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.


Robert Bruce and the Mystery of the Lord’s Supper

Recently, I bought and read The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper from Robert Bruce (1554-1631). I had two reasons for buying this book. My first, and main, reason was the introduction of Thomas Torrance. He translated and edited the book in 1957. And because I’m fond of Torrance, I wanted to read his Introduction in the first place. However, my second reason was my expectation of the book itself. So far I didn’t read anything from Bruce, nor did I know who the man was (Torrance’s Introduction however is most helpful in this respect), but the fact that he was a contemporary of John Craig made me look on expectantly. And indeed, these sermons of Robert Bruce are fantastic! Here we find a concise reformed eucharistic theology. For the moment I’ll postpone the exploration of his theology and limit myself to three impressions:

1. I’m fairly acquainted with Calvin’s sermons and his preaching style. The sermons of Robert Bruce are about three or four decades younger than Calvin’s, but the difference in style is enormous. It surprised me that Thomas Torrance, who happened to be an expert on Calvin’s theology, didn’t mention the difference in his Introduction. It would be unfair to characterize the style of Bruce as ‘scholastic’, but there is undeniably a scholastic touch in these sermons. Calvin’s sermons are much more exegetical, moving from passage to passage. He sometimes makes use of distinctions as well, but not to the sophisticated degree Bruce does. It seems however, that these sermons are intended somewhat more generally than Calvin’s Genevan sermons. Anyway, Robert Bruce was an outstanding theologian, so much is sure. Let me give an example. It’s a passage in which Bruce discusses an objection of his opponents, ‘that God by His omnipotence can make the Body of Christ be both in heaven and in the bread at the same time’. Bruce says that the question at stake is not whether God can do a thing or not, but whether He will do it or not or whether He may will it or not:

“These things are of two kinds: First, He may not will those things which are contrary to His nature, such as to be changeable, to decay, and so on (…); Secondly, God may not will some things, because He has already decreed the contrary. This is the kind of thing we are now discussing (…).” (p.129,130).

2. There is another point in his sermons that striked me. It was something I hoped for. Let me call it the ‘Scottish flavour’ in the theology of the Lord’s Supper. I wrote about this some time ago, in relation to the Catechism of John Craig [link]. With ‘Scottish flavour’ I mean an emphasis on at least two things: on the empirical reality of Christ’s body and on the resurrection of Christ. Again a quote, by way of illustration:

“I prove my proposition (about the visibility and palpability of Christ’s body [AT]) by Christ’s own words, taken from Luke 24;24,39. In order to persuade the apostles of the reality of His Body, and to prove clearly that it was not a phantom, he uses the argument taken from these two qualities (…), as if He would say, ‘If I am visible and palpable, you may cease to doubt that I have a true body’. For as the poet says, whom Tertullian cites also for this same purpose: “Tangere enim et tani, nisi corpus, nulla potest res” (For nothing can touch or be touched exepct a body).” (p.125)

3. There is another remarkable feature in these sermons. Torrance points to it in his Introduction: ‘the doctrine of union with Christ and of our participation in his saving and sanctifying humanity‘ (p.23). Those familiar with the work of Thomas Torrance himself, will immediately recognize this theme, which was so important to him. Here we see a part of the roots of this theme of Torrance (the other part being the patristic tradition). Torrance claims this trait as distinctive for both John Calvin and the early Scottish Reformation. A quote once again:

“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, in the time appointed took true Flesh from the womb of the virgin, and united Himself with our nature, in a personal union, to the end that our nature, which fell altogether from its integrity in the first Adam, might recover the same in the second Adam – yes, not only the same, but much greater, as much as our second Adam in every way excels the first.” (p.123)

So, these sermons prove to be a treasure of reformed eucharistic theology. Or, to use the words of Thomas Torrance: “[T]he very marrow of our sacramental tradition in the Church of Scotland.”

Van der Leeuw, Howatch and Sacramental Ministry

Somewhere in the 1990’s an interesting article appeared in our faculty-bulletin in Utrecht (called ‘Areopagus’). One of the most promising students then wrote about a theological book: ‘Praktische Theologie‘ from Gerben Heitink (in translation: Practical Theology: History, Theory, Action Domains). I’ve lost the context of his article, but I remember he wasn’t impressed at all. His chief complaint was that it didn’t help you to find your way on the road to ministry. I had to study this book for my exams and agreed wholeheartedly with him.

However, in his article he presented to his readers a couple of alternatives. Gerardus van der LeeuwHe mentioned in the first place the name of the Dutch phenomenologist of religion and theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw. His book ‘Sacramentstheologie’ (‘Sacramental Theology’; no English edition available) was a much better choice according to him. More theological, more inspiring, more in touch with the vital tradition of Christianity. At that time I hadn’t read the book, although I was – to some degree – familiar with the thoughts of Van der Leeuw. But his recommendation was sufficient for me to start reading the book at once.

He mentioned another author, of which I had never heard at that moment: Susan Howatch and her Starbridge novels. Since that moment I began to look for her books. It took a bit of time before I could lay my hands on them, but finally I read nearly the complete series (except for one). Glittering ImagesThey struck me, especially the first three (‘Glittering Images‘; ‘Glamorous Powers; ‘Ultimate Prizes‘), with a leading role for the charismatic priest Jon Darrow. Are these novels excellent literature? No. To mention one thing: the plot is too predictable. Are they a good read? Yes, at least for me they were. They are indeed brilliant in the sense mentioned by my fellow student in Utrecht. Compared with Heitink’s Practical Theology for example the reading of these novels was much more inspiring. I know, these books are products of fantasy. And identifying with, for example, Jon Darrow might be tempting, but dangerous as well. Imagine yourself hunting for demons in your congregation… It is all true, but in the end I found myself wondering how I could serve, in my own modest way, but nonetheless such that it was somehow infused with the same presence of Christ.

When I saw that I realised that the link between Van der Leeuw and Howatch was less coincidental then it seemed. Both authors show what a sacramental theology might look like. Van der Leeuw wrote a phenomenological and systematic account of sacramental theology. Susan Howatch shows how it can look like in ordinary life. That is what I needed when I was reading the article in the nineties. That’s what I’am still in need of, working in the church as a minister. This work is not glamorous, nor glittering. But it still might be ‘sacramental’. At least, that’s my desire. With the word ‘sacramental’ I have in mind what Van der Leeuw wrote in another book of his (Liturgiek): “In the sacramental act God uses our actions for His”. That’s what I’m still looking for in practice and in Practical Theology. Thanks to Van der Leeuw, thanks to Howatch and thanks, of course, to the impeccable taste of my fellow student.

Young Calvin about the Lord’s Supper (2)

In my first post about the young Calvin and his thoughts about the Lord’s Supper, I cited his Epistolae Duae from January 12, 1537. His Articles concernant l’organisation de l’église et du culte a Genève, proposés au conseil par les ministres (Articles on the Organisation of the Church and its Worship at Geneva, proposed to the council by the ministers)are dated only four days later. In fact Calvin and his colleagues had been working on it since the Autumn of 1536. It is adressed to the council of Geneva, which was at that time (the bishop was expelled) in charge, of religious matters too. It would soon turn out, that the ministers’ proposals were, at least partially, too revolutionary. One of those points was the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. In the citations below you will read Calvin’s plea for a frequent celebration.

“Il seroyt bien a desirer que la communication de la saincte Cene de Iesuchrist fust tous les dimenches pour le moins en vsage quant leglise est assemblee en multitude veu la grande consolation que les fideles en recoipuent et le fruict qui en procede en toute maniere tant pour les promesses qui sont la presentees en nostre foy, cest que vrayment nous sommes faicts participans du corps et du sang de Iesus, de sa mort, de sa vie, de son esprit et de tous ses biens. (…) Et de faict elle naz pas este jnstituee de Iesus pour en fere commemoration deux ou troys foys lan, mays pour vng frequent exercice de nostre foy et charite.”

 Calvin’s Renaissance French is quite different from contemporary French, but here is my attempt to translate these words: “It were desirable that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper of Jesus Christ is held every sunday at least, when the congregation is assembled together. That is important  in view of the grand consolation for the believers and the fruit which springs from it in all kinds of ways because of the promises which are presented to our faith, that means: we are really participants of the body and blood of Jesus, of his death, his life, his Spirit and all his goods. (…) And indeed, the Supper hasn’t been instituted by Jesus for having a remembrance twice or three times a year, but as a frequent exercise of our faith and love”.

Calvin cites Acts 2:42 about the apostles’ devotion to the breaking of the bread. And he then continues by saying:

“(…) et telle az este tousjours la practique de lesglise ancienne iusques a ce que labomination des messes a este jntroduicte, en la quelle au lieu de ceste communication de tous les fideles a este dresse cest horrible sacrilege, que ung sacrifieroyt pour tous. En quoy la Cene a este du tout destruite et abolie. Mays pour ce que linfirmite du peuple est encore telle quil y avoyt dangier que ce sacre et tant exellent mestere ne vint en mespris sil estoyt si souuent celebre.”

 “This has always been the practice of the Ancient Church, until the abomination of the mass has been introduced, in which instead of the communication of all believers the horrible offence was elaborated that one man sacrifices for all. With that the Lord’s Supper has been totally destroyed and abolished. But because the weakness of the people is still such, that the danger exists that this holy and exalted mystery will be despised when it will be celebrated so often.” Calvin concludes this passage with a proposal to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every month, in one of the three different churches of GenevaGeneva 1550: St. Pierre, Rive and St. Gervais. However he stresses the intention that the celebration of the  Supper is ment, not only for a specific quarter, but for the whole city. The Geneva council didn’t agree with this proposal unfortunately and restricted the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to four times a year in the three churches. This has been the practice of many Reformed Churches up to this date, although there are exceptions to that rule. In the Netherlands these exceptions are pretty rare, regretfully. In my point of view this low frequency is one of the reasons for the lack of sacramental consciousness in the Calvinistic tradition. Isn’t it time to put into practice these words of Calvin? I think so!