In the second half of Chapter 9, Dulles is testing three Christian symbols – light, the Cross, and the Eucharist – to see how they work in each of the five models he’s described. He quickly encounters some difficulties.
Propositional Model – “To theologians who view revelation as propositional, the symbolic approach seems to imperil the truth of revelation. The danger is not altogether imaginary” (141). In this counter-argument, a symbol’s absence of fixed meaning makes it unsuited for revealing objective, universal, unchanging Truth. Dulles cites one Gordon Clark on the example of the Cross (142), showing how the absence of fixed meaning denudes the Cross of the power to reveal. Dulles responds by noting how the symbol of the Cross needs to be re-expressed, through metaphor and simile, into propositions. These propositions “explicate” the symbol of the Cross in order to limit its ambiguity. “But the propositional explication, to the extent that it achieves literalness, leaves out things tacitly perceived through the symbol…” (143). However, Dulles again avoids the critical question of priority in meaning (in other words, of authority in interpretation of the symbol). Does the limitation of ambiguity by re-expressing into propositions, come before or after the symbol itself? In other words, do the limits inhere in the symbol, or must they be supplied? If the former, how is this a supernatural revelation? If the latter, whence do they come?
Dulles seems to argue for inherence: “Because of the cognitive content implicit in the originative symbols, revelatory symbolism is able not only to “give rise to thought” but also to shape the thought it arouses” (144). But then he equivocates: “Yet the influence travels in both directions. Doctrine enriches the meaning of symbols…. As the process of doctrinal development goes on, the Church tests new proposals through its grasp of the total symbol-system…” (144). He appeals to Tradition, in the form of “participation in the community of faith,” to limit the pliability of symbols’ meanings. “Interpreted against the background of the symbols and of Christian life, certain conceptual formulations can be put forward as bearing the authority of revelation” (145).
What he means, I think, is that the symbol is primary. In the ways in which the symbol is received by the community, its meaning becomes much more firmly fixed. Eventually, some of those meanings are clarified to the point of propositional formulation as dogma or doctrine. These formulations in turn operate on other symbols in the same limiting or specifying fashion, and can even become symbols themselves. The accumulation of symbols with fixed, received meanings by the community comprises Tradition.
The advantage of this argument is that it clearly relates the Christian community, in its origins, with its Jewish roots. Christianity begins, not in a vacuum, but within an existing revelatory tradition. However, I think Dulles makes a mistake, overstating the power of Tradition to define itself. His argument just pushes the problem of certainty and authority further backwards in time. If that ground cannot ultimately be found, then the peril to the truth of revelation remains. That is, if the tradition is built up in the very-distant past purely in reference to human culture (in this case, ancient Israel’s human culture) or human choices of possible meaning, can it be said with certainty, with the “authority of revelation,” that that tradition “got it right” with respect to its symbols? Why could they not have been (or now be) interpreted differently, even contradictorily?
Somewhere behind that tradition of traditions, I would argue, there must be a solid, unambiguous, revelation – either a proposition, or an event, or a symbol-with-only-one-possible-meaning – to provide the authority for tradition to accumulate upon.
Now, for ancient Israel, that was Exodus: the event as a whole, including as distinct items of revelation the propositional revelations – “I am who am;” the Ten Commandments; the terms of the Covenant with Moses – and the liturgical rituals of the Passover. These were not treated as primary symbols, but rather as secondary symbols. That is, their nature and usefulness as symbols derived from their unambiguous, divine, no-other-way-to-explain-it-as-it-actually-happened authority, and not the other way around. It’s only given this bedrock for the tradition, that other symbols can come to function in the manner Dulles describes here.
For Christians, the Passion-and-Resurrection of Christ functions in exactly the same way. The event, including its distinct propositional and liturgical revelations, is primary to all symbols. Christian symbols take it as their referent; it is definitive for the Tradition, and for the symbols in that Tradition. Only with this (now double) bedrock as primary revelation and authority, can other symbols (including the Cross) come to function in the way Dulles argues.