Symbol in Revelation

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In the restricted meaning here in question, symbol is a particular type of sign: a sensible reality (word, gesture, artifact, etc.) that betokens that which cannot be directly perceived, properly described, or adequately defined by abstract concepts. The symbol, by its suggestive capacity, thus discloses something that man could not otherwise know, at least with the same richness and power.

Symbol in General. The meaning of symbol is grasped not by discursive reasoning but by a kind of synthetic insight. Frequently symbols do not have any one determinate meaning, but evoke a whole gamut of related significances. The cross, for example, is symbolic of a crisis to be faced, a burden to be carried, adversity, suffering, death; for the Christian, it implies patience, trust in Providence, sacrifice, reconciliation, and Redemption. Because of its capacity to unify such diverse elements, symbolism has an integrating function: it binds up the shattered, alienated existence of individuals and societies.

Symbolism derives its power from the fact that it speaks not only to the reflective intelligence but to the entire human psyche. It arouses deep emotional experience, releases hidden energies in the soul, gives strength and stability to the personality, establishes strong loyalties, and disposes a man for consistent and committed action. By reason of these properties, symbols are of great importance in art and literature (image, metaphor, etc.), in psychotherapy (e.g., dream analysis), in the cementing of human societies (e.g., the flag), and in religious worship (the icon, ritual, etc.).

As mediations of the divine, symbols have a certain foundation in the analogy of being, which implies that material realities are partial expressions and reflections of the attributes of God. The common experience of the human race gives further specification to realities such as fire, water, sun, air, bread, wine, enriching their symbolic capacity. According to Carl Jung and his disciples, the pervasive symbolism of the great religions rests also upon the archetypes of the collective unconscious, but psychologists of other schools deny the need of such an appeal to racial memory.

Because they communicate levels of meaning and reality that are not accessible through immediate experience or conceptual thought, symbols as such are in some sense revelatory. They would therefore seem to have special aptitude to serve as vehicles of supernatural revelation, should God be pleased to disclose Himself personally to man. The Judeo-Christian religions are based on the conviction that He has done so.

Theology of Symbol. The revelatory role of symbol has been variously appraised by Christian theologians over the centuries. Under the influence of Biblical and Platonic thought, the early Greek Fathers, especially the Alexandrian school (Clement, Origen, etc.), took a highly symbolic view of the Scriptures and of the universe as a whole (see alexandria, school of). In this they were followed in the West by Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, whose symbolic cast of thought is manifest in their allegorical exegesis. In the Middle Ages symbolism in religious art and literature became progressively more exuberant. Certain theological schools, notably the Victorines (see victorine spirituality) and the Franciscan mystics (see franciscan spirituality), developed what M. D. Chenu, OP, has aptly called a "symbolic theology." In the late Middle Ages and in modern times, symbolism has retained its dominant position in mystical theology (see spiritual theology).

In the post-Reformation period, a decidedly Aristotelian brand of thomism established itself in the schools, and revelation was regarded primarily as a communication of doctrine. Some Catholic theologians, as well as "orthodox" Protestants, came close to the view of B. Spinoza and G. W. F. Hegel that imagery was at best a pragmatic expedient to impress on untutored minds truths that a cultivated intelligence could translate into clear and distinct ideas. Reacting against this theological rationalism, which tended to suppress all mystery, the romantics of the 19th century, followed by the Catholic Modernists and the Protestant Symbolo-Fideists of the early 20th century, espoused the view that revelation consists in symbols alone. Symbols, moreover, were for them thoroughly subjective and emotional modes of expression, devoid of truth value. The 20th century gave renewed attention to symbol, considered as yielding a special but authentic type of religious knowledge. This revival of symbolic theology has been assisted by recent work in the fields of depth psychology, comparative religion, and literary criticism. A number of recent Catholic and Anglican theologians, without minimizing the doctrinal component in revelation, insist on the indispensability of symbol. Symbolism, they maintain, is uniquely suited to convey revelation, i.e., to express in a vivid and concrete way what God may wish to manifest of Himself to a creature such as man.

Symbolic Realities in the Bible. The salvation history that forms the principal theme of both Testaments consists of the great symbolic deeds by which God manifests His power and mercy. These deeds may be called God's gestures in history. Miracle, according to the Biblical conception, is a particularly striking deed of God. (see miracles (in the bible).) Events such as the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna in the desert, the entry into the Promised Land, and the dedication of the Temple, viewed in the perspectives of salvation history, are charged with symbolic overtones that give them undying significance.

In the NT the Incarnate word is the absolute, unsurpassable earthly embodiment of God, and hence the supreme religious symbol. But for Him to be effectively a symbol for man, He must be manifested as such. Christ's miraculous deeds, His ritual actions (e.g., the Last Supper), His sacrifice on Calvary, and God's acceptance of that sacrifice in the Resurrection and Ascension, symbolically disclose His mission and Person. In Christ and the Church all the symbolism of the OT is recapitulated and fulfilled.

Symbolic Language in the Bible. The Prophets and other Biblical writers describe divine things in highly figurative speech. Some of the images are taken from cosmic realitiesfire, water, rock, etc. Others are borrowed from the social life of Israele.g., God as father, king, judge, shepherd, vinedresser, and spouse. Under the impact of salvation history, the images themselves took on a history. Through calamities such as the collapse of the Davidic monarchy, the destruction of the Temple, and the Babylonian Exile, the images were purified, detached from their terrestrial moorings, universalized, and thus made available to carry a higher spiritual meaning. Providential transformations of this sort made it possible to forge the pregnant images found in the later books of the OT, such as the New Covenant, the "circumcision of the heart," the Suffering Servant, and the heavenly Son of Man.

Images such as these were taken up with added power in the NT. Christ Himself described His status in terms of the OT figures and preached to the people in the form of parables. The Johannine Gospel, the most symbolic of the four, is built around dominant images such as the good shepherd, the true vine, the manna, the living water, and the light of the world. Such symbols, as C. H. Dodd remarks, "retire behind the realities for which they stand, and derive their significance from a background of thought in which they had already served as symbols for religious conceptions" [The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, Eng. 1953) 137]. The same is true in varying degrees of other NT writings.

Revelatory Value of Symbols. The importance of symbol in revelation follows from the fact that revelation is historical and interpersonal. It does not simply put us in touch with God in an abstract way, as He might be known in philosophy. General statements in cold abstract language would be powerless to effect personal encounter. But God reveals Himself concretely, incarnating His very self in historical gestures and realities and in the tenor of the speech that He inspires. The Church, assisted by the Holy Spirit, achieves a mysterious contact with the God of faith through the veils of these symbolic manifestations. Making full use of the flexibility and inexhaustible fecundity of the Biblical symbols, the Church continually brings forth from her treasure "things new and old" (cf. Mt 13.52).

See Also: miracles (theology of); prophecy (in the bible); prophecy (theology of); revelation, concept of (in the bible); revelation, theology of.

Bibliography: i. g. barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms (New York 1974). c. a. bernard, Theologie symbolique (Paris 1978). l. m. chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament (Collegeville, Minn. 1995). f. w. dillistone, The Power of Symbols in Religion and Culture (New York 1986). a. dulles, Models of Revelation, 2d ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1992). m. eliade, Images and Symbols, tr. p. mairet (New York 1961). t. fawcett, The Symbolic Language of Religion (Minneapolis 1971). k. rahner, "Theology of the Symbol," Theological Investigations 4 (Baltimore 1966), 22152. w. m. urban, Language and Reality (London 1939).

[a. dulles]