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Matthew Milliner

Evangelical 'Ressourcement'

Hans Boersma's proposal.

Evangelical lamps are sputtering. Prognostications of the movement usually announce its impending death as a threat, unless it makes the changes for which the given prophet calls. Such proposals include filling lamps with expired postmodern vinegar, or insisting they be replenished with the coagulated liquid of old-time religion. Hans Boersma's book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry affords a different response. Boersma offers the rich, luxuriant oil of medieval metaphysics to keep evangelical lamps warmly aglow. Boersma is not a fringe figure. It's somewhat symbolic that he holds the J. I. Packer chair in theology at Regent College. Could this kind of neo-medieval evangelicalism hold the same potential for the movement as did the broadly Reformed perspective of Packer?

Boersma, of course, is not the first evangelical who has made progress by looking back. Robert Webber famously discovered the liturgical rhythms of the early church, and Thomas Oden's "paleo-orthodoxy" project, centered in Christianity's first millennium, gave rise to the Ancient Christian Commentary series. John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy movement do much of the heavy lifting for this perspective, telling a story of ancient richness and modern, secular decline, a story helpfully translated into an American idiom by James K. A. Smith's Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (Baker Academic, 2004).

These relatively contemporary figures, however, can themselves be situated in a much broader—I am tempted to say inevitable—trajectory of American Protestantism. One thinks of the Mercersburg Theology of the mid-19th century, born when John Williamson Nevin—a brilliant student of the staunch American Calvinist Charles Hodge—re-discovered the Real Presence in the Eucharistic theology of John Calvin after nearly converting to Catholicism. Harriet Beecher Stowe records the same impulse, as Protestants migrated from cold New England meetinghouses to the neo-Gothic façades of once-forbidden Episcopal churches: "There came to them gentle spirits," she chronicled, "cut and bleeding by the sharp crystals of doctrinal statement, and courting the balm of devotional liturgy and the cool shadowy indefiniteness of more aesthetic forms of worship."[1]

Boersma's project differs from its predecessors 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.[2] 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." Though Boersma does not, we might also include the Orthodox in this formulation. Greek translations of Tridentine theology and illusionistic 19th-century Orthodox icons reveal that they too were westernized, making a rediscovery of patristic insights necessary (though admittedly easier) for Eastern Christians as well.

Boersma calls this medieval atmosphere the "Platonist-Christian synthesis," specifically addressing evangelical readers who may greet that formulation with suspicion. Ontology and Platonism, after all, are the boogiemen of modern theology. But for Boersma, "usually the ontology of those who plead for the abolition of ontology turns out to be the nominalist ontology of modernity." Platonism has been thoughtlessly caricatured as well. 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. Early Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, in the words of Peter Brown, "cut twigs from the rank, dried-back and brittle bushes of pagan literature, and graft[ed] them on the succulent root-stock of Christ's truth."[3] 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. Boersma is especially critical of evangelicals who embrace postmodern skepticism. "Rather than attempting to reweave the tapestry," books such as Carl Raschke's The Next Reformation "threaten to shred the last little bits that may still remain."

Boersma is less concerned with consistent Protestantism than with a broader church unity. "We evangelicals only do justice to our past if we regard the Reformation not as something to be celebrated but as something to be lamented." But in a move that may seem counterintuitive, this does not entail abandoning Protestant distinctives: "My argument is that, as evangelicals, we need Catholic voices precisely in order to maintain and reinforce our evangelical identity." Is Boersma speaking out of both sides of his mouth? Not necessarily.

Although he does not focus on evangelical sources, neither does he ignore them. The truth of sacramental participation is less "Catholic" or "Orthodox" than simply true, which is why it belongs as much to—and can even be found in—Protestantism as in other traditions. Boersma explains that "Calvin's view of grace overcoming the insufficiency of nature … would not have been out of place in the integrated cosmos of the Great Tradition," even if this "did not fit well with other elements of Calvin's thought." Boersma also shows the similarities between Yves Congar and contemporary evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer. Other Protestants mentioned by Boersma who approximate the medieval perspective include William Laud, Jeremy Taylor, Herbert Thorndike, T. S. Eliot, and the various thinkers associated with the Oxford Movement.

Still, these sources are mentioned in passing, and Boersma might have taken them further. He might also have spoken more directly to North American Protestants, by teasing out the participatory themes in Jonathan Edwards,[4] whose view of the universe as a sacramental icon is sometimes indistinguishable from that of Maximus the Confessor or John of Damascus.[5] Even Karl Barth, whom Boersma is wise enough not to overlook, has more points of contact with Boersma's project than the book lets on. Indeed, Keith Johnson has shown how the later Barth developed his own version of the "analogy of being," that indispensible shorthand for medieval metaphysics which Boersma hopes to recover.[6] Likewise, the theologian Kenneth Oakes, describing some fascinating parallels between Barth and Henri de Lubac, sounds almost exactly like Boersma: "Barth interweaves a whole tapestry of analogical, ontologically determinative relations between the act and being of the Triune God … and the act and being of humanity in general."[7]

Accordingly, the 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. One might even argue that the "declinist" story of medieval richness and modern malaise is a specifically evangelical one. The evangelical New Testament scholar F. Dale Bruner, commenting on Matthew 24:10, makes a surprising observation about Jesus' apocalyptic prophecy: "I think that some Western secularization is a form of the Great Apostasy."[8] Still, readers hoping for a more thoroughly Protestant perspective will be more satisfied with William Dyrness' Poetic Theology (Eerdmans, 2010), which is much more critical of the lionization of the Middle Ages. But Dyrness, too, ends up in similarly contemplative, richly sacramental terrain. 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.

Evangelical ressourcement may, therefore, be less a retreat than an ascent. Boersma does not present the universe "as it was" for those who can't handle smart phones or are unappreciative of modern medicine. On the contrary, a Christocentric, sacramental cosmos is the universe as it always has been, but which modernity forgot—though not completely, as a growing number of witnesses to this perspective (even Protestant ones) attest. The way forward is not backward, nor even forward, but up.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Poganuc People," in The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Houghton, Mifflin, 1896) p. 16.

2. Reinhard Hütter and Matthew Levering, Ressourcement Thomism (Catholic Univ. of America Press, 2010).

3. Peter Brown, The Body and Society (Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), p. 124.

4. Anri Morimoto, Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation (Penn State Press, 1995).

5. Jonathan Edwards, Typological Writings, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 11, (Yale Univ. Press, 1993).

6. Keith Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (T&T Clark, 2010).

7. Kenneth Oakes, "The Question of Nature and Grace in Karl Barth: Humanity as Creature and as Covenant Partner," Modern Theology, Vol 23, No. 4 (October 2007), p. 604. See also Aaron Riches, "The Church, Eucharist and Predestination in Barth and De Lubac: Convergence and Divergence in Communio," Communio, Vol. 35 (Winter 2008).

8. F. Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2: The Churchbook (Eerdmans, 2007), p. 487.

Matthew J. Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.

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