Augustine, Luther, and the Lord’s Supper

In 1527 Dr. Martin Luther wrote his first major treatise on the Lord’s Supper: That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics.  In this work he sought to refute the Eucharistic teachings of Ulrich Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, and a few others whom he called “fanatics” or “sacramentarians.”  One section deals with Oecolampadius’ references to the statements of certain early Church Fathers in support of his symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  Oecolampadius (originally Hausschein) came from southwestern Germany and had become a reform-minded preacher in Basel, Switzerland.  Dr. Luther particularly wanted to defend the reputation of Augustine of Hippo against Oecolampadius’ false interpretation of the Church Father’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper:

“Holy Christendom has, in my judgment, no better teacher after the apostles than St. Augustine.  Should this dear and holy teacher be so reviled and defamed by the fanatics as to be regarded as the cloak and support of their poisonous, deceptive teaching? To this I shall answer No as long as I have breath; this does him an injustice.  Indeed, it is a good thing to say No to this, because the fanatics interpret his words only according to their own understanding, and yet do not prove their interpretations; still they boast that they have the clear, pure truth with certainty. Their proof amounts only to this: It could be so understood.” [Martin Luther, “That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works, vol. 37, p. 107.]

Luther asserted that Oecolampadius misunderstood Augustine and other early Church theologians regarding the Lord’s Supper.  For instance, Luther wrote,

“To be sure, they regard St. Augustine as their own, for he often uses the words mystery, sacrament, sign, invisible, intelligible.  But Oecolampadius can deduce nothing from this, despite his boast that he has the definite truth.  For although St. Augustine often says that the bread in the Supper is a sacrament and sign of the body of Christ, Oecolampadius has not yet established thereby that mere bread and not Christ’s body is present, because one can say that Christ’s body is invisibly present under a visible sign….St. Augustine does not say that a sacrament is a figure or sign of something future or absent, like the stories of the Old Testament, but a form of something present and yet invisible.” Ibid., p. 104.


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.


Augustine, Luther, and the Lord’s Supper — 7 Comments

  1. This article could be fleshed out a bit to orient the reader with a few more quotes from Augustine and Oecolampadius’s 1525 treatise, Genuina expositio verborum Domini interpretatione: Hoc est corpus Meum. Here’s the sort of Augustinian quote that the Reformed seized upon:

    “Eat Christ, then; though eaten He yet lives, for when slain He rose from the dead. Nor do we divide Him into parts when we eat Him: though indeed this is done in the Sacrament, as the faithful well know when they eat the Flesh of Christ, for each receives his part, hence are those parts called graces. Yet though thus eaten in parts He remains whole and entire; eaten in parts in the Sacrament, He remains whole and entire in Heaven.”

  2. And from the Marburg Colloquy:

    Zwingli: “Christ’s body is finite, therefore it exists in a place.”

    Luther: Although it is in the sacrament, it is not there as in a place. God could so dispose of my body that it would not be in a place; for the sophists say that a body can exist in several places at the same time; e.g., the earth is a body, yet it does not exist in one place.

    Zwingli: You argue from the possible to the impossible. Prove to me that the body of Christ can exist in several places at the same time.

    Luther: “This is my body.”

    Zwingli: You repeatedly beg the question. I might thus contend that John was the son of Mary, for Christ said, “Behold thy son.” We must ever teach, forsooth, that Christ said, “Ecce filius tuus, ecce filius tuus!” Behold thy son, behold thy son!

    Luther: I do not beg the question.

    Zwingli: Scripture must be compared with Scripture and expounded by itself. Tell me, pray, whether Christ’s body exists in a place.

    Brenz: It does not.

    Zwingli: Augustine says that it must exist in a single place.

    Luther: Augustine was not speaking of the Supper. The body of Christ is present in the Supper, but not locally present.

    Oecolampadius: If that is so it cannot be a true body. [Oecolampadius began quoting from Augustine and Fulgentius.]

    Luther: You have Augustine and Fulgentius on your side, but the rest of the Fathers support our views.

  3. Steve,

    Thank you for your contribution. I don’t really see this as an article but rather a blog post. I planned to write about the Marburg Colloquy many years ago. I need to do that.

    Is there a copy of Oecolampadius’ work available? I’ve always found him interesting, even though I agree with Dr. Luther.

  4. Not that I know of. Also unavailable is Johannes Brenz’s 1525 reply to Oecolampadius, Syngramma Suevicum. Here he argues for the creative power of the word of God for the Lutheran view of the real presence. A translation of Brenz’s Wuerttemberg Confession (prepared for the council of Trent), Chemnitz’s Apology of the Book of Concord (also concerned with Christology and the Lord’s Supper), or anything by Flacius, Gallus, Wigand, Hesshusius, A. Musculus, or Amsdorf would be nice.

    There are numerous Lutheran polemical texts from the Reformation that await translation into English. Why more classics professors of our CUS don’t undertake this task is a mystery. For example, in response to the Consensus Tigurinus, the Gnesio Lutheran and superintendent of Hamburg Joachim Westphal wrote no fewer than ten treatises between 1552-8 attacking Calvin’s view of the sacrament. One of these was an extensive catalogue of testimonies by Augustine and Cyril. While Calvin’s bitter tracts in response to Westphal have been available in English since at least the 19th century, no attempt to translate Westphal’s works has ever been made.

    Westphal’s defense of Luther rests on the three points seen at Marburg above. In the words of Calvin:

    “First, he insists that the bread of the Supper is substantially (substantialiter) the body of Christ. Secondly, in order that Christ may exhibit himself present to believers, he insists that his body is immense (immensum), and exists everywhere, though without place (ubique esse, extra locum). Thirdly, he insists that no figure is to be admitted in the words of Christ, whatever agreement there may be as to the thing. Of such importance does he deem it to stick doggedly to the words, that he would sooner see the whole globe convulsed than admit any exposition.”

  5. What are your sources? And are you reading early printed books or modern editions? If you want, contact me via email.

  6. Hate to disappoint, but I have no doctorate in Latin and German and a library full of rare Reformation manuscripts that I peruse with pipe in hand! 🙂

    Marburg is from Donald Ziegler’s Great Debates of the Reformation.

    The entire works of Calvin, including all the tracts against Westphal, are on a site called Lutherans have Calvin to thank for the charge of consubstantiation. He saw no logical middle ground between transubstantiation and his own view. By rejecting the Lutheran teaching of the genus maiestaticum, whereby the human nature of Christ is clothed with and magnified by the attributes of the divine nature, the Reformed couldn’t conceive of a body that isn’t local. Lutherans on the other hand had no problem speaking of different modes of Christ’s presence (local, definitive, and repletive) since they are attested to by biblical examples (walking on water, radiating light, healing by touch, passing through crowds and doors, vanishing from the men at Emmaus). Lutherans can affirm with the Creed that Christ is locally in heaven, and “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” But we also scoff at the idea that, in Luther’s words, “he is somehow locked up in a place and seated on a throne, now and again he gets up and walks around, then sits down again.” Rather, Chemnitz describes a multivolipresence whereby Christ can truly and substantially be (according to the illocal mode) wherever he wants whenever he wants, as in the Supper.

    The Augustine quote is from one of many websites listing quotes of the Fathers in support of the real presence. It can be read in a Reformed way, but one can just as easily read this quote in a Lutheran way. It may not quite mesh with Brenz’s ubiquity, but works well with Chemnitz’s moderated voluntary ubiquity.

    I would encourage anyone interested to read Clinton Armstrong’s translation of Lutheranism vs Calvinism: the Colloquy of Montbeliard 1586 (CPH) for a more authoritative treatment.

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