Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church. By Hans Boersma. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017, xix + 316 pp., $39.99, hardcover. [originally published in JETS 60:4 (2017)].
Scripture as Real Presence is the most recent book from prolific author and Regent College theology professor, Hans Boersma. A Reformed theologian, Boersma has also authored other works on sacramental theology, including Sacramental Preaching (2016), The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology (edited with Matthew Leavering, 2015), Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa (2015), and Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology (2013) among others. While building on these previous works, Boersma’s book also resembles the general aims of at least three other recent works: (1) Matthew Leavering’s Participatory Biblical Exegesis (2008), which navigates theological and historical interpretation of Scripture; (2) Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery (2007), an apologetic for modern allegorical reading of Scripture; and (3) Frances Young’s Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (1997), which aims to refresh the categories of patristic exegesis.
Continuing the legacy of twentieth century scholars Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, Boersma’s stated aim is one of ressourcement (p. 273)—to present and evaluate the sacramental reading of Scripture celebrated by the church fathers. Pushing back against modern historical approaches in biblical studies, Boersma defends this spiritual, theological interpretation of Scripture, which he defines as “simply a reading of Scripture as Scripture, that is to say, as the book of the church that is meant as a sacramental guide on the journey of salvation” (p. xii). In an introductory first chapter, the author attempts to guide the reader into hearts and minds of the church fathers, presenting their questions and concerns about Scripture. Instead of situating the Bible in Christian worship as Word and Sacrament, Boersma prefers to present the Word as Sacrament. Though human authors conveyed the words of Scripture, the Bible is a divine book that should be read in light of the divine economy. It should be read in light of Christ and the rule of faith. It should be interpreted for “a certain purpose, a particular aim—eternal life in the Triune God” (p. 159).
In the chapters that follow (chaps. 2-10), the author discusses nine aspects or values for early Christian sacramental reading of Scripture. In chapter 2 (“Literal Reading”), Boersma shows that while fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine valued a surface reading of Scripture, their understanding of literal is quite different than how we conceive of it today. By reading Genesis 18 (Abraham’s three visitors at the Oak of Mamre) through the eyes of Origen and Chrysostom, Boersma argues in chapter 3 for a “hospitable reading” of Scripture. He writes, “Reading Scripture is like hosting a divine visitor . . . when we interpret the Scriptures, we are in the position of Abraham: we are called to show hospitality to God as he graciously comes to us through the pages of the Bible” (p. 56). In chapter 4 (“Other Reading”), the author offers a basic presentation of allegory, affirming scholarly consensus which no longer holds to a strict dichotomony between Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of interpretation.
In chapter 5 (“Incarnational Reading”), using the case study of Origen’s homilies on Joshua, Boersma argues that the church fathers saw the incarnation applied not only in the person of Christ and in the written Word of God but also in the life of the church. Chapter 6 (“Harmonious Reading”) explores how the fathers thought about the essence of music and how the Psalms brought healing, harmony, and unity to the body of Christ. In chapter 7 (“Doctrinal Reading”), Boersma discusses how the fathers understood Wisdom (Prov 8:22-25) and combatted an Arian reading of this text through a sacramental approach. In chapter 8 (“Nuptial Reading), he argues that Song of Songs was largely interpreted sacramentally (pertaining to the church and the soul) in the patristic period. In chapter 9 (“Prophetic Reading”), Boersma presents the fathers’ Christological readings on the Servant Songs of Isaiah, asserting that prophecy for the early church was “not only a fore-telling of future events” but a “forth-telling of present realities” (p. 247). Finally, in chapter 10 (“Beatific Reading”), the only portion of the book where the New Testament is emphasized, Boersma summarizes the fathers’ spiritual reading of the Sermon on the Mount. The purpose of the beatitudes is to “participate in [the] happiness of God” (p. 272).
This book has a number of strengths. First, Boersma does a very thorough job of engaging the primary sources. Though he does not exhaust the corpus of patristic writings, his chosen case studies are strong and representative enough to make a compelling argument. Second, and related, the author succeeds in helping the modern theology student enter into the thought and church world of the fathers. By sketching out background details on subjects like philosophy and music, the reader is able to put on the lenses of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and others and begin a sympathetic reading of the fathers. In terms of ressourcement, Boersma makes a winsome case for reading Scripture today in a sacramental manner.
I only have two quibbles that are not content related. In terms of overall flow and structure, the book lacked cohesiveness between chapters. Church fathers, other scholars, and ideas are introduced again and again as if we had not read the preceding chapters. Because much of this book had already been published in other forms, more effort could have been made to bring this work together into one organic whole. Second, at points, the author seems unnecessarily critical of contemporary Reformed Protestants for failing to grasp patristic readings of Scripture. While his presentation of patristic sacramental exegesis was winsome, his invitation for modern Protestants to participate in this approach to reading the fathers and Scripture could have also been more welcoming.
In sum, Boersma’s book is accessible and thorough and would serve as a good resource for a seminary level course on patristic exegesis, which is apparently where the book was in part nurtured and developed.