How To Fence The Lord’s Table

Introduction
After the a conference I received a question which asked essentially: whom should Reformed Churches admit to the Lord’s Table?

There are three basic approaches to fencing the table:

  • Open—Anyone who will, who professes faith in Christ, without regard to church membership, may come to the table.
  • Guarded—Anyone is a member of a particular sort of congregation may come to the table.
  • Closed—Anyone who is a member of our congregation or our denomination may come to the table.

I suppose that open communion is the dominant practice among American evangelicals. The only condition is profession of faith in Christ. I witnessed this during my years in broad evangelicalism. The assumption tends to be that the believer is the only person required to make an assessment of who should come to the table. In fairness, Paul does say, “Let a man examine himself” (or as the ESV has it: “Let a person examine himself” 1Cor 11:28) so there is an element of personal self-examination before coming to the table. The question is whether there is more than that?

The Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman traditions have said yes, there is more. The latter two traditions have practiced closed communion. One must be a Roman Christian in order to receive the consecrated and transubstantiated host from a Roman priest. In confessional Lutheran churches one must be a member of the denomination in order to commune. The assumption in a closed table is that the communicant has already professed faith and is eligible for communion.

The Reformed Approach: Guarding The Table
The Reformed approach historically has been to guard the table. Guarding or fencing means that there is more than one condition to communion. A person must profess faith in Christ and must examine himself but our understanding is that the Supper was instituted by Christ, to be administered in and by the visible church. Paul’s account of the institution and administration of the Supper says more than “Let a man examine himself.”

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

The American assumption tends to be individualistic, that the Supper is primarily a private or personal matter between the communicant and his God. This assumption is grounded in the history of Pietism, which emphasized the personal and individual aspects of faith. American evangelicals tend to be influenced by the low-church tradition that de-emphasizes the visible, institutional church and has tended to view the Supper less as a means of grace, an instrument through which the Spirit operates to sanctify and strengthen, and more as an opportunity to remember Christ’s death and to assess one’s spiritual state.

The Reformed, in contrast, confess that the Supper is a sacrament instituted by Christ. It certainly entails remembering and honest self-assessment but it is more than that. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 66 says:

66. What are the Sacraments?

The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.

A sacrament, by definition, is a divinely-appointed sign and seal of the “promise of the Gospel: namely that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ…”.

So, for us, the Supper is more than a time to reflect and remember. Something else is happening. God is certifying that the promise preached in the Gospel is true. There is more.

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

The catechism affirms remembering but we also confess that “with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life…”. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this feeding on the on the “crucified body and shed blood” mysteriously but it happens. In communion we are fed by more than bread, wine, and memories. We are fed by the “proper and natural body” and the “proper blood” of Christ (Belgic Confession, Art. 35).

Our understanding the Supper is that to “eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ” (HC Q. 76) means not only to “to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal” but the Supper is a way that the Spirit strengthens our union with Christ’s body. We look not only to the institution of the Supper as recorded in the gospels but to Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 11, part of which says,

The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread

In other words, there is a communal aspect to communion. We come to the Supper not only as individuals but as members of a body which is not only an organism (Abraham Kuyper) but also an organization, to which our Lord Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16).

It is fine to say “I am a believer” but one must also say that to and in the visible, institutional church. Who is a believer? Is everyone who says, “I believe in Jesus” to be regarded as a Christian? Is that a sufficient profession of faith for the purposes of coming to the table?

The evidence in   1 Corinthians suggests no. The evidence in the early, post-apostolic, church suggests no. Catechumens preparing for communion for as long as three years (the length of the earthly ministry of Jesus before the institution of the Supper) before being admitted to the table.

This really comes down to the question: what is the church? Not every entity that gathers together and calls itself “church” is really a church. In Belgic Confession Art. 29 we say:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

So, when we think about who should come to the table we also ask, is this person a member of a church with the marks of a true church.

The Reformed church orders (church constitutions) reflect the churches’ attempt to synthesize the whole of biblical teaching and apply it to the life of the church in a given time and place. The most famous Dutch synod, of course, is the Great Synod of Dort (1618–19) but there were several synods before it, on which the Synod relied. According to the Synod of Emden (1571) only members of the Reformed churches were to be admitted to the table.

Synod of Dort (1574)

Art. 81. Whoever brings a valid certificate shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper unless it was written a long time ago, in which case one must proceed as if there is no testimony. However, we deem it fitting and are inclined to accept rather than decline those whose piety has been attested either by a written or personal testimony.

The original practice of the Reformed churches was that one had a certificate of membership in a Reformed church. This was not a mechanical thing. The concern was not only membership but also piety and life.

The second half of Belgic Confession says:

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

There was some struggle, however, in the Netherlands between confessionally Reformed churches and civil magistrates who were influenced by what we might call Erasmian pietism. Their interest was less in establishing a “true church” than in keeping the peace between the various groups and promoting a minimalist approach to Christianity that centered on religious experience. They were, in some respects, the forerunners of the modern evangelical movement. So the the “church laws” of the Province of Holland and Zeeland, 1576, written by order of the magistrates, loosened the restriction (art 71) imposed by Synod in 1574 in favor of private self-examination relative to “travelers” who are passing through.

Synod of Dort (1578) had to address the question of what to do with those who were influenced by the “biblicism” of the Erasmians and others?

35. Whether it is permissible to admit to the Lord’s Supper those who do acknowledge the Bible alone as God’s Word but will neither answer nor agree to answer the usual questions which are asked of those who go to the Lord’s Supper.

Answer: The churches shall maintain their usual custom of requiring confession of faith. Everyone is bound to give an account of is faith according to the teaching of Peter. It is also not fitting that a usual custom of the congregation should be changed for some particular reason.

The intent of the Reformed churches became clearer by 1581. Here the language that would be used by the Great Synod of Dort was adopted:

Synod of Middelburg (1581)

43. No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except one who, according to the custom of the church which he joins, has made confession of the Reformed religion, who has testimony of godly behavior, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

In other words, those who had evidence of membership in a Reformed church (objective) and an indicator of a godly walk (subjective) were eligible to come to the table. This same language of “confession of the Reformed Religion” and “godly conduct” was adopted by the Synod of den Hague/Gravenhage in 1586. The provincial synod of Middelburg and Zeeland, art. 51 restricted the supper to those who “have made profession of the Reformed faith” and have given proof of pious conduct. The church order of Utrecht (1612), s.v. “Concerning the Lord’s Supper”

III. Those who come from other places and want to be admitted to the table of the Lord shall first present a proper certificate of their earlier way of life to the pastor of the place where they desire to be admitted.

Thus, the practice of the Reformed churches had been established for forty years by the time the Great Synod of Dort met. Now, most of us think of the famous “Five Points” in response to the Five Points of the Arminians (1609) but synod did much more than that. They also established the pattern of Reformed practice that would be the pattern for the centuries after.

The Dort Church Order (1619), Art. 61 says:

61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

The original Reformed practice then was to “guard” or “fence” rather closely. There were fewer Reformed denominations in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but they did have to address many of the same challenges that we do. There were other traditions in the Netherlands at the time the Reformed were working out their practice. They were particularly aware of the Anabaptists (whom they called “Baptists” in the 1570s—there was a strange case of a kidnapping in order to prevent an infant baptism! More on that in another post) and other competing groups. They were aware of the problem of people traveling through town and visiting and asking for communion. There are substantial continuities between their church life and ours.

Whom should Reformed churches admit to the table? If we ask those who gave to us our confession of faith and who set the pattern for our practice we should admit those who confess the Reformed faith and of who have testimony of a godly life. The objective evidence for the latter is that they are not under church discipline.

The Practice Of Fencing The Table
There is irony in fencing the Lord’s Table. What should be a joyous celebration, after due preparation of course, and a communion of believers with their risen Lord and with one another, is for ministers—particularly for church planting pastors—sometimes a moment of uncertainty. We live in a transient culture. We do not know who will be in the congregation when we step behind the table to read the form. We can’t anticipate who will appear in the congregation halfway through the service and appear at the table or expect to be able to commune (on the assumption of open communion).

There is anxiety too. Sometimes when the table is fenced, whether that is done in the foyer by elders or from the table by issuing a warning (see below), pastors worry that newcomers, who are likely unfamiliar with historic Reformed practice, will be offended and leave quickly after the sermon and before the administration of communion. More than one pastor has chased a visitor to the parking lot after a service but when it’s time for communion that can’t happen. Practically, fencing the table can seem like just another way small, struggling Reformed congregations remain small and struggling.

So, when Reformed churches fence the table it is an act of faith in the wisdom, providence, and grace of God. Pastors and elders (and the members) desperately want the lost to come to faith and we want the confused to come to the truth. We live in a culture that, at least touching the evangelical sub-culture, is largely shaped by assumptions that we do not share. Thus, there is often a culture shock for visitors who have a Christian background but who are unfamiliar with Reformed practice. “What do you mean I cannot come to the table? Are you saying that I am not a Christian?” It’s impossible to sort out these thorny questions in the foyer and especially when people are lined up and coming to the table or receiving a tray of elements as it comes by.

This is not just Reformed hyper-scrupulosity. I have seen families give communion to their young children or infants, on the assumption that what they do at home is appropriate for church. I have seen people come to the table who had no idea of was happening.

These sort of challenges have caused some to say, “Well, it is a fine old practice but we live in a new day and we need to adapt to the realities at hand. Better to err on the side of inclusion than exclusion.”

One can sympathize with this reasoning. The old Reformed practice does look a little Grinchly when compared to the apparently open and gracious invitation given in congregations that do not fence the table. We do not want to be pharisees chasing off the publicans because they are unclean or not like us. One can understand those congregations that emphasize that it is “the Lord’s Table” and say, in effect, “Let the Lord sort it out.” Yes, it is the Lord’s Table and he has instituted a church, given to her the keys, and biblical revelation about the administration of the table.

It is not really a matter of whether there will be conditions. Even those who practice open communion ordinarily require that one be baptized and make a Christian profession before coming to the table (although I have seen even those conditions discarded). It is not really a question of whether there are conditions or even, in that sense, whether the table is to be fenced (if there are conditions, then there is a fence) but only how high the fence, if you will.

Remember, there is jeopardy attached to the table. It is not a free-for-all. The supper is just as much a communal act as it is an individual act. The actions of some, in Corinth, had fatal consequences and that was bad for the entire body. If one of us suffers, we all suffer.

So, given our principles, what do we do? First, we must explain ourselves. We need to smile and say something like the following:

We love you and we love the Lord. If you profess faith in Christ we would very much like for you to come to the table if certain things are true of you. As we understand the Lord’s Table it is both personal and communal and therefore we believe that our elders have a responsibility before the Lord to administer the Supper carefully. The Lord’s Table is for believers who are members of congregations that have three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.

If you are a member of a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian church we invite you to the table. If you do not know what this means please abstain from the table today and see me or one of the elders. We will be happy to talk and pray with you.

By this we are not saying that you are not a believer or that there are no other believers in the world. We know the gospel is preached elsewhere and we are thankful for this but we hope that you’ll respect our attempt to be obedient to God’s Word.

This certainly is not perfect language but it captures the essence of what I think we are trying to communicate. In my experience people without church backgrounds are not offended. They expect church to be religious and they expect a certain amount of order. The difficulty is with those Christians who assume autonomy relative to the visible, institutional church. There are those who profess faith but are united to no congregation or to a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church.

There are difficult cases. I have been asked about confessional Anglicans and Lutherans. I don’t know if the Reformed have ever spoken to either case explicitly but I’m still learning. The Dutch Reformed church orders help here. They do stipulate the “Reformed Religion,” which seems to mean, “the Belgic Confession” or its equivalent. If we exclude confessional Lutherans we should not expect them to be offended since they are familiar with closed communion. Someone from an Anglican congregation that confesses the 39 Articles might be admitted to the table. Church polity is not of the essence of the faith and there were three polities at Dort and Westminster. One difficulty is that the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (i.e., NAPARC) have no relation to the Anglican communions. Maybe the most difficult case is the question of Baptists who confess aspects of the Reformed faith. There is frequent interchange between Baptist and Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. If “Reformed Religion” stands for the Belgic (or its equivalent) that would seem to answer the question. A Baptist shouldn’t be offended since they don’t accept our Baptism so they are familiar with a degree of exclusion.

Second, it may help to do more than to fence the table at the table. Some congregations have elders in the foyer and even signs announcing that communion is being administered today and that visitors should speak with an elder before coming to the table. This is not always practical. Some congregations do not have enough elders to pray with the minister and greet visitors in the foyer. Others find this procedure a bit daunting. Those can be interesting conversations!

Third, there may be real wisdom in the old Reformed and Presbyterian practice of a certificate of membership or a token. The old Scottish Presbyterian practice was to require communicants to attend the preparatory service the week prior. There one was given a token that was to be returned the next week when one went to the table. In the case that a congregation administers the supper weekly (Calvin’s desired practice) then every Lord’s Day is a preparatory service and the token becomes less practical.

Fourth, a statement in the bulletin explaining the congregation’s practice will be most useful. It might be well to have an elder, if possible, in the foyer to speak with late comers (this might not be a problem everywhere but it’s an issue in California).

Fifth, there might be wisdom in adopting the practice of coming forward for communion. This seems to have been the dominant practice in the German, Dutch, and French Churches, as well as the Scottish Presbyterian Church. There is evidence in the Dutch Church Orders from the late 16th century that communion was sometimes distributed to the seated congregation, as is often done today, but that seems to have been the minority practice.

If people come forward to commune, in rows or in a moving line, or simply to collect the elements and to return to their seats to commune together—I have seen this done effectively—then there is a fencing that can yet take place at the table. Ministers have been known to discourage from communion those who should not come to the table (e.g., those who’ve not made profession of faith). If the elements are distributed to the seated congregation then there is little that can be done after the distribution.

Conclusion
This side of glory there is no perfect way to administer communion but as ministers and elders we have a duty to try to administer the Supper in a way that is edifying to the body and obedient to the Chief Shepherd of the Church to whom we must give account. We are men under authority. That is why we are called “ministers.”

May the Lord bless your administration of Holy Communion and may it be a true communion in the body and blood of Christ by the work of the Spirit through faith.

The Cruelty Of Nominalism

Are Symbols Arbitrary?
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.

Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts

This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.

This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.

You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.

Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies.  Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.

In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.

I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.

Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.

Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.

An Example From the Sacred
It is widely held in our time that the relation between signs and the things signified is arbitrary. Traditionally, such a view has been known as nominalism. In the first installment we considered a secular example (money) to illustrate the problem of the decoupling of signs and things signified.

To give a sacred example, when a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine, what is he receiving? If your first thought was “the body and blood of Christ” you’re headed in the right direction. On reflection, however, other questions follow? How do believers eat the body and blood of Christ? What is the relation between the sign (signum), bread and wine, and the thing signified (res signata), i.e., Christ’s body? There are four major options:

  • The signs signify (testify to) the body of Christ in which he was conceived, obeyed, died, and was raised but they only signify. Thus the relation is purely intellectual or memorial.
  • The signs signify (as defined) the body of Christ (as defined) and through them the Spirit feeds us on the body of Christ.
  • The signs signify the body of Christ, which is locally present in, with, and under the signs.
  • The signs become the body.

The first was Zwingli’s view. Yes, I’m familiar with W. P. Stephens’ argument but am not persuaded. Even in his most mature writings Zwingli never moved beyond a memorialist view. This is the view held by most post-Second Great Awakening American evangelicals and by many Reformed/Presbyterian laity.

The second was the view articulated by some of the second-century Fathers, Ratramnus and others in the 9th century, by most of the Reformed in the classical period (including Calvin) and is confessed by the Reformed churches.

The third is the confessional Lutheran view.

The fourth is the Romanist view, first articulated by Radbertus (in controversy with Ratramnus) in the 9th century and formally adopted at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and ratified at the Council of Trent in 1562. Contra the frequent claims by Romanists it was not taught by Irenaeus in the second century.

These views of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion, the eucharist) illustrate four different relations between signs and things signified. You can see immediately that how one relates signs to things signified has great spiritual, theological, and practical significance. In the life of the church many are unwilling to administer communion frequently because they think of the supper as a memorial or as a funeral. It involves an intense grieving process and the idea of enduring such a wrenching thing every week is too much to bear.

Those who think of the supper principally as a sacramental meal in which we are fed by the body of Christ mysteriously, by work of the Holy Spirit, are more likely to favor more frequent communion. The weight of the sacrament is upon being met and fed by Christ and upon the visible sealing the promises of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s death we must consider our sins, and that is sad, but the gospel is good news and the supper is fundamentally gospel.

The Lutheran view has much in common with the Reformed but by locating the thing signified within the the sign it threatens the very existence of the sign itself. As Ratramnus argued in the 9th century, our faith does not make Christ present but faith is essential to receiving Christ. No one receives Christ without faith. That would be magic. Since faith, trusting Christ’s promises is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits (<em>sola fide</em>), those who locate Christ within the elements or who—even worse—claim that the signs become the thing signified destroy faith and thus, in their attempt to ensure Christ’s presence have actually, ironically, as it were chased him away.

Thus, we find ourselves between two poles, that which makes the sign essentially arbitrary and that which conflates the sign with the thing signified. A picture of a horse is not a horse. If one places that picture on the ground and saddle it, one will not go far. One has saddled a picture, not a horse. If, however, the only relation between the picture and the horse is in our intellect or in our memory of the horse, then the relation between the sign and the thing signified is fluid and unstable.

This is last option is the one I want to consider with you for a moment. Now, not everything is a sacrament. There are only two sacraments and a sacramental relation is different than the ordinary relation between signs and things signified. A picture of a horse is a sign but not a sacramental sign. There are no divine promises of salvation attached to the picture of the horse. Nevertheless, the relation between the picture and the horse is important.

The Hermeneutic of Love
One of the great and evil things that has beset the late modern world is the destruction of the hitherto stable relations between the sign (e.g., a word, a picture) and the thing signified. I’m grateful to my old friend Warren Embree for alerting me to this problem in the mid-1980s in discussions and later in Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991). Much of that work was a reflection on Augustine’s account of the relation between signs and seals but it was also an argument for what he called a “hermeneutic of love” in contrast to the then wildly popular, late modern, deconstructionist “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In the second half of the 20th century it became quite popular to argue that there are no stable relations between signs and things signified, that the relation is arbitrary. It was suggested that those who argue for a stable relation between signs and things signified were really just asserting power over others, by seeking to control them through controlling the meaning of words. In short, part of the argument was whether the relations between signs and things signified is a matter of truth or a matter of power. Behind that argument lies an even more fundamental argument: whether God is, whether he has created nature and whether as a part of his creation he has willed a stable relation between signs and things signified.

The relation between signs and things signified was a matter of considerable debate through the middle ages. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) , for most of his career, taught a strong form of nominalism. This provoked a reaction from his critics (e.g., Bernard of Clairveaux, 1090–1153) and brought condemnation of his theology (for modalism in the doctrine of the Trinity).

There was another school of thought in the middle ages, realism, that identified the names with things named via their essences. For the realists (via antiqua) the intellect abstracts the universals from particulars (e.g., sense experience) of this thing and that. Those essences were said to belong to the divine being. This down and dirty summary is bound to upset historians of philosophy but the upshot is that the realists managed to put both God and the creation in a box of sorts. They set up a world in which things couldn’t be other than they are and the realist knew how they could be, how they had to be.

This realism provoked a reaction from nominalists such as William of Ockham (c. 1280–1350), who taught that the relations between names and things named is a mere convention. Where the realists said universals are real, Ockham and the nominalists (via moderna) argued that it is particulars that real and universals are illusory. This is why Ockham proposed his “razor,” to eliminate what he saw as unnecessary assumptions about the nature of being.

Contrary to the way the story is sometimes told, the Reformation was not product of nominalism. It is true that Ockham and others did make it possible to reconsider some long held assumptions but the Reformation itself was not a species of nominalism but neither was it a species of realism. How then did they relate signs to the things signified? On the basis of the divine nature and will. In Calvin, e.g., God’s Word is reliable because it is true to the divine nature. God wills what he does because he is what he is, i.e., his will is consonant with his nature. Thus, signs are the product of the divine will and the divine will is related to the divine nature. As a consequence, the relations between signs and things signified is stable because the divine will and nature are stable.

In the modern period, i.e., the early stages of neo-paganism, for those who accepted the renewed, Enlightenment assertion of the ancient, pagan maxim that “man is the measure of all things” (Protragoras d. 411 BC) the God of the Christian faith became, at best, a hypothesis, a limiting notion. Really the mysterious, dynamic, powerful God of Scripture and of the historic Christian confession became a remote deity incapable of knowing or being known. Still, the relations between signs and things signified was generally considered stable but now not so much because of what God had ordained or even because of the nature of God but because of the prevailing rationalism of modernity.

The late modern reaction to the rationalism (and empiricism) of the earlier phases of modernity has been a skepticism not only about the relations between signs and seals about even about our ability to perceive reality. As I began to suggest in part 1, the idea that symbols are “arbitrary” and have chiefly emotive value is rooted in such skepticism.

Why is such nominalism cruel? It is because it makes signs essentially meaningless. Without meaningful signs  discourse is reduced to the will to power (rather than a search for truth). It begins with the assumption that truth is lost to us. It’s cynical. It destroys communication and communion between persons.

I was raised in a time that largely assumed a naive sort of realism and, as in the middle ages, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Today’s young people are being indoctrinated in skepticism about truth and signs. The very idea of nature or fixity, an essential assumption to behind a stable relation between signs and things signified, has come to be viewed with suspicion.

It’s easy, however, to see why stable relations between signs and things signified is so important. Here you are reading text about signs. If there’s not at least relative stability, if I, the writer, and you, the reader, cannot count of a relatively stable relation between signs and things signified then who knows what these characters mean and why  you are staring at them?

Ironically, to the degree we accept nominalism we really are at mercy of the reader and the interpreter (“reader response” anyone?). As Stanley Fish said, there is no “text.” Absent the totalitarianism of the reader, what then? We must fly blindly to authority. In our search for liberty from fixity and authority we know find ourselves at the mercy of some superior authority: from libertinism to totalitarianism.

Some Christians are fleeing to Rome to overcome late modern skepticism. Of course, this move only postpones or relocates the problem. Rome claims magisterial authority to say what Scripture teaches but who knows exactly what Rome really says that Scripture teaches? Those documents (papal decrees, conciliar decrees etc) must be interpreted and they are arguably more difficult to interpret since they manifestly contradict each other. Then, of course, there is the gnostic appeal to a secret, unwritten apostolic authority. It’s hard to see how a secret tradition that, for all we know, exists in the imagination of a few cardinals does anything but add to the crisis.

Nominalism destroys perspicuity but that perspicuity (the essential clarity) of the biblical text was basic to the Reformation. For the Reformed confession the text of Scripture is inherently superior to the reader. As we understand it, the text forms us, it interprets us, it norms us. Late modern subjectivists would have us become the text, the norm but we are not “canon” (rule) but the ruled but that only works if the text is essentially, sufficiently clear and we can only talk about clarity (perspicuity) if there are stable relations between signs and things signified, if the world we perceive with our senses is sufficiently, reliably what we perceive it to be.

Of course that’s the way the world is because God, though utterly free, is not arbitrary. He might have willed differently than he did but we can trust what he has said because he reveals himself in ways that are consonant with himself. Nominalism is cruel but God is not cruel, he is love (1 John 4:8). The greatest sign of God’s love is his Son, the Word (John 1:1). About him we can be neither nominalists or skeptics. In him the relation between sign (“Word”) and signified is stable. It must be stable—the eternal Word incarnate, true and eternal God and true man. The Apostle John saw and touched the Word: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands….”