Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 4

The Brazen Serpent by James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Brazen Serpent by James Tissot (1836-1902)

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Sacramentalism Weighed in the Balance

An Absence of Substance until Fulfillment

It is correct, in the prophetic framework of Scripture, to state that all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant prefigure the New Covenant in such a way as to set a paradigm.  It is even correct to say, in principle, that the Old Testament, Old-Covenant prefigurement represents the shadow of the later spiritual reality and “substance” of the New Covenant (as also the Davidic Kingdom that of the Kingdom of God, and the Davidic kingship that of Messiah, Son of David).  But it would not be correct to assume that this framework and prefigurement presupposes a substantial, objective fulfillment of all the elements of the New Covenant before the final culmination, especially during this intervening time known as the Church Age.  The commission of the Twelve and the Seventy to go out two by two and “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils” (Mt 10:8) was not yet the reality of the Pentecostal outpouring to follow.  In turn, Pentecost did not fulfill the wonders, signs, “blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:  The sun … turned into darkness, and the moon into blood” (Acts 2:19 f.) of the End-Time.  The Kingdom of God which is “drawing nigh,” as John first preached, is still in-process of drawing nigh.

We still “see through a glass, darkly,” “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord,” but one day “face to face … then shall I know even as also I am known,” when we “are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Cor 13:12, 2 Cor 3:18).  We have not “already attained” nor yet “apprehended” our “completion” in the Lord (Php 3:12-16).  Thus one cannot expect concrete reality — literal, ultimate fulfillment — of prophecy before its culmination, certainly not vested in manmade, physical, temporal emblems, or in the ritual act of partaking them.  There is no theological purpose or sense, neither precedent nor parallel, to Christ introducing to the Church a sacramental use of elements in substitution for his Crucifixion either before or after the event itself took place.

The ‘Presence’ Canard and Idolatry

Were Christ present in the bread and wine, one wonders how Christ could have manifested “Real Presence” at the Last Supper, when theologically He was simultaneously “fully human,” i.e., fully present in his Incarnation.  A few historic teachers actually profess the dubious contrivance that Jesus handled his own body, and even ate it:

After having spoken thus [at the Last Supper], the Lord rose up from the place where he had made the Passover and had given his body as food and his blood as drink, and he went with his disciples to the place where he was to be arrested.  But he ate of his own body and drank of his own blood, while he was pondering on the dead.  With his own hands the Lord presented his own body to be eaten, and before he was crucified he gave his blood as drink (Aphraahat the Persian Sage, Treatises 12:6 [A.D. 340]) in “The Fathers of the Church, according to Topic,” most selections from “Fathers Know Best” at [edited by Br. Sean, a choir monk, 2008], p. 77).

Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body’ [Matt. 26:26].  For he carried that body in his hands (Augustine, Explanations of the Psalms 33:1:10 [A.D. 405]). (Ibid., p. 78).

Such materialism and literalism tend to produce superstition and ultimately idolatry.  When people began to venerate the brazen serpent Moses mounted on a pole (which Jesus identified prophetically with himself, Jn 3:14), Hezekiah had it destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).  The sanctuaries at Beth-el, Mizpeh, Shiloh, and Gilgal had to be destroyed, even the Tabernacle itself, due to idolatrous worship.  The people were not to put their trust in the Temple, or the Ark of the Covenant, or in God’s purported responsibility to defend Jerusalem, but in the invisible God himself.  Gideon made himself a trophy (“ephod”) which became a “snare” to him and his family (Jdg 8:27).  There were to be no objects of veneration, no idols, for “God is Spirit.”

The Lord’s Supper is not designed as a “concretization” of a spiritual reality, but a “remembrance” (anamnesis, “memorial”), for which Passover was the paradigm (see Ex 12:14 ff.).  While the Passover ultimately looked forward to the Atonement, prophetically, like all the other blood sacrifices — the observance itself is a reenactment.  Participants reenact Israel’s past deliverance from bondage and covering for sin, being sealed with the earnest of blood, anticipating incorporation into future or continued covenant promise.  None of the Passover elements are sacramental, in the sense of spiritual presence or efficacy, but have memorial and prophetic significance.  Likewise, while the Last Supper looked forward to the Crucifixion, and ultimately the Atonement, the commandment inherent to the Supper’s “Do this” is to remember thereafter one’s deliverance from bondage to sin, sealing by blood sacrifice, with the earnest of the Holy Spirit, anticipating future redemption and incorporation into the Kingdom of promise.

Objective versus Subjective Reality

It was first noted in Part 1 that, exegetically speaking, the case for Sacramental Realism is an argument from silence, reading into the account of the Last Supper, and Christ’s intent by it, a materialistic and sacramental view of the Communion emblems, as opposed to a memorial observance; and an alternate spirituality, as opposed to Biblical Holy Spirit Baptism.  Sacramentalists are prone to gloss quickly over exegetical details and make unfounded assertions of reality.  In a previous installment, three such cases were reviewed, demonstrating the reliance of Sacramentalists, as well, upon claims of personal experience and what amounts to subjective “special revelation.”  (Later, we shall review further claims from early Church history and theology.)  Such claims tend to divorce Sacramentalism and other forms of Mysticism from Scripture and any other objective viewpoint.  Ironically, it is claims of spiritual realism which thus threaten to undermine objective reality and revelation.  Dr. Ervin’s construct, we recall, presented a false choice between spirituality and objective truth.

The actual intent of Jesus was to present a prophetic reality, initially to be fulfilled in the Crucifixion, with an added future (i.e., post-Resurrection) memorial function.  The object of this fulfilled “Passover” was to portray initiation of the New Covenant, not through efficacy of the symbolic emblems, but in the real sacrifice of Christ that they represent.  The Church, moving forward in the prophetic calendar, being marked for future redemption, would then obtain marvelous provision through the Baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the prophetic fulfillment of the Feast of Pentecost.  Thenceforward, the Church has been called to reenact Christ’s one-time sacrifice in joyful yet thoughtful recognition, i.e., the Lord’s Supper.

Both Mysticism and “prophetic reality” are called spiritual, in their respective senses, but prophetic reality is not subjective.  Mysticism relies on subjective feelings, metaphysical senses, and existential experiences; or rather, claims thereto which cannot be demonstrated, examined, or verified.  In stark contrast, prophecy, if genuine, always has an object:  a future event scheduled to take place, a promise to be fulfilled, a fate sealed, a fact confirmed, a declaration of truth from the Lord by his Holy Spirit.  There is no divide, no dichotomy between prophetic, spiritual reality and proposition truth, from Scripture or via prophetic utterance.  God speaks his Word, and it is objective Truth.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit beginning at Pentecost proves that the spiritual things of God represent propositional, objective truth.  God speaks to Joel that He “will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.”  That promise is objective, propositional truth to the prophet:  it need not be whiffed, distilled, and reconstituted to be heard.  It rings clear as a bell, so that the prophet hears it, comprehends it, remembers it, can write it down on a scroll for all to see.  Others can read it centuries later, and know its propositional truth.  In God’s time, its literal fulfillment takes place:  at the third hour of the morning, in the Upper Room, people hear the sound of rushing wind, they see tongues of fire light on each one, some participate, others hear various participants speak in diverse languages.  People go and tell others what they have seen and heard, someone writes down what happened, and millennia later, other people read what was written.

(The only thing subjective is whether anyone involved was drunk.  In other words, God’s Word is objective, prophetic events are objective, historical events are objective, only our perception of those things is subjective.  Too many people today live subjectively, by and large; meanwhile, they relativistically doubt objective truth, yet claim to do exactly the opposite.)

To this day, people have the opportunity to receive the propositional truth of the Gospel:  to repent, believe in the Lord, call on his name, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: for the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38 f.).  “You shall receive power, after the Holy Ghost is come upon you” (Acts 1:8).  “… on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost:  for they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (Acts 10:45 f.).  The initial evidence of speaking in tongues, the charismatic “manifestations” of the indwelling Spirit, the “fruit of the Spirit” which are the outward result of spiritual discipline — all objective, visible, capable of being witnessed, examined by others, judged, withheld by the recipient or “quenched” at will (1 Cor 14:29 f., 1 Th 5:19).

Scripture is full of propositional truths that we are expected to believe, obey, and act upon.  Acting on what we have received, and objectively believe, is both the exercise and a demonstration of our faith — the exercise of which spawns experience and bears fruit.

Naysayers to Objectivity

It will be objected by partisans that this concern for objective, propositional truth stems from a Modernist conceit that an interpreter can be neutral and that objective truth can be known.  Kenneth Archer writes,

Modernity has always defined objectivity over and against subjectivity and viewed subjectivity as potentially flawed.  ‘The assumption is that if the biblical text is approached from the stance of human experience, then the interpretation is more subjective; but if approached on the basis of logic and reason, the interpretation is more objective’.  The Modernists desire to pretend to be a neutral interpreter by setting aside one’s experience and/or presuppositions is a false illusion. (Kenneth J. Archer, A Pentecostal Hermeneutic for the Twenty-First Century: Spirit, Scripture and Community [London: T&T Clark International, 2004], p. 72.)

The retort to this presumptive and prejudicial accusation need not resort to a logico-philosophical defense “in kind.”  Simply, each propositional statement of Scripture — let us specify “the Promise of the Father” — is clearly defined, promised, targeted, scheduled, expected, anticipated; and in time received, experienced, evidenced, witnessed, noted, reported, duly recorded, described in writing by definite persons in a definite place and time; its record saved, copied, distributed, protected, handed down, and widely read for two millennia.  The modern reader, then, is confronted with the record of the proposition and concomitant, confirming events, which he is equipped neither to prove nor disprove at this point.  As a self-contained system, the propositional truth of Scripture is objective, insofar as its original meaning and intent can be understood; only the interpretation and application that the reader chooses to make of it can rightly be called subjective.

The objective nature of propositional truth versus subjectivity is well illustrated by Stanley Harvey, Pentecostal pastor in Sydney, Australia.  Comparing ice cream to insulin, Harvey demonstrates that one’s choice of ice cream flavors is entirely subjective:  there is neither an absolute moral component to flavor preferences, nor harm, nor affront.  It reasonably matters to no one else which flavor one chooses.  Insulin, on the other hand, is a crucial drug, designed for a specific malady and treatment, with specific dosage, which literally cannot be compromised without dire risk.  The properties and proper use of insulin is absolute, and no one’s opinion or preference will change them.  As Harvey summarizes, “Objective truth is truth for everyone, everywhere because it is based on the object independent of the perception of the observer” (Stanley Harvey, “Insulin or Chocolate Ice Cream,” posted 8/9/11 at

Therefore, Archer’s error is to discount Scripture’s objective truth within its inherent closed continuum of cause and effect, or rather proposition and realization/confirmation (or in some cases type and antitype).  He confuses objective truth with mundane (subjective) issues of interpretation and the presumption of (subjective) philosophical-worldview bias.  Any risk of subjective misinterpretation of the inherently objective material (e.g., Scripture) will stem not from the effort to reconstruct original, intentional meaning from the methodical assembly of “knowns,” such as the text itself, word etymology, grammar, syntax, and especially real-world usage; but from destructive methodologies and assumptions based on some external, biased, prejudicial, and even dishonest agenda.  In other words, we have the tools today to interpret and exegete well enough, but must guard against the temptation to reinterpret and eisegete.

The sacramental worldview, and the sacramental agenda which follows after it, not being ultimately based on Scripture but on claims of existential experience, tends to fall into the temptation of such a destructive interpretation of Scripture, or at least a willingness to relax, and other times force, interpretations and applications of Scripture according to its experiential agenda, as it has in the case of the Lord’s Supper and its emblems.

A Philosophical ‘Line in the Sand’

Experts generally characterize the objective-subjective debate in terms of Platonic philosophy versus Aristotelian and Enlightenment rationalism (more on philosophical origins in this study’s final installment.)  We have already seen the dubious spiritual/propositional dichotomy framed by Howard Ervin.

Father Donald Keefe, a Jesuit, approaches the sacramental question in terms of (theoretical) quantum physics (“Faith, Science and Sacramental Realism,” in Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology [Spring 99 – Volume 30 #2] ).  In particular, he draws a comparison with Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle.”  According to that theory, it is not possible to calculate both the exact position and the momentum of a quantum particle at the same moment, the assumption being that the very act of close examination will disrupt the system and affect the result.  This principle (I read) can also be applied, theoretically, to time, energy, and other relational systems.

Albert Einstein famously rejected the “chaos” represented by this school of quantum thought in favor of a scientific determinism (which Keefe calls “a rationality self-enclosed within its own logic”), saying, “God does not play dice” (Keefe, p. 4).  Keefe declares that determinism is damaging to free scientific thought, tending to “suppress the possibility of experimental method.”  Therefore, “One must then reject the foregoing rationalist dilemma — in which much of the contemporary discussion is locked — according to which one is forced to choose between reality conceived as a jungle, or as a cage” (Ibid.).  The cage, of course, would represent (restrictive) objective reality; the jungle, utter subjectivity.  To Keefe, any school of thought restricted to rationality and absolutes, i.e., “the salvific calculus of those who know” — meanwhile dismissing “mutability and multiplicity” — represents an “elitist establishment” which he compares to the Communist Party (pp. 6, 7).

Keefe sees a parallel “rationalist dilemma” in the schools of Protestant exegetical thought; while, to the Catholic, the historicity and objectivity of Biblical revelation is “a false problem, one that does not, nor can, arise within the Catholic faith in the Lord of history, for within Catholicism that Lordship is exercised sacramentally, finally Eucharistically” (p. 8).  He concludes,

This celebratory Christian knowledge, this historical faith, this optimism, is more than piety, more than personal faith, more than an idiosyncratic dogma arbitrarily imposed, for it asserts that the objective truth of the world and of humanity is free, because it is given us in Christ.  The Catholic faith in Christ is then the free, public response to and the appropriation, at once personal and communal, of the free revelation of the factual, the objective order of reality, to which we have access only by a freedom which is equivalent to worship; the covenantal worship of the Lord of the covenant, the Lord of the history which the covenant in his Blood redeems and orders to our salvation.  Only by the praxis of that free commitment do we have access to objectivity.  To affirm this is to turn the conventional wisdom on its head, and yet that affirmation alone can underwrite the historical optimism of experimental science (Ibid.).

In other words, as the discerning reader who recognizes double-talk about “freedom” and “objective reality,” in particular, will see:  “Trust us, we are ‘name brand’ Christianity, we own the franchise.  Base your faith in ritual, in community, in Church history, in dogma, in richness of symbolism, in your emotions.  Rest in our arms, we will take care of you.  Look no further, take our word for it, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, don’t let the facts confuse you or worry your pretty little head, we know what we’re doing.”

There you have it, fertile ground for a sacramental religion.  The Catholic Church, in the name of intellectual freedom, thus becomes, via the adherent’s despairing surrender to irrationality, “the establishment,” i.e., to use Keefe’s words, “those who know.”

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

Go to Part 5


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