This Week in Church History: Marburg Colloquy Introduction


Other posts in the series:

October 1 will mark the anniversary of the beginning of the Marburg Colloquy, held in 1529. Over the next several days, we’ll be publishing a series of posts going through the day-to-day happenings at the Colloquy, concluding with the final day of the Colloquy, which was October 4.

The Significance of Marburg

Marburg was a pivotal moment in the early Reformation. It was a gathering called together by Philip of Hesse, one of the earliest political leaders to support the Reformation. It also came at a crucial moment in the development of the movement: Wittenberg was by now well-established under the leadership of not only Martin Luther, but also the young humanist Philip Melanchthon. The Swiss Reformation was also spreading under the leadership of Zurich-based Ulrich Zwingli and Basel reformer Johannes Oecolampadius.

Finally, a third movement was also emerging in south Germany, located between the Lutherans and the Swiss not only geographically but also theologically. The city of Strasbourg was the hub of the south German reform effort, which was spearheaded by four Strasbourg ministers including Martin Bucer (then still relatively less famous) and Wolfgang Capito (perceived to be the greatest of the Strasbourg reformers at the time).

The meeting was called together to address two problems which, in another light, ended up looking like the same problem to Philip:

  • First, the Reformation was still precariously positioned as a reform movement in Germany. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was no friend to the movement and only tolerated it out of necessity due to his ongoing and expensive wars with France and the Ottomans. But should Charles ever be given the opportunity to focus his attention on the “evangelicals” (as they were called) it was widely believed he would try to squash the movement before it could grow further.
  • Second, though only a decade old, the movement already appeared to be splintering due to the fractious relationship between the figurative leaders of the Lutheran and Swiss movements—Luther and Zwingli. Their differences were both personal (Zwingli bristled at suggestions that Luther was the originator of the reform movement) and theological, as the two had arrived at rather different views of the Eucharist, although Zwingli’s view is widely misunderstood and misrepresented even today.

The Marburg Colloquy was intended to establish a united front for opposing Charles in the event that that became necessary and to hopefully arrive at some agreement or at least understanding on the question of eucharistic presence.

Who attended the colloquy?

In addition to around 60 guests and a few political leaders, the colloquy consisted primarily of ten different leaders in the reform movement:

  • Martin Luther
  • Justus Jonas (a Wittenberg reformer who was a close friend to Luther’s and who would one day preach Luther’s funeral sermon after being with him at his deathbed)
  • Philip Melanchthon
  • Andreas Osiander (a Lutheran reformer from Nuremberg)
  • Stephan Agricola (a Lutheran reformer based in Augsburg)
  • Johannes Brenz (a Lutheran reformer based in Heidelberg who had a particularly fractious relationship with Bucer)
  • Johannes Oecolampadius
  • Ulrich Zwingli
  • Martin Bucer
  • Caspar Hedio (a Reformer from Strasbourg who came with Bucer)

That said, there were five men who took the primary leadership role at the colloquy: Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Bucer. Much of the negotiation would happen with Luther and Oecolampadius (perceived as the more charitable, level-headed Reformed leader) seated at one table, Zwingli and Melanchthon (the more pacific Lutheran) at another, and Bucer going back and forth between the two.

Marburg is also the only time that Zwingli and Luther ever met, as Zwingli would die only two years later. That said, Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer had a more enduring relationship. Luther and Melanchthon’s relationship is obvious enough as the two would work alongside each other in Wittenberg for many years. Bucer and Luther had met at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518 where Bucer, then a Dominican monk, first saw Luther and was immediately taken by him. They would have a long epistolary relationship, though calling it a friendship may go too far as Luther, particularly after Marburg, saw Bucer as nothing but a “chatterbox.” Bucer and Melanchthon, unsurprisingly, enjoyed a more cordial friendship over letter writing and would go on to work together at the Diet of Regensburg in 1541 in pursuit of a union of Germanic Christians with Lutherans, South Germans, and more evangelical Roman Catholics.

What did Marburg accomplish?

The Colloquy ended with a statement of 15 articles on the beliefs of the entire reform movement: Lutheran, Reformed, and South German. That said, the Colloquy failed to produce a shared confession from all three movements. Rather, it led to three separate confessional documents from the three distinct schools represented, the most famous of which is the Augsburg Confession of 1530.

That said, to say that the fate of the reformation to exist as separate and sundered movements was settled at Marburg is to massively overstate what actually happened there. By the end of the gathering, it was clear that Luther saw not only Zwingli and Oecolampadius, but also Bucer and Hedio, as being basically heretics for their rejection of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

However, Melanchthon was far more sympathetic to the Reformed and South German and most other parties came out of the meeting suspecting that Luther was the only insurmountable obstacle to union. Though we look back on it today and recognize that Zwingli and Oecolampadius would be dead two years later while Luther would survive another 17 years, that was obviously not known at the time.

Thus to the attendees Marburg was not a final and conclusive failure. It was a disappointment and, when combined with the deaths of Zwingli and Oecolampadius two years later, would have a devastating psychological effect on many of the leaders of the young movement and especially on Bucer. But the hopes for union would continue to live on for decades to follow and really only were conclusively and finally dashed in the later 16th century during the intra-Lutheran controversy between the Philippists and the Gnesio Lutherans.

The Next Four Days

Over the next four days we will be summarizing each day’s events at Marburg. Our hope for the series is that it will give our readers a better understanding of both how the debate happened (poorly, for the most part) and how the personalities of different leaders influence events in church history. It can be easy, once an historical figure has been dead for a suitably long time, for great figures of the past to develop a kind of halo-and-stained-glass reputation amongst Christians. We lose a sense of the leader’s personality, strengths, weaknesses, and so on because they exist chiefly as a kind of personalized projection of our ideals suspended in mid-air.

But this is not how church history actually works, of course. The leaders of the past, like our leaders today, are sinful human beings with great talents and great flaws. By the end of this series, we hope that readers will have a better sense of who the reformers actually were and what the movement that became the Reformation looked like in its infancy.