Volume 26 - Issue 2
Last Supper/Lord’s Supper: More than a Parable in Action?By Melvin Tinker
The Lord’s Supper as parable and prophetic drama
In a highly suggestive essay,1 a former General Editor of Themelios, David Wenham, argues a cogent case for the Last Supper to be understood parabolically, indeed that it was an acted parable. He writes: ‘On the night of his arrest Jesus did not just gather the disciples and say: let me explain what is going to happen when I die. Instead he took bread and wine and said, ‘This is my body … this is my blood’ and gave it to them. Why? We have already seen how Jesus’ parables were verbal dramas that involved and challenged people in a very personal way. The Last Supper was the same: in it Jesus symbolically acted out what he was about to do on the cross before his gathered disciples. And he did not just act it out before them: he involved them personally, in a terribly vivid way.’2
More recently, another contributor to this journal, Tom Wright, has also drawn attention to the significance of the dramatic and highly symbolic nature of the Last Supper:3 ‘Jesus’ last meal with his followers was a deliberate double drama. As a Passover meal (of sorts), it told the story of Jewish history in terms of divine deliverance from tyranny, looking back to the exodus from Egypt and on to the great new exodus, the return from exile, that was still eagerly awaited. But Jesus’ meal fused this great story together with another one: the story of Jesus’ own life, and his coming death. It somehow involved him in the god-given drama, not as a spectator, or as one participant among many, but as the central character.’4 Wright then goes on to argue that the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper ‘must be seen in the same way as the symbolic actions of certain prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jeremiah smashes a pot; Ezekiel makes a model of Jerusalem under siege. So far one might adduce that this hardly differs from the parabolic paradigm of Wenham, but Wright adds: ‘The actions carry prophetic power, effecting the events (mostly acts of judgement) which are then to occur. They are at once explained in terms of those events, or rather of YHWH’s operating through them.’5
Both writers make much of the view that what is involved in the event of the Last Supper is more than the communication of theological truth, so Wenham states: ‘We have got so used to the eucharistic words and actions that they hardly move us: but for those first disciples to be given the bread and the wine, to be told ‘This is my body … this is my blood’, and to be invited to eat and drink must have been a bewildering and shocking thing. We can imagine them questioning in their minds:
‘Your body? Your blood? eat it, drink it?’ What was Jesus doing? Not simply giving them theological information, but rather giving them a theological experience. In the Last Supper they experienced for themselves what the cross was all about—about the body and blood of Jesus being given up, broken, poured out for them, and about the need to take that death to themselves (‘eat … drink’).6
Interestingly, although Wright draws attention to the prophetic action represented by the deeds and words of the Last Supper, the focus is still very much on the referential aspect relating to Jesus’ mission—as conveying information about his role in God’s redemptive act on behalf of Israel. Little, if any, attention is given as to how symbolic actions operate and what effect they were intended to have at any level other than the purely informative: ‘Jesus’ symbolic action deliberately evoked the whole exodus tradition and gave it a new direction.’7
Both writers seem to want to claim that the Last Supper was more than (although certainly no less than) Jesus communicating a new truth, or rather an old truth in a new way—the climax of God’s saving action being fulfilled in himself. Accordingly, Wenham writes,
In this case we are dealing not just with a ‘language event’ … but with something more powerful. Marriage counsellors explain to couples that communication between people happens in all sorts of ways—through words (‘I love you’) visually (through our eyes, through how we dress, etc.), through touch (the handshake or the kiss), or even through smell (e.g. perfumel). The Lord’s Supper is a multi-media communication; it speaks to us of the death of Christ and of the love of God in words, but also visually and through touch—we see and take the bread and wine—and even through taste—we eat and drink.8
But even here, the other ‘ways’ listed by Wenham (touch, smell etc.) only appear to be operating as sensory words which are informative—hence, ‘speaks to us of the death of Christ and the love of God’, May not the symbolic action and the words which accompany them function at more than one level and in such a way which will result in them having the sort of effect that Jesus’ parables and the actions of the prophets had in going beyond the simple imparting of information to actually bringing about a change in perception, attitude and action on the part of the receptor audience?
One productive way forward is inadvertently suggested by Wright in his treatment of the subject. Stressing the need for scholars to pay much closer attention to the place of symbolic actions in ancient Near Eastern culture than hitherto, he chides:
Modern westerners, who live in a world that has rid itself of many of its ancient symbols, and mocks and marginalises those that are left, have to make a huge effort of historical imagination to enter a world where a single action can actually say something (it is ironic that philosophers within our words-and-ideas culture have had to struggle to reclaim this notion, by means of such concepts as ‘speech-acts’).9
There may be more than a hint of derision in the way Wright states his case (and not without some justification) but it is the idea of speech-acts which might come to our aid to enrich and fill out what both Wenham and Wright are straining towards regarding the symbolic nature of the Lord’s Supper.
Speech-act theory helps us not only to recognise that, in the words of Wright, ‘a single action can actually say something’ but it also enables us to conceive how words and actions can actually do something. This paper will seek to explore how this is so in relation to the Lord’s Supper and the Last Supper from which it is derived.
Last Supper and Passover
Before we consider in more detail the insights afforded by speech-act theory in our understanding of the Lord’s Supper, it is necessary briefly to relate what the Last Supper was, that is, to grasp something of its historical context in order to tease out its theological significance.
The work of Jeremias is still basic to this subject10 and, as Wright maintains, it is ‘virtually certain that the meal in question was some kind of Passover meal’.11 But what kind?
Two actions figure in the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper and the Lord’s reinterpretation of the Passover in relation to his own impending death: the giving of bread (together with the accompanying explanatory words, ‘this is my body given for you’) and the giving of the cup after the supper (and accompanying words of interpretation, ‘the blood of the new covenant’). Since the copula ‘is’ would have been absent from the Aramaic or Hebrew utterance, it is taken that the actions are meant as significations; but of what? E. Schweizer suggests that the ‘I’ refers to the totality of the person—the giving of the complete self.12 The phrase ‘given for you’ certainly appears to reflect OT sacrificial terminology relating either to the making of a sacrifice or the death of a martyr on behalf of others. Jeremias posits the reference to Jesus as the eschatological Passover Lamb.13 Marshall draws attention to the close similarity in language between the ‘For many/you’ in the cup saying of Mark, and Isaiah 53:11ff. as being seminal to Jesus’ self-understanding of his death and its subsequent reflection in his reinterpretation of the Passover meal. However, he goes on to point out that it is possible to combine all of the above suggestions which would mean that Jesus saw himself as fulfilling several strands of OT types simultaneously.14
Whatever the divergence over details between the Synoptists, there is unanimity that at the most significant moment the actions of Christ were in the following order: (a) he took bread (or cup) into his hands; (b) he gave thanks; (c) he said ‘This is my body’, or (in some form) ‘This is my blood of the covenant’.
In recent years some scholars have attempted to unpack the significance of the phrase Eis anamnesin(in remembrance).15 Whilst taking cognisance of Thiselton’s warning that ‘ideas about anamnesis, or remembering, in terms of tangible re-enactment are precarious grounds on which to base a whole doctrine and practice of the eucharist’,16 one thing is unmistakable, the phrase focuses the manward aspect of the meal, it is not that the meal is a reminder to God, but an opportunity for his people to be reminded of what he has achieved for them. The words of Alan Stibbs are still timely on this point, ‘the Greek word anamnesisexpresses the idea of calling to mind, a recalling or recollection, exactly similar to the way in which the Jews at the celebration of the Passover recalled their deliverance from Egypt. To the Semitic mind thus to commemorate a past event was personally to realise and experience its present operative significance as one event with abiding consequences.’17
As well as the backward remembering aspect, the institution of the Lord’s Supper has a future anticipatory dimension too. As Marshall writes: ‘the Lord’s Supper is linked to the Passover in that the Passover is a type of the heavenly banquet while the Lord’s Supper is an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.’18 This is particularly focused in Luke’s account of the Last Supper with the idea of fulfilment in the Kingdom of God and Christ’s followers ‘eating and drinking at my table in the kingdom’ (Luke 22:14–30). So the Lord’s Supper is ‘an ordinance for those who live between the cross and the End. It looks back to what Jesus did and said “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23) and recalls his death on behalf of all men. But it looks forward to the Parousia.’19
Wenham20 helpfully sums up the point about the Last Supper being set against the context of the Passover schematically as follows:
|The Lord’s Supper
|In the old age of law and the prophets
|In the new age of the kingdom
|Was the great festival meal of people.
|Is to be the new celebratory God’s meal of God’s people.
|They remembered the Passover sacrifice, the exodus from Egypt, the new beginning for covenant people.
|To remember the sacrificial of Jesus, bringing freedom from sin, the new covenant of the Spirit
|By participating, Jews associated themselves with this salvation and covenant.
|By participating, Jesus’ followers associate with his redemption and covenant.
|Looking back to the exodus and forward to God’s salvation.
|Looking back to the cross and forward to the Kingdom.
Having established the historical context and theological significance of the Last Supper centring on Jesus’ person and crosswork, we are now in a position to consider how the words and symbols used achieve operational effect, both in terms of the original disciples at the Last Supper and all Christian believers as they participate in the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper—just a brilliant act of communication?
Referring back to the article by Wenham, this is how he perceives the nature and function of the Lord’s Supper: ‘The Lord’s Supper is brilliant communication. We cannot see God (though in his ministry his followers did), but God has given us a multi-media sign, bringing home to us the reality and meaning of our Lord’s death. The Lord’s Supper is not magic, not a trick of converting bread and wine into something else; but it is a brilliantly acted parable that communicates the love of God demonstrated on the cross in a way that involves us and challenges us.’21 We would agree. However, Dr Wenham does not say how this might take place. One is still left with the impression that both the symbols of the bread and the wine and their accompanying interpretative words operate solely at the informational level while, no doubt, having some emotive as well as cognitive effect. It is precisely at this point speech-act theory comes to assist and enlarge our comprehension.
We begin by considering how language actually functions, that is, what are the intended effects of speech utterances.
A useful classification has been provided by G.B. Caird22 who groups them under four headings. Words are used (a) to talk to people, things and ideas (informative); (b) to think (cognitive); (c) to do things and get things done (performative and causative); (d) to display and elicit attitudes and feelings (expressive and evocative); (e) to provide means of communal solidarity (cohesive).
Of prime importance is the idea of performatives as fathered by J.L. Austin23 and brought to maturity by John Searle.24 As the term implies, performatives perform rather than inform. Here the speaker is ‘doingsomething rather than merely saying something’.25 ‘The utterance is the performing of an action.’26 Many statements set out in the indicative mood are not strictly true or false, but are designed to bring about a state of affairs. For example, in the wedding service the officiating minister asks; ‘Will you take x to be your lawful wedded wife?’ and the response made (hopefully!) is ‘I will’. This is not a description of marriage, but part of the act of getting married. This type of speech-act was distinguished from others which were mainly referential (about things) and called ‘constatives’.
Later, Austin was to consider all utterances as speech-acts to be performatives. Within his general theory there are two others specifications which are relevant to our discussion.
First, a distinction has to be made between speech-acts in the narrow sense—making referential statements, proclaiming forgiveness, making promises etc., i.e. what we do with statements—and the effectof such utterances on people-persuading, amusing or annoying them. The former is termed the illocutionary act and the latter the perlocutionary act. Secondly, within the illocutionary act a further distinction is to be made between the propositional content (referred to as the locutionary act which is equivalent to ‘meaning’ in the traditional sense) and the type of speech-act, termed the illocutionary force (e.g. a command, an invitation, a warning). Therefore, one could have several illocutionary acts, all with the same propositional content (locution), but differing in force. Take the following statements—‘Do you believe in God?’ (question); ‘Believe in God’ (plea); ‘You will believe in God’ (prediction). In each case the propositional content is the same, but what one is doing and what one hopes to achieve will differ. Thus in relation to an illocutionary act, when one asks, ‘What is meant by it?’ one may mean: (a) What type of speech-act is it? or (b) What is its propositional content?
In relation to both the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper it is important to stress the functional view of language in order to guard against the common tendency to conceive them as being solely referential, which could lead in two opposite directions. The first would be to think of the elements in terms of identity (this bread is the body of Christ—the error of classical Roman Catholicism) or purely in terms of referring to Christ’s death on the cross as a mere memorial. But as shall be argued below, words and symbolic actions can have a function which is more varied than referential, they can be vehicles whereby something is imparted to the recipient and certain states of affairs established, without having to resort to some quasi-magical or mystical view of the sacraments. Indeed, a way of conceiving the Lord’s Supper can be developed on this basis which is wholly consistent with the evangelical belief in the primacy and efficacy of God’s Word.
At this juncture it is necessary to draw attention to two other points made by Austin in connection with performatives. First, this type of language only functions if certain conventions hold; the shaking of hands by two businessmen to conclude a financial deal is only meaningful in a culture where this functions as sign of agreement and trust. This point is akin to Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’, where he states that language functions within particular life settings. The meanings and concepts are in part derived from the game itself. Thus the function and sense of the speech-acts performed in the context of the Lord’s Supper are determined by their place within the life setting of the Christian community and the revelation given in Scripture upon which that community is based. Secondly, as Austin claims, ‘for a certain performative utterance to be happy, certain statements must be true’. ‘In other words, performatives in the narrow sense can only function within the wider context of the referential understanding of reality—that language is also about things, states of affairs which are said to exist.
This second point is vital to our discussion about the nature of the Lord’s Supper. The claim that the body of Christ was ‘given for you’ makes no sense at all unless it is related to the Son of God who in history gave his body as an atoning sacrifice on the cross. This will obviously set limits to eucharistic interpretation, so that a ‘planetary mass’ becomes something else with only a passing superficial similarity to the Lord’s Supper as instituted by Jesus. What is more, it must be anchored within the wider web of Christian doctrine as revealed in Scripture. Thus, the clear and repeated assertion that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was final and once and for all (Heb. 9:25f; 1:3; 8:1; 12:2) rules out entirely in any form the notion that Christ’s sacrifice is recapitulated or offered with him to God in the eucharist.27
The Lord’s Supper: Speech-act and Symbol-act
It is proposed that the Last Supper, and the derivative Lord’s Supper, can be conceived of in the same way as Austin and Searle’s speech-acts.
First, the Lord’s Supper in its entirety is also an illocutionary act, the Lord by his Spirit does things. In the giving of the bread and the wine and through the accompanying words, the correlated aspects of divine love, forgiveness and eschatological hope are not merely attested to, but imparted. Just as the physical act of embracing or kissing someone is capable of conveying forgiveness and acceptance (as in the story of the Prodigal son in Luke 15:20), so the physical act of giving the bread and the wine conveys forgiveness and gracious acceptance by God by virtue of Christ’s finished work on the cross.
As with any speech-act, for both the meaning and illocutionary force to operate, certain conventions have to be true (in this case, the symbolic convention established by Jesus himself that the bread and the wine symbolise his body and blood). Similarly, we may think of the illustration of the giving of a wedding ring. This does not simply ‘speak’ of love and commitment (as a non-verbal conveyer of information, informing people of his intentions), its giving in part brings it about, establishing the wedding covenant. Cannot the same be said of the sacramental act of the giving and receiving of the bread and the wine? There is the commissive act of God committing himself to the believer established at Calvary and the response of the believer to this commitment by God.
Secondly, we may also consider the perlocutionary act of the Lord’s Supper, that is, what is achieved through it. This is largely dependent upon the apprehension not only of the meaning of the sacramental action (what the giving of the bread and the wine represent) but the illocutionary force. For the promise to be grasped, assurance attained, unity between believers achieved, loving obedience elicited, as Austin says, ‘illocutionary uptake’ must be secured. What is required is not only an understanding of the meaning of the statement ‘My body which is given for you, take and eat this in remembrance of me’, but the force with which the symbols and statements are taken—that they count as promise, persuasion, assurance and unification.
Searle28 distinguishes the meaning (propositional content) and that which the act counts as, by the formula F(p). F = the illocutionary force (whether it is a command, promise, binding agreement etc.) and p = the meaning. What is argued here is that the sacramental act enhances the F dimension, thus conveying through the giving of the bread and the wine together with the interpretative words, something more than would be achieved by the mere saying of the words ‘Jesus loves you and died for you’.
As with a particular Bible passage, so the illocutionary force of the Lord’s Supper results from a combination of the meaning and intentions of God and the form he ‘incarnates’ his authoritative voice and presence.29
As Vanhoozer claims ‘while the proponents of propositional revelation have cherished the (p) of the speech-act F(p)’30 so we maintain that the reduction of the Lord’s Supper to a mere memorial underplays the F aspect of the sacramental action,31
John Searle proposed that we do five basic things with language: ‘We tell people how things are, we try to get them to do things, we commit ourselves to doing things, we express our feelings and attitudes and we bring about changes through our utterances. Often we do more than one of these at once in the same utterance.’32 We would contend mutatis mutandis the same applies to the Lord’s Supper, with God himself achieving these five ‘illocutionary points’ in relation to believers. Thus, truth is communicated regarding the atoning death of Christ and its benefits; God seeks to get us to do things to respond in loving Christian service and heartfelt praise; he conveys his feelings and attitudes towards us as well as bringing about the changes he seeks in terms of Christian holiness and Christian fellowship.
The question then arises: How is the ‘illocutionary uptake achieved?’ The answer is twofold.
First, there is the divine aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. The same principle of action holds vis-à-vis the ‘visible gospel’ of the Lord’s Supper as with the ‘audible’ gospel of the Word proclaimed or read. In relation to understanding and appropriating Scripture, Vanhoozer writes: ‘The Spirit’s agency consists, then in bringing the illocutionary point home, to the reader and in achieving the corresponding perlocutionary effect-belief, obedience, praise and so on. The Word is the indispensable instrument of the Spirit’s persuasive (perlocutionary) power. On the one hand, the Spirit is “mute” without the Word; and on the other hand, the Word is “inactive” without the Spirit. Word and Spirit together make up God’s speech (speech-act).’33 We would argue the same principle applies to the ‘visible Word’ (which would also include the words of institution and call for self-examination) of the Lord’s Supper. Just as the Word of Scripture does not work ex opere operato, neither does the ‘word’ of the sacrament. It achieves its effect through the Spirit taking up and applying the words and symbols in the hearts and minds of believers.
Secondly, there is the human aspect of faith. Granted this too is a divine gift, it is still something which has to be exercised in response to the movement of God towards us. This involves an element of assensus, recognising certain things to be true regarding the person and work of Christ and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. But it also embraces fiducia, that personal trusting in the one who conveys his promises and his love through the sacramental act.
In a less technical way, the same ideas were well understood and propounded by the late and well loved evangelical scholar, Alan Stibbs. Using the illustration of a telephone conversation with a far away friend, such that through the conversation the friend’s ‘presence’ is experienced for a few minutes, Stibbs goes on to write:
In ways like this, but far more wonderfully and with no make-believe, when I attend an administration of the Lord’s Supper, and see and hear the sacramental movement begun, and realise that it is personally and imperatively addressed to me, and to all there present with me, and that it demands corresponding action and response; then it is right to believe that in this movement Christ himself is present and active and offering afresh to give me, through his death for men, his indwelling presence by his Spirit, and the outworked experience of all the benefits of his passion to speak of answering a telephone call is indeed an illustration utterly inadequate and unworthy. For this movement is like the approach of a bridegroom to the bride. Its proper consummation like the giving and receiving a the ring in marriage. Indeed, it is like the crowning intercourse of love itself.34
Stibbs has grasped that the Lord’s Supper is more than the communication in a variety of forms, tangible and audible, gospel doctrines, just as an embrace or a kiss is more than saying ‘I love you’, they can be the vehicles whereby that love is imparted and experienced.
Wenham concludes: ‘The sacraments are multi-media parables—speaking to us not just through words (though those are centrally important), but also through touch and sight and taste as well. We miss out on something of their power if we shut our eyes during Communion and ignore touch and taste; we need to allow Jesus’ acted parables to function as they were designed-in all their multi-dimensional power.’35 What has been argued here is that by paying due attention to the performative nature of the Lord’s Supper, Wenham’s point is actually strengthened.
A personal example of the performative power of the Lord’s Supper is given by the late evangelical hymn writer, Michael Perry:
I recall one Sunday returning home from a distance, none too pleased with myself, and wanting to hear the words of assurance of God’s forgiveness with which many Anglican services begin. I was too late—I had missed the ‘absolution’. I crept into the back of the congregation feeling that I should not go forward to receive the bread and the wine—for that was the form of service that evening. However, I did go—and held out my open hands. It was as the bread touched me that I knew I was forgiven, What words had not been able to do the physical consciousness of the bread, the token and reality of God’s love for me in Christ, was able to achieve. I think it is like that for many more people than we realise—to whom sacrament or symbol conveys most effectively the assurance of Christ’s saving work upon the cross.36
Like the kiss of the father in our Lord’s parable perhaps?
1 D. Wenham, ‘How Jesus understood the Last Supper: a parable in action’, Themelios, Vol. 20.2 (1995), 11–16.
2 Wenham, ‘Last Supper’, 14.
3 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 554–63.
4 Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 554.
5 Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 558.
6 Wenham, ‘Last Supper’, 14–15.
7 Wright, Jesus and Victory of God, 562.
8 Wenham, ‘Last Supper’, 15
9 Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 554.
10 J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: SCM, 1966).
11 Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 555.
12 E. Schweizer, The Lord’s Supper According to the New Testament.
13 J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words 220–25.
14 I.H. Marshall, The Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1980) 89.
15 E.g. D. Gregg, Anamnesis in the Eucharist (Grove Liturgical Study No. 5)
16 A. Thiselton, Language, Liturgy and Meaning (Grove Liturgical Study No. 2), 30.
17 A.M. Stibbs, Sacrament, Sacrifice and Eucharist (Tyndale Press, 1961), 45.
18 Marshall, Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, 80.
19 A. and R. Hanson, Reasonable Belief (Oxford: Oxford, 1981), 231.
20 Wenham, ‘Last Supper’, 14.
21 Wenahm, ‘Last Supper’, 15.
22 G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Duckworth, 1980), 7–36
23 J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).
24 John Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: CUP, 1969)
25 J.L. Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961) 222.
26 J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words, 6.
27 For example, the ARCIC statement on the Eucharist, ‘we enter into the movement of Christ’s self offering’ (pp. 14, 20) or Rowan Williams, ‘our being offered in and by Christ is the basic fact of the Eucharist’ (in Essays on Eucharistic Sacrifice, ed. Colin Buchanan, 34.
28 J.R. Searle, Speech Acts 25ff.
29 Cf K.J. Vanhoozer ‘The Semantics of Biblical Literature’, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, D.A. Carson and J.D. Woodbridge Eds (Leicester: IVP, 1986)
30 K.J. Vanhoozer, Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, 91.
31 Cf Melvin Tinker, ‘Language, Symbols and Sacraments. Was Calvin’s View of the Lord’s Supper Right?’. Churchman, Vol. 112, No. 2, 1998, 131–49.
32 J.R. Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge: CUP, 1979), 29.
33 K.J. Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in the Text? (Apollos, 1998), 428–29.
34 A.M. Stibbs, Sacrament, Sacrifice and Eucharist, 75.
35 Wenham, ‘Last Supper’, 15.
36 Michael Perry, Preparing for Worship, (Marshall Pickering, 1995), pp. 7–8.
The Reverend Melvin Tinker is senior minister of St John, Newland, Hull, UK. He has contributed a number of articles to Themelios over the years and is the author of several books, his latest being Intended for Good: The Providence of God (IVP, 2012).