Do we read Scripture with assumptions that fall short of the Bible’s own theological scope? Is our approach to Scripture indebted to the academy more than to Christ speaking by the Spirit in the Church? Have we sold our spiritual birthright for a bowl of materialist pottage? Hans Boersma, the J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent Collage, thinks so. He argues that we can escape this situation by retrieving the sacramental exegesis of the Early Church. His book Scripture as Real Presence shamelessly commends the Early Church’s exegetical practices as a remedy for metaphysical reductionism, summoning us to reclaim the riches of the church’s Great Tradition for our time.
Eight of Boersma’s ten chapters examine how the Church Fathers interpret the various writings of the Old Testament. His main argument is that the Fathers read the Old Testament as a sacrament that contains the real presence of Christ. In other words, the surface, historical sense of the Old Testament not only points forward to Christ, but already participates in the full realities of the Christ event (xii). Therefore, when the Fathers approach the Old Testament they expect to meet the Christ they know from the New Testament and worship in the church’s liturgy.
Boersma insists the Fathers’ exegetical practices look strange to many of us, because they assume a sacramental universe, while we often assume a disenchanted one. According to Boersma, the nominalism of William of Ockham (ca. 1287-1347) and Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679) is to blame. Their nominalism teaches us to posit a radical separation between the visible and invisible, between the natural and the supernatural. As a result Boersma argues that Christians trained in the academy often assume exegesis is merely about keeping the “rules,” plying the proper tools, and following the right method. If the Bible doesn’t participate in a deeper reality beyond its surface meaning, then it’s easy to approach exegesis as a merely natural procedure, instead of a sacred discipline requiring the Spirit’s illumination and the church’s rule of faith (6).
Alternatively, in a sacramental universe, the full reality of any created thing is more than meets the eye. The Fathers, as Christian Platonists, assume all created things point to God and potentially make him present. Adopting their overarching metaphysical perspective, Boersoma believes, will better prepare us to discover Christ as the treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament (1-2).
By way of evaluation, I think the book succeeds on two levels. First, I find Boersma’s central argument convincing. His detailed analysis of the Father’s exegesis shows that while they can offer different spiritual readings of the same text, they all assume the Old Testament is providentially patterned on the full realties of the Christ event. In other words, the Fathers model an authentically Christian reading of the Old Testament, one that perceives the mystery of Christ and his church, hidden within the letter of the Old Testament.
Even so, at times I think Boersma dismisses valid alternatives to his perspective by employing “either or” arguments. In chapter five, he argues that unless we adopt Origen’s allegorical approach to Joshua’s conquest, we can’t overcome the postmodern accusation that such texts permanently incite violence (111). But surly, a historical-redemptive reading of the conquest usually denies that such violence remains in play under the new covenant. Admittedly, this still raises the question of how God could sanction such violence in the first place. Yet, contra Boersma, I think the church is better served by direct appeals to theology proper – to the sovereign freedom of the Creator over sinful creatures, to his wise ordering of the conquest within the outworking of the economy of grace -than by Origen’s seemingly evasive approach. Besides, for the postmodern, I can’t help thinking that Origen’s reading will appear suspicious, like an attempt to sweep God’s sins under the rug.
Also, throughout the book I kept asking, “Do I have to adopt Christian Platonism in order to escape the negative tendencies of nominalism?” I don’t think so. I can think of many notable Christian interpreters who, apart from any explicit sacramental metaphysic, read the Bible as God’s living address. Yet, I appreciate Boersma’s type of Christian Platonism. He is certainly a more balanced proponent of this grand tradition, than say, Henri de Lubac, whom Boersma admires but admits often needs charitable interpretation (116, n42). Overall, his perspective deserves serious consideration.
Second, the book succeeds as an attempt at retrieval. Like all good retrievals, Boersma invites us to do as the Fathers say, not necessarily as they do. He freely admits that the Fathers make blunders that we want to avoid, but they also posses insights that can correct some of our imbalances. For example, while he rightly maintains that historical exegesis is crucial, he also shows how the Fathers help us escape the notion, popular among evangelical scholars, that exegesis is primarily a historical discipline (xii-xiv). I agree with Boersma that the Fathers modal a richer type of literal reading, one that doesn’t limit the Old Testament’s meaning to the author’s intentions. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Boersma’s retrieval is his commendation of the Father’s cross-shaped exegesis. Not only do the Fathers affirm the Old Testament’s “chronological (horizontal) connection” with Christ, but they also teach us how to perceive its “theological (vertical) interconnectedness” with him as well (25). By and large, Boersma persuasively shows that the spiritual exegesis of the Father’s is not arbitrary, and that the time has come for us to retrieve our patristic heritage. After all, Boersma’s retrieval raises the important question of whether we can affirm the Nicene Faith without embracing the exegetical sensibilities that produced the Creed (160). Clearly, this question deserves much more attention than it receives among conservative evangelicals.
Boersma’s Scripture as Real Presence is richer than I can convey! If we adopt the “common patristic sensibility” his book commends (17), it has the potential to enrich, and deepen our often reductionist approach to the Old Testament. It may be that a thoughtful and critical retrieval of the Father’s sacramental exegesis points the way for evangelicals to regain a robust Nicene faith in all its Trinitarian fullness. I recommend the book to anyone humble and wise enough to apprentice themselves to the church’s Great Tradition, so as to learn (or relearn) how to read their Old Testament as Christian Scripture.