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communion.jpgThough Luther and Zwingli seemed to be strongly opposed on the question of the “real presence,” they were actually closer than one might expect.

Both affirmed Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

Both affirmed the nature of the sacrament as a sign that strengthens faith in the hearts of believers.

Both rejected transubstantiation as well as the Roman Catholic understanding of the mass as a sacrifice.

Where the two Reformers diverged was in the philosophical realm, specifically the nature of physicality. Zwingli could not affirm the idea of an omnipresent physical body, which is why he believed that Christ could only be spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper. Luther believed that a “spiritual” presence was really no presence at all and that this belief emptied the Lord’s Supper of its power, making Christ’s words of institution to be a lie.

But behind these squabbles is the heart of the Marburg debate: Christology, and specifically the question of Christ’s humanity.

Luther: “Christ’s Humanity Demands a Physical Presence in the Lord’s Supper”

Luther believed and taught that Jesus’ human nature participated in his divine nature, meaning that his body (as both human and divine) must share in the attributes of divinity, including omnipresence. Therefore, Luther had no problem affirming both that Jesus was physically present in one location while also present in another. He did not seek to resolve the logical tensions that arose from such a view since Scripture did not address those issues.

At Marburg, Luther refused to give up the idea of “sacramental union” that took place between the elements and Christ’s body and blood. Though rejecting the idea that the bread and wine were actually transformed, he believed that Christ’s body and blood were sacramentally united to the bread and wine, so that when one ate the bread, one was eating Christ’s body. At some points, Luther goes farther than the Roman Catholic Church, by stating that if a person’s teeth crush the bread, then the same thing happens to Christ’s body also, since Christ’s body is united to the bread.

Luther would not compromise with Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper because he believed the doctrines of the incarnation and Christ’s humanity to be at stake. Zwingli sought to debate based on logical conclusions and reason; Luther appealed again and again to Jesus’ words “This is my body.” Luther saw Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as all the ammunition he needed to shoot down any other opinions.

Zwingli believed, based on logic and human reason, that a human body could not be present in more than one place; Luther challenged him to take Christ at his word. If Jesus said he was physically present, then logic and human reason should be forced to correspond to the everlasting words of Christ – not the other way around. In Luther’s eyes, Zwingli was seeking to modify the natural reading of Christ’s words in order to make it compatible with human reason.

“I do not ask how Christ can be God and man and how His natures could be united. For God is able to act far beyond our imagination. To the Word of God one must yield. It is up to you to prove that the body of Christ is not there when Christ Himself says, ‘This is my body.’ I do not want to hear what reason says. I completely reject carnal or geometrical arguments…”

Luther did not understand Zwingli’s reticence to accept a physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He believed that just as the body of Christ was necessary for salvation, so a physical presence of Christ was important for the Lord’s Supper. Luther saw Zwingli’s attempt to “spiritualize” the presence of Christ as a backhanded way of denying Christ’s true humanity.

written by Trevin Wax. copyright © 2008 Kingdom People Blog.

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0 thoughts on “Luther vs. Zwingli 4: Humanity and Physicality”

  1. Matt Svoboda says:

    Sounds like Luther would be infuriated with us Southern Baptists…

  2. Brannon says:

    Trevin, you haven’t let me down yet.

  3. blackhaw says:

    Zwingli and Calvin would be infuriated with us Southern Baptists also.

    Baptism would be a hotbed issue. But so would the LS for most Baptists.

  4. Russ Davis says:

    Poor Luther never got what Jesus said and stumbled with the disciples that left Him in John 6:63 where He informed them (and Luther too if he hadn’t been too busy shouting “hic est in corpus meum” to hear His Lord) that the flesh profited nothing and Hs words were spirit and truth:”It is the spirit that giveth life; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit, are are life.” Though Zwingli was wrong in his failure to apprehend the true nature of Christ’s omnipotence in His omnipresence, Luther was also wrong for precisely the same reason. And as much more illiterate as we are than they we’re far worse. Indeed I can only imagine how powerless professing Christians are today as seldom as they partake of the Eucharist that is our necessary food, as with those above who mentioned the Southern Baptists, not that they’re in any way unique. Funny how no one would be stupid enough to advance the argument that infrequent participation in the marital conjugal act would make enjoying it more sacred or “special” (indeed Paul forbids such a thing in 1 Cor 7:5), and yet people claim this inanity regarding the Eucharist and if they were honest (NOT!) it’s because they’re too lazy to do what it takes to keep a weekly observance from being as dull and repetitions as the rest of their dull service. What hypocrisy. Having been a boyhood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (i.e. Campbellites) member I was often impressed with how good many were at keeping it holy, despite the failures that we all manage as sinners every day in thought word and deed that make us candidates for grace. How terrible that those who foolishly opt for infrequent observance fail to understand what they’re missing and the the divine power they’re passing up due to their humility and obedience in partaking of the Eucharist together. Indeed I generally avoid the use of “Lord’s Supper” because it doesn’t have the same gratitude to God the “Eucharist” does which itself means “thanks” (from the Koine Greek eucharisteo, I give thanks). May God deliver us from and and convict us for our superficiality in not rightly esteeming the Lord and His Perfect Body in this sacred act (1 Cor 11:28ff But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh condemnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many are dead.). May this put the fear of God in us to draw near to Him.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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