Scripture As A Real Presence

Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church

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Hans Boersma
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“With regard to the meaning of [Scriptural] revelations,” Baruch Spinoza writes in his 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, “our method only teaches us to investigate what the prophets actually saw or heard, not what they intended to signify or represent by these visions; that we can only conjecture, since we certainly cannot deduce it from the principles of Scripture” (Cambridge University Press, 2007, 104). According to Spinoza, the methodological assumption when reading scripture should be that no extratextual philosophy or ecclesiastical authority must be allowed to impinge upon the ability of the text to speak for itself. In other words, fanciful allegorical interpretations of scripture that deviate from its “plain sense” should not be entertained.

This notion, long held by modern biblical critics, is something of an Enlightenment-era revenant, returning every so often with a ghastly outstretched finger to warn readers against eisegetical approaches to the text. But is it based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of scripture in the life of the Church? Hans Boersma, in Scripture as Real Presence, seems to think so. In fact, according to Boersma, early Christian writers like Clement, Origen, and Augustine engaged in allegorical and typological exegesis precisely because they believed their method to be rooted in the biblical tradition itself. Drawing on examples from Paul’s interpretation of Israel’s scriptures (particularly 1 Corinthians 10:4 and Galatians 4:24), patristic theologians understood themselves to be searching the scriptures for the sensus plenior, the “fuller meaning” in which Christ is really present in the text.

Divided into ten chapters, each highlighting a different style of patristic exegesis, the positive contributions of Scripture as Real Presence to the study of the Church Fathers, sacramental theology, and biblical interpretation are unmistakable. “This book is a project of ressourcement,” Boersma writes in the conclusion (273). “As I have tried to make clear throughout this book, I understand this retrieval not as a simple return to patristic interpretation but as a reappropriation of the sacramental sensibility that informed this exegesis” (273 n1). This “sacramental sensibility” that Boersma claims to be reappropriating is the notion that the mysterium or sacramentum of the Gospel lies hidden in the text of the Old Testament. That is, the spiritual reality of the events narrated in the New Testament are already enfolded into Israel’s scriptures, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

In addition to this primary thesis, Boersma also attempts to work through a number of questions that have long plagued proponents of allegorical interpretation: What keeps patristic exegesis from being arbitrary, and to what extent should the allegorical or typological approaches of the Church Fathers be considered normative for modern readers? For Boersma, interpreters like Gregory of Nyssa and Melito of Sardis understood their exegesis to flow naturally and reasonably from the scriptural tradition itself. The concept of Christ as the leader of a new spiritual exodus, for example, which reverberates throughout the New Testament, gave occasion for the Church Fathers to look for christological images in the Hebrew Exodus under the belief that the eternal Logos was already present in the Torah. The desire for continuity with the historic scriptural tradition, together with the established regula fidei of the Apostles and the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in the life and liturgy of the Church, Boersma maintains, prevented patristic exegesis from being entirely subjective and arbitrary.

The book does, however, have a number of shortcomings. Throughout Scripture as Real Presence, Boersma takes a polemical comportment toward those who dismiss patristic exegetical method as irrelevant. In his chapter on “incarnational reading,” for instance, Boersma directs his criticism toward those who abandon “the notion that history is anchored within divine providence,” (130) thereby restricting history to a purely immanent phenomenon of cause and effect. Such a perspective, he argues, denies the possibility of divine ordering of human history, effectively precluding any discussion of the agency of the Spirit in biblical interpretation. Yet for all his dissatisfied grousing, Boersma never actually engages at any length with the work of scholars who put forth this view; had he done so, both the book and its readers would have benefited greatly.

Where he does cite specific authors with whom he disagrees, Boersma occasionally exaggerates or misrepresents their claims. For example, commenting on New Testament scholar Richard Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Boersma claims that “Longenecker argues that we should not replicate the New Testament authors’ allegorizing because, unlike the biblical authors, we are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. This argument seems to me unpersuasive” (88 n17). No doubt this does seem unpersuasive, by Boersma’s analysis—if only it were Longenecker’s actual argument! Rather, Longenecker’s more nuanced reasoning (while too complicated to reflect upon in any depth in this brief review) appears to be, in essence, that readers must make cautious distinctions between the descriptive and normative underpinnings of patristic exegesis, and that individual claims to unique revelation regarding the spiritual meaning of the text should be treated with suspicion (Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Eerdmans, 1999, 193-98). In this case, Boersma’s critique is reductive and unfair.

These faults notwithstanding, Scripture as Real Presence is a fresh attempt to heal the modern rift between biblical studies and theology by way of a “sacramental sensibility.” In addition to the important discussions mentioned above, readers may also find value in Boersma’s frequent attention to the virtue-based hermeneutics adopted by many of the Church Fathers—a characteristic of biblical interpretation often overlooked by Protestants. Seminarians and scholars of early Christian exegesis will find it a particularly enjoyable read, but the language is rarely inaccessible to the educated layperson.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Paul Smith is a doctoral student in New Testament and Biblical interpretation at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans Boersma is J. I. Packer professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of numerous critically acclaimed books, including Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition; Sacramental Preaching; Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery; and Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. He is also coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology.


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