"No Platonism, no Scripture."
The Bible makes no sense without metaphysics
It’s a bold claim, and alas, I can’t claim to have coined it. In fact, it’s the title of the second chapter of a book I have recently read, Hans Boersma’s “Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew.”
Now, I must admit that I’ve faced criticism for my book titles - The Lost Way to the Good is really about Platonism as a basis for interfaith theology, and The Catholic Jesus is really about the integrity of the person of Christ with the Bible, the Church and the Eucharist. Perhaps naming books is not my forte. Nonetheless, if Fr Boersma’s book title leaves you reaching the apparently obvious conclusion that it is written only for biblical scholars, then it is regrettably deceptive, as it is certainly accessible to a far broader readership, and well worthy of any Christian’s attention. I say any Christian advisedly, because Boersma writes from the Reformed perspective of a former Presbyterian turned Anglican priest in ACNA, and his rapprochement of a sacramental metaphysics with biblical Christianity is a call for reunification across denominational boundaries of the Church Catholic in its fullest sense.
Thanks for reading Catechetical Mystablogy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
To be honest, Fr Boersma achieves in far greater detail what I had hoped to deliver in my Catholic Jesus, and without falling into the trap that on reflection I at times did, of distinguishing the Word Incarnate too sharply from the Word of Scripture. If I were to rewrite my little book (which was, after all, the polished form of a series of Lent lectures), I’d be looking to Boersma’s Five Things for inspiration.
I’ve highlighted the title of the second chapter here because to me, it is the most interesting, but also because I think it is the cornerstone of his work. The other chapters, respectively, are: 1. No Christ, no Scripture; 3. No Providence, no Scripture; 4. No Church, no Scripture; and 5. No Heaven, no Scripture. Christ quite properly comes first, encompassing the whole of reality from the beginning to the end, which is life eternal - but key to Boersma’s argument is that (1) the entire trajectory, from Christ via Church to oneness with God, makes sense only under certain metaphysical assumptions, and 2. that those assumptions are incompatible with the tacit assumptions of Western secular modernity.
I’m going to spend the rest of this essay considering that thesis, in my own words, rather than Fr Boersma’s. For his words, I recommend that you read his book!
Why do Christians need metaphysics at all?
Why should any given metaphysical position be requisite to reading the Bible? Can it not be read in reference only to itself, as an enclosed and self-interpreting canon? Or should it not be refracted by a wide array of external philosophical and political lenses? The first approach would be a classic instance of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, and the latter the modus operandi of the various “theologies” of liberation grounded in Marxist critique and spurred on by postmodern theory. Boersma, despite his Reformed background (bear in mind he held the chair named after Evangelical theologian J.I. Packer at the Evangelical Regent College, Vancouver, for fourteen years) rejects both of these positions, at least as I have just described them. This, despite the fact that he is writing ostensibly to biblical scholars, and mainly Protestant ones, whose work tends to be grounded in the suppositions of one of those two camps, or of a third: that the Bible should be read analytically, and dissected using the same empirical tools of historical criticism that one would apply to any historical or literary texts. Whilst acknowledging the value of this historical-critical approach in the academic setting, it stands to reason that the Scriptures were not composed for the sake of academic research some two millennia later, let alone for the promotion of 20th century political ideologies. They were, rather, composed to lead their hearers (not, in the first instance, “readers”) to God, normatively through their public reading in worship. Boersma insists that for Christians, even the historical-critical approach can at best only complement the more comprehensive and essentially Christian way of reading Scripture, which is to read it in prayer and within the Body of Christ, of whom the Bible is a sacrament.
Scripture is sacramental: this is the core of Boersma’s argument. Hence his reliance on metaphysics, for the very notion of a “sacrament” has metaphysical implications. If a sacrament is, as the 1662 Prayer Book has it, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” whatever that inward and spiritual grace may be, it must be real. If sacraments are reduced to metaphors – say, Baptism as a metaphor for spiritual regeneration, the Eucharist as a metaphor for community participation – then they are robbed of their power. Yet metaphors is all they are allowed to be by the latent metaphysical assumptions of modernity and postmodernity, which are built on earlier Protestant assumptions. For even as a “token” or sign of someone’s faith in a spiritual reality – baptism as an expression of faith and repentance, the Eucharist as a token of trust in God’s salvific power – they remain unconnected to that reality, which is absolutely transcendent and ultimately of only cosmetic relevance to the rite. The natural Christian end for this sort of metaphysics is the non-sacramental Christianity of the Salvation Army, which neither celebrates neither baptism nor Holy Communion, holding, in perfect logical accord with this trajectory, that the sacraments are internal to a person and need no expression in ritual form.
Needless to say, this is not the position that Boersma advocates. His metaphysics are grounded rather in the principle of the Incarnation of Christ, whereby the ultimate spiritual reality, God Himself, is made manifest in the material flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, who Himself was immersed in the material water of the Jordan and executed on the material wood of the Cross. Through the Incarnation, matter is revealed as the conduit of spirit. Yet it would take several centuries of theological speculation and refutation of heresies to articulate this in the Trinitarian and hypostatic terms with which we are now familiar. This articulation rested very heavily on what we can loosely call “Platonic” metaphysics.
What is “Platonism?”
This is where we need to start defining terms. Boersma is not suggesting that the Bible can be read only through the lens of the complete works of Plato. The Platonist camp is broader and more variegated that the works of the great Athenian himself. There are innumerable internal disputes within the Platonic tradition, which spread from the works of Plato, but has deeper roots still, and remains in currency in various forms today, largely through the Abrahamic religions. So, we need to establish what we mean by the word “Platonism” at bare minimum for the sake of this argument: a “mere Platonism,” if you will. In that regard, it is hard to better the definition given by another Canadian Platonist, Lloyd Gerson, under the rubric of “Platonism by negation.” One can define Platonism more easily by what it is not, than by what it is. And for the purposes of our argument, the most relevant negatives are these: (1) Platonism is anti-materialist; (2) Platonism is anti-relativist; and (3) Platonism is anti-nominalist.
Let’s take these terms one by one. First, by “materialist,” I do not mean the modern sense of materially greedy (though that may prove an inescapable corollary of the primary meaning). Rather, Platonism argues against a view of the world in solely material terms. For instance, it would be unPlatonic to say that the mind can be explained solely in terms of the physical brain. There is a spiritual reality as well as the material. The precise relationship between those is a matter of intra-traditional dispute, but the existence of the spiritual is common to all Platonism.
Second, by “relativist,” I mean the doctrine expressed most famously in Plato by the various Sophists, that truth can be one thing in one place, and something else in another. Certainly, anti-relativism is a rejection of the principle that “man is the measure of all things,” a corollary of which is principle which Plato puts into the mouth of Thrasymachus, that truth is defined simply by whoever has the most power - a principle fondly held by the acolytes of Marx, Foucault, Putin and Donald Trump alike, it seems. There is such thing as absolute truth. Truth, and with it goodness and beauty, actually exist.
Finally, and most importantly, we come to that great father of error, “nominalism.” I’ve banged on about this enough, and rarely seem to come to a satisfactorily pithy definition, but here goes again. “Nominalism” derives from the Latin word for name, nomen. According to nominalist philosophy, the commonality among things we perceive in the world is little more than a useful fiction. We see one thing which looks like a tree, and another which looks similar, so we call them by the same name, or nomen. Names, or categories, are the way we impose a structure of meaning on the world so that we can live in it. Universals have no independent reality of their own; only particulars can really be said to exist. Hence, the things in this world have no underlying commonality, but are in reality entirely atomised and separate. It is only the human mind which maps commonality onto them. So, you can see how this position might lead one to say, for instance, that the difference between man and woman is “only” a social construct; or that the most powerful can define who is or is not really human, and so deserving of rights, including the right to life itself. Like it or not, this is now the default position of the modern West, along with its concomitant materialism and relativism, and although its logical culmination was crushed in the mid-20th century by the defeat of Nazism and again by the fall of the USSR, certain of its implications seem to be reaching full fruition today through rather less obvious conduits.
The trouble with nominalism
The origins of nominalism have been well-enough traced elsewhere (indeed, I make a stab at it in The Lost Way). Suffice it to say that it took a real hold on the European mind in the 13th century following the work of the Late Franciscan William of Ockham, and was formative on the thought of the Reformers. It also, as the Catholic Church came rather belatedly to realise, made a nonsense of the sacraments. Sacraments presuppose the participation of material things in spiritual reality. For if the relationships between one thing and another was arbitrary, then even if such a spiritual reality as divine grace existed, how could something material like water, bread, wine or oil have any real participation in it? How could any one thing mediate a discrete other? God was no longer the one in whom “we live, and move and have our being,” but was the Supreme Being reigning ascendent by virtue of His untrammelled, sovereign will.
If this is the case, then it makes no sense to speak of Scripture or anything else as “sacramental.” It also calls into urgent question the nature of Christ. How, in a non-sacramental reality, could He be both man and God? How can He, in His particularity, lift “humanity” as whole into oneness with God at His glorious Ascension, if “humanity” is merely a conventional nomenclature for something with no actual existence? How, indeed, can the vast majority of the Holy Scriptures which He did not directly speak in the Incarnation be called “the Word of God?” The entire Old Testament would become pretty much disposable, and the Christian faith is reduced to “the teachings of Jesus.” And indeed, this is precisely the path that much liberal Protestantism and even liberal Catholicism has trodden, in complete conformity with atheist moderns who can perhaps accept Jesus as a moderately gifted teacher, but certainly not as anything like “God Incarnate.” Still less could the entire cosmos be perceived as the great sacrament mediating the glory and grace God, as for instance Psalm 19 portrays.
Boersma highlights the inadequacy of sola scriptura in addressing this metaphysical deficit. Scripture is certainly the grounds and the principal authority for belief, but Scripture itself implies certain metaphysical commitments which are part of the milieu of its formation and transmission in the Church and its nascent Jewish forebear. The only grounds for accepting the doctrine of sola scriptura is that the Church has declared this to be so, in which case, there would still be a certain logical and historical priority to the Church and her tradition over Scripture, thus defeating the doctrine itself. The Church rests on Christ, but the possibility of acceding faith in Christ as the Divine Word demands a certain kind of philosophical, metaphysical reflection - and one which is incompatible with the metaphysics on which secular modernity rests. “Platonism” is simply the most developed form in the West of that realist, sacramental metaphysical philosophy - which after all, is in the end nothing more than the love of Wisdom, whom Christians know perfectly Incarnate in Christ.
Going beyond the scope of Boersma’s book, I would want to add that for all the quite proper emphasis on Platonism, we should not discount the possibility that other ancient metaphysical systems may be (and in my view certainly are) of great value in contributing to the intra-traditional disputes of Platonism which still affect Christian doctrine and assist in articulating Christian apologetics. They, too, can help to challenge the hidden metaphysics of modern nominalism, materialism and relativism - to the greater glory of God. My own theological project consists in an attempt to articulate this claim.
A call to contemplation
But Fr Boersma is, rightly, calling for far more than intellectual ammunition for the cause of the culture war or the skirmishes around its fringes. He is calling for a return to an older way of approaching Scripture, not as proof-texts, but as a vehicle for contemplation which leads us to salvation in Christ. He stops short of using the word theosis, though I think that is the destination to which his thesis proceeds. He wants us to see reality as a multi-layered sacrament of God, with Christ at its heart, the Word unfolding via the Incarnation, then Scripture, then the Church, and ultimately the cosmos as a whole, each layer mediating divine grace to a differing intensity. It is not a question of Word and Sacrament as two separate channels of grace, but seeing instead the sacramental ordering of the Word permeating all of reality. Boersma calls us to read the Scriptures first and foremost in contemplative prayer, guided by the liturgy with which Christ has blessed the Church and His Spirit has refined it over the ages.
It has been refreshing to find an Anglican priest-theologian of orthodox convictions doing what we used to do best: bridging the Reformed and Catholic theological divide. Fr Boersma might even encourage disheartened Anglicans to think that our tradition still has some potential to work for unity in the worldwide Church, rather than the division, unilateralism and schism which are becoming our hallmarks.
Thanks for reading Catechetical Mystablogy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.