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Michael L. Czapkay

McGrath Tutorial

Paper 8 (Luther & Zwingli)

March 8, 1993




Despite the great deal of unanimity within the magisterial Reformation, the various reformers not only gave emphasis to different doctrines (for instance, Luther "justification by faith" and Zwingli "the sovereignty of God"), but some of the reformers displayed a substantial disagreement over particular doctrines. Perhaps the most significant of these doctrinal disagreements, certainly the most perspicuous, is the debate between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli over the nature of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper). In the discussion to follow I will give a brief exposition of their respective views, and draw attention to the underlying assumptions which led to the divergent positions they each adopted. My concluding remarks will address some of the interesting consequences of these views, as well as some general ramifications of the debate over the sacraments itself.


Although Luther originally maintained that there were three sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, and penance), but sometime during his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) he reduced the sacraments to just two, having eliminated penance. The restriction of the sacraments to baptism and the Eucharist begins late in the cited 1520 text. Towards the end of this work, Luther begins to emphasize the notion of a "visible physical sign" of the promises of God. This then becomes the criterion for selecting baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments, for "only in these two do we find the divinely instituted sign and the promise of the forgiveness of sins." So, whereas the Roman Catholic church had recognized seven sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction), Luther came to believe that there were in fact only two. Moreover, in the promise-criterion, we can already discern the fundamental significance of the sacraments. Since they are signs of the redemptive promises of God and divine favor, they give the believer an assurance of his union with Christ. Luther says that the sacraments, since they are signs of divine promises, if and only if they are received or apprehended by faith (as opposed to human works or merit) can they become a means of access to the promises which they signify. The more specific implications of this general account can be seen first in Luther's view of the sacrament of baptism. This sacrament is not a demonstration of faith possessed (as Zwingli maintained) but a mode of generating faith. This is crucial, since it allows Luther to accept both the doctrine of justification by faith and infant baptism. If justification by faith were conceived as involving a human work, decision, or a human response to the divine promises, then justification by faith would be incongruous with infant baptism. However, the faith by which we are justified is God's gracious gift to the individual, and it comes by the hearing of the gospel promises. Since the sacraments mediate the Word of God, and "his Word cannot be without fruit," baptism can be seen as generating, rather than presupposing faith. In baptism, "A child becomes a believer if Christ...speaks to him through the mouth of the one who baptizes." Hence, Luther continues the traditional Roman Catholic practice of infant baptism, though his reasons for doing so are different.

Luther's view on the Eucharist is the more controversial element to his doctrine of the sacraments. The Roman Catholic church had held that during the mass the elements of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was defined at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). The doctrine was based upon the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident. The former is a thing's essential nature, whereas the latter is a things's inessential properties (or outward appearances). Transubstantiation affirms that, though the outward appearance of the bread and wine (color, taste, smell, etc) do not change at the moment of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine do change--they become the body and blood of Christ. Now some have maintained that Luther's position consisted in the rejection of the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. He is said to have held that Christ's presence was not in the elements but merely behind them. Hence, a doctrine of consubstantiation replaces one of transubstantiation. This is misleading though. Luther's rejection of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is more accurately interpreted in terms of his repudiation of scholasticism and its integration of Aristotelian philosophy into theology. The Roman Catholic position was not a mere statement as to the real presence of Christ, but--on the basis of Aristotelian philosophy, it also explained how Christ was present in the elements. It was this latter point which Luther criticized and rejected, for it was derived from Aristotle, and Aristotle was best left outside theology.

That Luther taught the real presence of Christ can be seen in his urging, with much vehemence, the text of Matthew 26:26: hoc est corpus meum--"this is my body". Over against Zwingli, Luther argued that "est" must be understood to mean "is identical with." Consequently, "this is my body" must be interpreted literally. "This bread is identical with my body." As we will see shortly, Zwingli thought otherwise, insisting that est be understood as significat (signifies). Hence, "this is my body" should not be interpreted literally anymore than Christ's words Ego sum panis vitae should be interpreted literally as meaning that Christ claimed to be a loaf of bread.


Having mentioned Zwingli's rejection of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we can better understand Zwingli's position vis-a-vis Luther's if we consider the background and development of Zwingli's view on the sacrament, and the Eucharist in particular. We have noted that Luther drew attention to the idea of the sacraments as "signs" of the promises of God. This view in fact characterizes all the reformers in contrast to the Catholic view. Zwingli's doctrine of the sacraments, though, brings this into better focus. He understood by "sacrament" the idea of an "oath" or "pledge." He saw baptism and the Eucharist, much like Luther, as tokens of God's faithfulness to his people and as signs of his divine redemptive promises. However, by 1525 Zwingli changed his position. Instead of being signs of God's faithfulness to believers, the sacraments came to be signs of the believers' faithfulness to each other. It was no longer a divine pledge to humans, but a human pledge to other humans within the context of the community of the Christian faith.

Zwingli's view on the Eucharist (as well as baptism) is heavily influenced by two factors. First, Zwingli had served as a chaplain in the Swiss Confederacy. In this military context Zwingli learned the importance of rank and allegiance. He spoke of the essence of the sacrament as consisting in Pflichtszeichen, that is, a "demonstration of allegiance." Zwingli referred to the wearing of a white cross as a demonstration of a soldier's allegiance to the Confederacy, and then he paralleled this with the Christian's allegiance to the church being demonstrated in baptism and the Eucharist. With reference to the Eucharist in particular, Zwingli stressed the metaphorical interpretation of "hoc est corpus meum. These words of Christ established the way in which he would have his church remember him in his absence. The death of Christ plays a similar formal role as the battle of Nahenfels. The death of Christ is, like a battle for an army, a foundational event. It is such an event that becomes the basis of a group's identity. The Eucharist is therefore a memorial of the death of Christ, not a reenactment of his passion. The mass is fundamentally mistaken. The Eucharist is a commemoration, and as such it is no more necessary for Christ's death to be repeated or for him to be present as it would be for the battle of Nahenfels to be re-enacted in order to be commemorated. The Eucharist involves the absence of Christ more than his presence. He is present only in the sense that he is remembered in the hearts of those who take notice publicly and participate in recalling the Lord's death "till he come."

In the second place, though, Zwingli's interpretation of Matthew 26:26 seems to have been indirectly influenced by some of the ideas of the humanist Wessel Gansfort (c. 1420-89), in particular his work On the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This text was discovered by a certain Cornelius Hoen, who drew upon Gansfort's text and presented a critique of the doctrine of transubstantiation on the basis of Gansfort's theme of the spiritual union between Christ and the believer. Gansfort himself did not deny transubstantiation, but Hoen utilized his work to do just that. Hoen drew up his arguments in a letter, which eventually made it into the hands of both Luther (in 1521) and Zwingli (1523). One of the points made by Hoen in his letter concerns the phrase hoc est corpus meum. He argued that "is" must be understood as "signifies" not as "is identical with." In addition to the interpretative point, Zwingli was apparently influenced by Hoen's comparison of the Eucharist with a pledge made by the giving of a ring between a groom and his bride and the notion of the Eucharist as a commemoration expressed in the words "Do this in remembrance of me." Zwingli argued these ideas against the notion of a real presence in his treatise On the Lord's Supper (1526). Luther's response came quickly with the publication of That these Words of Christ "This is my Body" still Stand Firm against the Fanatics (1527).

One of the interesting points which was brought to bear on the debate between Luther and Zwingli revolved around Zwingli's argument that Luther's position was wrong since it entailed a contradiction. According to Luther, Christ was in the Eucharist. Zwingli, referring to the text of Scripture, pointed out that Christ is seated at the right hand of God. If Luther's doctrine is correct, then either Scripture is incorrect (which Luther would naturally not deny) or Christ is in two places at the same time (and presumably in the same respect). Since the Scripture is true and the latter involves a contradiction, Luther's thesis must be false. Luther's response was most amazing. The phrase, "at the right hand of God," Luther said should not be taken literally. It is metaphorical for God's rule or sphere of influence. Christ is no where literally, as he is not confined by temporal or spatial location. Again, biblical interpretation was basic in the debate.

Zwingli explains the contextual and symbolic significance of the Eucharist with the analogy of the queen's ring. One may think of the ring itself or one may think of the ring in the context of being a gift from the king to the queen. He puts it on her finger, thereby transferring the significance of the ring, considered in itself, into a new context. The ring hasn't changed, but it's signification has changed. What this analogy goes to show is that the associations of an object can change without there being any change in the object itself. So it is with the Eucharist. The bread and wine do not change, but in the context of the Lord's Supper they take on new associations. They now signify the passion of Christ and the believer's participation in and allegiance to the community of the faithful. One may say that the bread and wine possess no inherent spiritual meaning, but the religious significance of the elements is determined by those elements being placed within the community of the Christian faith.

Like Luther, Zwingli maintained the legitimacy of the practice of infant baptism, but his reasons for doing so were quite different. To begin with, infant baptism posed a problem for Zwingli by virtue of his view of the sacraments. As we have seen, the sacraments for Zwingli presuppose the possession of faith. They represent the believer's active and deliberate move to give allegiance to the Christian community. Infants obviously are not capable of this conscious and deliberate action. Traditionally, theologians since the time of Augustine argued that baptism cleansed the guilt of original sin. Zwingli, though (like Erasmus), having problems coming to grips with the doctrine of original sin, tended to think that infants did not have any inherent original sin. They had no need, therefore, to be forgiven. By virtue of rejecting the traditional ground of infant baptism, Zwingli was led to postulate another basis for the practice of infant baptism.

After an initial period of doubting the legitimacy of the practice (during the late 1510s and early 1520s), Zwingli laid a new foundation for the doctrine of infant baptism based upon the Old Testament circumcision as the sign of the covenant. There is a continuity of covenant identification in the Old and New Testaments. As Timothy George explains it, "one covenant in two dispensations" ("The Presuppositions of Zwingli's Baptismal Theology," in Prophet, Pastor, Protestant, ed. Furcha and Pipkin, p. 81). Circumcision functioned as the outward sign in the Old Testament. It was a physical sign demonstrating the child's inclusion within the covenant community of Israel. In the New Testament, baptism takes the role previously played by circumcision. Baptism is a sign of belonging to the Christian community in the New Testament dispensation. Notice here Zwingli opposes Luther's infant faith theory, for (in line with Zwingli's general view of the sacraments) the water of baptism has no inherent power or significance. Its significance derives from being a practice within and for the Christian community. Moreover, Zwingli argued that baptism was a superior sign since it was a gentler sign (involving no blood or pain) and both male and female children could be participate in the sacrament of baptism. Zwingli relies heavily on an externalist argument at this juncture. What justifies a person's access to the sacrament of baptism is not their consciousness of belonging to the community of faith, but simply the fact that they are members of such a community through their parents. This doctrine when fully developed would provide the adequate framework for making church and state equivalent. The persecution of the anabaptists under Zwingli is based in large part upon Reformed Covenant theology, for the refusal to have one's children baptized was no longer a minor theological disagreement, but it became an act against the church as community as city.


At this point I would like to make some critical observations on Zwingli's view of baptism. I find the logic of Zwingli's view on infant baptism most curious indeed. It is interesting that the externalist argument he employs at this juncture is not employed vis-a-vis a consideration of the nature of the sacraments as such. For baptism, he argues, it is not necessary that the individual be conscious of his membership in the community of faith, only that the individual in fact is a member. He does not use this argument to justify infant access to the Eucharist. I find this move a bit suspicious because it seems that the argument should actually assume an externalist stance about the sacraments as such and then baptism on that general basis, for both sacraments are signs of belonging to a community. In fact Timothy George states:

Zwingli defined a sacrament as an initiatory ceremony or pledge by which one was publicly bound to carry out the obligations of a certain office or order. Water baptism for him was essentially a human action made in response to God's prior act and word....He compared baptism to the putting on of a monk's cowl: it signified a lifelong process of learning the rules and statutes of the order, of conformity to a distinct pattern of behavior. Again...he likened baptism to the white cross sewn onto the uniform of a confederate....Just so, baptism marked one off a member of the militia Christi, a soldier of the gospel fighting under the direction of Christ the Captain. (p. 79)

As I think this explanation by George bear witness to, with respect to the Eucharist and even baptism Zwingli stressed belonging to a community as a decision to give allegiance. All the military analogies will now breakdown, and so I think will Zwingli's attempt to construct a view of the sacraments along any highly internalist lines, which seems to be doing from the outset. If Zwingli goes the externalist route, he saves the practice of infant baptism, but at the cost of his internalist position on the Eucharist. If he takes the internalist route vis-a-vis the Eucharist, it will be at the cost of the externalist framework he employs for baptism. Either way the unity of the sacraments is jeopardized. Moreover, one gets the distinct impression that the moves are terribly ad hoc. George draws attention to this tension in Zwingli in its chronological dimension. He admits that Zwingli saw the tension between water baptism as a pledge (thereby restricting baptism to adults who are capable of conscious commitments) and infant baptism (see page 80). George claims that Zwingli admits having been deceived in his earlier view which was apparently incompatible with infant baptism. However, I would stress that by introducing the justification for infant baptism, Zwingli's overall view of the nature of the sacraments (as explicated earlier) is seriously compromised. He simply wanted it both ways, but this was (and is) simply not possible inasmuch as there is a basic logical incompatibility between the various theses he wanted to affirm.

By way of conclusion, the debate between Luther and Zwingli regarding the sacraments establishes a more general point about the reformation itself and its theology. Although the reformers sought to emphasize the perspicuity of the Scriptures, it must be admitted in the light of inter-reformation controversies that Scripture was not as clear as the reformers' doctrine of perspicuity might have suggested. Different interpretations of Scripture played a substantial role in the debates between Luther and Zwingli. But these different interpretations serve to show that there can be no adequate appeal to Scripture without also considering principles of interpretation and an interpretative tradition. And this I suggest is to commit ourselves to employing the powers of reason in theology. Therefore, if the reformation principle of sola scriptura is to be a coherent principle, it cannot be understood as many Reformed writers (especially in the 20th century) have understood it--as excluding an appeal to reason unaided by revelation. The appeal to Scripture presupposes a fundamental commitment to reason, and perhaps in the union of revelation and reason which is required in the Reformed tradition, even if it has been a tacit assumption not explicitly articulated, we can see a more general continuity between the theology of the medievals and that of the reformers.


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