Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry
by Hans Boersma
Eerdmans, 218 pages, $20
The French poet and essayist Charles Péguy coined the term ressourcement to describe a movement “from a less perfect tradition to a more perfect tradition, a call from a shallower tradition to a deeper tradition, a backing up of tradition, an overtaking of depth, an investigation into deeper sources; a return to the source in the literal sense of the word.” For the Catholic theologians associated with ressourcement or nouvelle théologie—Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs von Balthasar (among others)—the preeminent source for theological reflection is the word of God interpreted within the Church. In a secondary sense, the theologians of the tradition, especially the Fathers of the Church, represent abiding sources for the renewal of Christian theology.
Accordingly, the project of ressourcement involved translating and interpreting texts from across the entire tradition, with particular attention given to the ever present fruitfulness of patristic exegesis. As de Lubac suggests, this task precluded “any overly preferential attachment to one school, system, or definite age; it demanded more attention to the deep and permanent unity of the faith, to the mysterious relationship (which escapes so many specialized scholars) of all those who invoke the name of Christ.”
This concern for the “deep and permanent unity of the faith . . . the mysterious relationship of all those who invoke the name of Christ” animates Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. The book aims at a ressourcement on three interrelated levels. First and foremost, Boersma seeks to remind Christians of their heavenly destiny: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your heart on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). Second, writing as an evangelical theologian, Boersma suggests that the best hope of healing the tragic split of the Reformation lies in a recovery of the sacramental vision that was the consensus of patristic and high medieval theology: “A common rediscovery of the depths of the Great Tradition will, as a matter of course, lead to genuine rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics.” Third, Boersma seeks to retrieve and extend the theological vision of the twentieth-century French Catholic ressourcement. The key figure here is de Lubac, whose writings on the relation between Church and Eucharist, the tradition of spiritual exegesis, and the theological anthropology of Thomas Aquinas provide essential resources for overcoming the modern separation of nature and grace.
The central idea unifying this threefold ressourcement is “sacramental ontology,” a vision of the created world as participating through Christ in the mystery of God. Boersma argues that the sacramental ontology of the Great Tradition allowed for an affirmation of the truth, goodness, and beauty of the created order while safeguarding the infinite difference between creation and God. “The participatory anchoring of the created order in the eternal Logos . . . meant the recognition of a tremendous surplus value in created objects.” At the same time, the earlier tradition avoided the mistake of assigning ultimate value to creation, since its being is derived from the Creator. Perhaps the best way to approach Boersma’s understanding of sacramental ontology is to reflect on the Eucharist as the “intensification” of Christ’s sacramental presence in the whole of creation: “While the Church Fathers and medieval theologians did look to the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the sacrament in which Christ was really present, in making this point they simultaneously conveyed their conviction that Christ was mysteriously present in the entire created order.”
The first part of the book, titled “Exitus: The Fraying Tapestry,” traces the unfolding and subsequent eclipse of sacramental ontology. Following a summary account of the relationship between Christian faith and Platonic philosophy, Boersma offers three examples from the early Church that illustrate the development of a sacramental vision: Irenaeus’ understanding of salvation through recapitulation, Athanasius’ reflection on the unity of the Incarnate Logos, and Gregory of Nyssa’s approach to unity and difference within the Trinity. The image of a tapestry allows Boersma to focus attention on the mystery of Christ as the origin, stability, and end of the sacramentality of creation. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). The Incarnate Word is, “we might say, the central thread of the cosmic tapestry.”
After sketching in broad strokes the sacramental ontology of the early Church, Boersma poses the question: “What has happened in the history of Christian thought to make us look at the world so differently? How did we step away from the Platonist–Christian synthesis?” Drawing on the writings of French ressourcement theologians, Boersma outlines several developments within medieval theology that he thinks “allowed Western society to step away from the earlier sacramental ontology that had characterized the Great Tradition.”
His first claim is that the Gregorian reforms of the late eleventh century led to an overemphasis on the juridical authority of the pope and a general juridicizing of the Church. Second, the contemporaneous controversy surrounding Berengar of Tours’ denial of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist led some theologians to affirm real presence without sufficiently grasping the essential unity of symbolism and reality within the sacramental mystery of Christ’s body. Third, the reintroduction of Aristotle and the overall “discovery of nature” in the thirteenth century entailed a certain loss of the central Platonic idea of participation. Fourth, the late Middle Ages witnessed a growing separation of Scripture and the Church so that the authority of one was placed in competition with the authority of the other. Fifth, the univocity and voluntarism of Duns Scotus together with the nominalism of William of Ockham severed the analogical relation between created forms and the eternal Logos. Sixth, and finally, the early modern theory of “pure nature” contributed to the separation of nature and grace and thus prepared the soil for contemporary secularism. Indeed, Boersma interprets each of the preceding developments in terms of a fundamental tendency to separate nature and grace, the created world and the eternal Logos.
The second half of Heavenly Participation, “Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads,” seeks to retrieve a sacramental ontology within five areas of theology: the mystery of the Eucharist and the “threefold body” of Christ, the meaning of tradition and sacramental time, the interpretation of Scripture, the nature of truth in relation to mystery, and the nature of theology as sacramental practice. Of particular interest is Boersma’s argument that “a sacramental view that connects the body of the Eucharist to the body of the Church implies also a sacramental hermeneutic in which the literal meaning of Scripture sacramentally points to a spiritual meaning.”
As the preface to the book indicates, Heavenly Participation was written with a particular eye toward an evangelical audience. To this audience Boersma proposes a daunting, and no doubt controversial, program for the renewal of evangelical thought by way of returning to the sacramental ontology of patristic and high medieval theology. The strength of the book consists in Boersma’s Christological rereading of the tradition that brings to light points of contact between the core concerns of evangelicalism and the broader Christian tradition. The desire of evangelicals “to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) provides an opening to the ancient teaching that all things hold together in Christ and are destined for communion with God within the sacramental and ecclesial body of Christ.
The principal weakness of the book is closely connected to its strength. Boersma speaks repeatedly of the need to overcome the separation of nature and grace, but he has almost nothing to say about the essential distinction between the gift of nature and the new gift of deifying grace. On this point, Boersma would seem to part company with de Lubac, who, in continuity with the entire tradition, distinguishes between “the first gift of creation and the second, wholly distinct, wholly super-eminent gift—the ontological call to deification which will make of man, if he responds to it, a ‘new creature.’”
The novelty of the Incarnation cannot be accounted for simply in terms of an “intensification” of Christ’s sacramental presence in the order of creation. Boersma’s retrieval of sacramental ontology needs to pass through and be measured by the Chalcedonian confession that the one Person of Christ is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion or separation. A sustained reflection on the distinct integrity of Christ’s human nature would require a rethinking of Boersma’s criticism that Aquinas was wrong in affirming a relatively autonomous natural order. The book also suffers from the author’s tendency to caricature his “Neo-Thomist” opponents. These straw men supposedly “regarded the supernatural as an arbitrary imposition on a self-sufficient natural world,” “treated the Eucharist as unconnected or extrinsic to the fellowship of the Church,” and “did not seem to acknowledge a differentiation between human knowledge and divine knowledge.”
Finally, there is the unavoidable question of apostolic succession. For Catholics and Orthodox, the fact that the Eucharist can be received only through the concrete reality of apostolic succession belongs to the innermost nature of this supreme gift of Christ himself. In his essay “The Ecclesiology of Vatican II,” Joseph Ratzinger calls attention to the sacramental logic of this Christian “receiving”:
No one can make a Church by himself. A group cannot simply get together, read the New Testament and declare: “At present we are the Church because the Lord is present wherever two or three are gathered in His name.” The element of “receiving” belongs essentially to the Church, just as faith comes from “hearing” and is not the result of one’s decision or reflection. Faith is a converging with something I could neither imagine nor produce on my own; faith has to come to meet me. We call the structure of this encounter, a “sacrament.” It is part of the fundamental form of a sacrament that it be received and not self-administered. No one can baptize himself. No one can ordain himself. . . . In the Eucharist, the priest acts “ in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ; at the same time he represents Christ while remaining a sinner who lives completely by accepting Christ’s Gift. One cannot make the Church but only receive her; one receives her from where she already is, where she is really present: the sacramental community of Christ’s Body moving through history.
Notwithstanding these reservations, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry is a promising sign of evangelical theology seeking to root itself more deeply in the tradition of the Church. The fruitfulness of any ressourcement depends on a faithful holding fast to God’s Incarnate Word, the living source of Christian thought and life. And Boersma surely is correct in his central claim that “it is by taking the Word, incarnate in Christ, as the interpretative key to all reality that we will be able to make theological progress and draw evangelicals and Catholics closer together.”
Nicholas J. Healy Jr. is assistant professor of philosophy and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington.