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Book Review: Symbol & Sacrament: A Contemporary Sacramental Theology by Michael G. Lawler

Lawler, G. Michael.  Symbol and Sacrament: A Contemporary Sacramental Theology.  Omaha, Nebraska: Creighton University Press, 1995.  293 pp.

Two foundational principles guide our author in his exploration of sacramental theology in his book Symbol and Sacrament.  First, Lawler has a practical edge faithful to the ancient maxim that Sacramentum propter hominem (sacraments are for people).  This helps inform his approach to the subject matter with insights from the anthropological investigation of ritual (which involves a synthesis of psychology, sociology and semiotics).  Second, the author encapsulates the richness of his synthetic approach with his categorization of sacraments as prophetic symbols, successfully recontextualizing relevant findings of the modern science within a thoroughly Catholic framework.  Lawler first grounds his sacramental theory solidly on both a sophisticated knowledge of semiotics (that challenges modern assumptions about what is “real”) and a historically sensitive theological framework, he then addresses each sacrament individually with a view to practical concerns without shying away from controversy.

On the basis of contemporary symbolic analysis, Lawler claims that every genuine human symbol goes beyond a mere one-to-one signification (as with simple signs) to actually concretize the reality they signify, or “make concretely present what they symbolize” (22).[1]  Lawler makes the following transition: If this is true of human symbols in general, it is also true of prophetic symbols in particular, which are meant to be provocative—that is, to effect a change or response of the whole person (not just the intellect).  In fact, “the most clear-cut result” of symbols is that they move people to “action and reaction” (13).

A symbol and its meaning are related correlatively and are so organically connected that they “coexist for a human interpreter, or neither really exists at all” (17).  Symbols do not convey their meaning in a simplistic way, however, and this is the case for at least two reasons.  First, the meaning of symbols, unlike simple signs, is multivalent.  There is a certain effervescent ambiguity in the meaning of symbols; their meaning is at the same time mysterious and yet revealed in a concrete way through the symbol.  These meanings are related to the symbols “only through the thoughts, the feelings, the actions and the reactions of [people]” (16).  Science disinterestedly asks and answers only questions of so-called “facts” (which really turn out to be theory-laden rather than bear facts); symbols, on the other hand, ask and answer questions about meaning that can be expected to excite not only the intellect, but “arouse desires and feelings,” powerfully speaking to the whole human (intellect, will, emotions, imagination, etc.)—not merely a person’s intellect (18).

The author warns that this “subjective dynamism” by no means necessitates that true knowledge cannot be mediated through symbols (19).  In fact, the author argues that “these subjective elements vitiate the objectivity of the meaning” (27).  In a courageous polemic against the dominance of Western epistemological reductionism, Lawler defends symbol as “a way of knowing” that may be counter-intuitive to the indoctrinated Western mind that is prejudiced against any form of knowledge that is not Cartesian (i.e. clear, objective, scientific, etc.).  “If such a personal approach to knowledge seems strange,” writes Lawler with wit, “it is only because the dominant Western scientific paradigm of knowledge has judged rational, clear, and distinct, objective knowledge to be all there is to knowledge” (19).  He borrows Maeterlinck’s contrast between the brain’s “Western lobe, the seat of reason and science,” and the brain’s “Eastern lobe, the seat of intuition and symbol” (20).  The goal of the Western-lobe is a meager one: to increase knowledge; the goal of the Eastern-lobe is more ambitious: “to deepen the personality of the knower” (26).  Symbols do lead to abstract conceptions and determinate ideas—meanings that clustering around the “ideological” pole of meaning—but they are grasped “personally and socially” through meanings that cluster around the oretic pole (15, 22).  This starts the book’s eloquent presentation off with an epistemological bite that immediately both overcomes the “classical dichotomy” between objective knowledge and religious symbols while challenging the presumptions of Western prejudice.  This makes the treatment more appealing and relevant to the book’s Western audience.

The author makes many other distinctions concerning symbols before moving on to sacraments: symbol is a subunit of the larger category of ritual (which is a symbolic act); religious symbols are public symbols whose meaning “belongs” primarily to communities and secondarily to individuals; religious symbols only mediate powerful realities to those who “live into” them and thus have “the necessary disposition” to make them effective, etc. (25).  In the end, symbol gets defined as a verb rather than a noun: “Symboling is a specifically human process in which meanings and realities, intellectual, emotional and personal, are proclaimed, made explicit and celebrated in representation in a sensible reality within a specific perspective” (16).

Sacraments are religious symbolic rituals.  The author approaches the biblical witness with an admirable realism by not trying to eisegetically “find” the full Catholic teaching on the sacraments (or even the designation of them) in Scripture.  After surveying the patristic witness (especially Augustine’s major contribution of defining sacraments as a “sacred signs” that are efficacious), our author believes the quest for a normative definition ended with Peter Lombard who defined a sacrament as “a sign of the grace of God and the form of invisible grace in such a way that it is its image and its cause” (33).  In an attempt to exonerate the scholastic views of the sacraments from the mechanistic caricature, the author points out that the scholastics did not view the sacraments as efficacious in themselves even if they effected sanctification by virtue of the reality they signified—personal acts of God in Christ (34).  On the one hand, Trent clearly viewed the sacraments’ efficacy as depending upon the one’s receiving the sacrament so as to not “place an obstacle” to its efficacy (which for an adult included personal intent), yet on the other hand the author laments that “the role of personal faith in its efficacy suffered detriment” in a reaction against the Reformation (37).  The Council of Florence, however, balances this with a more positive affirmation that demands for the recipient of a sacrament to have a “disposition of self-surrendering faith” (40).

Our author clarifies the nature of causality in the sacraments with regard to grace: the sacraments contain God’s presence (uncreated grace) and thus as a byproduct, they result in the transformation of the worthy participant (created grace).  After defining the grace of sacraments as primarily nothing other than God himself (and only secondarily in terms of created grace) the author complains that “it is no longer possible adequately to describe grace in impersonal terms like create quality, accident, habitus” (56). (This appears to be a cheap shot against scholastic theology, but why should it not be appropriate to have descriptors for both kinds of grace rather than just one?)  The author’s concern is to steer us away from a mechanical understanding of causality in the sacraments and toward a deeply personal understanding of the sacraments so that we end up concluding that to relate to God through sacraments means, more or less, to relate to God personally.

After providing such a well-argued foundation for understanding the sacraments, our author proceeds to treat each sacrament with a similar command of his sources and practical sensitivity.  He gives a concise and satisfying overview of certain relevant Scriptural passages along with the patristic witnesses (especially Augustine), scholastic contributions (especially Aquinas), and more recent insights from theologians such as Rahner and Schillebeeckx.  These overviews have the practical intent to help the reader better understand the sacraments so that she can enjoy them more fully.  The strength of his presentation lies in his command of sources (his ability to so concisely review historical developments and incorporate modern insights), his bold challenge to modern assumptions about “knowing,” his facing controversial questions with gusto,[2] and his practical considerations.  Lawler’s contribution, although written almost two decades ago, is still a very helpful and stimulating introduction to Sacramental theology.


[1] For example, a man may have deep love for a woman without her even being aware of it, but when he writes her love letters, holds her hand and whispers in her ear “I love you,” or unites his body to hers in the act of sexual union, his love is not merely symbolized in and through such actions, for in some sense his love for her consists in these symbolic acts.  Thus, although his love is not exhausted by such symbolic acts, these love rituals are his love for her in concrete form. The author also speaks of symbols as “participating” in the reality to which they point (23).

[2] For example, I found particularly enlightening his scuffle with French Dominican Paul Laurent Carle over whether the word transubstantiation is indispensible for expressing the Catholic perspective of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (122 ff.).

Book Review: The Sacraments by Louis Marie Chauvet

The following is simply a barebones sketch of an introduction to Louis Marie Chavet’s provocative critique of traditional Catholic sacramental theology and his alternative proposal.  Page numbers refer to his abridged work: Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. Liturgical Press, 2001.

Chauvet’s Critique of Traditional Sacramental Theology

Chauvet uses the language of a 20th century Catholic Catechism (from the 1950’s) for the definition of the Objectivist Model: The sacraments are “visible signs instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ to produce and increase grace in our souls” (xiv).

He criticizes this model as being too narrow in its emphasis.  For example, he notes that Augustine taught that the sacrament was a “sacred sign” or “a sign of a sacred reality.”  Thomas Aquinas would come also to use Augustine’s language for the sacrament.  But in this catechism, this is not utilized in the definition.  Instead, what is important is “the objective efficacy of the sign” (xiv).  They are less revelatory signs than as operative means of salvation.

This leads to the images of the sacraments as instruments that have a quasi automatic production as long as the instrument is properly used by the minister.  Chavet thinks that this image favors questionable representations of the efficacy ex opere operato. He compliments his criticism by pointing out the fact that in the 1947 catechism’s sixteen lessons on the sacraments, the word “faith” never appears.  The only place where the subject is taken into account in this section is the warning that the subject not place any obstacle (mortal sin) to the reception of grace.  This is not a well balanced account of sacraments, thinks Chauvet.

Complaining about this narrow approach, he admits that the catechism bears resemblance to Scholastics (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), but only, he says, in overall model.  However, the scholastics “strove to purify the images” from false understandings and from being comprehensive by teaching that all concepts and images were approximate, and while the spiritual reality bears similarity to the images, it also bears some measure of dissimilarity (xvi).  Thus the sacraments are not instruments, but rather “function a little like instruments” according to the scholastics.  “While they contain grace, it is not like a vase containing a remedy” (xvi).

Here he complains that it is easy to see “the importance of the differences between the doctrine of eminent theologians … and what becomes of it in pastoral manuals of catechism and liturgy not always concerned with nuances” (xvi).

Chauvet’s Proposal of Symbol

In the end, Chavet doesn’t even think the Scholastic model with all its nuances is a good overall model for the sacraments, so he proposes the sacraments as “symbol.”  In his new model, the sacraments are part of an overall symbolic scheme or order that mediates “the world” by functioning as a language that shapes their perception of the world.  In particular, it mediates God’s new world (the kingdom), and thereby the values of that world.  The Christian thereby is shaped by the sacraments to take on these values.

This “mediation” (much like language in general) actually constructs (not merely symbolizes) the subjects self identity and personhood.  Just as the language of a culture tends to effectively shape the worldview (and therefore values and identity) of those who live in the same culture and speak the same language, so the “language” of the sacraments has a similar efficacy.  It is the linguistic “womb” of the mother church, in whose womb the Christian is effectively born.

As symbols, the sacraments effectively symbolize (or “mediate”) the whole of the Christian life in a similar fashion as a synecdoche in poetry where the part of something stands for the whole.  In a synecdoche, for example, the “hand” of God stands for the mystery of God himself, thus representing the whole of God by a part of him.  In this way, the sacraments mediate the symbolic order of the whole of the Christian life—which means they simultaneously hold in tension things that would otherwise become “desymbolzied” or isolated, and thus misunderstood in terms of their relationship to the whole.  In other words, the sacraments seen as a symbol mediating the order of the whole keeps people from thinking of the grace they receive in the sacraments apart from “the other” which it symbolizes—the community of Christians they are obligated to love, the world they are obligated to love as Christ did, etc.

The symbolic way of understanding sacraments entails Chauvet’s development of “symbol” as “a signifying whole,” (13) or, as mediating the realities of the Christian life.  Chauvet understands symbols as “fitting together” a symbolic order, providing a unifying meaning to all its parts (without which these realities are “isolated” or “desymbolized,” 15) and designating “the other,” in the case of Christian sacraments, the “symbolic womb” that precedes the Christian and mediates its understanding of the “world” of Christianity (16).  As he puts it, “One becomes a Christian only by adopting the ‘mother tongue’ of the church” (17).  “The sacraments are expressions” and therefore “they belong to what is called language,” which language is not an “instrument,” but rather a “mediation” of reality and Christian truth (3).

This requires for the Christian to relinquish the temptation for immediacy and “assent to the mediation of the church” (28).  Baptism, for example, evokes the larger symbolic order of the church in which, through this baptism, the Christian is initiated into the community where “the other is no longer to be considered a rival or a potential enemy,” but must “be welcomed as a brother or sister” (32).  The Eucharist expresses the reality of “the new ‘we’” that “applies also to the whole of the Christian liturgy” that constantly uses the language of “we,” 32).  “Every eucharistic assembly truly realizes the church of God” (37).

Compatibility with Traditional Sacramental Theology

This understanding of the sacraments does not necessarily undermine the classical ways with their emphasis on causality and instrumentality.  This is because, as Chauvet puts it, “contrary things … are in the same genus, on the same terrain.  Our symbolic way supposes a change of terrain” (95).  “The sign belongs to the order of knowledge or information or else value, whereas the symbol belongs to the order of recognition or communication between subjects as subjects and is outside the order of value” (76).

So, then, the author concludes that symbols and signs are “not on the same level” (76).  Although Chauvet claims his approach is not contrary to the classical approaches, he does, in so many words, claim that it is superior.  When he says that the classical approach was “the best one could do at the time,” he implies that his approach is better (95).  He spells out this superiority when he says “the symbolic route seems to us to supply an approach much more akin to the sacraments than that of the instrumentality employed by the Scholastics” (95).

:: The Sacrament of Baptism in Roman Catholic Theology ::

Baptism is efficacious—it removes the guilt of original sin and regenerates the soul, freeing one from the slavery of sin and conferring justifying grace, leaving an indelible mark on the baptized which can never be removed (not even by mortal sin) and marks the believer with the “seal.”[1]  It actually accomplishes that which it symbolizes—death to sin and the new birth of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism is therefore the Gateway to the Christian life—to justifying grace, to membership in the Catholic Church, to communion with Christ, his sufferings and baptism, to the common priesthood of all believers, etc.  Baptism is thus also necessary—for salvation, justification, sanctification, etc., and since children are born with original sin, they too must be baptized.  Christian Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of Jordan into the promise land, in Noah’s ark as a symbol of salvation, and above all in the Exodus as a symbol of liberation from bondage.  Water has always been a symbol of life and fruitfulness, yet the water of the sea is a symbol of death, and thus represents the death of Christ and consequently the death of the believer who dies with Christ through Baptism. 

Yet, although “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism … he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”[2]  Therefore, exceptions include 1) baptism of desire (those who die with the intention to be baptized, such as a catechumen who dies before he/she is baptized), 2) baptism of blood (those who die in martyrdom for their faith before they are able to be baptized), 3) those who seek the truth and do the will of God in accordance with his or her understanding of it (for such persons “would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity”),[3] and 4) probably unbaptized infants, since God’s mercy is so great, and since Jesus had a tender heart toward children.   

The Roman Catholic celebration of Baptism is extensive and detailed.  Although only a bishop, priest, or (in the Latin Church) a deacon ordinarily administers baptism, in case of necessity, anyone who sincerely wished to truly perform the celebration may do so.[4]  All not yet baptized are subject to baptism, but since baptism can never be repeated, only those not yet baptized can be candidates.[5]  For the celebration of baptism, many rituals must be performed—exorcisms, the consecration of the baptismal waters, confession of faith, triple immersion (or triple pouring) in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the post-baptismal anointing which symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the white garment which symbolizes the putting on of Christ, the candle which symbolizes the enlightened neophyte and the transformation of this one from darkness to light (even the light of the world), and finally, the solemn blessing which concludes the celebration.          

Texts which on the surface seem to support Baptismal regeneration—which is directly tied to salvation—are used in support of the Roman Catholic understanding of Baptism as efficacious for purification and regeneration.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).[6]  In addition to baptism being central to the Great Commission, Jesus explicitly says, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16).  The apostles carried out their preaching in the same way.  The Chief Apostle Peter preached this way: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Thus, it is no surprise that Paul would also strongly connect Baptism with dying to sin and being liberated from its bondage (Rom 6:4-7, cf. Col 2:12).  The Catechism suffers no shortage of proof texts for Baptismal Regeneration (see also Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 3:20; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Eph 5:26).  For infant baptism, the Catechism first recognizes that infants are born with a sin nature which leaves them in need of salvation.  Secondly, it harkens to Jesus words, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk 10:14).  Thirdly, it appeals to the “explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on.”[7]  Lastly, the Catechism appeals to “household” baptism of the NT (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16).  A frequent theme in defense of the inclusivistic widening of baptismal grace is an appeal to the desire of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:6).  This verse is reference more than once in the section on baptism.

            Compared to many other doctrines of Roman Catholicism which find not even a shadow of support from the NT, Rome’s support for her views on Baptism seems at first impressive.  Whereas much of the Catechism’s footnotes and quotes hearken more to Tradition, the majority of arguments in this section come straight from scripture.  Much of Protestant Evangelical Theology will differ immensely from the views summarized above.  There is no way to give a substantive critique of the mountain of biblical passages appealed to in the above mentioned summary, so I must only give a hint as to how certain Protestant Evangelicals would critique the Roman Catholic arguments employed in defense of their views.  Although on the surface the passages cited are very persuasive, in the end, the conclusions Rome draws from these verses violate her own canons about biblical interpretation—namely, to “be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture,'” and to “be attentive to the analogy of faith.”[8]  Passages in Scripture which teach that salvation comes at the moment of faith—not the moment of baptism—are overwhelming in number, and more didactic in nature.  Therefore, in spite of the plethora of proof texts, Rome falls short of her own standards of hermeneutics.  Rome’s arguments for Inclusivism, which are based on the general concepts of the mercy and compassion of God are in need of more exegetical input.  We should not assume God’s mercy extends beyond the explicit ways revealed to us in Sacred Scripture.  Finally, as the most frequently quoted verse in Rome’s whole defense for Baptismal Regeneration, John 3:5, the concept of being born of water and Spirit is drawn from OT imagery about the New Covenant.  Therefore, Jesus language of the necessity of being born of water and Spirit is tantamount to speaking of the necessity of being a part of the New Covenant (Ezek 36:25-26).  One should not, then, read water baptism into this apocalyptic symbolism.          

From an evangelical Baptist perspective, Jesus’ words about children are just that—words about children, not infants.  Jesus referred to children who were at least old enough to “come” to him (physically, not spiritually).  The passages about “household” baptisms are presumptuous in that they must assume that the households referred to include infants (which is not explicitly in the text), but also it seems clear from comparing parallel accounts of baptisms that when a household was baptized it was because the household also believed (Acts 16:34; 18:8).[9]  Beyond the fact that Protestants do not accept arguments from church history on equal grounds with Scripture, the evidence from church history can also be interpreted in a way which actually creates an argument against infant baptism.

Rome’s doctrine of baptism is not all bad.  Adult baptisms are likely to be handed with greater care than in Protestant churches by emphasizing the need for catechesis.[10]  Also, she emphasizes the importance of the responsibility of the church to help nourish those who join the church through baptism, as well as the responsibility of those who are baptized to respect church authority.[11]  She rightly sees a connection between faith and baptism.  She rightly sees baptism as central to the great commission, and as symbolizing our death to sin and resurrection to new life.  As is common with all sacraments and doctrines of Rome, she sees the mystery of the sacrament summed up in Christ: “In Christ’s death ‘is the whole mystery.'”[12]  However, while getting these less important details right, Rome has indeed presented quite a different way of salvation than that which so many evangelical protestants believe to be the biblical doctrine of salvation by her teaching of the efficacy of regeneration and forgiveness of sins through baptism. This leads many evangelicals to conclude that Rome’s doctrine of baptism, with her understanding of its efficacy, with her inclusive tendencies, with her practice of infant baptism, violently distorts the biblical gospel.  I would remind such Protestants that Jesus himself (his incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection) is the essential part of the kerygmatic gospel in the NT (1 Cor 15:3-4) not a specific view about baptism.  Plenty of Protestants also believe in the efficacy of water baptism for salvation.  In fact, Martin Luther himself believed this and taught it with a passion.  If we accuse Rome of distorting the very gospel of Jesus Christ on account of her beliefs about baptism, we will get more than we bargained for and end up condemning almost the whole pre-reformation church, including the early martyrs, the apostolic and patristic fathers, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther himself, and several Protestant denominations.  Perhaps Rome is wrong on her doctrine of baptism, but this does not mean Catholics deny the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s not make too little of the gospel and too much of our different views of baptism.        


[1] Although the idea of “seal” seems to communicate that one is sealed for eternal salvation, if one does not “keep” the seal he or she receives then that person will lose his or her status in the state of grace, make shipwreck of their faith and go to hell—even though they would still have a permanent “mark” on their soul.  In other words, neither the seal, nor the indelible mark are any guarantee of salvation, just guarantee of a “mark” and a losable “seal.”  Catechism, par 1274.

[2] Catechism, par 1257.

[3] Catechism, par 1260.

[4] After all, it is better that a layman perform the sacrament unlawfully than that the one desiring baptism lose out on salvation.

[5] The church is only willing to baptize anyone who has never been baptized.

[6] This text, John 3:5, is appealed to more than any other verse in the section on Baptism—5 times total.  See footnotes 24, 25, 40, 59, and 64.

[7] Catechism, par 1252.

[8] Catechism, par 112 & 114.

[9] It should be noted that Rome seems hesitant to use these verses as prove her case, since she holds out the “possibility” that they may not refer to infant baptisms.  Catechism, par 1252.   

[10] Catechism, par 1216, 1233, 1248.

[11] Catechism, par 1255, 1269, 1271.

[12] Catechism, par 1225. 

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