Heavenly Participation (Hans Boersma)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Boersma, Hans. Eerdmans.

Thesis: Until the late middle ages people looked at the world as a mystery (Boersma 21). By mystery Boersma means a sacramental link between creation and God, that creation participates in God. In other words, the connection, though not identical, is real. Mystery, so Boersma reads the “Platonist-Christian synthesis” (hereafter PCs) refers to the “reality behind the appearances.”

Boersma structures his book around the (neo)Platonic movement of exitus and reditus (the departure from and return to), except exitus now refers to how the church lost the PCs and the reditus on possible steps for regaining it.

It is not Boersma’s goal to defend Platonism as such. Rather, he seeks to combat the “antiheaven rhetoric among Evangelicals” (187). NT Wright is a good example.

For Boersma–and for the earlier Tradition–Created realities point beyond themselves (carry extra dimension to them). A Sacramental world not only points to God but participates in him. The signum points to and participates in the res. The end of created being lies beyond itself (30).

The Fathers were able to weave a sacramental tapestry around Christ: Christ contains the heavenly and creaturely universals in which we participate. Our particular humanity depends on the participation of humanity in Christ (51).

Sadly, this garment came unwound in the late middle ages with an increasing extrincisim of the Church. Scripture and Tradition, Eucharist res and Eucharistic signum, were now be defined in opposition to one another. With Occam and Scotus the unwinding became a cutting. No longer was there a higher realm of being in which created being participated. Rather, God and man were subsumed under the generic category of being. In practical church life it would look like this:
  • Juridicizing the Church
  • Gregorian reform
      • For earlier fathers, sacred actions are performed in the church, but everyone is subject to God. God was directly working in the sacred actions.
    • earlier theology regarded sacramental power as within the life of the church. Now it is causally top down.
  • Discovery of Nature
    • earlier sacramental thought held a link between heaven and earth. There was the unity of the church (res) and the sacrament to which it pointed.
    • The Berengar Dialectic
      • Berengar said we spiritually participate in the res.
      • His opponents said we physically participate in the sacramentum.
      • Both sides widened the gap between heaven and earth.
  • Scripture, Church, Tradition
    • The earlier fathers said church and Scripture coinhere. They are not two separate sources of authority.
    • Dialectic of Wyclif: Catholics responded to him by pitting Church against Scripture.
  • Nature and the Supernatural
    • The Counter-Reformation introduced the notion of “pure nature,” which meant human nature before any prior movement of grace. Human nature is walled-off.
How do we return (reditus)? Boersma examines the implications of Henri de Lubac and the Nouvelle Theologie. In their works we see a real transubstantiation, but it is when the congregation is changed into the body of Christ. This leads de Lubac to posit a threefold body: the bread, the congregation, Christ. Further, we see that sacramental time is when past, present, and future coincide (124). Chronological time thus opens up to eschatological time. Thus, “eschatological realities are able to enter into time” (125). God inserts mystery into time. Earthly events become sacraments of eschatological mysteries. Time participates in God’s eternity.


The painting, or tapestry rather, was awe-inspiring. Boersma gives a convincing picture of how Platonism can be modified to serve Christianity. One can question, of course, the finer points of his readings on Scotist, but it seems more or less accurate.


I'm not sure his reading of Scotus holds up. That's a fairly contested field today. I think those conclusions are probably accurate on the modern scene.

Secondly, I am not sure how coherent the notion of "Sacramental time" is. If it is coherent, then Boersma needed to spend about 10 pages of analysis demonstrating that.
Very intriguing. I have been wondering for some time how the decline of the doctrine of an empyrean heaven has impacted the Church's outlook.
Very intriguing. I have been wondering for some time how the decline of the doctrine of an empyrean heaven has impacted the Church's outlook.

I would imagine one of the effects would be the faddishness of "Embodiment" thinking. Don't get me wrong. I've spent the last 15 years of my life waging a scorched-earth policy against gnostics, so I am all for embodiment. But with modern evangelicals (and some devotees of John Paul II), embodiment seems to be the point, rather than transcendence.

Stereotypes didn't help either. Heaven became seen as naked babies with wings. Then there is 20th century dispensationalism and fundamentalism, where God is only concerned with the "spiritual" stuff and matter is garbage. One can't help but want to get away from that.
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