Thursday, August 25, 2016

Of Myth and Sacrament

The words myth and sacrament are not to be found in Scripture but the concepts are:
The concept of myth is espoused mostly by scholars of the critical school. Here the veracity of the historical narrative is considered of minor importance compared with the spiritual message which it is intended to convey. Although purporting to be historical, the narrative is viewed primarily as a story, a vehicle carrying a spiritual payload. Accordingly, the literal historicity of the narrative may be discounted or even discarded completely so long as the spiritual message is retained.
As one minister holding to this view put it, “Even if nothing in the Bible were shown to be historically true, it would still be true.”
And another, “If one knew where to look for them, Jesus’ bones could be found somewhere in Palestine, the important thing is that He should be risen in one’s heart.”
Quite why the search should be confined to Palestine is not made clear.
This concept of myth closely follows the form of parable which Jesus used so often: “A man had two sons…”, “A man went down to Jericho…” etc. Jesus’ hearers did not think He was referring to actual persons. It was rather like someone saying, “A Catholic Priest and a Jewish Rabbi are on a plane together…”
However those who hold to the concept of myth consider that much of the historical narrative in both Old and New Testaments is to be deemed parabolic. Or at best the narrative gives the “broad brushstrokes” of the historical actuality.
It has always puzzled me why this approach is called, “De-mythologisation”: it should more accurately be referred to as, “Mythologisation,” in other words converting historical narrative to the status of myth.
Theologians of this school would include: Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Herrman, Adolf Von Harnack, Ernst Troeltsch and more recently Rudolf Bultmann. German theologians seem to have a bit of a corner on this market.

I use the term sacrament in a slightly different way to its normal usage in describing the means of grace, - baptism and communion in a Protestant context.
The typical definition of a sacrament to be found in a catechism is that,
“It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
However, if one broadens the definition slightly thus:
“A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality.”
then this opens up a whole world of possibilities:
A handshake for instance is a sacrament in that it is the outward and visible sign of an invisible attitude of mutual regard between the persons shaking hands.
The fact that most people would feel uncomfortable walking down the street naked is an ongoing sacrament traceable to the Fall and signifying the invisible reality of the fallenness of man.
The clothes we wear, the cars we drive the way we furnish our houses will usually tell people something about our values and personalities though these latter be invisible.
On a more cosmic scale: “For His invisible attributes namely His eternal power and deity can be clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things He has made.” (Rom.1. 20) The visible revealing the invisible.
And finally, the crowning Sacrament: “No one has ever seen God, but God the one and only who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him Known.” (Jn. 1. 18)
In the words of Charles Wesley’s Hymn,
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity.”
What should be noticed here is that both the visible and invisible components of the sacrament are real and important. Discount the visible sign and one discounts or distorts the invisible reality which it signifies. However, the visible sign is transient while the invisible reality is eternal.(2 Cor 4. 18)
This sacramental principle informs the hermeneutic approach which we adopt towards historical passages in Scripture, for we worship a God who does not stand afar off but who has broken into history over the millennia and supremely in the incarnation. Indeed, even secular historians attest to this by employing a dating system which extends backwards and forwards from this epochal event.
So Jesus was born at a particular town called Bethlehem, He grew up in a particular town called Nazareth. He learnt his trade as a carpenter from his (step)father.  He exercised his ministry mainly in the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee. He was put to death by crucifixion outside the City of Jerusalem. 
Actual nails were driven through His body into the actual wood of a literal cross. The tomb was actually, literally and historically empty after He had risen on the third day.
Roman crucifixions were performed by the hundreds if not the thousands in those times, but connected to this particular crucifixion was an enormous spiritual significance, significant for our salvation and for the redemption of the whole of Creation.

So, in contrast to the mythological approach to Scripture, the Sacramental approach takes seriously the veracity of the historical sections of Scripture, while appropriating by faith the spiritual realities which they signify.

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