12 April 2011

'He that Cometh' Maketh the Church (3)

SHALL WE NOT CLOSE THIS SERIES? It's well past time. In the first and second posts on this topic, I briefly covered Hans Boersma's three reasons for recapturing Henri de Lubac's views on Holy Communion: (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.

In this (hopefully) final post, I want to look at the crux of de Lubac's objection against both mere sacramental symbolism and the complete identification between the sacramental symbol and the reality to which it points, which, according to Boersma, paves the way for authentic ecumenical action. As mentioned in part 2, de Lubac's church (not to mention the Protestants) had forgotten the very purpose of the Eucharistic body, thus suffering from a severly truncated ecclesiology.

Following Augustine's lead (in Sermon 227), de Lubac argued that believers—not the bread—became the body of Christ. They found their impetus for this in 1 Cor 10:16b–17: "And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ? And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body." Note that the bread here is used in two different ways: the first way, in v. 16b, refers to the Eucharistic body (of Christ; i.e., his presence); the second way (v. 17) refers to the ecclesial body (of Christ; i.e., the church). Boersma concludes:
As by faith we share in the one Eucharistic body, the Spirit makes us one ecclesial body. As St. Augustine would put it: we become what we have received. Or, as de Lubac phrased it: the Eucharist makes the Church.
And here we arrive at the point of de Lubac's objection (to his compatriots, the neo-Thomists), so Boersma: They focused so much on what made a legitimate Eucharist, and zeroed in so much on the Eucharistic body, that they forgot that the sacramental purpose of this Eucharistic body was to create the ecclesial body. In short, and this is for Roman ears, as much as it is for Constantinopolitan and Protestant ears, "The sacramental reality to which the Eucharistic body pointed and which it made present was the ecclesial unity of the Church."

In keeping with his ancient views on nature and grace (i.e., they're not to be strictly separated), de Lubac saw the Eucharist not as a supernatural intervention from above, but as a true "mystery" (conceived of as an action, not a thing), one that actively created the one body of Christ, the church. Its focus is not to be construed in an either/or fashion—either strictly focused on the church's unity as the intended reality of the sacrament, while forgetting that this reality was tied to its origin in the actual bread of the Eucharistic body (Protestantism); or strictly focused on the sacramental presence of Christ in the elements, while forgetting that this real presence was inextricably tied to its purpose in creating the ecclesial body (Catholicism).

And this is where the genuine ecumenical potential comes in. De Lubac cuts through the middle of both over-emphases. On the one hand, there's complete separation between the sign and the reality to which it points; and on the other, there's a strict identification of the sign and the reality. Boersma wraps up the discussion by commending his evangelical readers to not get overworked about transubstantiation. He argues that de Lubac's moderate view, now called "communion ecclesiology," has become ensconced in Catholic dogma through Vatican II, and as such "offers new prospects for fruitful dialogue." In like manner, now that the Catholics have begun to focus more strongly on fellowship among all "branches" of Christendom, Protestants ought to celebrate "much more unambiguously the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist."

'He that Cometh' Maketh the Church

(I'm following David Daube's lead here, even if I'm not convinced entirely of his conclusions.) One of the ways we can celebrate this as Protestants, without having our heads explode or our eyes bleed at the notion of thanking Aristotle every time we receive Holy Communion, is to understand the Eucharistic body, the bread, to be "he that was to come, has come, and will come again," namely, the messiah, not in any transubstantiated or merely memorial sense, but in the sense that he is actually present in his person during the Eucharistic feast by the power of the Spirit. Whether the focus of that presence needs to be on location or time (or both), makes little difference, I think. And as far as the "how" is concerned, I will only cry, "Union with Christ!"


Tyler Wittman said...


Have you read either of Boersma's books on the nouvelle theologie? I read "Heavenly Participation" right after it came out two months ago or so, and now I'm consulting his OUP volume.

I'm wondering what you think. He's a very clear and helpful writer (I always learn from him), but his conclusions for (and complaints against) evangelicals are often somewhat roughshod.

Chris Donato said...


I'm not well read on the nouvelle theologie. This article and a few snippets online is all I've engaged.

Re: Boersma, I've read his work on Baxter and the atonement, and I too find him clear and helpful. The latter work at times, I think, jives with what you say about his running roughshod over evangelicals.

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