Sunday, October 23, 2005

Sign & seal

This morning my PCA pastor gave an exposition and defense of the classic Presbyterian view of the sacraments as efficacious for the elect.

BTW, within certain boundaries of Evangelical orthodoxy, I’m pretty free about where I fellowship. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between what I believe and the church I happen to be attending at the time.

Back to the main point: it occurred to me, in listening to him, that there’s a common confusion over the nature of symbolism and how that cashes out in debate over the sacraments.

To say that what distinguishes a Baptist from a non-Baptist is that a Baptist regards a sacrament as “merely” symbolic whereas a non-Baptist believes there to be something over and above the symbol, is frankly oxymoronic.

In the nature of the case, a symbol entails a relation. A symbol is a symbol “of” something else. It stands for something other than itself.

There is no such thing as a “mere” symbol or a “nude sign.” Even Zwingli would be the first to admit that there is something beyond or behind the symbol itself—to which the symbol is a pointer, to which it corresponds.

So the nature of symbolism, per se, is not what differentiates a Baptist from a non-Baptist. Both sides agree that a sacrament implies a relation between the sign and the significate. Every symbol has its correlative.

The point at issue is not the existence of the relation, but the identity of the relation. The controversy is not whether a sacrament is a symbol “of” something, but whether it “does” something. Is it efficacious? Is it a means of salvation? That’s the bone of contention.


  1. A very interesting and intelligent post as usual. I'm a former presbyterian, and I always had trouble with the sign & seal vs. symbol thing. As symbols by themselves, the elements of the sacraments do nothing, but the sacraments are not just the water, bread, and wine, but the whole ritual itself. Clearly such rituals "do" something to the participants, even if it's only psychological. The real theological question seemed to me to be whether or not there is some kind of "special" or "unique" manifestation of God's presence in these rituals as opposed to what is recognized as his ordinary presence in worship.

  2. The argument is a bit over my head, but I ahve always been a "this do in remebramce of me" symbol, Baptist. Just the way I was raised.

    However, the "mere" part has always troubled me, and I have been in too many Baptist churches where celebration of the LS is jsut something thrown in at the end of the service. Our new preacher, though, has been doing it right, I think--- he finds a theme for the whole service related to the LS, such as recently our equality when we come together at the table, and the hymns and scripture reasings are on thaat theme and are not the usual ones you associate with the LS itself. He then quotes (not reads) relevant scripture passages as he walks across the front row serving the deacons.

    All in all, a very dignified service that actually brings some intensity to the service.