08 December 2010

'He that Cometh' Maketh the Church (1)

Henri de Lubac (1896–1991)
IN THE NOV/DEC ISSUE of Books & Culture, Hans Boersma wrote an article, "The Eucharist Makes the Church," in which he uses Henri de Lubac's views on the Supper as a grand moderating position that ought to do three things: (1) help us recapture the pre-modern, sacramental view of the world (over against the rationalism of the High Middle Ages and the neo-scholastic theology of the early 20th century); (2) reappropriate a pre-modern "sacramental" hermeneutic with respect to Scripture (here Boersma has in mind St. Augustine's exegetical approach of literal meaning pointing beyond itself to spiritual meaning); and (3) apply the genuine ecumenical potential inherent in de Lubac's sacramental outlook.

It is the last area that interests me most here. With respect to the other two, simply note that Boersma's narrative (which he implies is de Lubac's) goes something like this: Postmodernity is little more than modernity coming home to roost. These, kicked off, as it were, by the rationalism of the High Middle Ages . . . 

. . . are predicated on the abandonment of a pre-modern sacramental mindset in which the realities of this-worldly existence pointed to greater, eternal realities, in which they sacramentally shared. Once modernity abandoned a participatory or sacramental view of reality, the created order became unhinged from its origin in God, and the material cosmos began its precarious drift on the flux of nihilistic waves.
Recovering de Lubac is of particular importance, therefore, because he fought the same battles many of us are fighting, according to Boersma. What battles? Why, the ones precipitated by the neo-scholastics, of course! They are (1) the strict separation between nature and the supernatural and (2) the rationalist apologetic approach to the Bible and the history of Christian thought.

So, in short, "the pre-critical sacramental outlook of the medieval tradition," good; High Middle Ages, not so good. The Catholic renwal movement of nouvelle théologie
, good; Pope Leo XIII's neo-scholastic love affair with St. Thomas, not so good. Leo's encyclical, Aeterni Patris, and policies "entrenched Thomist philosophy and theology as the normative system of Catholic thought."

With respect to the Eucharist, Boersma casts de Lubac (or, rather, de Lubac casts himself—I need a historical theology expert of this era to confirm or deny) as situated between two extremes: Protestantism on the one hand, and Catholic neo-scholasticism on the other. De Lubac mentions John Calvin by name as one who "watered down" both the reality of Christ's presence in Holy Communion and the traditional idea of the church as the body of Christ. The two go hand in hand, he argues, because with only a "virtual presence" of Christ in the sacrament, one would end up with only a "virtual presence" of Christ in the church, too (I know my friend Keith Mathison would take serious umbrage with this charge of "virtual presence." I am glad to see that Calvin was de Lubac's Protestant target, however—probably because his view is the only Protestant one worth holding; if anyone can figure out Luther's, let me know).

But de Lubac's main antagonist, writes Boersma, was his Catholic compatriot (both his contemporary neo-scholastics and their 17th-century predecessors). All of them were unable to find transubstantiation in the early church, most notably in St. Augustine, and "this difficulty led them to engage in mental gymnastics in their interpretation" of the North African bishop.

Coming up next: We'll look at de Lubac's recapturing of St. Augustine's sacramental outlook and Boersma's attempt to push it in an ecumenical direction. And I'll clear up the title for this post too.


Kevin Davis said...

Great post! I'm looking forward to future installments. There are some interesting parallels between de Lubac and T. F. Torrance. I would like to see someone bring the two together, but that would require mastering two fairly difficult theologians.

Chris Donato said...

Thanks, Kevin. You're right about that—lots of material to get a handle on in order to start drawing those kinds of parallels. At first glance, it very well could be that what de Lubac was to Rome, Torrance was to Geneva…

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