The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 3)

The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has primarily held a synergistic understanding of salvation. Salvation, redemption, eternal life are provided by the work of Christ alone, and then enacted in the human person and community by the will of God working along with the human will.[1] Unlike monergistic traditions such as the Reformed churches, we do not believe only the will of God is active in both the provision of salvation and the enacting of salvation. Nor are we Pelagian, believing that the human will alone is sufficient to enact salvation apart from the will of God. And yet, there seems to be in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition a monergistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper. It is the same fault, albeit from the opposite direction, that the early Anabaptists found in the Roman Catholic practice of the mass. And given the connection between the practice of the Lord’s Supper and the work of Christ it intends to memorialize, it seems likely that a monergistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper might betray an essentially monergistic understanding of salvation in a Pelagian sense, the very same critique applied by the early Anabaptists and Protestants against the Roman Catholics.

This monergistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, that the only actor in the Supper is the individual or congregation can be clearly seen in contemporary Mennonite theologians as well as contemporary Mennonite church practice. John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics is essentially one long example of this point. Speaking of church discipline, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he says “the practices are ordinary human behavior. To reconcile through dialogue, to share bread with one another, or to fuse two cultural histories into one new shared community are not mysterious. No esoteric insight is needed for them to make sense. A social scientist could watch them happening.”[2] Yoder is clearly basing the efficacy of the practices of the church entirely in the will of the members of the congregation. Interestingly, this is in direct contradiction to the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments, where a scientist would not see the results of the consecration of the elements in the Mass.

J. Denny Weaver, a disciple of Yoder, goes even further. For Weaver, salvation is an alternative social structure, a nonviolent way of living in submission to God’s will, which results in the accumulation of love and service in human social structures in conformity to the lordship of Christ. Humans are invited to participate in these alternative social structures that make up the kingdom of God, making salvation both individual and communal. It is the life of Jesus that proclaims what the kingdom of God is to look life, and it is his death that guarantees that the power of the kingdom of God will overcome the power of the kingdom of Satan.[3] Where Yoder sees only the practices of the church in a monergistic fashion, Weaver makes the whole of salvation an act of the human will, albeit one that is enacted in conformity to the nonviolent example of the work of Christ. What we have in Weaver is essentially the logical outworking of Yoder’s monergistic Lord’s Supper, and it is this danger that must be avoided in the practice of the Supper in the contemporary Mennonite church. After all, if one discovers the salvific meaning behind the Lord’s Supper and can enact that meaning through their own will, why continue to participate in the Supper at all?

A truly synergistic soteriology then would appear to require a synergistic Lord’s Supper. But if God is acting in the Supper, what is God doing? The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has been firm in rejecting transubstantiation, so that cannot be the locus of God’s action in the Lord’s Supper. Nor should it be. A focus on the elements is an exercise in missing the point. The focus should not be on what God does to the elements used in the Supper but what God does in those who partake of the Supper. Whether one wants to use the term “sacrament” or not, a Supper where God both speaks and acts is one in which grace is provided to the participants through the working of both the will of God and their own will. Unfortunately, neither Yoder nor Weaver link the salvific work of Christ with the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

[To be continued concluded…]

[1] See Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, 147. Finger highlights the various images used to describe salvation in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition (such as justification, divinization, rebirth, righteousness, Gelassenheit), and then proposes that we “distinguish between two permanent but paradoxical features of justification: basis and content… Viewed in terms of its basis, justification arises entirely from the divine righteousness. Humans can do nothing to alter or increase this basis… Justification’s content, however, consists in the human acts and states arising in response to and dependence on this basis.”

[2] John Howard Yoder, Body Politics, 44.

[3] Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 92.

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