Wolterstorff’s Kantzer Lectures

Wolterstorff-Kanzter LecturesThose who follow the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff will have been looking forward to his Kantzer Lectures (October, 1-7). I was one of those, listening and watching at distance (thanks to the superb video-connection, still to be found here). In my opinion, it was a great series with references and excursions to theologians as Alexander Schmemann, Jean-Jaques von Allmen, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. And those familiar with Wolterstorff’s own writings recognized hints from his earlier work (such as Divine Discourse (1995), derived from his Wilde Lectures in Oxford, 1993).The outline of his Kantzer Lectures looks like this:

Lecture 1: The Project: Liturgical Theology Lecture 2. God as Worthy of Worship Lecture 3. God as One Who Listens and Speaks Lecture 4. God as Listener Lecture 5. What Are We Saying When We Say that God Listens? Lecture 6. God as One Who Hears Favorably Lecture 7. God as One Who Speaks Lecture 8. The Understanding of God Implicit in the Eucharist

Those who have visited this blog before, won’t be surprised to hear that his last lecture aroused my interest most of all. I have to admit however that my expectations were somewhat ambiguous. Wolterstorff’s earlier writings on the subject emphasized that the Lord’s Supper is best understood in terms of action, rather than presence. And he offered a thorough analysis of ‘remembrance’ as practised in the liturgy. His take on these liturgical questions seemed to me indeed calvinistic, but, so I wondered, didn’t it have a zwinglian overtone? Could an analysis of the Lord’s Supper that is true to Calvin’s intentions be put merely in terms of action and remembrance? I didn’t and still don’t think so.

It did turn out in his Kantzer Lectures, that Wolterstorff doesn’t think so either. I had underestimated him as a careful interpreter of Calvin. In fact, he picked up the concept of ‘participation’ from Calvin’s writings about the Lord’s Supper in order to make it pivotal in his own analysis. By doing that he offered a ‘high’ interpretation of what is happening in the Lord’s Supper. With the conceptual tool of a theory of double action he interprets the distribution of bread and wine as counting as the offering of Christ’s body and blood. And he interprets our eating of the bread and drinking of the wine as counting as the receiving of his offering. Wolterstorff insisted – rightly so, I think – that for Calvin the sacrament is not to be regarded in terms of proclamation, be it as a kind of proclamation or as confirmation of proclamation. The eucharist is to be understood in terms of Christ’s offering of himself to us. There is much more to say about this lecture, but you really should listen yourself!

In the discussion afterwards, three questions striked me as remarkable:

  1. The first question asked whether Wolterstorff’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper in terms of a double action theory is fully adequate. Isn’t Calvin’s opinion different, in the sense that for him the eating and drinking doesn’t count as receiving Christ’s offering his flesh and blood, but as the occasion for God, by the Spirit, to do his work in us. Wolterstorff answered to this by pointing out that there are two double actions are going on in the Lord’s Supper, one action performed by God, the other performed by us. The question reminded me to his discussion of Calvin’s alleged occasionalism in his article ‘Sacrament as Action, not Presence’ (in: David Brown & Ann Loades, Christ: the Sacramental Word (1996)). In this article Wolterstorff is very emphatic in denying that Calvin was an occasionalist (p.107-108).
  2. A second question asked what exactly the difference was between instrumentalism, the view that is often ascribed to Calvin (f.ex. B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude (1993), p.167), and Wolterstorff’s own view. It appeared to be not easy to put this difference into words. Calvin does not say, according to Wolterstorff, that the bread and the wine effect the participation in Christ. Nor does he want to say that the presider’s offering bread and wine effects participation. Wolterstorff came forward with the term ‘relentlessly performative’, in order to specify that the bread and the wine are by no means arbitrary, but that they in the context of the liturgy enable the celebrants to partake in Christ.
  3. The second last question referred to Wolterstorff’s second lecture, where he spoke of the church actualizing itself in the enactment of the liturgy. In so far as the Eucharist is the climax of that liturgical enactment, how could this actualization be ‘fleshed out’ (think of De Lubac’s maxim). Characteristically, Wolterstorff admitted he hadn’t worked out his thoughts in this direction. But, he said, why don’t you flesh it out? And then he made a note for himself. I liked that answer for two reasons. First, Wolterstorff doesn’t hesitate to admit he hasn’t thought out all implications. That is, he is not pretending he’s got all the answers. And secondly, he challenges students and other scholars to take up the job of engaging with the project of the philosophical analysis of what is going on in the liturgy.

There is much more to say about this particular lecture and about the complete series. What to think for example of the closing section of this last lecture, in which he posed a couple of intriguing questions. What does it mean to think of God as the One Who not only acts ands speaks, but listens as well? Doesn’t that thought affect our understanding of God’s immutability and of his aseitas, for example? I have my doubts whether Wolterstorff interprets the theological tradition here correctly. But these questions have to wait for another day. Maybe the day that his book appears. I’m very much looking forward to it!