Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 2

Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647)

Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647)

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The Great Exegetical Leap

Many attempts to prove and defend Sacramental Realism from Scripture have been made over the centuries, by exegesis and analogy, which the honest inquirer is free to consult.  The fact that such defenses are numerous and readily available speaks conspicuously of the suspect nature of the doctrine, and the lengths deemed necessary to bolster it.  I wish here to dispense with exegetical minutiae and proceed to core concepts and questions, which will suffice.  So what are the Sacramentalists’ proofs from Scripture, and how do they stack up?

What are the actual phenomena in the New Testament in relation to the sacraments, especially as they reflect on the issue of sacramentalism or sacramental realism?  First of all it is quite conspicuous that the New Testament has very little to say concerning the sacraments.  The word “sacrament” in a technical sense does not even appear in the New Testament.  And there is nothing at all concerning sacramental efficacy as such. (Daniel A. Tappeiner, “Hermeneutics, the Analogy of Faith and New Testament Sacramental Realism,” Evangelical Quarterly 49 (1977):44 f.).

At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.”  Under normal circumstances, the metaphorical nature of these statements would be a “given,” and only excepted in the case of “special” circumstances, such as a special mode of interpretation to suit special circumstances, or a claim of “special revelation” as to what Jesus “really meant.”  Hence Sacramentalists insist that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” He meant his actual body, and in the case of the wine, his actual blood, if only in a spiritual but certainly in a nuanced, qualified, literalized sense.

But no, there is no inherent reason to regard these metaphors any more literally than Jesus’ “I am” statements such as “I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the Door,” and “I am the Path.”  Certainly, each of these metaphors points to a literal object, comparing one thing to another and describing a similarity; but that is a far cry from overidentifying “this is literally that.”

A Tie Unraveling

Sacramentalists point to alleged parallels in the miracle of turning water into wine at Cana, and references to his body as “bread” in John’s Gospel, Chapter 6.  They say, for instance, that the turning of water into wine proves a spiritual reality (a notably vague concept) in the substance itself, as acted upon by Jesus.  However, in both the Cana episode and that on the Mount in John 6, the miracles were unpremeditated, and occasioned in answer to perceived needs.  At Cana, Jesus was persuaded by his mother to rescue the Wedding Master from embarrassment; on the Mount, Jesus was concerned with the people going hungry.  There is no reason to presume Jesus’ intent to institute sacramental practices in these episodes.

Not only is Jesus’ self-identification of himself as “the Bread of Life” and “the True Bread” in John 6 not supportive of Sacramental Realism, but conclusively tells against it.  In the episode, throngs who were following him in order to witness miracles pursued Jesus to a remote place, where He miraculously fed them by multiplying loaves and fishes.  Afterward, the throngs followed him in order to get free bread.  Jesus corrected them:  they should labor to get eternal food, not perishable (6:27).  They demanded that Jesus give them such eternal food, and a sign from God, suggesting that He call down manna to confirm his words.  To them, manna was “bread from heaven,” i.e., “spiritual bread.”  No, indeed, said Jesus, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and are dead” (6:58).  In short, no physical bread, even “from heaven,” is truly spiritual or eternal, and neither God’s presence, nor blessing, nor salvation are inherently associated with it.

Much less do we see divine presence attached to the wine at Cana.  Note that there is, first, no wine on the Mount, and no bread at Cana.  At Cana, one sees no reference to wine as blood (as on the Mount), nor to eating flesh, nor to salvation or eternal life.  It takes no close examination to conclude that the parallels are scant, didactic content nil, and support for Mystical Presence absent.

Substance versus Spirit

In The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology citation, “Lord’s Supper” (vol. 2, p. 535), the “editor,” (may we assume Colin Brown himself?) speaks of the purported Johannine version of the Last Supper found in John 6:

It is commonly assumed that Jn. 6 is about the Lord’s Supper, even though there is no hint in the text itself to any form of meal, liturgical or otherwise. …  Jn. 6 is not about the Lord’s Supper; rather, the Lord’s Supper is about what is described in Jn. 6.  It concerns that eating and drinking which is belief in Christ (6:35), which is eternal life (6:54), and which in other words is described as abiding in him (6:56).  The discourse in Jn. 6 represents these activities as central to faith and to men’s relationship with Jesus.  They are not confined to a sacramental meal.  They belong to the very essence of day-to-day relationships. … Jn. is, in effect, saying that the whole of the Christian life should be characterized by this kind of feeding on Christ and that this is what the sacramental meal of the church is really about.

To continue in that vein, faith, spirituality, and worship of Christ has nothing at all to do with the substance of the bread and wine.  The elements can be entirely absent.  Worship of any kind, even if one “speak[s] with the tongues of men and angels,” “bestow[s] all [his] goods to feed the poor,” and “gives [his] body to be burned,” is empty as “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1-3) in itself; nor can “the blood of bulls and goats … take away sins” (Heb 10:4).  Likewise, simply partaking of the bread and wine, as such, without “discerning the Lord’s body” (recognizing what the emblems stand for, symbolically, 1 Cor 11:29) and “examining oneself” (accounting whether one is “worthy” and is “in the faith,” 11:27, 2 Cor 13:5) is worthless towards eternal life:  rather, brings “judgment.”

One wonders how sacramental concepts of ritual and substance toward salvation and worship could possibly be resolved with the “Spirit and Truth” worship Christ foretold to the Samaritan woman (John 4).  Such worship is not to be found in temple worship, with a temporal priesthood and sacrifices, but in spiritual worship with a true heart toward God and interaction with the Holy Spirit, for “God is spirit.”  Those who worship “in Spirit and Truth” require neither substance nor sacrifice.  Those who worship otherwise, risk worshipping “you know not what” (4:22).

Leapfrogging Exegesis

But for the most part, lacking unambiguous exegetical support, Sacramentalists take a “great leap” past exegesis to unwarranted assertions.  In his popular study, The Body, John A. T. Robinson makes such a leap.  He first expends most of 46 pages in an exegetical synthesis designed to establish his concept of the Church as equivalent to the Body of Christ (which, as he describes, one enters through Baptismal Regeneration, see pp. 44, 46 f., 72, 75, 79-82).  Abruptly, as if to draw a conclusion, he introduces the unfounded statement, “The Christian, because he is in the Church and united with Him in the sacraments, is part of Christ’s body so literally that all that happened in and through that body in the flesh can be repeated in and through him now” (p. 47), which he afterward neglects to substantiate, exegetically.  Proceeding, Robinson insists upon literalizing the Body, as well as the sacraments, to an extreme.  Christians, he says, are “in literal fact the risen organism of Christ’s person in all its concrete reality” (p. 51).  Further, “to say that the Church is the body of Christ is no more of a metaphor than to say that the flesh of the incarnate Jesus or the bread of the Eucharist is the body of Christ” (Ibid.).  “In so far as the Christian community feeds on his body and blood, it becomes the very life and personality of the risen Christ” (p. 57).  Robinson admits, “There is a jump here, from ‘feeding on’ to ‘becoming’, which is not explained [by Paul].  And it is a jump not taken by any of the other New Testament writers ….”  The explanation, he suggests, is to be found in “the revelation of the resurrection body of Christ [on the Damascus Road], not as an individual, but as the Christian community” (p. 58).

The ultimate result of this newly-actualized “solidarity” with Christ — according to Paul’s existential realization — and “the new corporeity,” as Robinson also calls it, is the Parousia, which Robinson then redefines.  The Parousia is not the “Second Coming” of Christ, but a future time in which the Church, and he hopes the world, as well (suggesting Universalism), will achieve ultimate unity and maturity.  Thus we become Christ-like, and this world is thereby changed.  Such a metaphysical view is friendly to, and presupposes, the Social Gospel, even to the extreme of supporting Liberation Theology such as that of Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Going to Extremes

The theology of Gutiérrez is based largely on socio-political concerns, not on exegesis.  That being the case, the Dominican priest from Peru, currently a professor at Notre Dame, is willing to use any hermeneutic which supports class struggle, while ignoring inconvenient interpretations.  He is criticized politically for his Marxist and revolutionary leanings, and by Bible scholars for his “relativizing of the Word of God on behalf of political hermeneutics,” the “low view of biblical authority” he shares with his cohorts, and his personal view “that a radical revision of what the church has been and what it now is has become necessary” (Emilio A. Nuñez, “The Church in the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez:  Description and Hermeneutical Analysis,” p. 174, in D.A. Carson, ed., Biblical Interpretation and the Church: The Problem of Contextualization [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984].), as well as Universalism and redefinitions of Christian concepts and terminology.  Gutiérrez considers the Church to ideally represent a “sacrament of universal salvation,” facilitating means by which anyone, Christian or not, but in particular the poor, can experience God’s grace, enter into Christ, and become the temple of God (Nuñez, 176 f.).  As Emilio Nuñez summarizes,

The church has to be involved in the effort towards world unity because the kingdom of God is already here, and is active in the movements designed to unify mankind.  It does not matter if the church loses its own identity in the ecumenical process.  After all, in the ecclesiological perspective of liberation theology the church is not an end in itself; it finds its meaning in its capacity to signify the reality of the kingdom of God, which has already begun in history (Nuñez, 179; see also Russell P. Shedd, “Social Justice: Underlying Hermeneutical Issues,” in the same volume).

Thus we see that a mystical and existential view of God, revelation, salvation, and the Church, once divorced from objective use of Scripture, is ethereal, unaccountable, and adaptable not only to Christianity, so called, but to a wide variety of “Christianities” it may serve to justify — even non-Christian and anti-Christian ones.  Moreover, the Sacramental view, which at base is Metaphysics, promises direct communion with God:  to transcend any number of mundane details of daily life, and petty concerns such as sound doctrine and exegesis, in favor of direct, personal, existential experiences of “oneness” with God and ultimate Truth.  Having once “released one’s burdens,” one is free to ascend, in gnostic fashion, to a higher plane where one has received the greater knowledge, the “knowledge of good and evil” of Adam, to become “like God” (i.e., apotheosis), and rule in one’s own right over lesser, unenlightened human beings.

A Pentecostal (False) Dichotomy

It is now painfully necessary to oppose a fellow Pentecostal, Dr. Howard M. Ervin, late professor at Oral Roberts University, who performed such a yeoman’s service in challenging, point-by-point, the Conversion-Initiation thesis of James D. G. Dunn (see Howard M. Ervin, Conversion-Initiation and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit [Hendrickson, 1984]).  Unfortunately, in countering the deprecation of Pentecostal theology, namely, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit as “empowerment for mission” beyond and subsequent to regeneration, Dr. Ervin also chose to frame a false dichotomy between a proper view of spirituality and reliance on propositional truth, that is to say, between Sacramentalism and a materialistic worldview.

In Ervin’s economy, two theological worldviews exist:  one that is rationalistic, dispensational, metaphysically dualistic, and “procrustean” (his word), which considers itself objective and relies on propositional truth; and another that is experiential, existential, metaphysically “open,” and “numinous” (his word), which is amenable to spiritual perception.  This perception includes experiencing Christ sacramentally and mystically through the Lord’s Supper, as well as Spirit Baptism and charismata.  Ervin describes having observed “previously nonsacramental Pentecostals/Charismatics [who] have been, in varying degrees, attracted to a sacramental theology as a result of their Pentecostal experience.”  These Non-Sacramentalists, he suggests, were then “reorient[ed] away from a rationalistic (Platonic!) symbolism” and “an implicit dichotomy between Spirit and matter,” toward an openness to existential, metaphysical, “experiential encounter[s]” (p. 82).

Ervin’s dichotomy is so strict that it would not seem unfair to summarize his construction in terms of a clear choice between believing the propositional truth of Scripture and letting go altogether of scriptural authority in order to be spiritual.  He states unequivocally, “Sacramentalism and antisacramentalism are essentially two antithetical statements about the nature of reality” (Ibid.).  He asserts that “sacramental reality” requires that in the Incarnation, “matter itself became a modality of divine presence and redemptive activity in the created order” (introducing the dubious phraseology that “Spirit assumed material form,” Ibid. — not exactly the same as “come in the flesh” or “born of a woman.”).  Further, “in a paradigm of a Spirit/matter continuum, water, wine, and bread may indeed become sacramental modalities of the divine presence” (p. 83).  In contrast, characterizing the Non-Sacramentalist, “The objective presence and activity of God in His supernatural charisms is either explained away as a dispensational once-and-for-all, or projected into the suprahistorical consciousness of the community, or denied altogether” (Ibid.).

Certain facts (to be discussed later) demonstrate this to be a false dichotomy, and a false choice.  Moreover, the choices within Ervin’s construct represent extremes, whereas a capacious middle ground exists.  The Pentecostal Movement did not begin with experience subsequently justified, but with searching the Scriptures to discover how God’s Spirit and Christ’s Church are meant to work.  Others such as John Wesley sought a route to fulfill New Testament expectations, with varying degrees of success; but those who gathered in Topeka, Kansas, January 1, 1901, and many since, having believed the report and received the promise, thereby discovered the ratifying experience.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

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