The Protestant Reformation was a time of religious awakening around the world, giving rise to new denominations, new Bible translations, and new heroes to admire. It was an era characterized by a new boldness to attack the papacy, exposing powerful men for their corruption, and castigating the entire church, calling into question anything and everything that originated from the Vatican.
Amid all the clamoring to present new interpretations to timeless Scripture were men with larger-than-life personalities who were often quick to vilify anyone with whom they disagreed. Many of these emerging scholars agreed with each other on the major tenets of the Reformation, but they would quibble over the minutia, evening questioning the salvation of their near-likeminded opponent. Two of these reformers who found themselves at odds with each other were Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli.
Their main area of disagreement: the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Both men agreed that the mass needed improvement; for Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper should not be observed daily or weekly, for this had potential to “suffer loss of effectiveness by too frequent occurrence.” Luther took the position that the sacraments in and of themselves were insufficient to save, a position that put him at odds with the church.
Where Luther and Zwingli sparred was on the question of presence—did the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus once they were administered? For Luther the answer was an emphatic yes; for Zwingli, it was just as emphatic in the negative. This may not seem like an important debate, but readers in the 21st Century need to keep this in context; as Ryrie noted, “It is worth pausing on this issue, because, abstract as it may appear, it was fundamental to early Protestants’ religious experience.” Believers observed the Eucharist so frequently that this issue could not be ignored.
Luther was a gifted theologian whose mastery of the Greek language allowed him to correct translation errors in the Latin Vulgate. In his translating Luther “was able to perceive a certain arbitrariness in allegory. He thought of it as opposed to the literal sense of Scripture, which he wanted to explore through attention to grammar and the original texts.” His dispute with Zwingli, however, was not over a translation error, but in a question of to what extent the Lord’s plain words should be taken. His take on the presence of Christ in the sacraments is most easily seen at the colloquy at Marburg, a famed discourse between opposing parties that failed to reach an agreement.
At Marburg Luther had written down the simple phrase “This is my body” in chalk on the table where the men would later sit. During the debate he whisked away the velvet tablecloth that concealed his mantra, saying, “Here is our text. You haven’t yet managed to wring it from us, as you said you would.” He later added, “Jesus Christ clearly states: ‘Hoc est corpus meum,’ truly I cannot get around it, but clearly must confess and believe that the body of Christ is present therein.”
Beyond the words of Luther are his actions. If the bread and wine are actually the body and blood of the Savior, the Savior whom Luther dearly loved, then the elements themselves must be holy and cannot be mishandled. So in 1543 when some Communion wine was accidentally spilled on a woman, Luther went so far as to lick the wine from her coat, and “cut out the bits of the jacket they had been unable to clean, plane away the sections of her pew where the wine had splashed, and burn the lot.” This may seem like strange behavior, but it is fully consistent with Luther’s theology, and is the logical response to dealing with something as holy as the actual blood of Jesus.
Luther knew that his critics said Jesus could not be the bread and wine because He is at the right hand of the Father, in accordance with Acts 2:32-33. This objection didn’t phase the Reformer, who taught that the doctrine of omnipresence applied just as much to Communion as it did to anything else.
Luther rejected transubstantiation as it was presented by the Catholic Church, but his position may be thought of as transubstantiation lite. Whereas the Catholics taught the bread and wine are fully morphed into Christ’s body and blood and provide instant grace for salvation, Luther maintained that Christ was present in the bread and wine (and most importantly, that the meal was not propitiatory). Luther held that Jesus was “physically present in the sacramental bread, just as the Son of God was wholly present in the man Jesus, and just as the Word of God was wholly present in Scripture.”
While Martin Luther garners much of the attention and praise from the Reformation, his opponent in this debate was no slouch. In addition to being highly educated himself, Zwingli was a reformed humanist who had a deep understanding of Scripture. It has been recounted that Zwingli, “overcome by the epistles of Peter…copied them by hand and committed them to memory.” He comes to this divergence with Luther able to hold his own.
Zwingli rejected any form of transubstantiation. Yes, the actual words of Jesus are clear: “This is my body…this is my blood.” But are they to be interpreted in the most literal sense? Zwingli would say they are not. As proof he pointed to other “I am” statements from the Messiah, such as, “I am the door,” and “I am the vine (John 10:7, 15:5).” By Luther’s logic, one must also conclude that Jesus were an actual door and an actual vine, while simultaneously being the actual bread, all while being seated at the right hand of the Father. This was too much for Zwingli to take.
Because of this position, Zwingli translated I Corinthians 11:24 to have Jesus say, “This signifies my body,” an interpretation he said came to him in a dream. Far from the stance of the Lutheran camp, the Zwinglians adopted the phrase, “spiritual eating” to refer to the sacraments (Luther countered this notion with physical eating). As a proof text Zwingli put forth John 6:63, which says, “It is the Spirit that giveth life; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit, and are life.” From this verse “flesh availeth nothing” became a battle cry for Zwingli and his followers.
If Luther were correct then each time believers sat down at the table, Christ would be sacrificed anew. This would be clearly refuted by Hebrews 10. That is another reason why Zwingli emphasized the bread as signifying Christ, not being or becoming Christ. For Zwingli the observance of the Lord’s Supper is spiritual, and as Dr. Yarnell points out, “nobody could accuse Zwingli of retaining the sacrifice of the mass, though Zwingli could accuse Luther of such.” For Zwingli there was a new sacrifice at each eating of the bread, but it was the sacrifice of the communicant, who was proclaiming “the Lord’s death until He comes (I Corinthians 11:26).”
While the Eucharist was commonly thought of as a grace that brought salvation, Zwingli’s take has been summarized thusly: the bread and wine were reminders of a grace already received rather than vehicles of a present sacramental grace.  Zwingli believed the ordinance served as an agent that should cause the believer to contemplate the crucifixion of Christ.
Despite being only seven weeks apart in age, these men were worlds apart on this critical issue. Luther and Zwingli found themselves in an irreconcilable position, and because of their disagreement, neither man was fond of the other. On his Zurich foe, Luther wrote in Confessions Concerning Christ’s Supper, “I regard Zwingli as un-Christian, with all his teaching, for he holds and teaches no part of the Christian faith rightly. He is seven times worse than when he was a papist.” On his Wittenberg counterpart, Zwingli refused any association, wishing to be called Paulinian instead of Lutheran. After all, he quipped, he had been preaching Christ’s gospel “before any man in our region had so much as heard the name of Luther.” After their colloquy at Marburg, Zwingli attempted a brotherly embrace of Luther, but the latter coldly refused the gesture.
Since these men and their followers failed to come to a compromise, it is left to subsequent theologians to continue the colloquy in their absence. Despite efforts by John Calvin and others throughout the years to reconcile the two sides, there has never been a consensus. While Luther was correct in his assertion that Scripture should be interpreted literally first, he failed to allow for the other types of literature in Scripture (such as the metaphor). There are several problems with this purely literal approach. Millard Erickson has written about the problem of this theological divergence: “To believe that Jesus was in two places at once [in bodily form and on the plate] is something of a denial of the incarnation, which limited his physical nature to one location.”
Erickson went on to conclude, “We should think of the sacrament not so much in terms of Christ’s presence as in terms of his promise and the potential for a closer relationship with him.” That big picture approach may be the best way to balance the positions of Luther and Zwingli.
It is this author’s opinion that Zwingli was closer to the truth, seeing the meal as similar to baptism, not something that is salvific, but a public testimony of a previous action. As in all things, balance is key. Luther championed the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, but some have swung too far, resulting in a “Real Absence” in their efforts to not be Lutheran. The communicant must see Christ in the bread and wine, but in a symbolic sense; otherwise, there is no point in taking Communion. Christ is there, because Christ is in the believer, and because the elements of the meal point back to Christ in a beautiful symbol of His horrific death.
 Gerrish, B.A., Reformers in Profile, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1967 p.129
 Ryrie, Alec, Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, Penguin Random House, 2017, p.63
 Allen, Paul L., Theological Method, A Guide for the Perplexed, T&T Clark International, 2012, p.125
 Roper, Lyndal, Martin Luther, Renegade and Prophet, Random House 2016 p.310
 Ibid p.345
 Ryrie, p.64
 Bingham, Dr. D. Jeffrey, Pocket History of the Church, Intervarsity Press, 2002, p.108
 Yarnell III, Dr. Malcolm B., Royal Priesthood in the English Reformation, Oxford University Press, 2013 p.241
 Gerrish, p.128
 Atherstone, Andrew, Reformation, A World in Turmoil, Lion Books, 2001, p.81
 Gerrish, p.6
 Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology Third Edition, Baker Publishing Group, 1983 p.1046
 Ibid p.1047