Martin Luther understood Jesus’ words literally. When Jesus said: “This is my body,”1 Luther believed it meant that the bodily presence of Christ was there alongside the elements. Zwingli, on the other hand, saw those words figuratively. The physical body of Christ could not be everywhere at the same time, therefore he could not be physically present at the table.2 He understood Jesus’ words to mean: “This signifies my body.” As a result of this disagreement, Luther and Zwingli failed to unite the Reformation.
Luther and Calvin: An Analysis of their views of Jesus’ words of institution
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, the truthful, all-wise, and almighty God-man, has instituted this Sacrament.”3 Luther writes concerning the institution:
We must turn our eyes and hearts simply to the institution of Christ and this alone, and set nothing before us but the very word of Christ and this alone, and set nothing before us but the very word of Christ by which he instituted the sacrament, made it perfect, and committed it to us. For in that word and that word alone, reside the power, the nature, and the whole substance of the mass.4
For Luther, Jesus’ powerful words are the heart of the Sacrament of the Altar.5 Luther writes:
In these words nothing is omitted that pertains to the completeness, the use, and the blessing of this sacrament; and nothing is included that is superfluous and not necessary for us to know. Whoever sets aside these words and meditates or teaches concerning the mass will teach monstrous and wicked doctrines, as they have done who have made of the sacrament an opus operatum and a sacrifice. 6
Here Luther is reacting to the pomp of the Roman doctrine of the mass. He is convinced that unless people turn their eyes away from the ornaments, candles, and chants there can be no true Eucharist. 7
- It is significant to note that among the many issues brought for discussion, Luther and Zwingli agreed on almost all. It was only on the interpretation of “is” in Jesus’ words that they came to severe disagreement.
In the Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic tradition there is no disagreement as to the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. The difference is how is Christ’s body present in the sacrament. Zwingli on the other hand denied that Christ could be present in any way. [↩ back]
- In the Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic tradition there is no disagreement as to the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. The difference is how is Christ’s body present in the sacrament. Zwingli on the other hand denied that Christ could be present in any way. [↩ back]
- Luther, Martin. Luther’s Small Catechism, , St. Louis, Missouri, Concordia Publishing House, 1943, Answer 297. [↩ back]
- Luther, Martin. Basic Theological Writings. Ed. Timothy F. Lull, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1989, pg. 292. [↩ back]
- “Sacrament of the Altar” is synonymous with the Lord’s Supper, Lord’s Table, and Holy Communion. See Shorter Catechism Questions 296 [↩ back]
- Luther, Martin. Basic Theological Writings. Ed. Timothy F. Lull, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1989, pg. 293. By “opus operatum” Luther refers to a work that is accomplished or finished, which is supposed to impart grace simply by virtue of its having been properly performed, without reference to any faith or lack of faith on the part of the person for whom it is performed. [↩ back]
- Luther refers to all outward things that would take away attention from the Sacrament. [↩ back]