Luther, Zwingli and Supper-Part I

marburgMartin Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg were not the only theologians to set forth a theological program of reform in the early sixteenth century.  In fact, many competing visions of reform emerged.  In the early 1520s Ulrich Zwingli led a religious reform in Zurich, one of the cantons of the Swiss Confederacy.  While he was not the only early Protestant reformer in Switzerland, Zwingli became the most significant religious leader of the Swiss Reformation until his death in 1531.  Zwingli won the support of the government of Zurich that led to significant changes in faith and practice.  These included a focus on Holy Scripture as the final authority in religious matters, salvation by grace through faith alone, the rejection of the papal authority, the intercession of saints, monastic orders, clerical celibacy, and purgatory.  The dramatic shift became obvious when a new communion service in German replaced the medieval Latin mass. [endnote 1]

A rift between the Wittenberg-based reform movement and Swiss Reformers emerged in 1525.  In that year Ulrich Zwingli set forth his teaching on the nature of the Lord’s Supper in various works.  His teaching represented a refutation not only of the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation, but a rejection of any belief in the physical presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.  Appealing to a spiritual, symbolic interpretation of Holy Scripture, Zwingli asserted, “The meaning of Christ’s words becomes perfectly plain to this effect: ‘This feast signifies or is the symbol by which you will recall that my body, mine, the Son of God, your Lord and Master, was given for you.’ ” [endnote 2]   Zwingli defended this symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper in various places.  Additionally, he asserted that Christ’s body rose to heaven and therefore could not be present in Holy Communion. [endnote 3]

Ulrich Zwingli’s teaching alarmed Luther and his fellow pastors in Germany.  Luther had made his position on the Lord’s Supper very clear before he had read Zwingli’s work.  In 1523 Luther described the Words of Institution as “…the sum and substance of the whole gospel.”  Later in the same work he explicitly rejected a symbolic interpretation of these words by stating, “But we should and will simply stick to the words of Christ—he will not deceive us—and repel this error with no other sword than the fact that Christ does not say: ‘This signifies my body,’ but ‘This is my body.’ ” [endnote 4]  Additionally, in January 1525 Luther refuted Andreas Karlstadt’s symbolic teaching of the Lord’s Supper in the second part of Against the Heavenly Prophets in Matters of Images and Sacraments.  Luther identified the devil as the source of Karlstadt’s doctrine.  After many pages that addressed Karlstadt’s main writings, Luther summarized his position, “…we could say that Dr. Karlstadt robs God of his honor, contradicts the truth, destroys the teaching of St. Paul, and makes the passion of Christ unnecessary, since he denies, in the face of clear and strong texts, that the body and blood of Christ are in the sacrament.” [endnote 5]

When Zwingli’s writings appeared, Luther and his colleagues emphasized the Words of Institution to refute the Swiss theologian’s teaching concerning the Lord’s Supper.  In fact, Luther’s fellow reformer and pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, first wrote specifically against Zwingli in 1525.   In the same year, another pastor in southwestern Germany, Johannes Brenz, published a document that agreed with Wittenberg theologians and rejected Ulrich Zwingli’s symbolic teaching.  Brenz especially attacked the teachings of Johannes Oecolampadius, a theologian in Basel who agreed with Zwingli.  Martin Luther added a preface to a German translation of Brenz’s work in 1526. [endnote 6]

Dr. Luther wrote his first major statement against Zwingli and other promoters of a figurative understanding of the Lord’s Supper in 1526.  Although published in October, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics was an edited version of Luther’s sermons from Holy Week of 1526.  While Luther did not mention Zwingli’s name, he clearly warned his congregations and readers against a symbolic understanding of the Eucharistic meal.  Luther stated that he would advise someone who did not believe in Christ’s physical presence in the bread and wine to refrain from participation in the Lord’s Supper.  He also believed the devil had inspired this false teaching.  Luther stated that the controversy revolved around a misunderstanding of the Words of Institution.  For example, Luther wrote, “These words are quite clear and explicit: take bread, give thanks, give, bid them eat and drink, this is my body, this is my blood.  The fanatics really knock themselves out struggling with these words.”  Additionally, Luther observed that Christ’s bodily and bloody presence in the bread and wine was analogous to Christ’s miraculous conception and birth. [endnote 7]  In 1527 Luther and Zwingli both published significant works on the Lord’s Supper that represented an expansion of the controversy that culminated in the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.  We will discuss those events in Part II.


Endnotes —

[1] On Zwingli’s life and career see Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 169-181; and Herman Sasse, This is My Body, Rev. Ed. (Adelaide, Australia: 1977), 92-106.

[2] Ulrich Zwingli, “Letter to Matthew Alber Concerning the Lord’s Supper,” Trans. H. Wayne Pipkin, Huldrych Zwingli Writings, vol. 2 (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1984), 139.

[3] Sasse, This is My Body, 112.

[4] Martin Luther, The Adoration of the Sacrament, Luther’s Works, vol. 36 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 277, 280-81 [Hereafter LW with volume and page number].

[5] Martin Luther, LW 40: 144-223 (quote on p. 201).  Andreas Karlstadt had been Luther’s colleague in Wittenberg until 1522.  On Karlstadt’s relationship to Luther see Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping the Reformation, 1521-1532, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 157-172.

[6] Brecht, Shaping the Reformation, 295-297; 303; Sasse, This is My Body, 112-113.

[7] Martin Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36: 335-346 (quote on pp. 338-339); Brecht, Shaping the Reformation, 306-307.

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Luther, Zwingli and Supper-Part I — 8 Comments

  1. Zwingli and Karlstadt were both an inspiration to the anabaptists/schwarmerei (of which Karlstadt was technically one himself). Zwingli rejected the anabaptists, but they were nonetheless inspired by his views.

  2. This is somewhat of a side bar; I believe this can affect hermeneutical approaches to the rest of scripture and I’m looking for some advice. My daughter is a Sunday school teacher, and a long while ago, we were looking at the plagues of Egypt. In our Lutheran Study Bible, the note stated the Nile had the appearance of blood, maybe caused from red algae. My daughter noted, but the text states blood, then added; then why do we take the meaning of the words of institution concerning the Lord’s Supper as literal? I have to admit, I was scratching my head at that moment. While I haven’t come down either way on how to interpret the Nile turning to blood, how far do we extend the hermeneutic of our interpretation of the Lord’s Supper to other passages of scripture? Thanks.

  3. @Michael Mapus #3
    That is an interesting foot note. My best read on it (with some help from the “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament) is that the word in Hebrew truly is literally “blood”. (pronounced ‘dam’) However it is noted that when the word blood is used in the OT (some 360 times) if it references actual blood it is usually attached to or in reference to an animal, a human, a sacrifice, or something along those lines (a living being). In OT Hebrew it also seems ‘dam’ is used in a not so literal way. For instance when the word ‘dam’ is used with inanimate objects it is usually to describe a color and not a literal bodily liquid. So when Joel talks about the moon turning to blood he is meaning a color, not a literal transformation of the moon to bodily liquid. Likewise the same extension would be made to a river. It too is inanimate and so the Hebrew is likely being used to signify a color and not a literal bodily liquid.
    Short summary: ‘Dam’ in reference to an inanimate object = color red.
    ‘Dam’ in reference to a living being = actual blood.

    Either way the miracle of the Nile turning to blood is no less a miracle if it were real blood or if all the water simply grew incomprehesible amounts of red algae. 🙂

    As it would relate to the Last Supper, Jesus is referencing the body and blood of a human being, Himself. Hence since it is in reference to a living human being blood would literally mean blood as in bodily fluid.

    Hope that helps!

  4. Thank you so much for NOT linking Zwingli with Calvin on this issue. Seems many Lutherans think they are one and the same. 😉

    Here’s Calvin on the supper: “”We must confess, then, that if the representation which God gives us in the Supper is true, the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs; and as the bread is distributed to us by the hand, so the body of Christ is communicated to us in order that we may be made partakers of it. Though there should be nothing more, we have good cause to be satisfied, when we understand that Jesus Christ gives us in the Supper the proper substance of his body and blood”

    Now, I know that Calvin thought we went ‘up’ while Luther said God comes ‘down’. But both agree the Presence is real, unlike Zwingli and Co. And really…to get hung up on whether ’tis ‘up’ or ‘down’ is not something I am going to fret about.

    God says, “take, eat” and so we do, leaving the mechanics to HIM, not trying to reason out that which is left mysterious. Yes, Lutherans are JUST as culpable of trying to ‘humanly’ reason these things out as are those pesky Calvinists. But both agree with an illocal, heavenly, incomprehensible and very real eating in the supper, unlike Zwingli, Baptists and the like.

    When I became a Lutheran, this was the biggest hurdle for me to overcome, UNTIL I read Luther pointing out that the plain words spoken by our Lord are the thing. However HE meant them, I take them, in gratitude and praise. I don’t have to figure it out. I leave it with my Lord, which is the safest place possible.

  5. “Either way the miracle of the Nile turning to blood is no less a miracle if it were real blood or if all the water simply grew incomprehesible amounts of red algae.”

    That’s true, but there really isn’t any reason to believe it’s anything less than real blood. God is, after all, God. 😀

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