Giuse Phạm Thanh LiÍm, S.J.


Table. 1

Introduction. 2

1. Grace and symbol 2

a. Human structure. 2

i. Knowledge by senses. 2

ii. Body- symbol of person. 3

iii. Experiences of God through symbols. 3

b. Grace through symbols. 4

2. Symbols in world religions. 4

a. Universal salvation. 4

b. Symbol of faith- Gratia ex opere operantis. 5

3. Sacrament- symbols of grace. 5

a. Christian sacrament 5

b. Efficacious symbol of grace. 6

i. Jesus Christ- symbol of God. 6

ii. Church- symbol of total Christ 7

Conclusion. 8

Bibliography. 9




Through creatures human beings discover God exists. Through human love human beings recognize that God is love. Love is necessary for human beings to develop. Love is present in all phases of human life. Godís love for human beings is so great that He wants to share His eternal life with them. Godís love is continually concretized in grace as gift of love, visible and invisible.

Grace is the gift of Godís love. Symbol is necessary for human beings to acknowledge Godís love and grace. Symbol is also a way human beings express their reponse to God.

This paper presents, first, the relation between grace and symbol, then symbols as means by which believers of all religions encounter the Absolute and receive Godís grace. Finally Christian sacraments are considered as symbols to bestow grace efficaciously to Christians.

This paper uses a method of correlation and presupposes Christian faith.

1. Grace and symbol

Structure of human beings requires using symbol to understand, because the constitution of human being is symbolic. This section will present the structure of human beings as symbolic. Then I will discuss the relation between grace and symbol.

a. Human structure

††††††††††† Human being is corporeal and spiritual. Human knowledge has its starting point in material objects known through the senses. We will consider human sense knowledge, then the material-spiritual structure of human being, and then human knowledge of God through symbols.

i. Knowledge by senses

Platoís theory of knowledge supposes human soul remembers what was known in the world of ideas. Aristotle countered this view. If someone is color blind, he cannot know the color that his eyes cannot see. Aristotle did not look for answers in an other world but in this world. For Aristotle and later Thomas Aquinas, the idea is formed by the human intellect when human senses contact material things. In this life no one can know without the senses.

In the area of knowledge of Godís existence and other attributes, the human person has to transcend creatures to recognize God and his attributes. By human love human beings recognize Godís love, by human generosity human beings recognize Godís generosity, etc. But there is an infinite distance between God and human beings, so the human knowledge of God does not correspond completetly with God, therefore its expression is analogical and symbolical.

ii. Body- symbol of person

The human person is not only a material but also a spiritual being which is constituted with both body and soul. Soul refers to human life or the entire person, but also to the innermost aspect of a person, and signifies the spiritual principle in the human being. The human body is animated by a spiritual soul, but body and spiritual soul make one reality.

In human life, signs and symbols occupy an important place. As a being at once body and spirit, the human person perceives and expresses spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols. As a social being, we need signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for our relationship with God.

In Karl Rahnerís language, human being is spirit incarnate. That is, in transcending material objects human being becomes spirit. In this status of life it is impossible to separate body and spirit.

iii. Experiences of God through symbols

Human beings understand through visible signs or symbols. So for God to be revealed to them, God uses visible creatures. The material cosmos, trees, mountains, fire, light, darkness, and beauty of creatures, all reflect and speak of God to human beings.

History can be regarded as a series of signs revealing the presence of God in human history. In fact, Christian faith recognizes that God has intervened in history to save Israel, to escort Israel to Egypt, to deliver Israel from Egypt by Moses, to save Israel from various people in times of the judges, to lead Israel through Saul, David and other kings, to guide Israel from slavery in Babylon. Israelís history was the arena in which God expressed his love to them through election, intervention, love and grace. Godís love and grace to Israel have been expressed in Israelís history.

††††††††††† In Karl Rahnerís view, if God wants to reveal Godís self to human beings, then God must enable human beings to receive God. Human being is spirit incarnate. This means that through material objects he understands and become spirit. Thus God must reveal Godís self through material objects through which human beings can transcend the world and meet God as transcendence. So, through creatures human beings transcend and recognize God as Creator. Through Israelís history human beings recognize God who intervened in the history to realize Godís plan of saving human beings. And with Jesus died and risen, human beings recognize him as God incarnate. Jesus is God incarnate, meaning that God, the second person of divinity, assumed human nature in Jesus. Therefore, in Jesus there are two natures, one divine and one human.

b. Grace through symbols

A symbol is something that mediates something other than itself. A sign designates something else and has no intrinsic connection with its referent, for example, the red or green light in traffic system. A symbol has the intrinsic connection with what it refers to, for example, the figure of a heart is a symbol of love, because when someone loves his heart is affected under the emotion of love. Someone can distinguish concrete and conceptual symbols. A concrete symbol is a being that mediates a real presence within itself of something other than itself. A conceptual symbol is a concept, word, metaphor or parable that reveals something else and makes it present to the imagination and mind.

††††††††††† Creatures are symbols of God; through them God is present to human beings who receive grace to recognize Him. Moreover, prophets are Godís persons who are representatives of God and speak in the name of God. Jesus is symbol of God and grace itself from God to human beings.

Grace is love concretized. In the human- divine relation, grace is Godís love expressed in a concrete way, for example, in material and invisible gifts. Grace may be considered Godís own self as personal gift to us. When a human being loves someone, he or she gives him or her some gift. At the top of love, they give themselves to others. God loves human beings and symbols are necessary to communicate this love. The symbol is necessary for human beings to recognize God or Godís grace, because in the process of perception and knowledge human intellects need material objects. As a result, these symbols become sacraments or religious symbols.

2. Symbols in world religions

This section, first develops the idea that God creates all, so that everyone is child of God. God therefore loves everyone, and God wants to share eternal life with all human beings. Secondly it will talk about the symbols of world religions.

a. Universal salvation

God can be recognized by everyone, in any part of the world. Creatures reflect the beauty of God, and become signs for human beings to recognize God. Through creatures, human beings can recognize that God exists, God is creator, God is beautiful and generous. Because human beings are gifted with intelligence, freedom and love, they can recognize God as person, lovable, and merciful.

Religion begins with some personal encounter between some human beings and God. A particular founder of a given religion encounters God, and communicates his or her experience of God to others. The group develops into a social organization, with cult and ritual for the worship of the Absolute. These rites often consist of symbolic signs which represent the religious event. For example, in Judaism there was Abrahamís experience, Isaacís and Jacobís experiences, Mosesí experience, etc. In Buddhism, there was Buddhaís experience to liberate him and his disciples. Every religion has its own symbols to help its believers to encounter the Absolute.

Experiences of the Absolute are communicated through words, through symbols. If it is true to say that body-spirit structure of human being is Godís will, then symbols are also what God uses to bestow grace of knowledge to human beings, both in Christianity and in all world religions.

b. Symbol of faith- Gratia ex opere operantis

Grace is Godís love. Godís love to human beings is prior to symbol, and is expressed concretely in symbol as a concrete gift. God is always present. God desires to be present in particular human situations, since God is not merely an incomprehensible, transcendent reality, but also the present. God has already entered concretely into humanity in Godís Word made human and in the Holy Spirit. God has already given tangible expression, in the community of believers, to Godís presence within humanity.

††††††††††† Grace is Godís gift of existence when God creates creatures and human beings. Grace is the gift of knowledge when human beings recognize God who is the present and loving One. Grace is salvation when Godís self is gift and final grace for human beings.

There is free knowledge. The sentence ď2 plus 2 equals 4Ē is accepted by everyone, but ďGod existsĒ is not accepted by all. This is free knowledge because human beings are free to accept it. Standing before a created symbol, acceptance of its meaning depends upon the human being who receives grace and chooses his or her position. Through a symbol human beings can encounter the Absolute. Symbol is symbol of faith, for believers. Recognizing the Absolute, believing in Him, hoping in Him, are all grace which is prior to and conditions the very encountering of the Absolute and the receiving of grace.

In Christianity there are symbols which are similar with those of other religions, but there are also some special symbols which are called sacraments and have special efficacy.

3. Sacrament- symbols of grace

In this section I will present the notion of Christian sacraments, then Christian sacraments as effective symbols of grace.

a. Christian sacrament

Sacrament means mystery when it is used to translate the Greek word mysterion from ancient texts. In Roman pagan religion, the word Ďsacramentumí was connected to the Latin word Ďsacrareí and Ďsacrumí, so sacrament meant what made someone or something Ďholyí. For Augustine, sacraments were visible signs that represented an invisible reality. Another described sacrament as a sign designated by God to point to a divine reality and containing that reality within itself.

Sacraments are defined by the Church as ďefficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to usĒ (Catechism of Catholic Church, #1131).

Christian sacraments have two dimensions, the sign which is visible and grace which is invisible. The relation between sign and grace in the sacrament is similar with that of the Church and Holy Spirit. The sign in the sacraments can be words or actions. The sacrament is religious sign which has a history in Church tradition, and which bears an intrinsic connection with the signified reality which is the grace bestowed. Therefore a sacrament can also be named a symbol.

The special characteristic of Christian sacraments is efficacy: they cause what they represent.

b. Efficacious symbol of grace

Christian sacraments surpass the symbols of other religions, because Christians believe sacraments offer grace ďex opere operatoĒ, that is, by the intrinsic merit of their being performed. Therefore some people today may misunderstand sacraments as magic actions. Of course the Christian sacraments always suppose the faith of believers in relation to the religious symbols. However what is the warranty that the grace of the sacrament is efficacious? Without such warranty or pledge, human beings will still live in anxiety. The efficacy of the sacraments has its foundation in Jesus Christ and his Church.

i. Jesus Christ- symbol of God

††††††††††† Jesus is the man who reveals God totally, because Jesus is united so closely to God. He is the Word of God incarnate, the Son of God, and his connection with God has been called a hypostatic union.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate; therefore Jesus is the pledge to warrant that human beings are really loved by God. God so loves human beings that He spares nothing to human beings, because He already gave His beloved Son to human beings. Jesus Christ is the warranty, the pledge, the symbol which shows Godís love to humankind. Thus Jesus Christ is the original sacrament of Godís love for human beings.

Why does God become incarnate? Because human beings need something concrete to understand Godís love for them. God loves human beings, but human beings can refuse it. How does God convince them? By the incarnation and by the death of Jesus on the cross human beings can recognize and become persuaded that God loves them.

Jesus Christ is the primordial symbol of God in the sense that Jesus is God-man, and he reflects Godís love perfectly, and he is Godís pledge of love, especially through his death on the cross.In another words, Jesus is truly man but more than a man, a prophet but more than a prophet, or at least as the eschatological prophet, through and with whom God is present to human beings. By his life and his activities God is present and acts through him. He is symbol of God, God incarnate, so that those who saw him, saw the Father (Jo.14: 6). To those who pray in his name, God the Father will listen.

††††††††††† By and through Jesus Christ, Christians recognize Godís love for them, because God gave his beloved Son and his Holy Spirit to human beings. Jesus Christ is really symbol of God for human beings. By the warranty of Godís love through Jesus Christ, the efficacy of the Christian sacraments is revealed.

ii. Church- symbol of total Christ

If Jesus celebrated the sacraments, surely they would be efficacious actions. However, Jesus is in heaven, so how can these symbols be efficacious?

Jesus Christ acts through the Church, and concretely through ministers of his Church. Indeed, Jesus in his lifetime had disciples who became the kernel of the Church in future. The Church in the history becomes the sacrament of Jesus Christ, because Christ is the head of the Church, which has in turn been called the total Christ. After his resurrection, the gospels portray Jesus Christ saying to his disciples: ďReceive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive sin of someone then his sin is forgivenĒ. ďWho hears you, hears meĒ. The Church is the representative of Jesus Christ in the world, and so, the symbol of Jesus Christ in the world today. In the name of Jesus Christ and united with Christ as head, the Church continues Jesusí mission and activities to become a salvific symbol for human beings today. In this sense the Christian sacraments can be understood as acts of Christ through his Church.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit is active in the Church as guide, as dynamic principle. Nobody can understand the Church without Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit. The Church is the total Christ in the world. In another figure, the Church with its members is the body of Christ and the Holy Spirit is its animating principle. The Church is the sacrament of the worldís salvation, since it proclaims and makes present, as eschatologically victorious in the world, that grace which will never disappear from this world and that invincibly is moving this world towards the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.

A sacrament is firstly a memorial symbol, a narrative recall of a past that becomes present; secondly, a sign of grace at work in the present through the divine Spirit; thirdly an effective anticipation of the future. It points to the accomplishment of Godís purpose, the perfection of creation, the universally realized reign of God and, included in that, the perfection of the individual life in death and in eternal blessedness.

The efficacy of Christian sacraments has its foundation in Jesus Christ because He is efficacious symbol of God and Godís love for human beings. The Church as total Christ, with his presence and activities, in the Holy Spirit, is fundamental and efficacious symbol of grace for human beings today.


God is love. God loves human beings. The first grace is creation. Human beings are created as spirit incarnate, and human beings can recognize Godís love through creation as a vast symbol of God.

There are so many symbols in Christianity as in world religions, and these symbols are means to help respective believers to recognize God and receive Godís grace in many different situations. However, in Christianity there are some special symbols called sacraments which are symbols willed by Christ through his Church. These symbols are efficacious words which transmit grace according to Christís will; they are celebrated by the Church through its ministers.

Of course God can bestow grace to human beings without signs, but by the present economy of human existence God uses signs or symbols to grant grace to human beings. Creatures can be symbols for all human beings. Religious symbols of their respective religions can be means to recognize and receive God and his grace. Christian sacraments are symbols of love, warranty of Godís love for human beings, because Jesus Christ is symbol and warranty of Godís love for human beings. The Christian sacraments are not only means God uses to bestow grace to human beings, but also the pledge and the warranty that show Godís love through the Church of Jesus Christ.



Haight, R. Jesus- Symbol of God. New York: Orbis books, 1999.

Rahner, K. Foundations of Christian Faith. An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. New York: Crossroad, 1995.

Vorgrimler, H. Sacramental Theology. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992.





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Giuse Phạm Thanh LiÍm, S.J.

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