Symbol or Substance?

A Dialogue on the Eucharist with C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and J.R.R. Tolkien

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Peter Kreeft
  • San Francisco, CA: 
    Ignatius Press
    , January
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The author of  Symbol or Substance?, Peter Kreeft is among the most prolific authors of works on Christian apologetics. Many of his works are written in dialogue form involving conversations on various theological topics between such historical figures as Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy, Socrates, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, David Hume, Karl Marx and Rene’ Descartes. Books that feature dialogues, even if fictional, often give the reader a better grasp of a topic or issue through a conversational format that allow for varied perspectives.

This work focuses on the Christian significance of the Eucharist in an imaginary meeting between C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Billy Graham at Tolkien’s home in Oxford, UK. Lewis, a committed Anglican, and Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, are close friends who spent countless hours engaging each other intellectually. Graham, an Evangelical Protestant (Southern Baptist) is conducting an evangelistic meeting in England and requests a visit with the British scholars. Graham is accompanied by his driver named “Guy” (also a Baptist), who interjects at certain points in the conversation. The reader is permitted to be a “fly on the wall” (11) as the foursome each assert their respective theological perspective on what constitutes the real “presence” of Christ in the eucharistic act.

Early in the discussion, Guy inquires whether a "mere Christianity" can overcome the significant differences between Protestants and Catholics on questions "about the relation between the Bible and the Church and about the relation between faith and works and about devotion to saints and Mary and about Purgatory and the sacraments" (23). All agree that those differences are important. In seeking to find a common ground, the debaters agree that the search for "truth" in Christian doctrine should be foundational to the discussion, even as Graham appeals to Sola scriptura, Tolkien to the Church's Sacred Tradition, and Lewis affirming a via media of Scripture and tradition.

The foursome determines that the two great dividing issues within Christianity are the validity of papal authority and what happens in the Eucharist—meaning, is Christ really present in the elements or are the bread and wine simply holy symbols (41)? The group decides their discussion will center on the latter of the two issues since the Eucharist focuses on what it means for the participant to be united to Christ. Graham affirms that many Evangelical Protestants believe the "Lord's Supper" is a memorial act, the view espoused by Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, where the elements are symbols of Christ's presence. Lewis and Tolkien see the elements as the very "substance" or actual presence of Christ, although Lewis will not affirm that the Catholic Eucharist is the only valid means of experiencing divine grace.

The work's primary focus is on Graham dialoguing with the other two characters (neither of whom is a theologian) as to what they believe about the Eucharist. Several chapters are devoted to Graham and Lewis explaining their Eucharistic positions and each critiquing the view of the other. For Graham, the communion act symbolically reminds the church of Christ's great atoning sacrifice as it is incorporated into the practice of worship. Lewis is willing to affirm Graham's position to an extent (the sacrament functioning as a sign) but also sees this sign as "supernatural" in that Christ's "Real (objective) Presence" is in the Eucharist elements. Like Tolkien, the Catholic, Lewis cites Christ's words in scripture, "This is My Body" and "This is My Blood," to support Jesus' presence in the elements. When Graham claims that the Catholic/Anglican view is steeped in "extra-biblical tradition," Lewis responds that the doctrine of Real Presence was the view of the church until the Reformation (70).

Tolkien, as a devout Catholic, affirms transubstantiation in the Eucharist. The table for Tolkien is the genuine channel of grace in which Christ is food to the human soul. Christ is received objectively in the act while faith is the subjective means in which grace is received ex opere operato (“from the work performed”). While both Tolkien and Lewis are firm in asserting that the Protestant viewpoint eliminates the possibility of receiving grace through the Eucharist, neither of them deny that God cannot provide grace to Protestants outside the sacraments. God can indeed "provide back doors into Heaven even though He set up the Church and her sacraments as the front door" (193). Tolkien and Lewis acknowledge to Graham and Guy the possibility that persons can come into the church through saving faith “alone.” All four men complete their visit together by affirming that each understands better the convictions and passions of the other concerning this sacrament, even as they remain quite apart theologically.

People who have had the opportunity to read Kreeft's similar works will see that this is another masterful creation from the author's imaginative mind. It is also a good work to introduce or refresh the minds of lay Christians, students, clergy, and Bible and seminary professors to an important but often difficult theological issue. Kreeft's task is to inform rather than carve out a personal dogmatic stance by siding with a respective character's view, and he maintains this neutrality well. He shows how this is a very dear and precious practice of faith, beyond simple doctrine, for each of the dialogue partners. The author, as a former Evangelical Protestant who converted to Roman Catholicism, has a unique perspective from which to address the question of "real presence," that contributes genuine depth to the conversation between the threesome, even as he does not promote his work as "a scholarly book" (12).

About the Reviewer(s): 

William T. Chandler is a pastor at Rock Haven Baptist Church in Brandenburg, Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Kreeft is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College.


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