Symbol v. Reality

Are Baptism and the Supper symbols or realities?

It’s a false question. Words are symbols, but we know that words have enormous power for good or evil. A flag, a handshake, a kiss, a poster, are also symbols but they are clearly as real as stars and snakes and salamanders. So, to say that the Church’s bread, wine, and water are symbols is not to say that they are without value or power, or that they lack ‘reality.’ It is merely to say that whatever power they have is the kind of power that symbols have, and not the kind of power that a combustion engine or a nuclear power plant has. It is to say that whatever reality they have is the kind of reality that symbols always have. Theology goes into the ditch when it treats symbols as if they were something other than symbols. And at the bottom of the ditch is Christianity.

So, the opposition of symbol and reality is a false antithesis.

We can arrive at the same destination along another pathway. What is baptism? Not water only, not only water poured. Baptism is water poured on a person in obedience to Christ and by His authorization. What is the Supper? It is not just bread and wine, and not just eating of bread and wine. It is eating bread and wine by members of Christ’s body at Christ’s invitation. Christ’s authorization and definition and invitation make all the difference.

Baptism is not a “symbol” of someone becoming a disciple. Because Jesus designated it as such, the symbol is his “becoming-a-disciple.” It is not a picture of a man being joined in covenant with Christ; it is a man being joined in covenant to Christ.

The Supper is not a symbol of a meal with Jesus. The bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but because Jesus promised to be with us at the table, this symbolic meal is a meal with Jesus. By eating the symbols, we are partaking in the reality.

Symbol or reality? It is a false question.

       -Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, pp.85,86

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6 responses to “Symbol v. Reality

  1. “…the symbol is his “becoming-a-disciple.” It is not a picture of a man being joined in covenant with Christ; it is a man being joined in covenant to Christ.”

    So Rob, do you agree? When your folks commune each week, are they actually being joined to Christ?

    And perhaps more thornily, does this actually happen when you dunk someone? (That word “dunk,” by the way, was not meant pejoratively; I like Dunkin Donuts).

    When our next prez-elect (Obama) places his hand on the Bible and raises his other hand and recites the oath, he actually becomes prez, no longer prez-elect. There is no ambiguity on the symbol/reality dichotomy here. It’s both. Why do we refuse to think plainly when it comes to sacraments?

    (ruminating…)

  2. David,
    These are things I’m thinking about. Concerning the Supper, I find it unsatisfying to view it as “merely” anything. What is appealing about Leithart’s statement about the Supper is that it is spiritually significant while remaining what it is. He avoids talking in the theological language that clogs such discussions, and allows for real meaning that doesn’t require some sort of magic trick be done. It is symbolic and it is real. I still have to think about this, but I find it appealing. (And I do think that the church is communing with each other and with Christ in the Supper much in the same way that I believe we have come to Mount Zion. We’re still here but we’re there. We feast at the table of the King, yet we’re just eating bread and drinking a thimbleful of wine.)

    Concerning baptism, I’ve often asked the question, again without a satisfying answer: What happens at baptism? What does it mean? Leithart’s perspective is helpful in pointing out that the ceremony makes something official. It can be compared to a wedding ceremony. The people getting married are the same people, but there is something different about them as well. They have made vows. They now have privileges and responsibilities that they didn’t have before.

    There are other things that are coming into play as I think these things through as well. Namely, does baptism need to precede participation in the Supper? A settled point for most of my friends, but for me it has not been. That may be changing.

  3. Rob

    What is appealing about Leithart’s statement about the Supper is that it is spiritually significant while remaining what it is. He avoids talking in the theological language that clogs such discussions, and allows for real meaning that doesn’t require some sort of magic trick be done.

    You’re Lutheran?

  4. Rob;
    I like David’s answer. My Baptism was not “merely” anything. It was a symbol, or demonstrative public statement of the reality that God has quickened me to join Him in the death, burial and resurrection of His Christ.
    When I celebrate the supper, it’s not about the wafer and wine, it’s about me. What is happening inside of me? I am searching myself, repenting (confession & cleansing- I John 1:9) and again accepting the invitation in John 6:37 and re-joining myself to Him anew.
    Remember, reality only belongs to the elect, for the rest it’s all symbolism.
    C.S. Lewis said something about the church can not assume that just because they have a pious, well mannered people, that they are NOT in need of a savior. In fact he stated that they would be even harder to reach because they think they have no need of a savior.
    Maybe the church could use some of that x-ray “scotch tape.”

    I also like what David said about “becoming a disciple is the symbol”. That’s good.
    David, I’m going to use that! Thanks.

    ed

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