Sacramental from the beginning

The Last Judgment (detail), Fra Angelica
The Last Judgment (detail), Fra Angelica

…the mysterious character of all created reality lies in its sacramental nature.

• Hans Boersma

• • •

Many of us have grounded our theology concerning the sacramental nature of life in this world in the Incarnation, when God took on flesh and walked among us in Jesus Christ. The Infinite clothed himself in the finite, and gave human beings access to God by means of their senses.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed at, and our hands have handled [emphasis mine] — concerning the Word of Life! That life was displayed, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and we announce to you the life of God’s coming age, which was with the father and was displayed to us. That which we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the father, and with his son Jesus the Messiah.

• 1John 1:1-3, The Kingdom NT

Although the Incarnation is the ultimate act of God identifying himself with material creation, this concept is present and active from the beginning of the scriptural testimony.

In God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Terence Fretheim observes that the “God who gets his hands dirty” is present at the outset of the biblical story, especially in Genesis, chapter 2. In this text,

God is tangibly involved with this earth and its creatures. More generally, God, by creating in such a way, has made room in the divine life for the very earthy creatures that God has brought into being…

Fretheim notes how Genesis 2 portrays God as one who breathes, forms, plants, and constructs. God is the Gardener who designs and plants a royal park, the Potter who forms humans from the clay, the Surgeon who touches and heals human bodies, the Builder who constructs physical forms. As the text proceeds, God walks in the garden, God’s voice is heard, God enters into conversation with the humans, and God designs and makes garments for them. “In these texts God comes into the closest possible contact with material reality, with the stuff of earthly life.”

Terence Fretheim warns us against allegorizing, spiritualizing, or otherwise discounting these images. Even if this is a “mythic” portrayal of God, it is communicating something about the nature of God as understood by the Hebrew people. God gets his hands dirty. God interacts intimately with the material creation. God “walks among us.” God speaks, acts, and relates to and within the “stuff” of this material world.

The testimony of Genesis 1 to the goodness of all forms of material reality undergirds God’s tangible and tactile engagement with the creatures in Genesis 2. Not only are finite, material realities capable of being “handled” by God (see Ps 95:5, “and the dry land, which his hands have formed”) without compromising God’s Godness, they are capable of actually bearing God bodily in the life of the world [emphasis mine]. And, in some sense, the reverse is also true; as God breathes God’s own breath of life into the nostrils of a human being (2:7), something of the divine self comes to reside in the human—and in an ongoing way.

…God is tangibly involved with this earth and its creatures. More generally, God, by creating in such a way, has made room in the divine life for the very earthy creatures that God has brought into being…

This brings us next to Hans Boersma and his concept of “sacramental ontology.” In his book, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, Boersma argues that Christians should once again consider the older view of creation as a “mystery.” Such a view goes beyond merely recognizing that there is a link between God and the created world, or that this link is exhausted in the Protestant understanding of “covenant,” with its emphasis on agreements between parties. Boersma argues that the connection between the Creator and creation is deeper than simply a relationship between separate beings.

A sacramental ontology insists that not only does the created world point to God as its source and “point of reference,” but that it also subsists or participates in God. [emphasis mine]

Hans Boersma asserts that the connection between God and creation is not simply external or nominal, but real and participatory. In some sense, God is really present in his creation and we participate in the divine reality. Creation, as he puts it, is a “sharing in the being of God.” Many of us tend to think of “real presence” only when discussing the Eucharist, but Boersma suggests that we need to think of the Eucharist as a particular instance, a special intensification of Christ’s real presence in the midst of a world in which he is everywhere really present.

“In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and, in Christ “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

With approval, Boersma cites C.S. Lewis, who writes about how understanding and engaging creation in this way can fulfill a deep longing in the human heart:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. (The Weight of Glory)

51 thoughts on “Sacramental from the beginning

  1. Doug Wilson comments on I Cor 15: 35-39-

    “…the skeptic can make no sense of resurrection. What kind of body could the dead have? The whole thing seems nonsensical. But the existence of a second body is no more marvelous in principle than the first one is. Paul rebukes the folly that cannot see that the human body is seed. First he notes that in order to be fruitful, a seed must die first. The second observation is that the body of the seed and the body of the plant that grows from it are strikingly different. There is continuity between them, obviously, but there is a large measure of visual discontinuity as well. So when the seed goes in the ground we should expect two things from it. One is life from death, and the second is that this life will be astonishingly different.

    Paul follows the logic out. There are more kinds of seed than simply the human. Just as God creates wheat and other kinds of grain, so also He has created human-body seeds, and other body seeds. The four kinds of seed he mentions are men, animals, fish, and birds. And so will animals participate in the resurrection? Well . . . are they seed?”


  2. Eeyore below correctly identifies this as a consent to Gnosticism, which the earliest Christians thought was theological crap. You might want to re-read the quoted passage from first john in which God’s revealed presence is something touched, heard and seen.

    If it’s sacramentalism you’re reblelling against here, at least read some more about it before you go condemning the real world wholesale. Things will certainly be different in the resurrection, but they won’t be less earthly. The best sacramentalism seeks to celebrate this- the spiritual nature of the physical world


  3. I just finished a course taught by Boersma. He is from the reformed tradition with deep exposure to the Catholic and Orthodox tradition and has a very irenic attitude. We had readings from the Church Fathers, Reformers, Catholics and Orthodox, and Evangelicals. He lectures at Regent College in Vancouver.

    You can find his lectures at

    If you sign up for mail list they periodically offer everything at 50% off. Some of what is available there is entire courses, so you get 30 hours of lecture for about $70, or $35 on sale.

    Of course I ordered the book last night. Can’t pass up on this one!


  4. If only Gnostics like to breathe sweet air free of noxious second-hand tobacco fumes, then count me among the Gnostics. But I think it really is a matter of different tastes, not Gnosticism.


  5. I’m voting for inclusion of everything, and everyone. I’ve become a maximally inclusive universalist.

    But the post was not really about that; it was about the way God shows himself, and also shyly hides himself, in the flowering of creation, and resides in what he has made.


  6. Op I hesitated to react to you. So I’ll respond and if it isn’t ” so nice” I’m sorry. Maybe the creation cries out for the sons of God having been subjected to man who was placed at the top. Maybe the sons of God by being truly sons cry out for the creation having seen what their actions have done.

    Who asks for bread and gets a stone and who asks for a fish and gets a snake. I ask for the animals all of them. I tell my Father I will help take care of them forever. In fact I tell him it would be my greatest honor and privilege just to be near them.

    Now I have read some who think and ask such questions as what about the animals you eat. The ones that were raised for death to give me life, those animals? What a shame how we do things with our technology these days. It is like David who did so much wrong and yet God loved him. I know try to follow that. God does have his favorites or doesn’t He. Maybe when we get there we could ask Saul.

    The thing that always scares me the most is when people go down the path as to tell me what is there having never been there and then point to the Bible because they have it all figured out. Scarey as hell. Nope I’d rather ask and receive an answer. The one I got was I withhold no good thing from you. Take it the way you want

    If you have no compassion for the rest of creation you probably are lacking. Do you know God actually used a donkey (jack ass) to talk through. How about the lion will lay down with the lamb and eat the grass of the field.

    Sorry OP if I could sit with you over coffee you would see I am sincere and have so many stories about the animals. One after another that have taught me about God’s love. Man we are so loved.


  7. If heaven is making itself present in creation *now*, what does that say about things going the other way round?


  8. Earlier today the weight of something was pressing on my mind. Your little summary of Hans Boersma’s book made it decidedly lighter. It is difficult to compress into a statement why this is, except to say it is heartening to read words that vest dignity and worth in the world that is actually, right now surrounding us. I don’t mean having an overly rosy picture of the world: I mean being able to call what feels good and healthful really, actually good. And to permit some happiness at that fact. This single fact keeps the world from being imagined to be overly or only dark, and it keeps theology from constantly wanting to say that salvation is more or less simultaneous with destruction. It seizes dignity and significance for that undefinable urge people seem to have for connection to each other and what is around them.

    And then, I checked back from time to time. And everyone posted poems.

    Thanks to you all.


  9. I agree, Nate. Some people posting here are offering sound bites that remind me of Jesus, and others are offering sound bites that sound like the Pharisees.


  10. ‘…and boys, be in nothing so moderate as in the love of man: a clever servant; insufferable master.
    There is the trap that catches the noblest spirits, that caught, they say,
    God, when He walked on the Earth.’

    Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) “Shine, Perishing Republic”


  11. Gee, you’re a real killjoy, OP. What IS in heaven… clouds and harps and Thomas Kinkade paintings?


  12. It’s about the new creation, and how it is essentially tied to the old creation. There is hope because of Who made it all.

    You are not the only mighty one.
    You are not the only powerful one.
    Mightiest, yes, and most powerful,
    But some live who think to rival You;
    One thing only they do not envy.
    One glory, one crown
    One devastation.
    Who among the gods is like You
    In this, Your humility?
    You came, and for centuries we have wondered
    Sung songs and told the tale
    But Your humility goes back
    Beyond Mary
    Far beyond brave Ruth
    And ready Rahab
    (Though these do tell of Your deep abasement:
    How lowly You were to take a body
    Be formed in a body
    Be born of a body
    You grew and emerged from a girlish body
    Offered up to give Life life)
    And yet –
    This was not the first time You lived in man.
    This was not the first time You struggled in the flesh.
    The humiliation of generation was not Your first presence among us
    In us.
    You said it Yourself: ‘I will not always fight with man’.
    It was a curse, a promise, and a blessing.
    A curse because You were leaving
    We were evil, and could only think of evil
    In which You had no part.
    And the curse was a promise
    To judge us with water, to wash us away in our wickedness.
    So where is the blessing in this promise of destruction?
    Yes, right there, in the destruction.
    For You Who would not always struggle with the flesh of man
    Came and bore the flesh of man
    Were borne in the flesh by a woman
    Let the flesh be torn by man
    And judged the flesh of man
    And You, life giving Spirit,
    Now have a home in the flesh
    And many who call You LORD
    Now wait to do Your will
    Body and soul
    As in Eden.
    As in heaven,
    So on Earth.
    So humble You are
    To come again
    And live in us


  13. This post is not about who or what will be in heaven, but about heaven, the divine, making itself present in creation. It’s also about looking for the presence of God in his creation.


  14. In some sense yes, everything IS resurrected. The Louisville Slugger and Emmylou’s music will be in glory in some form because they are good gifts that are bearing some part of the human project’s creational purpose. I plan to play some baseball with the game’s greats and pick guitar with Emmylou and Doc Watson. And I plan to do it within and for Gods good creation, which includes the animals. I don’t see a problem assuming every good thing that is happening now will also happen in the resurrection. Except marriage, of course 🙂


  15. No poetry in heaven? In that case, many verses of the Bible will be gnashing their teeth, eh?


  16. If tobacco is resurrected, I hope smoking will only be permitted in certain areas, preferably near the outer darkness.


  17. Soon enough
    I’ll die,
    my body
    become food

    Take, and eat,
    Jesus said,
    now he’s food
    for the living

    All that lives
    eats his death
    eats his life


  18. Okay RF. I know you’re mocking me. Oh, there’s no poetry in heaven by the way. “says the raven, never more!”


  19. Is tobacco going to be resurrected? Come on, you’re smarter than that! Marijuana? Whiskey? My old Louisville Slugger? My old Emmy Lou Hariris records?


  20. Sorry to rain on the party but nowhere in Scripture dies it even suggest that your pets will go to Heaven. Or have resurrected bodies. Some animals.yeah. But I’m nit sure where they come from?


  21. Please don’t throw your coffee at me….

    The quotes are all so very….. EOrthodox…..



  22. Like a mother hen, he would enfold us in his wings. That, you might say, is the fatal flaw that subjects him to the punishing reality of the cross. He has gone to enormous trouble. It is always about union with a capital U. He is willing to endure the cross to completely establish and preserve incarnation. What a lot we are that don’t see it much of the time. We and all of creation are his passion. Generally I think we don’t feel worthy of that kind of interest but on those occasions when we do, it fully humanizes us.


  23. YES! Dogs are ‘creatures’ of God too; they are a part of His Creation, and we are told this:

    ” For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.
    For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it,
    in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. ” (Romans 8:19-21)

    God willing, you will see Panda and Brandy and Samantha again
    . . . the last enemy to be destroyed is ‘death’. 🙂


  24. The glue to hold all things together. Creation crying out for the sons of God to take their place.

    The hawk has to eat. He takes the prey quickly. Does it mean the prey was predestined to be the hawks life. After all the prey had to give up life to be life for the hawk. Not one sparrow falls that my Father does not know about it. Herein is the fear of God and how He is and has made things. Thankfully I have been given peace through Christ with Him. Still things have to die to give me life here. This is something I am keenly aware of in the bread and wine.

    It is said He brought the animals to us and to name them according to their spirit. When I found trapper the cat stuck in a trap and his foot chewed off from him trying to get free there was a moment where through his eyes I saw into the depth of his spirit and all the anguish. He knew I saw it and left me handle him a wild, hurt animal. I know what I saw. There is too long a story about this. Needless to say I gave up a part of me so he could be alive today in the cost of many days of work.

    Everything is crying out the nature of God here. Yes some have to give up their life so others have it. How sad and the thing I like least about being here. Sometimes I want to stop and have nothing more die for me here.
    My hope is………………I have hope.


  25. “God, by creating in such a way, has made room in the divine life for the very earthy creatures that God has brought into being…”

    So, all dogs DO go to heaven? 🙂

    RIP Panda, Brandy & Samantha


  26. Like God, creation is good, beautiful, gives, and yet is also something commands respect from humanity. Send examples include the rough currents of the ocean, certain animals that see humans as a food source, and natural disasters all advise we approach with caution. Like God.

    It’s amazing.


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