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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 70–72 

Book Review

The Lord's Supper in Anabaptism: A Study in the Christology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and Dirk Philips

John D. Rempel. Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History. No. 33. Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald, 1993. 270 pages.

Reviewed by Stephen Varvis

This work is both larger and smaller than its title. It is not a study of the Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism in the sixteenth century as its title might indicate. It is a study of three prominent sixteenth-century Anabaptist leaders and thinkers. It is a theological critique of the theological development and practice of the Lord’s Supper in the history of Anabaptism, and in these three thinkers especially. It is also an appeal to theologians and church leaders today to take it upon themselves to understand more fully this central practice and doctrine of our Christian faith and life, to move out of the “reductive tendencies” (p. 223) or Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and practice of the {71} Lord’s Supper. It offers the three sixteenth century theologians as resources for that understanding and movement. Rempel seems to be uniquely qualified to offer such a work as an MCC representative to the United Nations, a pastor, a former college chaplain and professor.

These thinkers are important enough, and Rempel’s exposition of them is profound enough that an encouragement to those who might want to work through the text is in order. Hubmaier’s theology was a radically new departure that established the tendency in Anabaptist thought that sees a sacramental ceremony as a response rather than a means of grace. He encapsulates his understanding of the ceremony as “the body of Christ in remembrance”; it is a pledge of the Church to bring “Christ’s love to the neighbor.” Christ himself is in heaven, but the Church as a loving body incarnates his presence. In contrast Marpeck retains something like a traditional acceptance of the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, but focuses his attention not on the transformation of the elements, but on the action and transformation of the community of the Church: “. . . it is not the element by itself which mediates grace. When it is appropriated by faith and thereby brought into contact with the Holy Spirit, it becomes one with the reality to which it points” (145). Dirk Philips is the figure whose theological explanation might be considered most characteristically Anabaptist, in our older understanding: the element and ceremony are understood as symbols, by which we remember Christ’s death and resurrection. However, Rempel shows a deeper tension in Dirk which moves him beyond the conventional understanding of Zwinglian symbolism (which is itself subject to question in recent studies) and sacramentarian teaching. The Church and the individual Christian are “divinized” in earthly existence through the Spirit, brought closer to heaven and the reality of the Spirit. The promised communion with Christ in heaven is signified in the breaking of bread. Each of these three theologians struggles to define and maintain a distinctive doctrine and practice in response to the various forms of their Catholic heritages, the equally various doctrines of the other reforming traditions, the spiritualistic tendencies which are part of the Radical Reformation, and the distinctively Anabaptist directions of their own commitments. These all are thinkers and insights to ponder for future work on the possibility of an Anabaptist sacramental doctrine, which clearly seems to have been the intent of these three.

The three theologians selected for consideration develop and rely upon different Christologies, and develop uniquely different doctrines of the Supper. Rempel is not afraid to point out the weaknesses of each of the three, as well as the possibilities and surprises they might have for us. Marpeck clearly seems to be the most theologically nuanced, the most traditional (read “orthodox”) in his Christology, exhibits the least of the reductive qualities of the three, and perhaps offers the most for current theologians to consider and {72} possibly appropriate. Even with Marpeck, however, Rempel is not hesitant to point out that his work is not finished; it is formed through response to questions, in conflict, and must be understood with its unresolved tensions. Both Hubmaier and Dirk offer insights that might be considered more distinctively Anabaptist. Their intriguing formulations, however, we rarely, if ever, encounter in later Anabaptist history and theology. And their teaching, as Rempel demonstrates, is less thoroughly considered and carefully developed than Marpeck’s. Rempel is careful to discuss each of the three in the context of their individual development, and without a thorough comparison with the various doctrinal traditions of the broader Church. This seems to be the appropriate method in a study that requires such detail and is on such a neglected topic. I would question his conclusion about their various similarities with for example Zwingli, and especially Calvin. Rempel indicates Dirk’s similarity with Calvin. In light of recent studies such as B.A. Gerrish’s study of Calvin, Grace and Gratitude (1993), Marpeck seems to be more clearly working with the same issues and in the same direction as Calvin, and this might be further expected given their mutual proximity to Martin Bucer and Strassburg. We can say, I think, that here we are at the beginning of notable ecumenical and liturgical work that has something to offer to Mennonite churches, and to the Evangelical and other Protestant churches as well.

The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism, it should be stated, is an academic work, a former dissertation, well written and edited for a broader public. And it should be read by all who are interested in our faith and practice in worship. But it is a difficult work, requiring concentrated study, and a few hints about how to approach it might be helpful. I found the introductory chapter on theological and historical background rough going. Readers interested in a summary of the book’s historical and theological results should turn to the extraordinary conclusion, which includes a brief but perceptive review of current Mennonite theologies of the Supper, a summary of each of the three sixteenth-century figures, as well as a statement about current needs and a call toward future possibilities—all this in only 30 pages! Start here. The three central chapters, one on each of the three thinkers, and the introduction might then be returned to for careful study. Each contributes to a increased awareness of the depth of Anabaptist-Mennonite spirituality and theology. Rempel has given us an important and creative work which should influence our teaching and our worship.

Stephen Varvis
Fresno Pacific College,
Fresno, California

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