We each share a very small window of perspective on history, but the ardent divisions around race, political party, religion and national origin seem to be as stark today as they have ever been. As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Protestant Christians must confess that an unfortunate legacy of the Reformation has been to exacerbate divisions in church and the world.
The conflict began early in the Protestant movement. In 1529, just 12 years after Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, a crack had emerged among those opposed to the church in Rome. The Protestants now protested each other.
Two reformers stood at the center of this controversy: Martin Luther in Germany and Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland. The doctrine in question was the Lord’s Supper. The meal that Christ had given the church as a sign of its unity and peace had become a chief cause of division.
To briefly summarize their dispute: In a slight change from the Catholic doctrine, Luther argued that in the celebration of the sacrament, Christ’s body was truly and physically present in the bread despite the fact that the bread continued to be bread. In the same way that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, at the Lord’s Supper the bread becomes both fully bread and fully Christ’s body. Literally, “this is my body.” (1 Cor. 11:24)
Zwingli, however, focused on the second sentence in 1 Cor. 11:24, “Do this in remembrance.” In a significant departure from the theology of Catholic Church, Zwingli argued that the meal was just a meal. The bread was just bread, the wine was just wine. So as the church gathered to celebrate the sacrament, they did it at Christ’s command because the meal was a memorial or commemoration through which the church demonstrated its faith. Literally, “Do this in remembrance.”
For three years, the two men traded papers and barbs. But by 1529, the stakes had risen. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was preparing to put down the Reformation by force. So some German princes, sympathetic to the Reformers, attempted to create a military alliance between the territories and city-states of southern Germany and Switzerland. Only one major obstacle stood in the way of this Protestant alliance: the controversy between Luther and Zwingli about the Lord’s Supper. It is hard to believe today, but in the 16th century, theological division impeded international politics.
In the face of great political pressure, the two men and several of their associates met at a castle in Marborg, Germany, in October 1529. There were 15 total items in dispute and after four days of conversations, agreement had been reached on the first 14. As Luther and Zwingli sat down at a table to discuss number 15, the Lord’s Supper, Zwingli asked Luther for a scriptural passage to prove his doctrine. Luther pulled back a scarf lying on the table to reveal words he had written before the meeting began, “This is my body.” Zwingli responded with the words from the sixth chapter of John: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” From there, the debate spiraled as each man quoted this scripture and that scripture in defense of his understanding of how the body of Christ was present when the congregation gathered for the sacrament. Ultimately, despite their true desire for unity, Luther and Zwingli finally admitted, “we have not agreed at this moment whether the true body and blood of Christ be corporeally present in the bread and wine.” The conference ended and the princes’ military alliance remained only a dream.
While perhaps one of the most well-known early divisions in the Protestant Christian movement, the Marborg Colloquy was certainly by no means the last. Conflicts often turned violent. The Thirty Years War, fought between 1618 and 1648, began as a religious war between Catholics and Protestants, but developed into a more general conflict between political states. The result was the longest and most deadly war in European history with more than 8 million casualties.
Over the centuries, the divisions and splits within the Protestant movement have grown. Some estimate there are more than 30,000 Protestant denominations with at least 100 distinct congregations. That number swells when one attempts to count the wide variety of independent churches and worshiping communities in towns such as Augusta, much less throughout the world.
Protestant Christians need to confess and repent for the way our quest for purity of doctrine and practice has fractured the church and tarnished the message of love and reconciliation entrusted to the church by Christ. In a world so beset by divisions, is it possible to demonstrate a different and better way to bring unity to the world?
Since 1967, the Joint Lutheran-Catholic Study Commission has been meeting to dialogue, pray and seek common ground on topics of disagreement. In 2015, the Commission released a paper A Declaration on the Way that identifies 32 “Statements of Agreement” where Lutherans and Catholics already have points of convergence on topics about church, ministry and the Lord’s Supper. These agreements signal that Catholics and Lutherans are indeed “on the way” to full, visible unity.
As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this witness to growing unity speaks a vital message to a world where messages of hope and reconciliation are often drowned out. Other Protestant denominations and theological traditions such as the Reformed (Presbyterian), United Methodist, Anglican (Episcopalian), and Baptist have entered similar dialogues and continue to seek ways of unity and communion.
Despite the Reformation’s many gifts to the church and our communities, the Protestant churches must recognize the ways we contribute to the deep divisions that plague the world. May we take this anniversary commemoration as an opportunity to come alongside one another, to repair a relationship in our own lives that has been broken, to offer and ask for forgiveness, and to seek a better world. For God is not finished with us yet and by God’s amazing grace one day we will all join together around a common table.
Dr. Matthew A. Rich is the pastor of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta.