This Week in Church History: Marburg Colloquy Day 2 (October 2)

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What we are referring to as day two of the colloquy is, technically speaking, day one. Though the discussion began informally on Friday the 1st between Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and Oecolampadius, the colloquy did not officially begin until the south German Lutherans Agricola and Osiander arrived on the morning of the 2nd of October.

Zwingli’s Opening Speech

The meeting convened at 6am and began with a lengthy speech from Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli’s speech consisted of two main points:

  • First, the most obvious reading of John 6 suggests that the question of physical presence is not central to the significance of the Eucharist because “the flesh profiteth nothing.” To make this point Zwingli quoted from the entire chapter but he placed a special emphasis on verse 52: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
  • Zwingli’s second move is the more interesting. Citing Luther’s Postils and Melanchthon’s notes on the passage in question, Zwingli argues that the Lutherans actually agree with his interpretation of John 6, which puts them in an impossible position hermeneutically speaking. If Zwingli is right and the flesh profits nothing, then Luther and Melanchthon cannot say in John 6 that Christ teaches that the flesh profits nothing and then turn around and insist on the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Luther’s Response to Zwingli

Luther replies to Zwingli by returning to his main argument: The words of Christ are “this is my body.” Even if he did agree completely with Zwingli’s reading of John 6, that does not change the words Christ spoke as he instituted the Supper.

Luther then moves on to counter another common objection to the Lutheran position. He notes that many have said that Luther’s view is ex opera operato, which means that the sacrament operates independently of the Word of God. Luther counters this argument by saying that God’s speech is fundamentally different from human speech and that when “something is said by ‘the high majesty,’ by God himself, such a word does not only “signify” but it effects and brings a bout that which it signifies, not through our power but through God’s. Then the words are not only the sound of a speaking man, but of God, and this sound conveys something to him who eats the bread.”

Finally, Luther deftly moves from this observation to turn his critics attacks on their head, arguing that because these critics tie the sacrament too closely to personal holiness their view amounts to a new kind of Donatism, closely akin to the Anabaptist error on baptism.

At this point, Luther seems to almost give up on the argument, saying: “Philip, now you should speak. I am really tired.” He then goes on to note that he had gone into the day hoping to see any of his antagonists produce an example from Scripture where the word “body” is understood figuratively.

Zwingli and Luther Continue Their Debate

At this point Zwingli addresses Luther’s argument briefly, saying it would be “an absurdity” if ungodly ministers could cause the body of Christ to be present. Luther hears this and immediately accuses Zwingli of Donatism, noting that this would render all other ministries of the church invalid as well as no one could ever know with certainty that the pastor who baptized them or who preaches to them performs these acts legitimately.

Zwingli then goes on to argue that the phrase “this is my body” belongs to the ministry of preaching—the minister proclaims the Word but he possesses no power that allows him to summon Christ in physical form.

At this point, Luther makes the move he will make over and over again during the colloquy: “Whether you accept them as words of teaching or as words of the Sacrament, these words remain: ‘This is my body.’” For Luther the ministry of the Word (preaching) and the ministry of the sacrament are one and the same.

Zwingli then says that if the character of the minister makes no difference whatsoever in his capacity to carry out his roles, then there is no real reason for the reformation in the first place, for we have now returned back to the late medieval papacy.

Luther responds by saying that the point isn’t that the minister’s character is irrelevant, but that his character is not essential the efficacy of the sacrament. God is the one acting and speaking, not the minister. So this is a pastoral point, ultimately: Even if you do not or cannot trust the minister, you can trust that God is speaking to you through the means of grace.

The two go back and forth on this point briefly before Zwingli hauls out his next argument: Christ is still in a physical body. Physical bodies cannot be in several places at the same time. Therefore, Christ is not physically present in the Eucharist. Luther then argues that if “this is my body” can be read figuratively, there is no stopping such an approach: If “this is my body,” is figurative, why not “he ascended into heaven?”

Zwingli replies: “This sentence (‘he ascended into heaven’) does not require a figurative understanding. Luther pithily replies by saying, “nor does the other one.”

At this point, the record says that Oecolampadius replaced Zwingli because the Zurich reformer felt “exhausted.”

Oecolampadius Debates Luther

Oecolampadius began his debate with Luther by citing various scriptural texts that support the Reformed view but he quickly pivots away from that strategy to emphasizing, again, Zwingli’s point that since Christ is in a physical body, that body cannot be in more than one place at any single time.

Luther quickly tires of this argument, saying he cares nothing about “mathematics” and that if Scripture teaches that Christ has both ascended into heaven and is physically present in the Eucharist, then we can only confess our belief in both and leave the explanation for how that works in the hands of God. We should not bother with trying to identify the one place in the cosmos where the body of Christ is located in a single moment. Christ says “This is my body,” and so we must affirm the most obvious reading of those words.

Zwingli Rejoins the Debate

At this point, Zwingli leapt back in to say that Luther himself is identify a single place where Christ is present when he gestures at the Eucharist and says “Christ is present there.” Luther brushes the argument aside, arguing that Christ’s words are “this is my body,” not “that is my body.” He then complains that he is getting tired.

The argument becomes even more testy, as Zwingli then quotes a New Testament text in the original Greek, prompting Luther to scold him and demand that he speak Latin or German. Zwingli apologizes, but in a mocking way by noting that he has read the Greek texts for 12 years and has read the Latin text only a single time.

The day ends on a similarly acrimonious note. After going around the question of whether or not Christ’s body can be in more than one place at any single time, Luther attempts to end all discussion about this point, saying “I have nothing whatever to do with mathematical reasons and that I exclude and reject completely from the words of the Lord’s Supper the adverb of space.”

Zwingli replies with a biting question that further underlines the frustration both men felt with the other: “Should, then, everything go according to your will?” And this is where the notes from the October 2 meetings end.


There is some limited discussion of biblical texts on day two, but the chief concern is the question of Christ’s physical body. The Swiss contend that since Christ is in a human body, he therefore cannot be present both at the right hand of the Father and in the physical elements of the Eucharist. Luther, taking a somewhat ironically biblicist approach to the question, insists that the “mathematics” (we might say “physics” today) of Christ’s physical body are irrelevant to the debate. All that matters is what the biblical texts teach. And to this point he has heard no compelling reason from the Swiss to interpret “this is my body” as being figurative.

The colloquy would continue the next morning on Sunday, October 3.

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