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Oxford Movement exegesis and sacramental ontology

Editor’s note: This third essay on Oxford Movement exegesis is adapted from part of a convocation address at Nashotah House Theological Seminary (Sept. 25, 2015). This is also the ninth piece in our Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition series. See the introductory essay to the series by David Ney for more details on Anglicanism as a community centered on the Word: “The bare reading of Scripture and Anglican hermeneutics.” Find all the essays (and others related to them) under the tag ressourcement.

My first post in this small series considered how Tractarian exegesis, focused on “the vision of God,” might serve to renew the Church. My second post then considered how Tractarian views of Scripture were intimately connected to the doctrine of the Incarnation, how divine life and truth are communicated by sensible means in human words or earthly sacraments. They are “earthly Sacraments, yet full of Heaven, earthly words, yet full of the Word, λογοι proceeding from and setting forth the Λογος.”[1] Here, I would like to focus on the nature of sacramental ontology.

Many theologians today describe various forms of un-incarnational thinking and living, the separation of theology and prayer, spirituality and exegesis. In the words of John Webster, this is part of “the complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology,” through which the sensible and intelligible realms, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other.[2] In the world that Augustine and Aquinas inhabited, for instance, created things and human institutions, both the inner nature of the human mind and the natural world, were interconnected with heavenly realities, knit together in Christ in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). We seem not to inhabit this world. We can see natural signs and symbols as metaphors, but it’s more difficult to see either them or the stories of the Bible as living educts manifesting the eternal in the temporal. [3]

What can make the gospel of Christ compellingly attractive to the people of this age? Any answer worthy of the name cannot simply be information. Neither can seeing the face of Christ, enjoying the vision of God, simply be forced by an act of will. In whatever measure we enjoy that vision now, the healing of our vision — going up to Jerusalem with Christ in company with the Church — only comes with a radical reorientation, a new understanding and a new pattern of life.

A group of French theologians in the middle of the 20th century shaped some of the most fruitful efforts to address modern forms of dissociation of sensibility. Their work of renewal become known as the nouvelle theologie (“new theology”), or went under the title of ressourcement (“return to the sources”). While he was not the first name associated with the movement, the most significant was Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), a French Jesuit, who after years of being considered a renegade had significant effects on Vatican II. De Lubac’s work is interesting in itself, but can also help us to appreciate the significance of the Tractarians’ incarnational and sacramental theology. De Lubac and his colleagues criticized the way in which Neo-Thomists, in a desire to preserve the gratuity of grace and divine freedom, emphasized the separation of the natural from the supernatural. For de Lubac, nature is always incomplete without the transforming work of the Spirit, and there is no proper natural end for either humanity or the created world apart from God. De Lubac argued that the Church had colluded in banishing sacred from public space: “[N]eo-Thomism ended up endorsing modernity’s acceptance of the autonomy of nature as well as the Enlightenment belief in human progress in this independent (or immanent) realm of nature” — God and the world were thrust apart, nature and super-nature divided.[4]

De Lubac worked out his principles through long years studying patristic and medieval exegesis, as well as liturgy. For the ressourcement writers, this study served as “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” that C.S. Lewis saw as “the only palliative” to the blindness of any age.[5] De Lubac’s colleague and student Jean Daniélou described the vocation of the ressourcement writers as putting together what the modern world and even the Church’s divines had thrust apart: “It is the proper function of the theologian to go back and forth, like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, between heaven and hearth and to weave continually new connections between them.”[6]

Richard Hooker makes the same point in an image that serves as a good illustration of the vision of Tractarian incarnational theology and of ressourcement theologians. Hooker finds the angelic intercourse or commerce between heaven and earth verified and manifested in the spiritual exercises of “Doctrine” and “Prayer”:

For what is the assemblie of the Church to learne, but the receiving of Angels descended from above? What to pray, but the sending of Angels upward? His heavenly inspirations and our holie desires are as so many Angels of entercorse and comerce betwene God and us.[7]

Hooker’s describes a single reality that embraces heaven and earth. The theologian Hans Boersma calls this sort of foundation a “sacramental ontology” (that is, a sacramental way of understanding reality), which sees “historical realities of the created order as divinely ordained, sacramental means leading to external divine mysteries.”[8] Boersma points out that “We all work with a particular ontology,” a particular understanding of reality. Those who call for abolishing metaphysics or ontology are simply captive to the particular “ontology of modernity.”[9]

As I pointed out in my last post, the Tractarians describe such a sacramental ontology in relation to the Incarnation. God takes on flesh not only in the Incarnation, but in analogous and different ways, in both “the book of God’s works” and “the book of His word”:

Both reveal the unseen God being spoken in Him, “Who is the bright Reflection of His Glory, and the Expressive Image of His Person” through the Spirit.[10]

To explain the way in which all “visible creatures … possess in themselves a relation to things unseen,”[11] Pusey looked to Richard Hooker and to those sections of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity where Hooker considered the Incarnation and the sacraments: “All things are therefore partakers of God, they are his offspring, his influence is in them.”[12] While created things are fundamentally distinct from God, their capacity to speak of God comes from an inherent relationship whereby they partake of qualities that are unified in the divine simplicity but shared in different ways with all things that originate from God. These qualities, “all virtue and power and might,” are a kind of effluence or procession from God that constitute the being of all that exists: “All things then are His word, for His word was their being.” In Pusey’s words, all things “bear a certain impress and image of Himself,” that is, God.[13] In other words, the Tractarians situate their understanding and practice of the sacramental reading of Scripture in an all-embracing account of creation and redemption in Christ, in the going out of all things from God in creation, and the return of all things to God in a work of cosmic restoration.

Without a sacramental ontology, it is unclear to me that any attempt at teaching and renewal — focused on Tractarian exegesis or figural exegesis more generally — could be successful. Some essays in this series have eschewed defining a clear philosophical or theological approach that considers how our ontology affects our interpretation of Scripture, adverting instead to a sort of common-sense figuralism, a focus on the prayer book’s juxtaposition of scriptural texts and the “allness of Scripture,” or even to the way Scripture’s sometimes difficult passages mirror the difficulties of life in general. While I would affirm much of this, especially the emphasis on the inner logic of the prayer book tradition’s juxtaposition of scriptural texts, I do believe the ontological questions matter. My account here would possibly push for more clarity on this point, for instance, when considering the views of William Jones of Nayland and the way in which “Scripture makes the world speak.” Whatever other contributions my essays have made to this series, I hope I have brought this question to the fore.

[divider]Footnotes[/divider][1] George Westhaver, “The Living Body of the Lord: E.B. Pusey’s ‘Types and Prophecies of the Old Testament,” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Durham (2012), p. 183, referring to archival material at Pusey House, Oxford, and especially to E.B. Pusey’s “Lectures on Types and Prophecies.”

[2]  John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (CUP, 2003), pp. 19-20.

[3] See S.T. Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. R. J. White, Bollingen Series LXXV, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 28-29. Coleridge juxtaposes the “mechanic” or superficial histories characteristic, for him, of the 18th century, with the histories he finds in the Bible:

In the Scriptures they are the living educts of the Imagination, that reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the Reason in Images of the Sense, and organizing (as it were) the flux of the Senses by the permanence and self-circling energies of the Reason, gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors.

[4] Hans Boersma, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford: OUP, 2009), p. 5.

[5] “None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

[6] Boersma, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology, p. 3.

[7] See FLE 2:110.7-16. Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, gen. ed. W. Speed Hill (Belknap Press, 1977-1997): “Between the throne of God in heaven and his Church upon earth here militant, if it be so that Angels have their continual intercourse, where should we find the same more verified then in these two ghostlie exercises, the one ‘Doctrine’, the other ‘Prayer’?” Lawes V.23.1 concludes: “As teachinge bringeth us to know that God is our supreme truth; so prayer testifieth that we acknowledg him our soveraigne good.”

[8] Boersma, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology, p. 289.

[9]  Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a  Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 20-22. For de Lubac, “the only way to make sense of the world was by a sacramental ontology.” Cf. p. 36: “God graciously provides a sacramental link between his own divine life and the time-bound order of creation. It [is] this sacramental participation that [gives] the temporal order eternal significance.”

[10] Westhaver, “The Living Body of the Lord,” pp. 225-8.

[11] Ibid., pp. 215-16.

[12] Hooker, Laws, V.56.5; Westhaver, “The Living Body of the Lord,” p. 214. See also p. 226: Drawing out the implications of this approach, Pusey describes both creation and scripture as “the emanations of His Word.”
[13] Westhaver, “The Living Body of the Lord,” p. 214.



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