Before we bid October 2014 adieu, and partly in recognition of today being "Reformation day,"
let me draw attention to the fact that this month marks the 485th anniversary of the Colloquy of Marburg -- that famous event in 1529 where
Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met and agreed to disagree on the subject of
the Lord's Supper.
The Marburg Colloquy is often viewed as a colossal failure.
In one sense, perhaps it was. The Northern German princes who had committed
themselves to Luther's Reformation were undoubtedly disappointed that Luther
and his ilk couldn't reach a perfect consensus on matters of faith with
reformers from the Swiss cantons and free imperial cities to the south. Such theological
consensus might have paved the way to a political and military alliance between
the Swiss cantons and the Lutheran princes, who had rendered themselves rather
vulnerable in the empire by their support for reform. It might also have
persuaded the emperor, Charles V, that there was actually something to the
reformers' criticisms of the institutional church. Charles could hardly have
been impressed when, at the Diet of Augsburg one year later, he received
competing calls for reform from Wittenberg, the southern German cities, and Zurich.
Such disunity hardly spoke well of the evangelicals and their cause.
In another sense, however, the Marburg Colloquy was a
roaring success. Defending that claim requires paying some attention to the
half-decade leading up to Marburg, during which Luther and Zwingli traded published
jabs at one another regarding the Lord's Supper. Luther held that Christ is
genuinely present in, with, and under the Eucharistic elements of bread and
wine; Christ is there to be offered as a precious gift to God's people in
confirmation of God's promise of forgiveness to them. Zwingli took the line
that the Eucharistic elements are merely commemorative symbols of Christ's body
and blood, intended to incite faith and gratitude in God's people as they eat
and drink these elements in remembrance of their Savior.
Noteworthy for gauging the success/failure of Marburg is not
so much the specifics of these reformers' Eucharistic views but the manner of
their interaction regarding them. Luther was convinced that Zwingli's doctrine
of the Supper sold the Reformation farm (as it were), converting the Supper
back into a work of the people (as it had been construed in medieval practice)
when he had struggled so hard to highlight the Supper as a work of God for his people. He proceeded to label
Zwingli "completely perverted," "unchristian," and "seven times worse than... a
papist," and urged his readers to shun Zwingli's writings "like the prince of
Hell's poison." Zwingli was never as gifted as Luther in name-calling, but he
responded more or less in kind.
Against this backdrop, the decidedly charitable and moderate
tone in which these reformers officially expressed their continuing
disagreement on the Supper at Marburg is extraordinary. The participants at
Marburg expressed their agreement on 14 articles of faith before turning, in
their final article, to the subject of the Supper. Even with regard to the
Supper they were able to express substantial agreement on certain points which
jointly distinguished their doctrine from Roman teaching. Regarding their
disagreement, they confessed the following:
Although at present we
are not agreed as to whether the true body and blood are bodily present in the
bread and wine, nevertheless each party should show Christian love to the other,
so far as conscience can permit, and both should fervently pray Almighty God that
he, by His Spirit, would confirm us in the right opinion.
Again, given the terms of abuse Luther and Zwingli had
traded on the basis of their disagreement up until this point, the shared
acknowledgement of the need to exercise "Christian love" towards one another,
which was implicitly an acknowledgement of the genuine Christian status of the other, was remarkable. So
also was the joint confession of the need to seek the leading of God's Spirit
in continued efforts to arrive at a true (and mutual) understanding. That
confession was an acknowledgement that they couldn't both be right about the
Supper, and an implicit acknowledgement on the part of each reformer that he
could at least in theory be wrong.
I suggest that Marburg opened the door to a Protestant
re-conceptualization of what Christian unity actually entails. Until this point
the reformers had been acting on, even if they did not explicitly adopt, the
principle that genuine Christian unity must proceed upon a basis of complete
uniformity in conviction. Perhaps in this regard they were a bit hung over from
the intoxicating nature of pre-Reformation "unity," which was typically achieved --
when push came to shove -- by an authoritarian imposition of uniform doctrine from
above. Such imposed "unity," of course, was no more genuine than is the "peace"
a parent imposes on squabbling kids in the back seat of a car by forcing
everyone to shut up.
From Marburg onward, Protestants increasingly realized that
genuine Christian unity must proceed on a basis of genuine agreement regarding certain conviction, but that it can
comprise real diversity of opinion on
some (secondary or non-fundamental, albeit significant) matters. Such a re-conceptualization of what
Christian unity actually is allowed
for the emergence of properly confessional identities -- the emergence, that
is, of persons holding strong beliefs on a number of points who were,
nonetheless, capable of acknowledge persons of other convictions as legitimate
But Christian unity thus described -- premised on uniformity
regarding core doctrines and charitable disagreement regarding secondary issues
-- is no easy thing to bring about; indeed, it can only ultimately be a work of
the Spirit. Christian unity thus described is, however, something we as
Christians are very directly and explicitly commanded to pursue (Eph. 4.3). That,
quite frankly, seems to be something that we in the Reformed world regularly
forget. Luther and Zwingli might provide some inspiration for us in this
regard, no matter the merits of their interactions before or after Marburg.
One can't help wondering, as a final point, whether the
charity and moderation that marked these reformers' interaction at Marburg in
comparison to their literary spats had something to do with the fact that at
Marburg they encountered one another face to face. It's one thing to label your
opponent, who is concretely present to you only as words on a page, as unchristian and perverted from the safe enclosure of your home or
another thing to call him unchristian and perverted to his face.
If so, one way we might ourselves labor to fulfill the
imperative of Eph. 4.3 is by striving to make our interactions with one another
-- especially when those interactions involve (theological) disagreement -- as personal as possible. Perhaps one of the
greatest factors currently working against unity in the evangelical world is
the reality of how impersonal our
interactions have become. It's as easy for us to heap scorn on those with whom
we differ from behind the safe glow of our computer screens as it was for
Luther to disparage Zwingli from the safety of his study in Wittenberg. Perhaps
we should, whenever possible, seek to channel disagreement into more concretely
personal venues, or at the very least we might start regularly asking ourselves
how our tone and words might change
if we were interacting with a living, breathing person on the other side of, say, a dinner table, instead of some nebulous internet persona.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.