This is My Body: A Reformational Comparison of Calvin and Luther’s Sacramentology, Part I

eucharist.jpgNote: This is meant to be an introductory study on Calvin and Luther’s understanding of the phrase: This is my body. This study will serve to provide a background for current controversies regarding the blatant denial of a robust Eucharistic faith in our modern Protestant Churches. The footnotes will be very helpful throughout these readings. ((This is intended to be a six part series. Each reading will take 3-5 minutes.))

The Reformation marked a return to the Scriptures in the area of the sacraments. This derived from a high view of Biblical authority. Throughout the Reformation, there was a conscious determination to bring all things under the authority of Scripture. Both Luther and Calvin believed that only the Scriptures would bring about true change. Though their adherence to Holy Writ led them to different interpretations on significant issues, yet their commitment to the authority of the Bible led to an unprecedented change in the European religious structure. It is with this zeal for the Word of God that Luther and Calvin approach the Lord’s words of institution. However, when great minds gather, great divisions occur. ((This is evidently true for Luther and Zwingli.))
The sixteenth century was a time during which the moral collapse of the Roman Church stirred the Reformation, and other movements as well, to pursue a renewed church. ((The Magisterial Reformers did not initially want a departure from Rome, but a reformation of her wide corruption.)) Indeed, John Frame’s statement reflects the Reformation’s zeal: “We must first be assured that Jesus Christ established on earth one church.” ((Frame, John. Evangelical Reunion, Volume 3, Number 23, June 4, 2001,, Reformed Perspectives Magazine, chapter 1. Professor Frame is criticizing “denominationalism.” In personal correspondence I asked Professor Frame if “denominationalism” is a necessary evil? His response: “That depends on the source of the necessity. In the early days of the church, the evil was unnecessary. The problem of division might have been prevented and would have been if the people had followed Scripture. Of course today the prospect of complete reunion is so dim that I can understand your saying that for practical purposes at least denominations must be treated as necessary.”)) The Reformation was not interested in starting a new church since Christ had already instituted His one apostolic church. Initially, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others were simply concerned, with the restoration of Rome and the purification of its doctrinal errors. ((This is fundamental to acknowledge at the outset, lest some believe that the Reformers were anti-institutional.)) Of course, as the years went by they became aware that Rome was not about to change. It appears that the people too wanted change, so when Luther found that Rome did not seek a return to the authority of Scriptures, the Reformation became a separate entity; a viable alternative to the Roman Church. ((The Reformers continued to dialogue with Rome as the Colloquy of Resenberg (1541) indicates, but not as pervasively as they did in the beginning.))

At that point, they began to dispute differences among themselves. This diversion ultimately led to division between the early Reformers. ((It must be noted that though there were differences (as in the sacraments) there was also a great level of mutual respect among the leaders of the 1st and 2nd generation Reformers. Calvin, for example, who was much younger than Luther, spoke very highly of Luther in many occasions.)) Luther’s disciples began to concentrate on Luther’s distinctives and Calvin’s disciples on his. Among the many distinctions in the developing Reformation none caused greater division than the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, Jesus’ phrase of institution: “This is my body” ((Matthew 26:26 also I Corinthians 11:24. Some manuscripts read: “This Is my body broken for you.” This paper will center its attention primarily on Matthew’s account as opposed to Paul’s. Quotation is taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.)) was the most disputed of the Reformation period. There were various understandings of this language among the Reformers. The irreconcilable differences among them led to the eventual fragmentation of the Reformation. The last chance of a united Reformation died on October 1st, 1529. That day brought Luther and Zwingli together in Marburg ((For a helpful summary see: Stephen J. Nichols: Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of his Life and Thought, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002, pgs. 117-120.)) to discuss their differences and try to come to an agreement. If this had happened the Reformation would have been a more effective movement. ((I continually make this point clear because if the Reformers were to attack Rome’s serious errors together and united, their influence could’ve had far reaching power. Today Europe is a graveyard. The majority of Europeans are not even aware what the Reformation was. However, in God’s great providence the Reformation went beyond Europe.))

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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