Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and the Lord’s Supper

Posted: June 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

In The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes, Dr. Bruce Ware has written an excellent essay tracing the theological views of Ulrich Zwingli in connection with the Lord’s Supper.  Sometimes authors and theology students have reduced Zwingli’s view of this ordinance to “mere memorialism.”  Dr. Ware states that this is “partial and imprecise.”  He goes on to show that “Zwingli clearly and certainly meant more by the Lord’s Supper than that it was a symbolic memorial of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus who died on the cross for sin” (Ware, pg. 229). 

One of the main positions that Zwingli took issue with is that of Martin Luther.  Luther and Zwingli agreed on much.  However, over the issue of the presence of the body of Jesus in the Supper, the two could not agree.  Their debate in Marburg, Germany (1529) would put their differences on display in a personal way.  It is said that Zwingli was even in tears at points as he expressed “how greatly he desired Luther’s friendship” (Crawford, pg. 217).  How and if Jesus was truly present in the sacrament was a matter that kept the two reformers at a distance.

It is in the debate with Luther that Zwingli strongly opposed the Lutheran idea of Christ being present physically in the Supper.  However, Zwingli did not deny a form of the presence of Jesus in the Supper.  It is this fact that elevated the Lord’s Supper for Zwingli and took it above and beyond a “bare form of memorialism” (Ware, pg. 240).

Did Zwingli see Jesus present in the ordinance at all?  G. W. Bromiley clarifies the Zwinglian position this way:

“Zwingli had no intention of denying a spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament [of the Lord’s Supper]…This presence certainly means that the communion is more than a ‘bare’ sign, at any rate to the believing recipient…For in the sacrament we have to do not merely with the elements but with the spiritual presence of Christ himself and the sovereign activity of the Holy Spirit.” (Ware, pg. 241)

Bromiley would add,

“Zwingli does not dispute that Christ is truly present in the Supper.  What he disputes is that he is substantially present, present in the substance of his flesh and blood, present after his human nature…He had no wish to deny the presence of Christ altogether, and the reality of the spiritual presence of Christ involves something far more than a bare memorialism.  The Supper cannot be merely a commemorative rite when the one commemorated is himself present and active amongst those who keep the feast.” (Ware, pg. 241)

So, Zwingli did not believe that the Lord’s Supper was “mere memorialism”, but he did not believe that it was less than this. He did not argue that Christ was in no way present in the Lord’s Supper.  To say that he did is not to read Zwingli closely or accurately.  He did, however, deny the Lutheran (as well as the Catholic) understanding of exactly how Jesus was present in the Supper.

Much more could be said about the Zwinglian view.  Those of us who hold to a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper would do well to think about how Zwingli balanced his memorialism with the idea of the spiritual, or sacramental, presence of Jesus in this ordinance.  In a real way, Jesus is present with us as we take the Lord’s Supper and remember what our Savior did on the cross.

Again, I pray that the church continues to practice the ordinances that our Lord Jesus has left us. As we do, I pray that we would take the time to reflect on what is being communicated through both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Understanding these certainly will lead us to understanding the gospel more fully and loving Jesus more deeply.

Again, till He returns, we do this in rememberance of Him.

All author and page references come from The Lord’s Supper book that is linked in the opening paragraph.   

  1. Jerry Chase says:

    Personally, I believe that a goodly number of genuine Reformers could not bring themselves to believe and teach that it IS a memorial service, and nothing more. Though I greatly admire Luther, he was merely a man like the rest of us, and thus was susceptible to error. On this topic, Zwingli was right, and Luther was wrong—-in my view.

    I believe that two questions should be contemplated, “Is the church a means of grace?” and, “Is the Lord’s Supper a means of grace?” While it is dangerous for me to take the pure opposite of the Romanist view, I could never accept a yes answer to this second question—-not even on my life! The Roman church so corrupted the Truth, and still holds to the Canons of Trent, that I believe that Protestants should not define the Lord’s Supper as anything more than a memorial. Otherwise, the world, outsiders, and unbelievers will not be able to discern truth from error by such similar practices of the Lord’s Supper among Christendom. We dare not hold forth that which could easily be misinterpreted, and thus, in error. We dare not be inadvertent ‘false lights’.

    I know of a denomination that used to be noted for not practicing the Lord’s Supper at all . . . . but now have largely succumbed to the spirit of “we want to be like the other nations” (having a king),
    and thus now practice the Lord’s Supper . . . . which only a generation or two before never did.

  2. Jonathon says:

    Reblogged this on Blogournal and commented:

    This week I had the chance to preach at a Reformed church in the Twin Cities area. I will be back at that particular church on Dec. 1 to preach once again. During that Sunday service they will take communion together as a body. I thought this post on the views of Zwingli from 2011 would be worth a reblog in light of that upcoming time of communion.

  3. Clayton Hutchins says:

    Here I am searching the web to see if Ware’s article on Zwingli is somewhere online, and I stumble upon a helpful blog post only afterwards to realize it is by none other than Jonathan Woodyard. 🙂 (I’m a Junior in the undergrad at BCS.)

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