Martin Luther, 4: On the Eucharist “Against the Fanatics” (1527)

This is the eighteenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”; here we continue (following follow-up posts fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen) 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.  

Following his 1526 sermon, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ — Against the Fanatics”, Luther did not lose sight of his concerns that the bread and wine of the Eucharist be considered truly the body and blood of Christ in a substantial sense, or that the body and blood of the ascended Christ could be present in the bread and wine. He maintained this position against those (Thomas Müntzer, von Karlstadt, Zwingli, the growing number of Anabaptist groups, &c.) who thought that the body of the ascended Jesus was in a particular point in space above the firmament, making the evangelical words of institution “this is my body” and “this is my blood” impossible to take literally, for bodies have location.

Thus, Luther preached another sermon, in 1527, titled “That These Words of Christ, “This is my Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics”; the text can be found in Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 37: Word and Sacrament III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, & Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 37 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 54–70. There, Luther’s point is much as before. He argues that

it is contrary neither to Scripture nor to the articles of faith for Christ’s body to be at the same time in heaven and in the Supper. […] the words, “This is my body,” should be allowed to stand and remain just as they read. That I should show visibly with eyes and finger that Christ’s body is at the same time in heaven and at table, as the fanatics ask of us, of course I cannot do. He who is unwilling to believe the words of God need not demand anything further from me. So I do enough if I prove that it is not contrary to God’s Word, but consistent with Scripture. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 55]

Luther’s argument is not primarily cosmological, or even theo-cosmological, but exegetical. The arguments of his interlocutors seem to derive from a particular theo-cosmological reading of certain biblical and creedal passages, together with a quote from Augustine I’ve not cited about how “Christ’s body is in one place, but his truth is everywhere”, or some such.

Some of the arguments of Luther’s opponents seem to have revolved around the article in the Nicene Creed, that Christ “sits at the right hand of the Father”. This creedal phrase apparently suggested, to many casual hearers of this teaching, a spatial location for Jesus’ body. Luther thinks that an immature and non-reflective picture thinking is behind the employment of this creedal phrase, however:

Now if we ask how they interpret God’s “right hand” where Christ sits, I suppose they will dream up for us, as one does for the children, an imaginary heaven in which a golden throne stands, and Christ sits beside the Father in a cowl and golden crown, the way artists paint it. For if they did not have such childish, fleshly ideas of the right hand of God, they surely would not allow the idea of Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper to vex them so […]. […] From these childish ideas it must follow further that they also bind God himself to one place in heaven, on the same golden throne […]. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 55]

Against this, Luther cites Colossians 2:9, where Jesus is said to be one “in whom the whole Godhead dwells bodily”, and John 14:9 ff., “the Father is in me and I am in the Father”. Luther’s image here, following this Johannine passage, is striking:

From this it follows still further that we and all creatures also sit on the same throne of God —perhaps as the lice and fleas in his cowl!— since Paul says, Acts 17[:28], “We are his offspring, and in him we live and move and have our being.” [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 56]

Luther clearly takes the scriptural images of the divine body and the divine throne not as figures that correspond to a super-firmamental topography, but as signs that signify something about a more abstract divinity both exceedingly beyond us and also close-at-hand to us:

The Scriptures teach us, however, that the right hand of God is not a specific place in which a body must or may be, such as on a golden throne, but is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere. It cannot be at any one place, I say. For if it were at some specific place, it would have to be there in a circumscribed and determinate manner, as everything which is at one place must be at that place determinately and measurably, so that it cannot meanwhile be at any other place. But the power of God cannot be so determined and measured, for it is uncircumscribed and immeasurable, beyond and above all that is or may be.

On the other hand, it must be essentially present at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf. The reason is this: It is God who creates, effects, and preserves all things through his almighty power and right hand, as our Creed confesses. For he dispatches no officials or angels when he creates or preserves something, but all this is the work of his divine power itself. If he is to create or preserve it, however, he must be present and must make and preserve his creation both in its innermost and outermost aspects.

Therefore, indeed, he himself must be present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through, below and above, before and behind, so that nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God himself with his power. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 57-58]

Divine simplicity is also affirmed, in a sense: the divine power “his power is one and simple and is not divided” [vol. 37, 59]. After several other quotes from the scriptures, Luther denies that God can be circumscribed, denies that God can be associated with any notion of a body or a bounded piece of heavenly furniture like a throne, no matter what size:

“Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.” He does not say, “A part of heaven is my throne, a part or spot of the earth is my footstool,” but, “Whatever and wherever heaven is, there is my throne, whether heaven is beneath, above, or beside the earth. And whatever and wherever earth is, whether at the bottom of the sea, in the grave of the dead, or at the middle of the earth, there is my footstool.” Come and tell me now, where are his head, arm, breast, body, if with his feet he fills the earth and with his legs he fills heaven? He reaches out ever so far over and beyond the world, above heaven and earth.

What can Isaiah intend with this saying but, as St. Hilary [of Poitiers] also says on this subject, that God in his essence is present everywhere, in and through the whole creation in all its parts and in all places, and so the world is full of God and he fills it all, yet he is not limited or circumscribed by it, but is at the same time beyond and above the whole creation? [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 58-59]

God does not displace bodies, although some bodies can displace, or be contained by, other bodies.

Body, of course, has still another relation with other bodies; they may fit together, as for example bread is a body, wine is a body, Christ’s flesh is a body. Here one body may be in another, as I can be in the open air, and in a garment or a house, as money can be in a purse, or wine in a cask or tankard. But here, where we are dealing not with body but spirit — indeed, who knows what this is that we call God? He is above body, above spirit, above everything man can say or hear or think […]. […] [S]hould not this same God also know some way whereby his body could be wholly and completely present in many places at the same time, and yet none of these places could be where he is? [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 60]

Since God is not a boundaried “thing” in the way that creatures are, questions about displacement or distance are inappropriate. Luther cites an objection to what he is preaching that is very, very telling about just how corporeally many people in early 16th-century Germany took the supra-firmamental body of God (and, perhaps, furniture of God) to be:

Yes, they say, of course we believe that God’s power is everywhere. But it is not necessary on that account for his divine nature or his right hand to be everywhere. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 60]

A locationally bounded divine nature! (This is similar to the kinds of arguments that certain fourth-century figures were making, or railing against.) Luther affirms divine simplicity, again, against this notion:

We know, however, that God’s power, arm, hand, nature, face, Spirit, wisdom, etc., are all one thing; for apart from the creation there is nothing but the one simple Deity himself. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 61]

Luther’s theology may be better, in the sense that it is more internally consistent and has both superior explanatory power and value for religious life and speculative thought, but it is not clear to me that it is more original, for the more crass beliefs and teachings of these early-16th-century German folk (whom Luther is chastising) may be closer to some of the earliest Christian teachings (assuming they were not wholly unified from the start) of a God who is somehow significantly dwelling above the firmament.

Luther returns to Colossians 2:9 and John 14:9, however, to throw a wrench into these beliefs of “the fanatics” along the implications he finds in some scriptural passages (not all of which I’ve listed):

It is our belief, of course, as the Scriptures teach us, that our Lord Jesus Christ is in essence and by nature true God […]. All right, Christ walks on earth, and the entire Godhead is in him in person and in essence on earth. Now tell me: How can it be true at one and the same time that God is entirely present, personally and essentially, in Christ on earth in his mother’s womb, yes, in the crib, in the temple, in the wilderness, in cities, in houses, in the garden, in the field, on the cross, in the grave, etc., yet nonetheless also in heaven in the Father’s bosom? [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 61]

It is not clear to me whether Luther is mocking the idea of heaven being above the firmament, or whether he accepts this idea, only to deny that it forms a boundary around God:

Moreover, when Christ, the Son of God, was to be conceived in his mother’s womb and become incarnate, he certainly had to be already present in essence and in person in the Virgin’s womb, and had to assume humanity there. For the Godhead is immutable in itself and cannot pass from one place to another as creatures do. Therefore he did not climb down from heaven as on a ladder or descend as by a rope, but was already in the Virgin’s womb in essence and in person, as he was also in all other places, everywhere, according to the nature and character and power of divinity. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 62]

Christ does not “climb down from heaven as on a ladder or descend as by a rope”, &c.; this cosmological location of “heaven” above the firmament seems to have no theological or religious value for Luther, so far as I can tell, given his read of the ubiquity of God and God’s presence-at-hand to creatures, particularly through the signs he has himself instituted. Thus, for Luther, “the right hand of God is everywhere” [62], undermining “the fanatics”.

This is how Luther takes home his affirmation that Christ’s body and blood are present in the bread and wine without denying this, as did “the fanatics”, who argued that Jesus’ body was above the firmament “at the right hand of God”, as though in a location. Luther replies to them:

Christ’s body is at the right hand of God; that is granted. The right hand of God, [64] however, is everywhere, as you must grant from our previous demonstration. Therefore it surely is present also in the bread and wine at table. Now where the right hand of God is, there Christ’s body and blood must be, for the right hand of God is not divisible into many parts but a single, simple entity. So too, the article of the Creed does not say that Christ is at one part, such as a little finger or fingernail of the right hand of God, but it says without qualification, “at the right hand of God,” that wherever and whatever God’s right hand is in reality and in name, there is Christ, the Son of man. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 63-64]

Luther denies that God’s presence, or the presence of a spiritual body, is limited the same way as our ordinary experience of bodies.

God has more ways by which to have one object in another than this crude mode which they [i.e., the fanatics] set forth, as wine is in a cask, bread in a box, or money in a pocket. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 65]

Luther doubles-down on divine ubiquity as removing the need for, say, Christ’s body to move from location to location, but that a divine manifestation in one place merely requires that the ubiquitous and unchanging God reveal himself:

But it is just as great a wonder that many bodies are in one place, as that one body is in many places. He who can bring about the one can bring about the other also. Now we have clear Scripture that Christ came to his disciples through the closed door, and out of his grave, even through the sealed stone. Whether he entered through the window or the door, his body and that through which his body passed must have been at one and the same time in one place, both intact and unchanged. The evangelist says not that they saw him enter, but, “He appeared or stood in their midst” [Luke 24:36], which sounds as if he had been there already, hidden, and now revealed himself, as he also did to Mary Magdalene at the grave [John 20:14], and with all to whom he appeared. And in Acts 8 [7:55f.] he appeared to St. Stephen in the town hall standing at the right hand of God. And in Acts 22[:17f.] he appeared to St. Paul in the temple. Again, in Matthew 17[:5] the Father appeared in the clouds upon Mt. Tabor, and in Luke 3[:22], too, the Father came in his voice and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. These and similar appearances which were granted to the prophets, apostles, and saints many, many times, show indeed that both God and Christ are not far away but near, and it is only a matter of revealing themselves; they do not move up and down or back and forth, for God is immutable, and Christ also sits at the right hand of God and does not move hither and yon. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 66]

Luther is quick to explain that this does not mean that one eats Christ’s body in the tavern bread, or drink his blood in the tavern ale. God’s ubiquity does not mean his universal availability, for he gives himself only over to be touched through the signs that he himself has instituted.

I said above that the right hand of God is everywhere, but at the same time nowhere and uncircumscribed, above and apart from all creatures. There is a difference between his being present and your touching. He is free and unbound wherever he is, and he does not have to stand there like a rogue set in a pillory, or his neck in irons. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 68]

Or, “it is one thing if God is present, another thing if he is present for you.” [68]

He also now exceeds any grasp, and you will not catch him by groping about, even though he is in your bread, unless he binds himself to you and summons you to a particular table by his Word, and he himself gives meaning to the bread for you, by his Word, bidding you to eat him. This he does in the Supper, saying, “This is my body,” as if to say, “At home you may eat bread also, where I am indeed sufficiently near at hand too; but this is the true touto, the ‘This is my body’: when you eat this, you eat my body, and nowhere else. Why? Because I wish to attach myself here with my Word, in order that you may not have to buzz about, trying to seek me in all the places where I am; this would be too much for you, and you would also be too puny to apprehend me in these places without the help of my Word.” [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 69]

I should note that, so far as I understand Luther, for him the divine Word is not identical with the text of the Bible, but with the Bible as it is activated in properly ordered preaching according to the promise.

I will post once more on Luther, a two-page passage, and then move on to other authors.


Header image found here, but also see here.

One thought on “Martin Luther, 4: On the Eucharist “Against the Fanatics” (1527)

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

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