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Scripture as Real Presence

Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church

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Christianity Today Book Award Winner

This work argues that the heart of patristic exegesis is the attempt to find the sacramental reality (real presence) of Christ in the Old Testament Scriptures. Leading theologian Hans Boersma discusses numerous sermons and commentaries of the church fathers to show how they regarded Christ as the treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament and explains that the church today can and should retrieve the sacramental reading of the early church. Combining detailed scholarly insight with clear, compelling prose, this book makes a unique contribution to contemporary interest in theological interpretation.


1. Patristic Reading
The Church Fathers on Sacramental Reading of Scripture
Scripture as Sacrament
Metaphysics and Hermeneutics: Origen, Hobbes, and Spinoza
Sacramental Reading in Origen: Discerning Heavenly Patterns
Irenaeus's Recapitulation as Sacramental Reading
Retrieving Sacramental Reading: Meaning, Virtue, Progress, and Providence
2. Literal Reading
Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine on the Creation Accounts of Genesis
Patristic Interest in Reading by the Letter
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man
Gregory's Literal Reading as Theological
Augustine's Turn to Literal Exegesis
Theological Literalism in Saint Augustine
3. Hospitable Reading
Origen and Chrysostom on the Theophany of Genesis 18
Interpretation as Hospitality
Origen: The Son of God at Mamre
Origen: Hospitality as Allegory
Chrysostom: Divine Condescension at Mamre and in Scripture
Chrysostom: Hospitality as Interpersonal Moral Virtue
4. Other Reading
Melito of Sardis and Origen on the Passover of Exodus 12
The Exodus: Allegory as Arbitrary Reading?
Typology in Scripture
Melito of Sardis, On Pascha
Origen, Treatise on the Passover
5. Incarnational Reading
Origen on the Historical Narrative of Joshua
Allegory and Event
Origen's Polemical Context
Scripture as Incarnate Logos
Mysterii video sacramentum
History's Rightful Place
From History to Spirit: Biblical Rationale
6. Harmonious Reading
Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine on the Music of the Psalms
Tuning People with the Psalms
Harmony in the Platonic Tradition
Harmony in the Early Church
Restoring Harmony: Virtue and Emotions in the Psalms
Harmony with the Voice of Christ
Gregory of Nyssa on the Order of the Psalms
7. Doctrinal Reading
Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa on the Wisdom of Proverbs 8
Spiritual Interpretation and Christian Doctrine
From Origen to Eusebius
Athanasius: Interpretive Strategies
Athanasius: Exegesis 1 and 2
Gregory of Nyssa: Turning the Peacock
Gregory of Nyssa: Christ Created, Established, and Born in Us
Reading Wisdom Sacramentally
8. Nuptial Reading
Hippolytus, Origen, and Ambrose on the Bridal Couple of the Song of Songs
Contemporary Readings of the Song of Songs
Hippolytus: Allegory and Economy
Origen: Ecclesial and Personal Readings
Ambrose: Ecclesial Asceticism
9. Prophetic Reading
Irenaeus, Cyril of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine on the Servant Songs of Isaiah
Prophecy and Fulfillment: A Sacramental Bond
Edward Pusey's Sacramental Typology
Looking for Christ in Isaiah's Prophecies
Christ as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53
Christological Reading and the Wirkungsgeschichte of the Text
Christological Mystery Hidden in the Servant Songs
Wounded by Love: Associations of the Chosen Arrow (Isa. 49:2)
10. Beatific Reading
Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Leo the Great on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5
Spiritual Interpretation of the New Testament
Interpreting between Cave and Mountain
Gregory of Nyssa and Multiplicity of Meaning
Virtue and Salvation
Virtue and Interpretation
Numbering the Steps of Virtue


"I highly recommend this marvelous exploration of the sacramental reading of Scripture. Hans Boersma expertly and comprehensively opens up many different dimensions of the theological interpretation of Scripture--a category increasingly invoked today--as exemplified by the great practitioners of early Christianity. By bringing the insights gained into constructive dialogue with contemporary concerns, Hans Boersma shows how Christ's real presence in Scripture can still be encountered today. A must-read both for those concerned with the hermeneutics of scriptural engagement and for those seeking to enrich their own reading of Scripture, this book is an indispensable resource."

Fr. John Behr, Regius Chair in Humanity, University of Aberdeen

"This volume makes an outstanding contribution to the retrieval of the ancient Christian biblical hermeneutic. Through a careful analysis of individual texts, Boersma demonstrates that patristic exegesis is not based on naive allegorizing but on a theology of history in which Christ is recognized as truly present in the words and deeds of the old covenant. This book will reinforce the growing consensus that patristic exegesis remains valid and indispensable for the church today."

Mary Healy, professor of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Heart Major Seminary

"In the spirit of Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, Hans Boersma here makes his own important contribution to the nature of biblical interpretation. Scripture as Real Presence is informed by a deep reading of the patristic tradition. With that tradition Boersma advocates for a sacramental approach to Scripture, contending that the mystery of the Christ event is already present in the Law and Prophets. This book offers a lively foray into the current debates about the theological interpretation of the Bible and its place in the academy and pulpit."

Peter W. Martens, associate professor of early Christianity, chair of the Department of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University

"A splendid and scholarly study! Here is required reading for any who are rightly intrigued by the renewed concern for the theological interpretation of Scripture. With astute awareness of contemporary prejudices, Boersma disarms both the Protestant rigorist who may be scandalized by the patristic emphasis on human virtue, and the historicist who dismisses ancient spiritual interpretation as arbitrary. All the while, he carefully and lovingly retrieves winsome writings of various church fathers, who taught that Scripture itself participates in the life of Christ and vitally changes the interpreter and the church when received according to that conviction."

Edith M. Humphrey, William F. Orr Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

"Few scholars have contributed as much to the vigorous debate in our generation about the theological interpretation of Scripture as Hans Boersma. His latest offering for our edification, Scripture as Real Presence, presents nine examples of patristic interpretations of important (and challenging) passages from Scripture. They illustrate, for Boersma, an ecclesial hermeneutic that treats Scripture as a sacrament containing a treasure of great value, Christ, hidden and waiting for the church's discovery. Boersma's examples of the rich, polyphonic readings given by the fathers provide models of how pastors and all students of Scripture might unearth the treasure that will give depth to preaching and teaching. Boersma and the fathers transform modern exegesis from reconstructing the past to participating in the life-giving Word."

J. Warren Smith, associate professor of historical theology, Duke Divinity School

"Biblical exegesis has to be approached amid metaphysical and spiritual commitments attuned to the gospel or else unexamined assumptions will invariably cause even our most disciplined efforts at biblical interpretation to unravel. Hans Boersma helps us think carefully about how we read the Bible by reintroducing us to patristic exegesis. Alerting us to the exegetical practice of Origen, Gregory, and many others, he reminds us that 'they saw the Scriptures as a sacrament and read them accordingly.' For sensitive readings of varied early church fathers and a host of their reading approaches, all rooted in common commitments to the relations of God and the world and of theology and spirituality, take up and read Boersma's book."

Michael Allen, John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and associate dean, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

The Author

  1. Hans Boersma

    Hans Boersma

    Hans Boersma (PhD, University of Utrecht) is Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin. He previously taught at Regent College, Vancouver. Boersma is the author of numerous critically...

    Continue reading about Hans Boersma


Christianity Today 2018 Book Award Winner

"A compelling book on patristic interpretation of Scripture that proceeds from a 'sacramental sensibility.' [Boersma] provides a rich inventory of examples of patristic exegesis, notably Origen and Augustine, and advocates for the recovery of such a reading--one that with great figurative imagination finds the Old Testament fully occupied by the mystery of Christ. Boersma's approach to scripture, which he identifies as 'Christian Platonism,' contrasts starkly with the thin, rationalistic historical-critical approaches of conventional modernity. . . . Boersma brings to the text an immense amount of discerning scholarship from the vast patristic corpus. . . . Sacramental sensibility, as exposited by Boersma, leaves us with many difficult unresolved questions. Boersma shows, nevertheless, that this ancient trajectory is worth our effort."

Walter Brueggemann,

Christian Century

"There's a lot of buzz these days about the church fathers. Evangelicals looking for more mystery and beauty in their faith are drawn to these early Christian pastors and writers. At the same time, however, many believers are skeptical of the kinds of sermons and commentaries the fathers tended to produce. Scripture as Real Presence is addressed to both groups. It calls on evangelicals, among others, to reclaim their patristic heritage. But it also goes a long way toward showing how the fathers weren't so much missing the Bible's human and historical dimension as they were trying to root it, always and everywhere, in the larger reality of divine providence."

Wesley Hill,

Christianity Today

"The positive contributions of Scripture as Real Presence to the study of the Church Fathers, sacramental theology, and biblical interpretation are unmistakable. . . . Scripture as Real Presence is a fresh attempt to heal the modern rift between biblical studies and theology by way of a 'sacramental sensibility.' In addition to the important discussions mentioned above, readers may also find value in Boersma's frequent attention to the virtue-based hermeneutics adopted by many of the Church Fathers--a characteristic of biblical interpretation often overlooked by Protestants. Seminarians and scholars of early Christian exegesis will find it a particularly enjoyable read, but the language is rarely inaccessible to the educated layperson."

Joshua Paul Smith,

Reading Religion

"This book has a number of strengths. First, Boersma does a very thorough job of engaging the primary sources. Though he does not exhaust the corpus of patristic writings, his chosen case studies are strong and representative enough to make a compelling argument. Second, and relatedly, the author succeeds in helping the modern theology student enter into the thought and church world of the Fathers. By sketching out background details on subjects like philosophy and music, the reader is able to put on the lenses of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and others and begin a sympathetic reading of the Fathers. In terms of ressourcement, Boersma makes a winsome case for reading Scripture today in a sacramental manner. . . . Boersma's book is accessible and thorough, and would serve as a good resource for a seminary level course on patristic exegesis."

Edward L. Smither,

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"A beauty and bounty of a tome. . . . Boersma reveals and unveils, in each of the compact and finely tuned chapters, the sheer breadth and depth of the classical Christian exegetical tradition by reflecting on how the Fathers interpreted certain Biblical themes. . . . There are few books that synthesize, so well and wisely, how scripture can be read in a sacramental manner so that reader and community participate in the real presence that hovers, light and life giving, in the text. . . . Hans has certainly mined the many shafts of gold and brought forth from his digging much wealth and good for the soul and society, mind and imagination. Most of the major Fathers, in this superb primer of a text, have been given their rightful due. . . . There can be no doubt that Scripture as Real Presence has taken the best arrows from the quiver, placed them well in the bow and hit bull's eye again and again. Those who are making a turn to classical Christian culture and thought, exegesis and theology, must read [this book]--it is obviously and without any doubt one of the best guides and mentors on the trail. Do read and inwardly digest this plough-to-soil book--the crop reaped will be bountiful."

Ron Dart,


"[A] rich study."

John R. Barker, OFM,

The Bible Today

"Boersma offers a learned and stimulating contribution to the growing collection of studies on the relevance of premodern Christian reading strategies for contemporary Christian theological interpretation of Scripture."

Joseph K. Gordon,


"I walked away from this book with a much deeper appreciation for the exegetical patterns of the Church Fathers. . . . Boersma's offering in Scripture as Real Presence has a lot of exegetical benefits. I now read Scripture in a new way as a result of this book. I'm also grateful for his reliance on patristic exegesis to help me read Scripture with a sacramental lens. Pick this book up. Read it, underline it, engage with the Fathers. This endeavor can only sharpen you."

Zach Barnhart,

Servants of Grace blog