Zwingli on the Eucharist

The phrase “Zwinglian” has become a bit of an easy label with which those of a more High Church flavour seek to tar us evangelicals. But what did Zwingli actually believe, particularly with reference to the Eucharist (the issue on which are most often labelled as “Zwinglian”)?

Here, from An Account of the Faith of Huldereich Zwingli Submitted to the Roman Emperor Charles (3 July 1530), Trans. S. M. Macauley, The Latin Works and Correspondence of Huldreich Zwingli, vol. 2, (Philadelphia: Heidelberg Press, 1922), pp. 42-56, we see his views on the matter.

EIGHTHLY-I believe that in the holy Eucharist, i.e., the supper of thanksgiving, the true body of Christ is present by the contemplation of faith. This means that they who thank the Lord for the benefits bestowed on us in His Son acknowledge that He assumed true flesh, in it truly suffered, truly washed away our sins by His blood; and thus everything done by Christ becomes as it were present to them by the contemplation of faith. But that the body of Christ in essence and really, i. e., the natural body itself, is either present in the supper or masticated with our mouth and teeth, as the Papists or some [i.e., the Lutherans] who look back to the fleshpots of Egypt assert, we not only deny, but constantly maintain to be an error, contrary to the Word of God. This, with the divine assistance, I will in a few words, make as clear as the sun to your majesty, O Emperor. First, by citing the divine oracles; secondly, by attacking the opponents with arguments derived therefrom, as with military engines; lastly, by showing that the ancient theologians held our opinion. Meanwhile, thou Creator, thou Spirit, be present, enlighten the minds of thy people, and fill with grace and light the hearts that thou hast created!

Here, Zwingli is more concerned with what the elements are not. Compare to the Anglican Articles.

XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

Same concern – same answer. On we go.

Christ Himself, the mouth and wisdom of God, saith: “The poor ye have always with you; but me ye have not always” [John 12: 8]. Here the presence of the body alone is denied, for according to His divinity He is always present, because He is always everywhere, according to His other word: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” [Matth. 28:20], viz., according to divinity, power and goodness. Augustine agrees with us. Neither is there any foundation for the assertion of the opponents that the humanity of Christ is wherever the divinity is, otherwise the person is divided; for this [49] would destroy Christ’s true humanity. Only the deity can be everywhere. That humanity is in one place, but divinity everywhere, divides the person just as little as the Son’s assumption of humanity divides the unity of the divine essence. Indeed, it would be easier to effect a separation in the unity of essence if one person of the divine being would assume the form of a creature but the others not at all, than to separate the person if the humanity be at one place but the divinity everywhere; since we see even in creation that bodies are confined to one place, but their power and influence extend very far. An example is the sun, whose body is in one place, while his power pervades all things. The human mind also surmounts the stars and penetrates the underworld, but the body is nevertheless in one place.

Christ says also: “Again I leave the world and go to the Father” [John 16: 28]. Here the word “to leave” is used, just as “to have” before, so that the opponents cannot say: “We do not have Him visibly.” For when He speaks of the visible withdrawal of His body, He says: “A little while and ye shall not see me,” etc. [John 16: 16]. Neither would we maintain anything but a delusion if we were to contend that His natural body were present, but invisible. For why should He evade sight, when He nevertheless would be here, who so often manifested himself to the disciples after the resurrection? “But, it is expedient for you,” He says,”that I go away” [John 16: 7]. But if He were here, it would be expedient that we should see Him. For as often as the disciples thought about seeing Him, He manifested Himself openly, so that neither sense nor thought might suffer in aught. “Handle me,” He says; and “Be not afraid, it is I,” and “Mary, touch me not,” etc. [Lk. 24: 39; John 6: 20; 20: 17].

When in departing He commended His disciples to His Father, He said: “I am no more in the world” [John 17: 11]. Here we have a substantive verb (“I arn no more in the world”), no less than in the words: “This is my body;” so that the opponents cannot say that there is a trope here, since they deny that substantives admit of the trope. But the case has no need of such arguments, for there follows: “But these are in the world.” This antithesis clearly teaches that He was not, according to His human nature, in the world at a time when His disciples were.

Here’s what he’s saying. You can’t claim one thing grammatically of “this is my body” when you don’t accept it of “I am no more in the world”. Both taken literally are contradictory – so reason demands that we don’t.

[50] And that we may know when He took His departure-not, as they invent rather than explain, when He made Himself invisible-Luke says: “While he blessed them he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven” [Lk. 24: 51]. He does not say: “He vanished,” or “rendered himself invisible.” About this Mark says: “After the Lord had spoken to them he was received up into heaven, and sat at the right hand of God” [Mk. 16: 19]. He does not say: “He remained here, but rendered his body invisible.” Again Luke says in Acts: “When he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight” [Acts 1: 9]. A cloud covered Him, of which there would have been no need if He had only removed His appearance but otherwise bad continued to be present. Nor would there have been any need of removal and elevation. Again: “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven” [Acts 1: 11]. What is clearer than this? “From you,” he says, “he was taken up;” therefore, He was not with them visibly or invisibly, according to His human nature. When, then, we shall see Him return as He departed, we shall know that He is present. Otherwise He sits, according to His human nature, at the right hand of His Father until He will return to judge the quick and the dead.

But since there are some who deprive the body of Christ of restriction to a place and say that He is not in a place, let them see how clearly, and with closed eyes, they oppose the truth. He was in the manger, on the cross, at Jerusalem when his parents were on their journey home; in the sepulchre and out of the sepulchre; for the angel says:. “He is risen, he is not here: behold the place where they laid him” [Mk. 16: 6]. And that they may not be able to say that His body is everywhere, let them hear: “When the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood in their midst” [John 20: 19]. What need had He of coming if His body was everywhere, but invisible? It would have been enough to come, but merely as one who was present to manifest Himself. But let such sophistical trifles be gone, which rob us of the truth both of Christ’s humanity and of the Holy Scriptures.

These testimonies deny the presence of Christ’s body anywhere but in heaven, scripturally speaking, i. e., as far as Scripture [52] tells us about the nature and properties of the body assumed by Christ. And however far the contradictions, which are involved in our propositions regarding the power of God, drive us, we ought not to wrest it to such a point that we believe that God acts contrary to His Word. That would be a sign of impotence, not of power. Moreover, that the natural body of Christ is not eaten with our mouth, He Himself showed us when He said to the Jews, disputing about the corporeal eating of His flesh: “The flesh profiteth nothing” [John 6: 63], namely, eaten naturally, but eaten spiritually it profits much, for it gives life.

Zwingli is concerned here that we don’t confuse “flesh” and “spirit”. It’s a retrogade step, he argues, to go for “flesh” since Jesus Himself tells the Jews in John 6 that they misunderstand Him completely when they think He’s talking about physical flesh when He tells them they must “eat Him”.

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” [John 3: 6]. If, therefore, the natural body of Christ is eaten with our mouth, what else than flesh can come out of flesh, eaten naturally? And lest anyone think lightly of this argument, let him hear the second part: “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Therefore, that which is spirit, is born of the Spirit. If then the flesh is salutary to the soul, it should be eaten spiritually, not carnally. This applies also to the sacraments, that spirit is born of Spirit, and not of any corporeal matter, as we have already indicated.

Paul announces that if he once knew Christ according to the flesh, henceforth he would know Him no more after the flesh [II Cor. 5: 16].

So where is this going?

In view of these passages we are compelled to confess that the words: “This is my body,” should not be understood naturally, but figuratively, just as the words: “This is Jehovah’s passover” [Ex. 12: 11]. For the lamb that was eaten every year with the celebration of the festival was not the passing over of the Lord, but it signified that such a passing over had formerly taken place. Besides there is the temporal succession, in that the Lord’s Supper followed the eating of the lamb; which reminds us that Christ used words similar to those employed at the passover, for succession leads to imitation. Moreover, the arrangement of the words is the same. The time affords an additional argument, since in the same evening meal the passover was discontinued and the new act of thanksgiving was instituted. A further consideration is the characteristic of memorials, in that they take the name from the thing which they commemorate.
Thus the Athenians named se?s???e?a, [removal of debts] [53] not as though the debts were remitted every year, but because what Solon once did they continually celebrate; and this their celebration they dignify with the name of the thing itself. Thus those things are called the body and blood of Christ which are the symbols of the true body.

It’s a simple argument. Every year the Jews would celebrate the Passover with the words “this is Jehovah’s passover” when it was quite clear that the meal they were sharing was not the Passover itself but a memorial of it. Jesus shares a passover meal with his disciples and so we should expect Him to use language in the same way.

Now follow the proofs:

As the body cannot be nourished by a spiritual substance, so the soul cannot be nourished by a corporeal substance. But if the natural body of Christ is eaten, I ask whether it feeds the body or the soul? Not the body, hence the soul. If the soul, then the soul eats flesh, and it would not be true that spirit is only born of Spirit.

In the second place, I ask: What does the body of Christ, eaten naturally, bring about? If it be the forgiveness of sins, as one party claims, then the disciples obtained forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper, and therefore, Christ died in vain. If that which is eaten imparts the virtue of Christ’s passion, as the same party claims, then the virtue of the passion and redemption was dispensed before it had taken place. If the body is fed for the resurrection, as another [Luther] very ignorantly asserts, much more would the sacrament heal our body and deliver it from sickness. But Irenaeus wants to be understood differently, when he says that our body is nourished by Christ’s body for the resurrection. For he desires to show that the hope of our resurrection is strengthened by Christ’s resurrection. Behold, what an appropriate figure of speech!

Thirdly–If the natural body of Christ was given to the disciples in the Supper, it necessarily follows that they ate it [54] as it then was. But it was then capable of suffering; hence they ate a vulnerable body, for it was not yet glorified. For if they say: They ate the same body, yet not as it was capable of suffering, but the same as it was after the resurrection, I reply: Either He had two bodies, one not yet glorified and another glorified, or one and the same body was at the same time capable of suffering and incapable. And so, since He dreaded death so much He was doubtless unwilling to suffer, but wanted to make use of that bodily endowment, by virtue of which He was free from pain. Therefore He did not truly suffer, but only by appearance; in this way Marcion is again brought back by these blindfolded gladiators. Six hundred arguments could be adduced, O Emperor, but we shall be content with these.

Like the rest of the Reformers, Zwingli now turns to the Fathers to demonstrate that what he says isn’t a novelty – at least some of them believed the same.

Moreover, that the ancients agree with us on the last part of this article I shall now establish by two witnesses, both of the first rank, viz.:

By Ambrose, who in the [Commentary on the] First Epistle to the Corinthians says concerning the words: “Ye do show forth the Lord’s death,” etc.: “Mindful that by the Lord’s death we have been freed, we signify in our eating and drinking the flesh and the blood which were offered for us,” etc. Now Ambrose is speaking of the food and drink of the Supper, and asserts that we signify those things which were offered for us.

By Augustine also, who in this thirtieth discourse on John affirms that the body of Christ which rose from the dead must be in one place. Here the printed copies have “can be” instead of “must be,” but incorrectly, for in the Master of the Sentences [Peter Lombard] and the Canonical Decrees [of Gratian], in which this opinion of Augustine is quoted, the reading is [55] “must.” By this we Plainly see that whatever the ancients said so excellently concerning the Supper, they thought not of the natural but of the spiritual eating of Christ’s body. For since they knew that the body of Christ must be in one place, and that it is at the right hand of God, they did not withdraw it thence to submit it for mastication to the foul teeth of men.

Augustine likewise teaches in the twelfth chapter “Against Adimantus” that the three expressions: “The blood is the life,” and “This is my body” and “The rock was Christ,” were spoken symbolically, i. e., as he himself says, in a figure and figuratively. And among many other things he at length comes to these words: “I can interpret that command as given for a sign. For the Lord did not hesitate to say: ‘This is my body,’ when He was giving a sign of His body.” Thus far Augustine. Lo, a key for us whereby we can unlock all the declarations of the ancients concerning the Eucharist! That which is only a sign of the body, he says, is called the body.

And, interestingly, this is again the position held in the Articles

XXV. Of the Sacraments.
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

So, unsuprisingly, Cranmer shared the view with Zwingli that sacraments were signs, not the real thing. They are their to point us to the reality, they are not themselves the reality. And they do their job well, very well indeed – they are effectual.

Let them who wish go now and condemn us for heresy, only let them know that by the same process they are condemning the opinions of the theologians, contrary to the decrees of the Pontiffs. For from these facts it becomes very evident that the ancients always spoke figuratively wfien they attributed so much to the eating of the body of Christ in the Supper; meaning, not that sacramental eating could cleanse the soul but faith in God through Jesus Christ, which is spiritual eating, whereof this external eating is but symbol and shadow. And as bread sustains the body and wine enlivens and exhilarates, thus it strengthens the soul and assures it of God’s mercy that He has given us His Son; thus it renews the mind by the confidence that, by His blood, the sins with which it was being consumed were destroyed. With these passages we shall now rest content, although any one could compile whole volumes in expounding and confirming the fact that the ancients are of our opinion. [56] Neither let the pamphlet recently published* concerning the opinions of the ancients, which it expressly promised to defend, move any one. For in a very short time we shall see the refutation of our very learned brother Oecolampadius, the object of whose exordium it was to defend the opinion of the ancients. But what things should be required in this matter for its clearer exposition and the refutation of the opponents we who hold this opinion have shown, I believe, abundantly, in many books, written to different persons.

Zwingli does here somewhat overstate his case. True, he has presented us with some Fathers who believe as he did, but we’ve also seen that some think differently (and many are ambiguous on the subject).

Nevertheless, he’s not a million miles from Cranmer and our Articles.

XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

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