Great Stuff — Why do they believe the sacraments are only symbols?: Presuppositions in reading Scripture

This posting is another excellent article from Pr. Mark Surburg’s blog.


A. Nagging questions

During the summer after my first year at the seminary, I was preparing to preach a sermon at my home congregation.  I was looking forward to preaching at the congregation that had supported me during my pre-seminary and now seminary studies.   However, I was even more excited because the text I would be preaching on included Colossians 2:11-12 where Paul said, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

I was excited because the exegesis for this sermon would give me a chance to dig into the biblical texts about Holy Baptism.  I was very interested in New Testament exegesis and had developed good Greek skills.  In my naiveté I thought that I would be able to use those skills to produce an overwhelming argument in support of what the Small Catechism says about baptism – an argument that I would be able to use in bringing people to accept the biblical and Lutheran understanding.

I began to work carefully through high quality commentaries as I looked at the different baptismal passages. Many of these had been written by excellent scholars who came from traditions that hold a symbolic view about baptism.  As I looked at their treatment of texts like Colossians 2:11-12, Romans 6:1-5 and Titus 3:4-6, I was in for a surprise.  On the one hand, it was apparent that they had to work hard to in order make the text mean the opposite of what it seemed to be saying.  When Paul says that we were buried with Christ through baptism into death in Romans 6:4, it takes some doing to argue that nothing really happens in baptism.  Yet on the other hand, their arguments weren’t irrational.  They might be harder to make, but they were coherent and plausible.   I realized that I shouldn’t be surprised by this.  After all, these were very bright scholars.

This realization raised two very nagging questions.  The first was about their method:  Why were they committed to explaining the text in a more difficult way – a way that turned baptism into a mere symbol?  The second question was more troubling:  How could one be confident that they weren’t right?  Certainly the greater effort involved in their interpretation spoke against it.  But that didn’t change the fact that taken on its own, it remained a rational and plausible reading of the text. Intellectual honesty did not permit my own Lutheran beliefs to ignore this fact altogether. After all, the fact that it was rational and plausible allowed people to believe it and reject what the Small Catechism says.  It was the reason that there has been a division in Christianity about this since the sixteenth century.

As I wrestled with these questions there was finally a moment when I had an epiphany.  I realized that I was looking in the wrong place.  Clearly, the answer was not to be found in the details of the text.  Instead I needed to look at the presuppositions of the interpreters – the hermeneutical framework that determined how they read the text.  They were setting forth interpretations that required far more moves and explanation in order to arrive at a symbolical meaning of the verses because their worldview had already determined that the meaning had to be symbolical.

B. The biblical worldview

In an article entitled “Good Stuff!: The Material World and the Christian Faith” ( I have maintained that as we think about the material creation and the Christian faith we can summarize the content of our faith under four headings: Creational, Incarnational, Sacramental and Eschatological.  In these headings, and in the progressive relationship between them, we gain greater insight into the manner in which God works.

The biblical worldview operates on the presuppositions that the material creation is very good (Genesis 1:31) and that a human being is composed of a body and a soul joined together in a unity (Genesis 2:7; Matthew 10:28).  The Bible’s starting point is the goodness of the material creation and we find that God operates on this basis from beginning to end; from Genesis to Revelation; from creation to restored creation.  It is very important that we understand this starting point – this presupposition of Biblical thought – if we are to understand correctly all that follows in Scripture.  God’s attitude toward His material creation is that it is very good and He continues to be concerned about it and make use of it.  In one sense this should not be surprising – after all, He made the stuff. [1]   Yet all too often this basic starting point and its implications have been hidden from view by a way of looking at the world that comes from a source other than Scripture.

C. The dualistic worldview

The biblical is not the only worldview and set of presuppositions available for reading Scripture.  In western thought another worldview has exerted a tremendous influence and has had a great impact on the Christian faith.

Diogenes Allen observes regarding Plato, “Fundamental to Plato’s ontology and epistemology is the division between what is sensible and what can be grasped by the intellect only, between the world of senses and the world of Forms.”[2]  According to Plato, the realm of Being (what really is, namely, the Forms) is unchanging and is the realm of intelligibility.  On the other hand the realm of Becoming (the physical world) is changing and is the realm of the senses. Within this framework the physical world is the realm of appearances and the knowledge gained from it is described as opinion (doxa).  In fact, the physical world does not truly exist in the ultimate sense.  It is the realm of Becoming and not true Being. These presuppositions of Plato’s thought are illustrated by Timaeus 27d-28a: “What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is?  That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason, is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.”[3]  For Plato, the visible world is vastly inferior to the ideal world of the Forms of which it is an imperfect copy.

In Plato’s view the soul is immortal and existed before the body.[4]  Indeed, the “soul has fallen into a sensible world, and it must return to the supersensible world if it is to attain its proper destiny.”[5]  It is not surprising therefore that Plato sharply contrasts the body and the soul.  The soul has been bound to the body (Phaedo 81e; 82e) against its will (Phaedo 80e) and the body is a harsh prison (Phaedo 82e).[6]  For this reason, “death is not something to regret, but something to be welcomed.  It is the moment when, and the means by which the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body.”[7]

Plato’s thought is complex, and we should be cautious that we don’t turn Plato himself into a true Gnostic who rejected the material world as evil.[8]  Yet even in this brief description we grasp the general outlines of a trajectory in Western thought that has been extremely influential in various forms.  We encounter a dualistic worldview in which the spiritual or intelligible world is “above” and the physical or material world is “below.”  In this perspective, the material world is less important than the spiritual, or is in fact evil.  There is a great divide between the spiritual and material, and the two do not mix.  The spiritual component – the soul – is what is important and the body receives little emphasis or is in fact something to be escaped.

dualisticw300I will call this general perspective the “dualistic worldview.”  It is found in an extreme form in Gnosticism where the material world is evil and in fact “the Fall” took place when the material world was made and the spiritual elements were trapped in the material world.  However, modified by Plotinus in Neo-Platonism and transmitted by Christian writers such as Origen, Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius it has had a profound impact on Christianity.[9]  One need only think of the Reformed principle, “the finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non est capax infiniti) in order to perceive its influence.

As the names listed above indicate, the influence of the dualistic worldview has been present in the Church since her early years.  However in spite of its presence and the way that this influenced the Church, it never prompted her to abandon the confession that God actually uses water to give spiritual rebirth in Holy Baptism and that the Sacrament of the Altar is the true body and blood of  Christ. As Hermann Sasse observes about Augustine, “There are two levels in his sacramental doctrine – one, as presented in the liturgy, catholic realistic, the other spiritualizing.  This split is the tribute he pays to Neoplatonic philosophy and is a burden the churches in the West bear to this day.”[10]

Etienne Gilson is reported to have said of the first part of the Middle Ages that “Platonism was everywhere, although Plato was not to be found.”  The west only possessed the text of the first half of the Timaeus and had virtually none of Plotinus’ Enneads.  Nevertheless the influences coming out of late antiquity meant that during the medieval period up to the recovery of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the development of Scholasticism, Plato and neo-Platonic thought dominated.[11]

A radical dualism did eventually lead Christian groups in Europe into heretical views including the denial of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.  The Bogomils did so in the Balkans in the tenth through thirteenth centuries, and in turn they influenced the Cathari in France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The arrival of translations of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the development of universities in Europe helped to produce Scholasticism. David Knowles observes that in the realm of philosophy “the principal transforming agent was the system of Aristotle, which was revealed piece by piece until all was visible, and its author had become, in place of Plato, ‘the Philosopher’ to all the schools.”[12] The general eclipse of Platonic thought continued until the beginning of the fifteenth century and the start of the Renaissance. Lewis Spitz notes that, “Partly because of its contrast to the Aristotelianism of the thirteenth century, so central to Thomistic scholastic philosophy, Neoplatonism seems to be the most prominent and the most characteristic form of Renaissance philosophy.”[13]  He goes on to add, “From the time of Petrarch until the end of the Renaissance, Platonism won an ever larger place in Western thought.”[14]

The resurgence of Platonism in the new context of Renaissance humanism is crucial for our topic because theologians such as Zwingli, some of the prominent Anabaptist leaders and John Calvin who led the Protestant church into symbolic forms of interpretation came out of this background in their training.[15] They bore the imprint of Platonic dualism and this dualistic worldview provided the hermeneutical framework within which they read Scripture.  It should be recognized that while not as radical in their dualism, the orientation and results with regard to the sacraments were the same as that of the Bogomils and Cathari.  They rejected that God actually uses materials means in order to work spiritual results.

When a person begins reading Scripture with the wrong worldview – the wrong set of presuppositions – he will arrive at a false understanding of the text. This is what happens when Scriptures is read from the perspective of the dualistic worldview.  It yields a false reading at each point along the way as it fails to integrate the goodness of God’s material creation into every area of Christian theology.  It generates a false understanding of creation as it fails to grasp the fundamental goodness of the material creation and our bodies.  It produces an incorrect Christology that cannot truly confess the One who is true God and true man – the Word become flesh.  It yields a sacramental theology that denies that water, and bread and wine can be used by God for spiritual benefits.  And finally, it produces an eschatology that has no real place for the resurrection of the body and the restoration of creation – an eschatology that looks forward to some kind of disembodied heavenly and spiritual existence.

D. What does this mean?: The sacraments

This description of  the dualistic worldview and its implications helps to highlight the significance of the biblical worldview by means of a stark contrast. These are two very different starting points and they yield very different readings of the biblical texts.  The recognition of these different starting points proves extremely helpful in a number of areas.  I would like to focus on two of them.

First, many a pastor knows the frustration of discussing Holy Baptism or the Lord’s Supper with someone who has been raised in the Protestant tradition.  Our discussions can swirl around texts such as Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 11 and get us nowhere.  However, it is helpful to take a step back and realize that real issue does not pertain to details in the text itself.  Instead the true difference relates to thepresuppositions with which the text is being read – the hermeneutical framework of the reader.  If we read these texts in light of the biblical presuppositions we will arrive at a catholic reading of the text – the Lutheran one.  However, if we read the text with the presuppositions of the dualistic worldview we will arrive at a non-biblical, non-catholic reading of the text – the Protestant one.[16]

The Protestant reads Scripture with the assumption that the spiritual and the material do not interact.  Having already decided this, when they come to statements in Scripture that deal with Holy Baptism or the Sacrament of  the Altar, they conclude that God does not work any spiritual outcome using the material elements of water, and bread and wine.  They detemine that Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper cannot be miracles in which God uses these physical means, but that instead they must only be symbols.

The task, therefore, is to encourage people to step back and see the big picture.[17]  The battle cannot be won in Romans 6 or 1 Corinthians 11.  It must be fought and won in Genesis 1-2.  Only by beginning there and encouraging people to trace the implications of the biblical worldview through the incarnation and into the sacraments will we have a real chance to move people toward the truth about Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.[18]  In addition, by tracing the broad sweep of how the biblical worldview of Genesis 1-2 relates to the incarnation, the sacraments and eschatology, we will further confirm the correctness of our position to those who are already Lutheran.  The coherence of this broad perspective – the interlocking fit between the larger parts – will help to confirm that we are confessing a correct reading of the individual passages and their details.

As we look at Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, this can be summarized as four basic points that support the biblical and catholic position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church:

1. The position fits with the creational, incarnational, sacramental and eschatological nature of God’s activity that we find throughout the Bible.  That is to say, it is based on the biblical worldview instead of the dualistic worldview that comes from Greek philosophy.

2. The position provides the easiest reading of the biblical texts that deal with Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar – “they just say it.”  In Romans 6 Paul says that through Holy Baptism we are buried with Christ into His death.  In the Words of Institution Jesus says that He is giving us His body and blood.  The catholic position does not have to try and explain away what these texts are saying quite clearly.

3. The position provides the least variety in interpretation.  Because the texts “just say it,” the interpretation is very easy and straightforward, and has been so for the catholic tradition for 2000 years.  By contrast, when the Protestant tradition attempts to explain away the biblical statements, they are unable to agree about what the texts mean.  Often they are only able to agree that the biblical texts don’t mean what they seem to be saying.

4. The position is the same one that the catholic (universal) Church has held for 2000 years and has held since the beginning of the Church.  For example, writing in the second century A.D. the church father Irenaeus said of Holy Baptism: “As dry flour cannot be united into a lump of dough, or a loaf, but needs moisture; so we who are many cannot be made one in Christ Jesus without the water which comes from heaven … For our bodies have received the unity which brings us to immortality, by means of the washing; our souls receive it by means of the Spirit” (Adversus Haereses, 4.26.2).  Writing a the beginning of the second century Ignatius the bishop of Antioch wrote about heretics in his area: “They stay away from the Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by His goodness” (To the Smyrnaeans 7.1).  It is a historical fact that prior to the sixteenth century, the Church had always confessed that God works a miracle as He produces a spiritual result through the waters of Holy Baptism and as Christ uses bread and wine to give us His very body and blood.

E. What does this mean?: Eschatology

The recognition of these competing worldviews – the biblical and the dualistic – enables us to better assess how biblical our own eschatology is. The influence of the dualistic worldview in the Christian tradition must not be underestimated.[19]  On occasion, we ourselves hold positions regarding eschatology that have more to do with Plato, Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysus than Paul.  In our preaching and teaching do we point the hearers to “dying and going to heaven” or do we hold up the biblical hope of the return of Christ, the resurrection of the flesh and the renewal of creation?[20]  After we have recognized these two competing worldviews, we are in a better position to examine our own eschatological views and consider where we may need to modify them in order to bring them into a closer alignment with the presuppositions of Scripture itself.


Endnotes —

[1] I have described this in more detail in Mark P. Surburg, “Good Stuff!:  The Material Creation and the Christian Faith,” Concordia Journal 36:3 (2010): 245-262), 246-247).

[2] Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 47.

[3] Translation cited from: The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 2 [trans. B. Jowett; New York: Random House, 1937], 12).

[4] Phaedo 80-82; Phaedrus 245c-247c.

[5] Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology, 19.

[6] Phaedrus 250c says that the soul is bound in the body like an oyster in its shell.

[7] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of  God, vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 48.  In his excellent survey of Greco-Roman beliefs about death and the after-life (32-84), Wright describes this as the “standard philosophers’ view of death” (55).

[8] See Timaeus 29-30 for positive statements about the world.

[9] See the survey in S. Lilla, “Platonism and the Fathers,” vol. 2 of Encyclopedia of the Early Church (ed. Angelo Di Berardino; trans. Adrian Walford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 689-698.

[10] Hermann Sasse, “Word and Sacrament: Preaching and the Lord’s Supper” in We  Confess The Sacraments (trans. Norman Nagel; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), 11-35, 16.

[11] Paul Vincent Spade, A Survey of Medieval Philosophy, 1985 (materials produced by Dr. Spade for graduate Survey of Medieval Philosophy course at Indiana University).

[12] David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (2d ed.; ed, D.E. Luscombe and C.N.L. Brooke; London;  Longman, 1988), 167.

[13] Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements: Volume I The Renaissance(rev. ed.; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987), 173.

[14] Spitz, Volume I The Renaissance, 174.

[15] See the discussion in Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements: Volume II The Reformation (rev. ed.; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987), 382-428.

[16] Sasse describes how the Reformed churches in the 16th century produced a revolution, not a reformation (Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand: Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith [trans. Theodore G. Tappert; Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1966], 109-110).  A confession that denied Holy Baptism as a means through which God works regeneration or that denied the true body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper was something that had not existed in 1500 years of Christianity.

[17] I have described this “big picture” as creational, incarnational, sacramental and eschatological in the article, “Good Stuff! The Material Creation and the Christian Faith.”

[18] Naturally this includes the sacramental manner in which God used located means in the Old Testament such as the tabernacle/temple and the sacrifices (see Surburg, “Good Stuff!”, 249).

[19] For example, Christians often speak of how Christ and his Church seek “to save souls.”  Now it is true that the Scriptures speak of saving souls such as in 1 Peter 1:9, “obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  Here we need to recognize the unique character of the world “soul.”  As BDAG cautions, “It is oft. impossible to draw hard and fast lines in the use of this multivalent word” (W. Bauer, F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [3d ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999], 1098).  Often there is a Semitic understanding of the word at work. So for example the Septuagint translation of Gen. 2:7 says that man became a “living soul” where the passage is describing bodily existence.  The biblical meaning of the word “soul” in 1 Peter 1:9 is very different from the way that the Christian tradition, influenced by the dualistic worldview, has come to use this word. So for example, Calvin writes: “And Christ commending his spirit to the Father, and Stephen his to Christ, intend no other than that, when the soul is liberated from the prison of the flesh, God is its perpetual keeper” [Institutes of the Christian Religion [1559], I, XV, 2; text cited from: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [trans. John Allen; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press 1936]).  In our setting, talk about “saving souls” is very likely to be misunderstood and therefore we should use it with great caution.  The Scriptures teach us that Christ does not seek to save souls.  He seeks to save people, who are a unity of body and soul.

[20] See: Jeffrey A. Gibbs, “Regaining Biblical Hope: Restoring the Prominence of the Parousia,”Concordia Journal 27 (2001):310-322; Jeffrey A. Gibbs, “Five Things you Should Not Say at Funerals,” Concordia Journal 29 (2003): 363-366; James Ware, “Paul’s Hope and Ours: Recovering Paul’s Hope of the Renewed Creation” Concordia Journal 35 (2009): 129-139; Surburg, “Good Stuff!”, 245-62.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.