On this date 489 years ago -- Oct. 4, 1529 -- a crucial Christian theological gathering called the Marburg Colloquy ended without an agreement among the early leaders of the Protestant Reformation on how to understand a central sacrament of the faith -- the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion and the Lord's Supper.
Today, many Christians assume that the primary difference in understandings of what happens in Communion is between Catholics and Protestants, not among Protestants. And, for sure, only Catholics use the explanation called transubstantiation to describe how the bread and wine used in the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Christ. (The change I just mentioned is not as simple as I just described, and I will get to that in a minute.)
But, in reality, Protestants themselves even today remain divided about how to understand the sacrament. Some branches of the faith, following reformer Ulrich Zwingli, argue that the holy meal is simply a memorial and that the bread and wine "signify," or symbolize, the body and blood of Christ but do not actually become them. Others Protestants, following Martin Luther and others, are what are described as "Real Presence" people, which is to say that they believe that Christ is somehow really present in the sacrament, though they don't use transubstantiation (or any other explanation) to describe how that happens. It's simply a holy mystery.
So the difference that Luther and Zwingli could not bridge remains today, though it has been a long time since actual physical wars were fought between Protestants over the matter. Not only that, but my guess is that not many Christian lay people can articulate what their branch of the faith teaches about what happens in the Eucharist. For instance, I'd be surprised to find even five percent of the people in a typical Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, like mine, who know that we Presbyterians, too, are "Real Presence" people.
And my guess is that many Catholics cannot explain the basis for the doctrine of transubstantiation. I mentioned above that it's a little more complicated than simply to say the body and bread become the body and blood of Christ. That's because the doctrine is rooted in Aristotelian science, which divides the world into "accidents" (taste, feel, color, etc.) and "substances" (the core essence of something -- the "breadness" of the bread, the "wineness" of the wine).
So, as I say, what happens in the Eucharist, according to transubstantiation, is that the substance of the bread and the substance of the wine get transformed into the substance of the body and the substance of the blood of Christ, though the accidents of bread and wine remain the same. That is, after the transformation, the bread still looks like bread and the wine still looks like wine.
It turns out that today some of the transcript of the Marburg Colloquy can be found online here, though I have no idea who, at the time, recorded such careful notes, if that's what these really are and not some later reconstruction and translation.
It's sort of fun to read Zwingli saying that "we must take the word 'is' in the Lord's Supper (he's talking here about the phrase "this is my body") to mean 'signifies.'" And that "we assert it to be impossible that God would command us to eat his flesh in a physical sense." And to read Luther saying, "God is beyond all mathematics, and the words of God are to be revered and carried out in awe. It is God who commands, 'Take, eat, this is my body.' I request, therefore, valid scriptural proof to the contrary."
And off they went to no resolution.
What's important today for people to remember, I think, is that although there remain doctrinal differences between and among Christians, most people in the pews now seem more interested in how to live out the faith in their everyday lives rather than in hotly debating whether the "is" in "this is my body" means "signifies." In that, they are focusing on the right thing.
Still, this Christian history is important in that it helped to shape what Christianity is today. And if we Christians don't like the atomized shape of the Christian world now we should be doing something to help unify it rather than mindlessly continuing the dispute that Luther and Zwingli couldn't settle 489 years ago today.
(The painting above of the Marburg gathering is by August Noack and found on this Wikipedia site. Notice that Luther is pointing to his words on the table, "Hoc Est Corpus Meum," "This Is My Body.")
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SOME FAMOUS JTA BYLINES
Yesterday here on the blog I mentioned that in World War II, the Jewish Telegraph Agency created something called the Overseas News Service, which from time to time published #FakeNews stories in an effort to combat Adolf Hitler. A friend who read that then alerted me to the fact that journalists Daniel Schorr and Theodore White did some reporting for the JTA in that era. Here is the Schorr story and here is a story that mentions both Schorr and White.