Zwingli's view on the Eucharist (as well as baptism) is heavily influenced by two factors. First, Zwingli had served as a chaplain in the Swiss Confederacy. In this military context Zwingli learned the importance of rank and allegiance. He spoke of the essence of the sacrament as consisting in Pflichtszeichen, that is, a "demonstration of allegiance." Similarly, the Christian publicly demonstrates his allegiance to the church, initially by baptism and subsequently by participating in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a memorial of the historical event leading to the establishment of the Christian church and public demonstration of the believer’s allegiance to that church and its members. (1)
Second, the understanding of the nature of the Eucharist is confirmed by Zwingli’s treatment of Matthew 26: 26: hoc est corpus meum, ‘This is my body’. These words were spoken by Christ during the Last Supper, on the day before his death, signifying the manner in which he wished to be remembered by his church. Zwingli argued that “is” must be understood as “signifies," not as “is identical with.”
“Whether Christ’s words in Matthew 26, ‘This is my body’ can also be taken metaphorically or in tropice. It has already become clear enough that in this context the word ‘is’ cannot be taken literally. Hence it follows that it must be taken metaphorically or figuratively. In the words, ‘This is my body’, the word ‘this’ means the bread, and the word ‘body’ means the body which was put to death for us. Therefore the word ‘is’ cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body.” (2)
Zwingli’s point here concerns the relation between the sign and the thing which is signified. He uses this distinction to argue that it is inconceivable that the bread could be the body of Christ.
“A sacrament is the sign of a holy thing. When I say ‘the sacrament of the Lord’s body’, I am simply referring to that bread which is the symbol of the body of Christ who was put to death for our sakes. … But the real body of Christ is the body which is seated at the right hand of God, and the sacrament of his body is the bread, and the sacrament of his blood is the wine, of which we partake with thanksgiving. Now the sign and the thing signified cannot be one and the same. Therefore the sacrament of the body of Christ cannot be that body itself.” (3)
A further argument used by Zwingli concerns the location of Christ. Zwingli pointed out that both Scripture and the creeds affirm that Christ is now ‘seated at the right hand of God.’ It, he argued, did mean that wherever Christ is now, it isn’t present in the Eucharist. Christ can’t be in two places at once. Thus, it simply means that Christ is present wherever God rules. (4)
The same applies to the notion of ‘feeding on Christ.’ Because the bread is the body of Christ, by eating the bread the believer may be said to feed on Christ. Zwingli insists that this image must be interpreted figuratively as trusting in God through Christ. In his Exposition of the Faith (1531), Zwingli states:
“To eat the body of Christ spiritually amounts to trusting with heart and soul in the mercy and goodness of God through Christ – that is, to have the assurance of an unbroken faith that God will grant us the forgiveness of sins and the joy of eternal salvation for the sake of his son, who gave himself for us … So when you come to the Lord’s Supper to feed spiritually upon Christ, you thank the Lord for his great favour, for the redemption by which you are delivered from despair, and for the pledge which reassures you of eternal salvation.” (5)
Furthermore, Zwingli raised the following question: “Finally, we oppose our adversaries when they assert that it is present, natural and essential body of Christ which is eaten. … And do we desire to feed on his natural body like cannibals? As if anyone loved his children in such a way that he wished to devour and eat them.” (6)
In contrast, Luther criticized Zwingli’s view on the Sacraments in a firm tone. In his book, Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament (1544), Luther states: “They called us cannibals, blood-drinkers, man-eaters, Capernaites, Thyesteans, etc. Yet they knew that they were doing an injustice to the Lord and us intentionally and in an exceedingly blasphemous way and that they were inventing scandalous lies about us.” (7) Luther was outspoken on his doubts about Zwingli:
“They were admonished by the dreadful judgment of God when Zwingli and with him about five thousand very excellent persons were so wretchedly slain, as the histories and their letters testify. Nevertheless, they wanted immediately to interpret such a wrathful judgment as a gracious sign and wanted to boast of Zwingli as a saint … But because I am certain that Zwingli, as his last book testifies, died in a great many sins and in blasphemy of God, therefore I cannot believe their interpretation.” (8)
In conclusion, Zwingli did not have the slightest understanding of what Luther was saying. This indicates the true depth of the opposition between them. The difference lies in the way in which Luther and the Zwingli understood the concepts of flesh and spirit. (9) In fact, Zwingli and his followers were teaching the dualism and the spiritualism of late classical antiquity. They understand spirit as the opposite of flesh in the sense of bodiliness. For Luther, however, spirit is the opposite of flesh in the sense of sinfulness. Bodily eating is itself a spiritual eating when it takes place in faith: “If God would present me with horse manure to eat, I should eat it spiritually. For wherever the word of God is present, there is a spiritual eating” (10)
On this point, Luther’s position is far superior to that of Zwingli. Despising bodiliness shows that one does not take seriously the true historicity of God’s revelation: “You find no word or commandment of God in the entire Scripture in which something material and outward is not contained and presented.” The entire biblical history bears witness to this. (11) “The Spirit cannot be with us except in material and physical things such as the word, water, in Christ’s body, and in these things on the earth” (12) “Spirit” is not a transcendental sphere beyond all earthly history but precisely this history comprehended in God’s word. And in this sense it is really important to remain on earth. (13)
(1) Alister E. Mcgrath, Reformation Thought: An introduction, 3rd, (Malden:Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p. 183.
(2) Zwingli,. “On the Lord Supper”, LCC 24: 225.
(3) Zwingli,. “On the Lord Supper”, LCC 24: 188.
(4) Alister E. Mcgrath, Reformation Thought: An introduction, p. 184.
(5) Zwingli,. “An Exposition of the Faith”, LCC 24: 258.
(6) Ibid., p. 261.
(7) LW 38, 291-292.
(8) LW 38, 302-303.
(9) Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 395.
(10) WA 30III , 116, 118.
(11) LW 37: 135.
(12) LW 37: 95.
(13) Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, p. 397.
Reverend and Doctor Jin O. Jeong is an assistant pastor for Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org