Text as Sacrament
May 9, 2005 § 9 Comments
The conversation below is fairly schizophrenic. On the one hand we are discussing the implications of Godel’s Theorem on the interpretation of finite texts that claim to say everything that needs to be said about a topic. On the other we are discussing the historical sources of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Here I’ll mention a few things that may pertain to the latter.
Catholicism (Eastern and Roman) has always found the Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist. In order to experience most directly the Divine Presence, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, one must participate in the Sacrament instituted at the Last Supper, presided over by an ordained priest: “Accipite, et manducate, ex hoc omnes. Hoc est enim corpus meum, quod pro vobis tradeteur”.
The Blessed Sacrament was rejected in the Protestant Revolt – not instantaneously to be sure, and there are echoes of it still within Protestantism – but decisively nonetheless. The theology which enabled that revolt was sola scriptura. But reading a text as a way of coming most fully into the Real Presence wasn’t an idea first practiced by Christians. It was practiced by Islam for many centuries before Wyclif. Karen Armstrong in her book Islam: A Short History says of the recitation of the Koran in Salat:
“It was similar to the Christian devotion to Jesus, since it saw the Quran as God’s uncreated Word, which had existed with him from all eternity, and which had, as it were, taken flesh and human form in the scripture revealed to Mohammed. Muslims could not see God, but they could hear him each time they listened to a recitation of the Quran, and felt that they had entered the divine presence.”
Rather than having a living Christ, a living Logos, Islam has literally a book for its Divine Incarnation.
The Protestant Reformers were not unaware of Islamic practice. Martin Luther himself says the following about it:
“From this book, accordingly, we see that the religion of the Turks or Muhammad is far more splendid in ceremonies — and, I might almost say, in customs — than ours, even including that of the religious or all the clerics. The modesty and simplicity of their food, clothing, dwellings, and everything else, as well as the fasts, prayers, and common gatherings of the people that this book reveals are nowhere seen among us — or rather it is impossible for our people to be persuaded to them. Furthermore, which of our monks, be it a Carthusian (they who wish to appear the best) or a Benedictine, is not put to shame by the miraculous and wondrous abstinence and discipline among their religious? Our religious are mere shadows when compared to them, and our people clearly profane when compared to theirs. Not even true Christians, not Christ himself, not the apostles or prophets ever exhibited so great a display. This is the reason why many persons so easily depart from faith in Christ for Muhammadanism and adhere to it so tenaciously. I sincerely believe that no papist, monk, or cleric or their equal in faith would be able to remain in their faith if they should spend three days among the Turks. Here I mean those who seriously desire the faith of the pope and who are the best among them.”
— Martin Luther, preface to the Tract on the Religions and Customs of the Turks
Editorial note: the above post has been edited slightly in response to some good criticisms in the comments.