15 July 2006

anabaptist eucharist

anabaptist eucharist

Last night I went out with a friend from church to Kildare's Pub in Manayunk for some food and a few pints of ale and stout.

As we were talking the conversation turned to how God gifts his people by his Spirit in different ways and not just on an individual level so that, say, this person is gifted with discernment of spirits and counsel, and that person is gifted with a particularly effectual ministry of prayer. Rather, even on the level of entire denominations and traditions of theology and spiritual formation, it seems that God grants his people a diversity of gifts so that we do well to listen to and learn from others, especially those who differ from ourselves.

I mentioned at this point some early Anabaptist theologies of the eucharist, recalling a book I'd once read by John D. Rempel entitled The Lord's Supper in Anabaptism: A Study in the Christology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and Dirk Philips (Herald Press 1993). While the christologies and eucharistic theologies of these various figures were not without problems, they do serve to highlight, I think, aspects of (especially eucharistic) theology that sometimes are neglected as we often zero in on different sorts of issues and questions.

For all three of these figures the "body of Christ" is both the ascended Jesus whose corporeal presence on earth is, in their view, impossible and the existential community of believers. Thus communuion is an event of the self-giving (martyr) church gathered with bread and wine, thus in some sense "incarnating" Christ and so a kind of true and real prolongation of his humanity. The exact shape and implications of this differed, however, from one thinker to another.

Balthasar Hubmaier was an early Radical Reformer, associated somewhat with Zwingli and with definite anti-sacramentalist leanings (i.e., opposed to Calvin and Bucer's eucharistic understanding). For Hubmaier, while the Spirit is God's way of being present in the church, the Spirit enables the church to embody christ-likeness. Nevertheless, there is a deep distinction between the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit in Hubmaier's thought. Thus the Supper for him is primarily an external human response to the Spirit's inward movement of love. On his view the eucharist is, perhaps, best thought of as "ethical" rather than "sacramental."

In the Supper, for Hubmaier, the Spirit moves the church to embody Christ's incarnate, self-giving, forgiving, divine love through her remembrance of Christ. The Supper is thus the prototype of the church's presences in the world in imitatio christi - as love, as martyr, as sharing, as forgiveness. The signum of the Supper realizes the res of the church as Christ's presence. Thus Hubmaier attempts to provide some measure of realism to mitigate what otherwise might become an overly spiritualistic and inward subjectivism.

If Hubmaier stressed the church being the body of Christ, Marpeck and Philips both saw the church truly receiving Christ as well.

Marpeck was somewhat sympathetic with Bucer, but also Munster's Rothmann, and was the most open of these three toward the views of the Protestant Reformers. Much of Marpeck's thought on the Supper was worked out in debate, especially with Schwenkfeld (we have, by the way, a large concentration of the remaining Schwenkfelders near Philadelphia in the northwest far suburbs). According to Marpeck the church is, in some manner, the ongoing presence of God in the humanity of Christ, especially in its ordinances (recall that Anabaptists don't have "sacraments," but they generally do accept baptism, the Supper, ordination, unction, marriage, foot-washing, the veiling of women, and the holy kiss as "ordinances," instituted by Christ for the purpose of divine blessing).

For Marpeck the work of the Father is manifest inwardly by the Spirit and outwardly by the Son (note again how an inward/outward divide is a starting point). The ordinances, especially the Supper, are not objects for Marpeck, but events. The Supper is an event of faith responding to the Spirit, which witnesses the reality of union with Christ and manifests the church as the humanity of Jesus. Faith always responds in Christ's love and that love is manifest in the primal act of being the church in the Supper, receiving Christ in his humanity. He says, then, that the Supper is not a "sign," but rather the external work and "essence" of the Son.

Philips, a disciple of Melchior Hoffman, was a Dutch Anabaptist, but very much anti-Munsterite, though probably equally anti-Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed, especially opposing a'Lasco with whom he clashed. In many respects, Philips's theology is the most problematic of these three figures.

From Philip's viewpoint Christ's humanity was heavenly, unfallen, and Spiritual and the incarnation is not a continuing reality in the life of the church. The heavenly humanity of Christ, other than its sacrifice, is not the medium of salvation. Only as ascended can Christ come to us as Spirit without human form to save us. There is, then, for Philips, a pretty radical separation between Christ's humanity and his divinity, the latter which he equates almost with the presence of the Spirit, at least in the context of the Supper. In Philips's thought, the Spirit is the agent of our divinization as a community and individually, especially through our obedience, even in our bodies (and thus avoiding utter spiritualism). The Supper, then, is an effective sign of the inward spiritual reality of Christ's real, divine, Spiritual, but noncorporeal presence to and in union with the individual (indeed, this presence seems wholly divided from Christ's humanity).

A few evaluative remarks.

There is much to criticize in these views, especially the extreme dichotomies between, variously, the Son and the Spirit, the outward and inward, the human and divine. Also the "incarnationalism" is potentially problematic if the church as an analogically "continuing incarnation" (as totus christus, head and body) is not adequately distinguished from the unique reality of the hypostatic union. Nevertheless, there are several interesting features to note that are instructive generally and can even serve positively as reminders of important, though sometimes neglected, dimensions of eucharistic theology.

First, we should note that none of these figures see the Supper as a "mere memorial," but as a means of grace (in some manner or another) and a means of Christ's presence (again, in some manner). This is important to recognize lest we caricature Anabaptist traditions. It may also serve as an ecumenical bridge between various traditions, even if a lot of work would be left to be done.

Second, I think we can learn from their emphasis (especially in Hubmaier and Marpeck) on the close connections between the communal gathering breaking bread together and individual communion with Christ. The Reformed emphasis on the Supper as action or event can here be supplemented by the Anabaptist emphasis on that action or event as God's action manifest in the action of a loving, self-giving, forgiving community of believers. If that kind of community is not our communal context for the Supper, then the teaching of St. Paul would seem to suggest that perhaps it is not the Supper we come to eat (1Co 11:20).

Third, if Christ is present in the action of the Supper (as some readings of Calvin and Bucer suggest), then the Anabaptist emphasis might help us deepen our account of that action. The Reformed tradition sometimes suggests a certain "co-inherence" of the "means of grace," so that the Supper contains a word of promise, is a seal of the preached Word, and is a sacrifice of all possible praise and thanksgiving to God (i.e., the Supper is prayer). Thus, in the Supper, the three means of grace mentioned in the Westminster Catechisms are joined together (Word, sacrament, prayer). The Anabaptist empahses would suggest that we add "the fellowship" of believers to that list of means and also to place the action of the Supper in that context (cf. Acts 2:42). We, in fellowship, are also the presence of Christ to one another, especially in the Supper as a sign and seal of that fellowship.

Finally, the experience of the Anabaptists as a persecuted community informed their self-understanding as a "martyr church," recapitulating the experience of the earliest Christians and revealing something of the nature of the church as such. But a "martyr" is also a "witness" who, in giving himself over even unto death, fulfills the mission of the church in bearing witness to the reality of Christ. By connecting this with the practice of the Supper, the Anabaptists drew out the missional dimension of the eucharist, teaching us how a church that celebrates the Supper must also sacrifice their comfort, safety, and ease, imitating Christ, in order to bear witness to the Gospel.