Marburg: Eucharist and Theology (Part 3)
With World Communion Sunday at hand, I've been sharing historical and theological information to help us understand what this practice means. What was meant as a place of unity has too often been a place of disunion. Understanding the issues involved may help us move beyond division to unity. So, with this post I conclude my presentation of the issues present at the Marburg Colloquy of 1529.
The debate at Marburg quickly moved from exegetical issues to theological ones. Zwingli and Luther held very different views on the question of where Christ’s body could be found. Although both sides affirmed the findings of Chalcedon on the two natures of Christ, Luther stressed the unity of the two natures, while Zwingli affirmed their distinction.
Luther developed his view in terms of the ubiquity of Christ. Christ could be "in, with, and under" the elements of bread and wine because Christ's body could be at more than one place at once. The underlying doctrine was that of the "communication of properties" or communicatio idomatum. This doctrine had been used to understand the incarnation. Luther used the concept to describe Christ's post-resurrection experience. Christ could be present corporeally, because his human nature had taken on the divine qualities of ubiquity. Thus, wherever Christ was spiritually present, he was also present corporeally. This meant that whenever Christians ate the bread at the Lord's Supper, it was not only bread that they ate, but the body of Christ was present "in, with, and under" the elements.
Zwingli, however, took a much different view of Christ's corporeal existence. While Luther affirmed the ubiquity of Christ's physical presence, Zwingli emphasized the finiteness of Christ's physical presence. Zwingli insisted that while Christ was not present physically with the believers, he was present with them spiritually by way of the Holy Spirit. The view expressed by Zwingli would later be called extra-Calvinisticum by the Lutherans. In this case, Zwingli affirmed the distinction between the two natures, with the human remaining finite, but standing in hypostatic union with Christ's divine nature, which is free and unbounded.
It is in the light of this distinction between the two natures that Zwingli could understand Christ being present with the believers spiritually but absent physically. Therefore, Zwingli understood Christ's Eucharistic presence in terms of one's memory of Christ's act of sacrifice on the cross. It was an act of the mind, through which the reality of the cross was apprehended. Christ's body, however, was seated at the right hand of God. For Zwingli, the ascension was a literal, historic event, which placed Christ's body in heaven with God and therefore unable to be present corporeally at the Lord's Supper. Zwingli wrote accordingly:
"When we shall see him return as he departed, we shall know that he is present. Otherwise he sits, according to his human nature, at the right hand of His Father until he will return to judge the quick and the dead." [Quoted in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 153-54].
The failure of the two sides to agree on the meaning of the Eucharist proved to be more than simply a theological dispute. It had political implications and it may have aided the forces of the Catholic Reformation, who sought to reclaim lost territory for the church. The lack of theological unity led to an absence of political unity, which in turn enabled the Catholic forces to divide and conquer and ultimately reclaim a significant amount of territory lost to the Protestant forces.
The disagreements that divided these two men seem stark, but there was a great diversity of views regarding the Eucharist in both the Lutheran and Reformed sides. Calvin took a view between these two sides. Yet, Zwingli's views have largely won the day within Reformed circles, as did his down playing of the role of the Eucharist in worship. While Calvin wanted frequent, even weekly communion, Zwingli limited it to quarterly observance, fearing the return of medieval idolatry.