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Nourishing Directions for Eucharistic Theology and Practice

By November 1, 2010 No Comments

Ironically, people in the Reformed tradition, people who can pride themselves on razor-sharp dogmatics even at the expense of good worship, may today be practicing the sacraments better than they understand them. On the one hand, a recent article in the Calvin Theological Journal complains of a general “stagnation of Reformed and evangelical sacramental theology,” attributable to Puritan and revivalist influences.1 On the other hand, given the rich liturgical resources that have emerged in recent decades from the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA), at least some of their congregations may find themselves engaged in a deeper, richer Eucharistic worship than their operational theology can comprehend.

Recent contributions by George Hunsinger and Martha Moore-Keish point to two different, yet complementary ways to rectify this situation. Click to purchase Hunsinger’s brilliant book, sure to become a standard text on many bibliographies, places Reformed sacramental theology in the context of current ecumenical debates to chart a way for ward in that challenging arena. For her part Moore-Keish introduces her readers to the flourishing domains of liturgical theology and ritual theory and links those to divergent strands within the Reformed tradition as well as her own on-the-ground data gathering, all to create a rich study that directs our attention to the Eucharistic practices of local congregations. Both books are valuable reads, both point us in important directions, and each needs the other.

Hunsinger’s book, part of the Current Issues in Theology series published by Cambridge, delivers on the promises of that series. It is indeed a state-of-theart discussion about the central problems that plague ecumenical discussions of the Eucharist, both summing up where we are and offering an insightful way forward. Throughout the book, Hunsinger writes from within the Reformed tradition and calls Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox to the spirit of “ecumenical theology.” In contrast to “enclave theology” (characterized by a defensive posture that seeks to topple other traditions) and “academic liberal theology” (which criticizes established confessional norms out of dedication to modernist norms), ecumenical theology seeks the good in other traditions and desires “a deeper conversion of all traditions to Christ” (2). Hunsinger devotes his central chapters to discussions about real presence, Eucharistic sacrifice, and ordained ministry–the three main issues that have historically hindered ecumenical convergence and still today keep Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox from having communion together. Through his close analysis of the history of these issues, he arrives at specific proposals and admonishes each tradition as to what those proposals would require of them.

As an ordained Reformed theologian, I am quite interested in what those demands would be for the Reformed. At the heart of his position regarding real presence, a position he calls “transelementalism,” lies “an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist” (23). In the Incarnation, the humanity of Christ is affected, “transelemented,” like an “iron rod thrust into the fire” (41), as part of the hypostatic union. Likewise, the Eucharistic bread is “transformed by virtue of its sacramental union with, and participation in, Christ’s flesh” (41). While similar in many respects to the stances of Calvin as well as Luther and Aquinas, this is the position of the reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli with ultimate roots in Gregory of Nazianzus and Cyril of Alexandria. The incarnational analogy is quite persuasive. There is a fittingness to it, in that one would not be surprised to find deep similarities between God’s action in the Incarnation, in God’s saving work in the church as we are taken up into God’s life and “participate” in Christ, and in God’s action in the created realities of bread and wine in the sacrament. My only concern with “iron in the fire” is that we not forget Vermigli’s emphasis “that the Spirit’s primary role in the eucharist [is] to transform believers” (89), keeping the change of bread and wine within the larger context of God’s action in the whole rite.

I similarly find Hunsinger’s proposal concerning Eucharistic sacrifice to be convincing. Through his careful historical narration (95-128), he points out that part of the problem that led to the forced choice between the Roman and Protestant sides at the Reformation was the relegation of Christ’s sacrifice only to the past (125-127). Click to purchase The proposal he develops, drawing in part from the work of T. F. Torrance and Alasdair Heron, depends first on understanding the Eucharist in light of the Jewish Passover feast, and then on understanding that our Passover not only points back in time, but also ascends to the inner life of God. In our participation in the body and blood of Christ, we are linked to him who “offers himself daily to the faithful, even as he once offered himself on Calvary, and now offers himself perpetually, to the Father in the Spirit for their sakes” (177, see also 16-18). This understanding, while ecumenically open, also maintains the core concerns of the reformers: “first, that the sacrifice of Calvary is unrepeatable, and second, that the eucharist is not a meritorious work” (181). Again, my only concern is to avoid reduction; the emphasis on the Passover sacrifice should not drown out themes of covenant renewal, communion, and the foretaste of eschatological feasting that were also part of Jewish temple worship as well as New Testament and early-church understandings of the Eucharist.

As for ordained ministry, Hunsinger asks much of everyone. Among his requests, based on his analysis of the meaning of ordination (197-218), he asks that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox reconsider women’s ordination (231- 241). He asks the Reformed to change their polity to include the role of bishops, foreseeing that these bishops might be “formally folded into the historic episcopal succession” through a process like that currently going forward in churches involved in the 1993 Porvoo statement (209). Such compromises would be incredibly difficult. But as I consider the gains and losses of changing, for example, the polity of the PC(USA) to one that includes some place for a bishop, I am struck by these sentences: “It is astonishing to realize that there are currently 746 different Reformed churches worldwide. Visible unity cannot be said to have been well maintained in churches lacking the historic episcopate” (207-208). For the sake of ecumenical unity, I hope that Hunsinger’s proposal will find hearers within the Reformed communions who would be willing to think hard about the details of how such a change might be possible over time, prayerfully considering if this might be part of the path of our further conversion to Christ, rather than simply dismissing it outright. As Hunsinger writes, “Ecumenical conversion begins at home” (313).

Hunsinger’s main theological proposals push us on to the more practical question of how these might find acceptance within, for example, the PC(USA). In “Part IV: Eucharist and Social Ethics,” he approaches this question, first by arguing against detractors of “Nicene Christianity” who associate that phrase with a type of Christian faith and life that is culturally irrelevant, socially unconcerned, and inherently violent. I too think that a movement in a higher sacramental direction requires Reformed believers to find their most secure footing in the early church and the ecumenical councils–and to see how this move opens up, rather than shuts down, the ethical, culture-transforming implications of our worship. As the Reformers themselves understood, the way forward must also include drinking deeply from the wells of the early church.

In his “concluding unscientific personal postscript,” I find it telling that Hunsinger points to the worship of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a church made well-known by Sara Miles’ memoir, Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion (Ballantine, 2007).   Turretin and Hodge saw the Eucharist as a symbolic text to be interpreted, Calvin and Nevin as an encounter with the living presence of the triune God.   What Hunsinger sees in St. Gregory’s is not the embodiment of the details of his theological proposals but rather an overarching sense of worship, a Eucharistic imagination, that would be the proper soil in which his theological understandings could grow. I think this impulse is correct; Hunsinger’s theology will never find acceptance without a conversion of Reformed sacramental imagination, without a different kind of overarching vision of what we are doing–of what God wants to do with us–when we assemble in Eucharistic worship. As Reformed theologian Peter Leithardt claims, “Reformed and evangelical sacramentology must be revised at a fundamental level,” not least by “conceiving the sacraments as rituals or rites” (Leithardt, 7-8).

Enabling such a shift in sacramental imagination is precisely where Martha Moore-Keish’s book helps us. Do This in Remembrance of Me excavates a prime sacramental tension within Reformed theology and bathes it in the light of recent liturgical theology and ritual theory. The tension lies between a Reformed trajectory that accepts “categories of continuity that at times approximated the Roman Catholic tradition” and one that follows “the impulse to accent discontinuity, in various ways” (57). John Calvin and John Nevin represent the first trajectory, Francis Turretin and Charles Hodge the second. For the latter, faith is reduced almost solely to intellectual assent to doctrine, while for the former, faith is more broadly understood as “a necessary posture of receptivity within the worshiper” (59). For Calvin and Nevin, this concept of faith goes hand in hand with an understanding that, in the sacraments, God is active through Word and Spirit to shape not only the “material elements alone” but also the receptive “broader community” (42). With Nevin, God’s action is understood explicitly through an analogy with Christ’s Incarnation (note the connection to Hunsinger’s proposal), meaning that in the Eucharist, God shapes us through union with us in a way similar to how the divinity of Christ shapes Christ’s humanity (56). This “full appreciation of humanity, both ours and Christ’s,” opens us to appreciate “the event-character of the eucharist itself” (59). It also gives us ears for the insights of liturgical theology and ritual theory.

In her chapter on liturgical theology, Moore-Keish’s primary point is to show how and why liturgy should be understood as a place of encounter with God, and as such is “both anthropological rite and divine self-manifestation” (62). As a corrective to the parts of the Reformed tradition which have unhelpfully prioritized doctrine over practice, Moore- Keish stresses that “participation in liturgical action over time deeply forms faith” (68). Ritual theory thus becomes a tool by which to understand the meanings and relationships in which we are formed in actual congregational Eucharistic practices. The anthropological details of these local events matter because “rituals create meaning” (98); “rituals transform” (101). Analyzing local events, rather than official doctrinal statements, is one important way to see what the Eucharist means for Christians.

These insights raise important questions about the relationship between “the power of human ritual action” and “the power of the Holy Spirit” (106). While Moore-Keish does not give us a detailed proposal, she does point to “the principle of emergence” (100-101) by which the “gradual nature of God’s work” (148) shapes the “character and will” (142) of congregations and Christians over time into the form of Christ. But even posing the question of God’s action that way shifts our focus from the bread and wine toward the assembled congregation as ultimate focus of God’s activity of union in the Eucharist. Is this shift amenable to the details of Hunsinger’s proposal about Eucharistic presence? I believe they are if the “iron” which is placed in the “fire” is understood to include more than the bread and wine, to include the actions and persons involved.

For Moore-Keish’s immediate purposes, such details would be distracting.   We need to appreciate the close analogy between Incarnation and Eucharist to move closer to the scriptural witness–and to the heart of Christ.   She wants people in the Reformed tradition to move away from a way of celebrating in which God’s presence is “primarily available through the act of interpretation” (142)–a posture in which the Eucharist is seen as a symbolic text to be approached through prayerful devotion, the posture of Turretin and Hodge–toward a richer mode in which “worshipers encounter the triune God as a living and active presence in and through the liturgical act” (142). In a chapter that analyzes a particular congregation’s Eucharistic practice by using interviews and survey data as well as textual analysis, she finds that those “two broad approaches to the eucharist” exist together in a single congregation (133). And she notes how the many details of this congregation’s Eucharistic celebration over time have tended to foster the first posture more than the second.

Her reflections on local practices and theological understandings touch on another important issue. In my experience, many Reformed and evangelical Christians are nervous about the great attention given to human actions in the Eucharist by those who use the language of “liturgy” and “rites.” They wonder whether this threatens the priority or sovereignty of God’s action. “Works-righteousness” seems to be lurking at the door. Theologically, the action of God and creatures should not be conceived of as competing with one another, as if the more God acts the less creatures do. Rather than arguing about the metaphysical schemes involved, Moore-Keish helps allay this worry by a very interesting finding. Among her interviewees, “those who affirmed more strongly God’s presence in the sacrament also affirmed more strongly the power of the ritual activity itself. On the other side, those who tended to see God as only tenuously connected to the sacramental activity also tended to claim that the particular Eucharistic practices were unimportant” (152).

In sum, Moore-Keish does a wonderful job of introducing the reader to what, for many, will be a different way of conceiving how God is active in the Eucharist, demonstrating how this understanding both draws from the fruits of liturgical theology and ritual studies and fits well with the Eucharistic theology of Calvin and Nevin. Her book will help Reformed people make sense of the tensions caused by the different eucharistic theologies and practices at play in our churches today. It also helps us identify the very practical aspects of our liturgies and celebrations that can tip our primary theology one way or another.

But in at least one key way, Moore-Keish’s work needs Hunsinger. It lacks a full argument for the strand of the Reformed tradition she prefers. This is not a fault, but simply a limitation of her focus. She does make brief arguments like this: “This lesser-known strand in the Reformed tradition deserves attention today, because it draws attention to the ways that God acts in and through the ordinary material stuff of life, through the breaking of bread and the drinking of juice, the bowing of heads and lifting of voices in song” (142). While that may suffice for many, in the long run, such an important theological choice requires the detailed argumentation that a book like Hunsinger’s provides. Hunsinger shows us that the kind of incarnational analogy Moore-Keish would have us embrace in Nevin not only opens us to the insights of current ritual theory but also moves us closer to the heart of the Nicene Christian tradition, closer to our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers, and–given my assumptions about the Nicene tradition–closer to the scriptural witness and the heart of Christ.

Moore-Keish and Hunsinger both point the Reformed tradition in the direction of a richer and deeper sacramental theology and practice and greater ecumenical convergence. They recommend to us the sacramental vision of God and reality reflected in the theologies of Calvin, Vermigli, Nevin, and Schmemann over that of Zwingli, Turretin, and Hodge. I fully support this direction. While many arguments can be made as to why this approach is truer to scripture and why it opens up a fuller experience of God and the world around us, I realize that most people will be convinced of this “theory” only as they experience it in the kind of worship implied by such a vision. My hope is that church leaders will read these books and put their insights into practice so that their congregations might “taste and see.” Only in the context of renewed sacramental practice as Moore-Keish describes it will Reformed churches be able to fully undertake the long, difficult, and crucial ecumenical directions that Hunsinger prophetically charts.


1 Peter Leithardt, “Embracing Ritual: Sacraments as Rites,” Calvin Theological Journal 40 (2005): 7.

David L. Stubbs is professor of ethics and theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.