Redefining Theological Symbolism (St. Maximus the Confessor)

Jun 24th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Our contemporary use of the word “symbol” in theology is rather weak. My guess is that this goes back to the 11th century Eucharistic controversy between the erroneous “symbolic Eucharist” belief of Berengarius and the orthodox “substantial presence” articulation of Lanfranc of Canterbury. For the heretic Berengarius, the term “symbol” entailed “not real”. Berengarius’ usage raised red flags and he was rightly corrected of his mistake. I would like to suggest that there is another way of using the word symbol that is boldly Catholic and quite helpful.

Saint Maximus the Confessor stated that the body of Christ on the cross was a “symbol” of our bodies (Maximus, Ambiguities 54, PG 91:1376). Does this entail that Christ’s body on the cross is “not real”? Absolutely not. Maximus was a stalwart defender of the Incarnation. Instead, Maximus’ usage doesn’t make any distinction between what is more or less real. What might be odd for us in the West is that for St. Maximus, the greater “symbolizes” the lesser – it’s a downward motion. Christ symbolizes us.

So when someone says, “the Communion bread symbolizes Christ,” he is not only denying the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, but he is actually using the word “symbolizes” incorrectly. If we follow the pattern of the great St. Maximus, it would be more accurate to say that Christ symbolizes the Eucharistic species. Christ does this not by giving it a new name (“body” and “blood”) but by changing them essentially into another substance (His true Body and true Blood, Jn 6:55). Consequently, there is no tension between which is more “real”: Christ or the Eucharist. They are the same.

For our Protestant readers, how does this analysis square with a “symbolic view” of the Eucharist?

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  1. This is a good point to bring up and one that is often overlooked in the debate on Real Presence. Harnack, a Protestant, affirms what you’re saying here:

    What we nowadays understand by “symbol” is a thing which is not that which it represents; at that time [antiquity] “symbol” denoted a thing which in some kind of way really is what it signifies. – Harnack, History of Dogma 1888, I. p. 397

  2. >For our Protestant readers, how does this analysis square with a “symbolic view” of the Eucharist?

    How many Zwinglian readers do you have?

  3. David,

    A symbolic interpretation of the Eucharist encompasses more of Protestantism than those who officially follow Zwingli’s Memorialism. Calvin’s teachings on the matter notwithstanding, if you were to ask the average Reformed Christian “do you truly receive the Body of Christ at communion or is it just a symbol?” – I think we all know what the typical answer would be.

    Calvin is strong on this point but has a subtle mistake in his thought:

    I admit, indeed, that the breaking of bread is a symbol, not the reality. But this being admitted, we duly infer from the exhibition of the symbol that the thing itself is exhibited. For unless we would charge God with deceit, we will never presume to say that he holds forth an empty symbol. Therefore, if by the breaking of bread the Lord truly represents the partaking of his body, there ought to be no doubt whatever that he truly exhibits and performs it. The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true, let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us.

    There is a false dichotomy in the first line: “is a symbol, not a reality” as if a thing could not be both. This, albeit subtle, is present in the remainder of the passage: “the truth of the thing signified is also present” (so as to say that the true thing exists along side the symbol – again inferring that the symbol and the true thing must be two separate things). This stands in contrast to what Taylor argues for above and what Harnack said of the ancient mind. In my experience, the modern Calvinist is not nearly as subtle as Calvin himself in the insistence on symbols not being the real thing.

  4. Tim,

    That is because too many Reformed pastors are Zwinglian on these issues, these days, in spite of their official adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith which is nearly as explicit on the matter as Calvin is.

  5. Yes. And we Catholics have similar problems.

  6. Er, well, not the bit about having Zwinglian pastors. But other problems for sure.

    Neal

  7. Im sorry, I just don’t understand the logic of St. Max’s conception of symbolism. Could this be a misapplication of his usage of symbolism pertaining to the body of Christ and our bodies. In other words, because St. Maximus talks about Christ’s body as being a symbol of ours, does this necissarily entail that his conception of symbolism is essentially greater to the lesser? Is there other evidence to suppliment that this was his conception of symbolism? And if so, why should we believe his conception of symbolism is proper in respect to the sacrament of the Eucharist, or proper in respect to anything for that matter?

    So when someone says, “the Communion bread symbolizes Christ,” he is not only denying the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, but he is actually using the word “symbolizes” incorrectly.

    If by “symbolizes” is meant what Berengarius meant (i.e. merely a symbol without a reality), then I agree with this statement. But, if not, it doesn’t follow that if someone says, “the communion bread symbolizes Christ”, then they are denying the Catholic doctrine of the real presence or that they are using the word “symbolizes” wrongly. I use the word “symbolizes” (from the lesser to the greater), but I think it is a proper way to use it in respect to the sacrament of the Eucharist, and by no means to I deny the real presence. Am I, as a Catholic, wrong to see things this way, or are you only suggesting an alternative, albeit more helpful, way of looking at the Eucharist?

    (I posted this on Taylors blog, but it hasn’t received any feedback yet, so I am posting it here hoping that I can get some answers.)

  8. So when someone says, “the Communion bread symbolizes Christ,” he is not only denying the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, but he is actually using the word “symbolizes” incorrectly.

  9. The above was intended to be a correction–italicising it because it is a quote from Taylor’s post.

  10. Jared,

    The fathers, especially the North African fathers, weren’t shy about speaking of the Eucharist sacrifice as a symbol. Listen to Augustine:

    ‘the visible sacrifice is the sacrament, i.e. the sacred symbol (sacrum signum), of the invisible sacrifice.’ [De civ dei 10:5]

    What Taylor is arguing for here is that to use the word “symbol” is not to suggest something isn’t real. I.e. Augustine is not denying the real sacrifice that takes place in the mass when he calls the sacrifice a sacred symbol. Tertullian says:

    Jesus made the bread, which he took and distributed to his disciples, his body, saying, This is my body: that is to say (saith Tertullian), a figure of my body.

    Elsewhere, however, Tertullian routinely refers to the species as the Body and Blood without qualification. So to the modern mind which views symbols as necessarily distinct from the realities they signify, Tertullian and Augustine seem to be memorialists (from these quotes); but as we learned from Harnack above, the ancient mind simply didn’t think this way.

  11. Dear David,

    “That is because too many Reformed pastors are Zwinglian on these issues, these days, in spite of their official adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith which is nearly as explicit on the matter as Calvin is.”

    It seems like a simplification, and perhaps an over-simplification, to say that the problem in the Reformed view of communion is that too many pastors are Zwinglian, that they simply fail to be truly confessional. I would posit that the natural tendency within the Reformed faith (and the Reformation movement writ large) has been to distinguish itself from Rome. The result vis-a-vis the Lord’s Supper is to spend more energies apologizing at what communion is not, rather than what communion is. So it only seems normal that Reformed pastors emphasize the [mere] symbolism rather than some kind of real (but symbolic) presence. I think one further step fits, that the Reformed faith in particular had a tendency to distinguish itself further from Lutheranism, which would make it less inclined to make apologies in favor of some real presence.

    As with ‘lex orandi, lex crendi,’ so too: what a strong majority of Reformed pastors preach has to evidence what the ‘true’ Reformed credal position is.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  12. Tim,

    Thanks for the response, and your clarification helps a lot. But im still at a loss in understanding symbolism having a downward motion (from greater to the lesser) and how it is applicable to more than what St. Maximus used it for (vis a vis the Eucharist); to me it doesn’t make sense.

    Also, you said that the modern mind views symbols as necessarily distinct from the realities they signify. Could we rather say that the modern mind views symbols as necessarily seperate from the realities they signify? I am suggesting this because I think it is important to make the distinction between the two–that in themselves they are two distinct things– just as the accidents are distinct but not seperate from the substance, and just as the two natures in Christ (Divine and human) are distinct but not seperate, making up his one hypostasis as Christ the son of God and Woman. For the bread, before the consecration, in itself is nothing; it is neither the body of Christ or a symbol (yet), but merely bread. Once the bread is consecrated it becomes both a symbol and the Body of Christ, the former making present the latter, not seperate but distinct, making up one sacrament just as the two natures of Christ exist together making one person; and just as the divinity of Christ is made known and present by his humanity, so the symbol of bread and wine make Christ both known and Present. Thus nature is not destroyed, but perfected by grace, and the doctrine of the incarnation properly informs the doctrine of the Eucharist, elevating both the bread and the body of believers into one holy bread and holy body to the Lord, in Christ, as one holy sacrifice.

    Albeit very brief, this is how I have developed my understanding of the Eucharist. I don’t know if any other theologians have expressed it along similar terms, so I was wondering if this would be an adequate explanation. Thanks for your thoughts.

    In Christ,
    Jared B

  13. Jared,

    There must be some distinction between two things or else they’re not two things but one so in that sense, distinction may not be the best word to use. I meant to use it in the stricter sense of differing in nature or substance. Separate is probably a better word to make that explicit.

    I think you are right that the doctrine of the Incarnation helps inform us of the doctrine of the Eucharist but within limitations of course. In the Incarnation, Christ comes down to incarnate Himself in earthly things. But in the Eucharist, earthly things ascend into Heavenly substance. This isn’t to detract from what you said; I think you are right.

    I haven’t read St. Maximus here so I can’t comment much on the downward motion concept. Maybe Taylor can elaborate?

  14. Also I forgot to mention:

    the accidents are distinct but not seperate from the substance

    The concept of “accident” is distinct from the concept of “substance” but we just need to be clear that an accident is not a thing distinct from substance as if they were each individual things somehow connected. That is why we can safely say that no part of the bread remains after consecration. Fr. Regis Scanlon as quoted on Pontifications by Fr. Kimel:

    Thus, when the priest says the words of consecration over the bread (and wine), the physical bread outside the mind of the priest and congregation ceases to exist, but the “appearance” of the bread (i.e., the color, shape, feel, and taste) continues to exist in the minds of the priest and congregation. It is important to realize that, prior to the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest, the appearance of the bread was being impressed upon the senses and mind of the priest and congregation by the bread upon the altar. After the consecration, however, the appearance of the bread (tan or white, round, doughy, and wheat-like taste) emanates from the mind of the priest and congregation and not at all from the Host upon the altar. For that which is on the altar is no longer bread but Jesus Christ in the flesh. Obviously, Jesus Christ is not white or tan, round, doughy, and wheat-like in taste. Jesus did not turn Himself into bread, but rather He turned bread into Himself. Thus, our Lord permits Himself to be recognized, approached and received bodily by the ones He loves without fear in a most pleasant way under the appearance of bread and wine.

    And to quote Fr. Kimel:

    The appearances of something are the accidental properties and characteristics by which we recognize things as what they are—size, color, taste, shape, and so on. Appearances show us things; signs tell us things. Appearances, in themselves, never deceive. People may exploit appearances to deceive, or we may deceive ourselves by drawing false inferences; but the way an object appears to us never deceives. It simply is. Signs, on the other hand, are part of language. They speak to us; they communicate to us; they tell us things about things. And signs can be employed to deceive. This is called lying.

    When St Thomas declares that by consecration the accidents of the bread and wine have ceased to be the appearances of bread and wine, this does not mean that they have become the appearances of something else. They have ceased, rather, to function as appearances at all.

    I’d highly recommend going through his whole series on the Eucharist. It’s incredible.

  15. Tim,

    The concept of “accident” is distinct from the concept of “substance” but we just need to be clear that an accident is not a thing distinct from substance as if they were each individual things somehow connected. That is why we can safely say that no part of the bread remains after consecration.

    Ok, I see your point; it makes sense. So, rather, the substance and accidents are two distinct properties of one thing, and not to distinct things somehow connected.

    Also, It was always my understanding, as taught by the Church (notably Aquinas), that Christ’s body is not present in a physical or spatial way, but mystically; or metaphysically; in other words, His body is present sacramentally, not in any way as if he is in our mouth when we eat the bread and drink the cup, but that the blessing of his Divinity and Humanity is given us as a participation in his passion, under the veil and symbol of bread and wine, which are not destroyed but remain. Basically, it is the language of the body of Christ being particularly “on the altar”, instead of more generally “in our midst” that makes me uncomfortable, for the alter pertains to things visible, i.e. appearences, and in itself does not play a significant part in the location of Chris’s body.

    I have read so many different Catholic explanations of the Eucharist from different sources, and it seems that there is not a consistent understanding among them. Some Catholic theologians, it seems, highly exagerate the real presence in such a way that it sounds as if Christ’s body is physically present, instead of mystically, or sacramentally; while other Catholics don’t. It seems to me that there might be a popular, genuine misunderstanding and/or miscommunication of what the real presence actually is.

    For my part, Im not too enthusiastic about the Aristotilian terms used to explain the mystery of the Eucharist; I think it makes things way more complicated and confusing than they need to be. For one, the whole thing about the bread and wine no longer remaining after consecration is purely founded on philosophical speculatin–that is, we don’t get this idea from our source of revelation (i.e. scripture). This is the incoherence I see, if Im not mistaken. If the bread is physical before consecration, and the consecration of the bread is not to change the elements physically into the Body of Christ, then the physical elements have not changed, and do remain. And if the physical properties of the bread remain, then every part of the bread remains except for those properties not pertaining to it’s physical nature, thus it no longer represents itself as bread, but represents the body of Christ, which has been made present to us mystically, as it were under a veil (i.e. the elements), by virtue of the act of consecration. And by our partaking of this bread and this cup, we really and truly eat his flesh and drink his blood, and thus recieve him as the blessing of his sacrifice, being made one with him.

    From what I understand, the substance of a thing is a property, and so is its accidents, as another property. The substance of a thing is that which does not exist in another and is said of another, and the accidents of a thing is that which exests and is said of another. The physical nature of a thing is its disposition, among other things–it is what is said of the thing, which is distinct in property from what it is in itself and exists in itself. The substance of a thing does not pertain to its physical nature but only to what it is; only its accidents pertains to its physical nature. A change in its substance is therefore not a change in its physical nature, but only a change in what it is. The accidents of a thing is its appearence, and therefore the appearence of a thing is it’s physical nature. But not all appearences of a thing are accidents. Only when the appearence of a thing does not affect its substance (i.e. its essence) is it correctly called an accident. Now, the appearence of a thing is a part of a thing, since it is not its own thing joined somehow to a substace, a completely different thing. Thus, a change in the substance does not necessarily entail a change in the accident, and neither does a change in the accident entail a change in substance until the accident ceases to be in it’s own right as a property, for every substance must have accidents. Therfore a substance can change while the accidents remain (e.g. a chair to a table, or vice versa) and, likewise, accidents may change while the substance remains (e.g. I can grow old).
    Any property of a subject unique to its essence is considered part of its essence, and is properly called substance, so any change in this property would constitute a change in the substance.
    Therefore, before the consecration we have mere bread and wine and its accompanying appearence, which is its physical disposition. At the consecration, this mere bread and wine ceases to be, and becomes the body and blood of Christ without a change in it’s appearence (which becomes the symbol), which is its physical disposition. Therefore, when we eat of the bread and drink of the cup we are truly eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ, and recieving him, though the taste is of bread and wine. And, therefore, the appearences of bread and wine, though retaining their physical nature and disposition, are to us no longer appearences (i.e. symbols) of bread and wine in themselves, but of Christ.

    Depending on what is meant by the bread and wine in no part remaining after the consecration, I think my explanation may have confirmed it.

    Basically, Im extra cautious about any explanation of the Eucharist that even hints of a physical and/or spatial change without the accompanying visible change in accidents. Thus, I am cautious of your first quote by Fr. Regis Scanlon, and maybe the second paragraph of Fr. Kimel’s(because I don’t want to take away from the significance and function (utility?) also of the symbol (i.e. the remaining appearence).

    I have not yet read through the link you provided, but I definately shall.

    In Christ,
    Jared B

  16. Jared –

    This conversation is getting really interesting.

    Also, It was always my understanding, as taught by the Church (notably Aquinas), that Christ’s body is not present in a physical or spatial way, but mystically; or metaphysically;

    Correct. Christ’s Body does not belong to this earth – i.e. it is not physical. I think metaphysical is the right word.

    His body is present sacramentally, not in any way as if he is in our mouth when we eat the bread and drink the cup

    When we move the Eucharist, we do not move Christ. Moreover those who profane the Eucharist certainly do not harm Him. And when we chew the Eucharistic species, we are not grinding His flesh you are correct. This is one of the objections Calvin raised to Transubstantiation because he mistakenly believed that the Church taught a spatial presence of the Eucharist that violated the absolute corporeality of Christ’s Body. We will probably go into more detail on that later.

    For my part, Im not too enthusiastic about the Aristotilian terms used to explain the mystery of the Eucharist;

    That’s perfectly fine. The Church was using the term ‘Transubstantiation’ to describe the mystery for centuries before Aristotle was re-introduced to the West. Simply put, the doctrine doesn’t depend on strict Aristotelian metaphysics. That is simply a good way to understand them; but if it’s not helpful for you, don’t worry about it. The important thing is to stay within the bounds of the Church’s teaching.

    the whole thing about the bread and wine no longer remaining after consecration is purely founded on philosophical speculatin–that is, we don’t get this idea from our source of revelation (i.e. scripture).

    This is where we need to be very careful. I think you cleared this up later but I just want to point out that it is not mere philosophical speculation that the bread and wine no longer remain – this is declared to be so by Trent:

    CANON lI.-If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.

    A few notes about substances and changes. First, Aquinas would say that there’s a certain sense where the consecration really isn’t a change at all. “Change” implies physical motion which doesn’t happen here. No physical process is involved. The “change” is akin to an act of ex nihilo creation – something that happens on a level completely independent of space and time.

    Now as for substances, take this example: The materialist is under the silly impression that our bodies are 80% water (or whatever the percentage). But any child, as a natural Thomist, can tell you that our bodies aren’t any percent water – they’re 100% body. So consider a drop of water. It registers H2O under the microscope. If I drink it, it becomes my body. This is a substantial change. It has changed in substance though not in accidents. If you stick a microscope down my throat and measure it, it will register H2O but the thing is no longer the same.

    Something similar happens with Transubstantiation. The bread is assumed into the heavenly substance of Christ’s resurrected Body. If you look at the bread (which after the consecration is so called only symbolically) under a microscope it will still register as bread… but that’s irrelevant.

    Hope that helps some and sounds like you’re well on your way without my help. I think you will really enjoy Fr. Kimel’s essays (they’re long but well worth it).

  17. Tim,

    Thanks for your response. You really help clear things up for me, particularly Trent’s canon; I in no way could find myself disagreeing with that. I think my real scruple is that sometimes we can use language to describe the mystery of the real presence that is confusing and misleading, bluring the distinction of physical things with metaphysical, and this, I think, may be why many protestants reject the Church’s doctrine–because they think it is something it isn’t. (this was my problem for the longest time, too)

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