This week commemorates the 484th anniversary of a very significant date in the history of the Protestant Reformation. From October 1-4, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met at Marburg Castle in Hesse, Germany in a meeting that became known as the Marburg Colloquy. As Philip Schaff explains in History of the Christian Church Vol. 7, Philipp I of Hessen convened the meeting in an effort to bring together leaders from two different expressions of the Reformation—Lutheran and Reformed—in hopes of uniting them and establishing a strong, unified Protestant front in his territory.
1. Summary of the Marburg Conference
Zwingli’s and Luther’s goal was to agree on 15 statements of belief, but they were only able to agree on 14. The 15th, concerning the Lord’s Supper, divided the reformers. Luther believed that during Communion, Christians actually partake of Christ’s physical body and blood along with the bread and wine. Zwingli believed the Lord’s Supper to be a memorial meal, celebrating Christ’s passion, with bread and wine merely serving as symbols of his body and blood. One of Zwingli’s key reasons was his doctrine that because Christ is fully human, his body, like all human bodies, is not omnipresent, but can only be in one place at a time. If Christ’s body is at the right hand of the Father, Christ can be spiritually present during the Lord’s Supper, but not physically. Luther argued that Christ could by physically present in more than one place, appealing over and over again to Christ’s words of institution: “This is my body” and “This is my blood”.
Zwingli didn’t see the difference as a barrier to fellowship, and offered Luther his hand in Christian fellowship. Luther, though, viewed the disagreement as touching on the essence of the Christian faith and was hesitant to regard Zwingli or those following him as true Christians. In years that followed, the Lutheran Church and Reformed Church grew further and further apart, despite repeated efforts to breach the gap between them. A generation after Marburg, John Calvin articulated a teaching on the Lord’s Supper in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that was seen by many as a middle way between Zwingli’s “mere memorial” view and Luther’s physical presence view. Historically, Lutheranism has rejected Calvin’s view along with Zwingli’s, making little distinction between them. This growing disconnect between the two churches is keenly seen in the two tradition’s most famous confessional statements—Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession and Presbyterianism’s Westminster Confession.
2. Contrasting modern Lutherans and modern Presbyterians
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran church in the U.S., has a helpful Frequently Asked Questions section on its official web page. When asked what distinguishes Lutherans and Presbyterians today, the LCMS referenced 5 key things:
A. The centrality of the Gospel. From the vantage point of the LCMS, Presbyterians tend to emphasize as the central message of the Bible God’s sovereignty, while Lutherans emphasize the Gospel of salvation for sinners through Christ. Jackson Presbyterian Examiner agrees there's a grain of truth in this. Presbyterians and Lutherans agree on the fundamentals of the gospel, but as a matter of emphasis, perhaps Presbyterians could learn about from Lutherans.
B. The nature of Christ’s atonement. The LCMS said that, unlike Presbyterian confessions which teach a limited atonement—that Christ’s death only atoned for the elect, those predestined from eternity to be saved—Lutherans teach that Christ’s death atoned for the sins of all people, even those who will ultimately perish. The Reformed doctrine of limited atonement is embedded in a number of historic Reformed confessions, and it's not a doctrine that Reformed churches will likely be altering any time soon. However, as a matter of history, it is important to remember that not all of the reformers held precisely the same view of Christ's atonement. Luther himself appears to have believed in a universal atonement, while at the same time believing in unconditional predestination. If nothing else, this means that perhaps evangelicalism's umbrella ought to be big enough to welcome differing views.
C. Predestination. The LCMS said that though Lutherans and Presbyterians both teach that God has predestined people from all eternity to believe in Christ and be saved, Lutherans unlike Presbyterians do not believe in “double predestination”—that God actually predestines anyone to perish. Presbyterians emphasize that while God actively redeems his elect, “predestination to damnation” simply means that God passes over them, not that he in any way works sin in them or causes them to reject the gospel. Lutherans, while acknowledging that God chooses some to be saved, in an effort to avoid in any way attributing people being lost to God’s eternal decree, refuse to even say that God passes over any. The LCMS prefers to leave this a mystery: “Those who are saved are saved by grace alone; those who are damned are damned not by God's choice but because of their own sin and stubbornness. This is a mystery that is incomprehensible to human reason (as are all true Scriptural articles of faith).” While this examiner is sympathetic to the Presbyterian insistence on not leaving any loose ends, when it comes to defining doctrine, perhaps Presbyterians can learn a bit from Lutheranism's willingness to let some things remain mysteries and not make "sense".
D. The authority of Scripture. It may surprise many Presbyterians to hear Lutherans suggest that the two denominations differ on this all-important point. The FAQ page states: “Lutherans look to Scripture alone as the source of all Christian doctrine, and hold to the teachings of Scripture even when they are incomprehensible to human reason. Some Presbyterian churches tend to place human reason alongside Scripture as a source of doctrinal authority, and seek to bring seemingly paradoxical Scriptural truths into harmony with human reason in ways that (in our view) undermine the truthfulness and authority of Scripture.” In other words, Presbyterians sometimes sacrifice fidelity to Scripture in an effort to be “logical”. Lutherans agree that the Five Points of Calvinism logically fit together as a system, but only affirm two or three of the points, arguing that they prefer to Scriptural to being systematic, if forced to choose between the two. Again, this is a critique that hopefully Presbyterians will be willing to see a grain of truth in.
E. The Sacraments. From the vantage point of the LCMS, Presbyterians generally teach that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as only “signs” of God’s graces, not “means of grace” through which the Holy Spirit actually imparts salvation. This touches on the difference of opinion that was brought to light at the Marburg Colloquy so many years ago. Presbyterians, for their part, would consider this to largely be a mischaracterization.
3. A closer look at the Reformed view of the Lord's Supper
The Westminster Confession, for instance, in chapter 29 lists five purposes of the Lord’s Supper. It is said to be 1. “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of [Christ] in his death” 2. “the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers” 3. “their spiritual nourishment and growth in him” 4. “their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him” and 5. “a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.
The phrase “means of grace” is used by Lutherans and Presbyterians alike to refer to God’s work in the sacraments. Calvin’s view, which Westminster summarizes, didn’t diminish the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Calvin held that Christ’s presence, though spiritual, is certainly no less “real”. All the benefits that Lutherans believe are offered to believed via Communion, Presbyterians—at least according to their confessions—also believe are offered.
The last paragraph of chapter 29 says, “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.” What this means is that, through communion, believers really do feed upon Christ’s body and blood and all the benefits of his death.
When Christians disagree, it always a very sad occasion. Church disunity ought never to be something we're "comfortable" with. In 1529, when Lutherans and Reformed Christians failed to reach a doctrinal consensus, it, in the minds of their opponents, undermined the reformers' claim that Scripture is clear and intelligible. If Scripture is clear, why couldn't leading representatives of the Reformation agree on what Scripture taught? Unfortunately, that criticism still holds true today, as evangelicalism is, in many ways, more divided now than in the 16th century.
The reformers affirmed that while Scripture itself is clear, this doesn't mean that Scripture's truths will always be equally apparent to all readers. When dissension arises, though, it's not because Scripture is vague and needs something outside itself to bring added clarity. Rather, it is an occasion where further study, further reflection, further prayer, and much humility is called for.
Thankfully, Reformed Christians and Lutherans have worked through some of the mistrust that roots back to 1529. Let us pray that God will bring Christians, from whatever denomination they come from, closer together both in love and in doctrine.