5.3 Zwingli and the Real Presence

Credal athleticism: the boast that my faith is so strong that I can mentally embrace a bigger paradox than you can.

—Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell

Luther firmly held to a literal view of Christ’s statement of the bread he broke at the Last Supper, “This is my body.” His position would always remain “that the bread and wine in the Supper are Christ’s true body and blood,” though he did not care for “the sophistic cunning” of transubstantiation, which held that the elements are no longer also bread and wine after consecration but just look like bread and wine (The Smalcald Articles [1537]; McCain 2005, 279).

Luther was opposed in this view by Huldrich Zwingli, who viewed Communion as a “supper of thanksgiving” in which “the true body of Christ is present by the contemplation of faith.” He called it an error to consider “that the body of Christ in essence and really, i.e., the natural body itself, is either present in the supper or masticated with our mouth and teeth” (Zwingli, An Account of the Faith, from Fosdick 1952, 189). In his 1528 Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, Luther rants against Zwingli for page after page, calling him “completely perverted” and having “entirely lost Christ” (p. 260).

Luther met Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, where Luther wrote “This is my body” in Latin on the tablecloth before him to leave no doubt about his position. The articles of the Colloquy express agreement on fourteen articles of faith, with the question of “whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily in the bread and wine” remaining a point of disagreement. Although the articles state that, nonetheless, “each side is able to display Christian love to the other (as far as conscience allows)” (Lull 2005, 279), Luther made it known that he would not accept Zwingli as a brother in faith due to their disagreement on the matter. He said

that “Zwingli begged with tears in his eyes before the Landgrave and all of them, saying ‘There are no people on earth with whom I would rather be in harmony than with the Wittenbergers.’” He would not, however, surrender his position that the Lord’s Supper, instead of being a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice, was simply the grateful remembrance of it by faithful souls in the manner which Christ had appointed. On that point Luther was adamant–“impudent and obstinate,” Zwingli called him–and, in the end, brushed his Swiss brethren off. “You have a different spirit from ours,” Luther said. [Fosdick 1952, 159]

If you, like me, cannot make yourself believe that you are actually chewing on and swallowing the real, natural body and blood of the (risen) Jesus every month at Communion (4.7.3), you will no doubt find it sobering to realize that Luther would reject you as having a different spirit from his.