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Teaching Sacramental Theology in a Mennonite Seminary:
Descendants of John and Charles Wesley Engage Descendants of Menno Simons
and Ulrich Zwingli and Live to Tell About It!  

Daniel L. Garrett

Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in 1784, the same year the Methodists invented a new church in America. Franklin was attempting to deal with two focal points in a single lens. Methodism has struggled with a dual focused view of church, alternating between classic ecclesial definition and evangelical movement. The capacity to see both elements in our ecclesial life defines the Methodist lens on Church. It requires a balancing act to hold both sides in tension at once. In doing so, we are better able to understand some of the dynamic tensions within our church and between Wesleyan and other ecclesial traditions. This dialectical way of doing church provides a method for understanding United Methodist doctrine, polity, and worship.

I want to use as a case study a course I taught at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in the spring of 2007: Sacramental Theology and Liturgical Practice. The dialogue between United Methodists and Anabaptists as they explored sacramental and non-sacramental understandings of Baptism and Eucharist helped to clarify students’ understandings of each tradition and the tensions between them and within them in practical church life.

A key question provided the starting point for the explorations into sacramental theology: Who is the prime actor in Baptism and Eucharist? For Wesleyans the primacy of God’s grace locates the power in both baptism and the Lords’ Supper in what God is doing to make these acts efficacious. In classical sacramental statement both Baptism and the Eucharist effect the very thing they point to. For Anabaptists, the preoccupation resides with the anthropological focus of the Radical Reformation, namely, human response to the Gospel.

In the thought of Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation, the definitive characteristic of a sacrament was God’s initiative, but for Anabaptism it was the human response of faith and love. The nature of the human action with the sacrament, rather than the nature of the sacrament itself, stands at the center of Anabaptist interest. 1

Both understandings recognize the necessary connection between divine initiative and human response. The issues and controversies that have divided the traditions are more a matter of starting point and focus. Most controversies over sacramental practice result from entering the discussion from one side of the basic tension, and downplaying the essential balance between divine act and human response. To look at divine initiative and human response in dialectic tension, opens up needed dialogue and appreciation across old battle lines.

In the introductory class session, each student described their baptism and what they remembered about it. Typical of the practical ecumenism in the experience of most Americans, we found a wide variety and diversity in the churches in which students were baptized, and the age at which they were baptized. Catholic infants, Mennonite adolescents, United Methodist infants, adolescents, and adults, and adults in new evangelical churches had been initiated into the church in a variety of settings. Some reported “remembering” their baptism. Others describe something done without their consent or conscious understanding. Many described minimal preparation in a class prior to baptism as adolescents. I found it interesting that those baptized as adolescents or children at a so called “age of accountability” most often reported experiential remembrances around the mechanics of baptism, or the see-through potential of baptismal garments, rather than more profound reflections as “true believers.” Notwithstanding some typical adolescent concerns, there were also remembrances of deep feeling and meaning in the baptismal act itself.

Some Sacramental Basics

Since the issue of sacramentality itself was at issue in the makeup of the class, we began with a review of its basics, using Larry Stookey’s four-fold nature of how liturgical signs function. 2

James F. White provides a basic definition of sacramentality:

By sacramentality we mean the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible. 3

White also provides a review of some of the classic sacramental positions in Protestant thought. 4 By grouping them along classic sacramental and non-sacramental lines, one can begin to see clearly the outlines of the distinctions in ecclesial understanding and practice.

On the sacramental side:

On the non-sacramental perspective:

For better or worse, a large segment of Protestantism has remained in the orbit of the Enlightenment in its sacramental life. Sacraments are seen largely in a moralistic framework, reminding us of the past work of Christ but rarely seen as a present encounter with him today.

Reviewing both sides we can see within the sacramental tradition recognition of the necessity for faith [the human response side]. And to be sure, the Anabaptist tradition knows a God of grace [divine initiative] who calls for response in a divine-human synergy. The Anabaptist focus on that response leads to less definitional precision around the sacraments themselves, in favor of articulating the nature of the human response called for in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Foundational Ecumenical Perspectives

The seminal work of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry provides the most basic resource for ecumenical dialogue on the sacraments. 5Itoffers the single most comprehensive discussion of the ecumenicalconsensus with the provided benefit of identifying major questions still at issue. We explored the Baptism and Eucharist sections of the document.

The ecumenical dialogue group Bridgefolk alsoprovided valuable resources from the discussions between Roman Catholics and Mennonites. Articles and Papers from those dialogues were available to class participants. 6

Denominational Resources

The basic resources expressive of Anabaptist thought were:

United Methodist resources included:

Course Dynamics

The major course materials were introduced by the instructor through PowerPoint summaries and discussions in class. At every point the basic divine initiative – human response dialectic was embraced. This procedure proved invaluable particularly as the constellation of questions that have emerged in the tradition could be clarified by locating their primary focus in either the human response or the divine initiative side of the equation. Participants made class presentations on resources out of their own church traditions. This exercise helped clarify positions in the dialogue. The course concluded with discussion of the liturgical practices associated with the sacraments through videos, guided demonstrations on presiding, and review of sacramental liturgies. Throughout the course students prepared learning logs from each class session summarizing major points of learning and practical connections in their own ecclesial settings. Final papers were prepared by each student on the meaning of Baptism and Eucharist. This exercise was of particular interest to United Methodist students as they anticipated eventual ordination papers on the sacraments.

Some Pedagogical Values

Several things emerged from this teaching experience that can provide guidance for future efforts in the formation of United Methodist clergy:

Conclusion

Benjamin Franklin provided practical help for those of us who alternate between myopia and presbyopia. In ecclesial terms, when we take seriously the challenges of radical discipleship we run the risk of diminished focus on a transcendent/immanent God whose sovereignty and gracious working in us is the source and goal of all things. But a clear view of the divine initiative and freedom must not lose sight of the gracious calling that finds its completion in a responsive humanity. The near focus can lose sight of the overarching grace. The far vision can obscure the present and practical demand of taking up the work. Sharpening our acuity on both sides leads to the clearest and most balanced view. When things come into focus in a dialogical course, an Anabaptist student can report, “I’ve always felt that something more than our own serious discipleship was at stake when we gather at the Lord’s Table, and now I can name it.” And a United Methodist student can say, “I now see what the issue is with ‘believer baptists’ and it increases my appreciation for them and my own “remembrance” of my baptism as an infant.

It is a beautiful thing when Menno and John can shake hands, seeing each other more clearly. “Thanks, Mr. Franklin!”

 

ENDNOTES

1 John D. Rempel, TheLord’s Supper in Anabaptism: A Study in the Christology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and Dirk Philips (Herald Press,1993), p. 26.

2 Laurence Hull Stookey, Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church (Abingdon, 1982), pp. 21-23.

3 James F. White, The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith (Abingdon Press, 1999), p. 13.

4 Ibid, pp. 17-23.

5 Faith and Order Paper 111. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (World Council of Church,1984).

6 The Bridgefolk dialogue group can be accessed online at http://www.bridgefolk.net.