Panentheism is not new, stemming as it does from Neoplatonism; and not rare, being widespread, in various forms and to various extents amongst the intelligentsia; yet is an unfamiliar term, even to most people who have encountered it in some form. It is a man-made, philosophical religion which denies the authority of Scripture and brings together many threads of philosophy and speculation, including Neoplatonic Mysticism, speculative philosophy and theology, select elements of Christianity and other religions, speculative science (purporting legitimacy), in particular Evolution, and Environmentalism, with special appeal to Liberal Christians, New Age believers, semi-atheistic intellectuals, Social Gospel practitioners, Social Justice agitators, self-opinionated armchair theologians, “tree-huggers,” narcissistic “do-gooders,” and political Progressives of various other types.
In reality, Panentheism is Humanism in theistic garb, patently not Christianity, appealing to the selfish desire for apotheosis or self-deification, i.e., not to God but to self. Observing the worldwide apostasy of this Age, and the “signs of the times,” there is good reason to associate Panentheism with the One-World Religion, the Religion of Man, which Bible-believers anticipate will evolve into the religion of the Beast of John’s Revelation, otherwise known as the Antichrist.
Whether one believes this assertion or not, I encourage the reader to “save” the basic description, in either text or the graphic form above, and from this time forward examine the theological claims and content of religionists, even one’s own church pastor, in its light, to see how he or she stacks up.
A Linchpin of Liberal One-World Religion
- Increasingly a favored interpretation of Christianity amongst intellectuals.
- Not to be confused with Pantheism (“all is God”).
- Means “all is in God,” which includes evil. Incorporates evil and redefines Redemption through its principle of Dialectic.
- Influenced by Neoplatonist Metaphysics and Hegelian philosophy.
- Related to the Process Theology of Whitehead and the New Theology of Karl Rahner.
- Emphasizes unity of the Trinity (Perichoresis) in love and relationship. Sees love, unity, Pacifism, science, and Environmentalism as the evolutionary path to unity with the Trinity and the universe by reflecting attributes of the Trinity (suggesting apotheosis).
- Portrays God as continuously created and creating, not complete, evolving along with the universe, and influenced by Man.
- Presumes truth about God discoverable in (theoretical) Quantum Physics.
- Bypasses the Biblical Gospel and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, who becomes at best ancillary. Does not require Bible-based Christianity.
- Influences Liberation Theology such as that of Jurgen Moltmann and Gustavo Gutiérrez.
- Expressed by John A. T. Robinson in his concept of the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God evolving through love and unity, but foresees no literal Second Coming (Parousia) of Christ.
Copyright © 2015 Paul A. Hughes
The following are excerpts from Hodge’s Systematic Theology, vol. I (NY: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1877), pages 63-86, in which he defines Mysticism and differentiates it from Evangelical spirituality. His one glaring shortcoming, being a Cessationist, is his blindness toward the continuation of New Testament Pentecostal charisms, which he circumscribes (typical in the 19th Century) to the First Century and largely to the Twelve Apostles, for the formation of Scripture and the Church. Apart from this blind spot, his observations provide a supportive parallel account to the recent published works on Sacramental Realism and Neoplatonism, and differentiation of Pentecostal spirituality from Contemplative Prayer/Mysticism, found in the following published works by Paul A. Hughes:
- The blog series, “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” parts 1-7
- “Notes on Pentecostalism versus Mysticism“
- “John Wesley, Reluctant Mystic“
- The book Neoplatonist Stew, based on the collected articles above
According to Hodge:
The Sense in which Evangelical Christians are called Mystics
As all Evangelical Christians admit a supernatural influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul, and recognize a higher form of knowledge, holiness, and fellowship with God, as the effects of that influence, they are stigmatized as Mystics, by those who discard everything supernatural from Christianity. The definitions of Mysticism given by Rationalists are designedly so framed as to include what all evangelical Christians hold to be true concerning the illumination, teaching, and guidance of the Holy Spirit. …. And Bretschneider defines Mysticism as a “Belief in a continuous operation of God on the soul, secured by special religious exercise, producing illumination, holiness, and beatitude.” Evangelical theologians so far acquiesce in this view, that they say, as Lange, and Nitsch,” that every true believer is a Mystic.” The latter writer adds, “That the Christian ideas of illumination, revelation, incarnation, regeneration, the sacraments and the resurrection, are essentially Mystical elements. As often as the religious and church-life recovers itself from formalism and scholastic barrenness, and is truly revived, it always appears as Mystical, and gives rise to the outcry that Mysticism is gaining the ascendency.” …. There has been a religious theory, which has more or less extensively prevailed in the Church, which is distinguished from the Scriptural doctrine by unmistakable characteristics, and which is known in church history as Mysticism, and the word should be restricted to that theory. It is the theory, variously modified, that the knowledge, purity, and blessedness to be derived from communion with God, are not to be attained from the Scriptures and the use of the ordinary means of grace, but by a supernatural and immediate divine influence, which influence (or communication of God to the soul) is to be secured by passivity, a simple yielding the soul without thought or effort to the divine influx.
The System which makes the Feelings the Source of Knowledge
A still wider use of the word Mysticism has to some extent been adopted. Any system, whether in philosophy or religion, which assigns more importance to the feelings than to the intellect, is called Mystical. ….
…. The Mystic assumes that the senses and reason are alike untrustworthy and inadequate, as sources of knowledge; that nothing can be received with confidence as truth, at least in the higher departments of knowledge, in all that relates to our own nature, to God, and our relation to Him, except what is revealed either naturally or supernaturally in the feelings. There are two forms of Mysticism, therefore: the one which assumes the feelings themselves to be the sources of this knowledge; the other that it is through the feelings that God makes the truth known to the soul. “Reason is no longer viewed as the great organ of truth; its decisions are enstamped as uncertain, faulty, and well-nigh valueless, while the inward impulses of our sensibility, developing themselves in the form of faith or of inspiration, are held up as the true and infallible source of human knowledge. The fundamental process, therefore, of all Mysticism, is to reverse the true order of nature, and give the precedence to the emotional instead of the intellectual element of the human mind.” This is declared to be “the common ground of all Mysticism.”
…. The illumination claimed by the Mystic communicates truth independently of its objective revelation. ….
The doctrines of spiritual illumination and of Mysticism differ not only in the object, but secondly, in the manner in which that object is to be attained. The inward teaching of the Spirit is to be sought by prayer, and the diligent use of the appointed means; the intuitions of the Mystic are sought in the neglect of all means, in the suppression of all activity inward and outward, and in a passive waiting for the influx of God into the soul. They differ, thirdly, in their effects. The effect of spiritual illumination is, that the Word dwells in us “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. i. 9). What dwells in the mind of the Mystic are his own imaginings, the character of which depends on his own subjective state; and whatever they are, they are of man and not of God.
The so-called Dionysius the Areopagite
Mysticism, in the common acceptation of the term, is antagonistic to speculation. And yet they are often united. There have been speculative or philosophical Mystics. The father indeed of Mysticism in the Christian Church, was a philosopher. About the year A. D. 523, during the Monothelite controversy certain writings were quoted as of authority as being the productions of Dionysius the Areopagite. …. Though their authorship is unknown, their influence has been confessedly great. The works which bear the pseudonym of Dionysius are, “The Celestial Hierarchy,” “The Terrestrial Hierarchy,” “Mystical Theology,” and “Twelve Epistles.” Their contents show that their author belonged to the school of the New Platonists, and that his object was to propagate the peculiar views of that school in the Christian Church. The writer attempts to show that the real, esoteric doctrines of Christianity are identical with those of his own school of philosophy. In other words, he taught New Platonism, in the terminology of the Church. Christian ideas were entirely excluded, While the language of the Bible was retained. Thus in our day we have had the philosophy of Schelling and Hegel set forth in the formulas of Christian theology.
The New Platonists taught that the original ground and source of all things was simple being, without life or consciousness; of which absolutely nothing could be known, beyond that it is. They assumed an unknown quantity, of which nothing can be predicated. The pseudo-Dionysius called this original ground of all things God, and taught that God was mere being without attributes of any kind, not only unknowable by man, but of whom there was nothing to be known, as absolute being is in the language of the modern philosophy, — Nothing; nothing in itself, yet nevertheless the DUNAMIS TWN PANTWN [“power of all things”].
The universe proceeds from primal being, not by any exercise of conscious power or will but by a process or emanation. ….
The end [i.e., “goal”] of philosophy is the immediate vision of God, which gives the soul supreme blessedness and rest. This union with God is attained by sinking into ourselves; by passivity. As we are a form, or mode of God’s existence, we find God in ourselves, and are consciously one with him, when this is really apprehended; or, when we suffer God, as it were, to absorb our individuality.
The terms God, sin, redemption, are retained in this system, but the meaning attached to them was entirely inconsistent with the sense they bear in the Bible and in the Christian Church. The pseudo-Dionysius was a heathen philosopher in the vestments of a Christian minister. The philosophy which he taught he claimed to be the true sense of the doctrines of the Church, as that sense had been handed down by a secret tradition. Notwithstanding its heathen origin and character, its influence in the Church was great and long continued. The writings of its author were translated, annotated and paraphrased, centuries after his death. As there is no effect without an adequate cause, there must have been power in this system and an adaptation to the cravings of a large class of minds.
Causes of the Influence of the Writings of the pseudo-Dionysius
To account for its extensive influence it may be remarked: (1.) That it did not openly shock the faith or prejudices of the Church. It did not denounce any received doctrine or repudiate any established institution or ordinance. It pretended to be Christian, It undertook to give a deeper and more correct insight into the mysteries of religion. (2.) It subordinated the outward to the inward. Some men are satisfied with rites, ceremonies, symbols, which may mean anything or nothing; others, with knowledge or clear views of truth. To others, the inner life of the soul, intercourse with God, is the great thing. To these this system addressed itself. It proposed to satisfy this craving after God, not indeed in a legitimate way, or by means of God’s appointment. Nevertheless it was the high end of union with him that it proposed, and which it professed to secure. (3.) This system was only one form of the doctrine which has such a fascination for the human mind, and which underlies so many forms of religion in every age of the world; the doctrine, namely, that the universe is an efflux of the life of God, — all things flowing from him, and back again to him from everlasting to everlasting. This doctrine quiets the conscience, as it precludes the idea of sin; it gives the peace which flows from fatalism; and it promises the absolute rest of unconsciousness when the individual is absorbed in the bosom of the Infinite.
Mysticism during the Middle Ages: General Characteristics of this Period
The Middle Ages embrace the period from the close of the sixth century to the Reformation. This period is distinguished by three marked characteristics. First, the great development of the Latin Church in its hierarchy, its worship, and its formulated doctrines, as well as in its superstitions, corruptions, and power. Secondly, the extraordinary intellectual activity awakened in the region of speculation, as manifested in the multiplication of seats of learning, in the number and celebrity of their teachers, and in the great multitude of students by which they were attended, and in the interest taken by all classes in the subjects of learned discussion. Thirdly, by a widespread and variously manifested movement of, so to speak, the inner life of the Church, protesting against the formalism, the corruption, and the tyranny of the external Church. This protest was made partly openly by those whom Protestants are wont to call “Witnesses for the Truth;” and partly within the Church itself. The opposition within the Church manifested itself partly among the people, in the formation of fellowships or societies for benevolent effort and spiritual culture, such as the Beguines, the Beghards, the Lollards, and afterwards, “The Brethren of the Common Lot;” and partly in the schools, or by the teachings of theologians.
The First Class of Medieval Theologians
Of these theologians, however, there were three classes. First, those who avowedly exalted reason above authority, and refused to receive anything on authority which they could not for themselves, on rational grounds, prove to be true. John Scotus Erigena (Eringehorne, Irish-born) may be taken as a representative of this class. He not only held, that reason and revelation, philosophy and religion, are perfectly consistent, but that religion and philosophy are identical. ….
…. His philosophy as developed in his work, “De Divisione Naturae,” is purely pantheistic. There is with him but one being, and everything real is thought. His system, therefore, is nearly identical with the idealistic pantheism of Hegel; yet he had his trinitarianism, his soteriology, and his eschatology, as a theologian.
The characteristic common to these classes, which differed so much from each other, was not that in all there was a protest of the heart against the head, of the feelings against the intellect, a reaction against the subtleties of the scholastic theologians, for some of the leading Mystics were among the most subtle dialecticians. Nor was it a common adherence to the Platonic as opposed to the Aristotelian philosophy, or to realism as opposed to nominalism. But it was the belief, that oneness with God was the great end to be desired and pursued, and that that union was to be sought, not so much through the truth, or the Church, or ordinances, or Christian fellowship; but by introspection, meditation, intuition. As very different views were entertained of the nature of the “oneness with God,” which was to be sought, so the Mystics differed greatly from each other. Some were extreme pantheists; others were devout theists and Christians. From its essential nature, however, the tendency of Mysticism was to pantheism. And accordingly undisguised pantheism Was not only taught by some of the most prominent Mystics, but prevailed extensively among the people.
Pantheistic tendency of Mysticism
It has already been remarked, that the system of the pseudo-Dionysius, as presented in his “Mystical Theology” and other writings, was essentially pantheistic. Those writings were translated by Scotus Erigena, himself the most pronounced pantheist of the Middle Ages. Through the joint influence of these two men, a strong tendency to pantheism was developed to a greater or less degree among the mediaeval Mystics. Even the associations among the people, such as the Beghards and Lollards, although at first exemplary and useful, by adopting a system of mystic pantheism became entirely corrupt. Believing themselves to be modes of the divine existence, all they did God did, and all they felt inclined to do was an impulse from God, and therefore nothing could be wrong. In our own day the same principles have led to the same consequences in one wing of the German school of philosophy.
It was not only among the people and in these secret fellowships that this system was adopted. Men of the highest rank in the schools, and personally exemplary in their deportment, became the advocates of the theory which lay at the foundation of these practical evils. Of these scholastic pantheistical Mystics, the most distinguished and influential was Henry [Meister] Eckart, whom some modern writers regard “as the deepest thinker of his age, if not of any age.” …. His doctrines were condemned as heretical, although he denied that he had in any respect departed from the doctrines of the Church. …. It is not necessary here to give the details of his system. Suffice it to say, that he held that God is the only being; that the universe is the self-manifestation of God; that the highest destiny of man is to come to the consciousness of his identity with God; that that end is to be accomplished partly by philosophical abstraction and partly by ascetic self renunciation.
It is true that no one can intelligently affirm the transcendence of God, and still hold the extreme form of pantheism which makes the world the existence-form of God, his whole intelligence, power, and life. But he may be a Monist. He may believe that there is but one Being in the universe, that everything is a form of God, and all life the life of God. Pantheism is Protean. Some moderns speak of a Christian Pantheism. But any system which hinders our saying “Thou,” to God, is fatal to religion.
Quietism: Its general character
Tholuck says “There is a law of seasons in the spiritual, as well as in the physical world, in virtue of which when the time has come, without apparent connection, similar phenomena reveal themselves in different places. As towards the end of the fifteenth century an ecclesiastical-doctrinal reformatory movement passed over the greater part of Europe, in part without apparent connection; so at the end of the seventeenth a mystical and spiritual tendency was almost as extensively manifested. In Germany, it took the form of Mysticism and Pietism; in England, of Quakerism; in France, of Jansenism and Mysticism; and in Spain and Italy, of Quietism.” This movement was in fact what in our day would be called a revival of religion. Not indeed in a form free from grievous errors, but nevertheless it was a return to the religion of the heart, as opposed to the religion of forms. The Mystics of this period, although they constantly appealed to the mediaeval Mystics, even to the Areopagite, and although they often used the same forms of expression, yet they adhered much more faithfully to Scriptural doctrines and to the faith of the Church. They did not fall into Pantheism, or believe in the absorption of the soul into the substance of God. They held, however, that the end to be attained was union with God. By this was not meant what Christians generally understand by that term; congeniality with God, delight in his perfections, assurance of his love, submission to his will, perfect satisfaction in the enjoyment of his favour. It was something more than all this, something mystical and therefore inexplicable; a matter of feeling, not something to be under, stood or explained; a state in which all thought, all activity was suspended; a state of perfect quietude in which the soul is lost in God …. This state is reached by few. It is to be attained not by the use of the means of grace or ordinances of the Church. The soul should be raised above the need of all such aids. It rises even above Christ, insomuch that it is not He whom the soul seeks, nor God in him; but God as God; the absolute, infinite God. The importance of the Scriptures, of prayer, of the sacraments, and of the truth concerning Christ, was not denied; but all these were regarded as belonging to the lower stages of tlie divine life. Nor was this rest and union with God to be attained by meditation; for meditation is discursive. It implies an effort to bring truth before the mind, and fixing the attention upon it. All conscious self-activity must be suspended in order to this perfect rest in God. It is a state in which the soul is out of itself; a state of ecstasy, according to the etymological meaning of the word.
This state is to be reached in the way prescribed by the older Mystics; first, by negation or abstraction; that is, the abstraction of the soul from everything out of God, from the creature, from all interest, concern, or impression from sensible objects. Hence the connection between Mysticism, in this form, and asceticism. Not only must the soul become thus abstracted from the creature, but it must be dead to self. All regard to self must be lost. There can be no prayer, for prayer is asking something for self; no thanksgiving, for thanksgiving implies gratitude for good done to self. Self must be lost. There must be no preference for heaven over hell. One of the points most strenuously insisted upon was a willingness to be damned, if such were the will of God. In the controversy between Fenelon and Bossuet, the main question concerned disinterested love, whether in loving God the soul must be raised above all regard to its own holiness and happiness. This pure or disinterested love justifies, or renders righteous in the sight of God. Although the Mystics of this period were eminently pure as well as devout, they nevertheless sometimes laid down principles, or at least used expressions, which gave their enemies a pretext for charging them with Antinomianism. It was said, that a soul filled with this love, or reduced to this entire negation of self, cannot sin; “sin is not in, but outside of him;” which was made to mean, that nothing was sin to the perfect. It is an instructive psychological fact that when men attempt or pretend to rise above the law of God, they sink below it; that Perfectionism has so generally led to Antinomianism.
“Ciceronianus es non Christianus”
In A.D. 375, around the middle of the Lenten season, Jerome had a dream.
The translator of Scripture into Latin had been baptized a Christian at age 19, but like many of his era, Jerome still loved to read “the judicious precepts of Quintilian, the rich and fluent eloquence of Cicero, the graver style of Fronto, and the smoothness of Pliny.”
After suffering a fever, Jerome experienced a realistic dream in which he was brought before a heavenly tribunal. A voice demanded him to identify himself. “I am a Christian,” Jerome replied.
“You lie,” insisted the voice. “Ciceronianus es non Christianus (you are a Ciceronian, not a Christian), for ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.'”
Jerome, imagining himself scourged, vowed never again to read “worldly” books (a vow he kept for ten years before relenting).
Later, relating this experience in a letter to Eustochium, he advised, “So long as we are held down by this frail body, so long as we have our treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7); so long as the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh (Galatians 5:17), there can be no sure victory. ‘Our adversary the devil goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).”
“What communion has light with darkness?” he continued. “‘And what concord has Christ with Belial?’ (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). How can Horace go with the psalter, Virgil with the gospels, Cicero with the apostle? Is not a brother made to stumble if he sees you sitting at meat in an idol’s temple? (1 Corinthians 8:10). Although ‘unto the pure all things are pure’ (Titus 1:15), and ‘nothing is to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving’ (1 Timothy 4:4), still we ought not to drink the cup of Christ, and, at the same time, the cup of devils (1 Corinthians 10:21).”
A millennium and a half later, F. F. Bosworth, a well-respected Pentecostal preacher with an outstanding healing ministry, tendered a letter of resignation to the Assemblies of God. “It is with regret,” he wrote, “that I return my credentials, but I believe that is the consistent thing to do, since I do not believe, nor can I ever teach, that all will speak in tongues when baptized in the Spirit.” Bosworth had succumbed to doubting Scripture and his own Pentecostal experience on the basis that Charles Finney and other historic preachers he admired had not spoken in tongues.
Afterward, T. K. Leonard remarked, “I would spend more time in getting an experience that fits the Bible than I would in endeavoring to get the Bible to fit an experience” (in Carl Brumback, Like a River: the Early Years of the Assemblies of God [Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1977], pp. 66, 72).
It is perfectly true that with maturity and wisdom, a Christian may often handle ideas and activities that are external to Christianity, and even contrary to it, responsibly, incurring neither harm nor offense. Yet Jerome is correct in regard to the risk, and inconsistency, of significant involvement in the contrary thought system of the world, and indeed any and all higher loyalties, or preconceived notions, apart from the clear teaching of Scripture and of the Holy Spirit.
Be careful what you read, what you spend your time on, what you put into your mind, and which personages you admire. Even great Christians of the past had imperfections, and imperfect theology. As Isaiah prophesied of Messiah, “Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good,” since a “child” must learn “to refuse the evil, and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:15 f.).
Copyright © 2013 Paul A. Hughes
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.
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 http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/ddc3.html),
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 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04124.htm). 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 , 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
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 catholic.com [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 http://blog.pentecostalsofsydney.com/2011/09/08/insulin-or-chocolate-ice-cream/.)
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