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  • Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church by Hans Boersma
  • Daniel A. Keating
Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church. By Hans Boersma. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. Pp. xix + 316. $39.99 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0-8010-1703-2.

For some time now, scholars across the theological spectrum have raised their voices in defense of a theological reading of Scripture. Often included in this defense is a renewed appreciation for ancient, and specifically patristic, modes of biblical exegesis. In Scripture as Real Presence, however, Hans Boersma offers much more than simply another account of how Scripture can be read theologically. With the Church Fathers as his primary exemplars, Boersma illustrates and argues for what he calls a "sacramental" reading of Scripture that relies upon a metaphysical understanding of God's action in history.

Acknowledging the major shift that has occurred in his own thinking on biblical exegesis, he takes aim not just at nontheological readings of Scripture governed by the historical-critical method, but also at a historically grounded theological reading of Scripture as practiced, for example, by N. T. Wright. While admitting that Wright and other scholars of the new perspective on Paul have given us many valuable insights, Boersma judges that their historical exegesis, which eschews metaphysics, ultimately leaves the Old Testament behind: "For Wright—and for an increasingly large number of evangelical biblical scholars—exegesis is primarily a historical discipline, one that escapes the 'abstract' and 'timeless' theology of Western, Platonized Christianity" (xiv). The result, according to Boersma, is a distancing of the reader from the Old Testament text itself: "Strictly historical readings of Scripture separate the reader from the original event described in the biblical text" (xv). In contrast, Boersma recommends reappropriating a sacramental reading of the Old Testament whereby the text already contains Christ and does not simply point to him externally. On this model, if Christ is already present in the Old [End Page 299] Testament, then believers who are in Christ are also "present" in the text and can find themselves in the text, precisely because this sacramental hermeneutic already places them there.

In defense of these claims, Boersma opens with a general study of how the Church Fathers practiced a sacramental reading of Scripture and follows with nine chapters that illustrate this sacramental reading. Following the canonical order, he walks the reader through various themes, beginning with Genesis, moving through Exodus, the historical books, the Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Songs, and ending with a study of the beatitudes. In these nine sketches, Boersma shows an admirable mastery of the patristic writings—with Origen occupying center stage—and indicates the diversity and complexity of readings found in the Fathers within a common sacramental hermeneutic. He takes pains throughout to assure his readers that he is not simply recommending that we adopt the particular readings of the Church Fathers, which, in any case, are often contrary to one another. Rather, through the variety of patristic readings, he hopes to illustrate the kind of sacramental, participatory hermeneutic that he believes can and should be reappropriated today.

Much of Boersma's argument for a sacramental reading of Scripture appears in the opening chapter. A comparison between Origen, Hobbes, and Spinoza sets the stage for his broad claims. From Origen, we learn that attention to metaphysics pays dividends in terms of scriptural interpretation: "good metaphysics leads to good hermeneutics" (5). The point is that the way we understand the relationship between God and the world (and history) is closely linked to the way we read and interpret Scripture. Origen—and the Fathers more generally—saw the world in participatory terms: visible things participate in and are revelations of invisible things. The world itself is sacramental. Boersma locates the crucial shift in biblical interpretation in the Enlightenment's rejection of metaphysics, and specifically with its rejection of a broadly Platonist view of the world. Hobbes and Spinoza both follow Ockham by rejecting the idea that visible things have a real and participatory relationship to invisible things (7). Through fear of an overly dualist view of the world, these Enlightenment thinkers—and with them many thinkers...


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pp. 299-303
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