"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, December 23, 2011

Hans Boersma on Sacramental Theology in our Time

I noted the recent publication of Hans Boersma's new book, Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. I interviewed him about this book and related questions, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

I grew up in a wonderful Reformed family in the Netherlands, where my Dad served as a Pastor.  After taking a degree in education (and a compulsory one-year stint in the army) in Holland, I moved to Canada (Surrey, BC), where I started teaching at an elementary school.  There I met my wife, Linda, who taught at the same school.  I soon decided to pursue further education—studying history at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, then doing an M.Div. at the Canadian Reformed Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario, and finally pursuing a doctorate in theology at the University of Utrecht.  I served as a pastor in Aldergrove, BC, for three and a half years, and then started teaching theology at Trinity Western University, an evangelical liberal arts university in Langley, BC.  For the past six years, I have taught at Regent College, an international evangelical graduate school of theology in Vancouver.  My wife and I have five children, one of whom is still at home with us.

AD: What led you to write this book?

The most immediate reason for writing it is probably that two colleagues, Richard Mouw from Fuller and John Stackhouse from Regent, both suggested I should write a more popular version of my Oxford book on nouvelle théologie. Writing popular books doesn’t come easily to me, but in the end I did decide to try it, because I feel passionately about the issues I am writing about in this book.  Perhaps I could highlight two of them.  First, I have an increasing conviction that modernity has left us with a terribly flat, horizontal, this-worldly perspective.  I am strongly convinced that earlier viewpoints rightly saw that this-worldly created appearances veil a deeper, transcendent depth, a reality that as a Christian I believe ultimately goes back to the eternal Word of God himself.  Put differently, God’s gifts of the created order participate sacramentally in heavenly realities.  This perspective gives us a much richer appreciation for the world in which we live and at the same time helps us focus more distinctly on what is ultimate: eternal life in the Triune God himself.

Second, and connected to this, I believe that there are theological emphases that modernity has difficulty appreciating, such as the importance of Eucharistic celebration, the role of tradition in passing on the Christian faith, and biblical interpretation as a spiritual rather than just an archaeological practice.  The 20th-century Catholic movement of nouvelle théologie --Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar most notably—have taught me to approach theology from a different angle, one that doesn’t focus just on propositional accuracy but that looks at theology as an entry into the mystery of the Triune God. It’s not that I want to pitch mystery over against propositional truth; it’s more that our human truth statements participate sacramentally, as it were, in divine Reason.  Once you take this perspective, Eucharist, Tradition, and spiritual exegesis take on a great deal more significance.  In short, the book is a bit of a manifesto.  It is a cry from the heart about what I believe is important as we go about our theological business in our contemporary modern (and postmodern) culture.

AD: For whom did you write the book--did you have a particular audience in mind?

I wrote this book primarily for evangelicals.  I write as an evangelical for evangelicals, trying to persuade them that we need to regain a pre-modern sensibility if we want to properly navigate the challenges of late modern culture.  Younger evangelicals increasingly react against the propositionalism of an earlier generation.  Unfortunately, however, too often this reaction goes hand in hand with a further radicalizing of the Reformation.  These younger evangelicals continue to reject the authority of tradition, they are nervous about authority structures, and they are often radically biblicist, rejecting a harmonious weaving together of reason and faith, philosophy and theology.  In terms of Christian living, the individualism of their evangelical past renders them susceptible to the same moral vapidity and indecisiveness that characterizes the broader cultural context.  I am trying to suggest to them that by anchoring ourselves more deeply in the Christian tradition, we find resources there that help us overcome some of our unhelpful evangelical cul-de-sacs.  At the same time, I suspect that my appeal for a sacramental mindset isn’t important only for evangelicals.  The desacralizing of the cosmos has deeply affected other traditions, including Catholicism, as well.  So, I am hoping that the book gets read also outside the evangelical orbit.

AD: Were there any surprises as you were writing?

Not really, to be honest.  Although writing often takes me a long time, I was able to write this book quite quickly, during a few summer months.  The reason is that the book comes fairly directly out of my teaching and research.  Much of the material that you find here I have dealt with at Regent College in my classes, in one way or another.  Among my friends and colleagues at Regent, we have discussed and debated the issues involved for a number of years.  So, I was relatively clear in my mind about what it is what I wanted to do.  Also, the second part of the book draws heavily on nouvelle théologie, a topic on which I had just published an earlier book. So, I was already into the topic and knew how I wanted to rework the ideas. If there was any surprise, it was perhaps how strongly I felt about the issues involved, once I began to put pen to paper for a more popular audience.

AD: Though much of your focus is on Western Christians, evangelicals especially, is it possible to say that some of the challenges today to sacramental theology and sacramental practice are really faced by all Christians, East and West alike?

I think there is no doubt that Christians in the East face many of the same challenges that we encounter in the West.  Western culture is increasingly becoming a global culture, so to think that Eastern Orthodoxy would somehow be immune to the de-sacramentalizing challenges that are ours in the West would be naïve.  At the same time, it seems to me that the Eastern love for patristic theology gives Orthodoxy certain emphases for which we, in the West, should be grateful and from which we should learn.  I am thinking, for instance, of the importance of participation, of deification, and of typological exegesis, which naturally find a home in the Eastern mindset.

AD: Your book does draw on numerous Eastern Fathers as well as contemporary Eastern theologians, including of course Alexander Schmemann. What drew you to them? What do you think they have to offer evangelical theology today?

I indeed draw on several Eastern Fathers, though not exclusively so.  I also draw fairly extensively also on St. Augustine, whose Platonist-Christian synthesis was, I think, profound.  I love his distinction between ‘use’ (uti) and ‘enjoyment’ (frui), which recognizes that our ultimate aim is heaven and that we ought to use earthly gifts mere as sacraments, which are meant to bring us home.  I also use St. Irenaeus, whom perhaps we may describe both as an Eastern and as a Western theologian. 

But I indeed also use Eastern theologians, and I am currently writing a book on embodiment in St. Gregory of Nyssa.  His mystical, anagogical (upward-leading) theology is absolutely profound, I think.  I am attracted to theologians such as IrenaeusGregory, and others especially because they recognize that created realities find their purpose of being in the very life of God.  The East—along with the Greek Fathers—has always maintained clearly that this-worldly realities (and especially human beings!) are not strictly autonomous or self-contained, but that they find their true meaning and identity in their ultimate aim, our Christ-filled heavenly future.

AD: You reflect at some length on the challenge that medieval Nominalism poses to a coherent sacramental theology. How has the ressourcement movement helped in dealing with Nominalism?

Nominalism isn’t able to recognize that the way we identify created objects is better or worse depending on how well our naming of them corresponds to their eternal, heavenly archetypes. Nominalism, by rejecting the real existence of eternal essences or archetypes, forces us to be curved in upon ourselves and on this-worldly objects.  The result is fragmentation in how we see people and objects relating not just to God but also to each other. This modern sense of alienation and fragmentation seems to me to stem ultimately from a tearing of the sacramental link between heaven and earth. A retrieval or ressourcement of patristic and medieval sources can be tremendously helpful here, because this earlier tradition assumed a Platonist-Christian perspective that looked at earthly objects as anchored in what Plato would have called eternal ‘forms’, but which Christians identified as Jesus Christ himself.  Knowledge, therefore, even of temporal, earthly objects is based on Jesus Christ. This is something of which the Church Fathers were deeply aware. The twentieth-century Catholic ressourcement movement was, I think, in many ways an attempt to overcome the secularity that was impinging on European society, and these theologians tried to do so by recovering the sacramental modes of knowing and of reading Scripture that had been current in pre-modern society.

AD: Much of the ressourcement movement, of course, was led by French Jesuits and Dominicans. How has an evangelical of Dutch extraction teaching in Canada come to know and be influenced by their thought?

When I taught at Trinity Western University (1998-2005), we had an informal reading group of evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox theologians, which we called ‘Paradosis’ (Tradition).  One of the books that we read was Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions 

Congar's book revolutionized my thinking: I saw here a Catholic theologian who, on the one hand, was able to impress on me the inescapable force and significance of tradition—in ways that my own background had never done; and who, on the other hand, made very clear that he didn’t regard Scripture and Tradition as two separate sources of authority and that Scripture was materially sufficient for all Christian teaching.  In other words, Congar (and, as I now realize, most Catholic thinkers today) held to some form of sola scripturaCongar’s insistence that Tradition, based as it is in Christ, itself is sacramental in character left a strong impression on me.

Around the same time, my department asked me to present a paper on biblical interpretation.  My reading of Irenaeus had already made me nervous about the often strictly historical (and this-worldly) approach of much contemporary biblical exegesis.  As I did some research for the paper, I came across an excellent essay by Henri de Lubac on spiritual interpretation.  De Lubac made clear that the fourfold exegesis of the earlier tradition wasn’t a silly relic of the past but could continue to inform our exegetical practices today, without negating some of the more helpful contributions of critical exegesis. Moreover, de Lubac made clear that this exegesis was a sacramental practice.  So, I had encountered two theologians who were obviously sacramental in their thinking, and I knew that at some point, I had to explore their theology further, to see what I could learn from it.

AD: Your book is a wonderful model of how to do theology ecumenically, and a great reminder that today no Christian scholar can afford to work in the solitude of his own tradition. And yet for some--especially Orthodox--"ecumenism" and its cognates is a dirty word (the "pan-heresy"). Do you attract flak among evangelicals for so openly drawing on Catholic and Orthodox thought?

Many of the issues that I discuss in the book I presented first in a team-taught course at Regent and in public dialogue with my colleagues.  I dedicated the book to my colleagues and students at Regent, precisely because I am so very grateful for the open discussions that we regularly have at Regent.  That’s not to say that we are always in agreement.  As I mention in the book’s preface, we do find ourselves disagreeing on issues, sometimes even vehemently so, but we all believe that what binds us together in Christ is far more important than the theological differences that we have.  And so, I think we disagree well, and we talk, discuss, and debate as friends among each other.  It’s one of the best ways, I think, of doing theology in today’s society, and our students are certainly grateful for it.


As to the broader evangelical world beyond Regent College, I don’t know if I can fully evaluate that.  My evangelical reviewers so far have been most generous.  I suspect that one reason is that the themes I put forward in the book increasingly echo among at least some of today’s evangelical theologians.  For whatever reason, I have not encountered any kind of sharp denunciations of my book, and even those who are apprehensive of some of my emphases tend to take the arguments that I put forward seriously and engage it on its merits.  So, thankfully, I have no reason to feel defensive about the approach that I have taken in my ecumenical endeavours.

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