterstorff-Kanzter LecturesThose who follow the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff will have been looking forward to his Kantzer Lectures (October, 1-7). I was one of those, listening and watching at distance (thanks to the superb video-connection, still to be found here). In my opinion, it was a great series with references and excursions to theologians as Alexander Schmemann, Jean-Jaques von Allmen, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. And those familiar with Wolterstorff’s own writings recognized hints from his earlier work (such as Divine Discourse (1995), derived from his Wilde Lectures in Oxford, 1993).The outline of his Kantzer Lectures looks like this:

Lecture 1: The Project: Liturgical Theology Lecture 2. God as Worthy of Worship Lecture 3. God as One Who Listens and Speaks Lecture 4. God as Listener Lecture 5. What Are We Saying When We Say that God Listens? Lecture 6. God as One Who Hears Favorably Lecture 7. God as One Who Speaks Lecture 8. The Understanding of God Implicit in the Eucharist

Those who have visited this blog before, won’t be surprised to hear that his last lecture aroused my interest most of all. I have to admit however that my expectations were somewhat ambiguous. Wolterstorff’s earlier writings on the subject emphasized that the Lord’s Supper is best understood in terms of action, rather than presence. And he offered a thorough analysis of ‘remembrance’ as practised in the liturgy. His take on these liturgical questions seemed to me indeed calvinistic, but, so I wondered, didn’t it have a zwinglian overtone? Could an analysis of the Lord’s Supper that is true to Calvin’s intentions be put merely in terms of action and remembrance? I didn’t and still don’t think so.

It did turn out in his Kantzer Lectures, that Wolterstorff doesn’t think so either. I had underestimated him as a careful interpreter of Calvin. In fact, he picked up the concept of ‘participation’ from Calvin’s writings about the Lord’s Supper in order to make it pivotal in his own analysis. By doing that he offered a ‘high’ interpretation of what is happening in the Lord’s Supper. With the conceptual tool of a theory of double action he interprets the distribution of bread and wine as counting as the offering of Christ’s body and blood. And he interprets our eating of the bread and drinking of the wine as counting as the receiving of his offering. Wolterstorff insisted – rightly so, I think – that for Calvin the sacrament is not to be regarded in terms of proclamation, be it as a kind of proclamation or as confirmation of proclamation. The eucharist is to be understood in terms of Christ’s offering of himself to us. There is much more to say about this lecture, but you really should listen yourself!

In the discussion afterwards, three questions striked me as remarkable:

  1. The first question asked whether Wolterstorff’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper in terms of a double action theory is fully adequate. Isn’t Calvin’s opinion different, in the sense that for him the eating and drinking doesn’t count as receiving Christ’s offering his flesh and blood, but as the occasion for God, by the Spirit, to do his work in us. Wolterstorff answered to this by pointing out that there are two double actions are going on in the Lord’s Supper, one action performed by God, the other performed by us. The question reminded me to his discussion of Calvin’s alleged occasionalism in his article ‘Sacrament as Action, not Presence’ (in: David Brown & Ann Loades, Christ: the Sacramental Word (1996)). In this article Wolterstorff is very emphatic in denying that Calvin was an occasionalist (p.107-108).
  2. A second question asked what exactly the difference was between instrumentalism, the view that is often ascribed to Calvin (f.ex. B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude (1993), p.167), and Wolterstorff’s own view. It appeared to be not easy to put this difference into words. Calvin does not say, according to Wolterstorff, that the bread and the wine effect the participation in Christ. Nor does he want to say that the presider’s offering bread and wine effects participation. Wolterstorff came forward with the term ‘relentlessly performative’, in order to specify that the bread and the wine are by no means arbitrary, but that they in the context of the liturgy enable the celebrants to partake in Christ.
  3. The second last question referred to Wolterstorff’s second lecture, where he spoke of the church actualizing itself in the enactment of the liturgy. In so far as the Eucharist is the climax of that liturgical enactment, how could this actualization be ‘fleshed out’ (think of De Lubac’s maxim). Characteristically, Wolterstorff admitted he hadn’t worked out his thoughts in this direction. But, he said, why don’t you flesh it out? And then he made a note for himself. I liked that answer for two reasons. First, Wolterstorff doesn’t hesitate to admit he hasn’t thought out all implications. That is, he is not pretending he’s got all the answers. And secondly, he challenges students and other scholars to take up the job of engaging with the project of the philosophical analysis of what is going on in the liturgy.

There is much more to say about this particular lecture and about the complete series. What to think for example of the closing section of this last lecture, in which he posed a couple of intriguing questions. What does it mean to think of God as the One Who not only acts ands speaks, but listens as well? Doesn’t that thought affect our understanding of God’s immutability and of his aseitas, for example? I have my doubts whether Wolterstorff interprets the theological tradition here correctly. But these questions have to wait for another day. Maybe the day that his book appears. I’m very much looking forward to it!

Boersma’s sacramental suggestion

Last holiday I read Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation – the weaving of a sacramental tapestry (Eerdmans 2011). I had read some favorable reviews (here and here) of theHeavenlyParticipation book. I’d been looking forward to the reading of the book, not in the least because Boersma appeals to the ‘nouvelle théologie’ of De Lubac and others. Himself being an evangelical theologian, that is quite remarkable. The Dutch systematic theologian Hendrikus Berkhof remarked once about most reformed or evangelical theologians (at least in Holland): ‘catholici non leguntur’ (‘catholics are not read [amongst us]’). Berkhof himself was an exception to that rule, and so is Hans Boersma (who has Dutch roots as well). That makes his book quite remarkable. Heavenly Participation can in this sense even be called a brave book. Boersma shows to be acquainted not only with De Lubac, but also with other representatives of ‘nouvelle théologie’ like Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu.

Boersma’s overall thesis is that there has been a loss of the Platonist-Christian synthesis of the church fathers. And we are in need of a recovery of that synthesis of the ‘Great Tradition’, as Boersma likes to call it. The book is divided into two parts. The first part, called ‘Exitus: the Fraying Tapestry’, offers an analysis where and how the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry, as it was common among the fathers in the Early Church, took place. The second part, ‘Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads’, attempts to point out how the sacramental world view of the fathers can be restored in its former glory. Now, it’s clear that the success of the last part depends on the degree of success of the first part. If the diagnosis fails, the therapy will be wanting as well. So the question is: How convincing is Boersma’s analysis?

In chapter 3 Boersma lists five factors that, according to Boermsa, the nouvelle theologians believed were responsible for the modern unraverling of the sacramental tapestry:

  1. Juridicizing of the Church (Congar). The Gregorian Reform, which resulted in an enormous increase of the authority of the pope and of the power of the church as institution. This resulted in a distinction between divine and human actions, which led to a gradual disappearing of the sacramental, divine character of authority.
  2. Discovery of Nature I (De Lubac). The debates concerning the nature of the Eucharist between Berengar of Tours and his opponents in the 11th century, also led to a loss of sacramental sense. Although the Church rejected Berengar’s views, his underlying assumptions were adopted, especially the separation between sacrament and the unity of the church.
  3. Discovery of Nature II (Chenu). The rediscovery of Aristotle lead to a discovery of nature in the 12th and 13th centuries, claims Boersma, pointing to Chenu. The dualism between matter and spirit of the Platonic worldview was challenged now. But that meant a desacramentalizing of nature, an abandonment of the Platonist-Christian synthesis.
  4. Scripture, Church, and Tradition (Congar). The 14th and 15th centuries witness an ever-increasing separation between the authority of Scripture and that of the church. Congar locates the source of this trouble with Henry of Ghent, with Duns Scotus and Ockham in his trail. From their questions it was only a small step to dissenters like Wycliffe, Hus and the reformers. Once again we observe, according to Boersma, a moment of loss of the sacramental ontology of the Great Tradition, in which Scripture and church were kept together.
  5. Nature and the Supernatural (De Lubac). De Lubac’s Surnaturel offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between nature and the supernatural. He criticizes in particular those Renaissance theologians (like Cajetan, Bellarmine) who spoke about ‘pure nature’ (pura natura), thereby highlighting the autonomous character of the natural. This also led to a loss of the sacramental synthesis, because nature was no longer in need of the supernatural.

In the next chapter Boersma adds two other factors which, in his opinion, contributed to the unraveling of the tapestry. In fact, he calls them the ‘Scissors of Modernity’. These factors are: Duns Scotus’ concept of the Univocity of Being and the rise of nominalism through the pilosophy of William of Ockham. Together they ‘cut the sacramental tapestry in two and thus caused the decline and ultimately the near-collapse of the Platonist-Christian synthesis in the modern Western world. That, in short, is Boersma’s analysis. But, as an analysis, or diagnosis, it raises a lot of questions. Let me list a few of them:

  1. Boersma offers us a list of seven possible contributing factors to the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry. But nowhere does he pose the question whether all these factors were equally important. Or to put it differently, nowhere does he make an attempt of connecting these factors with each other. In fact, Boersma suggests a lot, but he omits to ask the really important questions.
  2. Another question would be whether all these cited authors, from past to present, meant the same thing when they spoke about ‘sacramental’. Boersma uses the term ‘sacramental’ without explaining what he precisely means by that. The same could be said of another key term: ‘participation’. What happens then, is that these terms become a kind of mantra, obscuring all possible conceptual differences and problems.
  3. A next question is how it is possible that in Boersma’s analysis not only the introduction of Aristotle’s philosophical thoughts in the 12th and 13th century counts as contribution to the loss of the sacramental tapestry (discovery of nature), but also the philosophies of the fervent opponents of this development (Franciscans like Duns Scotus and Ockham). And yes, there has been a discovery of nature in the line of this latter philosopical trail. But that was a very different discovery and a very different way of speaking about nature.
  4. In his critique on Scotus’ concept of univocity of being Boersma claims: ‘For Scotus, God is simply one of many beings – all understood in the same, univocal sense of “being” (…) The new understanding (…) turns God into one of many categories’ [75-76]. Therefore, Boersma opts for the concept of the analogy of being. This leaves room for just one conclusion: Boersma doesn’t understand the concept of univocity of being in Scotus. In fact, the concept of analogy of being presupposes a kind of univocity. So his criticism seems out of tune. More generally, Boersma seems not be aware of the developments in the study of medieval philosophy in the last decades.

Danielou and De LubacIn short, this book of Boersma didn’t convince me, how much I sympathize with his sacramental suggestion and his conversation with the nouvelle theologie. That certainly is important for evangelical theologians. There is much to learn from De Lubac, Daniélou and others. And with Boersma, I’m longing for a better and deeper understanding of the sacraments in our church. But in order to achieve that, we need to take a better look to the (indeed: great) tradition of the church than is offered in his book.

Gerardus van der Leeuw on ‘primitive mentality’

Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950) was a true polymath. He was in his day an expert in the field of phenomenology of religion. He was a leading liturgist in the Netherlands. His writings about art are still widely read. Besides he served as the Secretary of State for Education and Science (1945-1946).http://www.librarything.com/author/leeuwgvander

In his book ‘Primitive Man and Religion’ (only edited in Dutch: “De primitieve mensch en de religie” [1937]) Van der Leeuw wrote about the concept of primitive mentality. It was coined by Levy-Bruhl in the early twentieth century and Van der Leeuw  discusses this concept quite extensively.

Van der Leeuw stresses in his discussion the fact that this so-called ‘primitive mentality’ shouldn’t be interpreted in an evolutionary way. We are not talking about an outdated mindset. On the contrary, Van der Leeuw emphasizes that this primitive mentality is still part of modern man. However, it is largely suppressed in our day. We act and live according to our ‘modern mentality’. But what, we might ask, is then the difference between primitive and modern mentality? Van der Leeuw lists eight ‘aspects’ of the primitive mentality in contrast to modern mentality. I will single out three of them, which I consider to be the most important.

1. Van der Leeuw points out that for both mentalities the world is ‘given’. However, the way we deal with this ‘givenness’ differs largely. Modern man asks how we experience the world, what we know of it, what we can do with it. Modern man seeks to ‘handle’ the given world, makes it to an ‘object’. Wood is ‘material’, which can be used to make something. Primitive man on the contrary doesn’t see the world as object, but as subject. He doesn’t look for opportunities to handle the things he meets, but tries to discover its power. Everything has power, life, holiness. Primitive man seeks, not to handle, but to relate to this power, this holiness in every aspect of life.

2. Modern man thinks analytically. He is used to divide reality in parts and bits, in order to get a better understanding. Primitive man thinks synthetically. His thinking is directed to the totality. Modern man makes generalizations and abstractions; whereas primitive man doesn’t. Modern man thinks and speaks in general terms, whereas primitive man thinks and speaks in concrete ways. I’d like to remind that the notions modern and primitive man don’t stand for distinct periods in human history, nor stand for different kinds of civilization. Both modern and primitive mentalities are, according to Van der Leeuw, a lasting part of humanity.

3. A third difference involves the way we participate in reality. For modern mentality, it’s obvious that a person could be present only at one place at once. But for primitive mentality, it’s not obvious at all. Van der Leeuw provides the example of an Indian, who just became a father. He isn’t allowed to see his child the first weeks, but he acts as if (to use an expression which is thoroughly modern) he is present with his child and his child with him. The first weeks he limits his journeys, in order not to fatigue his childs. He avoids trespassing the creeks, in order to avoid the bad influence of waternymphs. For the primitive man living means participating in reality. The differences between these to mentalities becomes obvious in our use of the term ‘symbol’. For modern man a symbol is a kind of allegory which shows us something; for primitive mentality it means participating in its reality.

Van der Leeuw describes these differences in mentality primarily as a phenomenologist of religion. However, he doesn’t hide his regrets about the (relative) loss of primitive mentality in the contemporary culture. According to Van der Leeuw the loss of this primitive mentality causes a loss of ‘unity of life’ (“eenheid des levens”). This loss of unity of life affects the realm of religion (liturgy!), art and indeed the whole culture. For this reason Van der Leeuw seems not to be optimistic about the developments he observed before, during and shortly after World War II.

In short (and applied to the subject of my research) Van der Leeuw’s thoughts on primitive mentality signal a loss of this mentality in our modern society, which blocks a proper understanding of liturgy and the sacraments. Fortunately, his own works in liturgics and sacramental theology provide a good remedy!

The Lord’s Supper and Christ’s participation in our death

In about two weeks I will have to give a lecture about death and the Lord’s Supper. (By the way, that’s why I’ve been silent here for a couple of weeks.) In what sense does the celebration of the Lord’s Supper remind us of our own death? And in what way is the death of Jesus related to both our own death and the Lord’s Supper? The focus, thus, is not upon the atoning meaning of Christ’s death. The question is which meaning the ‘mere fact’ of his death has for us and in which way the Lord’s Supper can reveal that to us.

I will start with a short passage from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a son. In this book Wolterstorff describes what happened when he received a phone call that his son Eric had died in a mountain climbing accident. Somewhere in the book he tells about the funeral service. He writes:

“We celebrated the Eucharist, that sacrament of God’s participation in our brokenness. We came forward successively in groups, standing in circles around the coffin, passing the signs of Christ’s brokenness to each other.” (p.39,40)

The key-word here is ‘participation’. In what sense is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper a participation of Christ in our brokenness? There are, at least, two possible directions here. One way is to focus upon the Lord’s Supper as a commemorative ritual. A rite invites us into a kind of participation, so it is argued, that transcends our rationality. We might even argue that in the ritual enacting of the Lord’s Supper we are – somehow – made one with the reality, to which the celebration refers. The problem, however, is located in this ‘somehow’. How do we have to understand that? Is this a kind of ‘Traumzeit’ (Josuttis), in which we forget about everything here and now? Or should we think of it as a kind of ‘game’, in which we are playing like children? When a child is playing fireman, he is a fireman. Is it something like this?

These proposals can’t convince me. First, they posit a relationship between the ritual and the reality it refers to in terms of a kind of (weak) analogy. And second, in this way we’ve lost the spiritual reality. There is no appeal to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and no appeal to the reality of our sharing in his death and resurrection. That leads me to an alternative route: the route of exploring the resources of the eucharistic theology in the Reformation. I don’t think we have exhausted these resources. On the contrary, traditionally much attention is paid to the aspect of the atonement. But there is more to say. Three things, in fact, I’d like to call attention to in my lecture.

1. The body of Christ is – at least for Calvin – the locus of our salvation. Therefore, Calvin is very insistent that we should lift up our hearts. That is because Christ is in heaven. Calvin does not want to depreciate the role of the senses or of the human body. On the contrary, the wounded and tortured body of Christ, the body that tasted death, is for him a very substantial and almost palpable reality. But He is in heaven! There we have to seek Him, not in the elements. And He nourishes us from above…

2. The Lord’s Supper is for Calvin also a pledge for our own resurrection. In the Catechism of John Craig this accent is even more pronounced. So, the Lord’s Supper has not only meaning for our souls, but also for our bodies! Because Christ is the Resurrected One, the Supper is a foretaste for our own resurrection. No doubt about that!

3. Thomas Torrance, and James Torrance in his trail, developed the view that for Calvin Christ’s priestly office meant that our worship is included in His worship, our response to God in His. The same applies to the Lord’s Supper. We are sharing in his death and resurrection, not in an analogical way, but as an ontological reality. In my previous post I expressed some doubts about this ontological thinking. However, the thought is precious to me, because it underlines the reality of our participation, where the ritual approach puts up with a weak analogy.

Well, in this direction my lecture will move. My question is: what do you think?