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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 65, 2017

HANS BOERSMA, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017). Pp. xvii + 316. Hardback. US$39.99.

In this book, Hans Boersma extends his vision of what he elsewhere calls “the sacramental tapestry” more fully into the area of scriptural interpretation. Boersma offers a robust defense of patristic interpretation which he describes as sacramental exegesis, “grounded in a Christian Platonist ontology” (278–79 et passim). Throughout, Boersma moves deftly between historical description and exhortation to Christian readers today, culminating in a call to adopt “the sacramental metaphysical assumptions” (278) that undergird patristic interpretive practice. Organising books like this one is notoriously difficult—whether one should focus on approaches to biblical books or genres, prioritise thematic strands that cut across various interpreters and biblical materials, or focus on individual interpreters in chronological order. Boersma strikes an elegant compromise between these options by organising the chapters according to guiding themes present in patristic interpretation while also applying these to the areas of scripture (in canonical order!) to which they chiefly apply, focusing in each case on a few exemplary writers.

His introduction (Chapter 1, “Patristic Reading”) provides a general orientation to patristic interpretation, filtered particularly through Origen, as distinct from biblical interpretation after the nominalist and historicist developments in western thought, represented here by William of Ockham and Baruch Spinoza, respectively. Chapters 2–10 explore different aspects of patristic interpretation, beginning with the literal and ending with the beatific, in a scheme that mirrors the pedagogical (or anagogical) vision of the Christian life in writers such as Origen and Gregory Nyssen. Chapter 2, on literal reading in the Genesis creation accounts, emphasises that patristic writers took the “literal meaning” of scripture seriously, though he highlights the distance between patristic literal readings (in Augustine and Gregory Nyssen) and a historicising literal approach in the present. Chapter 3 supplies the bridge between literal and allegorical reading in terms of hospitality, specifically, Origen and John Chrysostom’s approach to Abraham’s hospitality to divine visitors at Mamre. Chapter 4 examines allegory and its justification in Melito’s reading of the Exodus Passover account, emphasising a continuity with biblical typology. In Chapter 5, Boersma turns to allegorical readings of historical narratives, particularly Origen’s reading of Joshua. Boersma here poses the question whether Origen gives history its “rightful place” in his allegorical reading. His answer is that Origen’s Platonist convictions—that history is providentially ordered by and participates in God—actually gives him “a higher view of history than … many modern exegetes” have (124). Of course, as he notes, what qualifies as “a higher view” depends largely on the priority that one bestows on historical persons and events relative to their metaphysical significance. Chapters 6–8 address Christological reading of the Psalms, the impact of doctrinal convictions in reading Proverbs, and allegorical readings of the Song of Songs. The latter also includes a defence of patristic allegorical readings against charges of a general mistrust of the body. Chapter 9 examines patristic readings of Isaiah’s Servant Songs, making a case that they did not treat prophecy as simply a matter of telling the future since prophecies fulfilled in Christ in fact pointed to the one who was already present in their writing, namely the pre-incarnate Lord. In the final body chapter Boersma looks at early interpretation of the New Testament, showing in the process that patristic reading was generally directed toward perfection of the Christian life.

His conclusion briefly considers potential objections from those who think “[b]ecoming … ‘presents the real face of Being’” (274; citing Louis Dupré), thereby undermining any possibility of return to neo-platonic metaphysics. Boersma perceptively notes that “[i]f Dupré were right, the project of this book would be fruitless” (174). He counters this with two quick moves. First, he lays his cards on the table and states “bluntly” that “this interpretive approach … based on a theologically informed meta-physics” is simply “true” (275). Drawing on Andrew Louth’s criticism of historicist hermeneutics—which itself draws on earlier critiques from H.-G. Gadamer and others—Boersma rejects any appeal for a single textual meaning, fixed by authorial intent or historical-critical reconstruction. Second, Boersma notes that he is not alone in discovering resources for the church and scriptural reading in patristic interpretation. Moreover, the continuity he perceives across patristic interpreters, grounded, he argues, in Christology, suggests an interpretive strength that is lacking among “the bewildering variety of exegetical choices among modern and postmodern interpreters” (277). Boersma concludes: the “same sacramental sensibility” shared by the fathers “still has the vitality to renew the life of the church today” (279).

This is a valuable book. For those who are interested in spiritual, theological, ecclesial or other related interpretive modes, Boersma offers a thorough and clear account of one approach, an approach that is gaining steam among other writers as well. For those simply interested in patristic interpretation, Boersma proves to be a (generally) reliable guide, illuminating not only specific exegetical decisions but the underlying theological and hermeneutical justifications for them. It is a book that invites, even demands, robust engagement to match its proposal. In lieu of this, however, and in light of the limits of a book review, I will highlight only two points that merit a response.

First, Boersma’s account of early Christian interpretation appears to me somewhat sanitised. For instance, on p. 83 Boersma states that the early church was “an ecclesial setting” in which “no one expressed the fear that typology and allegorising might run amok.” This does not accurately represent the context in which Origen or Melito lived and worked. From Irenaeus’ rejection of “gnostic” allegorical excess to Diodore of Tarsus (discussed by Boersma on 70), early interpreters were well aware of dangers in allegorical exegesis and expressed concern over them. Further, Boersma’s selection of interlocutors also excludes those on the margins—whether later deemed heretics or not—and thereby produces a rather over-simplified view of patristic interpretation than might otherwise be the case.

Second, Boersma offers a diagnosis of the present rejection of patristic interpretation, which recurs in various forms throughout the work. It constitutes an important foundation for his call to reclaim patristic interpretation. For Boersma, it is the “separation of visible and invisible things in the modern period,” indicative of a present dualism, that leads to “our failure of nerve with regard to divine providence” (25–26) and our concomitant failure to appreciate the Fathers’ sacramental interpretation. This failure can be overcome, he argues, by a “robust understanding of God’s providential guidance in history, which sees in Christ … the true expression of God’s providential plan of salvation” (26). The ellipse in that citation, however, hides an important rider: this understanding of God’s providential guidance includes seeing “the types that adumbrate [Christ’s] coming.” This is of fundamental importance for Boersma’s argument because it is linked (tacitly here, explicitly elsewhere) with the Christian Platonist convictions with which he opens and closes the book (1, 279). He does not say, however, what those are to do who in fact think Dupré is correct, that becoming is the face of being. Can such a person still learn from patristic interpretation? (I think so, but Boersma does not say how.) While he tries to articulate the metaphysical assumptions underlying patristic interpretation, he does not argue for their validity here. Nor does he examine whether one can occupy a mediating position between Dupré and himself, between phenomenology and Neo-Platonism, which attempts a more critical reappropriation of Platonist metaphysics that takes seriously the philosophical challenges to it since late-antiquity.

Following from this point, a question arises: is it in fact possible to roll back the clock and become late-antique Neo-Platonists again, as Boersma’s rather nostalgic account seems to suggest? I am not (yet) convinced. This is at least partly because I do not recognise myself or my contemporaries in Boersma’s diagnosis of present biblical interpretation. (On this point, Boersma’s book appears to be directed primarily to those North American evangelicals for whom an uncritically modernist hermeneutic is still operative.) It is not a rejection of God’s providence but an anxiety about the ethics of interpretation that drives at least this interpreter to be reticent about appeals to the sacramental character of scripture and the world. Such appeals seem to risk sacralising the status quo, whether present institutions or particular interpretations, minimising the eschatological character of the Christian community, which is to live within the structures of the present age “as if not,” in Paul’s well-known formulation (1 Cor 7:29). Claims to possess or discern the spiritual meaning of scripture raises questions of epistemological access. Who is able to make such claims and how does a community (to say nothing of the Church) adjudicate them? What is more, this risks further marginalisation of those already on the periphery, those who do not hold authoritative interpretive positions from which to offer their own readings. Of course, Boersma cannot be expected to resolve these issues in this book any more than a modern or post-modern hermeneutic can claim to avoid these dangers through their methodology alone. I raise them here, though, to illustrate that Boersma does not account for the range of possible positions from which one might object to his proposal. (We are not all committed historicists.) Those not addressed by his diagnosis are unlikely to feel the full weight of his argument.

My critical responses here should not be taken to indicate a deep deficiency with Boersma’s book, however. Rather they are indicative of the strength with which he puts forward his position, enabling readers to think through some fundamental issues along with him. This is an important book on contemporary theological interpretation and any who are interested would benefit from engaging it.

Review by
Australian Catholic University