web space | website hosting | Business WebSite Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting

Martin Jackson

Church History: Reformation History

Prof. A.L. Hardstad

Tuesday, May 06, 1997


Luther and Zwingli on The Real Presence


Here we are again, once more discussing the great issue that divided Protestantism.  Was it really an overblown personality feud between Zwingli and Luther?  Or was it something more.  Of course, a historian’s place in the confessional spectrum will largely determine his outlook on this matter.

There is no end of material to read on this point.[1]  Luther himself wrote quite a bit on the subject, and a fair portion of what is available to us in Zwingli’s work deals with it, too.  Of course, in some respects, Zwingli is treated as a speed bump for Luther:  unpleasant  to drive over, but necessary.  Good Calvinists today do not want to associate their doctrine of the Lord’s Supper with Zwingli, either, since Calvin at least held that something happened in the Supper, just that no one was quite sure what that was.

As such, it is valuable to re-examine this controversy from time to time, precisely because it was so traumatic.  What was it about both sides that made them so intransigent?  Why could neither side budge an inch?

Martin Luther addressed this question thoroughly and decisively at various points in his life.  His most important treatises on the subject, The Sacrament - Against the Fanatics (1526), This is My Body (1527), the Confession Concerning Christ's Supper (1528), and the Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament (1544), form the backbone of my research.[2]  Also helpful was the second part of Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525). 

Of course, as Lutherans it is easy to condemn the Reformed without really trying to understand what they are saying.  Of course I am not advocating tolerance of the Reformed, but occasionally I wonder if we do not become careless and actually become guilty of some of the caricatures they have accused us of through the years.  It is only after careful reading and honest reflection that we are justified in naming them as heretics.

Lutheran preliminaries on the Real Presence

The most important issue in the Real Presence debate is how we derive it.  In a sense, "derive" is an improper term, as it suggests that Luther may have "derived" the Real Presence from some other doctrine, such as the ubiquity of Christ according to his human nature.  Luther points out that  the Reformed derive their doubt of the Real Presence in part from their doctrine of the Christ's ascension to the right hand of God (TMB 37:144).  Luther did not hang our confidence in Christ's presence in the Supper on the doctrine of the Communication of Attributes, but on Christ's words in the words of institution (verba) and Paul's inspired commentary on them (1 Cor. 10:16, 11:26ff).

In short, Luther took Christ at his word.  When he says "This is my body," we teach that he meant that his body was present with the bread, truly and substantially.  Luther's arguments always centered around these words of Christ.  Luther's famous scrawling of the Latin words hoc est corpus meum on the table at the Marburg Colloquy are entirely consistent with his writings published before (and after) that colloquy.  As Luther says in "The Sacrament - Against the Fanatics:"

These are the words on which we take our stand.  They are so simple and clearly stated that even they, our adversaries, must confess that it is difficult for them to interpret them otherwise (AF 36:335-6).

Luther's argument depends on the simplicity and clarity of the words themselves.  Even the enthusiasts acknowledge that Luther's understanding of the words is the literal one: 

They acknowledge and must acknowledge that our interpretation takes the words naturally, just as they read, and that if the literal sense of the words is followed,  our understanding is correct without a doubt (CCS 37:304).

The natural meaning, whether all of the accounts are taken together or separately, is that Christ's body and blood are truly present, together with the elements of bread and wine.  If we maintain the literal meaning of all of the words, we can come to no other conclusion.  Furthermore, we cannot simply dismiss them if reason does not approve, for what then would be left of the Bible?  How could presume to teach the Holy Spirit and Christ himself what they meant to say?  Nor are the accounts of the Words of Institution the only Scripture passages that speak of the Real Presence. 

We also have Paul's inspired commentary on the words and practices in 1 Corinthians 10:16ff and 11:26ff.  "Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilt of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27).  As Luther points out, he will not be guilty of sinning against the sign of the body and blood of the Lord, but the Christ himself, all at once.  Besides, the passage would be meaningless if the body and blood were not present (CCS 37:341-346).

We must also maintain that not only the godly, but also hypocrites receive the body and blood of Christ as offered in the Supper.  This we maintain particularly on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11:27, which is affirmed by the confessors: 

We believe, teach, and confess that not only the true believers [in Christ] and the worthy, but also the unworthy and unbelievers, receive the true body and blood of Christ; however, not for life and consolation, but for judgment and condemnation, if they are not converted and do not repent, 1 Cor. 11, 27. 29 (FC Ep VII.7)

The most exhaustive treatment of the subject in the Confessions, (as may be expected), is to be found in the Formula of Concord, article VII. The Thorough Declaration article quotes Luther's writings frequently and extensively, especially his Great Confession of 1528.

Luther's statement in the Small Catechism is probably the best brief summary of the correct doctrine.  His statements in the Large Catechism (also quoted in FC SD VII.21-22) cut to the heart of the issue, and set the tone for the whole orthodox Lutheran discussion on the matter. 

It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and drink, instituted by Christ himself (SC VI.2).


It is the Word, I say, which makes and distinguishes this Sacrament, so that it is not mere bread and wine, but is, and is called, the body and blood of Christ...With this Word [This is my body etc.] you can strengthen your conscience and say:  If a hundred thousand devils, together with all fanatics, should rush forward, crying,  How can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ?  I know that all spirits and scholars together are not as wise as is the Divine Majesty in His little finger.  Now, here stands the Word of Christ:  "Take, eat; this is My body.  Drink ye all of this; this is the new testament in My blood," etc.  Here we abide, and would like to see those who will constitute themselves His masters, and make it different from what He has spoken.  It is true, indeed, that if you take away the Word, or regard it without the Word, you have nothing but mere bread and wine.  But if the words remain with them, as they shall and must, then, in virtue of the same, it is truly the body and blood of Christ.  For as the lips of Christ say and speak, so it is, as He can never lie or deceive (LC V.10, 12-14).

Zwingli and the Real Presence, especially at Marburg

In reading the accounts of Zwingli’s side of the sacramental debate, we see that he is every bit as earnest as Luther; every bit as convinced that his position is what the Bible teaches (see Gäbler, for instance, 133ff; agreement with Erasmus was also a factor).  Zwingli’s “On the Lord’s Supper” (also known as the Amica Exegesis of 1526) shows a genuine concern with teaching in accord with Scripture and the Fathers, and a rather genuine horror at what Luther was teaching, which he saw as the reintroduction of the papacy, sacrifice of the Mass, etc.  The question of what it was that really separated Zwingli from Luther has fascinated church historians for years.  Although part of it can be seen in their divergent schoolings, Luther in the school of Biel and the via moderna and Zwingli in the via antiqua of Thomas Aquinas, it is clear that neither followed their teachers slavishly:  Luther rejected Biel’s free will, and Zwingli rejected Aquinas’ transubstantiation (Rilliet 214).  Just to get an idea of how convoluted this whole matter is, scholars cannot agree on who was the aggressor in the great sacramental debate.[3]  It really matters little in the end, anyway (that it was Zwingli’s fault).

In my research, Zwingli turned out to be quite a bit more complicated than I thought he would be.  There were indeed profound differences between him and Luther. But there were profound similarities, too.  All of the major Zwingli sources (and especially Rilliet, 40ff) discuss his celibacy problems, which no doubt caused him enough Anfechtungen and to spare.  Zwingli was very well educated and very well connected; he had the good will of all of the local governments and a circle of Swiss humanists.  He was friends with Erasmus, and he certainly had more than passing familiarity with rhetoric and the other standard humanistic sciences of the time.  Zwingli was never a monk, and so would have not been accustomed to the physical rigors (mostly self-inflicted) of monasticism.  He never advanced beyond the Master’s level and so never lived the day-to-day academic life.[4]

And yet, I sense that casting for psychological reasons for the conflict does both Luther and Zwingli a disservice.  For their conflict was over something far more important to them than we probably regularly realize.  Both of them must have realized going in that this would be a high-stakes game.

Zwingli’s “unshakable rock” of Scripture proof is John 6:63.  He consistently insists that the Words of Institution must be read according to this rule.  In both of the primary sources available to me, the Marburg Colloquy as reconstructed by Sasse and “On the Lord’s Supper,” this expression seems to occur just as often as “this is my body” does in Luther.  Zwingli also accused Luther of petitio principii – begging the question with “this is my body” (Sasse 243).  The meaning of John 6 was discussed at great length in the published debates prior to the Colloquy: Zwingli and Oecolampadius agree that "flesh" in John 6:63, "The flesh avails nothing," referred to Christ's flesh, so as to say that Christ's flesh is not profitable for eating, so it is not necessary for it to be present in the sacrament.  So much did the Reformed think this supported their doctrine that Oecolampadius called this passage "My iron wall" (TMB 37:78).  Luther answered this by proving first of all that "flesh" when it is used in a sense opposite to Spirit can never refer to Christ.  Thus, this particular occurrence did not prove the absence of Christ's body.  At any rate, John 6 does not speak of the Lord's Supper, but of participation in Christ by believing in him (TMB 37:78-87).

With regard to the question of what is and is not a body, the force of Zwingli’s argument is that Scripture never says that Christ’s body is in more than one place at once.  Much of the argumentation at Marburg leaned in this direction, especially when Oecolampadius took up the debate (Sasse 249ff).  The discussion of what is or is not a body hinges upon it occupying space (for Zwingli at least, Sasse 255ff).  Since Luther rejected the adverb of space from consideration in the Supper, Zwingli tried to get him to admit that he was teaching nonsense (Sasse 257).  Luther had also discussed the “mathematical” questions of bodies in his earlier writings: Luther demonstrated thoroughly that Christ has modes of presence other than the ordinary human one, which is local and circumscribed.  First of all, one must realize that God is more closely united with humanity in the person of Christ than we can ever know, even though this is impossible for reason.  To separate Christ's human nature from his divine nature is to destroy him and his work (CCS 37:229).  Secondly, Scripture assigns different modes of presence to Christ that the ordinary, local, visible one, as for example in John 20 when he enters the locked room miraculously.  Who is to say that he does not have other modes of presence as well (CCS 37:223)?  Thirdly, God is present everywhere, not just in heaven, but also on earth.  His right hand is not a locally defined place, but a position of power and authority.  Thus, God's "right hand" is everywhere and nowhere, just as God is.  So it is not contradictory to say that Christ is "in heaven" (Jn 3:13, cf. note in UBS text) and on earth at the same time, and as a result it is not contradictory to say that we can and do receive his body in the sacrament for the forgiveness of our sins (CCS 37:217).[5]

One interesting aside is that both Luther and Zwingli regarded Helvidius as a heretic for teaching that Mary had children besides Jesus (Sasse 239).  This is remarkable in that 1) the Reformed later abandoned this exegesis 2) Modern American Lutherans, even in what we would call fairly conservative circles are quite content calling it a “Catholic myth,” though it is mentioned more than once in the Confessions, to which they claim to subscribe unconditionally (Sasse himself is uncomfortable accepting this as dogma, 242n).  At Marburg, Luther admitted the use of “brother” as a trope for “cousin” as a concession to Zwingli.

Another interesting side note is a viewpoint which I only found substantiated in Courvoisier (76ff)[6] – that the church, in communing, undergoes a transubstantiation (!) into the true body of Christ.

(Partial) Assessment of the happenings at Marburg

There are two chief reasons Luther wanted to maintain this doctrine against the fanatics.  These lines of argumentation are used throughout Luther's writings on the Sacrament.    The first main reason is that denying Christ's presence in the Supper detracts from his glory and the glory of God in general.  Let us examine each reason in turn.  The second is that if one allows Scripture to be ruled by reason, no doctrine is safe.

It is essential to Luther's reasoning on the subject that the Swiss doctrine of the Lord's Supper destroys Christ and his work.  Incidentally, I think this is one of the main reasons why Luther uses such forceful and indelicate terms with them - their doctrine rather directly destroys Christ.

This is the rancor and hatred of natural reason, which wants nothing to do with this article and therefore spits and vomits against it, then tries to wrap itself in Scripture so that it may avoid being recognized.  Not a single article of faith would remain if I followed the rancor of reason....I can say of God:  Of what use is it that he is man?  Why must one believe such a difficult thing?...With this rancor, however, my dear fanatics prepare the way for the virtual denial of Christ, God, and everything....For God's Word is always folly to natural reason, 1 Corinthians 1[18] (TMB 37:53).

But how does the Swiss doctrine destroy God and Christ?  Put simply, it limits God's power, and makes him subject to human reason.  The incarnation is much less comprehensible than Christ's presence in the Supper.  If reason rejects the presence in the Supper, why should it not reject the incarnation itself, along with all of Christ's work (CCS 37:230-231)?  Furthermore, if God is limited to means understandable to frail human reason to accomplish what he says he will accomplish, what kind of God is he?  In short, Christ becomes no Christ and God becomes no God.   

In responding to these questions, Luther uses a humorous example to show that the heart of the Reformed error is not taking Christ at his word, but allowing reason to interfere with Scripture. 

This certainly is an extraordinary situation!  It is just as if I denied that God had created the heavens and the earth, and asserted with Aristotle and Pliny and other heathen that the world existed from eternity, but someone came and held Moses under my nose, Genesis 1[:1], "In the beginning god created the heavens and the earth; I would try to make the text read:  "God" now should mean the same as "cuckoo," "created" the same as "ate," and "the heavens and the earth" the same as "the hedge sparrow, feathers and all."  The word of Moses thus would read according to Luther's text, "In the beginning the cuckoo ate the hedge sparrow, feathers and all," and could not possibly mean, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  What a marvelous art this would be -- one with which rascals are quite familiar!  Or, if I denied that the Son of God had become man, and someone confronted me with John 1[:14], "The Word became flesh," suppose I were to say:  Let "Word" mean "a gambrel" and "flesh" "a mallet," and thus the text would now read, "The gambrel became a mallet."  And if my conscience tried to reproach me, saying, "You take a good deal of liberty with your interpretation, Sir Martin, but--but--" etc., I would press until I became red in the face, and say, "Keep quiet, you traitor with your 'but,' I don't want the people to notice that I have such a bad conscience!"  Then I would boast and clap my hands, saying, "The Christians have no Scripture which proves that God's Word became flesh."  But I would also turn around, bowing low in humility, offer gladly to be instructed, if they would show me with the Scripture that  I have just finished twisting around.  Ah, what a rumpus I would stir up among Jews and Christians, in the New and Old Testaments, if such brazenness were allowed me!  (TMB 37:30-31)

This was clearly intended to make his readers chuckle, but there is a very serious point at stake here, which the examples illustrate very well.  That is:  if we are not bound to the words of Scripture as they are written, but rather we are free to reinterpret them as we like if they run contrary to our reason, then we have no Scripture at all.  Our entire hermeneutic must be based on the words as they read, in their plain and literal sense, even when; no, especially when those words are difficult or impossible for the human mind to comprehend.  God is God, and we must not try to force upon him the limitations which are peculiar to us as sinful mortals.


We teach the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ's body and blood in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine because that is what Scripture clearly teaches.  The words, "This is my body...this is my blood" can only mean that Christ's body and blood are present.  Those words are not dark or obscure, but clear, although they conflict mightily with human reason – something Reformed commentators and historians never quite seem to tire of pointing out.

It is essential to maintain this doctrine because to do otherwise would be to run contrary to what Scripture says.  One other reason (which Luther does not stress) why we must maintain this doctrine is that it would cease being a means of grace without the Real Presence, as it is Christ's body and blood which make the Lord's Supper distinct from the other means of grace (Pieper 3:293).  What else could Christ have meant when he said "Given and shed for you, for the remission of sins" (SC VI.8)?  How could we take the forgiveness of sins literally if we do not take the presence literally?  It is theoretically possible, I imagine, but no church body that I am aware of denies the Real Presence and still teaches that in the Supper God forgives our sins.

But Scripture is our authority, not human reason.  When human reason becomes the authority, Scripture becomes meaningless, since reason is able to do what it likes with clear passages.  Furthermore, error on this doctrine destroys the doctrine of Christ, saying that although he is God, he is not able to do certain things, and he can and must have only the modes of existence which human reason can understand.  Ultimately, denial of the Real Presence destroys the entire doctrine of God, since if he is limited, he cannot truly be omnipotent.

Luther defended this doctrine admirably.  Some have criticized him for his exceptionally harsh language[7] (he refers to his opponents as "devils," "fanatics," and other choice epithets more often than not).  But to view only Luther's polemicism in these works is to do him a great disservice.  In all of these writings, Luther is able to expound the most profound teachings in a down-to-earth, accessible way.  His illustrations are occasionally ridiculous, but these are what make them so easy to remember.  More importantly, they serve his purpose, and enable anyone to read his writings and understand what he meant.  This is a point which is easy to lose sight of, since one of the most frequently heard modern cop-outs on the issue of the Real Presence is "I'll leave it to the scholars to decide."  Luther shows by example that this does not need to be an issue for just the scholars, but all concerned Christians, even though the controversy involves some of the most difficult theological concepts, such as the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Furthermore, Luther was a great example for his scholarship.  The most important aspect of this, of course, is his use of Scripture.  He always backed his assertions with clear Scriptural passages and sound exegesis based on the original text, in both Greek and Hebrew.  He took pains to quote the Church Fathers in order to prove that his interpretation was not the new one.  He proved that he was familiar with broad-spectrum secular scholarship with his quotes from Horace and references to Greek mythology and the Song of Roland.  In setting forth the Scriptural doctrines of Christ and the Supper, Luther provided us with an excellent example of how to let the Word defend itself.

I get the impression that Zwingli never really understood what Luther was getting at or why it was so important to him, as evidenced by his perpetual assertion that Luther was begging the question, reinstituting the papacy, or some such thing.  The thrust of his argumentation with regard to Christ’s presence in general seems to miss the Lutheran point that God is not bound to human limitations when it comes to the Person and Work of Christ, that Christ’s human nature also knows of various modes of presence not necessarily in accord with our experience.  In my reading of Reformed sources (both for this paper and others, in which this question occasionally comes up), it seems that they have a hard time in general understanding what we mean when we speak of the means of grace.  To them, anything which is inseparably bound to a ritual has the scent of papacy about it – God must retain his freedom to act or not, be present or not, even in the means He has appointed for that purpose.  Naturally we do not bind God – but God has bound us to the means of grace.  This is not quite as much of a mystery to me now that I know more about Zwingli and Luther, and I am grateful for the chance to have studied the issue again.



Concordia Triglotta.  St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House 1921.


Courvoisier, Jacques.  Zwingli, A Reformed Theologian.  Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press 1963.


Gäbler, Ulrich.  Ruth C.L. Gritsch, tr.  Huldrych Zwingli:  His Life and Work.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press 1986.


Luther, Martin.  Helmut T. Lehmann, gen ed.  Conrad Bergendoff, tr.  "Against the Heavenly Prophets, Part II."  Luther's Works:  American Edition, volume 40.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press 1958.


Luther, Martin.  Helmut T. Lehmann, gen ed.  Frederick C. Ahrens, tr.  "The Sacrament - Against the Fanatics"  Luther's Works:  American Edition, volume 36.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press 1959.


Luther, Martin.  Helmut T. Lehmann, gen ed.  Robert H. Fischer, tr.  "That These Words of Christ, 'This is My Body,' etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics." Luther's Works:  American Edition, volume 37.  Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press 1961.


Luther, Martin.  Helmut T. Lehmann, gen ed.  Robert H. Fischer, tr.  "Confession Concerning Christ's Supper." Luther's Works:  American Edition, volume 37.  Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press 1961.


Luther, Martin.  Helmut T. Lehmann, gen ed.  Martin E. Lehmann, tr.  "Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament." Luther's Works:  American Edition, volume 38.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press 1971.


Pieper, Francis.  Christian Dogmatics.  3 vols.  St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House 1953.


Rilliet, Jean.  Harold Knight, tr.  Zwingli:  Third Man of the Reformation.  Philadelphia:  The Westminister Press 1959.


Sasse, Hermann.  This is My Body.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg Publishing House 1959.


Zwingli, Ulrich (a.k.a. Huldrych, Huldreich).  “On the Lord’s Supper.”  Tr. And ed. G.W. Bromiley.  Zwingli and Bullinger.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press 1953.



[1]As a matter of fact, I did a similar paper my junior year here.  Much of the Luther research from that paper has been used here.

[2]I will abbreviate these as follows in the body of my paper: 

Against the Heavenly Prophets (AHP)

Against the Fanatics (AF)

This is My Body (TMB)

Confession Concerning Christ's Supper (CCS)

Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament (BC)

The abbreviation will be followed by The Luther's Works: American Edition volume and page number for the reader's convenience.

[3] Sasse expresses some surprise that some blame Luther when the evidence is that he was trying to avoid conflict in the matter (139); Rilliet is quite content blaming Luther (215).

[4] This is particularly well documented in the early chapters of Gäbler and Rilliet.

[5] It is worth noting that Luther considered the question of body and space the best argument of Zwingli (Sasse 261n).

[6] This statement has to be qualified to the gills, so to speak.  Precious little primary source is available on Zwingli, even on a really good day; this particular question did not come up at Marburg (for whatever reason).  I am not disputing Courvoisier’s claim, since it rests almost entirely on direct quotes – it would have to, considering Zwingli’s reputation as sacramentatrian and icoloclast – however, even the Reformed (according to Courvoisier) have not developed this, (faiiling) to start with Calvin.

[7]Including Robert Fischer, translator of volume 37 of Luther's Works (37:xvii).  In fairness to Fischer, he says that Luther was as harsh as he was because he understood the very essence of the Gospel to be at stake, but I still get the impression Fischer would hav preferred Luther to have been "nicer" to Zwingli.