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Hans Boersma

The Eucharist Makes the Church

Communion and ecclesiology.

The past few decades have witnessed two remarkable developments in evangelical thought. First, the nature of the theological discipline appears to have undergone a change. Propositional truth, once one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism, appears to be making way for more elusive means of expression, such as narrative, image, and symbol. Postmodern apprehension of essentialism, along with a suspicion of absolute truth claims, is affecting younger evangelicals' willingness to stand by the rational apologetics and theological edifices erected by a previous generation. Second, increasing doubt about our ability to capture the essence of absolute truth is turning evangelicals away from the scientific methods of higher biblical criticism. This mounting opposition to critical exegesis is all the more remarkable considering the fact that its acceptance is perhaps only half a century old, and continues to meet with internal resistance, the legacy of earlier fundamentalist opposition to liberal theology. While younger evangelicals are by no means identical to the fundamentalists of the 1920s and '30s, they do share with them an aversion to some of the excesses of higher biblical criticism. The younger evangelicals seem intent on restoring theological or spiritual interpretation—a search for deeper, spiritual levels beyond the historical or literal meaning of the text, hidden in the inner recesses of the biblical text itself.

While I agree with the ever louder criticism of a modern theological and interpretive paradigm, this essay nonetheless does not stem from the same postmodern attitudes toward reality. Rather, I concur with the perception that postmodernity is little more than modernity coming home to roost. Both, I believe, are predicated on the abandonment of a pre-modern sacramental mindset in which the realities of this-worldly existence pointed to greater, eternal realities, in which they sacramentally shared. Once modernity abandoned a participatory or sacramental view of reality, the created order became unhinged from its origin in God, and the material cosmos began its precarious drift on the flux of nihilistic waves.

It seems to me, therefore, that younger evangelicals would do well to turn to sources other than contemporary Continental philosophy for their critique of the collusion between modernity and evangelical theology. One such source is Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), who, along with others in the decades surrounding World War II, aimed at a ressourcement of the sacramental worldview that characterized the Great Tradition of the pre-modern period. Interestingly, de Lubac is making a strong comeback in the English-speaking world. A number of books have recently appeared on the theology of the great Jesuit patristic scholar, including John Milbank's The Suspended Middle (2005); David Grumett's De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed (2007); Rudolf Voderholzer's Meet Henri de Lubac (2008); Bryan C. Hollon's Everything Is Sacred (2008); and Surnaturel: A Controversy at the Heart of Twentieth-Century Thomistic Thought, edited by Serge-Thomas Bonino (2009).

This recovery of de Lubac is of particular importance because in his own time, and as a Catholic, he did battle with the same problematic heritage of intellectualist thought that younger evangelicals are opposing today. De Lubac, however, points a way beyond the flat cultural horizons of modernity—and, we might add, post-modernity—by pointing to the intuitions of the pre-critical sacramental outlook of the medieval tradition. I want to highlight de Lubac's contribution, therefore, since it draws us toward a sacramental imagination that recovers the mystical view of theology as a faith-based pilgrimage into the life of God and that looks to biblical interpretation as a sacramental opening up of the spiritual meaning of sacred Scripture.

In order to illustrate what de Lubac—along with other theologians in the French Catholic renewal movement of nouvelle théologie—was after, let me turn to his recently translated 1944 work Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages (2006). In the conclusion, de Lubac situated himself against two opponents, both of whom he considered extremes. The one was Protestantism. De Lubac lamented the Protestant weakening of the doctrines of the Eucharist and the Church. He mentioned Calvin by name, charging him with "watering down" both the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist and the traditional idea of the Church as the Body of Christ. The two went hand in hand, maintained de Lubac. With only a "virtual presence" of Christ in the sacrament, one would end up with only a "virtual presence" of Christ in the Church, too. The Protestant opponent, however, was not de Lubac's main antagonist. He devoted a great deal more time and attention to the other opponent, on the other extreme of the theological spectrum. As evangelicals, we are less familiar with this other extreme, so let me try to sketch briefly the theological context in which de Lubac was writing. One of the most notable events in late 19th-century Catholicism was the publication in 1879 of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Aeterni Patris. Leo XIII was a lover of Thomas Aquinas. And in his encyclical, he put forward the 13th-century philosopher-theologian as a great model to follow. The Angelic Doctor was "rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith." Leo's encyclical and policies entrenched Thomist philosophy and theology as the normative system of Catholic thought.

The dominant mode of Catholic theology from that time on is often referred to as neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism. Without going into detail, I will mention just two characteristics of neo-scholasticism, enough to help us understand de Lubac. First, it was based on a strict separation between nature and the supernatural. Philosophy served to establish truths that human reason could access simply by looking at the natural world. Theology, the teachings of the Church, did not enter into the picture till afterwards, once the philosophical foundation of natural truth had been laid. Supernatural, divine grace was "superadded" to the realm of nature. The supernatural world of grace was entirely extrinsic or foreign to the world of nature. Even when grace was superadded to nature, it remained extrinsic to it. Whether or not this "extrinsicism" was actually the teaching of St. Thomas remains a hotly debated issue, one that I will not attempt to resolve. But what is clear is that this view of reality was the cornerstone of neo-Thomist scholasticism and dominated the Catholic Church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The second characteristic of neo-Thomism was the rationalist apologetic approach to the Bible and the history of Christian thought. Put negatively, one went to Scripture and Tradition in order to find the truths of the Catholic faith confirmed there. (Of course, this rationalist apologetic approach was not limited to Catholic thought. Post-Reformation Protestant scholastic theology did much the same thing—to the great chagrin of today's younger evangelicals.) One of the most serious difficulties that de Lubac saw in this apologetic use of Scripture and Tradition was the temptation to squeeze the historical data to make them say what one already believes. To give but one example: if a person believed in transubstantiation, neo-Thomist rational apologetics might scour Scripture and Tradition in order to find such a "real presence" affirmed in the historical sources of Scripture and Tradition.

In the conclusion of Corpus Mysticum, de Lubac tackled his neo-Thomist opponents as well as their 17th-century scholastic ancestors, Counter-Reformation theologians like Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and Jacques du Perron (1556-1618). De Lubac, ever interested in recovering the Great Tradition, accused both these theologians of misinterpreting St. Augustine. They were unable to find transubstantiation in Augustine, and this difficulty led them to engage in mental gymnastics in their interpretation of the North African bishop.

In a well-known sermon (Sermon 227), St. Augustine repeatedly spoke about the "unity" of the Body of Christ, the "unity" of the Church, which he believed resulted from the celebration of the Eucharist:

[B]efore they became bread, these grains were separate; they were joined together in water after a certain amount of crushing. For, unless the grain is ground and moistened with water, it cannot arrive at that form which is called bread. So, too, you were previously ground, as it were, by the humiliation of your fasting and by the sacrament of exorcism. Then came the baptism of water; you were moistened, as it were, so as to arrive at the form of bread. But, without fire, bread does not yet exist. What, then, does the fire signify? The chrism [anointing]. For the sacrament of the Holy Spirit is the oil of our fire.

What was one to do with a passage like this? There was no talk of real presence, let alone transubstantiation. All the focus seemed to be on the unity of the believers, on their fellowship or communion, which resulted from the many grains being joined together in a loaf of bread. It seemed as though Augustine drew an arbitrary allegorical comparison between grains joining together into a loaf of bread and believers getting together into the Body of the Church. What was one to do in our modern age with such airy-fairy allegorizing about the unity of the Body?

De Lubac chastised the inability of folks like Bellarmine and du Perron to deal with these kinds of allegorical passages, in which the unity of the bread functioned as an allegory depicting the unity of the Church. The neo-scholastic inability to appropriate such "allegorized" passages made them simply ignore and abandon them. De Lubac explained, however, that the loss was not restricted to "allegorized" texts; the problem extended to so-called "realist" texts: "But the so-called 'realist' texts are not always as realist as these historians would have us believe." In other words, one might not find today's Church teaching on the Eucharist explicitly in St. Augustine, at all. As a result, the neo-Thomists lost St. Augustine altogether: they could not find any "realist" texts, while they ignored the "allegorized" texts.

This brings us to the sacramental outlook that de Lubac was so keen on recovering. According to the Jesuit from Fourvière, fear of the Protestant nemesis of symbolism was the cause of the neo-Thomist inability to properly appreciate St. Augustine and other pre-modern theologians. Of course, de Lubac agreed that Protestantism was problematic; he was certainly willing to join the neo-Thomists in their opposition to a merely symbolic view of the Eucharist. He was not convinced, however, that fear of Protestant symbolism was sufficient reason to buy into the neo-Thomist reading of St. Augustine. De Lubac vehemently rejected the two presuppositions that drove the neo-Thomist approach (the separation between nature and the supernatural; and the rationalist apologetic). By contrast, his own sacramental approach to reality saw the world of nature not as separate from the supernatural but as the gracious gift of the Creator. For de Lubac, the world of nature was never without God's presence. A sacramental approach to reality began with theology and with the assumption that what we saw around us was the gift of the Creator-Redeemer God. Such a starting point clashed with the neo-Thomist extrinsicism that regarded the supernatural as an arbitrary imposition on a self-sufficient natural world.

St. Augustine had viewed the created world as a world full of symbols. They were not just symbols in which symbol "X" related to some completely different, distant reality called "Y." Symbol and reality were not two strictly separate entities. Instead, symbols functioned as sacraments. And a sacrament (sacramentum) shared or participated in the reality (res) to which it pointed. Symbols, therefore, pointed to and shared in a reality that was much greater than the symbols themselves. The symbols only gave us a small inkling of the great sacramental reality that upheld them. De Lubac's problem with neo-Thomism was that its "realism" completely identified symbol and reality. To neo-scholastic rationalists, "real presence" meant that any talk of "allegories" represented a flight into an airy-fairy mysticism. In other words, this approach insisted that once we have grasped the symbol, we have comprehended also the Body of Christ; there was no sacramental reality reaching beyond the human symbol.

Augustinian talk about a participatory link between sacrament and reality perhaps sounds somewhat abstract. Let me clarify by introducing "three bodies," which de Lubac mentioned in Corpus Mysticum: the historical body (born of the Virgin), the Eucharistic body (signified by bread and wine), and the ecclesial body (the Church). De Lubac's book described how the relationships between these three bodies developed in the Middle Ages. In doing so, de Lubac attempted to sail between two hazards: on the one hand, the Scylla of Protestant symbolism, for which the Eucharistic bread was simply an arbitrary symbol "X" referring to a distant reality "Y"; and, on the other hand, the Charybdis of a strict neo-scholastic focus on real presence that so identified symbol "X" with reality "Y" that the spiritual reality in no way exceeded the symbol.

Where would St. Augustine fit among these various approaches to symbolism? One of the most interesting lines in his Sermon 227 reads as follows: "If you have received worthily, you are what you have received, for the Apostle says: 'The bread is one; we though many, are one body.' " Note that St. Augustine did not say that the bread was transubstantiated into the body of Christ; he insisted that the believers became the body of Christ. The Bishop of Hippo based this understanding on 1 Corinthians 10:16b-17: "And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." The word "body" occurred twice in this passage. The first time, it referred to the Eucharistic body; the second time, to the ecclesial body. Of the three bodies frequently referred to in the Great Tradition (the historical, the Eucharistic, and the ecclesial body), St. Paul linked the second and third. As by faith we share in the one Eucharistic body, the Spirit makes us one ecclesial body. As St. Augustine would put it: we become what we have received. Or, as de Lubac phrased it: The Eucharist makes the Church.

Here we arrive at de Lubac's objection to the neo-Thomists. They focused so much on what made a legitimate Eucharist, and zeroed in so much on the Eucharistic body, that they forgot that the sacramental purpose of this Eucharistic body was to create the ecclesial body. The sacramental reality to which the Eucharistic body pointed and which it made present was the ecclesial unity of the Church. There were ultimately not three bodies, but there was only one, threefold body (corpus triforme), the various aspects of which were sacramentally related to one another. For St. Augustine and the Middle Ages, the one body of Christ was historical, Eucharistic, and ecclesial in character. And in their different manifestations, these three were sacramentally linked.

In the 9th century, explained de Lubac, corpus mysticum had served as a technical term for the Eucharistic body, distinguishing it both from the "body born of the Virgin" and from the "body of the Church" while at the same time keeping the three closely connected. Medieval theologians had talked about the "mystical body" of the Eucharist and about the "mystery" of the Eucharist to indicate both that the Eucharist was a sign of something else and to refer to the obscure depths hidden in the Eucharist. The ecclesial body was the sacramental reality to which the Eucharist pointed and which it made present. So, there was a Spirit-guided movement from the sacrament to its mysterious reality, from the Eucharistic body to the ecclesial body. The sacrament was something dynamic, not static. Or, as de Lubac put it, "[A] mystery, in the old sense of the word, is more of an action than a thing." This active connotation of the term "mystery" in the Middle Ages stood, for de Lubac, in opposition to the neo-Thomist view that regarded the Eucharist as an arbitrary, supernatural intervention from above, unconnected to the life of the Church. De Lubac wanted to make clear that throughout much of the Middle Ages, the Eucharist had been regarded as the activity creating the unity of the Church.

According to de Lubac, some (especially Protestants) had come to focus strictly on the sacramental purpose of the body, the Church's fellowship or unity as the intended reality of the sacrament (the res), while forgetting that this reality was tied to its origin in the Eucharistic body; others (especially Catholics) had come to focus strictly on the sacramental presence of Christ in the elements (the sacramentum), while forgetting that this real presence was tied to its purpose in the ecclesial body. What had caused both Protestants and Catholics to lose the medieval sacramental mindset? De Lubac pointed to the High Middle Ages. The 11th century had witnessed a sharp controversy over the Eucharist, which had involved a theologian by the name of Berengar. We could say that Berengar was like an 11th-century Calvinist. He had contrasted spiritual eating to bodily eating, insisting that one did not eat the actual body of Christ, but that the eating of Christ in the Eucharist was a spiritual eating. This contrast between spiritual and bodily eating had caused great consternation. The result was that "spiritualist" vocabulary gradually disappeared, while the emphasis came to be placed on the real presence in the Eucharistic body of Christ. Further, the theory of the threefold body had quickly turned into a theory of a twofold body: "the historico-sacramental body and the ecclesial body."

The new emphasis on bodily feeding and on real presence meant that the ecclesial body could no longer regarded as true body (corpus verum). Instead, the Eucharistic elements began to take the place of the unity of the Church as corpus verum. During the High Middle Ages, the word "true" (verum) moved from the ecclesial body to the Eucharistic body. Christ's body in the Eucharist came to be seen as "the true body." At the same time, the word "mystical" (mysticum) moved from the Eucharistic body to the ecclesial body. Thus, the Church as the body of Christ came to be seen as "the mystical body." De Lubac was convinced that this twofold shift in terminology reflected both an increasing focus on the real presence in the Eucharist (now the "true" body of Christ) and a loss of the sacramental connection between the Eucharistic and the ecclesial body of Christ (with the latter now referred to as the "mystical" body).

De Lubac's plea for a reappraisal of the pre-modern approach to the "mystical body" offers a way out for evangelicals caught between a rock (modern propositionalism) and a hard place (postmodern flux). I want to look at three areas, in particular: the character of theology, the interpretation of Scripture, and ecumenical theology.

First, the sacramental relationship between Eucharist and Church raises the question of the nature of theology itself. I mentioned earlier that the neo-scholastic theology of the early 20th century tended to look to Scripture and Tradition as sources to plunder in defense of the doctrine of the Church. De Lubac intimated that the changes in the 11th and 12th centuries were part of a much larger shift, a shift in theological methodology from symbolism to dialectic—or, we could say, from a sacramental entry into the mystery of God to a syllogistic mastering of rational truths. It is precisely such mastering of rational truths to which many of the younger evangelicals are objecting today. In an important way, de Lubac presents himself as their ally: the separation between Eucharist and Church was the result of a rationalist mindset that transformed "symbolic inclusions" into "dialectical antitheses." Berengar's dialectical, syllogistic approach to theology proved unable to affirm the mystery of the "mutual immanence" between the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and his presence in the unity of the Church. For de Lubac, the High Middle Ages were responsible for undermining the sacramental approach of St. Augustine. He lamented the resulting Christian rationalism that approached the mysteries of faith only by means of intellectual demonstration. Augustine, and the Middle Ages that followed him, had looked to theology as sacramental initiation into the mystery of God. Far from being Dark Ages, the Middle Ages had regarded theological discourse as an ecclesially and faith-based means of entering into the mysterious brilliance of the divine light.

De Lubac's plea for a reappraisal of the pre-modern approach to the "mystical body" offers a way out for evangelicals caught between a rock (modern propositionalism) and a hard place (postmodern flux).

Second, de Lubac wanted to re-appropriate St. Augustine's approach to Scripture. In Sermon 227, the Bishop had moved from the grain that was ground, moistened, and baked to the believers' fasting and exorcism, baptism, and anointing with the Spirit. The neo-scholastics, with their "realist" focus on the Eucharistic elements, were unable to deal with this kind of "allegorizing." Put positively, a sacramental view that connects the body of the Eucharist to the body of the Church implies also a sacramental hermeneutic in which the literal meaning of Scripture sacramentally points to a spiritual meaning. Allegory, in other words, is a sacramental interpretation that looks for the deeper, hidden meaning of the literal or historical meaning of the text. Thus, a pre-modern view of the mystical body doesn't only have something to say about Eucharistic theology and ecclesiology. It also addresses the interpretation of Scripture.

This should be of great interest to younger evangelicals who want to move beyond purely historical-critical exegesis. Far from rejecting the historical meaning of Scripture, allegory takes it as the starting-point (sacramentum) in a search for the greater, Christological reality (res) of the gospel. Augustine's sacramental approach recognized Christ as the spiritual mystery hidden in the historical realities of the Old Testament Scriptures. Or, as he put it elsewhere, "The New lies in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed." Among modern interpreters, such an Augustinian approach may well raise the fear that exegesis will become a purely arbitrary affair. Both Augustine and de Lubac would likely respond that spiritual interpretation cannot go wrong as long as it takes its cue from the Church's confession and bases itself on the unity of Scripture. By contrast, a modern hermeneutic—whether of the liberal or evangelical variety—that limits itself to authorial intent cannot do justice to the deeper, sacramental meaning that the eyes of faith recognize in the Old Testament Scriptures. De Lubac's recovery of a pre-modern sacramental hermeneutic allows for a theological interpretation that from the outset is guided by faith in the Christ proclaimed by the Church.

Third, de Lubac's recovery of a sacramental outlook holds genuine ecumenical potential. One of the most attractive elements of de Lubac's re-appropriation of the Middle Ages is that his sacramental approach allows him to chart a middle path between a complete separation of sign and reality, on the one hand (the Protestant temptation), and a strict identification of sign and reality, on the other hand (the Catholic temptation). What allowed St. Augustine and the medieval tradition to forge this middle path was the sacramental link between Eucharist and Church, a link that they saw reflected in St. Paul's own connection between the two in 1 Corinthians 10.

Evangelicals sometimes focus too quickly on the Catholic notion of transubstantiation, in order to reject it as out of line with our understanding of the Scriptures. We should keep in mind that de Lubac's moderate view has been enormously influential in the Catholic Church, where today it goes by the name of "communion ecclesiology." Communion, or fellowship, was for de Lubac the sacramental reality at which the Eucharistic celebration aimed. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s irreversibly ensconced this communion ecclesiology as the official teaching of the Catholic Church. The common acceptance of the Lubacian view within Catholicism offers new prospects for fruitful dialogue. Just as the Catholic Church has begun to focus more strongly on the fellowship of the Church community, so it is time for Protestants to celebrate much more unambiguously the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Author's note: This article is the result of the gracious gift of the Association of Theological Schools and the Henry Luce Foundation in appointing me as Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology for 2007-2008.

Hans Boersma is J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College.

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