Boersma on a sacramental view of time and tradition

Hans Boersma’s book, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, is an extended plea for a recovery of a sacramental view of reality. He begins by tracing the undoing of this view of reality from the high Middle Ages onward, and argues essentially that modernity is the result of a loss of this sacramental ontology. More, the church’s response to and engagement with the world has suffered since it too has lost its sacramental rootedness. Boersma suggests that by looking in particular to the patristic era, and its reappropriation by the nouvelle théologie movement, we can find resources for reweaving the sacramental tapestry.

In one of the chapters in the second part of the book, which focuses on ‘reconnecting the threads’, Boersma discusses the role of tradition in theology, and calls on evangelicals (though he uses the term loosely, and a various times seems to mean different things) in particular to reconsider the place of tradition. Our view of time and history, he argues, means that ‘we tend to look at time as a simple succession of distinct moments, unrelated to one another’ (125). This shapes our view of tradition and how we do theology – later theology always takes precedent over something earlier, and though he does not say as much, the implication is that what comes after is to be seen as fuller or better than what has gone before.

This linear view of time also means that we are given to see theology both as something much more malleable, and as dependent on our individual interpretations, which gain a considerable normative status. Recognising this, Boersma continues with a warning:

A desacramentalized view of time tends to place the entire burden of doctrinal decision on the present moment: I, in the small moment of time allotted to me, am responsible to make the right theological (and moral) choice before God. The imposition of such a burden is so huge as to be pastorally disastrous. Furthermore, to the extent that as Christians we are captive to our secular Western culture, it is likely that this secure culture will get to set the church’s agenda. If we do not see ourselves sacramentally connected to the tradition (and thus to Christ), we sense no accountability to the tradition, and we are likely to accommodate whatever demands our culture places on us and capitulate to them (129-130).

This changes, however, when we adopt a sacramental view of time that sees a unity of past, present, and future as they are tied together in God’s eternity. As it pertains to the development of doctrine, Boersma notes that in doing theology we always have a responsibility to the tradition we are rooted in. This means that, ‘when we are faced with a theological and moral conundrum, a participatory approach to tradition will always ask how the catholic, or universal, church throughout time and place has dealt with the issue’ (130). A sacramental view of tradition sees the church’s collective interpretation of Scripture as a shared calling, and seeks to balance speaking faithfully to our present context with faithfulness to what we have inherited.

‘The widespread assumption that Christian beliefs and morals are to a significant degree malleable has its roots in a modern, desacrilized view of time,’ Boersma argues (130). This, of course, does not mean that doctrine does not develop, but only that we are not pioneers who do theology apart from what has gone before. In a sacramental view of time, to ignore the church’s tradition is to ignore the Christ who is eternally present with his church, and who leads and guides it throughout history as it seeks to interpret Scripture and shape its life in faithfulness to the one who gave it life.

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