Luther vs. Zwingli 4: Humanity and Physicality
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.