Debating the Eucharist -- Thoughts on the Marburg Colloquy Part 1

With World Communion Sunday on the horizon, I’ve been trying to reflect on the important ideas that stand behind the ways in which Christians understand the Eucharist.  It should be evident by now that there isn’t just one Christian view.  And while Paul believed that the Lord’s Table should be a table of unity (1 Cor. 10), historically the table has been anything but a source of unity.  There is probably no better illustration of this than the debate that occurred on October 1-3, 1529, some 482 years ago, when Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the two leading figures in the Reformation to that point, faced off at Marburg Castle in Germany.  Philip of Hesse a Protestant prince invited the leading Reformers from Saxony and Switzerland to his castle to bring unity to their ranks.  That conversation, which got hung up on the question of the Eucharist, is a good illustration of the differences that exist within the Christian faith and the consequences of those differences.  

Philip had Martin Luther draw up a series of articles as the basis of the conversation.  He drew up a list of fifteen principles, fourteen of which all parties agreed to.  The one issue where they could agree came over the meaning of the Eucharist.  Luther later revised these fifteen articles to form the Articles of Schwabach, the first of the Lutheran confessions.

On the question of the Eucharist both parties believed that their views of the Eucharist were wrapped up in broader understandings of who Christ is and the meaning of Scripture.  At the same time both sides were trying to come to grips with their medieval theological inheritance.

While both Luther and Zwingli, like Calvin after them, rejected the Roman Catholic understanding of the Mass.  Both agreed that transubstantiation was not biblical and did not convey the biblical understanding of the Lord's Supper.  During the middle ages the Eucharist became a central part of Catholic piety.  As transubstantiation became the accepted doctrine of the church, the emphasis was placed on the act of consecration.  This emphasis on the consecration of the elements led to an almost magical view of the sacrament, with the elevation of the host becoming the key element of popular Catholic devotion.  The Feast of Corpus Christi became a major holy day on the Catholic liturgical calendar.  During this feast the consecrated Host was paraded through the streets so that the crowds could worship the body of Christ.    

Therefore, both Luther and Zwingli believed that true reform required a reform in the church's understanding of the Lord's Supper.  However, they took two very different approaches to the problem.  

As to the points of agreement, both Luther and Zwingli rejected the view that the Mass was a spectator event.  Therefore, both agreed that the full congregation should receive the Eucharist in both kinds (cup and loaf).  They also agreed that the service should be in the vernacular.  They also agreed that the proclamation of the Word of God should stand at the center of the Sacrament.  Thus, they agreed that the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of the Word through the sermon should be connected with the Sacramental event.  Both parties rejected the idea that the Eucharist was a sacrifice offered to God on behalf of the people.  Finally, both parties rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Thus, there was a strong foundation for unity, and finding unity between them had important political implications.

Now, Luther and Zwingli had been at odds over the Lord's Supper since 1523, when Zwingli began to develop a view of the Lord's Supper that tended in the direction of memorialism.  Zwingli believed that Luther's understanding of the Eucharist remained to close to the Roman Catholic view, and thus needed to be rejected.  Luther, on the other hand, believed that Zwingli's views tended in the direction of the Radical Reformers and Sectarians.

The two sides were miles apart.  They held each other with disdain.  Luther called Zwingli a "`clumsy carpenter' who `hacks rough chips'."  Later, Luther called Zwingli a "`un-Christian' theologian who `holds and teaches no part of the Christian faith rightly'."    The Reformed camp gave Luther the nickname of "Dr. Pussyfoot."  

The issue came to a head because the Protestants were being threatened by a renewed Catholic unity.  External events had prevented Charles V from enforcing Luther's condemnation at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  By 1529 Charles had pushed back the Turks, captured the Pope (who had been opposed to Charles' imperial program), and come to terms with Francis I of France.  This enabled Charles to prosecute action against the Protestants who had taken advantage of the disarray in European politics to spread their influence. 

Philip of Hesse called the meeting because he was trying to create an alliance between the German Lutheran princes and the city-states of southern Germany and Switzerland, which tended toward Zwingli's views.  He hoped that such an alliance could check the danger of a Catholic resurgence in the area.   The controversy over the Eucharist stood in the way of achieving Protestant unity.  While Luther opposed an alliance with the "sacramentarians," Zwingli was inclined toward the alliance, especially since Zurich stood somewhat isolated.  Only after Luther's own ruler, Prince John of Saxony, pushed him, did Luther agree, reluctantly, to attend the summit.  The fact that the two sides could not come to terms, may have led to the success of the Catholic Reformation over the next century and a half.

(Continued in part 2)


Brian said…
Bob - I'm asking you to put on your historian hat. I'm thinking the founders of the Stone-Campbell movement tended toward Zwinglian views of communion. This week I've searched briefly at the Disciples Historical Society website. I couldn't find anything that jumped out.

Thanks for a full week of communion posts. I'm finding much fruit.
Robert Cornwall said…

Yes, I would say that traditionally that S-C folk have followed Zwingli in their interpretations. But, unlike Zwingli, they decided that frequent observance was important. Zwingli was so afraid of idolatry that he wanted to limit the observance to at most 4 times a year. Most Protestants outside Episcopalians and Lutherans followed him on that point as well.
John said…
How about this analogy: The communion elements are like food, as long as food sits on the shelf, it's just inert matter and of no consequence. However, when it enters our bodies, it becomes an active agent, providing resources to restore, nourish, and grow us into the future.
Brian said…
That sounds pretty good John. That would make a solid table meditation.

It is really interesting to follow the development of communion ideas through the centuries. It starts as an ancient ritual syncretizing (?) Jewish passover symbols with pagan mystery religion ideas 'communing' with the Jewish.

It continues to develop, incorporating the intellectual and religious sensibilities of the culture, time, and place.

Personally I love the discussion of different ideas, but I especially love sharing in this ancient ritual with those of varied understandings. For instance, while Gary basically has a different religion that do I, it would be an honor to partake of the Lord's Supper with him. This is what the Stone-Campbell movement brings to the table. 20th century ecumenists took it to a wider level.

The table reminds us that our Lord is bigger and more holy than our opinions. We are brought together by grace. We share communion in humility and awe.

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