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.