Drinking Blood with the Pope image

Drinking Blood with the Pope

In 1527 Martin Luther wrote of Ulrich Zwingli that he would “Rather drink pure blood with the Pope than mere wine with the fanatics” (The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – Against the Fanatics). How had two reformers united on so much ended up so fundamentally divided and in such hostility?

Luther and Zwingli met for the first and only time at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. The Colloquy was essentially a theological debate with a decidedly political goal. There was a real danger of Charles V raising an army against the evangelicals at this point in time (the threat did not actually become a reality until the Schmalkaldic War in 1546-47). Philip of Hesse, one of the leading Lutheran princes was anxious to achieve theological unity which would then pave the way to a military alliance. Neither was actually achieved.

Luther and Zwingli had little or no expectation of success at Marburg. There was agreement on 14 out of 15 articles but there was never a hope of consensus on the Lord’s Supper. According to eye witness reports Luther simply wrote on the table either in beer froth or chalk dust (I like to think it was the former) “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is My Body”) and that was that – deadlock!

In the earliest phase of his writing, most notably in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (September 1520), Luther condemned the view that the Mass was a “good work” or a sacrifice in no uncertain terms. Interestingly, he also spoke of “signs” of covenant at this stage of his career such as the rainbow, God’s covenantal sign to Noah, circumcision, God’s covenantal sign to Abraham and bread and wine and the signs of the new covenant (A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Mass, August 1520). In other words, Luther came very close to the “Zwinglian” view that the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ but should be viewed merely as signs of the covenant, but he stopped just short. However, we must remember that the so-called “Sacramentarian controversy” – the rejection of the real presence, the bread and wine literally becoming the body and blood of Christ – had not yet occurred at this point. The main focus of Luther’s attack here was against the Catholic doctrine of the Mass as a sacrifice.

Equally ironically, in his earliest writing on the subject, Zwingli showed no interest in the nature of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. In the disputation held by the magistrates in January 1523, which established Zwingli’s Protestantism as the position held by Zurich as a whole, Zwingli showed no interest whatsoever in the nature of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. He simply denied, like Luther, that it was a sacrifice.

Within a year, however, Zwingli had shifted to the more radical sacramentarian or symbolic position. As I have written elsewhere Zwingli derived his mature theology of the Eucharist from Cornelius Hoen, whose views Luther had specifically repudiated just a few months earlier. For Luther, any symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper had become tainted and guilty by association with his former colleague Andreas Carlstadt. For Luther, Carlstadt was an enemy of the Gospel and his views were an attack of the Devil.

It is never good to form theology out of polemic. Zwingli was more correct that Luther on the Lord’s Supper, but that is not saying much. Both were, of course, correct in rejecting the Mass as a good work or a sacrifice. Luther’s assertion that we should simply believe and accept Christ’s words as recorded in Scripture, “This is My Body”, at face value is, quite simply, ridiculous. Jesus also said “I am the door” (John 10:9), but this does not mean He swings on hinges! Had Luther never heard of metaphor? But Zwingli’s insistence that the bread and wine are merely a “memorial of Christ’s saving passion” reduces breaking bread to intellectual assent to a long-ago event and robs us of faith in Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit. Zwingli’s view has long held too much sway in evangelical circles. It is time it came to an end.

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