A True and Bold Confession! Luther and Zwingli-Part III

Marburger-ReligionsgesprächUlrich Zwingli and his colleagues responded to Luther’s treatise, That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body,” Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics. They attempted to refute Luther’s main points and reaffirm their own assertions regarding the Lord’s Supper.  It was clear that neither side had convinced the other.  Late in 1527 Dr. Luther decided to write a final statement on this subject.  In the early spring of 1528 Martin Luther’s Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper appeared in print.  Although he referred to this work as a “little book,” Luther’s text covers around 200 pages in the modern English translation.[1]

Luther arranged this treatise into three main parts.  The first part contains the majority of the text.  In this large section Luther refutes Zwingli’s figurative interpretation of the Lord’s Supper and affirms his own understanding of Scripture, the Supper, and the Person of Christ.  Luther seems to delight in mocking Zwingli’s use of grammatical and rhetorical arguments.  In so doing, Luther demonstrates his own erudition.   For instance, during his discussion of Zwingli’s fallacious interpretation of Christ’s Words of Institution, Luther wrote, “…you may be sure that it is pure imagination when anyone says that this word ‘is’ means the same ‘represents.’ No man can ever prove that from a single passage of Scripture….These lofty spirits fail to take proper consideration of the art of language, grammar, or as they call it, tropus, which is taught in elementary schools.”[2]

Since Luther believed the controversy revolved around this faulty understanding of Christ’s Words he wrote extensively on this subject in the Confession.  These Words contain the same power that brought forth creation or performed any other miracles.  In fact, Christians may only follow the institution and command of Christ in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  Even if the pastor and the recipient did not have true faith, the true nature of the Sacrament would not change.  Luther also emphasized the distinction between the merit of Christ’s passion that earned the forgiveness of sins and distribution of that merit or forgiveness.  He specifically incorporated this idea into the Large Catechism the following year.[3]

Although Luther established his understanding of the Lord’s Supper on Christ’s Words of Institution, he produced an extended discussion of Christ’s Person and his two natures.  Luther addressed Zwingli’s use of literary tropes to explain the symbolic nature of the Lord’s Supper and the relationship between Christ’s two natures.  Particularly, Luther attacked Zwingli’s explanation of the interchange or exchange (alloeosis) of Christ’s human and divine natures.  In so doing, Luther appealed to the traditional doctrine of the communication of the attributes of Christ’s two natures: “…since the divinity and humanity are one person in Christ, the Scriptures ascribe to the divinity, because of this personal union, all that happens to humanity, and vice versa.  And in reality it is so.  Indeed, you must say that the person (pointing to Christ) suffers, and dies.  But this person is truly God, and therefore it is correct to say: the Son of God suffers.”[4]

Following this discussion of Christ’s two natures, Luther sought to demonstrate how Christ’s humanity could be present in various modes.  Borrowing from late medieval scholastics, he identified three modes of presence: locally in a circumscribed way, definitively in an immeasurable manner, supernaturally present in all places.  According to Luther, Christ as a Person with the divine and human natures could be present in any of these three modes.  For example, Christ revealed himself in a circumscribed manner when he appeared to people after the Resurrection.  He appeared in an immeasurable manner when he moved through the grave or the locked door of the upper room.  Lastly, only God may be present simultaneously in all places.  Since Christ’s humanity is united in his Person to his divinity, it may be present in all three modes.  Luther stated that Christ’s was present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper in the second, immeasurable manner.[5]

In the second part of the Confession Luther wrote an exegesis of the four accounts of Institution of Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.  This section also concludes with Luther’s explanation of I Corinthians 10:16 and the word usually translated as “participation” or “communion.”  Not surprisingly, Luther affirmed the literal interpretation of the Words of Institution and also continued to attack his opponents with brutal sarcasm as he wrote: “These words were spoken by the mouth of God, although the fanatics regard them no more highly than if they had been spoken by a common vagabond or drunkard.”   He believed that Luke’s account presented the fullest account of the Lord’s Supper.  Luther did not care to debate philosophically how the bread and wine was present in Christ’s body and blood as he famously quipped: “It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills. Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.”[6]

The third part of the Confession contained a statement of Luther’s beliefs.  It covered many subjects including the Trinity, the Incarnation, religious orders, the ministry, government, marriage, the sacraments, the Church and other matters.  This text certainly had an influence on later Lutheran confessions.  Luther concluded, “This is my faith, for so all true Christians believe and so the Holy Scriptures teach us….For if in the assault of temptation or the pangs of death I should say something different—which God forbid—let it be disregarded; herewith I declare publicly that it would be incorrect, spoken under the devil’s influence.”[7]

This is the third part of my discussion of the Eucharistic controversy.  The significance of Luther’s Confession warranted focusing on it exclusively in this post.  No installment has managed to contain as much content as I intended, so I will not promise what part four will contain.  However, it will begin with a discussion of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.


Endnotes —

[1] Martin Luther, Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, trans. Robert H. Fischer, Luther’s Works, volume 37 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1961), 161-372.  The Lutheran Confessors also quoted extensively from this treatise in Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Articles VII & VIII.

[2] Luther, Confession, LW 37:171.

[3]  Ibid., 181-193.   Cf. Large Catechism part 5, sections 31-32.

[4] Luther, Confession, LW 37: 210.  The Lutheran confessors quoted extensively from this section in the FC, SC, VIII, sec. 41.

[5]Luther, Confession, LW 37: 212-223.  The Formula quotes this section too. FC, SD, VII, secs. 93-103.

[6] Luther, Confession, LW 37: 307, 317 (The entire section is LW 37:303-360)

[7] Luther, Confession, LW 37: 372 (The last section is LW 37: 360-372.)

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