The Bitter Splinters of Marburg

How the Table Split Luther and Zwingli

A few years ago, while I was leading a group of Christians touring various Reformation sites along the Rhine in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, our tour group took a day trip to Marburger Schloss, or Marburg Castle, to see the famous site of the encounter between the two titanic Reformers Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Huldreich Zwingli (1484–1531).

To reach the castle was a stiff climb through medieval streets dotted with houses that dated from the very time when the two German Reformers also passed through the town on their way to the castle. Both men were remarkable Christians whom God had used in spectacular ways to bring genuine reform to their respective lands of Saxony and Switzerland. Yet they were also both men, with the failings common to their kind.

When we think of the issues debated during the German Reformation, we think of matters such as justification and the authority of the Scriptures. But as contentious as these primary issues were, the nature of the Lord’s Supper was also heavily debated. Is Christ present at the Table? And if so, how? That’s what Luther and Zwingli came to debate.

How Is Christ Present?

The medieval Church had defined the nature of Christ’s presence with regard to the elements of the bread and wine in 1215 through the dogma of transubstantiation. According to this doctrine, at a certain moment in the church’s celebration of the Table, when the priest prayed for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the bread and the wine, they were transformed into the very body and very blood of Christ. They ceased to be bread and wine, even though to all of one’s human senses that is what they seemed to be.

Not surprisingly, this dogma led to all kinds of superstitions, such as the worship of the elements themselves and deep anxiety about the reception of the Table. What was meant to be a place of comfort and a means of grace — both strengthening the believer and giving assurance of salvation — became an entanglement of ignorance and fear.

All of the Reformers clearly rejected the medieval dogma of transubstantiation, but they were deeply divided over the answer to the question “How then is Christ present at the Table?”

Protestant Dispute

In the view of Luther, Christ’s body and blood are present “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine. Just as when an iron poker becomes red-hot if left in the fire long enough, so the bread and the wine actually contain Christ’s body after the prayer of consecration. Contrary to the Roman dogma of transubstantiation, the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine. But they now contain the body and blood of Christ. How this takes place, Luther was quite content to leave in the realm of what we today call mystery.

For Zwingli, participation in the Lord’s Supper was a community event in which the people of God came together to be nourished by Christ through his Spirit. In fact, to Zwingli’s way of thinking, the Lord’s Supper is “no true meal if Christ is not present.” The bread and the wine are “the means by which an almost mystical union with Christ is achieved.”1 It is indeed ironic that Zwingli would have ardently repudiated what has come to be called the “Zwinglian” position on the presence of Christ at his Table — namely, that the Lord’s Supper is simply a memorial. Yet Zwingli rejected Luther’s idea of the presence of Christ in the elements since he could not agree with Luther’s conviction that Christ’s human body was ubiquitous (that is, able to be present everywhere).

Meeting at Marburg

The German ruler Philip of Hesse (1504–1567), who had embraced the convictions of the Reformation, was deeply concerned that division among the Reformers would jeopardize the political future of the Reformation. He was concerned that Roman Catholic princes would seek to exploit this division to politically roll back the advance of the reform.

Philip thus arranged for a colloquy to take place at his castle in Marburg in the fall of 1529, which he hoped would heal the division between the two Reformation giants. Luther, it needs to be noted, went unwillingly to the meeting, though Zwingli was eager to end their disagreement. Along with Luther and Zwingli, other key figures were invited, including the irenic Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Luther’s trusted coworker Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), and the Basel Reformer Johann Oecolampadius (1482–1531).

On the first day of the conference, October 1, Philip arranged for Melanchthon to meet with Zwingli, and for Oecolampadius to confer with Luther. He rightly gauged that having the two principal figures meet immediately after their respective journeys — including that hard trudge up to Marburger Schloss — might not be wise. The following day, however, Zwingli and Luther met. It was an explosive meeting that failed to unite the two Christian leaders.

Accord and Discord

Luther insisted that “This is my body” means simply that: the word is needs to be taken literally — the bread is the body of Christ. Zwingli, convinced that the risen body of Christ had ascended to heaven and could not be literally present in every locale where the Lord’s Supper was being celebrated, insisted as vehemently that the elements must therefore be vehicles through which God met with those who came to the Table with faith.

As in every theological disagreement, however, more than theology divided them. The fact that Luther’s Saxon dialect was virtually incomprehensible to a speaker of Swiss German like Zwingli has been seen by Bruce Gordon as a parable of their mutual inability to understand one another and their differing visions of the Christian life. In sum, their “views of God and humanity, their differences as Swiss and German” — though both men were uncompromising — and “their self-understandings as prophets rendered agreement impossible.”2

And yet, they were able to draft a statement about the Eucharist. The following article, article 15, comes after fourteen points about which there was full agreement between the two German Reformers:

Fifteenth, we all believe and hold concerning the Supper of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that both kinds [bread and wine] should be used according to the institution by Christ; also that the Sacrament of the Altar is a sacrament of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the spiritual partaking of the same body and blood is especially necessary for every Christian. Similarly, that the use of the sacrament, like the word, has been given and ordained by God Almighty in order that weak consciences may thereby be excited to faith by the Holy Spirit. And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through his Spirit he might confirm us in the right understanding.3

Here we see Zwingli, as well as Luther, affirming that the Lord’s Supper is vital for the Christian life, for it is a means by which the Holy Spirit strengthens believers’ faith. Sadly, the final remark regarding the demonstration of Christian love failed to materialize.

Legacy of Division

Ultimately, Luther refused to recognize the Swiss Reformer as a genuine Christian, and thus their division remained unhealed. After the colloquy, Luther concluded that Zwingli was a “perverted” man who had no part of Christ and was “seven times worse than when he was a papist”!4

As Philip of Hesse feared, Roman Catholic princes took advantage of this division. Two years later, in October of 1531, some seven thousand Roman Catholic soldiers attacked the canton of Zurich. Zwingli marched out to meet them at Kappel, where he and around five hundred other Protestants were slain on the battlefield. The Roman Catholic troops had been confident that the German Lutheran princes would not support Zwingli, and thus the boldness of their attack on Zurich. When Luther heard of Zwingli’s end, he was his blunt self: Zwingli had died “in great sin and blasphemy.”5

The division between these two German-speaking men of God and its sad legacy is a sobering reminder of the danger of dividing over issues that cannot be biblically demonstrated as being primary. When facing Christian division — and our day is equally filled with vitriol and misunderstanding between believers — we all still need to pray the prayer that Zwingli uttered before the beginning of that famous colloquy at Marburger Schloss:

Fill us, O Lord and Father of us all, we beseech Thee, with thy gentle Spirit, and dispel on both sides all the clouds of misunderstanding and passion.

  1. Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2021), 237–38. 

  2. Gordon, 178–81. 

  3. “The Marburg Colloquy and The Marburg Articles, 1529,” trans. Martin E. Lehmann in Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann and Martin E. Lehmann (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1971), 38:88–89. 

  4. Gordon, Zwingli, 175–76. 

  5. Gordon, 258–59.