Sacramental Ontology? Reflections on Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology, by Hans Boersma

Hans Boersma presents a grand tour of the Roman-Catholic nouvelle théologie movement in his book, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology, ([OUP, 2009]. Hence, purchasing not for the faint of heart.), spanning most of the twentieth century. His main heroes are de Lubac, Danielou, Congar, Chenu, and Balthasar. They share what he calls a “sacramental ontology,” and this becomes Boersma’s own recommendation for today (see also his newer and cheaper book, Heavenly Participation). The nouvelle théologie theologians sought a recovery (ressourcement) of the great tradition in hopes of restoring a proper relationship between the natural and supernatural, or put differently, a return to mystery in theology. In the spirit of nouvelle théologie, the book consists primarily in historical description. For me, it provided an excellent introduction to several of these theologians, with whom I was less familiar.

Boersma makes his aim clear in his introduction and conclusion—he recommends a sacramental ontology as a corrective for evangelicals. A recovery of sacramental ontology would help them escape the dangers of the enlightenment and even late-medieval nominalism. In Boersma’s reading, the reformation reacted against an already-fallen Roman Catholic theology that had given away the traditional sacramental ontology. A sacramental ontology for Boersma, then, could provide the basis for ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics.

I found much to appreciate in these theologians. The discussion of de Lubac’s criticism of pura natura against both a scholastic and post-enlightenment tendency to give autonomy to the natural (un-graced) world was fascinating. The focus on the intellect as an inclination by Rousselot warmed my Edwardsian heart. That this is an interpretation of Aquinas is icing on the cake. Danielou’s chastened typology, which focused on history and on Christ, is helpful in providing categories to maintain a spiritual sense, but still with some criteria (though Boersma prefers de Lubac).

My main questions relate to Boersma’s term sacramental ontology, and whether an evangelical Protestant can jump on board. Several reviewers have noted that Boersma defines this only in his conclusion, “the conviction that historical realities of the created order served as divinely ordained, sacramental means leading to eternal divine mysteries” (289). There is a helpful contrast here to the neo-Thomist privileging of abstract reasoning. Boersma also shows how the nouvelle theologians stood against historicism or immanentism, which fails to look beyond concrete particulars as the realization of eschatological realities. So far so good. But in Boersma’s definition, I am left wondering, which historical realities lead to divine mysteries? And how do they do this?

With Boersma’s definition in hand, most Protestants could agree that Eucharist/Lord’s supper and baptism are sacraments. Paul calls marriage something like a sacrament—a display of eternal realities in creaturely form. But, Boersma and the nouvelle théologie wish to go further. “Created objects derive their value from sacramental participation in their transcendent ground” (17). Is nouvelle théologie then asking for a return to the enchanted world? This might not be a bad thing. That we would expect to find divine mystery in creaturely reality may direct us to Christ. But in that case, it would seem to limit the value of the term sacrament as a special instance.

It is one thing to say that all created realities participate in the transcendent, but quite another to spell out the implications for this. Particularly in regard to the church as a sacrament, I wonder, is there a way for Protestants to call the church a sacrament? The church as sacrament (chapter 7) meant for nouvelle théologie that the church reflects eternal/transcendent realities in human, tangible forms. This provides the foundation for these catholic theologians to maintain both something like a priesthood of all believers and still emphasize the primacy of the priesthood and the magisterium (though Congar, at least, held that the outward form was contingent).

As a Protestant evangelical then, I am wondering how to read Boersma’s endorsement of nouvelle théologie. Is “sacramental ontology” saying something more than the reformed teaching on “means of grace?” That would be a minimalist reading, but a comfortable one. On the maximalist side, if we grant that all creaturely realities participate in the divine, and that the church is a particularly clear instance of this participation, then are we forced to sanction some form of historically continuous, outward manifestation of the Church? I understand that not all theological roads lead to Rome, but before I sign on to a sacramental ontology, I’d like to know if this one does.

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3 Responses to Sacramental Ontology? Reflections on Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology, by Hans Boersma

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    As an evangelical Protestant who loves von Balthasar and de Lubac, I’ve been pondering this dilemma for quite some time. The need to ground all of the created order in a transcendent reality is necessary, but I too am not sure that the sacramental model is the right way to do it. I think Karl Barth may actually have the best approach with his doctrine of creation (the whole of volume 3 in the CD) and his maxim: “covenant is the form of creation; creation is the material of the covenant.” Thus, “covenant” can do the work for Protestants that “sacrament” is doing for Catholics. It has always been that way, but I think Barth’s creation-oriented (not just salvation-oriented) view of covenant is the way forward and is closer to pre-19th-century Reformed thought.

  2. Pingback: Review: Incarnational Humanism, by Jens Zimmermann « For Christ and His Kingdom

  3. Carl says:

    Has anyone considered Alexander Schemann’s, “For the Life of the World” in relation to this discussion?

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