Review: Nouvelle Theologie (Boersma)

Genealogical critiques are always dangerous, but it seems they are necessary. Hans Boersma examines the ideas that undercut late medieval Catholicism and also provided for the rise of “nouvelle theologie” in the 20th century.  This book is the scholarly version of Heavenly Participation.


Thesis: “I have made the case that the historical embodiment of theological truth expressed a sacramental ontology that would enable the reintegration of nature and the supernatural—of history and theology” (202).

There are several villains in this narrative. One, obviously, is modernity. The other is early 20th century Neo-Thomism. Boersma notes, “The theological manuals of the neo-Thomist scholastic theologians tried to be faithful to the theology of Thomas Aquinas (1224/5–74), and they believed that this could be done only by maintaining a strict separation between the natural and supernatural realms” (4). In other words, nature is a hermetically sealed realm.

By contrast, as Boersma reads them, Nouvelle Theologie theologians wanted to argue for an “interpenetration of sign (signum) and reality (res) [that] meant, according to the nouvelle theologians, that external, temporal appearances contained the spiritual, eternal realities which they represented and to which they dynamically pointed forward. For nouvelle theologie, theology had as its task the dynamic exploration of the reality of the divine mystery: (292).

There were several ways to do this, not all of them equally successful. To shorten the review: while de Lubac had promising insights on nature and grace, his medieval-style exegesis was simply too unwieldy to be an effective tool.

Von Balthasar’s concepts of analogy and participation not only served as a critique of Karl Barth, but allowed him to appropriate Henri de Lubac’s Neo-Platonic project without the latter’s tendency to downplay physical creation. Boersma: “Contra Barth: “According to Balthasar, analogia entis did not assume a neutral concept of being; it merely implied that God’s salvation in Christ was the saving of his created order:… For Balthasar, the doctrine of analogy simply served to defend that there was a natural stability to the created order that God had redeemed in Christ (132).

Boersma realizes, however, that the rise of Nouvelle Theologie was not a complete victory. In some ways, one could argue that it was partly responsible for the horror that is Vatican II–though to be fair, some of the Nouvelle theologians saw that as well. Boersma mentions it in passing but probably doesn’t see the significance of it. In de Lubac’s short book on Nature and Grace, de Lubac mentions an “underground council” that worked at cross-purposes to his own work in Vatican II. He is right. That is the council that was probably responsible for the occultic practices documented by Fr Malachi Martin in Windswept House.

This is a good summary of a facet of 20th century Roman Catholicism, though many will get bogged down in the long lists of French names


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, church, theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Review: Nouvelle Theologie (Boersma)

  1. Pingback: Review: Medieval Exegesis, volume 2 | Tractatus Logico-Geopoliticus

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