EDMONTON — A deeper understanding of the intertwining of nature and the supernatural can provide insights that will bring Catholics and Protestants closer together, says a Christian Reformed theologian from Vancouver.
“Nature is never strictly or purely natural,” said Dr. Hans Boersma, a systematic theologian at Regent College and author of several books on the Fathers of the Church. “God is always present, really present, sacramentally present with his gracious purposes within the natural world.”
Catholic theology prior to the Second Vatican Council, however, tended to draw a line separating supernatural, spiritual things, such as grace and the sacraments, from ordinary, everyday things, he said.
The issue of God’s real presence lies at the heart of many issues dividing Catholics and Protestants, said Boersma, who delivered the Anthony Jordan Lecture Series March 3 - 4. The series is sponsored by Newman Theological College and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The question is whether real presence is inherent in the everyday world or whether it is added to the world by arbitrary divine actions.
According to Boersma, the Fathers of the Church, who wrote from the second through the mid-seventh centuries, saw nature as imbued with the presence of Christ while the followers of St. Thomas Aquinas (Thomists) saw grace and Christ’s presence as something added to nature.
Boersma’s talks gave an ecumenical perspective on real presence, examining how such presence has been understood in Scripture, the eucharist and the church.
Protestants can be challenged by talk of real presence and have a sense they are entering a different world, one “with a Catholic feel,” he said.
Catholics too can be unnerved when they enter the world of the early church and learn “the real presence that they find isn’t always what they thought it would be.”
Boersma focused one of his talks on the mid-20th century Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac, whose view that everything visible on earth is enmeshed with heavenly realities was highly influential at Vatican II.
De Lubac wrote mere decades after Pope Leo XIII had held up Thomistic theology and philosophy as the glory of the Catholic faith.
Aquinas’ 20th-century disciples held to a strict separation between grace and nature, Boersma said. Grace was understood as extrinsic to nature until God “super-added” it.
De Lubac, however, went to the Church Fathers and found a different understanding. While the neo-Thomists spoke of transubstantiation in the eucharist — that the bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood — the greatest of the Church Fathers, St. Augustine, “says something rather different.”
For Augustine, those who receive Christ’s body in the eucharist are transformed into the Body of Christ, the church. “He says, ‘You become the Body of Christ; you become what you eat.’ ”
The symbols function as sacramentum, which “point to and share in a reality much greater than themselves.”
In contrast, Boersma said, for the neo-Thomists the symbol does not just participate in supernatural reality, but is totally identified with it. The eucharist is “an arbitrary, supernatural intervention from above” and is unconnected with the reality of the church.
Augustine reflected on 1 Corinthians 10.17 — “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” — and maintained that through the eucharistic body, the Holy Spirit forms us into the body of the church.
De Lubac understood this to mean that the eucharist makes the church, Boersma said. “The goal of the celebration of a sacrament is the unity or communion of the church.”
In the 11th and 12th centuries, this was turned around and the eucharist began to be seen as the real body and the church as the mystical body.
De Lubac, Boersma said, longed for the days when the eucharist was seen as pointing away from itself to the Body of Christ, the church.
“It seems to me that both Protestants and Catholics do well to listen carefully to de Lubac,” said the Vancouver theologian. De Lubac sought a middle path between the Protestants’ complete separation of symbols and reality and the neo-Thomist Catholics’ strict unification of sign and reality.
The Church Fathers, in de Lubac’s view, had an approach in which, nature and the supernatural, historical and spiritual interpretations of the Bible, sacrament and reality “were intertwined in a way that regularly eludes us in the modern period,” Boersma said.