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  /  Resources   /  Focus on Christ

Focus on Christ with George Hunsinger

It’s important to keep our focus on Christ and the relational nature of the eucharist; it can serve to break down denominational barriers.

JMF: I’d like to talk about one of the subjects you brought up in your book, How to Read Karl Barth, and that is ordo salutis, and how that plays out. Could you begin by talking about or by telling us what it means in English, and then about the history and…

GH: Ordo salutis means order of salvation. This term comes from the 17th century. I tend to think about these things more from the standpoint of Calvin and Luther and the original Reformers, and not what the later more scholastic theologians did 75 to 100 years later. Is there a temporal sequence in which things have to fall, or, if not, are there ways in which one thing necessarily presupposes something else first? Like, can I have faith without having first repented? That might be temporal, but it might also be logical. The very idea of faith presupposes that I have repented. Calvin thought repentance, for example, was a lifelong process.

Sometimes it’s related to how justification and sanctification are related. First you would be justified in point of time and then that would kick off a process of sanctification. But it might be not temporal, but logical. You couldn’t be in the process of sanctification if you had not logically already been justified. And where does adoption fit in? Do you have to be adopted first in order to be justified and then sanctified?

One that is pretty important and is (not always but sometimes) brought out in this idea of ordering is: when do you enter into union with Christ? Calvin’s idea was that the person is brought into union with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who creates faith. So Calvin taught that faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit and faith joins us to Christ. Then Calvin would use the word simul, and then simultaneously out of union with Christ, there’s a “double grace” he put it, duplex gratia dea, a two-fold grace of God, justification and sanctification. Calvin did not make sanctification dependent upon justification. He made justification and sanctification dependent upon union with Christ. That’s the order that I would hold to.

There’s another order in some later Lutheran theologians, that you have to be justified first in order to enter into union with Christ and to participate in Christ. That almost seems contrary to Luther to me, insofar as I understand it, because of Luther’s emphasis that grace comes to lost sinners. Grace brings us into union with Christ, Christ enters into us, we enter into Christ, there’s a kind of mutual indwelling. You don’t have to be made holy or righteous in order to have union with Christ. Union with Christ brings about justification and sanctification, righteousness and life. That is one way the question of the order of salvation is still important.

Does union with Christ depend upon repentance or justification or some other thing, or is it the foundation of everything else? Calvin and Barth, and also Luther, all believed that union with Christ was bedrock and was given by grace through faith. Every other aspect of salvation, whatever it might be, comes out of that. But from that point, on it’s a kind of a hodgepodge. There’s no clear order. There’s no logical set of ordering principles, no temporal order.

The important thing is union and communion with Christ by grace through faith. After that, the idea of ordo salutis becomes a kind of a distraction. It directs your attention to how you’re doing when living out the Christian life, as opposed to keeping your focus on Christ alone. It’s almost like Peter being out there on the water, and he’s looking at Christ, but all of a sudden the question of ordo salutis arises and he looks to himself and starts sinking. There’s a way in which Christian piety can become too preoccupied with itself, and the ordo salutis concept is perhaps one way in which that is fostered. The important thing is to keep our focus on Christ.

JMF: In your recent book, The Eucharist and Ecumenism, you have a passion for unity in Christ between churches and the ability to take communion together. What triggered that? What lays behind your interest in the topic and the development of it?

GH: It’s profoundly disordered that we should have so many separate churches and denominations. Jesus came that we might all be one. If we have reached the point where some Christians are excluded from the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharistic celebrations of other Christians, this is not only wrong in itself, but it’s a terrible testimony to the world. I read a story recently about a man in India who was a Dalit, a member of the untouchables, and he became a Christian. He had been a leader among the Dalits, and he said, “Christianity recognizes the dignity and the full humanity of all human beings and therefore of the untouchables. We should all become Christians.”

The response he got was, “We can’t become Christians because if we did we would lose our unity as Dalits.” A lot of them have become Christians anyway, but it’s a sign of how the missionary movement imported the divisions that had grown up in Europe to the rest of the world by reproducing those divisions in the mission field. The ecumenical movement in recent times has come out of the missionary movement in the great conference that took place in Edinburgh in 1910. It was missionaries gathering together to see what could be done to try to recover some more robust expression of Christianity so that it wouldn’t be undermining the efforts that they were engaged in around the world.

It seems profoundly wrong to me that Christians have allowed things to get to the point that there’s not Eucharistic sharing. This is something that is perceived in some sectors of all Christian traditions and communions. Vatican II has a very strong decree on ecumenism, the Vatican has been very dedicated in doing what it can, within limits, to overcome the divisions, especially in the outreach to Eastern Orthodox Christians. There’s a new openness on their part to trying to work together to see if we can’t live more faithfully in accord with Christ and the gospel, because there’s this perception that there are true Christians in all the different denominations and traditions, and yet we’re divided at the point where we ought to be the most united. So it’s a matter of faithfulness to Christ and obedience to the gospel that we should all strive to do what we can from our side to make sure that we are all one. There’s a scandal to this wound, around the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

JMF: In the book The Eucharist and Ecumenism, you say this, “The Christian community is called to attest, mediate, and anticipate the unity of Christ in the Eucharistic assembly.” Can you expand on that?

GH: We talked once before about Colossians 3:3, “You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.” There’s a sense in which that’s true of our unity in Christ. It’s hid with Christ in God. We are one, and we need to become one — we need to become what we are. Attesting that unity means attesting it in its reality as it exists in Christ with God. That can’t be undone, even by our divisions. But it also needs to be anticipated. There will be a day when these divisions will be made to seem ridiculous and indefensible, but they won’t be in force anymore.

I like to think of the promised future in terms of a meal, in terms of the Messianic Banquet or the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. I think the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist is the present tense form of that final meal. It’s the presence of that future here and now. I’ve talked before about the last judgment, the cross of Christ, and pretemporal election as being three forms of one and the same event, the Messianic Banquet, the Last Supper, and Calvary together in a complex unity — these are three forms of one and the same event. So the Lord’s Supper also mediates that unity.

The present tense form of that unity is most significantly and intensively expressed when the church gathers together around the table in order to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. That’s bringing you Christ in his saving significance into the present from the past where his once-for-all sacrifice was accomplished, and it’s also anticipating that which is yet to come. We are attesting something, something that has taken place in its perfect and definitive sense, the finished saving work of Christ, that once-for-all aspect of it. The only thing we can do in that respect is to attest it.

We can’t add to it, it doesn’t need to be added to. We can’t possibly add to it, it’s a finished and perfect work, but we’re called to be witnesses to Christ and his once-for-all obedience and saving sacrifice. We attest it, we anticipate that future form that it will take in the kingdom of God, and it should be mediated here and now, which means that we shouldn’t be excluding one another from our individual denominational celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. If we’re doing that, we need to dig into the roots of what’s behind these divisions and ask what can be reasonably and faithfully done to overcome them, so that that invisible unity which already exists can be made more fully visible for what it is here and now.

JMF: So, ironically, for a church that doesn’t have communion with other churches or share communion with other churches, when they partake of communion, they’re actually attesting and anticipating the day when that very attitude and exclusion will not exist anymore.

GH: I think so. But the people who have these exclusions think that they’re the only true church and that the ecumenical solution is that we should all join their church. Every denomination has people like this. It just can’t be true. There are real Christians spread throughout the churches, and it needs to be worked out that these sinful divisions are suffered and overcome and not just tolerated and written off as if they’re insignificant.

Another thing to keep in mind is the shape of world Christianity. There are about 6 billion people in the world, roughly. How many of them are Christians? A third of them are Christians. So there are about 2 billion Christians in the world. Let’s just stick with that, and that’s a pie-shaped graph. How many of those 2 billion are Roman Catholic? About half of them. Half of the pie-shaped graph are Roman Catholic.

What about Eastern Orthodox churches? It’s hard to find out. I wrote to some Eastern Orthodox scholars, and it depends on how you define Eastern Orthodox churches and are you talking about active members or people just on the rolls, and you get these kind of problems with statistics, but as a ballpark figure, 15 to 17 percent more. So we’re looking at almost 70 percent of the world’s Christians that have this high sacramental understanding of the church and the Christian life.

What about Protestants? Protestants as a whole, including Anglicans and Episcopalians, they might be another 20 percent. But they’re fragmented among themselves. There are more Anglicans than there are Lutherans, they’re within this little piece of the pie, and there are more Lutherans than there are Reform. I’m a Reformed theologian, I’m a Presbyterian minister, but I represent one sliver of world Christianity, maybe leaving one or two percent in there, and then, where things are burgeoning is with the Pentecostal and the charismatic churches.

But the Roman Catholic Church also is growing rapidly in the global south. My little sliver there is (where I have my home, so I think about that), you know how many different Reform denominations there are? The World Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches did a study. They were shocked. There are 750 Reformed denominations. So it’s like we’ve got this little sliver of pie…you have to be like a Japanese chef, you’ve got to divide that little sliver up into 750 pieces.

From a Catholic standpoint and an Orthodox standpoint, that’s what they would expect. They thought, “you get rid of bishops, you get rid of any institutionalized form of authority, you’re going to fragment, you’re going to disintegrate.” We’re not in the 16th century anymore. The evidence is in. Protestantism is fissiparous, as they say. It breaks up into parts.

You may know the little book by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. Lewis’s idea of hell is that nobody can get along with anybody else, so they’re constantly moving away from one another. This is almost an image for Protestantism. Every time somebody does something that you think is wrong, you do what’s right in your own eyes, and you form your own little new denomination. There’s something wrong with this picture. We need to give serious thought to what it would take to bring the church into some sort of tolerable unity. To me, that means Eucharistic sharing. It doesn’t mean one monolithic church structure, but the Catholics and the Orthodox, they have their own set of criteria about what would be necessary if the divisions in the church were to be healed and overcome.

Here I have to be pragmatic as well as principled, because I’m thinking we’ve got 70 percent of the word’s Christians that we need to bring into some sort of reconciliation along with all these Protestants. I don’t know what to do in my book about Pentecostals and Anabaptists traditions, so I just sort of factor them out for the time being (and finally that will be a work of the Spirit and not the work of the theologians, so I figure I’ll just leave that to one side). We’re not going to achieve consensus.

In the ecumenical movement, it’s understood that visible unity in the form of a single church structure is not only not going to be achieved, it’s not necessary. One of the terms that is used is “reconciled diversity.” The project in my book, in part, is how can we widen the circle of acceptable diversity? I’ve tried to go back to some little-known developments from the time of the Reformation that I think would be fruitful for the Reformed tradition to adopt, and that might have some appeal across the board.

I’ve gotten favorable reviews so far from Roman Catholic writers. The Orthodox are a question unto themselves. They think they have the true church and they won’t… When I would talk to people about my book and I’d say, “I think the divisions about the Lord’s Supper as they developed in the West have a lot to do with the absence of an Eastern Orthodox voice. At the time of the Reformation things split apart and polarized in the history of the Western churches that the Orthodox have had together.”

I thought they would say, “This is great, you want to make ecumenical progress and you want to draw upon the Orthodox traditions.” No, it’s like, “So what?” My words fall to the ground. The average view is they don’t need us, we’re very problematic, and the solution is that we should all become Orthodox. Even when the Orthodox participate in the World Council of Churches events, that’s kind of the underlying attitude. They’re waiting for the rest of us to find our way back to Eastern Orthodox. I don’t think that that’s the solution. I think the Catholics will actually bear the burden of achieving that reconciliation with the Orthodox.

But meanwhile, in my hope of expanding the circle of acceptable diversity, I had to figure out some way of determining what views are church-dividing, that’s the way they talk ecumenically. What views are church-dividing, and what views aren’t? How do you know what views are church-dividing and what aren’t? Vatican II decided, so this is an official Roman Catholic position. Vatican II decided that there are no obstacles…

JMF: Vatican II being the church council.

GH: Of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. Vatican II decided that there are no obstacles in principle (you have to state this carefully) from the Roman Catholic side to Eucharistic sharing with the Orthodox, but the Orthodox hold views that are different from Roman Catholic teaching. If there are places, as there are, where Eastern Orthodox views are more possible for Protestants than Roman Catholic views as we’re familiar with them, then if we can adopt those views without compromise, as I think we often can, there’s an ecumenical imperative that we ought to move in that direction for the sake of achieving unity and Eucharistic sharing.

So I argue that nobody has to give up anything that is essential to them, but everybody has to stretch to accept some things that they thought they had to reject. The history of the Eucharistic controversies has largely been the history of false contrasts, and an important part of the argument in my book is trying to show that things can be held to­geth­er that were split apart.

I’ll give you a simple example, not a terribly complicated one. In my tradition we talk about the Lord’s Table. There was a professor in a previous generation at Princeton Seminary who used to tell his students it’s a table and not an altar, and it’s not a table unless you can put your feet under it. So “table” is good and “altar” is bad, and if you read Luther’s catechisms and so on, he’s constantly using the phrase “the sacrament of the altar.” He gets this phrase from Augustine; to me there’s nothing wrong with it. But when Luther starts using it and then as the Lutheran tradition developed, there’s a kind of hardening. It’s not just a rhetorical term anymore, it becomes more of a semi-technical term. It’s an altar.

Altar has its metaphorical home in priestly and cultic activities. Table has its home in thinking about the royal office of Christ — Christ as the Messiah, the Messianic Banquet. The priestly office of Christ and the royal office of Christ can’t exclude one another. These are two different ways of talking about one and the same Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. It’s not like a pie where you divide them up into parts — these are two ways of looking at Christ as a whole.

There is a term in the tradition, and I learned about it from reading an Eastern Orthodox writer, Alexander Schmemann, who has this wonderful book called The Eucharist. In that book, even though he primarily talks about the sacrament of the kingdom, and he uses table imagery and so on, so royal. In a way, the Eastern Orthodox ethos (even though it doesn’t exclude the priestly), is oriented toward the splendor of the kingdom of God. The goal, the icons and the precious gems and so on…there’s something royal about this. Schmemann uses the term “altar table.”

I was at a conference, I was asked to speak in Strasbourg…all these ecumenical figures from across Europe were there. I said Schmemann has this great phrase that he uses that shows how we bring things together that in other places have been split apart. So my tradition will say table, but it won’t say altar, Lutherans tend to say altar but maybe not so much table. It’s a false contrast. You don’t have to polarize around this. So Schmemann has this great term.

The next day the Eastern Orthodox speaker from Romania got up and said, “I have to correct one thing that Professor Hunsinger said the other day. It’s not just Schmemann who talks about altar table. We all talk this way.” This was simultaneous translation; he was speaking in German and he had a German text and photographs of Eastern Orthodox liturgies and so on. Right there in the German text was “altar tisch,” there it was.

So I started watching for it. This term has deep historic roots. I’ve seen it in some Roman Catholic writings, and in the Reformation there was a figure named Martin Bucer who was the reformer of Strasbourg. There was a period when Calvin had been called to Geneva and then he ran into conflict with the city fathers and he had to leave Geneva. He went to Strasbourg. Martin Bucer became Calvin’s mentor, and later Calvin went back to Geneva. Bucer is an important figure, that’s what I’m getting at. He was also very ecumenically-minded and even in that period was striving to do what he could to hold the Reformation together and to make sure that there weren’t these divisions about the Lord’s Table. Bucer also knew the term “altar table.”

So there’s no good reason, it seems to me, why Reformed Christianity or Protestants in general can’t develop this vision that we need both the priestly and the royal aspects. This perception has a lot of implications that we might want to talk about, but the priestly side has been lost by much of Protestantism. We have an atrophied understanding of the priestly elements of worship and of the Eucharistic liturgy.

The Catholics have priests, the Orthodox have priests, the Episcopalians have priests, but we don’t have priests anymore. We have ministers and the priesthood of all believers, which is great, I think that’s important, but what does that mean? It’s almost a priest without a portfolio. It doesn’t have a great deal of meaning, and while each person is a priest to every other person, fine, we intercede for one another, fine. But it doesn’t have a lot of development and currency. Recovering that priestly side of things… it’s not just the Messianic Banquet, which would be royal, it’s the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, which is priestly and cultic. These are two different…

In the book of Revelation, what’s happening? It’s the lamb who is sitting on the throne…well, who is beside… The royal aspects, the royal activities and offices are somehow assimilated to the lamb. To me this suggests that there’s something central to this priestly complex of images that we need to recover. Liberal Protestantism had an aversion to all things priestly. I read something recently by H. Richard Niebuhr (who I have a lot of respect for); he talked about sacrifice and love, and these “primitive” ideas. They thought they could move beyond all that… Expiation and propitiation, and who needs that?

We need to find a responsible way of recovering these ideas without theological compromise, because they’re essential to reestablishing the Eucharistic unity of the church. So I’m looking for ways in which we can stretch to accept things we thought we had to reject without theological compromise. We’re going to have to tolerate a fair amount in other traditions and communions that we’re not entirely comfortable with. But if we can just reach the point where we’re not excluding one another from our celebrations of the Eucharist, that would be huge. That would be the correct thing to do in its own right, but it would also have great implications for the church’s witness to Christ in the world.

About George Hunsinger

Professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1988 from Yale University.