Martin Luther, 3: On The Body of Jesus in The Eucharist (Against Zwingli, Karlstadt, & Oecolampadius, 1526)

This is the seventeenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”; here we continue (following follow-up posts fifteen and sixteen) 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 1526 sermon “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ — Against the Fanatics”, Luther set out to write against those Swiss reformers —Zwingli, Karlstadt, and Oecolampadius, it seems— who maintained

that Christ’s body and blood are not present in the bread and wine [in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition ed. William R. Russell & Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 224]

Luther claims that “we take our stand” [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 224] on the words of Christ:

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Drink of it, all of you, this is my blood, which is poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Luther claims these words are “clear”. Others, however, had been arguing that Luther & his followers were worshiping a “baked God” [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 225] because Luther maintained that the body & blood were present in the bread & wine; these others were “under the delusion that Christ’s flesh and blood are not present” [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 225] in the bread & wine.  This error results

because in the first place they have not adhered to the words [of scripture], and then because they have followed their own thoughts […] [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 225]

whereas the proper method to derive

the right faith from the words will believe like this: Whether Christ enters into the bread or the cup or into whatever he will, God grant that as long as I have the words, I will not seek or speculate any further; what he says, I will keep. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 225]

The words of Christ “are quite clear and explicit: take bread, give thanks, break, give, bid them eat and drink, this is my body, this is my blood.” [ibid.] The “fanatics”, however, feel that they need to interpret them. “We”, however,

know what Christ’s body is, namely, that which was born of Mary, suffered, died, and rose again. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 226]

One objection of “the fanatics” to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is that “it is not fitting that Christ’s body and blood should be in the bread and wine”. Luther replies that

it is not reasonable that God should descend from heaven and enter into the womb; that he who nourishes, sustains, and encompasses all the world should allow himself to be nourished and encompassed by the Virgin. […] and I might conclude from this that God did not become man […].” [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 226]

Now, as an aside, there does seem to be a spatial notion of God’s dwelling here in Luther’s speech. Luther, or his followers, can object that he is simply using biblical language, but the question of what to make of this language, and the traditions that are built around a strong use of it, remains open.

The “fanatics” object to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist because that would seem to multiply Christ’s body or rip it apart:

they regard it as tremendous miracles that the single body of Christ is in a hundred thousand places, wherever bread is broken, and that the massive limbs should there be so concealed that no one sees or feels them. But they do not see that these are vain and useless thoughts. If one wished to apply this kind of measurement, one would be forced to allow no creature to exist. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 226]

Luther, however, then launches into a fascinating description of the relation between the many offerings of the Eucharist and the one body of Christ by analogy with the life of creatures. In the background is the older metaphysical problem of the relation between the one and the many. How can something be one when it is made up of many parts, or engages in multiple activities? What is the one in the many that gives the many unity? Luther notes that we can engage in multiple sensory activities while we talk and eat and digest, &c. He notes that “one eye can focus upon a thousand kernels [of wheat], and […] a thousand eyes can focus on one kernel”, so that the problem of multiplicity and unity is not so simple as a naive view of bodily unity in space may suggest — one activity can be distributed across space, and multiple discrete acts across space can be coordinated within one event. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 226] The voice is local, but it can “rule a whole country”. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 227]

Now, if my voice can accomplish this so that it fills all ears, with each one receiving as much of it as the other, and my word is distributed so widely, should not Christ be able to do so all the more with his body? How much easier it is with a glorified body than with a bodily voice? [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 227]

Luther explicitly rejects the notion that the risen and exalted Christ is restricted to a location in space because of his humanity, because of his body. He does this by noting that Christ, who is formed and dwells in the hearts of those who hear the gospel with faith, is not circumscribed in those hearts:

what have you in your heart? You must answer that you have the true Christ, not that he sits in there, as one sits on a chair, but as he is at the right hand of the Father. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 227]

(In part, this seems to be addressing the kind of interiorization of spirit that we saw last week in Zwingli.) The one voice of the preacher gives birth to the whole Christ in many hearts, without dividing Christ,

one heart receives no less, and a thousand hearts no more, than the one Christ. […] Why then should it not be reasonable that he also distributes himself in the bread? [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 227]


[j]ust as little as you are able to say how it comes about that Christ is in so many thousands of hearts and dwells in them [228] —Christ as he died and rose again— and yet no man knows how he gets in, so also here in the sacrament, it is incomprehensible how this comes about. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 227-228]

Luther is here clearly trying to “complicate” (as they say) the Zwinglian relationship between the interiority of spirit and the exteriority of flesh and matter. He does not end his reflection on this note, however. He draws an analogy between the words of institution pronounced over the bread and wine, making them Christ’s body and blood by Christ’s power, with the word of promise declared by the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary, making the Word dwell not only in her heart but in her womb, for “the power comes through the Word”. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 228]

For as soon as Christ says: “This is my body,” his body is present through the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. If the Word is not there, it is mere bread; but as soon as the words are added they bring with them that of which they speak. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 228]

There is a semiotics of divine presencing through signs in Luther, but I am not competent to say much about it. (If memory serves, I have written a little bit about it elsewhere in another context.) I will say that, for Luther, Christ, who is everywhere present, does not wish to be present to us identically through all things, but clothes himself in certain signs.

It is not the words which we speak that draw him down [from heaven]. They have been given to us rather to assure us, that we may know we shall certainly find him.

Although he is present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water, or even in a rope, for he certainly is there, yet he does not wish that I seek him there apart from the Word, and cast myself into the fire or the water, or hang myself on the rope. He is present everywhere, but he does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there [229] you will lay hold of him in the right way. Otherwise you are tempting God and committing idolatry. For this reason he has set down for us a definite way to show us how and where to find him, namely the Word. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 228-229]

We saw earlier, in follow-up post fifteen, Luther assert that the humanity and divinity of Christ appear together inseparably. Luther does not deny this here, even about the body and blood, which are in other places than in the Eucharist (though we are not to seek them in other places, for they are not given to us in other places). Thus, Luther can write:

in believing hearts he is completely present with his body and blood. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 231]

Luther goes on: Christ “wishes to make us certain as to where and how we are to lay hold of him.” [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 231] The question, “where is God?” is met with the answer of something like ‘everywhere, but you are only to find him in the place where he gives himself, in the divine word’; because this word includes commands regarding the Eucharistic words of institution, and the statement that the bread and wine are the body and blood, then Christ must be met there in faith, for he is truly there. “He has put himself into the Word, and through the Word he puts himself into the bread also.” [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 229]

From this, one thing seems clear: Any questions regarding the ‘where-abouts’ of Jesus that suggest that Jesus is above the firmament are, Luther plainly thinks, mistaken. The ascension would seem to be semiotic in nature, rather than empirical.

Yet how would Luther argue that this sign is to operate if the sign has, as its tacit background, a false cosmology? 


Header image found here, but also see here.

2 thoughts on “Martin Luther, 3: On The Body of Jesus in The Eucharist (Against Zwingli, Karlstadt, & Oecolampadius, 1526)

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

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

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