Passive Sacramentalism and Ontological Soteriology in Hans Denck and Gregory of Nyssa
Significant similarities exist between Hans Denck, the Bavarian Anabaptist leader of the sixteenth century, and Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth-century bishop and Cappadocian Father. But the elucidation of these similarities is not the primary intention of this article. Conversely, substantial differences exist between these two figures, but again this is not what I wish to accentuate. Instead, I aim to illuminate a unifying soteriological outlook that renders such similarities and differences irrelevant in practice.
By using the eucharist as a paradigm, this essay demonstrates how conceptual variance is irrelevant and that practical unity is evident and desirable.
At first glance this may seem like an appeal for Anabaptist ecumenicism, but this is not necessarily the case. Across the panorama of Christian groups today there is an inability to dissolve theological divisions. The historical endurance of each faction portends their continued existence. Anabaptist distinctions should be preserved and celebrated. Yet Anabaptists can maintain theological and ecclesiological uniqueness, while invoking broader early Anabaptist principles to guide the extent to which communion with other religious factions is possible.
Anabaptists can and should refuse theological conformity to what J. Denny Weaver calls the North American Protestant “theology-in-general” 1 as it appears in its specificity, while appealing to a broader principle in order to allow some communion with other Christian factions. That principle is the Anabaptist emphasis upon the imitation of Christ over a proper metaphysical understanding of Christ, of becoming over believing. When this is advocated, as it is in the writings of both Hans Denck and Gregory of Nyssa, a theological concept becomes subservient to practice. An example or paradigm for the application of pre-Constantinian primitivism as endorsed by Anabaptism may be found in the eucharist.
In order to demonstrate this proposal, I wish to advocate a “passive sacramentalism” as it applies to the eucharist. This “passive sacramentalism” dictates that regardless of how one identifies the elements in the eucharist, be it transubstantial, consubstantial, or symbolic, it is significant that all Christian factions obey Christ’s command to participate in the eucharist in its external expression. The internal conceptual understanding of the eucharist may differ, but the external practical expression is virtually identical. Therefore, it is best to remain cognitively passive, while allowing God to do with the elements as he pleases.
However significant this distinction may be, I am not ignorant of the surrounding implications contained in the various internal conceptions of the eucharist, be they political or ecclesiological. My intention in this article is to draw attention to the reality that, regardless of how one conceptualizes the elements of the eucharist, what actually happens to the elements (or does not happen) will inevitably transpire despite one’s best efforts to demand conformity to her or his eucharistic conceptions. Whether or not the bread and wine contain the physical presence of Christ, and the extent to which this occurs, is not dependent upon one’s conception of the eucharist. In this sense the eucharist becomes paradigmatic and is not an isolated illustration.
Consequently, the same can be said of eschatological, christological, and triadological issues among many others. By using the eucharist as an example only, I wish to demonstrate how proper theological conceptions are subservient to the ontology of salvation. This is to say, who one becomes is more important than what one believes. Again, I am not naive to the reality that what one believes effects who one becomes. However, becoming in contrast to being intrinsically denotes irregularity and progression. So, regardless of what one believes (or does not believe), she or he is ontologically similar and dissimilar to Christ in a variety of ways. Ontologically, she or he is something and is becoming something, a phenomenon that is occasionally dependent on intentionally formed beliefs, but occurs nonetheless.
In regard to the understandings of Hans Denck and Gregory of Nyssa, I wish to demonstrate both resemblance and variation and show that, nevertheless, each would respect the spiritual journey of the other. The ontological soteriology of becoming would ultimately triumph over the rift ensued by their conflicting theological beliefs.
In order to accomplish this task, the comparison between the two will need to be made in a contemporary setting separate from each historical figure’s motivational context. Denck will not be worried about the consequences of treason intrinsic to many of his theological adherences, nor will he be able to react against political exploitation by the church. Gregory does not have to worry about his responsibilities as a Bishop within the tumultuous theological landscape of the fourth century, nor does he feel the anxiety of separation from the ascetic life he previously enjoyed.
Ultimately, an ethical soteriology will prove more important than proper theological conceptions, while the sovereignty of God to act as he chooses will prevail despite attempts to demand conformity to deficient theological conceptions. Within this dichotomy of becoming and believing, the eucharist and the adjoining “passive sacramentalism” will serve as a paradigm, and hopefully the relevance for contemporary Anabaptists will rise to the fore.
The similarities between Hans Denck and Gregory of Nyssa are overarching and broad in nature. They do not reflect the specificity of doctrine, but instead are indicative of an ethical soteriological emphasis that determines who one is rather that what one believes. I could demonstrate both Denck’s and Gregory’s adherence to the reconciliation of all things in the end, their similar view of Scripture and baptism, their cenobitic and ascetic tendencies, their mutual social strategy, their diffidence and reclusive nature, and their common love of creation, among many other characteristics and elements of belief. For our purposes, however, a delineation of the ethical soteriology adhered to by both Denck and Gregory will suffice.
The distinct ethical nature of Anabaptist soteriology is quite evident and need not be extensively defended here. C. Arnold Snyder describes precisely how early Anabaptists viewed salvation in comparison to the magisterial reformers:
Although Anabaptists always maintained that believers are saved by grace through faith, here the similarity to mainline Protestant teaching ended. For . . . Anabaptists, the faith that leads to salvation is a faith that bears visible fruit in repentance, conversion, regeneration, obedience, and a new life dedicated to the love of God and the neighbor, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, true faith leads to discipleship. Righteousness was not simply imputed to the sinner for Christ’s sake, as Luther had maintained. Rather, being saved meant becoming righteous by the power of the risen Christ. 2
Therefore, the Anabaptist view of salvation is ontological and transformational rather than conferential and instantaneous. Thomas Finger provides this evaluation: “The [magisterial] reformers regarded grace as largely forensic: as God’s declaration of acceptance and pardon. . . . Anabaptists understood grace as a transforming divine energy.” 3
Hans Denck was consistently ethical in his soteriological approach. In his Recantation Denck asserts that “whoever depends upon the merits of Christ and nevertheless continues in a carnal, beastly way of life, he thinks of Christ as in ancient time the pagans thought of their gods.” 4 Denck continues this emphasis on ethics and imitation when he observes, “The medium is Christ whom no one can truly know unless he follows him in his life.” 5 Salvation of the forensic variety emphasizes a familiarity with the concept of God, an acknowledgement of specific theological conceptions. This soteriological understanding does not validate an externally ontological and internally transformational view of salvation, but is instead a position before God achieved through cognitive means. Denck thought otherwise and placed more authority on obedience than on analysis.
Gregory of Nyssa, likewise, disseminated an ontological view of salvation expressed in the virtuous life. The introductory line in his On Perfection reads as follows: “You manifest a determination to know how you can perfect your life in accord with virtue so that through all events, you may succeed in being blameless in life.” 6 And later he adds, “We will make a sure path for a life according to virtue through imitating.” 7 Gregory further emphasizes the soteriological implications of a virtuous life by recounting Paul’s determination to imitate Christ: “By a most careful imitation, Paul changed his soul into a model so that no longer is Paul perceived as living and speaking, but Christ lives in him.” 8 Gregory also asserts that “it is impossible for one who has not thoroughly cleansed himself from all the stains arising from evil to be admitted amongst the heavenly company.” 9
This purity also invites union with Christ: “If we are to be named brothers of him who brought us into birth, innocence of life will be believed to constitute our relationship to him provided that nothing unclean separates us from a union in purity.” 10 Hans Denck similarly affirms that, “To become one with God, a person must suffer that which from the beginning God wills to work in him.” 11 Thus, the view of salvation promulgated by both Hans Denck and Gregory of Nyssa is ontological, ethical, practical, transformational, and progressive.
The theological variations between Hans Denck and Gregory of Nyssa are indeed numerous, but are nevertheless largely irrelevant. In accordance with the aforementioned paradigm, the disparity between Denck’s and Gregory’s view of the eucharist will be demonstrated. This paradigm will illustrate the need for a unified external act of obedience in opposition to a cognitively unified eucharistic conception among all Christian factions.
Basically, Hans Denck had a symbolic or spiritual understanding of the eucharist:
The Lord Christ took the bread in the Supper, blessed it, and broke it. This was as if he meant to say: I have told you before that you should eat my flesh and drink my blood if you wish to be saved and indicated that this was to be done in a spiritual sense and not as flesh and blood understand it. 12 (emph. added)
Notice that the eucharist has soteriological implications for Denck. It is evident that Denck wishes to link obedience and salvation, imitation and becoming. Salvation is predicated on one’s participation in the eucharistic ceremony rather than on one’s conception of the eucharistic elements. Regardless of how a participant perceives the eucharistic elements, by participating in the divine rite, she or he will, “become completely one with [Christ].” 13
Conversely, Gregory of Nyssa asserts that, “Rightly we do believe that now also the bread which is consecrated by the Word of God is changed into the Body of God the Word.” 14 Although Gregory’s eucharistic understanding was not as developed as later transubstantial expressions, he clearly envisions the eucharistic elements as containing the physical presence of Christ. Gregory later reveals the soteriological implication of his eucharistic adherence:
By this communion with Deity mankind . . . at the same time [becomes] deified, for this end it is that, by dispensation of his grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. 15
Clearly Gregory perceives salvation as dependent on the nature of the eucharistic elements. Interestingly, however, he later refers to the juxtaposition between deification and the eucharistic elements as a “Gospel mystery” 16 that can only be accepted on faith. His eucharistic understanding is further simplified and the soteriological implications therein are minimized when he asserts,
In the present discussion [about the function of the eucharistic elements] we have thought it as well only to say just so much on the subject of faith as is involved in the language of the Gospel, namely, that one who is begotten by the spiritual regeneration may know who it is that begets him, and what sort of creature he becomes. 17 (emph. added)
Gregory therefore reduces the necessary conceptual understanding one must have of the eucharist from precise transubstantial language to a general acknowledgement of who is involved (Christ), and what happens when we obediently partake of the eucharistic elements (we are transformed into Christ). Furthermore, this acknowledgement of the spiritual significance of the eucharistic elements is similar to that which was expressed by Denck earlier. It appears that Gregory wishes to revert his audience back to a simple obedience similar to that which is commanded in the gospel while acknowledging that the precise nature of the eucharistic elements is indeed a mystery.
A LESSON IN NONDUALISM FROM HANS DENCK
The ethical soteriological approach is intrinsically progressive. Consequently, each Christian is at a specific and unique location on the path towards salvation. This understanding enables Hans Denck to declare that “to the extent that humans are evil, they are without God.” 18 Apparently one is an indication or gauge of the other. Denck perhaps presents this nondualistic sentiment more clearly when he states,
The more he resists his suffering, the more damnation he brings on himself, until he finally sinks into death. But the more he humbles himself and cooperates with the mighty hand of God the easier it is for the Lord to accomplish his work. 19
Concurrently, salvation is not something that is immediately grasped or perpetually elusive like a concept. Rather it fluctuates as indicative of the extent to which an action imitates the archetype. By obeying Christ, whether it be his eucharistic command or something else, one progresses along in her or his quest to imitate the standard. Denck is able to describe humanity’s struggle in a similar manner: “The closer, the more like one is to his original created self, the freer he is. The deeper one is in damnation, the more he is bound.” 20
Conceptual variance in theological matters is quite evident. The struggle is located in accurately deciphering the correct metaphysical conception of Christ or the Trinity or the precise nature of the elements in the eucharist when no archetypal concepts exist which can be adequately and completely comprehended. Denck also understood this predicament. As Walter Klaassen observes,
[Denck] was aware of the relativity of theological formulations and saw no need for separation because of such disagreements. With real sadness he, too, comments on the impossibility of brotherly relations when coercion and force are threatened or applied to questions of belief. He knew others could be in error because he was prone to it. Conversely he also knew that others could comprehend truth because he could, and that there was always some mixture of the two. 21
It appears that Denck desired silence on those theological matters that prohibit fellowship. Moreover, he condemns those who coercively demand that all Christians maintain a specific conceptual adherence:
Those who do not wish to listen to me and who will not let me be silent in matters that divide, it is not possible for me to have much fellowship with them. For I do not notice the mind of Christ in them but a perverted spirit that seeks to coerce me from my faith with violence and to convert me to another regardless of whether it is right or not. 22
Additionally, Denck clearly demonstrates his preference for obedience and external practice over the relativity of religious thought:
Such security will exist also in outward things, with practice of the true gospel that each will let the other move and dwell in peace—be he Turk or heathen, believing what he will—through and in this land, not submitting to a magistrate in matters of faith. 23 (emph. added)
The significance of these statements lies in the principles they invoke rather than in the specifics of their content. The numerous existing theological conceptions are at variance with one another, as they are in our eucharistic paradigm. Similarly, Christians can obey Christ to varying degrees. However, one must acknowledge that regardless of what is conceptualized concerning the nature of the eucharistic elements, the elements will be what they will be as determined by God. Whether one who participates in the eucharist believes that Christ’s physical presence is in the eucharistic elements or not, or a variation of either, the elements are what they are. This is true also of the last days, the person of Christ, the Trinity, baptism, and even salvation itself. This is also why Christ requested obedience rather than rational analysis.
Therefore, it seems prudent to focus on imitating Christ in response to his grace as expressive of early Anabaptism. The ontology of salvation should be given more attention than cognitive theological expeditions. The reality is that there are no conceptual archetypes provided by Jesus within which one may align her or his conception of the eucharistic elements and other theological inquiries. Conversely, there is indeed a physical archetype to which one may align her or his actions, and this archetypal example avails himself to us through the biblical narrative.
A LESSON IN PREEMINENCE FROM GREGORY OF NYSSA
The potential outworking of early Anabaptist pre-Constantinian idealism is expressed unambiguously by Gregory of Nyssa. Early Anabaptist primitivism accentuates an ethical or ontological soteriology over theological conception, or practice over speculative instruction. Incidentally, contemporary Anabaptists can learn something under Gregory of Nyssa’s tutelage. Gregory declares that “there is a plainer guide to be found than verbal instruction; and that is practice.” 24 Correspondingly, he prefers to “give [his] life as an example instead of words.” 25 Gregory is interested in perfection as represented in the person of Christ. Imitation is vital to one’s salvation, as early Anabaptists subsequently discovered. The rationale behind this emphasis, as it occurs in Gregory’s thought, is consistent with early Anabaptist pre-Constantinian principles. As it happens, Gregory of Nyssa
forbids that the Divine be likened to any of the things known by men, since every concept which comes from some comprehensible image by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the divine nature constitutes an idol of God and does not proclaim God. 26
This is precisely the lesson that Anabaptists can appropriate and integrate into their own unique primitivist adherence. Early Anabaptists recognized the inadequacy of forensic justification, and contemporary Anabaptists can learn from Gregory with respect to explaining that inadequacy. A fallible concept of God, as all theistic concepts inevitably are, is essentially an idol if viewed as comprehensively accurate. The ethical and ontological approach to salvation acknowledges this reality, and instead opts for simple obedience. Consequently, Anabaptists should allow God to replace fallible and divisive eucharistic concepts with the authentic essence of what actually occurs (or does not occur) in the elements and focus on simple obedience. Additionally, Anabaptists should acknowledge a similarity in external eucharistic practice as representative of a universal obedience to Christ.
The foregoing represents early Anabaptist primitivism and pre-Constantinian ideals at the risk, perhaps, of oversimplifying the issue. Regardless, my intention was to illuminate and celebrate Anabaptist distinctions and to explain the pre-Constantinian adherence for contemporary Anabaptists from lessons taught by Hans Denck and Gregory of Nyssa, both of whom did not live in the pre-Constantinian era but nevertheless extended its influence into two vastly different historical contexts. By using the eucharist as a paradigm, this essay demonstrates how conceptual variance is irrelevant and that practical unity is evident and desirable. Anabaptists should preserve their distinctiveness, while perceiving external Christian factions with less suspicion based on the principle of passive sacramentalism.
Although the political ramifications and ecclesial opposition may have subsided, contemporary Anabaptists can maintain their eucharistic conceptions while recognizing that their pre-Constantinian observance and ontological soteriology demonstrate God’s sovereignty to replace eucharistic, eschatological, christological, and triadological conceptions with its authentic essence. With this in mind, it is best to acknowledge a unified ontology of obedience throughout the Christian faith, and value its significance.
- J. Denny Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity (Telford, PA: Pandora, 2000), 50.
- C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 1995), 151.
- Thomas Finger, “Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Some Unexpected Similarities?” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 31 (winter-spring 1994): 76.
- Hans Denck, “Recantation,” Anabaptism in Outline, ed. Walter Klaassen (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 1981), 86.
- Hans Denck, “The Contention that Scripture Says,” Anabaptism in Outline, 87.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “On Perfection,” trans. Casimir McCambley, Greek Orthodox Theological Review 29 (winter 1984): 360.
- Ibid., 364.
- Ibid., 361.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series II, vol. 5, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 504A.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “On Perfection,” 374.
- Hans Denck, “Divine Order and the Work of His Creatures,” Early Anabaptist Spirituality, ed. Daniel Liechty (New York: Paulist, 1994), 127.
- Hans Denck, “Recantation,” 195.
- Ibid., 196.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” 505B.
- Ibid., 506A.
- Ibid., 506B.
- Hans Denck, “Divine Order and the Work of His Creatures,” 123.
- Ibid., 126.
- Ibid., 129.
- Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline, 303.
- Hans Denck, “Recantation,” 305.
- Hans Denck, “Commentary on Micah,” Anabaptism in Outline, 292.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “On Virginity,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series II, vol. 5, 368A.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “On Perfection,” 360.
- Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist, 1978), 96.