The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology



The Function of the Words of Institution

in the Celebration of the Lord's Supper

by Ros Clarke



When Christians share the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, they participate in a meal that has its origins in the command and example of the Lord Jesus himself. The bread that he broke, he identified with his body, and the wine that he gave the disciples to drink, he identified with his blood.1 When we, in obedience to his command, do likewise, we do so on the basis of a similar identification between the bread and wine we consume in the sacrament, and Jesus' own body and blood given for us. 2

The intimate connection between the sacrament and the word has long been recognized. Augustine explained it thus: 'The Word comes to the element; and so there is a sacrament, that is, a sort of visible word.' 3 Calvin explained what he understood by Augustine's comment: 'By this he means, that the sacraments derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligibly. Without this they deserve not the name of sacraments' and therefore agreed that 'the word ought always to accompany the sacraments.' 4

"the word ought always to accompany the sacraments" John Calvin

The word that accompanies the sacrament in Calvin's understanding was the word preached. In practice, however, the sacrament is often more closely associated with the specific words of institution rather than the general preaching of the gospel. In this paper therefore, we shall be specifically considering the function of the words of institution of the sacrament when they are repeated by an authorized minister at the celebration of the sacrament and asking whether they are necessary in order to make the sacrament effective.

Since we are concerned with the efficacy of these words, we shall seek to employ the categories and principles of speech act theory to help us in our task. Here we shall consider not only the three categories suggested by Austin which are commonly recognized within speech act theory, but also a fourth, overarching category proposed by Vanhoozer, that of the interlocutionary act. 5

Before turning to the specific words that are the focus of this study, we will first offer a discussion of speech act theory itself. Here we will attempt to demonstrate the theological basis on which it rests and illustrate the categories of speech act that will be significant in our study. Then we will need to consider the sacramental mandate and its illocutionary force with respect to the repeated performance of the sacrament. We shall discuss two possible ways in which the canonical utterance may be related to the utterance of the minister in the performance of the sacrament. Here we shall conclude that in the institution of the sacrament, Christ effected the necessary world-to-word transformation to ensure the effectiveness of the sacrament each time it is celebrated. As such, we shall argue that it is not necessary for the minister to repeat the words of institution at the sacrament.

However, we shall end by turning our attention to the other illocutionary, perlocutionary and interlocutionary effects of the words of institution when uttered in the celebration of the sacrament and here we shall conclude that it is a useful and appropriate utterance for the benefit of the congregation.


Speech Acts

A Theological Basis for Speech Acts

Kevin Vanhoozer has suggested that '[t]he great discovery of twentieth-century philosophy of language... is precisely the speech-act.' 6 The terminology of speech act theory derives from the seminal work of John Austin whose great insight was to show how saying can also be doing. He demonstrated how actions other than speaking can be performed in the act of speaking and by the act of speaking.

Speech act theory has been readily adopted and developed by biblical scholars, 7 perhaps because the notion of speech act resonates with the bible's own descriptions of the power of words. Consider, for example, the warning related to the power of the tongue in James 3.

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (Jas 3:6-9 ESV).

Words uttered by the tongue are powerful enough, says James, to stain the whole body, to affect the whole course of our lives. Words can perform the actions of blessing and of cursing.

Vanhoozer suggests a number of passages that make a similar point with respect to the power of the word of God. Heb 4:12 describes the word as 'living and active'; Ps 107:20 attributes the actions of healing and delivering to the word; Isa 55:11 talks about the word accomplishing God's purpose for it; and Gen 1:3 illustrates the power of the word in creation.

The Bible's own language about the word thus suggests the plausibility of the speech act theory of language. But we need to go further than this. If, as Vern Poythress suggests, 'language as we know it has its archetype in the very being of God,'8 then any theory of language we propose must likewise find its archetype in the being of God. Poythress's observation derives from John 1 in which the second person of the Trinity is called 'the Word' and is related to the spoken word of God by means of an allusion to Gen 1.

The incarnation of the Word described in John 1 also provides the theological basis for speech act theory. There can be no clearer way of demonstrating the active power of words than by reference to the living and active Word who "became flesh... and lived among us." The eternal Word, who is the archetype of all language, became flesh and dwelt among us, living and active. In the act of the incarnation, the Word revealed God but in so doing, he accomplished much more than mere revelation. Words, like the Word, can do more than communicate information.

Vanhoozer takes the Triune God as a whole as the paradigm for communication and reaches a similar conclusion with regard to the active nature of discourse:

God... is the paradigm communicative agent. The word of God is something that God says, something that God does, and (with reference to the incarnation) something that God is. As to Scripture, it is not merely the disclosure of information about God (revelation) but a collection of diverse kinds of divine communicative acts (divine discourse). When God does make himself known, he is both agent (Father) and content (Son) of his discourse, as well as its power of reception (Spirit). Scripture is taken up in complex ways into God's triune self-communicative action. God speaks in and through human words, not only to reveal but to promise, exhort, command, warn, comfort, predict, lament, even plead. 9


Categories of Speech Acts


Austin's Categories

The three categories of speech act identified by Austin are the locutionary act, the illocutionary act and the perlocutionary act. 10 All utterances are, by definition, locutionary acts requiring some meaningful words having sense and referent.

Austin's contribution was to demonstrate that speaking also involves illocutionary acts. Words spoken have not merely a particular meaning but also a particular force: they may be questions, assertions, promises and so on. In the act of saying, then, some act that is not merely saying is achieved: some question is asked, some fact is stated or some promise is made. Initially, Austin limited his discussion to the subset of explicit performatives such as 'I promise' or 'I bet' but he later argues persuasively that all utterances have some illocutionary force. 11

In order for the illocutionary act to be effective certain things must be avoided. Austin calls these 'infelicities' and their effect on the speech act is 'unhappy'. 12 These infelicities relates to the conventions surrounding the act, the appropriateness of the person performing the act, the circumstances of the act, and the intentions of the speaker.

In addition to the locutionary and illocutionary acts, a third kind of act is accomplished by speaking, namely the perlocutionary act. Wolterstorff distinguishes the three kinds of act by their relations: 'Illocutionary acts are related to locutionary acts by way of the counting as relation; perlocutionary acts are related to illocutionary acts by causality.' 13

Austin describes the perlocutionary act in terms of intended or designed consequences of the speech, though it seems plausible enough to argue that even unintended consequences, if they are true consequences, are perlocutionary acts. 14 'I didn't mean it' is no evidence for 'I didn't cause it' or even 'I didn't do it'. Conversely, an effect which was intended but does not in fact result is no act at all.

The distinguishing feature of perlocutionary acts is that they are not accomplished within the speech itself. For example, by making a joke I may intend to amuse you, but your actual amusement demands some response on your part. The speech in which I recount the joke does not itself constitute your amusement in response. It would be correct to say that I amused you by my speech, though not to say that I amused you in my speech.

Interlocutionary Speech Acts

In addition to the three categories proposed by Austin, Vanhoozer has proposed a fourth, overarching category of speech act which he terms the interlocutionary act. 15

By introducing this category, Vanhoozer seeks to give due recognition to the relational aspects of communication. He understands all language in covenantal terms, based on the presupposition of shared human identity and experience. When we speak we acknowledge our personhood and that of our hearers and we presume that in our humanity we have sufficient shared experience and understanding to make communication possible. 'Human communication presupposes existence in a shared, meaningful world.' 16

Vanhoozer develops this argument in covenantal terms, suggesting that '[e]very piece of discourse, merely by being expressed, makes a certain claim on our attention. By addressing us, a speaker manifests her intention to modify our cognitive environment in some way.' 17 Wolterstorff hints at this interlocutionary act in his analysis of the perlocutionary acts associated with promising and commanding. 'What promising introduces is the (prima facie) right of the addressee to hold the speaker to it; what commanding introduces is the (prima facie) right of the speaker to hold the addressee to it.' 18 In making a promise or giving a command a particular kind of relation is established between speaker and hearer. Of course, the promise may be broken or the command disobeyed, but both of these negative results, as much as their positive equivalents of promise-keeping or command-obeying, depend on the relationship established in the promise or command itself. A person cannot be disobeyed unless they have first issued a command establishing the relationship in obedience terms.

While illocutionary acts are performed by the speaker and perlocutionary acts focus on the response of hearers, interlocutionary acts are those which form and establish relationships between speakers and hearers. Use of this fourth category acknowledges that speech is a profoundly relational act, inevitably connecting speaker and hearer in some way. Vanhoozer suggests that one way of highlighting this kind of speech act is to use different terminology: 'Let us call an interlocutor - either an agent or recipient of communicative action - a communicant.' 19 We may now speak of the speech act in terms of the communicants, both speakers and hearers together.

Direction of Fit

A further development of speech act theory proposed by John Searle concerns the direction of fit required by different kinds of speech act.

Searle introduces an illuminating and far-reaching difference between the logic of promise (and related language-functions) and the logic of assertion. He described the difference as "differences in the direction of fit between words and the world." Some illocutions have part of their purpose or "point", "to get the words (more strictly, their propositional content) to match the world." This is the case with assertions. But others have the inverse function: "to get the world to match the words." This is the case with promises and commands. 20

Speech acts of the first kind have 'word-to-world' fit and depend for their efficacy on the accuracy with which they describe the state of affairs existing in the world. 'They are satisfied if and only if their propositional content is true, no matter how the represented state of affairs got into existence.' 21

The second kind of speech act depends on its power to bring about a certain state of affairs in the world in order to match the words spoken and 'it is satisfied if and only if its propositional content is true because of its performance.' 22

Some speech acts appear ambiguous with regard to the direction of their fit with the world. Identification, for instance, may be a question of describing an already existing identity or it may be, as in the act of naming something, a way of bringing that identity into existence. We also note that some utterances may involve both word-to-world and world-to-word speech acts and some may involve neither. A pronouncement of marriage, for example, both brings the marriage into being and declares that it is so. A question, on the other hand, neither brings about a state of affairs, nor describes an existing state of affairs.

The Value of Speech Act Theory

Before we take these categories and ideas of speech act theory and apply them to our texts, it will be worthwhile to consider for a moment what our expectations of such a task will be and what value it has.

Any theory of language remains just that: a theory. Even though we have attempted to show that there is a good theological basis for expecting speech act theory to have some explanatory power, nonetheless the theory remains at the level of the abstract and, as with any theory of language, it must ultimately be subordinate to the realities of language use. Our concern must always be with the use of language as it actually is, not as the theory forces it to be.

Speech act theory in particular is susceptible to the accusation that it is a trivial theory, stating no more than the obvious. Any child can recognise a promise or a command made in an utterance and instinctively responds to it. However, the formalization of the categories of speech acts lends a much needed clarity to the discussion of language (and indeed of biblical interpretation) which have tended in the past to focus on the propositional content of utterances. The categories of speech act theory compel the interpreter to consider not only meaning, but force, consequence and relationship. They prompt us to ask the question, 'What does this text do?' where perhaps scholars have been tempted in the past to think the task of interpretation is limited to asking, 'What does this text mean?'

"the formalization of the categories of speech acts lends a much needed clarity to the discussion of language"

We do not expect that an analysis in terms of speech acts will be comprehensive and we recognise that the categories of speech act discussed may not be exhaustive and need not be mutually exclusive. In particular, we recognise that the categories of illocutionary, perlocutionary and interlocutionary acts may be seen as simply different perspectives on the same act. However, it is still hoped that the following analysis will demonstrate some of the gains that made be made in understanding by appropriation of speech act theory.


The Speech Acts of Christ in the Institution of the Supper

We come now to the utterance known as the sacramental mandate in which Christ commanded the repetition of his actions at the Last Supper, recorded in Luke 22:19. 23

Here we face an immediate problem: which utterance do we mean? This is not so much an issue of harmonizing the various canonical accounts of the institution of the Supper in an attempt to recover the ipsissima verba of Christ, but rather the need to distinguish between the oral utterance of Christ at the last supper and the written utterances of the recorded accounts of the supper. The significant issue is not content but context.

In fact the words actually constitute an utterance on at least three different levels. They are an utterance of the human author of the gospel, made in the context of the written record of the events of Jesus' life and addressed to every reader of the text. The words also record, or at least purport to record, an utterance made by Christ at the historical event of the last supper. In this context, the utterance was made to the twelve men who were sitting at the table with Christ. And finally the words may be understood as an utterance of God in the context of his divine discourse contained in the Scriptures. This utterance is addressed to the covenant community, that is the church.

The three levels of discourse are not unrelated. So, for example, the illocutionary act in Luke's utterance is an assertion that Christ uttered these words at the last supper. Perhaps we may even be so bold as to suggest that Luke claims not merely to record the words but also, or even possibly instead, to accurately reflect at least some part of their original illocutionary force and that he achieves this by setting the utterance in the context of his narrative.

As part of the divine covenantal discourse with the church, the utterance does much more than merely assert that words were spoken to this effect. It institutes the sacrament of the supper; it authorizes the ministers of the church to celebrate the sacrament; it authorizes the identification of bread and wine in the supper as Christ's body and blood, it commands the repetition of the acts; and it promises to make the sacramental acts effective.

Perhaps we run on too fast and it is not immediately obvious how the utterance of these few words in the context of the divine discourse achieves all of these things. In which case we should slow down and attempt a more thorough analysis of this utterance in terms of its illocutionary speech acts.


The utterance is clearly a command, as indicated by the imperative mood of poieite. It is a command to repeat certain actions, referred to in the pronoun touto. This seems most naturally to refer to the group of surrounding actions, considered as a single unit, comprising the ritual that is to be done. 'The most obvious referent of the command "do this" is the action of giving thanks over bread and cup.' This ritual is comprised then of the actions described in v. 19 of taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to be eaten. It seems to include the accompanying action of saying 'This is my body, which is given for you' or at least of saying words with the same illocutionary force, identifying the bread with Jesus' body. By comparison with the words of institution recounted in 1 Cor 11, it seems that a similar command was given with respect to the cup, or that the single command was intended to encompass both sets of actions, verbal and non-verbal.

Institution of the ritual

This utterance is not only a command, however. It is a command which institutes a ritual. 'it is the rite with bread and cup just described, that is mandated. The texts are not at all about bread and wine as substances or foods merely; they are about these specific ritual uses of bread and wine. The command... is to share bread and drink together from one cup, as fellowship in the praise of God.' 24 Implicit in the command to imitate Jesus' actions is the establishment of these actions as a ritual which accomplishes what Jesus claims it does. The ritual actions, including the speech actions, are the conventional way by which the bread is identified as Jesus' body, the wine as his blood and the cup as the new covenant.


The command had a particular illocutionary force for the disciples: they were not merely to participate in the ritual but were to take on Jesus' role in administering the sacrament. The command to 'do this' for them meant not only eating bread and drinking wine together, but calling other believers to a meal in which the bread and wine were to be shared, making a prayer of thanksgiving and distributing the elements. The command as it appears within the context of the canon thus acts as an authorization of those who follow in the disciples footsteps as ministers of the church. They are commanded to call the church to the table, to offer prayers of thanksgiving and to distribute the elements so that others may participate in the sacrament.


It is, furthermore, a command which contains an implicit promise. 'When we do what is mandated in this way, our action is the referent of a promise: that our act will be God's own "visible" self-communication, the visible gospel.' 25 When we are obedient to the command, there is an implicit promise from Christ that we can expect the ritual to be successful. That is, we can expect to share in Christ's body and blood, to receive the promised forgiveness and to be included in the new covenant. The implicit promise depends on the prior understanding that we are not being commanded to engage in a false ritual resting on untrue assertions about the bread and the wine being shared. 26


A Proleptic Speech Act?

We have already begun to see how this utterance has some illocutionary force which relates to the performance of other utterances. Among other things, it is a command to make certain utterances in particular situations and it implies a promise concerning the efficacy of those utterances.

Now let us consider for a moment the original events in which the words of institution were spoken. When Christ took bread, broke it and shared it, he identified that bread with his body. This act of identification was a world-to-word speech act. That is to say, it was in the act of saying that the bread was identified with his body that Christ made it so. It was not the case that the bread was in itself associated with Christ's body and that his utterance was merely an observation of the already existing reality. 27

In performing this speech act Christ exerted his own authority and relied on his own ability to make it so. He was able to promise that the connection would be real because it was his own body being given and his own blood being shed. In the sharing of bread and wine, he could promise that the benefits of his broken body and shed blood would be extended to the participants.

Now let us consider the same words spoken by a minister of the church when celebrating the sacrament. There are a number of illocutionary acts associated with his utterance: he is obeying Christ's command; he is claiming Christ's promise; and he is identifying the elements as Christ's body and blood.

This last act of identification appears ambiguous in terms of its direction of fit. When a minister makes a verbal identification of the elements with the body and blood of Christ, is it a world-to-word act, like that of Christ at the last supper, making a new connection? Or is it a word-to-world act, asserting that the connection between the elements and Christ already exists?

If it is a world-to-word act the minister must have the authorization to make the connection between the elements and Christ. He, unlike Christ, cannot do this in his own right. It is not his body which was broken nor his blood which was shed and speaking for himself, he can make no promises concerning Christ's body and blood. This is the point about promise-making: 'The one who makes a promise undertakes the conditions of the promised future's realization... If the gospel-utterance is anyone's promise - and were it no one's, it could be no promise - it is Jesus' promise. Its making must be his act, his presence.' 28

Perhaps though this is an example of what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls 'double agency discourse.' 29 Two of Wolterstorff's categories are potentially relevant here: authorization, in which a person is authorized to make certain utterances in such a way that they count as those of the authorizer; and deputization, in which a deputy is given the authority to speak on certain subjects in the name of another. In either case, the authority ultimately resides with the original and not the deputy: 'It should be noted that to deputize to someone else some authority that one has in one's own person is not to surrender that authority and hand it over to that other person; it is to bring it about that one exercises that authority by way of actions performed by that other person acting as one's deputy.' 30

Although the phrase is not associated with the sacrament of the Supper, the mandate to perform the sacrament of baptism 'in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit' (Matt 28:19) is suggestive. If the minister who performs baptism does so in the name of the Triune God, and thereby acts as his deputy, then by analogy we may argue that the minister who performs the sacrament of the Supper also acts as deputy for the triune God, speaking in his place.

If this is so, then there can be no doubt that the minister has the authority required to effect the identification of the elements with Christ in a world-to-word direction. The authority is not his own, he speaks in the name of the one in whom authority resides. The speech is the minister's but the act is ultimately Christ's.

But we said that the act of identification was ambiguous. To show that it is possible for a world-to-word speech act to be effective is not to show that it is so. Perhaps it is equally possible for a word-to-world speech act to be effective here. In this scenario, the minister simply asserts that the bread and wine with which the sacrament is being celebrated are connected with the body and blood of Christ. For his assertion to be correct, and thus his speech act to be effective, the connection must already be in existence.

How might this be the case? When Jesus identified the bread and wine at the last supper with his body and blood perhaps he was referring not to the specific elements shared on that occasion, but to bread and wine in general terms. We see immediately that that cannot be right. Bread and wine do not normally carry the connection with Christ's body and blood which they do in the Supper.

Maybe we just need to be more precise. For Leithart is surely right to insist that 'a sacrament requires actions and people, as well as words and material objects.' 31 So we could suggest that Jesus was referring to any bread and wine that happen to be shared in a fellowship meal, according to the ritual he demonstrated. In which case, we may take bread and wine at any such meal and eat it with confidence, knowing that Christ has identified it with his body and blood. And if the minister should happen to repeat the words of institution, he is doing no more than declaring this fact to the congregation. There is no transformation from meal to sacrament effected in the words of the minister. The meal itself is sufficient to invoke the sacramental promises of Christ.

We observe that what we have done here is create a category that consists of the bread and wine that is actually shared in the ritual acts of the Supper and only of this bread and wine. This comes down to the claim that Christ made the connection between his body and blood and the specific elements consumed at every celebration of the Supper in the church's history in the words of institution once spoken.

In either case the authority that lies behind the identification is ultimately Christ's. We may say that it is Christ's speech act, whether from his own lips or through the words of his deputy. At this theological level, therefore, the direction of fit may appear to be a point hardly worth debating. However it is of great practical significance in the performance of the sacrament. If the minister, acting as Christ's deputy, issues a world-to-word statement which effects the connection between the particular elements used on that occasion with the body and blood of Christ, then this speech act of the minister is necessary for the effective performance of the sacrament. Without it, the bread and wine shared at the meal have no more than material significance.

If however, the initial speech act of Christ has already connected Christ's body and blood with the elements used in each and every celebration of the sacrament, then the declaration of the minister that this is so is not a necessary condition for the successful performance of the sacrament.

Since, as we have seen, the utterance itself is ambiguous with regard to its direction of fit, we will need to take other factors into consideration. If it can be shown that the repetition of the words of institution at the celebration of the sacrament is not commanded and that it was not the practice of the early church to use the words in this way, then we have strong grounds on which to suggest that the minister's utterance is not world-to-word. For it would be very uncomfortable to be forced to draw the conclusion that the first effective performance of the sacrament did not take place until centuries after Christ's death! And it would be even more uncomfortable if we had to draw this conclusion even while recognising that this situation resulted despite the obedience of the church to the commands of scripture.


The Necessity of the Words

It is clear that the institution narrative was known within the early church from their inclusion in the synoptic gospels and Paul's reference to it in 1 Cor 10-11. On this basis it is commonly assumed that the narrative functioned from the earliest days as a liturgical text.32 However, the mere existence of the narrative does not determine its function within the church. Andrew McGowan has argued convincingly that a catechetical function for the institution narratives is more plausible than the liturgical function. 33

Within the gospel narratives the institution accounts clearly establish the origins and meaning of the ritual but no explicit liturgical command is made with respect to the narrative of the Supper. The command 'Do this in remembrance of me' is, as we noted earlier ambiguous in the extent of its referent. At least one speech act, that of giving thanks, is included but whether Jesus intended his other words to be repeated is much less certain.

Even in 1 Cor 10-11, where we find the clearest reference to the celebration of the Supper in the early church, Paul doesn't seem to suggest that the Corinthian church ought to repeat the words of institution every time they share the Supper. There are instructions to bless the cup (1 Cor 10:16) and instructions about the manner in which the bread and cup should be received in the fellowship of believers, but he does not make any obligation to repeat the words of institution.

There should, of course, be understanding of the sacrament, which seems to be Paul's purpose in repeating the words of institution in 1 Cor 11. The words of institution explain what to do when sharing the Supper and how to understand what is being done, but they are not presented as an essential part of the sacrament itself.

"the liturgical use of the words seems to be a relatively late phenomenon"

In fact, the liturgical use of the words seems to be a relatively late phenomenon. McGowan points to evidence from the Didache and Justin Martyr which suggests that the words of institution were not used in the celebration of the Supper during the second century. 34 Justin Martyr, at least, had access to the words of institution but used them for catechetical rather than liturgical purposes. The words enabled believers to understand the sacrament but were not essential for celebration of the sacrament. 35 If it is the case that the liturgical use of the narratives was not known in the second century and only developed later in the third century, it is surely unlikely that there was an earlier first century liturgical tradition reflected in the NT texts. 36

Rather, as McGowan concludes, 'it seems appropriate to suggest that what is true of the reception of the narratives in these early communities of interpretation might also have been true of the formation and use of the narratives prior to the literary stage of the Gospels; that the institution narratives, however formulaic, were in form and function not originally liturgical recitations but interpretive etiologies of a catechetical nature.' 37 The words of institution were given as explanations of the sacrament, not as an essential component of the sacrament.

So then, the evidence from the early church suggests that the words of institution were not used liturgically and we have found no command in Scripture that requires them to be used liturgically. On this basis, we conclude that the words of institution are not a necessary requirement for effective performance of the sacrament. And is the words are not a necessary component of the sacrament, then it cannot be the case that the minister performs a world-to-word speech act when he utters the words of institution at the celebration of the sacrament. It cannot be his words which establish the connection between Christ's body and blood and the elements of the Supper. Instead, his must be a word-to-world speech act, declaring the existence of the identification between the elements being shared and the body and blood of Christ, an identification formed by an illocutionary act in the original utterance of Christ.


The Function of the Words of Institution at the Supper

So what function do the words of institution spoken by a minister at the performance of the sacrament perform, if they cannot be said to perform the illocutionary act of effectively connecting the elements with Christ's body and blood? To answer this question, we return to the different categories of speech act introduced earlier and briefly outline some of the illocutionary, perlocutionary and especially interlocutionary acts that may be performed in these utterances.

Illocutionary Acts

A number of illocutionary acts may be performed when a minister utters the words of institution of the sacrament: he explains the sacrament and its origins; he declares this event to be the sacrament; he invites the congregation to participate in the sacrament. Of course he may use other words to achieve these results as well as non-verbal actions, especially of invitation.

Perlocutionary Acts

By speaking the words of institution, the minister may bring about the perlocutionary acts of warning the congregation against taking the sacrament unworthily, he may be encouraging them in their faith as they receive the elements and their trust in Christ, he may be inspiring them to the proper attitude of remembrance.

Interlocutionary Acts

By speaking to the congregation as a gathered people, the minister identifies them as a group and himself as part of that group, sharing in the common experience of being invited to participate in the Supper. Peter Leithart offers a characteristically rich description of the community that participates in the sacrament of the supper:

I wish to say "We, as children of Adam, are offered the trees of the garden; as sons of Abraham, we celebrate a victory feast in the King's Valley; as holy ones, we receive holy food; as the true Israel, we feed on the land of milk and honey; as exiles returned to Zion, we eat marrow and fat, and drink wine on the lees; we who are many are made one loaf, and commune with the body and blood of Christ; we are the bride celebrating the marriage supper of the Land, and we are also the bride undergoing the test of jealousy; at the Lord's table we commit ourselves to shun the table of demons." 38

The words that are spoken help to define the community engaging in the sacramental activity. They do this simply by virtue of the fact that they are addressed corporately to the gathered people. And they do this further by creating a shared understanding of the non-verbal sacramental activity which the people participate in. There is a community of understanding as well as of eating and drinking.

A second kind of interlocutionary act concerns the relationship between the minister and the congregation. Although the minister identifies himself as part of the covenant community and shares the meal with everyone else, by speaking the words of institution (and by administering the elements) he establishes himself as having a particular role within that community. He is the one who stands in Christ's place, as Christ's deputy, offering the prayer of thanksgiving, passing the bread and the wine, and repeating the words of institution. He is the one who is authorized to issue the invitation to share in Christ's body and blood and the one who is authorized to prevent covenant-breakers from participating in the covenant meal.

Which leads us to the third kind of interlocutionary act. As Christ's deputy speaks, so we may say, Christ speaks. When his words are repeated by his minister, he speaks them to his people. And when Christ speaks, he acknowledges our shared humanity, he dignifies us as people, he identifies his church and his bride, he strengthens and confirms our relationship with him. When Christ pronounces the cup as 'the new covenant in his blood' and offers that cup to his people, he identifies them as participants in the new covenant relationship with all its attendant privileges.



So then, although we may say that the words of institution are not strictly necessary for a successful performance of the sacrament of the Supper, there are many good reasons for wanting to include them. The Supper must be understood in the context of the gospel and its sacramental function should also be explained to those participating. The words of institution can reinforce many of the desired outcomes of the Supper such as strengthening faith in Christ, proclamation of his death, and fellowship with the covenant people. And they are words appropriate for a minister of the church who acts as Christ's deputy, speaking with Christ's authority.


[1] Here and elsewhere in this paper I use the term ‘identify’ merely to indicate the linguistic function of saying ‘This is that.’  The term is not intended to signify any particular understanding of the reality expressed by the statement of identification of the elements of the Supper with Christ’s body and blood.  The question of the precise nature of this identification has been the subject of great debate throughout the history of the church and remains far from settled.  It is not the purpose of this paper to further that debate and it is my hope that the substance of my argument will be persuasive to adherents of otherwise differing views on the nature of the sacrament.

[2] Of course different churches and denominations have different practices with respect to the celebration of the Supper.  I do not intend to discuss these variations in detail but merely observe that, in addition to the sacramental acts of sharing bread and wine, it is common practice to include some kind of formal or informal liturgy, which usually depends largely on the scriptural words of institution.  For example, my own denomination, the Church of England, currently has nine authorized eucharistic prayers, each of which includes a rehearsal of the narrative account of the institution of the Supper including the words of identification. (See accessed on 14/11/06.) Even in churches where a formal liturgy is not used, it is common practice to read one of New Testament accounts.

[3] Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 3.

[4] John Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments, Henry Beveridge (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2002), 190.

[5] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology (Leicester: IVP Apollos, 2002), 174.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 68.

[7] See, for example, the various contributions to Semeia no. 41 (1988).

[8] Vern S. Poythress, “The Presence of God Qualifying Our Notions of Grammatical-Historical Interpretation” (2006), 12.

[9] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 65.

[10] J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1962), 101.

[11] Austin, How to Do Things, 133-46.

[12] Austin, How to Do Things, 13.

[13] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 33.

[14] Austin, How to Do Things, 101.

[15] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 174.

[16] Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, quoted in Vanhoozer, First Theology, 172.

[17] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 172.

[18] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 34-35.

[19] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 67.

[20] Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 294.

[21] Daniel Vanderveken, Principles of Language Use, vol. 1 of Meaning and Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 28.

[22] Vanderveken, Principles of Language Use, 28.

[23] For the sake of simplicity we will restrict our discussion here to Luke’s record of the institution narrative, but of course the events of the Supper are recorded in the other synoptic gospels and the sacramental mandate also appears in 1 Cor 11.

[24] Jenson, Visible Words, 69.

[25] Jenson, Visible Words, 7-8.

[26] Let me again say that I am making no judgment about the nature of these assertions, whether literal or figurative, only about their truth or falsehood. 

[27] The precise nature of the connection between the bread and the body which has been the matter of so much controversy over the history of the church makes little difference to our argument here.  The point is simply that the connection, of whatever kind it is, was brought into existence in the act of Christ’s saying it was so.  Of course it is true that he also performed a word-to-world speech act in the same utterance, announcing that the connection was now in existence.

[28] Jenson, Visible Words, 44.

[29] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 38.

[30] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 42.

[31] Peter J. Leithart, Blessed Are the Hungry: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2000), 164.

[32] See Andrew Brian McGowan, “‘Is There a Liturgical Text in This Gospel?’: The Institution Narratives and Their Early Interpretive Communities,” JBL 118/1 (1999): 73-74, n.3 for a representative sample of commentators who adopt this view. 

[33] McGowan, “A Liturgical Text?”

[34] McGowan, “A Liturgical Text?” 75.

[35] McGowan, “A Liturgical Text?” 81.

[36] McGowan, “A Liturgical Text?” 76.

[37] McGowan, “A Liturgical Text?” 86.

[38] Leithart, Blessed Are the Hungry: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper, 12-13.

Ros ClarkeAbout the Author

Ros Clarke is a graduate of Oak Hill Theological College, London (UK) and an Old Testament PhD student at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia (USA). She has also contributed to the website Edible Words.