This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2013 vol. 170 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental TapestryWm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids February 1, 2011
Boersma holds the J. I. Packer Chair in Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Colombia. In this book he argues that the sacramental perspective held by the church fathers and medieval theologians has been lost, which has had a detrimental effect on contemporary theology. The broad historical Christian consensus reflected the belief “that created objects found their reality and identity in the eternal Word of God” (pp. x–xi). Recovery of this perspective, for the benefit of the well-being of the church, is the goal of this book (p. xi).
In his introduction Boersma begins by describing the premodern understanding that in some mysterious way the realities of the created world participate in the greater eternal realities to which they point (pp. 1–2). Throughout the book Boersma refers to this perspective as the “sacramental tapestry.” The foundation for this sacramental perspective grew, he argues, from what he terms the “Platonist-Christian synthesis” (p. 7), in which Christian theologians “judiciously appropriated certain elements of Platonic thought in the process of Christianizing the Hellenic world” (p. 7, n. 10). Through a complex set of developments and circumstances this perspective was eclipsed and eventually lost. He describes the discussion that follows as “a project of retrieval (ressourcement)” (p. 9), in which he draws on the work of theologians from the French Catholic nouvelle théologie renewal movement of the 1940s and 1950s (pp. 11–12). He states, “The structure of this book is meant to be an allusion to the Platonist-Christian synthesis that I believe we need to reengage. It is my conviction that evangelicals (as well as Catholics) do well to join nouvelle théologie in this journey of rediscovery. At stake is nothing less than participation in the heavenly reality of Jesus Christ” (p. 16).
In Part 1, “Exitus: The Fraying Tapestry,” Boersma describes the decline and ultimate loss of the sacramental understanding of created realities. In chapter 1 he discusses “sacramental ontology” and the understanding that created reality not only points to but also participates in eternal heavenly realities (p. 23). Chapter 2 develops this understanding and argues that this was the view of the early church. Boersma argues that early writers emphasized the centrality of Christ and His relation to the created order, which is a significant difficulty for some contemporary theologians (p. 40). Chapters 3–5 describe some of the complex factors that contributed to the decline of this view and the “unraveling of the tapestry” (p. 52).
In part 2, “Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads,” Boersma addresses five significant areas in which he believes we must “reconnect the threads of the medieval Platonist-Christian synthesis” (p. 101). In each of these areas, “The Eucharist as Sacramental Meal” (chap. 6), “Tradition as Sacramental Time” (chap. 7), “Biblical Interpretation as Sacramental Practice” (chap. 8), “Truth as Sacramental Reality” (chap. 9), and “Theology as Sacramental Discipline” (chap. 10), Boersma draws significant nouvelle théologie writers into dialogue with figures such as Augustine, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa as they challenge believers to see the church and its actions from a sacramental perspective.
After a brief summary in the epilogue Boersma notes that “both evangelicals and Catholics . . . have been seriously affected by the desacramentalizing of modernity,” and that “the only faithful way forward . . . is by way of a sacramental ontology” (p. 189). Boersma has done a masterful job of linking his sense of urgency regarding problems faced by the church today with a well-reasoned call for ressourcement as a way through them. Some may have difficulty with the extent to which he relies on Roman Catholic theologians and the nouvelle théologie as his primary dialogue partners. Nevertheless his engagement with these writers, as well as significant early-church theologians, is buttressed by his interaction with and reliance on important contemporary evangelical scholarship throughout the work. Consequently this is a book that is well worth reading as it provides an important background for and corrective to a missing component in contemporary theological reflection.
—Jim Larsen with Glenn R. Kreider