This Week in Church History: Marburg Colloquy Day One (October 1)

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In the second part of our series on the Marburg Colloquy, we’re looking at the events on the first day of the Marburg Colloquy, October 1, 1529.

Beginnings of the Colloquy

The colloquy began informally on the morning of Friday, October 1 after Luther and Melanchthon’s arrival from Wittenberg the day before. The meeting, as it existed on that day, was really just two separate conversations about the question of eucharistic presence held between Melancthon and Zwingli and Luther and Oecolampadius. The south German Lutherans, Agricola and Osiander, would not arrive until October 2, which is when the colloquy officially began.

That said, though Luther and Melanchthon only arrived in Marburg on the 30th of September, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, Hedio, and prominent Strasbourg politician Jacob Sturm had arrived in the city on September 27. Not only that, Zwingli had actually been in Strasbourg since the 17th of September in order to spend time with the Strasbourg reformers and form something of a battle plan for what they all knew would be a tense meeting with Luther.

After arriving in Marburg on the 27th, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Hedio (though, intriguingly, not Bucer) were invited to preach before the Landgrave, Philip of Hesse. (Philip, you’ll recall, is the leader who called the Colloquy together and hosted it in Marburg.)

The other important point to note about these pre-meeting days in Marburg for the Swiss and south Germans is that it allowed them to get on the same page with regards to the political situation. Charles’s recently announced peace treaty with the Pope had made the Protestant situation in south Germany even more precarious than it already was. So during the four days that Zwingli was in Marburg before the beginning of the Colloquy he was regularly locked in with Philip discussing the political situation in south Germany and Switzerland and how that might affect the work of reform.

On September 30 when Luther arrived, he and the Wittenberg party were greeted warmly by Philip and the other attendees. Writing about the event, Herman Sasse said:

The couresty and diplomatic skill of the host helped to create that friendly atmosphere, which prevailed during the entire colloquy, despite some serious moments during the discussions. Though noting was done or could be done to conceal the deep contrast between the theological views held by the two sides, a Christian attitude was shown by everyone.

It might be easy to wonder how the entire first day could basically be taken up with two conversations between four men, but it’s important to remember that the four men in question had never met in-person despite years of reading each other’s work, responding to that work, and regularly letter writing. These men were, in many ways, still somewhat unknown to one another in ways that are hard for us to appreciate in the age of the internet. Even in these greetings we can also discern something of Luther’s personality, as he reportedly greeted Bucer with “You are a naughty boy,” likely referencing Bucer’s previous attempts to “reconcile” the Swiss and Lutherans through what most readers (and nearly all outside of south Germany) saw as clever obfuscation rather than sound theological reasoning.

A Summary of Day 1 of the Marburg Colloquy

As noted above, October 1 consisted largely of informal discussion between the four most prominent reform leaders present, Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, and Zwingli. Unfortunately, there are no detailed records of the conversation between Luther and Oecolampadius. There are some mentions of it in a letter written by Bucer to his friend Ambrose Blaurer, the reformer of Constance who had met both Melanchthon and Bucer and was friendly with both.

Sasse also says that a report from Brenz on the events likely refers to this conversation. The most notable information we have from that report is that Luther is said to have argued that “as a thousand years are as one moment with God, so a thousand places must be one place or even less with God.”

We have more information about the discussions between Zwingli and Melanchthon as Zwingli’s personal notes on the meeting have been preserved and were confirmed by Melanchthon.

Initially, the two reformers discussed the doctrines of justification and original sin and found that they largely agreed on these matters. They then progressed to discussion of the Eucharist and, particularly, the question of Christ’s physical presence in the Eucharist. Zwingli began the discussion by citing various Augustine quotations that he felt supported his view of the Supper. Melancthon countered by saying that “even if Augustine had said that the body of Christ must necessarily be in one place only, he would not accept it.”

At this point we should note that the debate is not beginning with a question of the Eucharist being purely a memorial versus Christ being physically present in the Eucharist. Zwingli’s concern is not to argue for memorialism, but to emphasize that Christ in his body can only be in a single place at any given time and, therefore, cannot be present in the Eucharist and simultaneously present at the right hand of the Father. This is an important point to note for understanding the Swiss approach to this question.

Melanchthon then continued his rebuttal by going straight to Zwingli’s primary argument against physical presence: John 6:63, which says “It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.” Melanchthon says that this text had a very specific meaning within Jesus’s immediate context in first century Judaism and that it shouldn’t be read as saying anything more than that. To this he added, “Christ did not put Himself into the mouth of the disciples in a circumscriptive way, as the Jews understood it as a sort of laceration, and yet meanwhile He gave His body to be eaten as a food in a hidden way.”

Zwingli had a simple response to that argument: You cannot prove that from Scripture.

Melanchthon replied, predictably, by quoting Christ: “This is my body.” He then said that we must not, “without the clear testimony of Scripture, deviate from the proper meaning of the words.”

Zwingli then accused Melanchthon of begging the question.

Melanchthon responded by arguing, basically, that reason cannot account for this fact and yet it is clearly taught in scripture, citing “This is my body” along with “He ascended in order to fill all things,” from Ephesians 4.

Zwingli replied that the problem is not that his side is trying to limit God’s power to do a certain thing, but that Scripture provides no basis for the understanding of Christ’s body that Melanchthon is presenting. He cites several texts from Hebrews, particularly in chapters 2 and 4, to support his argument.

After a break for lunch, the two men returned with Melanchthon telling Zwingli that the quotations from Augustine cited at the beginning of the meeting might favor him, but the broader testimony of the church fathers is firmly with Melanchthon and the Lutherans.

In response to this Zwingli, again, returns to the question of what Scripture itself says. He cites John 16:7, John 13:33, 16:28, and 17:11 as well as Matthew 24:23 as examples of Christ saying that he will leave the earth in his body. Since God cannot lie, this has to mean that Christ is in heaven, and, therefore, not in the elements of the Eucharist.


At this point, the two parties broke for the day, but only after agreeing on the following (again quoted from Sasse):

The Word is taken as the expression of the mind of God. This mind is the will of God, garbed in human words. The human mind grasps this expression of the divine will, when it is drawn by the Father.

So ended day one of the Marburg Colloquy. We’ll back tomorrow to discuss what happened on the official opening day of the meeting after the arrival of the south German Lutherans.

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