Hans Boersma is a distinguished evangelical theologian who holds the J.I. Packer Chair at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. In Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology he reveals himself to be not only a scholar but also something of a mystic for our times.

In studying the Catholic nouvelle théologie of the twentieth century, Boersma aims to overcome what Jesuit theologian Jean Daniélou described as the “rupture between theology and life.” For example, while the environmentalism of British Columbia is largely secularized, Boersma teaches that “[c]reated objects derive their value from sacramental participation in their transcendent ground.” And while the contemporary Western world seeks greater political unity by separating itself from faith, Boersma counsels that only a unity rooted in the human desire for God provides an enduring communion. Moreover, whereas many see history as simply a random chain of events, Boersma holds that history is filled with “mystery””that is, with the creative and redemptive presence of God. And whereas some evangelicals tend to shy away from the visible institution of the Church, Boersma suggests that the Church’s sacramental visibility belongs to its mission of signifying its eschatological goal of union with God. In short, although Boersma’s book is a scholarly study, it has the power to transform readers by disclosing the participation of all things in the mystery of God. This is what Boersma, in his title, means by ontology.

The book begins with a historical introduction that pits the brilliant twentieth-century Catholic theologians Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, M.D. Chenu, Henri Bouillard, and Hans Urs von Balthasar against their teachers, the neo-scholastics, or neo-Thomists, who came of age as opponents of Modernism at the turn of that century. With the exception, perhaps, of the work of Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the Catholic theology that was written and taught during the period between Pope Leo XIII’s late“nineteenth century promotion of neo-scholasticism and the rise of the nouvelle théologie in the mid“twentieth century is little known today. The sacramental, contemplative, and pastoral breadth and value of that theology should not be minimized, however, especially in light of the cultural accommodation and historicism that have so shamefully eviscerated contemporary Catholic theological education.

Boersma’s second chapter identifies four “precursors” whose work in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries laid the foundations for what became known as the ressourcement approach. As Boersma notes, the philosophies of David Hume and Immanuel Kant persuaded many that the existence of God is inaccessible to human reason. Influenced by Kant, philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768“1834) portrayed Christ as preeminently modeling the feeling of absolute dependence on God, or God-consciousness. In response, early“nineteenth century Catholic theologian Johann Adam Möhler integrated the emphasis on personal experience into an ecclesial and sacramental theology. For Möhler it is the whole Church’s consciousness that develops, as exemplified in the Church’s development of doctrine. Yet, as Boersma points out, “Möhler became increasingly concerned about the subjectivist pitfalls to which his strictly pneumatological starting-point might lead.” In later work Möhler emphasized the historical Incarnation and sacramental mediation through the visible Church, including the authority of the magisterium.

After treating Möhler, Boersma turns to three other late“nineteenth and early“twentieth century figures: Maurice Blondel, Joseph Maréchal, and Pierre Rousselot. These philosophers sought to replace neo-scholastic metaphysics with an emphasis on the will and on the dynamisms of human rationality toward the infinite. (Whether Aristotle needed to be excised so thoroughly remains doubtful, to say the least. In this regard, consideration of the work of Matthias Scheeben might have proven helpful.)

Chapter Three treats Henri de Lubac and Henri Bouillard as regards the relationship of nature and grace. Like de Lubac and Bouillard, Boersma is concerned with “the desacramentalized universe of modernity.” He blames this situation on the loss of the “sacramental” understanding of reality shaped by Christian neo-Platonism. De Lubac rejects neo-Platonic emanationism and insists on the gratuity of grace. More controversially, de Lubac claims that the Aristotelian emphasis on the natural order of ends, when taken up within Christian scholasticism, promotes secularization by positing a “pure nature” separate from the order of grace. Bouillard’s emphasis on the weakness of our natural knowledge of God, and his warnings that Aristotelian terms tend to reify God’s mysterious presence, provide common ground with Karl Barth’s concerns about the “analogy of being.” Following the teachings of Vatican I, Bouillard affirms that proving the existence of God is possible by attending to the dynamisms of rationality. Even so, he argues that recognizing the success of such proofs requires the eyes of faith. Boersma succinctly describes Bouillard’s intention this way: “Bouillard clearly curtailed the neo-Thomist autonomy of nature.” One might ask whether Christian use of Aristotle to defend human reason’s ability to know that God exists in fact implies the “autonomy of nature” or the rejection of a broadly sacramental vision of reality.

Chapter Four takes up the theme of nature and grace in Hans Urs von Balthasar and M.-D. Chenu. Boersma finds that von Balthasar’s approach is deeply indebted to de Lubac’s, with the following difference: “de Lubac, ever the patristic scholar, emphasized the upward movement of divine ascent, while Balthasar’s incarnational approach emphasized divine descent into the created realities of this-worldly time and space.” Von Balthasar consciously distances himself from neo-Platonism by underscoring the radical distinction between creator and creature. Yet, as Boersma says, von Balthasar also highly praises many Church Fathers whose thought is shaped by neo-Platonism, especially Maximus the Confessor. Similarly, in his dialogue with Barth, von Balthasar agrees that there is “no neutral concept of being.”

Chenu approaches Thomas Aquinas’ theology as faith-based and liturgical rather than as scientific in a purely Aristotelian sense. In this regard Boersma emphasizes Chenu’s appropriation of Pseudo-Dionysius. For Chenu, Augustine’s account of “symbol” is too otherworldly, whereas Pseudo-Dionysius’ liturgical emphasis firmly roots the spiritual in the material. Boersma finds, however, that Chenu goes too far in a this-worldly direction. Lacking sufficient appreciation for the problem of secularization, Chenu, in his effort to get out from under the Church authorities of his time, seems to undercut his own sacramental sensibilities. Thus, Chenu praises the medieval period above all as a time of “desacralizing” and of recognition of “the autonomy of the natural realm.”

These earlier chapters prepare the reader for the major theological work that Boersma undertakes in his final three chapters. Chapter Five explores the views of de Lubac and Daniélou on spiritual exegesis of Scripture; Chapter Six investigates Daniélou, Chenu, de Lubac, and Congar (among others) on the theology of history and, especially, the development of doctrine; and Chapter Seven treats the ecclesiology of de Lubac and Congar.

Boersma accepts the view that neo-scholastic theologians read Scripture as a set of doctrinal proof texts. (And, of course, Scripture does make doctrinal claims”a fact that should receive more discussion.) Challenging reductive readings of Scripture, de Lubac appeals to the Fathers’ and the medievals’ appreciation of “the infinite depth of the Scriptures.” As de Lubac recognizes, history viewed as a participation in the activity of the providential creator and redeemer differs from history viewed as the mere unfolding of material events. Boersma carefully surveys de Lubac’s study of Origen’s exegesis and summarizes Daniélou’s disagreement with his teacher de Lubac over whether to retrieve not only biblical typology, but also nonhistorical allegory. A better concise introduction to spiritual exegesis is, quite simply, not to be found.

Daniélou argues that even pagan religions, despite their idolatry, play a role in preparing for the revelation of Christ Jesus. While rejecting “providential” historiography, Daniélou emphasizes that everything known in secular history takes on its true meaning in sacred history. Chenu explores the history of the development of doctrine, with the goal of prioritizing faith rather than rational deduction. As Boersma says, however, Chenu should have included “a place for logical argumentation.” It is de Lubac who appreciates that the rationality involved in the development of doctrine must be “not a neutral one but one that was guided by the ‘analogy of faith’” and must penetrate ecclesially into the “‘Whole of the redemptive Action’” of Christ. Finally, Congar’s idea of “living Tradition,” drawn primarily from Möhler, provides the liturgical linchpin for understanding the Church’s reflection on the mysteries of salvation.

In de Lubac and Congar, in particular, Boersma finds the Church as sacrament, against individualistic or merely juridical views of salvation. The insight that the Eucharist makes the Church was, according to de Lubac, lost in the early Middle Ages because of the rigidity that scholastic disputes imposed on Eucharistic theology. While this historical argument strikes me as tendentious, nonetheless the connection between Church, Eucharist, and Christ, inscribed in the phrase “mystical body,” penetrates to the very heart of Catholic soteriology. Boersma rightly points to de Lubac’s concerns about the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium ’s emphasis on the metaphor of “people of God” as an indicator of why de Lubac and Congar found themselves disagreeing after the Second Vatican Council. For de Lubac, the Church sacramentally transforms believers into the image of Christ crucified, rather than making manifest the historical progress of humans in the world. Although Congar understood this as well, Boersma notes that Congar’s “intent to connect with his cultural context . . . may well have rendered him somewhat naive with regard to modernity’s secularizing tendencies.”

Boersma’s book is much more than a survey of key aspects of the ressourcement approach, although it is that. Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology opens up a new way of interpreting the ressourcement theologians. Against the tendency to read them primarily within intra-Catholic debates, Boersma shows that their most important contribution consisted in their attack on the rationalisms of the twentieth century. At their best, these men called their contemporaries to understand all aspects of reality”from human desire, to existence itself, to Scripture, history, and the Church”as pointers to something infinitely greater than can be canvassed by the empirical method or logical analysis. As a Protestant, Boersma does not agree with all their judgments; nor do I. Yet, by making clear the importance of regaining a “sacramental hermeneutic,” he sets the agenda for how the present century might become, as Pope John Paul II hoped, the springtime of the new evangelization.

Matthew Levering is professor of theology at the University of Dayton and author of Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

Articles by Matthew Levering


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