A Review of Heavenly Participation by Hans Boersma

Throughout the history of theology, there have been individuals and entire movements that have contributed, in short periods of time, immense insights into Scripture and our understanding of theology—though Catholic and Protestant traditions have moved along relatively different trajectories and have usually not treasured the same individuals and movements. Heavenly Participation, by Hans Boersma, is an attempt at a lay level to contribute to this supposed deficiency. It is an attempt to call the attention of Protestants to the Catholic Nouvelle Theologie[1] movement. In looking at the contribution of these theologians, Boersma calls Evangelicals to retrieve (ressource) the  Platonic-Christian synthesis of what Boersma calls The Great Tradition[2](9, 185).

The sacramental ontology (more on this later) which characterized the Great Tradition is at the heart of the book. The book amounts to a case for reclaiming this ontology by a ressourcement of the Great Tradition and it’s Platonic-Christian synthesis (9-11, 16)—by ressourcement he means looking “to the history of the church for resources to give theological direction to people in the twenty-first century” (9). As a popularized follow-up to his earlier book (Nouvelle Théogie and Sacramental Ontology), Boersma is spelling out the theological implications that the Nouvelle Theologians and their ressourcement of the early church continue to have and—in Boersma’s eyes—should have on the Evangelical church (xi). In attempting to present the findings of his earlier book for Evangelicals, he presents a profoundly unevangelical reinterpretation of Evangelicalism.

 

To make his argument, Boersma picks up the Exitus (departure) and Reditus (return) theme of Platonism—a tribute to the synthesis that lies at the heart of the book (16). Part 1 recounts the fraying of the sacramental tapestry or the disintegration of the sacramental worldview of the Great Tradition (17-100), part 2 is then an attempt to return to this worldview by “reconnecting the threads,” by outlining the implications of a sacramental ontology for the Christian church (101-190).

There is a good bet you do not know what Sacramental Ontology is, it turns out that there aren’t many resources giving a good definition of it. In the winter of 2015, I submitted a master’s level paper on the subject at Regent College and used this as my working definition; “[Sacramental Ontology] is an understanding of the nature of the things in this universe as sacraments that participate in and point to heavenly realities.” That is all rather dense; see here for a more on this definition. In brief, for Boersma, a sacrament is something that signifies and participates in the reality it points to. Signifying it, it is like a symbol or sign, representing it and pointing to it. By participate Boersma means platonic participation, see the above mentioned paper for an explanation and critique of this concept. The rest of this review will attempt a brief critical response to three areas of this book—the above-mentioned paper provides a substantive critique of the worldview lying at the heart of Heavenly Participation. We will briefly examine the argument of the book, is it persuasive? Then the presentations of other views found in the book, and finally the picture of authority Boersma provides.

 

Reading through Heavenly Participation, I found the argument, or whatever may be called an argument in this book, to be thoroughly unpersuasive. Throughout the book, Boersma presents the Platonic-Christian synthesis as the view of the Great Tradition but never gives a reason why we should adopt this synthesis. Most 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 as an example of Evangelicalism’s ability to support the understanding of tradition and Scripture that a sacramental ontology supposedly suggests (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.  He makes a failed argument here and there (51, 40-44), but, mostly, he draws unsubstantiated conclusions (eg. 129, 187-188). He doesn’t give much reason to accept his ressourcement, and the way he dismisses his opponents is equally unpersuasive, frequently setting up straw men and ad hominem arguments (eg., 125-126, 130, 138-139, 140-141)

 

After a failure to substantiate any sort of argument, the presentation of various positions throughout the book deserves a short critical response. There are at least a few points where Boersma seems to misrepresent different authors or historical positions. I think that his simplistic association between the Reformers, Nominalism, and Justification by Faith is ridiculous, but I will leave that to the historians of philosophy to pursue (89-94). More substantial is the presentation of the view of Augustine, the subject of my above-mentioned paper (eg. 124-126). The last one I will mention is his presentation of Vanhoozer; though I would not go everywhere Vanhoozer does, I have great respect for his approach to theological interpretation of Scripture and Scriptural authority.[3] Boersma seems to present Vanhoozer in a way that is friendlier to his own position than Vanhoozer’s works justify. Boersma presents him as someone who rejects sola scriptura in favor of the view that doctrine develops after Scripture and that tradition is needed to interpret it (134). It would seem that Vanhoozer rejects historical-critical exegesis in favor of allegorical exegesis and rejects meaning in the text for meaning that is partly “determined by reception” (130-134, 141). He would also seem to understand the text as having a plurality of meanings, or “meaning potential” (133). Reading Vanhoozer’s books gives a reader a completely different impression. He doesn’t reject objective meaning, but accepts a depth of objective meaning.[4] Though Vanhoozer uses language friendly to Boersma’s position, he grounds it solidly within a framework of the primacy of Scripture as understood objectively.[5]

 

The last point I felt deserved a response was the stance on authority presented by Boersma. Traditionally, Evangelicals have been known for their strong stance on Scripture and its centrality. This being the case, Boersma’s position on Scripture may make this book hard to swallow for the average Evangelical. For the sake of brevity, which I seem to have already sacrificed, I will quickly suggest three ways that Boersma has undermined the authority of Scripture in every area of the Christian life. The first is his implicit elevation of philosophy to magistrate, giving it absolute power over Scripture. Early in the book, Boersma laments the potential for fear that discussion of ontology may invoke in the Evangelical reader (20). Unfortunately, this paragraph could only serve to heighten that fear in the acute reader.

Seeing a purely “biblical” theology as “terribly naïve,” Boersma speaks of his search for an ontology compatible with Scripture. He makes it clear that, in his opinion, Scripture does not teach an ontology—either implicitly or explicitly. Therefore, we must go somewhere else; Boersma picks up his ontology from the Nouvelle Theologians and, supposedly, from the Great Tradition (20). The problem is not necessarily that he goes to something other than Scripture for an ontology,[6] but that throughout the rest of his book, he bases his theological conclusions and understanding of Scripture upon his presupposed ontology. He uses his ontology to justify the suggestion of plurality of meanings and the undermining of Scripture’s objectivity (eg. 133, 140, 149, 152-ft. 32).[7]

The other two ways are tied up in this first one. Boersma uses the concept of Sacramental Ontology to justify the equalization of Tradition and Scripture as one authoritative source of Christian authority (120-136). Moreover, he explicitly rejects any objective meaning in the text in favour of a multiplicity of meanings determined by the reader and justified by a “Christological anchor.” In a footnote on page 152, he writes, “I do not believe in the existence of an objectively given, historical meaning that one can discover and solve just as one does scientific problems.” The implication is that in rejecting the objective “historical meaning,” we need to take up the allegorical and subjective spiritual meaning.

 

I hate writing entirely negative book reviews, but Boersma’s Heavenly Participation failed to give any reason for accepting its conclusions. Beyond this, it presented a dangerous view of authority and builds upon the foundation of a philosophically weak Sacramental Ontology. If you want an introduction into the thought of the Nouvelle Theologians, this book may be helpful—beyond that, it may also be helpful in diagnosing the spiritual and academic atmosphere here at Regent College.


[1] Nouvelle Théologie was a  twentieth century French Catholic renewal movement that included thinkers such as De Lubac, Congars, and Balthasar (xi).

[2] By Which Boersma refers to the Church Fathers and the Medieval Theologians. (xi)

[3] As presented in his books, The Drama of Doctrine, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, and the paper “Ascending the Mountain; Singing the Rock: Biblical Interpretation Earthed, Typed, and Transfigured.”

[4] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 352. Ibid., 152. “Vanhoozer Response to My Review | Biblical Foundations”, n.d., accessed January 6, 2015, http://www.biblicalfoundations.org/vanhoozer-responds-to-my-review/. “Vanhoozer Response to My Review | Biblical Foundations”, n.d., accessed January 6, 2015, http://www.biblicalfoundations.org/vanhoozer-responds-to-my-review/. When preparing for his defense of allegorical exegesis, Boersma seems to imply that Vanhoozer himself performs allegorical exegesis on Acts 8 (131-132). Boersma does use the word “example,” so maybe I am reading too far into this, but Vanhoozer makes it clear that he is using this is a case study and not expositing the texts meaning. Unfortunately, whether I have misunderstood Boersma or not, he does go on to misunderstand Vanhoozer on the role of tradition in Acts 8. Boersma suggests that Vanhoozer sees four different, but not exclusive, ways to gain further insight into the role of tradition and interpretation from this passage (131-132). The result is that Vanhoozer seems to be much closer to Boersma than he actually is (132). In his book, Vanhoozer identifies four possible approaches to tradition that could be understood from the text, he then identifies the fourth approach—canonical linguistic—as the best. Ibid., 116–119.

[5] John G. Stackhouse, ed., Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2000), 81; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1998), 46–47; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 1st ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 351–352.  Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 352.

[6] I don’t believe Scripture holds every answer to every philosophical question, so it is unrealistic to suggest that Scripture must provide every answer we desire. But, if Scripture is God’s authoritative Word, then it must have primacy in determining what philosophies may be acceptable or unacceptable. That is, it may not provide the answers, but it sure can invalidate a wrong answer and justify the right answer. It presents a clear worldview within which our philosophy must be performed.

[7] For contemporary defenses of Sola Sciptura and the authority of Scripture, see Scripture and Truth, ed. D.A. Carson, especially the chapter by Wayne Grudem, and The Doctrine of the Word of God by John Frame.

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