July 2001 Hovey

Story and Eucharist:

Postliberal Reflections on Anabaptist Nachfolge


Abstract: This article explores some ways that George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic theory of religion is useful for understanding the thought and practice of sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptism. The Swiss Brethren theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper and their accompanying Christology are best related in cultural-linguistic terms. Specifically, the model helps to narrate the interdependence of doctrine and ethics, the reason for occasional rather than formal theology, and the emphasis on the church rather than the individual as the locus for discipleship. The success of Lindbeck’s theory not only suggests new possibilities for Anabaptist theologians and historians but also points to a kind of selective embrace of postmodern strategies.

The thought and practice of sixteenth-century Anabaptism seem peculiar to many moderns precisely because modernity has no conceptual framework capable of correctly understanding the movement. Recent philosophical trends within postmodernity, however, provide fresh models for reassessing Anabapt-ism in terms more attuned to Anabaptism’s unique character. The forms of postmodernity I will explore are not the deconstructionism or poststructuralism often associated with continental philosophy, which are of very limited usefulness for theology. Rather, I will engage the Anglo-American version of postmodernity that has addressed and advanced post-Enlightenment thought in a remarkably successful manner, especially in regard to theology. Here George Lindbeck is among the most prominent recent scholars who have used postmodern philosophy to help us imagine new ways of thinking about theology, particularly regarding the nature of religion, doctrine and theological method. In this essay I will provide an account of the usefulness of Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic theory of religion[1]-in contrast to other modern options-by examining the doctrines of the Eucharist and Christology in sixteenth-century Anabaptism. I will argue that the Anabaptist tradition offers a valuable example of the form that discipleship must take if it is to be sustainable both practically and theologically in a postmodern era.

Lindbeck’s theory helps to clarify three features of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, particularly as expressed among the Swiss Brethren: (1) an interdependence of doctrine and ethics; (2) a penchant for occasional rather than formal theology; and (3) an emphasis on the church rather than the individual as the locus for discipleship. To be sure, rarely in sixteenth-century Anabaptist literature is any one of these three points found independently of the other two; treating these three observations separately imposes some artificial distinctions. But just as ethicist James McClendon has described the various components of the Christian moral life by evoking the overlapping and interconnecting fibers of a rope,[2] so I wish to respect the whole “rope” of Anabaptist thought and practices even while analyzing the various fibers for the purposes of clarity.


The linguistic component of Lindbeck’s theory, as detailed in The Nature of Doctrine, is clearly dependent on the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, sometimes called the first postmodern philosopher.[3] In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein demonstrated the absurdity of characterizing language as purely referential; that is, of taking language to be the set of ostensibly understood, strict descriptions of objects as they exist in reality.[4] Instead, Wittgenstein argued that language exhibits referential qualities only insofar as those qualities find their meaning within “language games”-which is to say, within the rules that govern the relationships between language and behavior. In other words, one cannot meaningfully refer to an object in reality if a shared understanding of corresponding behaviors does not already exist as a precondition.

It is partially on these grounds that Lindbeck asserts that religion is akin to language. Like language in general, religious language is devoid of propositional force to the extent that the corresponding actions of the user of that language fail to attest to its meaning or truthfulness. Consistency between language and practice is a crucial part of what Lindbeck calls “intrasystematic truth.”

In addition to intrasystematic truth, a religion can also express “categorial” and “ontological” truth. A religion is categorially true if it possesses categories (or a “grammar”) adequate to express what is taken to be religiously real. This allows for a religious utterance to be true (a Wittgensteinian point), though it does not guarantee its truth. Hence “categorial adequacy” is a better term than “truth.”

Ontological truth in Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model names the extent to which a religion conforms its participants “to the ultimate reality and goodness that lies at the heart of things.”[5] Utterances cannot be true in this sense in and of themselves, but are subject to confirmation by the ways the actual practices of a religion give rise to lives which actually correspond to those things which the religion takes to be most important.

Lindbeck’s account of the varied senses of truth emphasizes that religious behavior does not inhabit a sphere separate from religious truth claims; rather, it is bound up with those claims at every point. In other words, the ethics of a system is not simply the behavioral expression of abstract beliefs-as epistemological realists would have it. Rather, intrasystematic truth is a necessary, but insufficient, logical precondition to ontological truth.[6] Ethics, therefore, cannot be incidental to doctrine. Ethics and doctrine are interrelated in the same way as are behavior and language. Religious practices are indispensable precisely because they form the “determinate settings” that get expressed in first-order discourse and are only secondarily expressed in technical, theological terms. Insofar as the second-order corresponds to the first-order, a system is said to display intrasystematic truth.


This notion of intrasystematic truth is extremely helpful for understanding the connection between the sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptists’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper and their proposition that the church is the body of Christ. Balthasar Hubmaier referred to the Supper as a practice “in which a Christian obligates himself to another.”[7] For Hubmaier, as with all the Swiss Anabaptists, any claim that links the Eucharist to the body of Christ-but made without the corresponding communal practices of fellowship and unity amidst persecution-would be tantamount to an identity crisis. Their particular ethic of fraternal love-exhibited in part by celebrating the Lord’s Supper-is best understood in the context of the claim that to do otherwise would undermine the integrity of what they considered an essential doctrine for life as the church. Indeed, without the ethic of love, the theoretical question of the church’s identity was moot.[8]

Modern models of religion, committed to systematic understandings of ecclesiology, necessarily distinguish between the church’s ethical behaviors on the one hand and the doctrine of the church as the body of Christ on the other. This distinction, coincident with the start of the modern period, reflects the emergence of ethics as a discipline separate from theology. To be sure, a disjunction between belief and behavior may be useful for polemics. But as Lindbeck notes, it then becomes unclear what distinguishes religions from other spheres.[9] If there is an undue fascination with “belief”-that is, with the informational meaning of religious discourse-then religion comes to resemble philosophy or science, a model Lindbeck calls “propositionalist” or “cognitivist.” On the other hand, nondiscursive, symbolic representations of existential orientations-what Lindbeck calls an “experiential-expressivist” model-make religion resemble aesthetic enterprises. While the two alternatives give rise to differing images, both maintain a strong division between belief and behavior.

As Lindbeck has shown, these two modern options are inadequate theoretical descriptions of religion and doctrine. In a similar way, the modern bifurcation of doctrine and ethics also fails to do justice to the performative nature of Anabaptist doctrine. James McClendon has praised the manner in which “Menno Simons, in his Foundations of Christian Doctrine . . . had so interwoven ethics and doctrine that the seam between the two cannot be found.”[10] This “interweaving” becomes intelligible in light of Lindbeck’s claim that religion resembles language. Thus, a scheme that separates doctrine from ethics is as meaningless as rules of grammar that are never applied to the language they were intended to serve.

The correlation between Christology and the Lord’s Supper in Swiss Anabaptism is a particularly revealing example of the usefulness of the cultural-linguistic theory’s emphasis on the interdependence of language and practice or, in this case, doctrine and ethics. Following Zwingli and Karlstadt, Swiss Anabaptism maintained a sharp distinction between the two natures of Christ, which proved useful when arguing against the real presence of Christ in the elements.[11] Their argument went as follows: In the incarnation, Christ took on both a human and a divine nature. Since his ascension, however, Christ’s human nature is in heaven and therefore unable to be present in the eucharistic elements. Therefore, the Lord’s Supper is to be thought of spiritually rather than materially; that is, in terms of the mediation of the Holy Spirit rather than that of Christ’s humanity. This understanding was not unique to Swiss Anabaptism but remained an enduring feature of all Reformed Christology.

Of particular interest here is the nature of the conflict between the Swiss Anabaptists’ Christological predispositions, given their emergence from the Reformed tradition, and their accompanying ecclesiology-the realities of their life as the church. In actual practice, the common identity of Swiss Anabaptism was reinforced more by an identification with Christ’s humanity than with his divinity. It was verified by experiences that were more physical than spiritual. The unavoidable realities of persecution and martyrdom especially encouraged them to regard the church, in its external life, as the incarnational extension of Jesus’ life on earth. Therefore, baptism and the Lord’s Supper involved the participation of Christians in declaring Christ’s humanity by means of the same kind of revelation found in the incarnation.

In this way, the eucharistic doctrines of the sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptists emerged out of the interaction between these two Christologies, the result drawing on beliefs about the nature of Christ understood both spiritually (Reformed) and materially (in the church). They strongly reflect belief in the spiritual presence of Christ; that is, the participation of his divine nature made possible by the ascension. However, they also are ecclesiologically nuanced, reflecting the conviction that, by virtue of his incarnation, Christ’s human nature is present, not in the bread and wine but in the gathered body of celebrants. In his careful study of the Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism, John Rempel has observed that “where Christ is believed to be present in both his natures, there his humanity is at work in the external acts of the church, uniting them with his divinity, which is at work in the internal life of the church, in its collective faith.”[12]


This interaction between two Christologies is an instance of what has been noted above concerning the interaction between language and practice. For the Anabaptists in question, the emphasis on Christ’s divinity originated simply as a proposition carried over from Zwingli and Karlstadt while the emphasis on his humanity derived from their experience as the church. The doctrine that emerged did not favor one option at the expense of the other but instead incorporated both in order to be truthful to the nature of life as an embodied whole. Lindbeck considers this kind of reciprocal causality between religion and experience to be normative.[13]

It would be inaccurate to view this reciprocal interaction as either a corruption of “pure” doctrine by experience or as a limitation placed on experience by doctrine. If, for example, religious claims are thought to be solely propositional, then “doctrinal reconciliation without capitulation is impossible”[14] and the present case likely represents a failure to withstand cultural and experiential forces contrary to “pure” doctrine. In contrast, if religious claims are thought solely to be expressive in character, analysis of the present case necessarily suggests that the forms of belief that remained in this version of Swiss Anabaptism did so because of the weakness of the believers. From this perspective, one could have dismissed the original doctrine entirely.

Instead, Lindbeck helps us to understand how human experience is “shaped, molded, and in a sense constituted by cultural and linguistic forms.”[15] The cultural-linguistic model enables us to interpret the experiential influences on Swiss Anabaptist eucharistic doctrine according to the complex whole of religious life, which is to say, according to the involvement of complete people and communities in the “forms of life” commensurate with being religious.[16]

Specifically, for Lindbeck, becoming a Christian “involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.”[17] This is precisely the testimony of the Swiss Anabaptists illustrated here. Rooted as it was in the story of Jesus, their Reformed doctrinal emphasis on Christ’s divine nature afforded them the occasion to appeal even more to that story for the development of a self-identity based on Christ’s human nature. The story set the symbolic context for what would become the truthful, local expression of that story. In other words, using the language of first- and second-order discourse, the Anabaptists treated second-order Reformed eucharistic formulations as flexible to the extent that they could better account for the first-order language of both their story and Jesus’ story.[18]

The success of their efforts to achieve a theologically truthful and meaningful system depends on the capacity of that system to contribute to the practical achievement of its goals in real lives. It is hardly useful to consider the truth or falsity of Swiss Anabaptist eucharistic doctrine in a technical sense vis–vis its absolute correspondence to the real world, as epistemological realists do. Rather, as Lindbeck would have it, first-order truth or falsity can be assessed “only in determinate settings.”[19] Only in the particularities of actual people and congregations do religious claims take on propositional force, and even then, only to the extent that the activities of those people and congregations bear witness to the truthful appropriation of those claims.[20]

Hence, it is not surprising that the writings of Anabaptist leaders and theologians demonstrate more agreement on moral and ethical issues than they do on points of technical theology. Furthermore, one often finds an interdependence of ethics and doctrine as well as a strong communitarian emphasis.[21] Consider the following from Conrad Grebel’s well-known epistle to Thomas Mntzer (1524):

Although it is simply bread, yet if faith and brotherly love precede it, it is to be received with joy, since, when it is used in the church, it is to show us that we are truly one bread and one body, and that we are and wish to be true brethren with one another, etc. But if one is found who will not live the brotherly life, he eats unto condemnation, since he eats it without discerning, like any other meal, and dishonors love, which is the inner bond. For also it does not call to his mind Christ’s body and blood, the covenant of the cross, nor that he should be willing to live and suffer for the sake of Christ and the brethren, of the head and the members.[22]

Several things are worth noting here. First, as might be expected from the preceding discussion, Grebel offers no clear delineation between technical theology and moral imperatives. Whether present or absent, the ethics of “brotherly love” determine the theological significance of the Lord’s Supper. The Supper of fellowship “works,” as it were, insofar as the celebrants bear witness to its truthfulness by being one with each other in the bond of love. Equally absent are both the Roman Catholic fascination with the Mass as a sacrament and the Protestant preoccupation with the nature of the Presence of Christ in the bread and wine. In contrast to Catholic and Protestant attempts to provide theologies that were ostensibly true regardless of time and place, Grebel made explicit use of the contextual nature of Christian practice to suggest a theology sustainable only by the true appropriation of that theology. Put simply, his eucharistic doctrine was designed to be meaningful only when something was done about it.

A second point worth noting in Grebel’s Letter is the way his ideas attest to the blending of the two Christological emphases noted above. Following a Reformed Christology, the bread is “simply bread.” Yet following a Christology conditioned by their experience as the church, with faith and brotherly love the church is both “one bread and one body.” The church thereby extends the incarnational reality of Christ’s humanity. This was Grebel’s answer to the question of what happened to Jesus’ body following the ascension, which removed his humanity from history. Rempel has shown that this same idea is also present in the Christologies of Balthasar Hubmaier and Pilgram Marpeck.[23]

This emphasis on the human nature of Christ helps to explain the sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptist penchant for occasional rather than formal theology. It is appropriate that a church that believes itself to be the extension of the human, physical body of Christ should function as Christ did. It must act and respond according to the same historical specificity found in the stories of Jesus. Just as these stories refer to a real person in a particular time and place, so must the theological witness of the church. It is to the credit of sixteenth-century Anabaptism that the theology it produced is contextually rooted and occasionally determined in the forms of apologetic confessions and instructions to specific congregations, as in the case of Grebel’s Letter to Mntzer, Sattler’s letter to the congregation at Horb, or the many missives of Menno Simons. Such particular forms are necessary because they furnish the kinds of contexts necessary to provide theology the chance of proving to be truthful.

In addition to rejecting a sharp distinction between doctrine and ethics and accounting for a kind of occasional theology, this Christological formulation leads to a third observation: it avoids the negative consequences of a spirit/matter dualism. Indeed, an over-zealous emphasis on spirit, that is, on Christ’s divinity, leads to an inward and individual communion. In contrast, emphasizing Christ’s humanity as the sole outward mediating presence in the Lord’s Supper can disproportionately exalt the church at the expense of the individual’s faith. The Swiss Anabaptists rejected both of these tendencies by recovering the unity of Christ in his two natures, thus allowing for the church’s self-expression of unity in both its corporate and individual manifestations.

This holistic Christology is but an illustration of the kind of holism that Lindbeck claims must characterize doctrine if artificial dualisms are to be avoided and doctrine is freed to be true to the holistic nature of the human being as a “psychosomatic unity.”[24] The individualistic potential of the Christology inherited from Zwingli and Karlstadt did not square with their communitarian ecclesiology, which had been reinforced by their experience of suffering and unity.[25] Therefore, that Christology needed to be modified in order to be true to their experience in the way that their ecclesiology was. Anabaptists challenged a separation between Christ’s spirit and body because it failed to correspond to the existential reality of being the church. They experienced unity in both spirit and body, in both ideological oneness and the bonds of brotherly love and common suffering. Thus the total gestalt of the community determined their theology.


The indispensability of the community is not an incidental factor unique to the history of Swiss Anabaptism. Rather, it necessarily follows from what has been stated above concerning theology as second-order discourse; that is, discourse that functions to describe religious practices and first-order discourse. This is the point Wittgenstein was making in his argument for the impossibility of a private language.[26] In order for language to be intelligible from one instance to another, there must be agreement regarding the function of that language. In order for there to be agreement, there must be more than one person using the language. In other words, common effects-which are partially derivative of and partially constitutive of the language-necessarily determine its consistent meaning. Therefore, the question of how religious language functions within the community, both to express and determine its practices and conventions, is not incidental, but crucial, to understanding the language itself.

Lindbeck has followed Wittgenstein in asserting this point. For him, religion, like language, is “a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities.”[27] Put differently, the language of faith flows from the culture of the community and opens up the possibility for religious experiences to the extent that it has been interiorized by an individual in that community. This is true not only of particular words but of all symbolic systems, including the myths and stories that constitute the shared interpretations of a given community’s history and, therefore, its present identity and future destiny.

This is an extremely helpful way to understand the implicit and often explicit communitarian emphasis in Anabaptism. Consider the following instruction given by Grebel to Mntzer: “The Supper is a sign of fellowship . . . therefore no one shall eat it alone, whether on a deathbed or otherwise . . . no one should take for himself alone the bread of those in unity, unless he is not one with himself-which no one is.”[28] This direction follows nicely from what has been said, not only regarding the nature of the practice itself, but also from what has been said regarding the nature of practices in general.

All practices, if they are to be given linguistic expression, must draw on significances furnished by a culture-which is to say they must be practiced communally. In turn, the specific form of a practice is contingent on the context of the community. This idea is built into the practice of the Lord’s Supper in Swiss Anabaptism. Following Grebel, if the Supper is both a reminder that the celebrants are the body of Christ in fellowship with him in one Spirit as well as a visible commitment to fraternity, how can it be taken alone? A private practice of the Supper would imply that the individual believer possesses the faculties necessary to be in fellowship with himself, to secure his own sanctification directly from God. In other words, he would be his own church. In the same way that Wittgenstein has shown the incoherence of a private language, Grebel has illustrated the incoherence of a private “communion.”


In this work, I have tried to show some ways that George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic theory of religion is useful for understanding the thought and practice of sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptism. Specifically, it helps us negotiate an interdependence of doctrine and ethics, the reason for occasional rather than formal theology, and an emphasis on the church rather than the individual as the locus for discipleship. By applying Lindbeck’s theory in this way, I have demonstrated one instance in which a shift away from the philosophical agenda of modernity might engender hope.

Philosopher Stephen Toulmin has suggested, in regard to our postmodern situation, that we must “welcome a prospect that offers new possibilities, but demands novel ideas and more adaptive institutions; and we may see this transition as a reason for hope.”[29] Such a prospect will likely require and furnish fresh models of discipleship that enable the faithful to conceive of their participation in the Christian story not as adherents to a creed or philosophy but as actors and actresses in divine drama. This will undoubtedly involve a rediscovery of historical examples that can receive theological legitimization against the strictures of modernity. Such is the contribution of sixteenth-century Anabaptism.

[*] Craig Hovey is a ThM student in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.
1. George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).
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[2]. James W. McClendon, Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 62-67.
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[3]. This position is held by my teacher Nancey Murphy, who also places the end of the modern period in 1951, the year of Wittgenstein’s death.
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[4]. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953). See esp. §2.
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[5]. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 51.
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[6]. Ibid., 64.
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[7]. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, eds. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 5 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 76.
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[8]. The Pauline analogical distinction “the body of Christ” was originally set within the context of the ethical demands incumbent on disciples in Corinth.-I Cor. 12:12-27.
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[9]. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 16.
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[10]. McClendon, Ethics, 44.
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[11]. See John D. Rempel, The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993), 31-32.
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[12]. Ibid., 37.
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[13]. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 33.
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[14]. Ibid., 17.
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[15]. Ibid., 34.
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[16]. See Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §19 for the introduction of this phrase. See also §23, 174, 226, 241.
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[17]. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 34.
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[18]. In The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism Rempel shows how Balthasar Hubmaier’s language expressing eucharistic theology was an integration of Zwinglian sacramental language with what were taken to be certain ethical givens (52-57). Furthermore, of Hubmaier’s work, Rempel says, “Novel here is the use of classical eucharistic language with reference to a communion which is not sacramental but ethical. This deliberate planting of old language in new ground underscores the radicality of Hubmaier’s intentions. It cannot be accidental that Hubmaier uses the same concept, Wesen (essence), to describe the mode of Christ’s absence and that of the church’s presence in the Lord’s Supper” (79).
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[19]. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 68.
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[20]. Lindbeck suggests that this same point may be made by employing J. L. Austin’s notion of the “performatory” use of language: “a religious utterance, one might say, acquires the propositional truth of ontological correspondence only insofar as it is a performance, an act or deed, which helps create that correspondence” (65). Some would prefer a “stronger” account of truth, usually involving absolutist language. But this is precisely the kind of reasoning Lindbeck would have us discard as an example of the residue left by modernism, because only modernism could convince us that abstract statements are “stronger” than concrete ones.
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[21]. Franklin H. Littell takes communitarian ecclesiology to be foundational to understanding Anabaptism in his well known book, The Anabaptist View of the Church: A Study in the Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (Boston: Starr King Press, 1958).
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[22]. “Letters to Thomas Mntzer by Conrad Grebel and Friends,” Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 25, ed. George H. Williams and Angel Mergal (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), 76.
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[23]. Rempel, The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism, 22-3.
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[24]. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 37.
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[25]. This is not to suggest that Zwingli and Karlstadt were themselves individualists, especially in the way that we understand individualism in a modern, Western context. Rather, the exigencies of Anabaptist life demanded that the Christology they articulated make clear that the form of church they practiced followed directly from their statements about Christ. Their inherited Christological statements tended toward a kind of expression that would so prioritize the interiority of the individual’s experience of God’s presence that, according to Anabaptists, an insufficiently communitarian ecclesiology was inevitable.
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[26]. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §243.
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[27]. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 33.
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[28]. “Letters to Thomas Mntzer by Conrad Grebel and Friends,” 77.
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[29]. Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1990), 203.
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Story and Eucharist