- Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church by Hans Boersma
Hans Boersma has contributed a fascinating book that invites readers to find the presence of Christ through patristic interpretation of Scripture. He emphasizes the book's argument as follows: "[T]he church fathers were deeply invested in reading the Old Testament Scriptures as a sacrament, whose historical basis or surface level participates in the mystery of the New Testament reality of the Christ event" (xiii). Moreover, he writes with an agenda to reinvigorate Christian exegesis today. Boersma comes from the confessional Reformed tradition and was exposed in his earlier studies to the redemptive-historical exegetical method of the Dutch theologian Benne Holwerda. In this method, which he compares with N. T. Wright's scholarship as similar in orientation, the Scriptures are treated historically without appreciating the presence of Christ already in the Old Testament. He writes, "It seems that in both these hermeneutical frameworks, the only way to arrive at a personal appropriation is by moving from the Old Testament, via Christ, to the situation of today. In the end, one is forced to leave the Old Testament behind" (xiv). Boersma has discovered a treasure, and he wants his [End Page 348] readers to share in this find about Christ and the meaning of life today. Boersma explains, "If Christ is genuinely present in the Old Testament, then believers—who are 'in Christ'—are as well. Because believers are 'in Christ,' when they locate his real presence in the Old Testament, they also find their own lives and realities reflected there" (xv).
The first chapter develops what Boersma means by a sacramental reading of Scripture. He asserts that "everything created is sacramental in character" (1), but also recognizes some distinction between nature and grace (2). The things of this world participate in the heavenly realities, something that early Christians understood when reading the Bible in a union of metaphysics and hermeneutics. Boersma argues that "patristic exegesis treated the letter of the Old Testament text (which Origen calls the manifesta, and what in sacramental language we may call the sacramentum) as containing the treasure of a 'hidden' meaning (the occulta … or the reality or res in sacramental discourse), which one can discover in and through God's salvific self-revelation in Jesus Christ" (12). To retrieve this sacramental reading, Boersma goes on to consider its four features of meaning, virtue, progress, and providence. By meaning, Boersma understands that the fathers generally eschewed an attempt to find only one true meaning, but opened themselves to the infinite meaning of God's presence in Scripture. The fathers, furthermore, understood that biblical readers are transformed by the word in the virtuous life. This growth in virtue allowed early readers to make progress toward spiritual maturity. Finally, the fathers read Scripture according to a sense of salvation history guided by divine providence. This first chapter's description of sacramental exegesis in the early church assists the reader to recognize a common pattern among many widely different early Christian exegetes adduced in their particular contexts and aims.
Each subsequent chapter offers a focused argument on a kind of sacramental exegesis. The design of the chapters contributes to the book's charm and cleverness. Here are some examples. Chapter Three is named "Hospitable Reading," for it looks at the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 with the help of Origen and John Chrysostom. Chapter Six, "Harmonious Reading," studies five varied figures—Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine—on the music of the Psalms. Chapter Eight is titled "Nuptial Reading," and it considers the development in the readings of the Song of Songs by Hippolytus, Origen, and Ambrose. Boersma chose to have the last chapter, "Beatific Reading," on something other than Old Testament exegesis, with a study of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Leo the Great on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. This final chapter illustrates how early interpreters also read the New Testament "spiritually." Boersma states, "All biblical...