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.

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