Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology: It Depends on What ‘Is’ Is

I must have been in an especially catty mood when I posted this on Stand Firm in Faith:

Clinton stated that “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Clinton was only stealing a concept from Southern Baptist Eucharistic theology.

I actually got a thumbs up for that.

Nevertheless, it’s something that’s bugged me for a long time.  It’s a statement that conservatives use to prove that Bill Clinton was a proverbial liar, and one under oath to boot.  Liberals try to explain it with stuff like this:

But it turns out they were right: Bill Clinton really is a guy who’s willing to think carefully about “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” This is way beyond slick. Perhaps we should start calling him, “Existential Willie.”

But with deep family roots in Arkansas Baptist life (Clinton was raised down Arkansas 9 from where my mother grew up) and apologies to those relatives, I think both assessments are wide of the mark.  Bill Clinton was not lying when he said this, not deliberately at least.  He was just lifting a concept from Southern Baptist Eucharistic theology, one echoed every time the ushers (or Communion Committee, the ability of Southern Baptists to form committees is the stuff of legend) get out the big trays.  And although that’s typically not very often, one doesn’t typically get deposed very often either.

For it’s part the New Testament is pretty clear in its concept of what the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) really “is”:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.  (Matthew 26:26-29 KJV)

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:19-20 KJV)

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  (1 Corinthians 11:23-27 KJV)

Until the Reformation Christianity uniformly confessed that, when Our Lord said “is” he meant “is”, up to and including the concept of transubstantiation, which Aquinas details in the Summa.

With the breakage of the Reformers we start seeing a variety of explanations of how this “is”, something that Bossuet has more fun than a human being ought to have in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches.  But the biggest variation, one that started with Huldreich Zwingli, basically stated that “is isn’t”; that it’s just bread from start to finish and that the Lord’s Supper is purely symbolic.  That “theology” made its way into many Evangelical churches, including the Southern Baptist Convention.

When Bill Clinton was under oath and under pressure, its little wonder that he would revert to the teachings of his childhood church, where they taught that the Bible was literally true from the six days of Genesis onward, and then get to the night Our Lord was betrayed and stated with equal confidence that the “is” wasn’t and that it’s just a symbol.

The Baptists have presented a vision of Christian life that many around them have objected to, not the least of which were the Pentecostals.  But same Pentecostals, who never cease to remind us that “…with his stripes we are healed”. (Isaiah 53:5 KJV) unthinkingly adopted the Baptist concept of the Lord’s Supper.

Now we are in yet another political cycle, with another Clinton and (sigh) another Bush.  Conservatives sit smugly in their Evangelical churches, doubtless not happy with the possibility of this match-up but confident that defeating Clinton will be a great victory.  But the next time the big tray comes around and their minister shies away from proclaiming the Real Presence, they’d better stop and think that they are partaking in the spirit of Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic theology.

8 thoughts on “Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology: It Depends on What ‘Is’ Is”

  1. I think your own examples defeat your argument.

    At the Passover supper, Jesus hands the disciples the bread and wine and says “this is my body” and “this is my blood”. Given that his body and blood is at that very moment *handing them the food*, it’s hard to imagine a sane interpretation where he is claiming ontological identity between the body handing them the bread and the bread itself, and if the gospel writers intended to claim this as a miracle they had ample opportunity to do so. The only identity that makes sense in the context is representational.

    Also consider the final sentence in the quote from Matthew: “I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”.

    (1) He calls it “this fruit of the vine”, which is an allusion to grapes, not blood.

    (2) If “my blood” is to be considered an ontological identity with “*this* fruit”, then it follows that Jesus is claiming that the day will come that he joins the disciples in drinking his own blood.

    (3) Alternatively, he might be claiming that he will drink *that particular* wine at some point in the future (remember, the point of this argument is that “is” is absolute, always).

    1. A few years back I did a series on this subject which should show, at the least, that, if you think that “claiming ontological identity” is not a sane interpretation, then there have been many insane people in Christianity over the years.

      If Our Lord and St. Paul had meant a purely symbolic Eucharist, I think they would have made same clear. They did not; it is our task not to try to explain why the opposite of what they said is true, but to explain in what way what they said is true.

      As I noted in my earlier piece, the key to this is to realise that the presence of the Godhead in the Eucharist is incarnational in nature, just as it was with Our Lord in the flesh. (One thing I found out subsequent to writing this series is that advocates of transubstantiation like Aquinas likewise took an incarnational view of the Eucharistic transformation). The presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist is no less likely than his presence/union with the body he was born into and rose from the dead with.

      One running objection to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are all of the adorations, etc., that have accumulated themselves in Roman Catholicism. That preoccupied the English Reformers, as any reading of the 39 Articles will attest. The objections are valid, and an incarnational approach can be used to support that. When Our Lord was on the earth, there were many who spent time with him (up to and including Judas Iscariot) who were not transformed by his presence. It’s the inner transformation that makes the difference. As I noted, it’s an occupational hazard of sacramental systems to overplay their ability to transform without concomitant inner transformation by the rebirth. But that shouldn’t obscure the real nature of the Eucharist.

  2. I think you’ve missed the point of my objection. I’m not making the claim “in general”, but with respect to the specific passages you quoted.

    Specifically, do you claim that *at the point Jesus passed the bread / wine around the table during that Passover*, that it was ontologically identical to the substance of the living body that was doing the passing? In fact, to be perfectly literal you would have to claim that it was not only *identical* to the body doing the passing, but that it actually was his body, even though recorded observations would suggest that his body was doing the passing, not being passed. Because at that point he claims it “is” his body.

    If you’re not willing to make this claim, then your argument about the unitary meaning of “is” is (pun somewhat intended) self-defeating.

    In practice, “is my” can and does refer to one or more of:
    – unitary identity (“*this* is my cup”, implying a single cup)
    – simple possession (“this is *my* cup”, allowing for other cups)
    – direct representation (“this picture is my likeness”)
    – symbolic representation (“this is my heart”, giving a loved one a gift symbolising a promise)
    – derivation or consequence (“this is my inheritance”, meaning something purchased with your inheritance)
    – a future prediction (“this is my new car”, about something that has not yet been acquired)

    Looking again at the Gospel accounts, it’s obvious that Jesus can’t mean unitary identity, as that would mean that his blood is entirely in the cup and not outside it. He might mean that his blood is simultaneously in the cup and outside it, though that becomes odd in the case of “drinking again of this cup” later. He might mean that the cup represents his blood either directly (unlikely, as there’s nothing to suggest that the cup tasted of blood) or symbolically. He might also mean that future instances of that cup will satisfy one or all of the above.

    I’m interested to know which you think Jesus meant *at the point he passed the bread and cup around the table*, and how this is the only possible interpretation from the immediate context.

    1. Your list of “is my” reminds me of Origen’s definition list for arche in his Commentary on John, which I rework here.

      I don’t think, however, that “symbolic representation” (which is the way most Evangelical churches consider the Lord’s Supper) can be properly included in a statement of being of this kind. “Being” is the fundamental divine attribute, as Moses found out at the Burning Bush and I discuss here. To relegate it to a purely symbolic meaning does violence to this basic concept, and leads to an inferior view of the nature of God himself.

      That said, I would note the following:

      Christ’s body is not in this sacrament in the same way as a body is in a
      place, which by its dimensions is commensurate with the place; but in a special manner which is
      proper to this sacrament. Hence we say that Christ’s body is upon many altars, not as in different
      places, but “sacramentally”: and thereby we do not understand that Christ is there only as in a sign,
      although a sacrament is a kind of sign; but that Christ’s body is here after a fashion proper to this
      sacrament, as stated above. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3, 75, 1, Reply to Obj. 3)

      This not only applies to the Last Supper but to the subsequent celebrations of the Eucharist, as the physical position of Christ’s human body relative to that of the sacrament is, as you point out, separate.

  3. I am not a church historian, but I believe Zwingli went to Luther in hopes of forming one reformation church. When Zwingli said that Jesus only meant it symbolically when He said, “This is my body.” Luther said, “Is, is, is.” Also, in John 6:48-57 Jesus makes it clear that He means that it is His body and blood. When many of the disciples find this shocking, He doesn’t say, “Oh guys, I only meant this symbolically.” Many quit following him because of His statement.

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