Why Didn’t the Reformers Unite?

Wouldn’t it have made sense for these three centers of reform — Wittenberg, Zurich, and Strasbourg — to come together to present a united reformational front?

Martin Bucer first heard Martin Luther in Heidelberg in 1518 when both were still monks. Luther and Huldrych Zwingli knew of one another. Publicly, Zwingli praised Luther, calling him a “Hercules” and a “faithful David” who fought the Lord’s battles.

 

It was 1529. Various reform movements were at work, purifying the church in Wittenberg, Strasbourg, and Zurich.

It was clear some of the leaders knew one another: Martin Bucer first heard Martin Luther in Heidelberg in 1518 when both were still monks. Luther and Huldrych Zwingli knew of one another. Publicly, Zwingli praised Luther, calling him a “Hercules” and a “faithful David” who fought the Lord’s battles.

These leaders knew that each worked in the midst of challenging political contexts. Luther’s situation in Germany was intense. Charles V demanded the German princes submit to his leadership and work against the Lutheran reformation. In response, the princes issued a formal appeal against the emperor’s demand.

Protestantism was born that day.

Zwingli’s situation wasn’t much easier. The previous five years saw a number of reforms come to Zurich. While the city council supported Zwingli, he was attacked by a group of radical reformers, the Anabaptists. To the Anabaptists, Zwingli wasn’t going far enough in following the Bible, especially when it came to the nature of the church and candidates for baptism. Bucer, on the other hand, was able to navigate the politics of Strasbourg a little easier. On the edge of the Holy Roman Empire and without Anabaptists, Bucer patiently sought incremental change.

Luther vs. Zwingli

Wouldn’t it make sense for these three centers of reform—Wittenberg, Zurich, and Strasbourg—to come together to present a united reformational front? Perhaps they could strengthen each other’s hands in their own locations while representing themselves to city councils and Hapsburg emperors as “the Reformation.” Plus, if the sides could present a united front, they would strengthen the hands of the German princes who risked both religious and political capital in this developing Protestantism.

That was what Bucer thought. Because he was a friend of both Luther and Zwingli, he brought the two reformers together—along with others on both sides of the growing Lutheran and Reformed divide—for a conference at the Marburg Castle in Germany. This Marburg Colloquy, as we know it, took place October 1 to 4 in 1529.

Central to the debate was the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. This wasn’t the first time these issues had been discussed in public—both Zwingli and Johannes Oecompampadius, reform leader in Basel, held views of the Supper that differed significantly with Luther’s. The Wittenberg reformer knew this, which is why he didn’t want to meet in the first place.

Luther recognized the Roman Catholic Mass had significant theological and even metaphysical problems. The Catholics taught that, during the Mass at the words of institution, the substance of the bread truly, corporally, and carnally became the body of Jesus.

Like John Wycliffe before him, Luther recognized that this view created problems metaphysically. If priests had power to transubstantiate, then how could we have a basis for knowing anything? How could we trust our senses if bread could retain the appearance of bread but something else entirely?

Yet Luther wanted to keep the language of “this is my body” when it came to the bread. So he taught that Jesus’s body was everywhere through a communication of his divine attributes (omnipresence) to his human ones (bodily existence). During the words of institution, the body of Jesus, which is ubiquitous, was united to the bread in such a way that it was “with and under” it. There is a real presence of Jesus’s body in the Supper.

Zwingli rejected this view. He believed the church was the body of Jesus; when the church participated in the common bread and cup, it was formed into Jesus’s own body. Something mystical did happen—as historian David Steinmetz notes, Zwingli wasn’t a bare memorialist—but it happened to the people, not to the bread. The “is” in “this is my body,” then, was more symbolic, pointing to what happens as the church takes the meal.

Divided Over Communion

As one reads the transcript of the Marburg Colloquy, it’s evident neither Luther nor Zwingli was prepared to compromise. Both Bucer, who later signed the Augsburg Confession, and also John Calvin held views between the two, as did Luther’s lieutenant Phillip Melanchthon.

It’s fascinating to consider what would’ve happened if Bucer and Melanchthon had been the main participants in the colloquy; perhaps instead of separate reformations, a single reformation would’ve linked together in a common church.

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