Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli were only six months apart in age, and their separate spheres of Protestantism were largely independent of one another, although Ulrich could be said to have gotten many ideas from Martin. To a substantial degree, these two Protestant leaders agreed on doctrine. Unfortunately and ironically however, the one thing that separated them was their divergent teachings on the chief Sacrament of Christian unity: the Eucharist. This disagreement was profound and continues to be a dividing factor among confessional Protestants to this day. As such, Martin and Ulrich’s dialogue at Marburg presents us with three very vital lessons for Protestants today.
Interpreting the Bible
The first lesson we may draw from this disagreement is obvious: the Bible must be interpreted by human beings. Everyone agrees that the New Testament teaches about the Lord’s Supper. Protestants disagree as to what is taught. Martin was absolutely convinced that hoc est corpus meum, “this is my body,” meant precisely that, and confessional Lutherans still hold the Real Presence of our Lord in the Sacrament. Martin believed Ulrich’s doctrine twisted scripture even worse than Catholics and published a treatise to this effect titled That the words “This is my body…” still stand firm against the fanatics (i.e. Zwinglians).
Ulrich took our Lord’s dictum “The spirit giveth life, the flesh availeth nothing,” as an ontological barrier to any understanding of the Real Presence. He believed that when the believers ate the Sacrament, they ate only bread. Ironically, they both vehemently disagreed with the Catholic formula of transubstantiation, even though Martin’s doctrine was far closer to Catholicism than Ulrich’s. So Ulrich despised Martin’s doctrine because it smacked of Catholic ‘superstition.’ But the common authority between them—and between all Christians even today—namely the Bible, was being interpreted differently by each of them.
This leads us to our second lesson, which is also very simple: human beings are influenced by different things. This causes different interpretations. Martin had had such a powerful personal experience with the scriptures and the teaching of “Faith Alone,” that he was absolutely unwilling to make the text say anything less than what it said literally. His most fierce attack on the Catholic faith was its teaching that the act of the Mass was a “good work” that could–by God’s grace–“merit” one’s salvation. But Martin believed that Faith Alone meant that God saved you completely independent of your merits (since you had no free will and your every act was sinful). Thus he found great comfort in an understanding of the Eucharist which was all God’s doing: the Words of Institution were God’s affirmation of His own presence; the power of the words themselves made present the reality.
To Martin, Ulrich’s doctrine of “memorial” seemed to be Catholic superstition because it made the celebration of the Supper about the people and their remembering of Christ, instead of God’s work alone. Ulrich’s Supper was again a Mass and a “work,” which was so abhorrent to Martin. In Ulrich’s presence, over the customary German beer and theology, Martin began banging his glass on the table over and over and chanting with ever increasing vehemence “Hoc est Corpus meum! Hoc est Corpus meum!! Hoc est Corpus meum!!!”
To Ulrich, this was all nonsense. He was a Renaissance humanist, an enlightened, scientific man, with a great love for the Classics. He had devoured Greek, not to mention Latin, and loved the use of advanced rhetoric from the ancient authors. Because of this, he was convinced that the Bible was a perfect example of excellent literary prose, rife with similes and metaphors (which is, of course, very true). And when he came to the Words of Institution, he could not see it otherwise: “This is my Body” must mean “This [represents] my Body.” Ulrich’s own background and experience could only show him this interpretation.
Further, he employed philosophical arguments to counter Martin. For a body to be a body, it must conform to the limits of space and time. How could such a thing happen if the body of our Lord is seated at the right hand of the Father? Martin countered with his own metaphysics of a “ubiquitous” body which is omnipresent. But Ulrich was not swayed by this. The debate was over. Martin could not commune with Ulrich’s sophistry and symbolism, and Ulrich could not commune with Martin’s crass bread worship. Both interpreted the text, but men were influenced by different things.
The Deciding Factor
Thus, our third and most important lesson to draw here must be this: there must be a nonhuman force to decide between the different people interpreting the Sacred Text. What will we be left with if only humans interpret the text? Human traditions. The very thing the Protestants hated the most. So what can we do? We have the Bible, and we have the human interpreters. Can we seriously add anything to this?
I believe the key is in what Martin used to defend his teaching of the Real Presence. He writes this:
The witness of the entire holy Christian church (even if we had nothing else) should be enough for us to maintain this doctrine [of the Real Presence] and neither to listen to nor tolerate any sectarian objections. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything contrary to the common witness, faith, and doctrine which the entire holy Christian church has maintained from the beginning until now—for more than 1500 years throughout all the world.
Here Martin appeals to the common consensus of all Christians before him. They all believed in the Real Presence. The implication is obvious: if you want to go against 1500 years of Christians believing to the contrary, who do you think you are? You would be exalting yourself over all of your Christian fathers who came before you. This is Antiquarianism. And it is one step from the summit of pride.
And so I believe we can take a hint from Martin here. There is an authority that is ancient—the Scripture themselves—but there is also a living authority, even up until the present day, which helps stabilize the pride of our interpretations from our own personal authority. This living authority is in fact nonhuman, though it involves humans, because no one human can be said to have been the author of it. Rather, it is the shared experience and witness of all Christians everywhere, from the earliest times, filled with the Holy Spirit: the Lord and Giver of Life.
I believe this is the key to unity among Christians, especially Protestants and Evangelicals. We must realize how prideful an affront against our forefathers this is, to speak on our own authority. Why go through the trouble? We now have two thousand years of Christian wisdom to draw from!
I believe that many divisive issues, such as the one we have discussed here, would fade away once we recognized this. Thankfully, it is a thing increasingly recognized by large movements of Evangelicals. The so-called “Emergent Christians” love the writings of the early Church. Wheaton College has begun an “Ancient Christian Studies” program. This is good. They are coming under the broader Christian authority and entering into the deeper Christian family. They may be surprised at what they find.
For further reading on this subject, I recommend the classic text The Catholic Controversy by St. Francis de Sales.
Timothy S. Flanders