“Do it in Remembrance of Me”
Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland, was one of those theologians who strikes me as rather pleased with himself. He was always just a little too keen to stress his originality and independence of thought. As we will see, Zwingli was anything but original on the issue of the Lord’s Supper although it is he who in evangelical circles who is usually regarded as the man who gave us a purely symbolic interpretation of what happens when we break bread.
The first spiritual or symbolic rather than literal interpretation of Jesus’ words “This is My Body” in the Reformation came through the teaching of Luther’s colleague and academic superior at the University of Wittenberg, Andreas Carlstadt. After the Diet of Worms (1521) Luther was taken into hiding for his own protection by Duke Frederick the Wise of Saxony. It was during this time that Luther translated the whole of the New Testament into German. Whilst Luther was removed from the scene, the leadership of the Wittenberg reform movement passed into the hands of Carlstadt. Carlstadt began to move the Lutheran Reformation in an increasingly radical direction. He allowed priests to marry and took a lead himself by marrying someone more than 20 years his junior! He encouraged the tearing down of statues and images of the saints in the churches and he initiated the first properly evangelical communion service where “lay persons” were given wine as well as bread, something which Luther had argued for but had yet to carry through. On the issue of the real presence Carlstadt taught a pretty nonsensical interpretation. When Christ spoke the words “This is My Body” he was not, according to Carlstadt, actually pointing at the bread but at His own physical body. Luther, never one to suffer a fool gladly, denounced this view as lunacy and as being against the plain text of Scripture. Somewhat amusingly, he says that this is the equivalent of saying “Take eat; here sits Hans in the little red jacket” (ie there is no basis for this whatsoever in the text).
This episode is important, however, because thereafter any spiritual interpretation of the Lord’s Supper was associated in Luther’s mind with the fanaticism of Carlstadt. Hence his comment addressed to Zwingli in 1527 that he would rather “Drink pure blood with the Pope than mere wine with the fanatics” (the German word here translated fanatics, schwarmer, is a particularly strong term of abuse). In 1524 Luther also rejected a much more scholarly view, that of a Dutch lawyer named Cornelius Hoen. Hoen actually wrote his views on the Lord’s Supper before Carlstadt (probably around 1521), but they did not begin to circulate until 1524-25. Hoen was an elderly man and so gave his writings to a friend named Hinne Rode who took them to various Reformation cities around Europe. Rode went first to Wittenberg where he was given very short shrift! From there he moved on to Oecolampadius in Basel, to Bucer in Strasbourg and finally to Zwingli in Zurich. If Luther hated Hoen’s views then Zwingli loved them. In fact, he loved them so much he published them under his own name in 1525 and so most people tend to come to the conclusion that it was Zwingli who was the theologian who gave us a “memorial” view of the Lord’s Supper.
In the final blog in this series I want to look at how Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Supper essentially as a memorial short-changes us as evangelicals. He was so keen to reject the real (i.e. physical) presence of Christ in the breaking of bread that he ended up removing the presence of the Lord from breaking bread altogether. I would contend that many of our churches break bread far too infrequently, because we are unsure as to what we are doing or why we are doing it. We know we are supposed to break bread because Jesus commanded us to do so but we are very nervous of doing physical things (ie sacramental things) in our meetings and services. We know that the bread and wine do not “magically” become the body and blood of Jesus, so we are inclined to shy away from the practice altogether. I am not suggesting that we suddenly become highly liturgical or ritualistic when we meet together. Simply that we are obedient to Jesus’ command to break bread. Please hear me correctly on this one, I love contemporary worship songs as much as anyone but I think that many of the people in our churches really do believe that they can encounter Jesus more by singing the latest Matt Redman / Tim Hughes / Simon Brading song than by being obedient to the words of Jesus to “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Let me finish with my solution to the theological conundrum I was set back in the 1980s. In his letter on the Lord’s Supper Cornelius Hoen wrote the following words:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, promising many times to His own forgiveness of sins and wishing to strengthen their souls at the Last Supper, added a pledge to the promise, lest there be any uncertainty on their part; in the same way that a bridegroom desires to assure his bride, lest she have any doubts, gives a ring to her saying ‘Take this, I give myself to you.’ And she, accepting the ring, believes him to be hers and turns her heart from all other lovers, and, to please her husband, concentrates only on him. Just so, he who takes the Eucharist – the pledge of the Bridegroom which is proof of the giving of Himself – ought steadfastly to believe Christ now to be his, given for him, and His blood shed for him.
These are beautiful words and a very powerful image. My supervisor, however, asked me to find out where Hoen got the idea from. Obviously, the idea of Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as the Bride is a familiar New Testament metaphor, but what about the ring as a sign of the covenant as a parallel of the bread and wine of communion? From where did Hoen borrow this idea?
It was only when I was preparing a sermon to preach at my son’s wedding in April 2010 that the penny dropped! I had read Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Christian (November 1520) many times before but, in reading it again before the wedding, as any responsible father would (!), I came across the following:
Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. For, if He is a Husband, He must needs take to Himself that which is His wife’s, and at the same time, impart to His wife that which is His. For, in giving her His own body and Himself, how can He but give her all that is His? And, in taking to Himself the body of His wife, how can He but take to Himself all that is hers? In this is displayed the delightful sight, not only of communion, but of a prosperous warfare, of victory, salvation, and redemption. For, since Christ is God and man, and is such a Person as neither has sinned, nor dies, nor is condemned, nay, cannot sin, die, or be condemned, and since His righteousness, life, and salvation are invincible, eternal, and almighty,—when I say, such a Person, by the wedding-ring of faith, takes a share in the sins, death, and hell of His wife, nay, makes them His own, and deals with them no otherwise than as if they were His, and as if He Himself had sinned; and when He suffers, dies, and descends to hell, that He may overcome all things, and since sin, death, and hell cannot swallow Him up, they must needs be swallowed up by Him in stupendous conflict. For His righteousness rises above the sins of all men; His life is more powerful than all death; His salvation is more unconquerable than all hell. Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of its Husband Christ. Thus He presents to Himself a glorious bride, without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word; that is, by faith in the word of life, righteousness, and salvation. Thus He betrothes her unto Himself “in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies” (Hosea ii. 19, 20).
Suddenly I realized that Cornelius Hoen had put 2 and 2 together and made 5! Like other evangelicals all over Europe, he would have read Luther’s Freedom of the Christian shortly after its publication and been hugely impacted by Luther’s teaching on justification by faith alone. He then, like most of us theologians if we are honest, took an idea from someone else (in this case “the wedding ring of faith”) and applied it into a different context (in this case an understanding of the Lord’s Supper). Of course, this also explains why the first thing Hinne Rode did was to take Hoen’s letter, not to Zwingli in Zurich, but to Luther in Wittenberg. It was the natural place to go. Hoen had come to his new understanding on breaking bread by reading and applying Luther. Of course, as far as Luther was concerned, Hoen was misapplying and misinterpreting and hence the Dutchman was condemned in no uncertain terms. As a result the Reformation became fundamentally divided and the Lord’s Supper became an issue of controversy not only between Catholic and Protestant, but between evangelical and fellow evangelical.
This is the third part in our four part series on Communion.