Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 5

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Martin Luther

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A Convenient Sacramental Hermeneutic

Of course, not every Sacramentalist goes to such lengths as to frame analogies using quantum physics (see Part 4).  There are other, more common and longstanding methods of theological argumentation which are more accessible, indeed more automatic, to the proponent.  Hopefully, one may presume that the choice of such a non-exegetical or extra-exegetical method is pursued in all earnestness, if not unconsciously.

The Analogy of Faith

Having set aside the historicity and rationality of Biblical revelation in favor of a liturgical and experiential faith, the stage is then set for a sacramental hermeneutic:  a way of interpreting which is convenient to and favorable for Sacramentalism.  Most interpreters who despair of clear exegetical grounds for interpretation and application gravitate naturally toward “the analogy of faith.”  We encounter this method whenever we hear the phrase, “the general tenor of Scripture,” or some similar expression, in comparatively evaluating a text (see Tappeiner, p. 51).  (I have used it myself.)

Our first step is to obtain an adequate definition of the analogy of faith.  Daniel Tappeiner writes, “The analogy of faith is simply an awareness, founded upon observation, of the fundamental unity of the biblical record and the harmony of its parts” (Tappeiner, p. 44).  H. Wayne Johnson agrees that “the analogy of faith is the harmonious relationship between the teachings of Scripture brought to bear on the exegesis of particular passages,” but arguably goes a step beyond in saying, “It is the body of affirmations or doctrines that are considered to be clearly taught in Scripture and that as a result help inform our interpretation of other passages in the Scriptures” (Johnson, p. 70).

Properly used, the analogy of faith is predicated “upon the historical-exegetical aspect of the hermeneutical task,” never a “substitute” for those objective sources.  Its use may be justified only in the absence of clear didactic teaching, to help enlighten “obscure, incidental and figurative passages” (Tappeiner, p. 44).

While using the analogy of faith to “inform” interpretation is not inherently suspect, the engagement of “affirmations or doctrines” certainly leaves room for the intrusion of dogma, if not domination by it.  Moreover, application of external dogma, tradition, and even superstition, which often stem from interpretive misunderstandings and extra-biblical sourcing, is specious and likely damaging to the process.

Historic Examples

Both Johnson and Tappeiner adduce examples of this analogy of faith principle as used by John Calvin to support his theses and to critique theological opponents, for better or for worse.  Calvin, for instance, saw variously throughout Scripture the efficacy of sola fide, faith alone, toward salvation, and judged the idea of Sacramental Realism to be in contradiction to that principle.

Regardless of one’s level of agreement with Calvin on any respective point, negative examples abound throughout church history.  Johnson (p. 71) notes that Augustine, while a staunch proponent of Biblical exegesis, alternated between literal and figurative interpretation according to his perception of the rule of faith (see Augustine De Doctrina Christiana 3.2.).  Further, Augustine wrote,

If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative.  If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative.  “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,” says Christ, “and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.”  This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us (Augustine De Doctrina Christiana 3.16.24, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace [NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892] as downloaded from,

which, by the way, equivocates what modern Sacramentalists purport to be Augustine’s position on Real Presence, suggesting a symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper.

One of the earliest Christian sources, Tertullian, when faced with an unwieldy exegetical argument with heretics, “responded to them not by condemning or exposing erroneous exegesis but by affirming that all of their exegesis was irrelevant because its results contradicted the orthodox analogy of faith” (Johnson, p. 72).

Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150–c. 215), known for allegorizing (figurative interpretation), criticizes his gnostic opponents for “picking out ambiguous phrases” from Scripture, which “they turn … to their own opinions, plucking a few scattered utterances, without considering what is intended by them, but perverting the bare letter as it stands.  For in almost all the passages they employ, you will find how they attend to the words alone, while they change the meaning, neither understanding them as they are spoken, nor even using in their natural sense such extracts as they adduce.”  He sets forth the interpretive standard of “confirming each thing that is proved according to the Scriptures from similar passages of the Scriptures themselves” (i.e., a systematic study), but adds, “considering what is perfectly fitting and appropriate to the Lord and the Almighty God.”  In the latter stipulation, Clement accords with Augustine toward making qualitative interpretive value judgments, whether to take a text literally or allegorize it.  He goes on to chide his adversaries for “being ignorant of the mysteries of the knowledge of the Church, and incapable of apprehending the grandeur of the truth,” having absented themselves from the advantages of official Church dogma and catechism; rather, being “too sluggish to penetrate to the bottom of the matter,” they presently “laid aside the Scriptures after a superficial reading” (Clement Stromata 16.96, 97 [referred to in Johnson, p. 71 notes], in Fenton John Anthony Hort and Joseph B. Mayor, Clement of Alexandria: Miscellanies Book VII: the Greek Text with Introduction, Translation, Notes, Dissertations and Indices [London: Macmillan and Co., 1902], pp. 169, 171, 173).

Origen (c. A.D. 184–c. 253), also of the Alexandrian allegorical school, announced his standard practice to be reliance on “the testimony of Holy Scripture,” since it stems from divine inspiration (Origen De Principiis 4.1, in Frederick Crombie, trans., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885], revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight at  Yet he regards the truth of Scripture as not intended for the casual reader of the literal text to comprehend, but the enlightened.  Toward this purpose, “divine wisdom took care that certain stumbling-blocks, or interruptions, to the historical meaning should take place, by the introduction into the midst (of the narrative) of certain impossibilities and incongruities; that in this way the very interruption of the narrative might, as by the interposition of a bolt, present an obstacle to the reader, whereby he might refuse to acknowledge the way which conducts to the ordinary meaning; and being thus excluded and debarred from it, we might be recalled to the beginning of another way, in order that, by entering upon a narrow path, and passing to a loftier and more sublime road, he might lay open the immense breadth of divine wisdom” (4.15).

To Origen, it does not matter whether specific events literally took place, because

… where the historical narrative could not be made appropriate to the spiritual coherence of the occurrences, He inserted sometimes certain things which either did not take place or could not take place; sometimes also what might happen, but what did not: and He does this at one time in a few words, which, taken in their “bodily” meaning, seem incapable of containing truth, and at another by the insertion of many.  And this we find frequently to be the case in the legislative portions, where there are many things manifestly useful among the “bodily” precepts, but a very great number also in which no principle of utility is at all discernible, and sometimes even things which are judged to be impossibilities (4.15).

Rather, the astute reader “will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted historically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification” (4.16).  Yet his readers should not “entertain the suspicion that we do not believe any history in Scripture to be real, because we suspect certain events related in it not to have taken place; or that no precepts of the law are to be taken literally, because we consider certain of them, in which either the nature or possibility of the case so requires, incapable of being observed; or that we do not believe those predictions which were written of the Saviour to have been fulfilled in a manner palpable to the senses; or that His commandments are not to be literally obeyed” (4.19).  What is important is that the Scripture be “allegorically understood….  For, with respect to holy Scripture, our opinion is that the whole of it has a ‘spiritual,’ but not the whole a ‘bodily’ meaning, because the bodily meaning is in many places proved to be impossible” (4.20).  In sum, “Now all this … was done by the Holy Spirit in order that, seeing those events which lie on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to the investigation of that truth which is more deeply concealed, and to the ascertaining of a meaning worthy of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by Him” (4.15).

The above examples demonstrate an historic drift, over time, away from the literal meaning of Scripture, and a resort to more convenient, and as Origen suggested, “useful” hermeneutics.  Apparently Scripture, under fire from critics and competitors, tended to be increasingly misapprehended, being distant from historical memory and detached in perceived relevance from contemporary life, becoming in many cases offensive to contemporary moral and social sensibilities.  Such pressures, and temptations, urged interpreters and defenders of the official apostolic Church away from reliance and trust in the literal meaning and toward alternate approaches.  What began with maintaining doctrine, institutions, and practices handed down through Apostolic Succession became an entrenchment of dogma, liturgy, and ritual, through all of which the interpretation of Scripture would ever-after be filtered.  In other words, scriptural agreement would no longer be the measure of the analogy of faith, but the traditions and historical interpretations of the Church.

Historically, the rule of faith was first identified as the faith confessed by the apostolic Church and considered simultaneously to be the compendium of true Biblical teaching.  Later this rule became an ecclesiastical tool with which to control exegesis and guarantee harmonization with Catholic orthodoxy (Johnson, p. 69 f.).

For [Sacramentalists] the analogy of faith is already explicitly founded on the sacramental principle and nothing remains to be said.  It should be noted that the analogy of faith in this instance is both the sacramentalist tradition and the “realistic” language of the New Testament.  Tradition stands in the place of the historical aspect of the hermeneutical task (Tappeiner, p. 46).

Modern Misuse of the Analogy of Faith

Closer to our time, the Reformation brought a new emphasis on scriptural authority, and presumably a return to Scripture itself as the rule of faith.  Yet the Reformer Calvin has already been mentioned as a major figure who adapted and even overruled exegetically-derived conclusions in favor of a systematic view, when deemed appropriate.

Martin Luther has been credited for sola scriptura, but his record is not so unequivocal.  He derogated the love of philosophy among medieval scholastic theologians, especially the influence of Aristotle.  “This defunct pagan [Aristotle] has attained supremacy [in the universities]; [he has] impeded, and almost suppressed, the Scripture of the living God.  When I think of this lamentable state of affairs, I cannot avoid believing that the Evil One introduced the study of Aristotle” (Daniel P. Fuller, “Biblical Theology and the Analogy of Faith,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 14:2 [Apr-June 1997]:66).  Luther also rejected the medieval theory of four levels of Bible interpretation, for “if anyone at all were to have power to depart from the pure, simple words and to make inferences and figures of speech wherever he wished. … [then] no one could reach any certain conclusions about any article of faith” (p. 65).

Yet Gerhard Ebeling declares that “Luther was no biblicist” (Ibid.).  Luther favored the Gospel of John, Paul’s epistles, 1 John, and 1 Peter above all other books, through which his rule of faith was filtered.  Thus we recognize what he meant by Scripture “interpret[ing] itself by passages and places which belong together, and can only be understood by a rule of faith” (Ibid.).  Because Luther’s analogy of faith therefore represented his “subjective preference,” writes Daniel Fuller, “the analogy of faith principle does not undergird but undermines the sola scriptura principle” (p. 66).  In his emphasis not only on sola fide but Christ-centered interpretation, Luther declared, “If adversaries urge Scripture against Christ, we will urge Christ against Scripture” (Ibid.).  Luther’s exegetical limitations and inflexibility are revealed in his failure to resolve James’s emphasis on good works subsequent to salvation, versus Paul’s on salvation apart from works.

Luther and Calvin both illustrate the potential for abuse of Scripture when the basis of one’s analogy of faith is thought “so important that it dictates exegetical method.”  In such cases, “The choice guarantees that the results of exegesis are in harmony with the analogy of faith.  Stated inversely, if the results of a certain exegetical methodology are in conflict with the analogy of faith that methodology must be considered invalid and consequently changed” (Johnson, p. 70).

The analogy of faith can be used not only to dictate exegesis but also to replace it entirely.  All exegetical discussions regarding context, semantics, syntax, textual issues, etc., are in the case deemed to be irrelevant [compare to Tertullian, above].  The analogy of faith alone is substituted to provide sufficient evidence for a certain interpretation of a passage (Ibid., p. 72).

Daniel Tappeiner describes three particular applications of the analogy of faith by, first, a renowned Roman Catholic scholar, and second, in a Catholic commentary.  Rudolf Schnackenburg, in the first case, writes in his book, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul (NY: Herder and Herder [1964], p. 134) that “the Pauline baptismal texts only allow of being interpreted in a realistic sense”; and furthermore, that Protestants widely agree (Tappeiner, p. 46).  Besides the dubious second claim, Paul’s passage which is considered most “realistic” (see Tappeiner, 45 f.), that found in Romans 6, far from being clearly sacramental, rather makes the image of water baptism as death and burial analogous — not identical — to the process of the believer “reckoning” himself dead to sin (6:11).  Because Christ is dead, buried, and raised to newness of life, Paul is saying, we are likewise dead and raised with him:  ergo, we should choose to act like we are dead to sin in our daily living.  As F. F. Bruce summed up Paul’s concept, “Be what you are!” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984], pp. 142, 357).

Next, regarding “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit” in Titus 3:5, Schnackenburg is equally sure that “Without doubt it serves solely to characterize the saving event that takes place at ‘regeneration,’ for the primitive Church knew only baptism” (ignoring the “living water” of the Holy Spirit) “as a decisive means of deliverance” (Tappeiner, p. 49).

Third, R. J. Foster, also commenting on the Titus passage, recognizes the efficacy of the Holy Spirit toward renewal, yet couches salvation squarely in terms of Baptismal Regeneration (in Bernard Orchard et al., editors, A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture [NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953], p. 925, quoted Ibid.).

Tappeiner notes in these examples a strikingly “different understanding of the analogy of faith at work, one founded upon the acceptance of the Sacramental Principle”; and marvels, not once but twice, over the resounding lack of recognition or apparent cognizance or consideration of any alternative interpretive possibilities.  On the contrary, the conclusive reality of the sacramental construct is “understood” (Ibid.).

This functional or willful blindness to undesirable possibilities is borne out in other defenses of Sacramental Realism.  In his history of the Eucharist, Darwell Stone, an Anglican, compares the “I am” metaphors, including “I am the way” and “I am the true vine,” with Jesus’ “This is my body” statement, and argues:

In considering the argument based on these expressions it is important to notice three facts.  First, as a matter of interpretation, the explanation that the bread and wine are means, and only means, by which the faithful communicants may spiritually receive Christ is not satisfactory.  The alternatives are really two,—”This is in fact My body,” or “This represents My body,”—not three,—”This is in fact My body,” “This represents My body,” “This is a means by the reception of which My body may be spiritually received”.  Secondly, neither the phrases which are used to support a metaphorical interpretation nor the circumstances in which these phrases were spoken were parallel to the words and circumstances at the institution of the Eucharist.  Thirdly, a view by which the phrases are regarded as simply metaphorical attaches to them an altogether inadequate meaning.  Each phrase denotes an actual fact about our Lord.  It is not by way of metaphor but in spiritual reality that He feeds Christians, and gives them light, and admits them into the Church, and tends them, and affords them access to the Father, and unites them to Himself.  In like manner, it is not by way of metaphor but in spiritual reality that the bread and the wine of the Eucharist are His body and His blood (Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, vol. I [London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909], pp. 19 f.).

At the outset, one notes that Stone attempts to dispense with the issue of metaphor in a single paragraph of a two-volume compendious work, which suggests dismissiveness.  The question of exact verbal construction he frames is irrelevant:  in all cases, Jesus compares an entity with an object, the meaning of which must be gathered from the context.  The claim of a “special case” — that being the institution of the sacraments — is inconclusive and represents circular reasoning, besides (since it is only a “special case” if one assumes the sacraments were being instituted).  Stone’s characterizations of alternate views as “not satisfactory” and “inadequate” are proleptic and here unsubstantiated.  That Jesus’ “This is” statement represents “an actual fact” tends rather to substantiate it as a metaphor, since a metaphor is always a comparative which points to an object, which is unarguably the case in the “I am” statements.  In sum, Stone’s argument, while no doubt entirely sensible to him, is no argument at all.

Similarly, Catholic Rev. R. Keleher considers himself to be in possession of conclusive proof of the sacramental interpretation of John 6.  He writes, “These words quoted from the 6th chapter of John are most clearly to be referred to the Eucharist, in which case they prove the Real Presence to a demonstration; from the tenor of the words themselves, they are to be referred to the Eucharist, as likewise from the consent of tradition ….” (R. Keleher, A Dissertation on the Eucharist, wherein Are Proved from Scripture and Tradition, the Real Presence, and the Sacrifice of the Mass [London: Advertiser Steam Presses, 1872], p. 7) which, as we have seen, makes appeal to the Catholic analogy of faith, based on dogma and “subjective preference,” as well as tradition. He continues,

He would not thus speak of being eaten by faith, or of beliving (sic.) in his incarnation, which bread, not He, but his Father, hath already given, as may be learned from verse 32, and which the Apostles did already eat, and all who believed in him.  That this new bread is the Eucharist, is evident from the words flesh and blood, eating and drinking, so often repeated.  Words more appropriate, more clear, could not be used to demonstrate the Eucharist, which consists in eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  If the Divine Redeemer at a time subsequent, did not institute a Sacrament, under the species of bread and wine, we would endeavor, somehow, applying it to his death, to eat his flesh and drink his blood, by faith; but when after the lapse of some time he instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist in which we so manifestly, so truly eat and drink, it would not seem wise forsaking the interpretation which is clear, intelligible and easy, to adopt that which is obscure, metaphorical and difficult to be conceived in the mind (Ibid., pp. 7-8).

Here Keleher appears to segue from the John 6 passage directly into the Last Supper, expecting Jesus’ statements regarding the Bread of Life to usher theologically (though obviously not in literary terms) into the bread and cup of the Last Supper.  Otherwise, his statement that “the Apostles did already eat” the sacrament of bread would be problematic, if not nonsensical.  One notes that he seeks no explanation and has no curiosity regarding the absence of wine in John 6, compared to its unexplained (in that case) introduction into the Last Supper.  Keleher makes an apparently unique supposition that had Jesus not instituted the sacraments, believers might have designed their own ceremony.  He closes the immediate argument with a rather typical suggestion, as in the case of Father Keefe in Part 4, to trust the experts and not worry about such perplexing theological questions.

No doubt many more articles of contention remain on this contentious subject, but the above examples suffice to frame the nature of the sacramental case, and demonstrate the inherent weakness and bias of the sacramental hermeneutic.

Still to Come

The foregoing has in many ways been a prolegomenon for what is now to follow.  Next, we shall examine the origins of the sacramental philosophy (which indeed it is), and reveal how this extra-biblical philosophy has encroached upon and influenced Christian doctrine and practice.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

Go to Part 6


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