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Signs, outward, effectual, and interpreted

09 October 2015

Edward Dowler reads two theologians’ observations about sacramental signs

Traces of the Trinity: Signs, sacraments and sharing God’s life
Andrew Robinson
James Clarke & Co £19.50


The Scandal of Sacramentality: The eucharist in literary and theological perspectives
Brannon Hancock
James Clarke & Co £22.50


"ALL things are full of signs," wrote the Greek philosopher Plotinus, but signs are difficult to interpret. A photograph was recently published of the Queen as a young girl appearing to make a Nazi salute. How should we read this sign? Did it betoken the Royal Family’s sympathy for National Socialism in the early 1930s? Or, conversely, were the Queen and her mother mocking Hitler’s pretensions? Or were they just waving?

Much modern philosophy, informed by Saussure, takes a nihilistic view of signs: they relate only to one another and tell us nothing about the world outside their own system. Christian theology charts a more hopeful approach. To take but two examples: the Gospels are full of the signs that Jesus did, and St Augustine teaches how the signs we find in scripture and the sacraments, by delighting us, lead us through to a deeper apprehension of the truth.

In Traces of the Trinity, Andrew Robinson, who impressively manages to combine being a theologian at the University of Exeter, a semiotician, and a practising GP, presents a lucid and accessible account of the purpose and nature of signs as explored by the American philosopher C. S. Peirce (1839-1914). Robinson describes his book as "an attempt to show that a new kind of coherence begins to emerge when the traditional theological landscape is viewed in the light of semiotic theory."

Robinson explores what he terms the "elemental grounds of signs and signification": "Quality" is what a thing is in itself; "Otherness" separates the sign from its object and "Mediation" is the link between the object and its interpreter. In Robinson’s reading of Trinitarian theology, Quality equates to the Father, whose being does not come from or through any of the other persons. Otherness is linked to the Son or Word, who is what Robinson calls a "quali-sign" of the eternal nature of God (i.e., one that exactly embodies the nature of what it signifies), but who none the less is "other" than the Father. And Mediation is the role of the Spirit, who eternally interprets the Word as a perfect sign of the Father.

Robinson argues that such an approach is preferable to psychological models of the Trinity, such as Augustine’s triad of memory, understanding, and will, which tend towards a picture of God as autonomous and isolated, and preferable also to social models, which tend to suggest three gods. Thus, as Robinson sums it up, "semiosis models perichoresis".

From this starting-point, Robinson rolls out a series of impressive reflections on subjects such as salvation, the eucharist, and the nature of the Church and its ministry. For example, he writes that "the priest’s role is to preside over the proper production of the sign. For . . . if signs are not properly produced they will be unintelligible." Re-engaging Augustine’s concept of the vestigia trinitatis, he further argues that the way in which we understand God by way of signs corresponds with the way in which we experience the world — unsurprisingly, since the world’s existence is dependent upon the ongoing creative activities of Word and Spirit.

In The Scandal of Sacramentality, Brannon Hancock reflects on one sign in particular: that of the eucharist. On the one hand, as traditionally taught, Christ is present in the eucharist: God is revealed under sacramental signs. And yet, on the other hand, the very need to have a sign, the very command to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11.26) indicate that the Lord is absent as well as present.

The eucharist is thus inherently paradoxical: "sacred and profane, presence and absence, divinity and humanity, life and death, abjection and glorification, are inextricably intertwined in a coincidence of opposites." Hancock revels in these paradoxes and often expresses them by the use of brackets and forward slash: terms such as "(theo)logic", "(w)holiness", "de/constructive", and "a/theologians". The over-use of these can leave the reader (dis)gruntled.

Hancock notes that, although, on the whole, eucharistically centred Churches in the West are in decline, popular culture is often full of eucharistic allusions. Literary and artistic media, in particular those in the post-modern idiom, are often better at keeping the paradoxes intact, and expressing dimensions of the eucharist, such as brokenness, cannibalism, and penetration, which more specifically theological writing tends to airbrush out.


The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is the Vicar of Clay Hill in the diocese of London.

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