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Evangelical Ressourcement

I read with interest "Evangelical Ressourcement," Matthew Milliner's thoughtful review of Hans Boersma's Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry [November/December]. Hans and I, along with several other colleagues, have the privilege of working together on a foundational integrative course at Regent College. (In his preface, Hans dedicates the book to the colleagues and students in that class.) Discussion after lectures is usually pretty vigorous, and never more so than when Hans speaks of the need for "sacramental ontology."

Our discussion is vigorous because our disagreement, though genial, is often profound. My Biblical Studies colleagues, for example, are unconvinced that the way they teach Scripture (grounded in what the historical-critical method can yield of the biblical author's meaning) is necessarily less spiritual than the "spiritual interpretation" (grounded in patristic exegesis and "the rule of faith") which Hans defends (and on which subject he hosted a brilliant international conference last fall at Regent titled "Heaven on Earth? The Future of Spiritual Interpretation").

My own concerns are more with the implications of "sacramental ontology" as Hans describes it, for our knowledge of and relationship to the created world. As Milliner points out, Hans argues that the warp on which the strands of the sacramental tapestry of medieval Christianity was woven was Christianized Platonism, particularly (as the title of his book suggests) the idea of participation. In this view, created things do not have their own reality. As Hans puts it, "created being is simply of the borrowed kind; created being is being only because by grace it participates in the being of God." This conviction underlies the key Thomistic idea of "the analogy of being": things are like God only by analogy; nothing is univocally like God, for no created thing has its own being; its being is "borrowed" through participation.

Here Hans agrees with the movement of Radical Orthodoxy in arguing that these strands of participation were cut, with disastrous consequences for modern culture, in the late Middle Ages. The two blades of the scissors (in Hans' vivid metaphor) were the Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus' idea of the univocity of being, and the nominalism of William of Ockham. According to Scotus (who was definitely not a nominalist, though Milliner lumps him in that category with Ockham), created things have their own being. But according to both Radical Orthodoxy and Hans, this attributing of real being to creatures leads necessarily to nominalism and ultimately to the flattening of the cosmos and a draining of divine mystery from things.

The significance of this superficially obscure medieval argument was made clear in the 1930s when the Oxford philosopher Michael Foster published (in Mind, a British philosophical journal) an important series of articles with the title "The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Science." Foster argued that modern science became possible only when Christian thinkers had freed themselves from the Platonic idea of participation, which (he believed) had obscured the power of the biblical creation doctrine. If God created not according to some eternal form (as in Plato) but out of his own will (I would want to say, out of his costly love), then we can only come to know a thing by looking at its own being, not by tracing it back to its divine exemplar. Thus the foundations for empirical science were laid.

Hans is quite clear about the consequences of this shift. He writes, "[In Scotus' view] earthly objects possessed their own being. No longer was there a mysterious reality hiding within what could be observed by the senses. The full reality of created objects could be seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted. The loss of analogy meant the loss of sacramentality."

Is this increased empirical knowability of the world a gain or a loss? Hans clearly feels it is a loss. But one of the strongest evidences that it is a gain is apparent in a thinker Hans often quotes in support of his argument for a return to Platonic Christianity. In his first chapter, Hans describes the tattered tapestry of the medieval view by quoting the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "God's Grandeur": "The world is charg'd with the grandeur of God." Now Hopkins was himself a convert to Catholicism out of the 19th-century Oxford Movement, which (as Milliner points out) Hans cites as one earlier example of the sort of ressourcement (developed especially by de Lubac) which has so influenced him.

The irony is that the theologian who best expresses Hopkins' vision was Duns Scotus. Hopkins describes in his journal the "new stroke of enthusiasm" he felt on first reading Scotus, and in a later poem titled "Duns Scotus's Oxford" he praises him as "of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not / Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece."

Not only does Hopkins praise Scotus for his realism (placing him above philosophical rivals Aquinas ("Italy") and Aristotle ("Greece"), but he calls him an "unraveller" of the real. There's an added irony here, given the centrality of the "tapestry" image in Hans' book. By "unraveling," Hopkins means not the fraying that Hans laments but rather something more like untangling, tracing back to the source. What Hopkins appreciated above all else in Scotus is strikingly evident in his own poetry: the goodness of the God-given but genuinely unique being which each thing has. "What I do is me, for that I came" declare all creatures in another poem. Scotus' term for this "is-ness" in things is haeccitas; Hopkins means something similar (though not quite the same) in his invented term "inscape." Both words try to catch the fact that God "fathers-forth" creatures with their own unique being; their goodness is not in their participation in God, but in their God-given and God-sustained otherness. It is appreciation of this inexhaustible otherness of things, available to us through the senses, which makes possible not only Hopkins' poetry but also the steadily deepening knowledge of the world which we call science.

It would be hard to find a more sacramental thinker than Hopkins. And I share Hans' lament for the torn tapestry of sacramentalism. But if such a tapestry is to be re-woven in our own time, it will need to be not on the warp of Platonism but on strands that take seriously what we can know of a world which, through God's gift, is other than God. The first biblical evidence of this risky divine strategy of creating things with their own being is in Genesis 1, when the Creator sees (not says) that creation is good. But the central evidence is the Cross, in which the Creator takes upon himself the consequences of making creatures which have their own being.

What we are called to in Christ is to reweave the sacred tapestry not so much through participation in God but relationship with God and his creatures. Hans' book and Milliner's review of it, even when they provoke disagreement, help us in that re-weaving.

Loren Wilkinson
Professor of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies
Regent College
Vancouver, British Columbia

Matthew Milliner replies:

Metaphysical disputes regarding the origins of modernity can resemble traffic police disputing the exact nature of a car accident: Was it a run red light (Scotus' univocity), a texting driver (Ockham's nominalism), a lightning storm (Luther's theology), or heavy fog (Kant's epistemology)? The details are far more debatable than the fact that an accident happened (a cosmos wrongfully perceived to be "secular"). I appreciate Professor Wilkinson's inspiriting response to my review, and the kindness with which it was seasoned. We seem to share restorative ambitions, even as our crash reports diverge.

True, Duns Scotus was no nominalist, earning me the dunce cap for a hasty conflation of him with Ockham. But it was a small step from Duns Scotus' univocal ontology to Ockham's nominalism, which—fully pursued—greatly contributed to a deracinated cosmology, or so argues Amos Funkenstein in Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century. The positive aspects of modern science, according to historian Edward Grant, are less attributable to Duns Scotus than to the scholastic culture, rich with analogical metaphysics, that preceded him.

Because the "unraveling" did not happen overnight, I'm not at all surprised that Hopkins found aspects of Duns Scotus salutary. But Hopkins certainly did flirt with sacramental participation, an affair that was consummated—as Wilkinson indicates—in Rome. Accordingly, Catholicism has been a focal point of discussion regarding Boersma's book. In First Things, Nicholas Healy indicates the "unavoidable question of apostolic succession" raised by Boersma's Eucharistic theology. Likewise, Daniel Treier wonders in Christian Scholar's Review what it is that keeps Boersma Protestant.

The aim of my review was to address precisely this question, showing that the very insights that Boersma uncovers primarily (but not exclusively) from the nouvelle théologie are richly on offer within Protestantism as well. Wilkinson claims that if the sacramental tapestry is to be rewoven, it will need to "be not on the warp of Platonism, but on strands that take seriously what we can know of a world … which through God's gift is other than God." Not only do I fully agree, but I was under the impression that this was exactly the point of Boersma's book! The warp of Platonism is most certainly insufficient.

Hence, the far thicker woof of biblical revelation is required to weave the "Platonist-Christian synthesis," which generated the Council of Chalcedon, Byzantine icons, Renaissance art (Michelangelo was the consummate Christian Platonist), North America's greatest theologian, and the Chronicles of Narnia. No small beer, this synthesis. Perhaps I'm misreading him, but Wilkinson appears to offer unnecessary ultimata: Spiritual interpretation or the historical-critical method, medieval metaphysics or modern science, the analogy of being or the Cross, participation or relationship. I can think of no better illustration of the adverse consequences of modernity than the suggestion that we must choose.

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