A Review of Heavenly Participation by Hans Boersma – 1

[this is a fragmented remnant of a larger but now defunct project, originally a critique of Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation and the sacramental worldview expressed therein.]

An Unpersuasive Argument

The first reason Heavenly Participation is unpersuasive is that it lacks any real argument and whatever arguments it does make are fallacious and implicit, or explicit and fall flat. Throughout the book, Boersma presents the Platonic-Christian synthesis as being the view of the Great Tradition, but never gives a reason why we should adopt this synthesis. The length of the book seems to amount to a prolonged appeal to authority; though present throughout, this is especially seen in his chapter on Tradition as Sacramental Time (120-136). Here he appeals to the writing of Kevin Vanhoozer—who, as I will show later, he misinterprets—as an example of Evangelicalism’s ability to support the understanding of tradition and Scripture which a sacramental ontology supposedly suggest (130-136). He actually concludes that for Evangelicals to truly be Evangelicals, they must jump on the Catholicized “Evangelicalism” of Congar and, supposedly, Vanhoozer (136). This whole chapter amounts to this: since Vanhoozer is an intelligent Evangelical who accepts allegorical exegesis and the catholic view of tradition, so should you.

 

The one time that Boersma appears to explicitly defend his reasoning for accepting the Platonic-Christian Synthesis, it falls flat (51). He reasons that it is on his basis that early Christians defended their soteriology and Trinitarian doctrine, and if we want to capture this “ecumenical consensus” we must take back the synthesis (40-41).[1] An example he gives is Irenaeus’ doctrine of Recapitulation. For Irenaeus, Christ was able to ensure the adoption and deification of humanity by taking up humanity in the incarnation (partaking in the essence of common humanity, the platonic universal that’s unites humanity) and then going through every stage of the human life, being “an old man for old men” (quoted on 42). By participating in the common humanity and then recapitulating human life, Christ was able to gather all humanity under his headship (41-44).  Now, the problem here is this; why would we want to recapture this soteriology? The problem for Irenaeus’ teaching then and now is not just its lack of scriptural support (which Boersma doesn’t see as necessary, 20), but the fact that Jesus ascended to heaven before he became an old man: so he was never “an old man for old men.” If what Irenaeus’ teaching is true, then old men cannot be saved. Furthermore, as I have shown elsewhere, everything the fathers—at least Athanasius—taught by deification that is biblical can be found in the protestant doctrine of glorification—without the need for Platonic subtleties.[2] The last example he gives is from Gregory of Nyssa, a defense of the Trinity. Here, the defense is not at all helpful (a useless analogy once it’s conceded that the distinctiveness of the people cannot be applied to the Trinity) (47-51). Boersma argues that the Platonic synthesis is required to keep these teachings, but the majority of evangelicals do not hold to these teachings, so his argument is quite unpersuasive.[3]

 

The last reason the argument of Heavenly Participation is unpersuasive is the fallacious way it draws conclusions and dismisses opposing viewpoints. Two examples should show some of the non-sequiturs that Boersma makes. On page 129, he writes;

The sacramental understanding of the Platonist-Christian synthesis shakes up this modern evangelical model. If the various historical moments of the church’s tradition sacramentally participate in each other in and through the Christ event, theological or doctrinal convictions of the Christian past are much more than interesting ways Christians throughout history have dealt with the biblical text. If the church today shares, by means of a real participation, in the church’s earlier tradition, that earlier tradition genuinely lives on in us and we have a sacred responsibility to it. Earlier periods of the Christian tradition and our present time are connected via a common sacramental participation in the eternal Word of God.

Boersma here makes many assertions about the impact that sacramentality should have on tradition’s relation to the Church, but none of them explicitly—or even, as far as I can see, implicitly—follow from believing in Platonic participation.  The last two sentences really call for explanation: how does platonic participation really lead to us having a “sacred responsibility” to the tradition—maybe I am dense, but I don’t see the link.

The second example I will give is this; “If sun and moon will disappear from the new heaven and earth, it should be obvious that any language that Scripture may use to describe the eschaton is merely analogical in character” (187-188). I see no reason why this obviously must be “merely analogical.”[4] If a single other explanation can be given, then this is not so obvious. One might be this; if God was able to create light apart from sun and moon in the early stages of creation (Gen. 1:3-5, cf. 14-18),[5] why cannot it really be that God Himself will provide light for the new heavens and the new earth (Isa.60:19, Rev. 21:23, 22:5)?[6]

Throughout Heavenly Participation, Boersma consistently presents straw men explanations of opposing positions and then establishes a dichotomy: your choice is either this weak view, or sacramental ontology. This is often paired with ad hominem associations; because this position is supposedly nominalist (125) or related to Scotus’ univocity (125-126) it should be dismissed. I will give two examples, but there are many others (eg. 130, 138-139, etc…). In defense of a sacramental (allegorical) hermeneutic for Scripture, Boersma looks at Isaiah 53 (Page 140-141). After suggesting that exegetes who hold to historical-critical interpretation have first in mind the question of the messianic, or lack there-of, intentions of Isaiah, he then writes,

Understandably, therefore, readers who take the unity of Scripture seriously tend to be apprehensive about exegetes who argue that Isaiah did not intend his prophetic message in Isaiah 5 messianically. But Scholars like Yves Congar and Kevin Vanhoozer have no qualms about following Philip in his Christological reading of the prophecy. The reason, I suggest, is that both recognize that the meaning of the text is not restricted to the original intent of the human author. Both Congar and Vanhoozer recognize that a text’s meaning is, in part, determined by its reception. (141)

The implication, in context, is that a historical-critical approach is naturalistic (138) and cannot come to grasp with the unifying hermeneutic that Philip displays in Acts 8. The way out is a sacramental hermeneutic which acknowledges reception as a factor in meaning—which actually misrepresents Vanhoozers view. I suggest that this is both a straw man—it is presenting the weakest form of historical-critical interpretation—and a false dichotomy, there is a third way between historically bound criticism and subjectivity. On the basis of Christ’s word’s to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27), many Evangelical exegetes believe that all Scripture points to Christ and that there is an objective, unifying, structure throughout Scripture that culminates in Christ and makes sense of the entire text—without resorting to subjective reader-response criticism.[7]

As part of a continuing disjunction between rationality and mystery (eg. Modernism/Postmodernism and Premodernism), Boersma writes sympathetically, “De Lubac obviously laments the resulting Christian rationalism that now began to approach the mysteries of faith mainly by means of intellectual demonstration. Whereas the earlier sacramental symbolism had regarded truth as participation in divine mystery, the new rationalist dialectics maintained that truth meant complete rational comprehension of propositional statements” (159). While I sympathize with the suspicion of hyper-rationalism in both Catholic and Protestant camps, the continual picture presented is that the only hope for a humble stance on mystery is a recapturing of the Pre-modern sacramentalism (26-27). I suspect that the position Boersma presents is not humble at all, for it defines humility from man’s reason and not God’s revelation, but there have long been Christians who value mystery and reason, not as mutually exclusive but as mutually enriching. God has given us minds and revealed Himself, we accept and delight in mystery where God has left us in mystery, but stretch for understanding where He has given us the tools to reach understanding. An example is Calvinist compatibilism, as expressed in J.I. Packers Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God; we stand on the truths of Scripture that man is responsible for his actions and God is completely sovereign, we go on to show that this is not a contradiction, [8] but glory in the greatness of God where we enter mystery here (Rom. 11:33-36). Beyond just a lack of solid argument, its misunderstandings—or at least over simplifications—of various philosophies and positions prevented it from having and persuasive effect.


[1] At times, Ecumenical appeal almost seems to be used as justification for various points made (here, 67, 123-124, 153. Here is almost seems as if, for Boersma, ecumenical appeal should be a strong enough authority for an evangelical to want to hold to these teachings.[2] See this post: https://allforthegloryofhiskingdom.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/gods-in-the-making-an-analysis-of-deification-in-the-thought-of-athanasius/[3] There is also a circular argument here: all these teachings are built off the foundation of Platonism, so they cannot serve as a justification for accepting Platonism unless they are proven from another authority—which neither the original authors nor Boersma gives. This is actually a huge problem throughout the book, there is no ground, no authority, given for accepting anything within: not Scripture, not even tradition (at least not consistently), nor reason, just selective appeals to what others have taught, without consideration for the basis of their authority.

[4] In context, symbolic is much more likely than analogical. Especially since analogical comes out of a Aristotelian epistemology that was not a factor in the 1st century AD.

[5] To suggest that God could not have created light before he created the sun is like suggesting that we cannot have light in our houses when the Sun is not in the sky: it is possible to have light apart from a celestial body. If God can create the universe out of nothing, I am sure He could have created a few photons without a natural source to produce them.

[6] This doesn’t have to be the best explanation, just a possible one, to show the non-sequitur in Boersma’s thought. My point here is not to argue that there will be literally no sun or moon in the New Heavens and New Earth. I have simply not done enough exegesis to come to a conclusion on what the imagery of Isaiah, Zechariah, and John means here; all I am pointing out is that from the nature of Boersma’s language, this is a logically fallacious.

[7] Eg. The works of Graeme Goldsworthy (esp. Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics), Kingdom Through Covenant by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, and the Gagging of God by D.A. Carson, and Is there Meaning in This Text? by Kevin J. Vanhoozer

[8] Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 2012).

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