The late Methodist liturgical scholar James White once said: “Why teach ecumenism when you can teach liturgy?” White knew whereof he spoke, having taught for decades at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and then at the University of Notre Dame. How we worship as Christians, the liturgy itself, may be one of the most fruitful ways to engage ecumenical consensus, especially as enthusiasm for church unity has waned so severely in recent years.

Despite the fact that the liturgical reforms of so many mainline churches (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Presbyterian, and even the United Church of Christ) have exhibited a remarkable convergence in both form and substance, there seems to be no good road map forward for church reconciliation. It is, after all, more than twenty-five years since the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches issued its landmark convergence document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (Lima, 1982). What is needed now is a clear and comprehensive guide to contemporary sacramental and liturgical theology, together with some realistic proposals for movement toward mutual recognition. That is precisely what George Hunsinger proposes to provide in The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast (Cambridge University Press, $29.99, 350 pp.). And in many significant and persuasive ways he does.

Hunsinger is a model ecumenical theologian. Avoiding the pitfalls of an academic theology that floats miraculously over the fray of believing Christians as well as the “enclave” theology that attempts only to score points in favor of one “side,” he proposes an ecclesial theology that seeks reconciliation even as it recognizes that one must do so from the standpoint of an ecclesial position. Having been professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary for some time, Hunsinger has the perspective of the Reformed tradition. He tackles four major issues with regard to eucharistic theology: Real Presence, eucharistic sacrifice, Eucharist and ministry, and Eucharist and social ethics. Each of the book’s four parts includes a chapter that surveys the various ecclesial and/or theological positions and another that makes a constructive proposal for a way forward. The range of Hunsinger’s reading and his ability to deal deftly with all periods of historical theology is impressive.

Hunsinger begins where most theologians would—the question of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. He outlines St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology of transubstantiation with a clarity that would be helpful to most Roman Catholics as well as Protestants. He correctly observes that the key to Thomas’s theology of Real Presence is his attempt to affirm a genuine objective presence in the consecrated elements without compromising Christ’s “local” presence in heaven. In other words, as Thomas states several times, “the body of Christ is not in the sacrament as in a place.” After surveying the major Reformation figures on eucharistic presence (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin), Hunsinger turns to a pair of less well known Reformed theologians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Martin Bucer. In them he finds the equivalent of a venerable Eastern Christian approach to Real Presence: transelementation, a term first found in the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus. If the Roman Catholic Church can recognize the theology of the Orthodox that permits but does not demand transubstantiation and at the same time affirms transelementation, is it not possible that the issue of the term “transubstantiation” for Real Presence need not be church-dividing? Hunsinger sees hope in the Catholic Church’s response to the 1982 Lima document and in recent writings of Pope Benedict XVI that this might be the case. The key would be whether Catholics could forgo the concept of “substance” as an answer to the question of whether the underlying reality of what appears to be bread is anything other than the sacramental body of Christ. Another attractive feature of his proposal is Hunsinger’s attempt to affirm the ongoing duration of Real Presence in the transformed elements via the concept of transelementation. For Protestants to accept this ongoing duration—and thus reservation of the sacrament—would be a major step forward.

The second part of the book focuses on what is probably the hottest topic in eucharistic theology today: the Eucharist as sacrifice. No question in sacramental theology exercised the sixteenth-century reformers more than eucharistic sacrifice, which they saw as striking at the roots of a theology of grace and faith. Again, Hunsinger skillfully outlines the position of Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent, demonstrating that the Catholic position has never been that the eucharistic sacrifice is something other than, or added onto, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The difficult questions are: How can a past event be actualized now? And what is the role of the ministerial priest in this action? In other words, isn’t the Catholic idea of the Mass as sacrifice somehow a denigration of the sufficiency of the Cross, and also a manipulation through the agency of the church’s minister? To offer a constructive proposal, Hunsinger turns to some of the best contemporary sacramental theology (Protestant and Catholic) that looks to the entirety of the Paschal Mystery—not only the suffering and death, but also the Resurrection of Jesus—as the object of the church’s memorial. Hunsinger follows the contemporary trend of retrieving a more robust theology of memorial or anamnesis.

Of course one can’t deal with the idea of eucharistic sacrifice without trying to clarify what we mean by affirming the sacrifice of the Paschal Mystery. The church has notably never tried to provide doctrinal statements that do more than affirm the fact that Christ’s sacrifice (the Atonement) is propitiatory and expiatory—in other words, that it pleads for our salvation even as it has wiped away our sins. In this section, Hunsinger reveals his Barthian heritage by insisting that the Cross as sacrifice deals with both divine wrath and divine mercy. He acknowledges an alternative path to talking about sacrifice today, one represented by Robert Daly and a host of other theologians who are trying to mine the thought of René Girard with regard to the death of the innocent Christ as the end of violence and God’s definitive “no” to our violent ways. (See the recent article on James Alison by Christopher Ruddy, Commonweal, January 30.) The one real lacuna in the book is Hunsinger’s failure to deal with any of the post-Tridentine theories of eucharistic sacrifice. To be sure, these are complicated, but one cannot ignore them when attempting to resolve this difficult question. Despite advances in the theology of memorial in the twentieth century (the work of Odo Casel, the Benedictine exponent of a theology of mystery, for example), one still finds the idea that the separate consecration of the bread and the wine constitute eucharistic sacrifice as late as 1947 in Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei.

In a very constructive way, Hunsinger makes use of the Reformed theologian Max Thurian’s rehabilitation of the idea of eucharistic memorial, and especially Thurian’s attention to the past, present, and future (eschatological) dimensions of the Eucharist. Despite his noble efforts, it seems to me Hunsinger does not come close to a positive resolution of the differences that separate Catholics and Protestants with regard to eucharistic sacrifice. How the agency of the church acts in concert with Christ, how the Mass can have an effect on those who are not present (including the dead), and how exactly the Mass is related to Calvary in terms of the devotion of the offerers—these questions are all left unanswered. To his credit, though, Hunsinger does make the crucial point that one should not separate eucharistic presence from the work and benefits of Christ—as has so often been done.

If sacrifice is the hottest topic in eucharistic theology, questions about the nature of ministry are probably the most ecumenically intractable. It is very difficult to square the Catholic Church’s insistence on the role of the priest (ordained minister) as acting in the person of Christ (in persona Christi) with the Reformers’ allergy to the idea of humans as agents of God’s grace in the sacraments. In this part of the book, Hunsinger abandons his strategy of outlining the positions of the sixteenth-century Reformers and of the Catholic Church, and goes immediately to some important ecclesiological matters such as the Catholic notion of the defective nature of Protestant/Anglican ministry. He follows the irenic interpretation of defectus given by the Jesuit theologian Jared Wicks and affirmed by Cardinal Walter Kasper. Defect has more to do with means than ends, and may not affect the primary grace of the sacraments. The virtue of this section of the book is its demonstration of how sacramental and ecclesiological questions are deeply interrelated. One need only refer to the Catholic Church’s response to the ministry section of the Lima document to see how true this is (see Max Thurian, The Churches Respond to ‘Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,’ vol. 6).

One simply cannot avoid the fact that the ecclesiological questions are difficult. Where Protestants might be able to reconcile themselves to Catholic doctrines of Real Presence and eucharistic sacrifice, and to accept an idea of apostolic succession that would include the historic episcopate, it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, for them to accept the Catholic approach to in persona Christi and ministerial mediation. For Hunsinger, the Catholic (and Orthodox) position on the ordination of women to the priesthood is emblematic of the morass. He rejects the Catholic argument with regard to the sacramental and iconic nature of the ministerial representation of Christ as well as the major argument, put forward by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Inter insigniores, 1976) and John Paul II (Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 1994), that the church finds itself prohibited from ordaining women to the priesthood because of Christ’s own practice and its own universal tradition. (See the recent discussion of this issue by Robert Egan and Sara Butler, Commonweal, July 18, 2008.) Hoisting the church by its own petard, Hunsinger argues that this position constitutes a defectus of its own. He cites his own mentor, the Presbyterian theologian Thomas Torrance, in claiming that the Roman Catholic Church is in serious error on this matter.

Frankly, I think it is difficult to find a way forward here. If I may comment somewhat obliquely—it might be helpful for the Catholic Church to ordain women to the diaconate. Given the restoration of the diaconate after Vatican II, the tradition of a female diaconate in the church both East and West, and the lack of any substantial theological argument against women deacons, it seems that this move could put women in an excellent ministerial position in the church, especially with regard to liturgical preaching.

The last part of the book turns to questions of Eucharist and social ethics. Here Hunsinger retrieves the social ethical typology of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to demonstrate that the Eucharist is an ideal form of the transformation of culture by its countercultural witness to Christ. This is a very good move because it helps Protestants (and Catholics too) see the evangelical significance of the sacraments. Hunsinger then picks up Eric Mascall’s much neglected Corpus Christi: Essays on the Church and the Eucharist (1953). Mascall tried to show the relation between eucharistic sacrifice and Real Presence, and the very real connection between these and eucharistic Communion. These connections were unfortunately lost in the Middle Ages, and especially by the Council of Trent, which dealt with each of them separately and polemically. For Hunsinger, the ethical implications of joining the eucharistic sacrifice of every member of the Body of Christ are obvious. The sharing of the consecrated elements implies a whole sacramental/ethical worldview.

In his final chapter, Hunsinger turns rather polemical—not toward the Catholic or Orthodox, but rather toward those “politically correct” theologians who eschew Nicene orthodoxy and claim that the traditional Christian theology of the Atonement supports a violent and abusive God. His main target here is the “exemplarist” Christology which he finds represented in J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent Atonement, 2001): “After paying lip service to what they may call ‘ontological’ questions—which they seem to regard as fairly worthless—the only thing that seems left for them is an exemplarist Christology in liberationist dress.” By “exemplarist” he means a Christology that primarily understands Christ as a moral example. To be fair, Hunsinger admits that not every theologian who espouses a patristic theology of Christ as the triumphant victor over sin and death (Christus victor) can be charged as anti-Nicene.

In response to anti-Nicene theologians, Hunsinger appeals to the orthodoxy of St. Athanasius, who is also a good example of nonviolence, and (following Hans Urs von Balthasar) he attempts to rehabilitate St. Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the Atonement on the basis of inner Trinitarian theology rather than the idea of a vindictive, punishing, and abusive God. I think this is a very important section of the book, for, as I suggested earlier, one cannot possibly make sense of eucharistic sacrifice without a decent understanding of the Atonement. Ultimately the Eucharist can be understood as propitiatory without being appeasement. Hunsinger somewhat rhetorically supports his case by appealing to the nonviolent witness of St. Anselm, who opposed the First Crusade as well as the slave trade, and to some contemporary orthodox witnesses to peace and justice such as Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero.

This book merits serious attention by scholars and church officials alike. If nothing else, it can serve as an excellent primer on the various positions on the Eucharist taken by Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox. Of course, I wish Hunsinger had been able to find a better way out of the impasse with regard to the nature and function of the ordained ministry. I also think that a book on the Eucharist and ecumenism might be most persuasive if one began with the questions of eucharistic sacrifice and its ethical implications and then moved to issues related to Real Presence and ministry. That is one of the values of Mascall’s work. In addition, the contemporary Eucharistic Prayers of the various churches provide a goldmine of theological material for ecumenical convergence. One has only to look at the superb collection of prayers in the United Methodist Book of Worship, for example. James White was right after all: the study of liturgy may be the best way into understanding the unity of the church. Lastly, I wish that Hunsinger had found some way to appreciate the attempts of contemporary theologians such as Robert Daly, James Alison, and Raymund Schwager to understand the Atonement, and therefore eucharistic sacrifice, more in terms of reconciliation than of recompense. But all in all, I would say that some twenty-five years after the World Council of Churches’ Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, and after some forty years of very serious dialogue among the churches, Hunsinger has moved the conversation forward significantly. It will be a while before we see another book as good at dealing with these issues, which are vital for the unity of Christians.


Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Read more: George Hunsinger responds, Letters, May 22, 2009.

Related: Rita Ferrone reviews John Baldovin's Reforming the Liturgy.

Published in the 2009-03-27 issue: View Contents
John F. Baldovin, SJ, teaches liturgy and sacraments at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. His latest book is Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics (Liturgical Press).
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