Review of Essen zum Gedächtnis

Review of Essen zum Gedächtnis: Der Gedächtnisbefehl in den Abendmahlstheologien der Reformation. By Dorothea Wendebourg. Tübingen: Mohr, 2009. Review by Holger Sonntag.

Lutherans in this country may be familiar with the Reformed notion of the Lord’s Supper as a “memorial meal.” In the book at hand, Dr. Wendebourg, professor of church history (Reformation Era) at Berlin’s Humboldt University, not only traces the origin of this idea in late medieval piety, but also shows the form it received in the teachings on the Lord’s Supper of Erasmus, Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius on the one hand, and Luther and Melanchthon on the other hand. In other words, her study mainly seeks to answer the question of how the reformers of the sixteenth century – those who stayed Catholic (Erasmus) and those who did not – understood Christ’s words: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24-25). She traces this understanding and its modifications throughout their careers that often saw serious conflict between the leaders of the emergent reform groups and, eventually, churches.


Not surprisingly, the notion of “remembrance” plays a larger role in the teachings of those theologians who are generally considered the precursors of Reformed theology: Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius. Emphasizing the remembrance motif, they sought to strengthen their case for Christ’s real absence from the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper. Taking their point of departure from merely human notions of remembering, they claimed that only an absent person is remembered. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal because the past action of Christ is remembered with thanksgiving in the same way the Passover Meal commemorates and celebrates the past event of Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

The Lutheran reformers, Luther and Melanchthon, did not especially highlight “remembering” in connection with the Lord’s Supper. While for Zwingli and his associates, “remembering” expressed the essence of the Lord’s Supper, for the early Lutherans it did not. Remembering Christ happens in preaching and believing the gospel of Christ’s death for the whole world – something that is to happen in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:26), but that is not the specific, essential characteristic of the Lord’s Supper. What is special about the Lord’s Supper is the oral eating of Christ’s body in the bread and the oral drinking of Christ’s blood in the wine. And this sacramental presence of Christ’s body and blood corresponds to Christ’s personal presence in his word.

While the Reformed model, therefore, uses the notion of remembrance to emphasize the absence of Christ, Lutherans understood it to be as relating to the present Christ. The Reformed pointed to the cross as the place where our salvation was once-and-for-all acquired by Christ, and left the delivery of that salvation to the Holy Spirit who, as Zwingli famously put it at the 1530 Augsburg Diet, does not need any created vehicle. Operative, not merely signifying, means of grace are, thus, meaningless for the Reformed. The Lutherans, on the other hand, distinguished between the winning and the distributing of salvation: the former was accomplished once for all by Christ on the cross; the latter happens until the Last Day by means of the means of grace, the word and the sacraments, including the Lord’s Supper.

Partaking of the means of grace is thus not man’s contribution to his salvation by means of a virtuous act (an idea that surfaces, for example, in the Catholic notion of the sacrifice of the mass) but his receiving of the salvation earned by Christ for all men. Reluctantly, and mainly in response to Catholic and Zwinglian urgings, Lutherans are able to describe this partaking as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, if it is done in faith in the gospel. However, Christ’s speaking the gospel and giving his body and blood are and remain the main thing in the sacrament. While Zwinglians would deny, with the Lutherans, that the Lord’s Supper is an atoning sacrifice (as taught by Rome in the context of the sacrament of penance), they would describe it as essentially the Christian’s sacrifice of thanksgiving (Eucharist) that is not only an ecclesial boundary marker (closed communion) but also goes hand in hand with a virtuous life displaying the fruits worthy of repentance.

In this, as Wendebourg demonstrates, the Zwinglian conception of the Lord’s Supper is quite close to late medieval forms of piety and the Humanist understanding of the Lord’s Supper, as exemplified by Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had a significant formative impact on Zwingli himself (Oecolampadius had imbibed Humanist learning in Italy): early Reformed, Humanist, and late medieval concepts of remembrance all seek to establish a connection with Christ’s past suffering on the cross, which is at times formulated as a re-presentation, a making present of Christ. This leads to the imitation-motif: worthy partakers of the sacrament are those who follow the crucified Christ in their lives. Reformation of the church, thus, means primarily reformation of life, even where this is not understood to be the way to salvation.

In that Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper focused not primarily on Christ’s sacrifice (on the cross) but on the delivery of what was earned by that sacrifice by means of the word of promise, worthy partakers are those who believe this word of promise: given and shed for you. Christians neither need to “go to the cross” for forgiveness by their act of remembrance nor do they need to have the cross made present for their active emulation by means of a sacramental act of the church. They simply need to go to the Lord’s Supper held according to Christ’s institution and believe the word, eat the body, and drink the blood. Then they have what the words declare to them personally and individually: forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Studies like these have their context and their prehistory. In this case, it is important to note that it is the latest in a series of publications on the Lord’s Supper that Dr. Wendebourg has published over the last decade and a half. In all of them, she has vigorously and tirelessly opposed those who seek to mingle sacrament and sacrifice when it comes to the Lord’s Supper by a “eucharistizing” of the same by following the lead of G. Dix and others. Her most controversial contribution was her 1997 Tübingen lecture discussing whether Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper merely represents the end stage of the Western Church’s so-called misunderstanding of the early church’s “eucharistic theology” in which consecration was supposedly done by way of first sacrificing bread and wine to God by means of the church’s prayer of thanksgiving (anaphora, canon of the mass), while the West – including Luther and the Lutheran Confessions (see SD VII, 75-82) – has traditionally insisted on consecration by the recitation of the words of institution alone.

As can be seen in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) hymnals published in the course of the last thirty years, all of which have featured a “great thanksgiving” (eucharistic prayer) in the service of the sacrament that incorporates the words of institution in the church’s prayer of thanksgiving, this thinking has borne much fruit among Lutherans in the United States as well. So it can be expected that the publication of that 1997 lecture in English in the Winter 2010 issue of Lutheran Forum will spark some controversy on this side of the Atlantic as well. Those interested in reading how she responds to her mainly Protestant (!) critics should get out their German dictionaries and pick up the 2002 issue of the Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche (pages 400-440), which, in my humble opinion, is even more illuminating than her original presentation and well worth the native English-speaking reader’s effort.

As can be learned from the study at hand, Zwingli’s approach to the Lord’s Supper—which defined it essentially and primarily as the Christian’s “memorial meal,” as the church’s “sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Eucharist), and as the Christians’ expression of mutual love—is much more akin to the “eucharistizing” and “ecclesializing” of the Lord’s Supper that has been afoot in the ecumenical discussions of recent decades. To be sure, it is not, as in Rome, thereby automatically transformed into the Christian’s virtuous contribution to his salvation, but it is the Christian’s work and action, even more exclusively so than in Rome. While recognizing the important differences between Zurich (or Geneva) and Rome in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, it is critical for Lutherans to recognize the striking similarity between both: they do not teach the Lord’s Supper as Christ’s testament in which he presently bestows his saving forgiveness by the word for faith and his body and blood in and under bread and wine for oral consumption. Both prefer man’s sacrifice and gifts over Christ’s sacrament and gift.

Worship services that are purely man’s praise and thanksgiving – including that famous “memorial meal” – find fertile ground on this theology of the Lord’s Supper, as do sermons that are long on man’s sanctification by love but silent on man’s salvation by faith in Christ’s work alone. Given man’s inherent legalism, this must cause problems, even in a theology that seeks to follow Zwingli’s (or Calvin’s) footsteps. Even though Zwingli agreed with Luther against Rome that man is justified by faith in the gospel of Christ’s atonement alone – something that is often forgotten among Lutherans who entertain a warm admiration for Rome’s “sacramental theology” that is totally devoid of the gospel – these problems are caused by the fact that, in Zwingli’s (and Calvin’s) theology, the gospel really has no concrete, creaturely form in this world to which the sinner can relate by faith.

This, to be sure, makes for a maximum of freedom in designing worship services that no longer need to conform to the concrete forms of the gospel that it has received in the means of grace at the hands of the Lord himself (see H. Sonntag, The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel, Minneapolis, 2010). What is more, the space vacated by God’s gospel activity in the means of grace is soon filled with man’s activities, preparations, and uncertain (and hence repeated: revivals, altar calls, etc.) decisions for Jesus.

Zwingli criticized Luther sharply for remaining stuck in popish sacramentalism. This is an accusation that is repeated to this day by Reformed theologians. However, after reading Dr. Wendebourg’s fine study, one can only wonder whether the understanding of the Lord’s Supper set forth by Zwingli and his associates, which excluded from it any present saving work of the Lord (sacrament) and thereby reduced it entirely to man’s or the church’s good work (sacrifice), is not paradoxically closer to Rome’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper than Luther’s teachings on the sacrament of the altar. What is denounced as “sacramentalism” and a deviation from the glory of the pure (purely spiritualistic, immediate) gospel may just be much more evangelical than Zwingli and his Evangelical and Reformed heirs can imagine.

Holger Sonntag
Hiram, OH