Luther vs. Zwingli 6: Flesh and Spirit
Coursing through the Christological debate over Christ’s presence in the Supper was a strong dichotomy between flesh and spirit. For Luther, a spiritual presence with no physical local presence was not a true presence at all. For Zwingli, the belief that the bread and wine contained the physical body and blood of Christ bordered on idolatry. Zwingli continually pressed Luther on why the physical presence was necessary if the “flesh profits nothing.”
Zwingli’s cohort Oecolampadius, who also contributed to the debate at Marburg, claimed that John 6:63 indicates that it is a spiritual feeding on Christ through faith that is necessary, not a carnal, fleshly feeding. Luther agreed with Oecolampadius that John 6 refers to a spiritual eating, but he disagreed with the idea that the spiritual eating is unaccompanied by bodily eating.
Luther also affirmed the presence of many metaphors in Scripture, but he did not believe Zwingli and Oecolampadius had strong arguments for seeing Jesus’ words of institution as necessarily metaphorical. “I have a clear and powerful text!” he proclaimed.
The basis for much of the debate at Marburg goes back to Zwingli’s tendency to draw a dichotomy between the physical (outward) and the spiritual (inward) as well as Luther’s tendency to keep them too closely united. Both Reformers made good points; both went to extremes. Both were trying to navigate their way safely over a Christological precipice that threatened either to divide Christ too much (Zwingli) or unite his natures too closely (Luther).
Zwingli saw in Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper an irrational belief that hearkened back to Roman Catholic dogma. In his mind, Luther was afraid to cut the ties from Rome and to seek the true understanding of the Eucharist found in Scripture and based on reason.
According to Zwingli, Luther’s understanding of the sacraments kept one dependent upon the Church and introduced a foreign paradigm to the biblical texts. Luther likewise saw a return to Rome in Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Supper. Granted, Zwingli’s view of the “real presence” was quite different than transubstantiation, but his emphasis on the memorial aspect of the Supper and his view of it as an act of obedience more than a gift from God seemed to Luther to be a “good work” performed to receive God’s blessing. Luther felt that just as Roman Catholicism had turned the Eucharist into a good work and kept the elements for the priests alone, Zwingli’s doctrine would lead to the Eucharist as a mere sign, which would then take away any reason for celebrating the Eucharist.
The two Reformers not only had opposing views on the question of “flesh” and “spirit,” but they also differed on the philosophical understanding of logic and rationality.
Zwingli believed that the Scriptures affirmed logic and reason, and therefore when Christ said in John 12:8 “You will not always have me,” a bodily presence must necessarily be excluded for one body cannot be both in heaven and on earth at the same time. Luther appealed to the miraculous, stating that both are true, no matter how logically absurd it may sound. “I confess that the body is in heaven, but I also confess that it is in the sacrament.”
Oecolampadius sought to bring the two together by pointing out the common ground. “What we are agreed on is that Christ is present in heaven (according to his divinity and humanity) and in the Supper (according to his divinity).” He then told Luther that he should not cling to the humanity and the flesh of Christ, but instead lift up his mind to Christ’s divinity.
Luther’s response made it clear that no compromise would take place. “I do not know of any God except him who was made flesh, nor do I want to have another.” With those words, Luther indirectly implied that Zwingli was denying the true humanity of Christ in his pursuit for a rational understanding of the Supper. The debate would come to an unhappy close, with the Christological questions keeping the Reformers apart on the doctrine of the Eucharist.
written by Trevin Wax. copyright © 2008 Kingdom People Blog.