Essay / Theology

“An Infinite Forest of Meanings” (Boersma pt. 2)

Today we continue our discussion of Hans Boersma’s Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery.

Jenson:  I’d assume just about any thoughtful Christian would want to applaud a view of the world as the theatre of God’s action. The Creator, thanks be to God, is also the Sustainer, Redeemer, and Perfecter. At a high altitude, such theocentrism is surely unobjectionable. But let’s look at a couple of case studies to see how this plays out in the trenches.

Take the question of whether people have a natural desire for God. On the one hand, Augustine confesses that “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Grace, then, might be said to complete, crown, or perfect nature. We were made to rest in God, and in the midst of our wending ways, our hearts relentlessly seek our home in him. Thus, the most desperate of sinners, if he had the eyes to see, would admit that he wanted nothing other than God, no matter how confused that desire became. On the other hand, as the Reformation declared with gusto, we are nothing if not entrepreneurial when it comes to taking God’s good gifts and spoiling them. Despite God’s voice ringing out in creation, we “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). Paul echoes the teaching of the Old Testament that “no one seeks after God.” (Rom. 3:10) Grace, on this reading, must be interruptive—challenging, thwarting, even killing nature, that the sinner might be reborn in Christ as a new creation.

Furthermore, because God is God, we may not presume upon grace, as if he owed us something. Grace is, well, gratuitous—that is, it is freely given and freely received, unmerited, unanticipated. To emphasize this gratuity, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), and later the neo-Thomists, posited a ‘pure nature’, a sort of not-yet-graced nature. Henri de Lubac, one of the leading nouvelle theologians, objected strongly to this, however, arguing that nature is always already graced—and yet that this need not be construed as if humanity could get to God on the strength of its own two feet. Boersma summarizes: “The fact that God had given human beings natural desire for the beatific vision did not entail that they could attain their supernatural end by means of their inherent, natural powers.”

Peters:  Not only does the notion of sacramental ontology have a profound impact on the relationship between God and humankind, but it affects how God’s intellectual creation (here I am only thinking of human beings) reads God’s inspired Word. One of the most well-known works to come out of the NT movement is Henri de Lubac’s four-volume Medieval Exegesis, which has become a standard in the areas of biblical and medieval studies and not just among those influenced by or interested in the NT. Though de Lubac was not the only nouvelle theologian interested in the spiritual interpretation of the Bible (Boersma also discusses Jean Daniélou’s contribution in this area), he is the one who gave it its greatest shape. De Lubac believed that the biblical text held “an infinite forest of meanings” (to use a quote from Jerome) and therefore it was the interpreter’s job to peel back the layers of the scriptural onion to get at the historical, anagogical, tropological and allegorical meanings of the text that are inherent in and native to the Scriptures themselves. This is not eisegesis but the kind of exegesis practiced in both the early and medieval church, falling out of favor with the rise of neo-Thomism beginning in the sixteenth century. Because the neo-Thomists held to an essentialist ontology they narrowed and hardened exegetical practice down to a form of modern positivism. The neo-Thomists believed that the Scriptures made objective, dogmatic statements about God and, therefore, the exegete’s task was to translate these statements into grist for the theological mill. The biblical texts had a meaning, and that meaning contributed to the defining of dogma.

On the other hand, nouvelle theologians followed the lead of patristic and medieval exegetes who allowed for a greater range of imagination in the interpretive task, allowing the supernatural text to touch upon the natural life of all humankind. Though the Scriptures are historical texts, coming out of particular cultures and from the pens of unique writers, they transcend any earthly limitations. They are historical texts but they are so much more for they speak not only about the history of creation but about salvation history, of God’s condescension to create and ultimately to become incarnate himself. This self-emptying of God in the incarnation of the Son also led de Lubac (and other nouvelle theologians) to see that the principal scriptural hermeneutic was a Christological hermeneutic, in which both the Old and New Testaments must be read in light of the coming of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth. Further, this Christological focus connects the exegetical task to the worship life of the Church, since the “embodiments of the Logos in Scripture and in the Eucharist [are] intimately connected.” That is, all scriptural exegesis is ecclesiological inasmuch as the interpretive task is rooted in the common life of the Church and in the spiritual (even mystical) life of each believer.

Jenson:  In its ongoing project of ressourcement, NT found an earlier view of the church as a sacrament, “a view that had made ecclesial unity and fellowship its aim.” Yves Congar derided a “hierarchology” more interested in juridical realities—who can administer the sacraments? What makes a sacrament valid?—than with the communion of the saints. In a careful historical study, de Lubac argued that the “Eucharist corresponds to the Church as cause to effect, as means to end, as sign to reality.” Sacramental communion leads to ecclesial union, and the eucharist makes the church. Around the twelfth century, however, a shift away from this position took place. No longer was it the church referred to as the “true body” (corpus verum); now the “true body” was identified as the eucharistic elements. Thus the focus shifted “from the sacramental reality (res) to the sacramental means (sacramentum).” In the process, the “true” was set polemically over against the “mystical” body, and interest in the latter waned. Ironically, the sacramentality of the sacrament, in which sign and reality were intertwined, was lost. The Feast of Corpus Christi, with its reverence toward the eucharistic body, achieved prominence, while those in the pews forgot any connection that the bread and wine might have with them. De Lubac pled with the church to return to its source in the broken body and spilled blood of Christ, through which the risen Christ gives life to his people and sends them forth as a communion-in-mission.

Congar similarly drew attention to the life of the church in and from the sacraments. The church was preeminently the congregation of the faithful in his eyes, and the hierarchy served to foster this life together. Popes, bishops, and priests truly are ministers, that is, servants of the faithful. Boersma comments: “Maintaining the sacramental character of the Church…was the way to keep together the institutional and communal aspects of the Church.” The church is itself a sacrament, for Congar, making Christ present in the world. He criticized Protestants for failing to reckon with the reality that Christ really is made present in and by the institutional church’s mediation, and on the other hand he took the Orthodox to task for an over-realized eschatology in which Christ’s presence is full, unambiguous, and uncontested in the church. If the church is the sacrament of Christ, it nevertheless stands in need of persistent reform—a reform that, more often than not, begins on the margins, far from the halls of ecclesial power.

This final note seems to me one of the more important, though it is rather muted in Boersma’s book. If we are to return to mystery via a sacramental ontology, it cannot be a triumphal return. It must be a penitent one, in which the church recognizes her routine betrayal of the mysteries with which she has been entrusted. Looked at differently, a sacramental ontology must account for the gap between signum and res, the imperfection of the signum, if it is to remain properly sacramental. But that is to anticipate…

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