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The Colloquy of Marburg

Luther and Zwingli: So close and yet so far

Since the Protestant Reformation (1500s), a number of different Protestant groups have attempted to join together. One such meeting took place in 1529, during the Reformation, in the town of Marburg, Germany, between two leaders of different Protestant movements: Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. And it almost worked.

Luther (1483-1546) and Zwingli (1484-1531) led reform movements which occurred at the same time but in different countries: Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland.

They had common influences. For example, Erasmus (1469-1536) greatly influenced Luther and Erasmus with his ideas that the papacy and clergy had become too lax and dependent on wealth.

These two Reformers appeared to have arrived at their conclusions without influence from the other. And these conclusions were very similar. Both spoke against Catholic practices such as praying to saints, purgatory, the necessity of a priest for the forgiveness of sins, monasticism and clerical celibacy. Indeed, both Luther and Zwingli had been clergy (Luther a monk and Zwingli a priest), which meant they were celibate. And both, after breaking with the Catholic Church, had gotten married.

They also both rejected the Catholic idea of transubstantiation, the idea that when a priest prays for the bread and wine—also called the elements—of the Lord’s Supper, the elements become the actual body and blood of Christ.

With so many similar beliefs, some wondered if these two movements could join together. And so a meeting was called in the town of Marburg, Germany in 1529. This meeting would become known as the Colloquy of Marburg. (A "colloquy" is derived from the Latin and means "to converse.")

Luther and Zwingli met on October 1-3, 1529. They discussed their ideas and agreed on almost every point. In fact, on only one point did they differ, and that was the answer to the question: If the bread and wine do not become the actual body and blood of Jesus, what happens to them?

Luther believed the elements remained bread and wine, but that something spiritual did happen. This came to be known as "consubstantiation," and Luther illustrated it by the example of iron and fire. When iron is placed in fire it remains iron, but something else happens to it, it is heated. In the same way, Luther believed the bread and wine changed in some way, although they remained bread and wine. Zwingli, on the other hand, believed that the Lord’s Supper was purely symbolic.

The focal Scripture for Luther was the phrase, "This is my body," spoken by Jesus about the bread of communion (Mat 26:26). [In the interest of full disclosure, Catholics also use this verse.] Luther was so adamant about this statement that, in a spirit of high drama (according to one story), he wrote it in chalk on the table he and Zwingli used; this constantly reminded Zwingli of that passage which Luther believed undercut Zwingli’s "symbolic" understanding.

Other points were also discussed. In fact, at the end of the Colloquy a statement called the "Marburg Articles" was drafted consisting of fifteen points which had been presented. On only one, the Lord’s Supper, did they disagree. Partly because of this, the two sides did not join together.

And to this day Lutherans and Baptists (a group which Zwingli influenced) still hold these same differing beliefs of what happens to the bread and wine/grape juice of the Lord’s Supper.

To learn the original reason for churches switching from wine to grape juice during communion, go here.

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