Luther and Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper

The Lord's SupperIt has been widely noted that few events in the history of the Christian Church have dramatically impacted the course of western culture and civilization as the Age of Theological Reformation in the 16th century. Within the myriad of events that transformed a relatively institutionally monolithic Catholic Church into a plethora of competing theological claims, few events stand out as clearly as the failure of the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, where Protestant leaders Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli failed to negotiate their respective differences concerning the Lord’s Supper. This disagreement was neither the first nor last disagreement among the various Protestant Reformation movements in 16th century Europe, but it stands out as one of the most impactful, as Lutheran and Reformed branches of Christian faith can still trace one of the key divergences back to this meeting. Here we will briefly examine the perspectives of Luther and Zwingli on Communion, noting that it was primarily philosophical, and not strictly theological, differences that kept them from seeing eye to eye on the doctrine of communion.

In his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, Martin Luther laid out his most explicit and lucid explanation of the doctrine of communion, so much so that the document remains a source for Luther theological reflection on the Lord’s Supper. For Luther, the Supper was to be understood as a real Christological presence of body and blood that is “in, with, and under” the visible elements of bread and wine (156). Arguing against both the Roman Catholic doctrine of full-blown transubstantiation, where communion is understood as substantially body and blood masked as the accidents of bread and wine, as well as Zwingli’s view of a symbolic supper (367), Luther argued for an understanding of the real physical presence of Christ in the supper. In retaining communion as a sacrament of the church, Luther placed special emphasis on the words of Christ at the Last Supper, where he said “This is my body” and “This is my blood” in relation to the bread and wine. Also worthy of note is Luther’s consistency in writing about the distribution of the supper, as he argues for the ancient doctrine of “ex opere operato,” that the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend upon the belief or worthiness of the priest, but upon the work and grace of God (367).

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci

In his reaction against the symbolic view, Luther found two major faults in Zwingli’s thinking on the Supper. First, Luther placed a great deal of emphasis on Christ’s words at the last supper, namely “This is my body”, which for him indicated the necessity of understanding a real physical presence. For Zwingli to attempt an allegorical interpretation of what for Luther was a clean and easily understood (at least semantically) claim of Christ was tantamount to frivolous interpretation of the Word. Second, Luther took issue with Zwingli’s application of Christology to the “local” and “eternal” aspects of Christ’s body. Building on God’s work in the incarnation of Christ, Luther noted that, though it is beyond human reasoning, it remains possible for God to be both omnipresent and local at once (156). Luther pointed to the incarnation as evidence that just Christ can be a local human body whilst the Father and Spirit remain omnipresent, so to after the ascension Christ’s body may be found both ‘locally’ in heaven at the right hand of the Father as well as throughout the world in the Lord’s Supper. Thus, Luther’s main problem with Zwingli involved his disagreement on the philosophical possibilities of omnipresence and the location of Christ’s body in relation to the Supper.

Turning now to Zwingli’s conception of the Lord’s Supper as found in On the Lord’s Supper, it must be noted that for the Swiss reformer the Lord’s Supper involved no real, physical participation in the corporeal body and blood of Jesus Christ (185). For Zwingli, the position of Christ’s body at the right hand of God makes it clear that his body cannot be spread throughout the Christian world to be eaten at Communion (186). Key for this interpretation of the supper was his understanding of sign and signified. For Ulrich, the sign and the signifier must remain distinctly different (188), with the sign of the Supper representing Christ’s sacrifice and death for the Christian. In this understanding, Christ’s language in John 6 indicates that belief in his work, specifically his suffering, death, and resurrection, stands behind any language concerning his body and the eating of flesh (199-203). Christologically, Zwingli emphasizes Christ’s being in heaven in body and the centrality of his spiritual presence on earth—for if one understands the language concerning Christ being with God literally, Zwingli cannot conceive of a body that can be both local and omnipresent (212-215).

9608022_2a7811aa21_oIf Luther had problems with Zwingli’s understanding of communion, Zwingli had problems with Luther’s practice of interpretation. First, Zwingli felt that Luther’s interpretation of “This is my body” was far too literalistic and wooden, preferring instead to read Christ’s words as allegorical and figurative, much in the same way that one might read the “I Am” statements in John (222-226). For Zwingli, because Jesus delivered the words of institution in the presence of the disciples and because of the historical understanding of the Passover lamb, Jesus cannot be understood to connote any form of real physical presence in the Supper. Second, Zwingli disagreed with Luther on more metaphysical terms. For Zwingli, Christ’s body simply could not be one place and every place at the same time. Instead, Christ’s body, because it belongs to the human portion of Christ, must remain in one location—at the right hand of God. Thus Zwingli argued that the physical Christ remained in heaven and that any portion of the Christ that was involved in the Lord’s Supper was necessarily that which can be omnipresent, namely the spiritual portion of Christ’s being. As with Luther, Zwingli’s main disagreement with his fellow reformer consisted in a philosophical difference in the understanding of the possible locations and efficacy of Christ’s body.

Luther and Zwingli, as well as the various reformers who surrounded each of these men, clearly varied in theological and ecclesiastical matters. Differences in the interpretation of scriptures and traditional church materials, such as the writings of the Fathers and historic creeds, also distinguished Luther and Zwingli’s respective understandings and traditions. In the two works summarized above, however, the main divergence between Luther and Zwingli appears to be rooted in philosophical disagreement. Clear on the philosophical level is that Luther and Zwingli disagreed on the possible locations of Christ’s physical body. Luther argued that Christ’s body could be omnipresent by virtue of his divinity and the “type” of the incarnation. Zwingli argued that Christ’s physical body was human enough to necessitate it remaining in one location, with the spiritual presence remaining omnipresent. Space does not allow for investigation into the Christological implications of this divergence (though it should be noted that elsewhere Luther and Zwingli’s camps label each other heretical). The philosophical differences between a conception that allows the physical to house the spiritual, the possibly that the spiritual can allow the physical to become omnipresent (at least in a sense), and form of spiritual naturalism are astounding.

CommunionLuther understood the Lord’s Supper as containing the real presence of Christ within the bread and wine. Zwingli understood the Supper to spiritual represent Christ, whose physical presence would be retained in heaven until his return. As has been shown, these divergent positions ultimately stem from philosophical differences between Luther and Zwingli regarding the philosophical possibilities of omnipresence and the location of Christ’s body in relation to the Supper. Having thus surveyed the respective positions of Luther and Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper, it has been demonstrated that philosophical differences between these two reformers were the primary reason for their failure to agree at the Marburg Colloquy on the doctrine of communion.

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3 thoughts on “Luther and Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Posts of 2015 | Pursuing Veritas

  2. In John chapter six, Jesus is NOT speaking about communion, or His table, “the Lord’s Supper”. Thus the reference in this essay to John ch. 6 is an incorrect reference.

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