A week or so ago, I stumbled fortuitously on a book review in the pages of Books and Culture. Or to be more precise, on the glowing screen of B&C‘s website. This was a review by a Wheaton art historian of a book by the J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, BC. This is an exciting book for me, as it handles with great historical and theological sophistication the themes of earthiness and embodiment, Creation and Incarnation, that have floated to the surface of my own attempt to write about a “usable medieval past.”
The book is Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (2011). I find it rich enough that I would like to blog on it here in the coming weeks. What did Wheaton art prof Matthew Milliner say about it? Here’s a sample:
Boersma offers the rich, luxuriant oil of medieval metaphysics to keep evangelical lamps warmly aglow.
. . .
Boersma’s project differs from its predecessors [Milliner notes the works of Robert Webber, Tom Oden, and, reaching further back, the Mercersburg theologians] by its unique inspiration: the circle of 20th-century Catholic theologians whose collective project came to be known—disparagingly at first—as the nouvelle théologie. Dissatisfied with a desiccated Thomism, thinkers such as Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, and Henri Bouillard renewed Catholic theology by literally “re-sourcing” Scholastic faith with ancient Christian thought. They were heavily criticized but ultimately effective, many of their insights informing the Second Vatican Council and in turn renewing Thomism as well. Having produced a lengthy academic investigation of these thinkers entitled Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), Boersma has now given us a more accessible version of the argument informing that longer text, one that puts his research into conversation, and opposition, with contemporary evangelical trends.
Though it will easily be misunderstood, I’m tempted to summarize Boersma’s project with the phrase: Doctrine divides, metaphysics unites. By which I mean not doctrine’s insignificance (Boersma relentlessly criticizes doctrinal relativism), but that a shared medieval framework could potentially break stalemates in doctrinal disputation. Truths now polarized—Scripture and tradition, faith and works, Eucharist and church—were seamlessly united in the church’s first millennium, making that period a resource for healing present rifts. According to Boersma, “both Protestants and Catholics suffer the loss of a sacramental ontology.”
. . .
Boersma calls this medieval atmosphere the “Platonist-Christian synthesis,” specifically addressing evangelical readers who may greet that formulation with suspicion. . . . Emboldened by the fact that Christian Platonism was a significant ingredient in C. S. Lewis’ recipe for success, Boersma shifts the burden of proof to those who would irresponsibly conflate Gnosticism and Platonism, a slip unfortunately made in the popular writings of scholars as reputable as N. T. Wright. Christianity was not Hellenized, according to Boersma (and countless other scholars of rank); rather, Hellenism was Christianized. . . . It is in fact the thinner strands of evangelicalism, which instinctually refuse the sacramental perspective, that border on Gnosticism.
Boersma’s controlling metaphor for the medieval synthesis is the “sacramental tapestry.” He explains how this tapestry was woven by early Christian thinkers, frayed in the Middle Ages by a creeping naturalism and an overly juridicized church, cut by nominalist thinkers such as John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and further unraveled throughout modernity, as chronicled most famously by Charles Taylor.
. . .
[T]he appeal to Patristic sources known as ressourcement need not entail a forsaking of the Protestant birthright; undertaken rightly, it promises fulfillment. Boersma’s is still very much an evangelical perspective, and is sufficiently distinguished from Radical Orthodoxy to make it more palatable to evangelicals.
. . .
That a view akin to Boersma’s can be extracted from chiefly Protestant resources as well is further testimony to its truth, and to its potential as one of evangelicalism’s brightest possible futures.
For the whole review, see here.
- On pulling evangelicals back from the brink of Catholicism – Mark Galli’s wise words (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)