Examining the middle way

Heavenly Participation is the latest offering from the J. I. Packer Chair in Theology at Regent College, Hans Boersma. A more popular version of his technical work, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford University Press, 2009), Boersma hopes this work will accomplish three tasks: to introduce a largely evangelical audience to “sacramental ontology" as it was recovered and developed by the French Catholic Nouvelle theologians in the 20th century; to provide a better grounding for evangelical criticism of late modern theological and exegetical method; and to offer a potentially fruitful path for further theological engagement with Roman Catholicism.

The work is divided into two parts. The first, entitled “Exitus: The Fraying of the Tapestry" provides readers with introductory material (chapter 1) an historical narrative (chapters 2-5) and an invitation (chapter 6).

The first chapter defines key terms that recur throughout the work: “sacramental ontology" and “Platonist Christian synthesis." This is then followed by an account of the construction of the first “sacramental ontology" by the Church Fathers, its development and flourishing in the early and high medieval era, its decline in late medieval theology and final destruction by both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Boersma concludes by challenging younger evangelicals to reconsider the Reformation's theological legacy and to invite them to consider whether pre-modern sacramentalism is in fact a better platform from which to critique modernity than postmodern skepticism.

The second part, entitled “Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads," then builds on this invitation, starting with a meditation on the Eucharist as sacramental meal that draws heavily upon the work of the nouvelle theologian, Henri De Lubac (chapter 7). Boersma finds in De Lubac a middle way of understanding the sacraments that avoids both the sharp distinction between sign and reality (the weakness of Protestantism) and their identification (the flaw of Counter-Reformation Catholicism).

This middle way–participation - is then the basis from which such matters as the place of tradition in theological reflection (chapter 7), the purpose of biblical interpretation (chapter 8), the nature of truth (chapter 9), and the place of theology (chapter 10) are reconsidered both with a view to grounding evangelical criticism of modernity and with a view to sketching a way forward for further engagement between evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians.

Whether this books succeeds, I think, depends largely upon just who reads it. On the surface, of course, that's an observation that is almost banal. Let me explain further.

Those evangelicals whose piety and theological reflection is already sacramentally oriented, certain Anglicans or Lutherans, for example, will find in Boersma's work a clear and concise articulation of what they are already working toward. This is certainly true in my case: the patristic turn, the return to participation as Christian ontology, a realistic understanding of the sacraments all rang true for me because they are already deeply engrained in my understanding and, more importantly, my practice of Christian faith.

Likewise, an invitation to ecumenical dialogue that is oriented toward future possibilities rather than clarifying past disagreements, while refusing to flinch in the face of conflicting truth-claims is one that most of us will find difficult to refuse. I closed the book with a hearty “Amen," in other words, because I was already on board.

Other younger evangelicals coming to the book from free church, Baptist or Anabaptist backgrounds will certainly leave the book intrigued, quite possibly confused, and as a result I fear, unconvinced. This is not so much down to a flaw in Boersma's argument as it is that there are simply fewer practical hooks within the piety of these readers upon which that argument will be able to hang.

Boersma is calling these evangelicals especially to a paradigm shift in their understanding of the faith, one in which sacramental practice comes ahead of and provides the context for biblical exegesis and theological reflection. My own experience as a theological teacher with students from these backgrounds is that there is no underestimating just how radical this shift can be in the hearts and minds of many. I do hope that, even as they leave unconvinced, they will also leave willing to reflect further on Boersma's invitation and, in time, find themselves willing to take it.

As I was reading Heavenly Participation, my son was reading The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. I could not help reading both books together; not least because Lewis frequently appears in Boersma's footnotes. And it may be that a good re-acquaintance with Narnia will help readers in the second group warm toward Boersma's invitation. At the same time, a thorough reading of Boersma will put Lewis's Professor Kirke's final exclamation, “All in Plato. All in Plato," in its proper context.

For those who are tempted to bypass this book too foreign or too Catholic, I hope the invocation of the great evangelical Anglican apologist provides a sort of stamp of approval. For this book needs to be read.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.

About the author