The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 4)

To link the uniquely Mennonite soteriology as seen in Yoder and Weaver with an understanding of the Lord’s Supper that goes beyond mere memorial to include the action of God, we must look elsewhere. The Roman Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh has developed an understanding of the Lord’s Supper that seems to do just this. While he does not deny transubstantiation, Cavanagh locates the primary activity of God during the Lord’s Supper not in the elements themselves but in the gathered congregation.

For Cavanaugh, the Lord’s Supper is not simply a sign or symbol that points to or represents a new and different way of living in the world, as if the Lord’s Supper helps us imagine the possibility of a new politics or social reality). If this were the case, once we discovered that new social reality, the Lord’s Supper would cease to be of value. Nor is it a sign or symbol of something beyond this world. Rather, the Lord’s Supper creates a new social reality as it incorporates individuals into the body of Christ. “We become Christ’s body in the Eucharist.”[1] As in salvation, this new reality is formed, the congregation is formed, as both the human will and divine act in cooperation. And in this way, salvation is enacted both in individuals and in the community, as a physical and social reality.

Like Yoder, Cavanaugh places a great deal of significance on the practice of church discipline. Unlike Yoder, he locates the source of church discipline in the Lord’s Supper rather than in the baptismal vow. Since the Lord’s Supper is the means by which the congregation is incorporated into the body of Christ, is must also be the source of discipline for the body.[2] By locating discipline in the baptismal vow, Yoder reveals the hidden monergism that lurks within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Using the baptismal vow as the source of church discipline reveals that human vow to be the source of the church itself. The congregation is created not by a work of God but through mutual human agreement. In contrast, locating church discipline in the practice of the Lord’s Supper reveals the essentially divine origin of the body of Christ. It also makes sense of the importance of preventing those under discipline from participating in the Supper. It is not to avoid scandal in the eyes of the world, but to prevent the unworthy from eating and drinking judgment on themselves. The former shows concern for the church to escape the judgment of God. The later shows concern that the sinner not be subject to the judgment of God. It is in essence an offer of reconciliation. But what judgment of God comes on those who eat or drink unworthily if God does not act in the Lord’s Supper?

Like Weaver, Cavanaugh sees the establishment of the kingdom of God as the primary purpose for the coming of Christ. He affirms that Christ came to inaugurate the kingdom and the resurrection reveals that this kingdom is the true reality.[3] But how does that kingdom become realized in the individual Christian and the Christian community? For Weaver, it is through the human will, and this simply cannot be. For Cavanaugh, the Lord’s Supper is that link between the past event of Jesus and the present church. It is through the practice of the Lord’s Supper that the Spirit acts on the individual and the community to bring the power of the resurrection across the temporal gap from the first century into the present.

Even Cavanaugh’s terminology lends itself to the forms generally used to describe the Lord’s Supper in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, albeit with a deeper meaning attached. Remembering is a key concept in his Eucharistic theology. Anamnesis for Cavanaugh is not a mere psychological recall of past events but a re-membering, a knitting together of the body of Christ by our participation in his life, death and resurrection in the Lord’s Supper.[4] As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, incorporating the physical elements of the Lord’s Supper into our bodies, we are incorporated into Christ’s body. Both the historical body of Christ and the eschatological body of Christ. In this way, the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of the future as well – not only the bridging of the gap from the historical Jesus but also the inbreaking of the eschatological kingdom into our present reality.

As Christ speaks in the Supper, “This is my body” referring not to the elements but the congregation, the Spirit moves to enact those words. And as we receive in faith, that reality is enacted in us. John 6 and 15 then reveal the meaning attached to those words in the Supper. In faith we participate in the Supper, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus as John 6 commands, and God acts alongside our act to bring about the unity with Jesus that is promised. We live in Christ and Christ lives in us. And as we remain in Christ, Christ remains in us. It is this act through which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals through the power of the Spirit.[5] And unless we want to claim that is only the collective will of the community that creates this new reality, that creates the body of Christ, we must allow God to act in and through the Supper.

[1] William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 14.

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Ibid., 209.

[4] Ibid., 229.

[5] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 25.

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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.