Zwingli, with tears in his eyes, extended the hand of fellowship, but Martin Luther steadfastly refused: “Yours is a different spirit from ours“. Luther walked out. The split was final. The unity of the Protestant Reformation movement was in tatters.
Marburg, Germany. 1529. Martin Luther’s attempt to reform the Roman Catholic church and restore confidence in the Bible “alone” was in full swing. Years earlier, he had nailed his famous 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door, protesting abuses within the church. Four hundred miles away, in Zurich, Switzerland, a young renegade priest, Huldrich Zwingli, was beginning to do the same thing Luther had started in Germany. Both Luther and Zwingli felt that the Church of Rome had lost its way. Christianity needed to return to the Holy Scriptures as the pure, unadulterated Word of God. The medieval church had allowed man’s traditions to creep in and compromise the truth of the Gospel. Luther and Zwingli were hoping to stand together against what they saw as the corruption within the Roman church.
The question about the Lord’s Supper was central. The official doctrine since the Fourth Lateran Council was transubstantiation. When Jesus uttered the words in the Upper Room, “This is My Body“, the doctrine explained that the bread, and consequently the wine, were physically transformed into Christ’s literal body and blood. Henceforth, every time the church celebrates communion, this same act changes the physical character of the elements when the priest repeats Jesus’ words.
Martin Luther rejected this view as being too magical. Too much “hocus pocus”. However, Luther still believed that the words of Jesus should be taken literally. The physical elements of bread and wine becomes supernaturally united to the body and blood of Jesus. The body and blood of Jesus, though not identical to, was somehow present “under, with, and in” the elements. Huldrich Zwingli, on the other hand, did not agree. Zwingli argued that the bread and the wine of communion were merely symbols, metaphors testifying to the self-giving act of Christ on the Cross. When Christians partake of the Lord’s Supper, it is simply an act of remembrance, a memorial commemorating the supreme sacrifice of our Savior.
Along with this and other disputes, the different parties of Swiss and German reformers called a meeting to be held at the Castle of Marburg to work out their differences. For the most part, the Colloquy of Marburg went rather well. Nearly every dispute was resolved…. until they got to the Lord’s Supper.
Many evangelicals today find this conflict rather odd and academic, since we typically put the primary focus of corporate worship on the preaching of the Word. But we do not live in the 16th century. In medieval Catholicism, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was the climax of worship. Unlike many evangelical churches today that only celebrate communion perhaps once a month, every service in the early 16th century church ended with the celebration of the Mass. Everything in the service, including the preaching, was focused on this final, crucial moment of corporate worship. According to medieval theologians, if you get this understanding of the Lord’s Supper wrong, the integrity of Christian faith and practice would fall apart and harm the Gospel.
At one point in the conversation, Luther spelled out the words, “This is My Body“, in chalk on the table so that Zwingli would know that he meant business. Zwingli had softened somewhat over time, coming to the conclusion that Christ was at least spiritually present in the elements of communion. But he insisted that any further concession would make the Christian faith unduly materialistic. The focus should be on the spiritual and not the physical! Luther was stubborn. He held his ground. Zwingli was no less stubborn in his response by quoting John 6:63:
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63 ESV)
The dialogue that continued revealed the tension:
Zwingli: “I remain firm at this text, ‘the flesh profiteth nothing.’ I shall oblige you to return to it. You will have to sing a different tune with me.”
Luther: “You speak in hatred.”
Zwingli: “Then declare at least whether or not you will allow John 6 to stand?”
Luther: “You are trying to overwork it.”
Zwingli: “No, no, it is just that text that will break your neck.”
Luther: “Don’t be too sure of yourself. Our necks don’t break as easily as that.”
The stalemate seemed inevitable. Zwingli made one more plea to Luther:
“Let us confess our union in all things in which we agree; and, as for the rest, let us remember that we are brethren. There will never be peace in the churches if we cannot bear differences on secondary points.”
Luther’s response was all the more telling:
“I am astonished that you wish to consider me as your brother. It shows clearly that you do not attach much importance to your doctrine.”
Luther walked away justified, thinking that truth had been served. He would not bow to the altar of political expediency. Zwingli, on the other hand, walked away frustrated and incredulous at Luther’s stubbornness. The bond that joined the Lutheran and classically “Reformed” churches of the Protestant movement was broken, and these denominational distinctives remain to this day.
John Calvin’s Real “Mystical” Solution?
Years later after Zwingli’s untimely death and Luther had increased with age, John Calvin, the great French Reformer, stepped forward to offer a solution to the crisis of Marburg. Calvin argued for the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The presence of Christ is not a material or physical presence, but neither is it simply a symbol or metaphor. We have only scratched the surface on what the words of Christ are all about. The Lord’s Supper demonstrates a mystical union between Christ and the believer:
“In order to have our life in Christ our souls must feed on his body and blood as their proper food. This, then, is expressly attested in the Supper, when of the bread it is said to us that we are to take it and eat it, and that it is his body, and of the cup that we are to drink it, and that it is his blood. This is expressly spoken of the body and blood, in order that we may learn to seek there the substance of our spiritual life”. (Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, John Calvin)
Feed on Christ. Think about that the next time you celebrate communion. A lot more can be said about the different views of the Lord’s Supper, but one thing stands out to me about John Calvin’s approach. In recognizing the real presence of Christ, Calvin saw a profound sense of mystery in the celebration of the last meal Jesus had with His disciples. It is a mystery that somehow eluded the participants of the Marburg Colloquy.
The role of mystery in biblical interpretation can be confusing to both critical skeptic and believer alike. For some, it can create a barrier to faith. For others, it can lead to a “hardening of the categories”, a fatal spiritual condition. Have you ever had your own “Marburg crisis”? If you have ever gotten stuck over the tension between the “literal” versus “symbolic” interpretation of a controversial biblical text, then perhaps you know what I am talking about. We do need to pay attention to sound principles of biblical interpretation, reading things in context, and so on. But often, these matters are not exercises in mental gymnastics, they are about matters of the heart. Tragically, some get so stuck in their “Marburg crisis”, they can miss what God is really saying to them. The lesson of John Calvin is that as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we can step back, get our head out of the game for at least a moment, and taste that Jesus’ Blood shed and His Body broken for us on the cross can and does heal us in our own brokenness. Now that is a real mystery worth celebrating.
This blog posting is an adaption of Sam Storms’ blog, but you can find much of the same material in any good reference work on the Reformation. One of my favorites that goes in greater background detail is Roland Bainton’s, Here I Stand, the standard biography of Martin Luther.
If you want an in-depth perspective that examines things more from Zwingli’s point of view, you may want to go here.
For a Lutheran counterpoint, consider this essay by Trevin Wax, of the Gospel Coalition.
Fun little trivia: some linguists claim that the expression hocus-pocus was originally derived from a corruption of the Latin phrase hoc est corpus meum, which in English is translated as “this is my body”, the priestly phrase recited during Catholic mass.