When Luther stood before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, at the Diet of Worms in April 1521 there were some things that could be forgiven him in the minds of more liberal Catholics. Jean Glapion, Charles’ confessor-priest was trying to cobble together a compromise right up to the eleventh hour. If Luther had limited himself to criticism of indulgences or even to justification by faith alone then compromise would have been possible. This is surprising to many since it was justification by faith alone that was at the very heart of the new evangelical faith. However, Luther’s teaching on the subject could not be deemed “heretical” in the eyes of the Church since the Church had never established a definitive viewpoint on this subject. Only in response to Luther did the Roman Church at the Council of Trent (1547) decree that man is saved by faith and by works. In the 1520s and 30s it was perfectly possible for a loyal son of the Catholic Church such as Cardinal Gasparo Contarini to hold a virtually identical justification theology to Luther.
It was Luther’s sacramental theology that placed him beyond the pale in the eyes of virtually all Catholics. In the Babylonian Captivity, Luther redefined what a sacrament was and having done so he consequently reduced their number from 7 to 2. A sacrament, in Luther’s eyes, was not a ceremony of the Church that conveyed grace, but a ceremony given specifically by Christ to the Church which involved the use of physical and material things to convey spiritual truths. Marriage, extreme unction, confirmation and holy orders were rejected out of hand as sacraments. Penance was re-defined and massively scaled down in its importance. In effect, this left Luther and his supporters with two sacraments – baptism and breaking bread.
Luther’s critique of the Mass (the Catholic Church’s word for the service where Christ’s death on the cross was celebrated through bread and wine) was devastating. He rejected the Church’s teaching that the Mass was both a “good work” and a sacrifice. He insisted that communion should be in two “kinds” for all who partake, that is, that both the bread and the wine be given to the “laity”. Normal practice at this time was to give only the bread to the lay persons and only the “priest” would drink the wine. Finally, Luther rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Church’s doctrine to explain philosophically the miracle of bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ.
Within a year or two of the writing of the Babylonian Captivity, other evangelical theologians were going still further than Luther, rejecting the whole idea of the doctrine of the “real presence” (the idea that the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ). Luther had rejected transubstantiation but not the idea of a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words “This is My body”. This was to lead to a fundamental division in the newly formed Protestant Churches. By 1527 Luther was writing a pamphlet aimed at Ulrich Zwingli the leader of the evangelical Church in Zurich entitled Against the Fanatics (1527) in which he said he would “Rather drink pure blood with the Pope than mere wine with the fanatics”.
Over the next few weeks I am planning to take another look at this deeply divisive and controversial subject which was to prove so damaging to the unity of the evangelical movement. What was Luther really trying to say? Why was he so intransigent in his insistence on the real presence? How did Zwingli arrive at his “memorial” viewpoint? We should not think for a moment that all this is part of some merely arcane historical debate. Nearly 500 years later our churches are still dogged by this theological controversy. We are so keen to distance ourselves from the Roman position that we unthinkingly adopt a Zwinglian position which robs breaking bread of much of its power and significance. Hence, if we break bread at all, many of us do so formulaically or clumsily. As is so often the case, we shall find that it is John Calvin who gives us some penetrating insightful perspectives that ought to transform how we break bread together.
This is part 1 of a four part series on Communion.