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Exchange and ecstasy: Luther's eucharistic theology in light of Radical Orthodoxy's critique of gift and sacrifice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2007

Piotr J. Malysz*
Harvard Divinity School, 45 Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA


It is frequently alleged that Martin Luther's doctrine of justification by grace through faith posits absolute human passivity vis-à-vis God and, on account of the past completion of Christ's sacrifice, disconnects Christians from the cross. This article takes issue with this view. Specifically, it disputes the claim that, through his doctrine of justification, Luther became an unwitting advocate of the conceptual juxtaposition of gift and exchange and thus also an ideologue of the shift from an organic to a contractual view of society. Instead, I argue, Luther's eucharistic theology anticipates the concerns of Radical Orthodoxy's critique of gift and sacrifice. It does so, however, in a more forceful manner, in that for Luther gift and exchange are so bound together in his doctrine of justification that the eucharist, instead of being a mere paradigm for social relationships (as Radical Orthodoxy would have it), radically restructures those relationships in the all-embracing unfolding of its participatory gratuity. An additional merit of Luther's vision lies in its systematic description of the eucharist's gift-character in terms of socially and vocationally construed delay and non-identical repetition, actively involving both God and humans – a description not afforded by Radical Orthodoxy's critique.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2007

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1 Cavanaugh, William T., ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Social Imagination in Early Modern Europe’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31/3 (2001), pp. 585605CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 John, Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 139Google Scholar.

3 Cavanaugh comments: ‘the attempt to give without receiving in return contradicts its own other-regarding ethic by obliterating the other in the other's particularity. By closing off the possibility of receiving from the other, the other cannot be known as other, but only as an occasion for the exercise of duty by the self’ (‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, p. 597).

4 Ibid., p. 598.

5 Cf. Bernd Moeller's study, Imperial Cities in the Reformation, where the medieval city is described as a ‘collective individual’ and a ‘sacred society’. According to Moeller, because the ‘community was responsible for the salvation of its members’, there was a sense of ‘solidarity of the citizens before God’. As a result, ‘[m]aterial welfare and eternal salvation were not differentiated and thus the borders between the secular and spiritual areas of life disappeared’. As Moeller notes, while the Reformation might have aided the transition to a different conceptualization of the community, it did so only because it was actively embraced by communities that were already experiencing a widening gap between the rich and the poor, oligarchic tendencies on the magistrates’ part, and the broadening of the community's worldview as it now – no longer a self-contained universe – had to defend itself against neighbouring lords. Imperial Cities in the Reformation: Three Essays, ed. and trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pp. 42–53.

6 Cavanaugh, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, p. 598.

7 Ibid., p. 592.

8 Ibid., p. 597.

9 ‘. . . human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything’; ‘Scripture. . . represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive’ (‘De Servo Arbitrio’ (1525), Luther's Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, 55 vols (St Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress Press, 1955–86), abbreviated as ‘LW’, 33:121, 130 = Dr. Martin Luthers Werke, 69 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–1993), abbreviated as ‘WA’, 18:674, 679).

10 Cf. ‘Lectures on Romans’ (1515–16), LW 25:291, 313, 345; WA 56:304, 325, 356.

11 Cf. Luther's explanation of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed in his ‘Small Catechism’ (1529), II.2 (various English editions available); WA 30I:247–8.

12 For example, ‘As the greatest of all abominations I regard the mass when it is preached or sold as a sacrifice or good work, which is the basis on which all religious foundations and monasteries now stand’ (‘Confession Concerning Christ's Supper’ (1528), LW 37:370–1; WA 26:508).

13 ‘Admonition Concerning the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord’ (1530), LW 38:118–19; WA 30II:611.

14 ‘Lectures on Galatians’ (1535), LW 26:284; WA 40I:443.

15 Ibid., LW 26:227, 233; WA 40I:360, 369.

16 Cf. Thesis 28 of Luther's ‘Heidelberg Disputation’ (1518): ‘The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it’ (LW 31:57; WA 1:365).

17 LW 31:298; WA 2:146 (emphasis added).

18 For an account of Luther's doctrine of justification, see Marshall, Bruce D., ‘Justification as Declaration and Deification’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 4/1 (2002), pp. 328CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a different account, which attempts to construe the participatory and declarative elements of Luther's doctrine in terms of his ethic, see my forthcoming article, ‘Nemo iudex in causa sua as the Basis of Law, Justice, and Justification in Luther's Thought’ (Harvard Theological Review 100:3 (2007)).

19 ‘If we do not make exceptions and strictly follow the law we do the greatest injustice of all’ (‘Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved’ (1526), LW 46:100; WA 19:630).

20 Cf. ‘Two Kinds of Righteousness’, LW 31:300; WA 2:147.

21 ‘Freedom of a Christian’ (1520), LW 31:371; WA 7:69.

22 ‘Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved’, LW 46:108; WA 19:636.

23 ‘The Misuse of the Mass’ (1521), LW 36:145; WA 8:492.

24 For this reason, Luther can affirm, ‘Works are necessary to salvation. . . It is necessary to work. Nevertheless, it does not follow that works save on that account, unless we understand necessity very clearly as the necessity that there must be an inward and outward salvation or righteousness. Works save outwardly, that is, they show evidence that we are righteous and that there is faith in a man which saves inwardly’ (‘The Disputation Concerning Justification’ (1536), LW 34:165, WA 39I:96a).

25 Cavanaugh, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, p. 597.

26 Luther's mediatory schema suggests one way of conceptualising the mutual participation of the finite in the infinite, the mode of which, by Milbank's own admission, remains mysterious and incomprehensible. What is at stake here is the identity of the creature, as well as the infinitude of the divine, which Milbank appears to compromise. His attempt to elaborate a theory of truth that is both realist and participatory is laudable. However, the corresponding dynamic notion of essence he has put forth to account for reality's flux leaves one wondering whether it suffices to view essences as series of infinite aspects, without some sort of appeal to realist form. The advantage of Luther's account lies in the careful interlacing of not only individual but also communal elements in the emergence of identity, even as this identity is always seen as proceeding from and returning to God. In other words, through mediation identity remains materially open to another while remaining formally self-same. Thus it seems that Luther strikes the right balance between form and aspectual variation, while, in addition, conceiving of creaturely identity as both individual and communal in its thoroughgoingly participatory character. See John Milbank, ‘Truth and Identity: The Thomistic Telescope’, as well as its critique in Matthew Cuddleback, ‘Milbank's Telescope: A Response’, both found in Providence Studies in Western Civilization: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Writings from a Judeo-Christian Perspective 8/1 (2003), pp. 20–45 and 46–59 respectively.

27 John, Milbank, ‘Can a Gift be Given? Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic’, Modern Theology 11/1 (1995), p. 127Google Scholar.

28 Ibid., pp. 125, 144.

29 Cavanaugh, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, p. 588.

30 ‘What sacrifices, then, are we to offer? Ourselves, and all that we have, with constant prayer, as we say, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. With this we are to yield ourselves to the will of God, that he may make of us what he will, according to his own pleasure. In addition we are to offer him praise and thanksgiving with our whole heart, for his unspeakable, sweet grace and mercy, which he has promised and given us in this sacrament. And although such a sacrifice occurs apart from the mass, and should so occur – for it does not necessarily and essentially belong to the mass, as has been said – yet it is more precious, more appropriate, more mighty, and also more acceptable when it takes place with the multitude and in the assembly, where men encourage, move, and inflame one another to press close to God and thereby attain without any doubt what they desire’ (‘A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass’ (1520), LW 35:98; WA 6:368).

31 For Luther's understanding of vocation, see Gustaf, Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Rasmussen, Carl. C. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957)Google Scholar.

32 ‘. . . the mass has been instituted that we may there come together and offer such sacrifice in common’ (‘A Treatise on the New Testament’, LW 35:100; WA 6:369).

33 Luther could hardly be more emphatic: ‘The sacrament does not belong to the priests but to all the people’ (‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ (1520), LW 36:27; WA 6:507).

34 I am aware of the kind of baggage Irigaray's thought brings with itself; nonetheless, if it is possible to set this baggage aside for the moment, I would like to give her critical insights this broader application, for I find her language, first, both concise and trenchant, and, second, strangely akin to Luther's critique of the commercialisation of the eucharist in the late Middle Ages (cf. n. 42 below).

35 Luce, Irigaray, ‘Women on the Market’, in Schrift, Alan D. (ed.), The Logic of Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 177–8Google Scholar.

36 Ibid., p. 188.

37 As Robert Jenson points out, the necessity to posit a distinct priesthood may have its roots in Chalcedon's failing to conceive of the hypostatic union in any actual, ontological and material way. In the West this has given rise to the prevalence of ‘a merely notional analysis of “one hypostasis”’, which views Christ's works as always properly performed according to one of the natures, without regarding the one hypostasis as the actual agent. Consequently, Jenson continues, the Eucharistic presence of Christ's body had to be regarded by medieval theology as a strictly ‘supernatural’ event, not enabled by the incarnation but always in need of being established anew. In what Jenson calls ‘decidedly ad hoc fashion’, the fact of this presence was, then, guaranteed through the celebrant's ordination. By contrast, for some of Luther's younger followers, the mystery of the incarnation was itself the mystery of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper – there was no need for any further dogmatic constructs. See Jenson, Robert W., ‘Luther's Contemporary Theological Significance’, in McKim, Donald K. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: University Press, 2003), pp. 274–5Google Scholar.

38 Milbank, Being Reconciled, pp. 147, 150.

39 Cavanaugh, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, p. 601.

40 Milbank, ‘Can a Gift be Given?’ p. 135.

41 Cf. ‘A Treatise on the New Testament’, LW 35:98–101; WA 368–70.

42 In the context of this mutual communal openness, Luther does, of course, allow intercession and thanksgiving on behalf of others, as should, indeed, be done within the body of Christ. His only warning is that this function of the community cannot be subject to contractual regulation, nor can it be used as a pretext for removing someone or oneself from the organic life of the community. Luther writes: ‘I also want to concede that they [ministers, priests] may perform these sacrifices of thanksgiving for others, just as I can also thank God apart from the mass, for Christ and all his saints, yes, for all creatures. Therefore, the priest may think thus in his heart: Behold, dear God, I am using and receiving this sacrament to your praise and thanks because you have made Christ and all his saints so glorious. For who does not know that we are in any case obligated to thank God for ourselves, for all people, for all creatures, as St. Paul teaches? For this reason I am indeed able to tolerate the fact that the priests gave thanks to God in the mass for us all, if they do not do this as something special and regard it as being something other than the lay sacrament, as if the layman could not and should not also receive or use the sacrament by expressing the same thanks. I will not tolerate the ‘superpriest’ (den Sonderling) in this common and universal sacrament. Much less will I tolerate that they should give thanks for others, that is, on behalf of others, so that when the priest gives thanks it would be as if I gave thanks, and I could give him money so that he would give thanks for me and in my place. No, I do not want to have such commercialism nor do I tolerate such bartering and dealing’ (‘Admonition Concerning the Sacrament’, LW 38:121–2; WA 30II:613–14; emphasis added).

43 Note that Luther himself prefers to speak of ‘the Supper’ (das Abendmahl) or ‘the Sacrament of the Altar’ (das Sakrament des Altars).

44 ‘That These Words of Christ, “This is my body”, etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics’ (1527), LW 37:143–4; WA 23:273 (emphasis added).

45 ‘Admonition Concerning the Sacrament’, LW 38:117; WA 30II:610.

46 Cavanaugh, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, p. 599.

47 Milbank, ‘Can a Gift be Given?’ p. 125.

48 Cavanaugh, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice’, p. 590. Cf., e.g., ‘Confession Concerning Christ's Supper’, LW 37:192–3; WA 26:294–7.

49 ‘A Treatise on the New Testament’, LW 35:99; WA 6:369.

50 ‘On the Councils and the Church’ (1539), LW 41:164–5; WA 50:641–2.

51 I would like to thank Sarah Coakley for drawing my attention to Cavanaugh's paper, as well as for being so unstintingly generous with her time.

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