Martin Luther, 2: On The Body of Jesus in The Eucharist (Salkeld’s Summary of Luther Against Zwingli)

This is the sixteenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”; here we continue (following follow-up post fifteen) to look at the OG Protestant, Martin Luther.

The previous posts were not organized well before, so I ordered them; further, they were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.  

In his book Transubstantiation, in the introduction to his chapter on Martin Luther, Brett Salkeld writes that, before 1524,

Luther was concerned […] with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist and the “three captivities” he discerned therein—namely, withholding the cup from the laity, transubstantiation, and the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice.

Salkeld notes that Luther saw transubstantiation as aiming at a valuable spiritual truth about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and that Luther objected principally to the importing of pagan philosophical language regarding the elements. For the first and third captivities, Luther had stronger words. Nonetheless, “[t]his front” of arguing about transubstantiation as the second captivity “was almost completely abandoned” in the wake of Luther’s arguments with the Swiss Reformers, particularly those whose guide and flag were Ulrich Zwingli.

 As far as Luther was able to discern, Zwingli and his followers completely denied the doctrine of real presence, making the Lord’s Supper into a mere memorial of Christ’s atoning death while leaving Christ himself as far from the worshipers as heaven is from earth. This Luther could not countenance, and the full force of his theological (and rhetorical!) acumen was redirected away from Rome and directly at Zurich. [Brett Salkeld, Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019)]

As an example of the Swiss teachings on the Eucharist, Salkeld goes on to quote Johannes Oecolampadius (“one of Zwingli’s chief collaborators”), who claimed:

That the symbolic bread is the flesh of Christ is so abhorrent to the mind of all believers that no one of us has ever truly believed it. . . . This idea of mangling the flesh the mind so rejects that one would not dare to chew but would spit it out of one’s mouth. [Salkeld, Transubstantiation]

The notion of Jesus present in the Eucharist could only mean, for Zwingli and those thinking simply along his lines, that one who received the bread and wine as body and blood were committing cannibalism. Thus, the bread and wine must be distinguished from the real body and blood of Jesus, which must be elsewhere. (It is worth noting that Zwingli did affirm that the Church was really the body of Christ, but did not apply this realism to the Eucharist, whereas Luther thought that Christ’s presence in the community was guaranteed by his presence in the Eucharist.) Zwingli took the lead of another scholar Cornelius Hoen, who understood the word “is” in “this is my body” to mean “signified”, similar to the metaphorical statements “I am the door”, &c. The sign here does not carry what it signifies, but stands at a remove. Salkeld notes that “[f]or Zwingli, the eucharistic symbols could not convey Christ really present, but could only representatively point to Christ absent.” So far, it seems that Zwingli thought that Jesus was absent, and, effectively, above the dome of the sky (or something equivalent — I’m not presently sure how Zwingli received the Copernican revolution).

There was a Johannine phrase, “the spirit gives life, but the flesh does not profit anything.” (John 6:63) In part, Zwingli seems to have used this distinction between flesh and spirit to justify saying that the Eucharist is merely a sign pointing to something spiritual. “God is spirit, and those who worship him worship in S/spirit and in truth”, goes the Johannine phrase in John 4:24. This meant, for Zwingli, that external things (vi&., “flesh”) were worthless, and that internal things (vi&., “spirit”) were what mattered for the pious Christian. While the Greek of the New Testament makes a distinction between “flesh” (σάρξ) and “body” (σῶμα), Zwingli does not seem to have done this — everything that is material is both “body” and “flesh”. “Spirit” is different, for Zwingli. It seems that he thought of it as fundamentally internal, as the life of the interior mind. Zwingli is cited —though without proper reference at all— by figures like John Piper and others as saying that, during their reception of the Eucharist,

everything done by Christ becomes as it were present to [pious Christians] in their believing minds

a very modern idea about meaning!

For Luther, by contrast, the distinction between flesh and spirit was not that of dense matter on the one hand, and a buffered self (to use Charles Taylor’s phrase) that might hold a meaning in mind when receiving the Eucharist on the other. For Luther, everything was flesh — whether a meaning in the mind, or something immaterial like a form, or the corpuscular nature of an organism; at least, all was flesh that was under the dominion of sin and death. As I understand it, other material things were not “flesh” — like the flesh of Jesus and like the Eucharist, which are not under the dominion of sin and death, and so are spirit, or spiritual bodies.

Although this ostensibly begins as a fundamental question about the value of material things for salvation, this has implications for how the two men understood the nature of the body of the ascended Jesus — and how they understood Christology. If the magazine Christian History is to be believed, Zwingli saw the two natures of Christ as distinct — whereas Luther saw (as we saw in the previous post) the “communication of properties” between divinity and humanity in Jesus to mean that Jesus’ human body was ubiquitous as God himself. Zwingli was consistent with Antiochene Christology, Luther with Alexandrian. Zwingli saw the humanity of Jesus as bounded, finite, confined to one location, lest it cease to be human, and not make intercession for us as a human. New World Encyclopedia reaffirms this, and states that Zwingli understood Jesus literally to be in a place, that is, “the right hand of the Father”. Jesus could be present spiritually on Earth in the Church, but he was truly physically present in heaven — which I can only imagine meant beyond either the firmament or the sphere of the stars or something. While Luther understood the words of institution literally and the ascension metaphorically, Zwingli understood the ascension literally, and the words of institution metaphorically. Salkeld notes that they only agreed that both could not be literally true. Luther scolds Zwingli regarding the value of a physical body of Jesus in heaven, given Zwingli’s position on the valuelessness of material things for spiritual worship:

If the flesh of Christ is not spirit, and therefore is of no avail since only the Spirit is profitable, how can it be profitable when it was given for us? How can it be useful if it is in heaven and we believe in it? If the reasoning is correct and adequate, that because Christ’s flesh is not spirit it must be of no avail, then it can be of no avail on the cross or in heaven either! For it is quite as far from being spirit on the cross and in heaven as in the Supper. But since no spirit was crucified for us, therefore Christ’s flesh was crucified for us to no avail. And since no spirit, but Christ’s flesh ascended into heaven, we believe in an unprofitable flesh in heaven. For wherever Christ’s flesh may be, it is no spirit. If it is no spirit, it is of no avail and does not give life, as Zwingli here concludes. [Salkeld, Transubstantiation]

To be fair, Zwingli thought that there was value in Christ’s flesh, but value insofar as Christ suffered in the flesh for the salvation of the world — not insofar as that flesh is eaten. Salkeld also suggests that Luther “believed that the Swiss completely rejected any sense of Christ’s presence beyond what they could conjure in their own minds”, which makes “the Supper […] just one more human work”. We saw that, against this, Luther taught that the ubiquitous Christ was present in the Eucharist. The statement by Oecolampadius with which we began this post is that basic attitude towards the Eucharist which seems to have concerned Luther in his subsequent sermons on this topic (Luther, of course, disagreeing with Oecolampadius).

In the course of addressing this topic of Christ’s presence in (or absence from) the Eucharist, questions of where the body of Jesus may be were addressed. As we saw in follow-up post fifteen, Luther thought that Jesus’ body had no circumscribed place, because it was joined with divinity. Zwingli thought that Jesus’ body was missing, had been withdrawn from the world. Salkeld cites Zwingli as writing that

the ascension means that the humanity of Christ is no longer accessible to me in my space and time […].

Luther thought that “the ascension to God’s right hand did not remove Christ from creation, but joined him to the power that is omnipresent in creation”, or, in Luther’s own words,

Christ does not go away. He remains in our space and time. What changes in the ascension is not the fact of Christ’s presence but solely the mode of that presence. [Salkeld, Transubstantiation]


Header image found here, but also see here.

3 thoughts on “Martin Luther, 2: On The Body of Jesus in The Eucharist (Salkeld’s Summary of Luther Against Zwingli)

  1. Pingback: Martin Luther, 3: On The Body of Jesus in The Eucharist (Against Zwingli, Karlstadt, & Oecolampadius) | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Martin Luther, 4: On the Eucharist “Against the Fanatics” (1527) | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Martin Luther, 5: On The Ascension of Jesus & The Location of Jesus’ Body | Into the Clarities

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