Turning the Table: Moltmann and the Sacraments

Continuing in reading A Broad Place this week, I came across the background story behind Moltmann’s view of the Sacraments.  In The Church in the Power of the Spirit he makes cases (1) for an open table at the “messianic feast” of the Lord’s Supper, and (2) for believer’s baptism over and against infant baptism.  This story sheds light on the question of why.

On pages 163 and 164 of A Broad Place, Moltmann recounts that in October 1968 he had “two very different eucharistic experiences”.  The first was at a demonstration against the Vietnam War in London.  Prior to the event, a group of Protestants and Catholics  “met in the offices of the Catholic publisher Sheed & Ward, and with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, sitting on the floor, we prepared ourselves for the demonstration by agreeing to renounce violence. . . . Bread and wine passed from hand to hand in a small circle, and we felt the bodily presence of Jesus among us” (163).  Moltmann then contrasts this with an experience at St. Giles Cathedral.  There, “After the sermon, those who stayed behind were served the Lord’s Supper on silver trays by servers clad in black.  The participants sat separate from one another, scattered here and there in the great church.  There was no sense of community and I went out of the beautiful church depressed.” This leads him to ask and conclude: 

Where does Jesus’ feast belong?  On the streets of the poor who follow Jesus, or in the church of the baptized, the confirmed and established? I decided for the feast that is open to all, and to which the weary and heavy-laden are invited.  Baptism on the other hand, should be reserved for believers.  That certainly contradicts the practice of our mainline churches, but it is in conformity with Jesus according to the Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus’ Supper is not a church meal for people who belong to one’s own denomination.  It is the feast of the crucified Christ, whose hands are stretched out to everyone. (A Broad Place p. 163)

This reversal of conventional mainline practice – opening the table to all and restricting baptism to believers – is one of the most unique aspects of Moltmann’s approach to the sacraments.  Yet it seems few have followed him in pursuing these radical suggestions.  Later in A Broad Place, Moltmann notes of The Church in the Power of the Spirit that “Hardly a single one of my suggestions was accepted”, and lists his reversal of the inclusivity and exclusivity of the sacraments as an example (Broad Placep. 204).  This is curious, given that other theological revolutions in which Moltmann was involved have made lasting impacts, such as rejecting the impassibility of the Greek notion of deity, emphasizing a social Trinity, and rethinking theology in light of eschatology.

In fact, this reversal can be credited to Moltmann’s eschatological perspective on all theology.  He writes that “baptism and the Lord’s supper are signs of the messianic era” (Church in the Power of the Spirit p. 243). Baptism marks the entryway into the hope of the coming kingdom of God.  It would make sense, then, that only those who have tasted that hope and are committed to living for it receive baptism: “It is a sign of the dawn of hope for this world and of messianic service in it.  it is a missionary sign” (Church in the Power of the Spirit p. 241).  Similarly, the Supper is an eschatological event, a foretaste of the messianic kingdom coming in its fullness.  But because Jesus shares in table-fellowship with all kinds of people, the Supper is open to all.  Because the Supper’s “fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ’s unconditional and prevenient invitation”, the invitation to communion in worship is “as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross” (Church in the Power of the Spirit pgs 259 and 246).  

What would happen if some churches actually put these ideas into practice? Who would it offend and why?  Is the theology bad, or are these ideas credible?  What else (aside from 2,000 years of tradition) prevents churches from making radical changes like this?

 

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9 comments
  1. Chris,
    These are two HUGE issues that I have been wrestling with lately. Thank you so much for digging deeper into them, and for being willing to open up debate. I’m gonna have to spend a bit more money on Amazon and pick that book up.

  2. mikegehrling said:

    I haven’t read The Church in the Power of the Spirit, but it seems to me that Moltmann has at least two assumptions behind his conclusions on baptism that are questionable.

    1.) His view is based on a value of individualism and self-autonomy that is particularly Western and particularly post-Enlightenment. Committing to living into the hope of the inbreaking Kingdom then requires a personal choice and as such…

    2.) … infants are incapable of making that personal choice and therefore shouldn’t be baptized.

    Assumption 1 is a part of the worldview of most in the modern and postmodern West, but it’s not the assumption of most of the rest of the world, and not the assumption of Scripture. Scripture was written in a culture that is considerable more hierarchical and less egalitarian. Identity was found less in the individual and more in the life of the family/tribe/community. (Hence why entire households were baptized).

    Assumption 2 is also questionable for other reasons. I would think that because Jesus was at one time a baby, it’s possible for a baby to follow Jesus, even if that choice is not personally made. In fact, Jesus’ life as a baby was dictated by his parents, who we know from Luke raised Jesus as a good pious Jew.

    Babies then who are being raised by Christian parents are following in the way of Jesus, even though that’s not their free choice. I can think of numerous examples of Christian parents I know (my own parents included) who have raised or are raising their babies as Christians. They’re teaching them to pray, they’re reading Scripture with them, and they’re raising them in the context of a church community. Despite their lack of choice (in this or any other matter), these babies are following in the life of Jesus by their parents’ choice, just as everything else they do is by their parents’ choice. I think babies in these contexts should always be baptized, because they are participating in the life of Jesus.

    Granted, I suspect that Moltmann wouldn’t have the view of baptism he has if all baptized babies were being raised in this context. Moltmann’s critique is still helpful in pointing out that the church is far too quick to baptize babies who are clearly not going to be raised in a context of following Jesus. I’m going Moltmann has seen much of the latter and less of the former living in post Christendom Europe, and the latter is an abomination to be rejected.

    A faithful practice of infant baptism would call into question our Western assumptions of individuality and self-autonomy. Infant baptism bears witness to the fact that parents are hugely influential over the life of their children. Just as parents are responsible for making all other choices for their babies, Christian parents ought to be able to make the choice for baptism on behalf of their babies, provided that they’re also going to continue to choose to raise their child in a life of following Jesus.

  3. Chris Brown said:

    Thanks Mike. I still have questions though regarding the difference between communal and individual identity. Simply put, you can’t have community without individuals. If the members of the community have no individual identities, then the community is not a community, but a singularity. Community is comprised of many individual identites. Moltmann’s sense of the social Trinity reveals this: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as one in community precisely because they have distinct identities. Individual identity, and thus individual choice, matters.

    Regarding the raising of babies in Christian households, consider the Amish practice of Rumspringa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumspringa. Here, in arguably one of the most disciplined forms of Christian upbringing, children are still given a choice of whether or not to accept baptism. Most still choose to remain in the church and be baptized, probably an effect of their upbringing, but it remains their choice.

  4. mikegehrling said:

    But why is self-autonomy, or individual choice, a requirement for identity? An infant has no individual choice. His/her parents choose its diet, living environment, clothing, the faith in which s/he will be raised… Yet the baby still has a unique personality. Does the baby’s lack of choice in pretty much everything mean the baby is not an individual?

    Regarding baptism, then, I would think that the eventual choice a child in the church would make is a choice whether or not to reject their upbringing. As someone raised in the church, I can’t think of a particular time I ‘chose’ to follow Jesus. I always have. What I’ve chosen is not to reject the faith into which I was born and raised. (Granted, there are some who were baptized as infants who will make a conscious choice later in life to follow, but these scenarios I think are more the result of parents not taking seriously their choice for baptism on behalf of their children, which is a problem.) Parents have the responsibility for making every decision for their children in the early, and very formative, stages of their life. I don’t see why baptism would be excluded from this. Like any other aspect of a person’s heritage, s/he can choose to reject that upbringing.

    If baptism is entrance into the eschatalogical Kingdom, then children being faithful raised in that context should be baptized. They may choose to leave the Kingdom later, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t within the Kingdom to begin with. The prodigal son didn’t become “son” only when he returned. The prodigal was the son of the father before he left and rejected that identity. His return was just that, a return to an identity previously bestowed upon him that he rejected.

  5. Moltmann’s rejection of infant baptism in part relates in part from the long standing relationship in European culture of connecting baptism with citizenship. It was a mark of a cultural Christianity, that goes back to Justinian’s decrees on religion and the state. Decrees used to justify the execution of Anabaptists.

    But remember as well that infant baptism traditions require that one own one’s faith in confirmation.

  6. Dan Thayer said:

    Moltmann presents a false dichotomy on the Lord’s Supper. Rigid, dead, institutionalization and a completely open table are not the only two options.

    His theological reasons are interesting and even somewhat compelling. But he can only arrive at the conclusions he does by ignoring large swaths of scripture and church tradition. His view of communion simply cannot be reconciled with 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; Jesus did have table fellowship with all kinds of people, but He instituted the supper at a meal with only his closest disciples; and the early church universally understood it to be a meal for believers, to the point of not even allowing unbelievers to be present when it was served. Does any of this matter?

    Yes, the church needs to be more welcoming, more loving, more humble, more willing to eat with sinners, and so on. Yes, there are some really crummy, lame presentations of Communion out there. However, neither problem is caused by excessive faithfulness to Scripture and tradition. Just the opposite: we fail to truly embrace the radical, transforming Gospel of the cross that these things have given us. If we are not leading a transformed life, the our understanding of the sacrament can’t help but be lacking, for receiving Christ’s body and blood is inextricably linked to being formed in His image. If there is no visible difference between Christians and unbelievers, then we are not bearing witness to the kingdom, and the distinction between those inside and outside the church becomes arbitrary. This naturally leads to feeling guilty that we are excluding others, and thus we open the table. This move does make us more consistent, but unfortunately it is consistently wrong.

    Sorry if this is harsh. When I talk about not being transformed, I am talking about myself most of all.

  7. Tony Bellows said:

    Our church does offer that “open invitation”, that any who want to come forward to communion may, it is enough that they desire to come. This is always made explicit at services which have lots of non-regular people such as Christmas, Easter and All Souls. But our Rector has met Moltmann, and I know thinks a lot of his theology.

  8. Jonathan Pierce said:

    Open tables are not that all uncommon. I’ve never been in an Anglican church that practices otherwise, though they probably exist. As for baptism, clearly washing away of sin and repentance, as well as creedal confession, stand at the forefront. And thus, almost no notion, if any, of covenant identity. Clear not only the bible, but via the witness of ALL early church fathers. Too, while many of those who argue for community identity when it comes to baptism, throw out the idea when it comes to predestination and election. But before we become to community-oriented in the reading or scripture, let’s recall that Augustine saw election as individualistic. Indeed, at a point in history when no such thinking is supposedly possible. So yes, let’s be mindful of our cultural assumptions, but let’s also allow scripture to speak for itself.

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