In Memory of Marburg, In Defense of Moderation

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 Christians.

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 office. It's 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.


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