Essay / Theology

What’s so Nouvelle about the Nouvelle Théologie? (Boersma pt. 1)

éFred Sanders and Matt Jenson had a blast engaging with two books on the Trinity a while back, so Jenson and Greg Peters decided they’d have a conversation about a couple books by Hans Boersma, in which he seeks to rehabilitate a sacramental ontology.

In the first book, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford University Press, 2009—thanks to OUP for copies of the book!), Boersma carefully reports on and synthesizes the early twentieth-century nouvelle théologie movement in Roman Catholic life and thought. At the heart of Boersma’s argument is the claim that the diverse, and sometimes divergent, streams of thought in this renewal movement represent a ‘return to mystery’—to the mystery of God, to be sure, but just as much the mystery of creation as a sacramental order. Over the next few days, we will take a look at Boersma’s account and his constructive proposals following from it.

Jenson:  This is inside baseball, no doubt about it—and yet it has significant implications for the practice of Christian theology and the life of the church. Let’s start with some basic definitions. First, nouvelle théologie. This umbrella term began as snark, a dismissive epithet hurled at a group of mostly French theologians whose various projects all looked a little too ‘new’. Of course, ‘new’ is a relative term. In proximity to the regnant Roman Catholic theology of the day, neo-Thomism, nouvelle théologie was certainly new. It emphasized history over against the timelessness prized by neo-Thomism and sought to re-integrate the natural and supernatural in the face of a tradition that accorded relatively discrete spheres to the natural and supernatural, and to philosophy and theology. From the perspective of its critics, NT (for short) looked an awful lot like the demon du jour, Modernism. If conservative Protestant defended the faith by publishing and distributing The Fundamentals (1910-1915)conservative Catholics defended the faith by subscribing to the Anti-Modernist Oath (1910). Both groups perceived in Modernism a capitulation to the Zeitgeist, a fatal compromise in which liberal theologians put on a biblical and doctrinal fire sale.

But, remember, ‘new’ is a relative term. Fundamental to NT was the conviction that it was neo-Thomism that was really new, that, if one looks back beyond the previous couple centuries of Roman Catholic thought, one will find biblical, patristic, and medieval life and thought to be far more amenable to NT concerns than those of neo-Thomism. If, to use the terms of Vatican II, NT looked to its critics like unvarnished aggiornamento (‘accommodation’ or ‘updating’), these ‘new theologians’ looked backward as much as forward; that is, theirs was a project of ressourcement. If they sought to renew or reform the church, it was by going back to its sources, by listening to the witness of the church in earlier centuries. In each strand of NT thought—its re-configuration of the nature-supernature relationship, its recovery of spiritual interpretation and the categories of history, and its re-integrated ecclesiology—it found precursors, mentors, and models in the earlier centuries of the church. So, in that sense, NT might argue that it was the furthest thing from new!

So much for the title’s first term. Greg, what does Boersma intend by a ‘sacramental ontology’?

Peters:  ‘Sacramental ontology’ is the term Boersma (and others) uses to express, in a nutshell, what the nouvelle theologians believed to be foundational to their theological vision. In this context, ‘sacramental’ is connected to the biblical word mysterium with its variegated shades of meaning. ‘Sacramental ontology’ describes the relationship between the sign (signum) and the reality (res) of the mystery to which the sign points. For the nouvelle theologians theology was always an exploration of truth whose purpose was to illuminate the sacramental realities of the created order. As you mentioned, Matt, the nouvelle theologians were attempting to re-integrate the natural and the supernatural and the primary way in which they envisioned this re-integration was to defend the notion that created, natural signs pointed to uncreated, supernatural realities. That which is natural already contains spiritual realities, so any division between natural and supernatural is a philosophical and theological fiction. As expected, this sacramental ontology, intimate connecting of signum and res, was often discussed by the NT folks in the context of ecclesiology, especially the Eucharist. However, they also saw this sacramental ontology at work in early and medieval Christian biblical exegesis where words (the signa) pointed to the mysteries of God (the res).

As Boersma helpfully points out, the nouvelle theologians were not a united or monolithic school of thought. Each of the main players offered unique contributions to a ressourcement movement that only later came to be seen as its own (somewhat) coherent school of thought. However, at the heart of each of the main protagonists was a commitment to a sacramental ontology. Each theologian, in his own way, was committed to a recovery of the sense of mystery and to a life of faith in which the supernatural broke into the created world on a daily basis by means of God’s good creation. For the nouvelle theologians Neo-Thomism’s greatest error had been disconnecting (or at least perpetuating the disconnection) between the created and uncreated orders. This stripped theology of its vitality and made it a rationalistic system for proof-texting dogmatic pronouncements. Further, theology’s apologetic task was reduced to a presentation of rationalistic proofs that were to be subscribed to in order to demonstrate one’s faith. Faith was equated with rationalistic assent; the mysteries had been solved. In short, the curtain had been drawn back and all there was to see was the perfectly synchronized moving parts of a self-contained theological system. It was a boring vision; God had been placed in a box.

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