Calvin, Zwingli and Luther (3)


The Eucharist is an early patristic name for the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. The Eucharist is nowadays to be considered as the bread and the cup. Strictly speaking, it was originally two parts of the larger meal – the action round the bread while they were eating, and the action round the cup after supper – but the two parts came together early in the second century and the two thanksgivings were amalgamated.

Disagreements between Christians over exactly what the Eucharist was and what it was not have dogged the Protestant church since the Reformation itself. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin could not agree on this issue, although these three were by no means the only people involved in dispute over interpreting the Eucharist.

Also to be considered is the controversy about the Eucharist that came to a head at the Reformation and concerned the sacrifice of the mass, or Eucharistic sacrifice. Was the Supper that the Lord instituted an offering of His body and blood, or a feast upon His body and blood, which were to be offered at the cross?

Differences in belief about the Eucharist led to what has been called the ‘Supper strife’ among the Reformers in which Zwingli and Luther were opposed, while Calvin, among others, took a mediating position. In the midst of reform, there was disagreement and division among the Reformers themselves, and it is a disagreement that still exists today.

Calvin rejected the Lutheran explanations of the mystery of the efficacy of the Eucharist, and thereby added his own fuel to the fire of controversy that did so much to cause division among the Reformers. Despite the fact that they were of one mind in criticising the Roman Catholic doctrines of the Sacraments, the Reformers were unable to agree about the precise nature of the doctrines that should replace them.

Over the Eucharist, there was bitter acrimony among Protestants. “The Reformed party was a kingdom divided against itself, Lutheran was warring with Zwinglian, and Calvinist with both,” as Henderson observed. Yet few things astonished Calvin more than the lack of agreement among the Reformers. With regard to the attacks made by Reformers upon Reformers, Calvin wrote, “O God of grace, what pleasant sport and pastime do we afford to the Papists, as if we had hired ourselves to do their work!” Calvin longed for unity among the Protestant churches and pleaded for this from the pulpit to great and influential congregations.

Zwingli, Luther and Calvin all rejected the view of the Catholic Church on the Eucharist. They all rejected transubstantiation, which is the idea that the bread and wine actually change into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. Agreement on the point of departure was not however matched by agreement on a destination.

Luther’s view was that Christ’s body and blood are present ‘with, in and under’ the bread and wine, instead of replacing them. This view came to be known as consubstantiation. Cunningham, in describing this view, called it a “great error”: “Consubstantiation, the real presence, not of Christ but of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, or the co-existence, in some way, of the real flesh and blood of Christ, in, with, or under, in, cum or sub, the bread and wine in the Eucharist. This was a real remnant of Popery.”

Zwingli moved further away from transubstantiation and he regarded the Eucharist as a sign or symbol, “emblematically and figuratively representing or signifying Scriptural truths and spiritual blessings; and that the reception of them is a mere commemoration of what Christ has done”. In fairness to Zwingli, there is some difficulty in ascertaining precisely what his views on the Eucharist were, and there is reason to think that, towards the end of life, he ascribed a higher value and a greater efficacy to the Eucharist than he had previously done. In his 1525 work, ‘De Vera et Falsa Religione’ he admits that he had spoken of the sacraments somewhat rashly and crudely, and indicated that his views were heading in what most Protestants would believe to be a sound direction.

In the last work written by Zwingli, the ‘Expositio Fidei’, he gave some indications of regarding the Sacraments as not only signs but as seals, signifying and confirming something done by God through the Spirit as well by the receiver through faith. Since it was not published until after Zwingli’s death, his contribution to the controversy could not be developed any further.

Calvin was Augustinian in regarding the Eucharist as a sacrament with dominical authority, as a visible sign of an invisible grace. He insisted that the Eucharist gave what it represented, since we are not asked by the Lord merely to look, but to eat and drink. In this, he rejected the view that that Christ gave the bread and wine as mere symbols representing his body and blood and meant simply to stimulate our memory, devotion and faith.

Calvin saw the Eucharist as a sign of a life-giving union between Christ and a person, and this union was increased and strengthened when the Eucharist was received by faith. The Eucharist was, by Calvin’s view, inefficacious apart from the faith of the recipient: “Only those who are united by faith benefit from the sacrament; they alone truly or in reality can be said to eat Christ’s flesh. It is a matter of the work of the Spirit, and therefore, of faith. Only through the Spirit can one eat Christ’s flesh.” Calvin was maintaining that, if there was no faith, there was no benefit for the person participating in the Eucharist. He set out what he saw the Eucharist as being and what it achieved, while, at the same time, opposing the views of Luther and Zwingli:

“Thus when bread is given as a symbol of the body of Christ, we must immediately think of this similitude. As bread nourishes, sustains, and protects our bodily life, so the body of Christ is the only food to invigorate and keep alive the soul. When we behold wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must think that such use as wine serves to the body, the same is spiritually bestowed by the blood of Christ; and the use is to foster, refresh, strengthen, and exhilarate. For if we duly consider what profit we have gained by the breaking of his sacred body and the shedding of his blood, we shall clearly perceive that these properties of bread and wine, agreeably to this analogy, most appropriately represent it when they are communicated to us. Moreover, two faults are here to be avoided. We must neither, by setting too little value on the signs, dissever them from their meanings to which they are in some degree annexed, nor by immoderately extolling them, seem somewhat to obscure the mysteries themselves. That Christ is the bread of life by which believers are nourished unto eternal life, no man is so utterly devoid of religion as not to acknowledge. But all are not agreed as to the mode of partaking of him. For there are some who define the eating of the flesh of Christ, and the drinking of his blood, to be, in one word, nothing more than believing in Christ himself. But Christ seems to me to have intended to teach something more express and more sublime in that noble discourse, in which he recommends the eating of his flesh, viz., that we are quickened by the true partaking of him, which he designated by the terms eating and drinking, lest any one should suppose that the life which we obtain from him is obtained by simple knowledge. For as it is not the sight but the eating of bread that gives nourishment to the body, so the soul must partake of Christ truly and thoroughly, that by his energy it may grow up into spiritual life. Meanwhile, we admit that this is nothing else than the eating of faith, but there is this difference between their mode of speaking and mine.  According to them, to eat is merely to believe; while I maintain that the flesh of Christ is eaten by believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that that eating is the effect and fruit of faith; or, if you will have it more clearly, according to them, eating is faith, whereas it rather seems to me to be a consequence of faith.”

The controversy surrounding the Eucharist, and the bitter acrimony that seemed to exist, was at least put to one side over the issue of the sacrifice of the mass, or Eucharistic sacrifice. At the Last Supper, Christ used sacrificial language. At a very early period the language of offering started to be used in relation to the Eucharist, not just in relation to the cross. Along with the doctrine of transubstantiation, the idea developed that the transubstantiated elements were offered to God, and in this way the sacrifice at the cross was repeated, or ‘made present again’.

Here the Reformers were united against the Roman Catholic teaching and in agreement amongst themselves. The offering took place at the cross, and the Passover meal was not an offering of the Passover lamb, but a feast upon the lamb that had already been offered. The Eucharist was not an offering of his body and blood, but a feast upon his body and blood, which were to be offered at the cross.

Agreement over a part of the Eucharist was easily overshadowed by the arguments between the Reformers over the meaning of the Eucharist as a whole. Calvin and Luther never met, and the one letter that Calvin sent to Luther never arrived. Perhaps much of the acrimony could have been resolved if it had been seen by Luther, for Calvin’s last sentence in the letter would surely have warmed the German’s heart: “Would that I could fly to you that I might, even for a few hours, enjoy the happiness of your society; for I would prefer, and it would be far better, not only upon this question, but also about others, to converse personally with yourself; but seeing that it is not granted to us on earth, I hope that shortly it will come to pass in the kingdom of God.”

As often seems to be the case, disagreement aired is remembered long after agreement shared. Moreover, the disagreement is enlarged to the kind of importance rarely given to the agreement. Acrimonious construction proved to be divisive, and perhaps the resulting freedom of choice was nothing more than a theological taking of sides. Yet, as Alister McGrath reminds us: “What brought Christians together, and what holds Christians together, is the death of Christ. To substitute any other bond of common allegiance for this is to lose sight of the reason for the existence of the church – to proclaim Christ until he comes again.”

McGrath has pointed out that the Reformation was born in controversy. And, though controversy can stimulate thought and encourage exploration, it can also be destructive and disillusion people. The Eucharist is supremely positive, controversy about the Eucharist does not possess the same quality.  Bread and wine are ordinary. Yet: “When they are placed at the centre of a worshipping community, and when the story of the last night of Christ on earth is retold, they become powerful reminders of the foundational events of the Christian faith.”