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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The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 2)

While we might see some openness towards a more sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper in some Mennonite statements of faith[1], others show movement in the opposite direction. It is this movement that is most concerning. A quick comparison between the Mennonite Brethren confessions of faith from 2001 and 1902 reveals this trend. The 2001 Confession of Faith:

The church observes the Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Christ. The Lord’s Supper points to Christ, whose body was broken for us and whose blood was shed to assure salvation for believers and to establish the new covenant. Through the supper, the church identifies with the life of Christ given for the redemption of humanity and proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes. The supper expresses the fellowship and unity of all believers with Christ and embodies remembrance, celebration, and praise, strengthening believers for true discipleship and service.[2]

Contrast this with the 1902 statement on the Lord’s Supper.

  1. In this holy supper we are brought to see that Christ’s holy body was sacrificed on the cross and His precious blood shed for the remission of our sin, and that He now being glorified in His heavenly state, is life-giving bread, meat and drink for our souls, and unites Himself with all true believing souls for spiritual communion according to His Word: Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with Me.
  2. Only the gracious enlightenment and fellowship of the Holy Spirit can enable the believer to rightfully examine himself, and prepare him to partake of this holy supper in a worthy manner and teach the hidden meaning of the same, so that in partaking of the Lord’s supper they may be fed with the body and blood of Christ, thus to partake of all His sufferings and His merits and be greatly comforted in the strong covenant of grace with God, their heavenly Father.
  3. Thus this sacrament becomes for the believing church a supper of praise and thanksgiving, in which it rejoices over the blessed promises of the holy supper with their divine Redeemer and all His saints in the Kingdom. It becomes a supper strengthening the believer for ready service and true following of Christ in patiently bearing His cross and for growth in true love in all things into Him, which is the head, even Christ, for the building up and betterment of His temple, the Church. All this is carried out as a joyous thank-offering through Jesus Christ for all gifts of divine grace and well doing to the glory of God the Father.
  4. This supper of holy communion of the believers with Christ, their head, is at the same time the expression of holy communion of the believers among themselves and it binds them together in love, peace, and unity according to the words of the Scriptures: The cup of the blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ ? For we, being many, are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.

Note the marked difference between these two statements. There is a clear sense of efficacy attached to the practice of the Supper in the later, while the former explicitly denies any notion of efficacy, preferring to maintain an exclusively memorialist understanding of the Supper – that is, the only act performed during the Supper is an act of remembrance.

This is confirmed to a greater degree in the commentary on the 2001 Confession, “Grace, pardon, forgiveness, and new covenant are not effected through participation in the Supper.” This highlights the belief that the Supper has one actor – the congregation. God may act prior to the Supper, but God does not act in and through the Supper itself. The only act performed is that of the congregation. And yet, it would appear that God does speak in the Supper. The very words of Christ are read aloud as the Supper is celebrated; “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.” How can it be that God speaks and yet does not act?

[To be continued…]

[1] See for example the commentary on the Lord’s Supper from the 1995 A Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective, “2. The bread of the Lord’s Supper is a sign of Christ’s body, and the cup is a sign of the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:19-20). As Christians eat the bread and drink the cup, they experience Christ’s presence in their midst. The Lord’s Supper both represents Christ and is a way in which Christ is present again (“re-present”) in the body of believers. In this meal, the church renews its covenant to be the body of Christ in the world and to live the life of Christ on behalf of others.” (http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/cof/art.12)

[2] The official commentary offered by the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches on this statement confirms this interpretation: “The Anabaptist position is that the Supper is an ordinance and not a sacrament. Grace, pardon, forgiveness, and new covenant are not effected through participation in the Supper, but rather participation in the Supper represents the fact that grace has been accepted and people have entered a new covenant relationship and community. In the Supper we eat and drink to the reality that we are the redeemed people of God. In participating, we acknowledge the sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf, our incorporation into the new covenant people of God, and celebrate our union with Christ in the church.” (http://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/resource/the-mb-confession-of-faith-detailed-edition/#Lords-supper)