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Scripture As Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Hans Boersma)

Posted On June 18, 2017

As our society develops and moves along the line of historical time, we have voices pop up along the way that remind us not to forget where we came from and the ones who came before us. We see this in politics all of the time. America has had its share of political sympathizers who urge our nation’s leaders to consider the example of our Founding Fathers to inform their current decision-making. We also see this impulse from some prophetic voices in the world of theology. Hans Boersma is one of those voices, inviting us all in our quest of exegesis to consider the Church Fathers of old, recovering their hermeneutic that ours might be better for it.

One of Boersma’s main endeavors, in Scripture as Real Presence, is to outline and expound on a “sacramental reading” of the Scriptures, modeled by various Church Fathers. Boersma argues that there are four main features of this kind of reading of the Scriptures. First, the “meaning” of the text, which functions a bit differently than today’s interpretations of textual meaning. Here are some examples of this:

  • “It is centered on Christ and the church…it is more forward looking than backward looking.” (18)
  • The Fathers took an interest “in how the biblical text can transform its readers.” (19)
  • One acknowledges the differing levels of maturity can lead to differing interpretations of Scripture.
  • Finally, a sacramental reading of Scripture is embedded in divine providence, “God’s guidance of his people and of the world to their intended end.” (22) Boersma goes on to demonstrate these four emphases through the work of Fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Origen, Athanasius, Basil, and many others.

I walked away from this book with a much deeper appreciation for the exegetical patterns of the Church Fathers than I previously had. The stigma among the more academic Evangelicals is that the Church Fathers were theologically strong yet exegetically weak. After reading Boersma’s carefully-researched volume, I know I disagree with that. Now, I see and understand the method and the lens through which these men read the Scriptures.

A classic example is Origen. Many consider Origen at best a textual critic, and at worst, a theologian whose leanings on allegory in interpretation being harmful to proper biblical interpretation. Boersma’s words about Origen are important:

“There is no denying that Origen’s interpretation of Scripture is markedly different from nearly all modern and late modern readings. The very strangeness of his exegesis, the mere fact that it is so different from what we are used to, makes it difficult for us to recognize its value. I suspect that in many cases we do not disagree with Origen from the outset. Disagreement, after all, implies understanding.” (109)

In other words, Boersma believes (and he now convinces me) that the reason many of us don’t find the works of men like Origen especially helpful is that we have altogether misunderstood them. As with anything in this life, we have to do the work to understand before we work to disagree. And, who knows? Perhaps, in growing in our understanding, we will end up agreeing.

Boersma’s offering in Scripture as Real Presence has a lot of exegetical benefits. I now read Scripture in a new way as a result of this book. I’m also grateful for his reliance on patristic exegesis to help me read Scripture with a sacramental lens. Pick this book up. Read it, underline it, engage with the Fathers. This endeavor can only sharpen you.

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