Symbolism is the practice of communicating through symbols. However, to define the meaning of the word “symbol,” as used in Scripture and elsewhere, is a problem.
I. The nature of symbols and symbolism.
A. The problem of definition. The problem of constructing an adequate definition of a symbol stems in part from the overlapping usage of the words “sign,” “type,” and “symbol.” For example, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary speaks of “symbol” as something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental but not intentional resemblance; esp. a visible sign [italics added] of something [as a concept or institution] that is invisible...”; The Concise Oxford Dictionary (fifth ed.) gives under sign: “written mark conventionally used for word or phrase, symbol [italics added], thing used as representation of something”; Funk and Wagnalls New ‘Standard’ Dictionary defines “type” as “something that is emblematic; that which represents or symbolizes [italics added] something else; symbol [italics added]....”
Despite this overlapping, there are significant differences between symbol, sign, and type. In the first place, symbols are signs but not all signs are symbols. Symbols come under the broad classification of signs, in that they point to something else; but the two are not the same. A sign is a direct way of communicating, often for the practical purpose of leading to action. It is denotative and limited in the information it imparts. A symbol, however, is a connotative and often metaphorical way of communicating. It is far less limited and far more subtle in its scope than the sign (cf. Dillistone, Christianity and Symbolism, 17). As Susanne K. Langer says, “Symbols are not proxy for their objects, but are vehicles for the conception of objects” (Philosophy in a New Key, 60, 61). Again the basic distinction between a type (a peculiarly Biblical mode of communication) and a symbol is that a type always refers to an antitype that is future, whereas a symbol may have a past, present, or future reference.
Useful as these distinctions are, they must not be pressed rigidly. For the symbol is too flexible and subtle a mode of communication to be shut off entirely from the sign or type. A wall cannot be erected around the symbol; the door between it and the sign and the type is an open one. Sometimes what is for some only a sign or type becomes through individual response a symbol for others.
B. The antiquity of symbols. It is necessary therefore, to probe more deeply into the nature of symbolism, looking back to beginnings. Symbolism is as old as humanity. Before man had the alphabet and before he developed civilization, he had symbols. The ability to respond to symbols is a distinctive feature of humanity. Animals can respond to signs, but not to symbols. Anthropologists, regardless of their attitude toward religion, agree upon the great antiquity of symbolism. The Biblical evidence of this antiquity is plain; before the Fall God gave man his first symbols—sun and moon (
C. The clue to symbolism. Acting upon this clue, Cailliet after four years of field work studying symbolism among the primitive people of Madagascar (cf. Symbolisme et Ames Primitives) concluded that the essential mark of symbolism is man’s participation in the reality that the symbol suggests. For example, a traveler on an ocean liner passes another ship flying the flag of a foreign nation. For him that flag is only a sign or emblem. But let the traveler experience isolation amid another culture to whose language and customs he is a stranger and suddenly, upon turning a street corner, let him be confronted by the flag of his own nation. Then his heart will pound in his chest. He will be stirred as old participations crowd into his mind. At that moment the flag of his country is no longer a sign or emblem; it is a symbol in that he is involved with his whole being in the reality to which it points. Or, moving the analogy to a higher level, consider the case of a Rom. soldier in the 2nd cent. seeing the outline of a fish crudely drawn upon a wall. For him it is simply a sign that some of the despised sect of Christians have been there. But later one of the early Christians passes by and sees the fish. Immediately he breathes more quickly, his mind is filled with rich associations, his heart is turned to Christ and His love. For him this simple design is emphatically not a sign but a true symbol.
D. A symbol defined. What makes a symbol a symbol, then, what animates it and at bottom differentiates it from a sign, or sometimes even a type, is the sense of participation. A symbol may be defined as follows: A symbol is something that points to something else as the sign of a participation experienced or suggested (Cailliet). “The symbol” not only, as Tillich says (Systematic Theology, II, 9), “participates in the reality which is symbolized”; it also engenders personal participation in that reality.
E. The nature of symbolism and symbols illustrated. The primitive character of the symbol persists in that man continues, even in modern times, to think with his whole body (Cailliet). His space has three dimensions, because his body has three dimensions. He counts as he does because he has ten fingers. The rhythm of his language relates to the life within him. Words, as well as non-verbal symbols, can cause his pulse to quicken, his face to flush, his body to tremble. Therefore, the recovery of wholeness implied in a genuine symbolism has its clear Christian implications. The believer’s life is rooted in a deep sense of participation in Christ. The believer’s witness is one of powerful suggestion, capable of being used by the Spirit to create in others this very sense of participation in the living Lord and Savior.
Because participation is the criterion of what makes a symbol a symbol, it follows that what may be for some only a sign intellectually grasped may for others become through believing participation a living symbol. For example, there are those who have regarded the plagues of Egypt and the overthrow of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea as signs of natural forces and nothing more, but for the children of Israel these events were through participation unforgettable symbols (typological symbols) of Jehovah’s power manifest in judgment and deliverance. As Jews and, later on, Christians have looked back upon them even to this day, these things have continued to symbolize the experiential participation of God’s people in His power exercised in their behalf. The same principle applies to the wealth of typology in the Pentateuchal account of the Tabernacle and the priestly sacrifices and offerings. For some this is only an ancient priestly code. For others its typology comes to its climax and fulfillment in the anti-type of Christ’s redeeming work, recorded in the gospels and expounded elsewhere in the NT (particularly in the epistle to the Hebrews). This typology ascends to the level of high symbolism through believing participation in the atoning work of Christ.
Another example—and one relating to words rather than to objects or actions—is that of the creeds. These are called symbols, and rightly so. Paul records in three words, “Jesus is Lord” (
The great antiquity of symbols must not obscure their contemporary importance. The development of modern mathematics and science (esp. physics) is closely tied to mental models or constructs. This kind of “symbolism” (cf. Principia Mathematica, Russell and Whitehead) is thoroughly objectified and thus wholly depersonalized. Therefore, it is far removed from the genuine participation symbolism not only of the Bible but also of poetry, art, and the deeper levels of human life, on which man still depends for spiritual and emotional satisfaction even as he looks to mental models for mathematical and scientific advance.
The roots of symbolism reach down to the core of modern man’s being just as they are embedded in the being of primitive man. How deep these roots go, Louis Beinart shows in describing the crucial role played by Christianity in the revitalization of symbolism: “By its renewal of the great figures and symbolizations of natural religion, Christianity has also renewed their vitality and power in the depths of the psyche....The adoption by Christ and the Church of the great images of the sun and the moon, of wood, water, the sea, and so forth, amounts to an evangelization of the effective powers that they denote” (“Le Symbolisme ascensionnel dans la liturgie et la mystique chretiennes” in the Eranos Jahrbuch, XIX, Zürich , 41-63. Qt. Mircea Eliade in Images and Symbols).
II. Symbols in the Bible.
A. Their place and function in the Biblical revelation. Symbols, which are universal among men and are found in all literatures, are very numerous in Scripture. Moreover, it is in the Biblical revelation that they attain their highest level. Since no book is closer to human life than the Bible, and since no book brings God and eternal things nearer to man, both the profusion of symbols in its pages and the loftiness of many of them are inevitable. Indeed, without symbols certain elements of the Biblical revelation could not be communicated. When the Bible speaks about the nature of God and about eschatological subjects—e.g. the future kingdom, judgment, heaven and hell—only through symbolism can it convey to the finite mind of man ideas about eternal things.
B. Varieties of Biblical symbols. Symbols in the Bible are much too abundant for all of them to be listed here. However, representative examples will show the wealth of Biblical symbolism. Among the many symbols drawn from nature are the sun, moon, stars, fire, thunder and lightning, rain, snow, sea, mountains, sands, deserts, rivers, springs, and valleys. Non-human creatures are used symbolically—e.g. lion, wolf, lamb, goat, ox, eagle, dove, vulture, serpent, locust, bee, scorpion, and spider. Various forms of inanimate life, such as trees, grass, flowers, grain, are symbolic. So also things made by man—e.g. yoke, crown, lamp, girdle, shoes, helmet, shield, sword, bread, wine, and the exceptional symbol of the cross. Colors in Scripture are symbolic, particularly red, blue, purple, and white. Metals—gold, silver, iron—and jewels and precious stones—e.g. ruby, emerald, sapphire, amethyst, pearl—are used symbolically.
There is numerical symbolism in the Bible; the first ten digits (notably one, three, seven, and eight) and also twelve and forty carry symbolic meanings.
Persons are sometimes symbolic in Scripture—e.g. Adam, Abel, Cain, Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Ezekiel, Solomon. Christ, however, is not a symbol. The supreme Antitype of the richest Biblical symbolic types, He is reality and truth in His unity with the Father and the Spirit.
Closely related to persons are names. These are an important class of verbal symbols, among which are creeds (cf. I, 5, paragraph 3). Indeed, the Bible as a whole is itself a great verbal symbol. The Biblical names are often symbolic. “In the OT, far from being a mere label, just an external description, a name expresses the profound reality of the being who carries it.” (Cf. “Name, O.T.,” A. Michaud in A Companion to the Bible, J. J. Von Allmen, ed.). So pre-eminently with the name Lord (Jehovah; Heb. YHWH; cf.
Offices held by persons, as prophets, priests, kings, and judges, have symbolic meanings that ultimately relate to Christ and His divine offices.
Parts of the human organism like the eye, the hand, the heart, the kidneys (reins), and bowels had for the ancient Hebrews symbolic significance. The blood is in a class by itself.
In Heb. thought the blood was the principal component of the body because life itself was thought of as residing in the blood. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (
An important kind of Biblical symbol is that relating to actions. Certain activities of some of the prophets come under this head. Jeremiah was ordered by the Lord to purchase a field at Anathoth in land occupied by Babylonians (
The rite of circumcision was a continuing symbol for Israel; so also were her feasts—e.g. Passover, First Fruits, Tabernacles. Of primary importance was the Sabbath, the greatest of all examples of a symbolical day, and also the Day of Atonement.
In the NT, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are profound action symbols of the believer’s participation in Christ.
That Christ’s miracles unquestionably have a symbolic aspect is evident from their place in the gospel of John and John’s designation of them by the word “sign” (sēmeion). As for celebration of symbolical days in the 1st cent., the NT speaks of various feasts of the Jews but does not require their keeping by the Church. The Sabbath clearly becomes the Lord’s Day in celebration of Christ’s resurrection, but Jewish Sabbatarian requirements were not transferred to it; indeed, there is in the NT an extraordinary openness regarding the use of the Lord’s Day.
By no means are all the multitudinous symbols in the Bible on the high level of participation that mark circumcision and the Exodus symbols in the OT and the Christological symbols in the NT. As is suggested above under I, 1, 3, the boundary between signs, types, and symbols is an open one. In some cases the nuances of participation are slight; in other cases the elevation of a sign or a type to the symbolic level is a subjective matter depending upon the believing insight of the person to whom the symbol communicates. Thus there are signs and types that have, as it were, symbolic potential.
III. The cross. The classic Christian symbol of the cross is historically, along with the empty tomb which is inextricably united to it (
There is no mention in the NT of crosses being drawn or made as physical symbols of the cross on which Christ died and of His atoning work there. In the catacombs with their many symbols, the direct representation of the cross is strangely lacking except for two or three possible exceptions. (The manual sign of the cross was doubtless used in the early centuries.) In fact, there are in the catacombs few if any direct symbols of any kind of Christ’s passion. This may be because of the great emphasis in apostolic Christianity on the resurrection and the future life. The faith to which the symbols in the catacombs point is that of hope in Christ. (There is, of course, no question of the early Christians’ realization of the importance of the cross, as Patristic lit. shows.) Perhaps the meaning of the cross was so integral a part of their life in Christ that the members of the Early Church were restrained in representing it; or a fear of idolatry of the cross may have inhibited them. Also it took time for the thing that was despised as a stumbling block (
IV. Post-Biblical symbolism. Although this article deals with symbolism in particular relation to the Bible, mention should be made of post-Biblical symbolism. In the NT Church, symbolism seems to have been centered in the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), the use of the Lord’s Day (the first day of the week) for worship, and the practice of the laying on of hands. The profuse development of Christian symbolism began in sub-apostolic times with the use of symbols as seen in the catacombs. Christ is prominent as the Good Shepherd, as Judge of the dead, etc. There are also festal scenes pointing to future happiness and various symbols of the resurrection. But, the cross as a directly represented symbol is, as has already been said, missing.
About the 3rd cent. when separate buildings for Christian worship began to be built, symbolism continued to flourish. As time passed, the cross (and later the crucifix) became prominent, extra-Biblical tradition supplied symbols, and the extensive vocabulary of ecclesiastical symbolism manifest in church architecture and in religious art was developed. (Cf. George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols of Christian Art.)
The place of symbolism in Christian life and worship is assured. Biblically, it is an organic part of the written revelation; traditionally, it reflects cherished memories and customs of the Church. Yet symbolism must always be interpreted and used with thoughtful discretion. For the reality is always greater than the symbol and to confuse even the loftiest Christian symbols with the reality of the Lord, believing participation in whom they invite, may lead to the error of substituting the means for the end.
Bibliography T. A. Ribot, “La Pensée Symbolique” in Revue Philosophique (1915); G. D’Alviella, “Cross” in Vol. IV, HERE (1922); J. Gamble, “Symbolism (Christian)” in Vol. XII, HERE (1922); E. Cailliet, Symbolisme et Ames Primitives (1931); B. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (1950); M. Eliade, Images and Symbols (1952); E. Cailliet, The Christian Approach to Culture (1953); F. W. Dillistone, Christianity and Symbolism (1955); P. Tillich, Systematic Theology (1957); G. Cope, Symbolism in the Bible and the Church (1959); S. K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (1960); G. Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (1961) (1st ed. 1954); H. S. Griffith, Learning to Read the Christian Symbols (1966) (1st ed. 1939).