Assurance Christology and Eucharist

Luther's search for the gracious God led him, as we noted above, to the cross at Calvary. It was there, in the broken body of the incarnate God hanging upon the cross, that Luther found the God of grace for whom he had been looking. Underlying this notion was an understanding of Christ's person which had radical implications for the whole of his theology, particularly, as history was to demonstrate, for his understanding of the eucharist.

Parallel to the distinction between law and gospel was a distinction in Luther's theology between God hidden and God revealed. God hidden was the awesome and terrible God of judgment and of death. For a human being to approach the hidden God was tantamount to suicide - one could expect nothing from such a God but hell and destruction. The revealed God, however, was the God of grace and mercy - those who approached God where and how he had revealed himself and given himself to be known, would find him gracious and merciful, the God of gospel love. This emphasis gives Luther's theology a profound christocentricity - it is in the incarnate Christ that we find God as he has given himself to us, as he reveals himself to us.10 Thus, in answer to the pressing question, "Where can I find the gracious God?" the reply resounds "In Christ and in Christ alone." The dramatic impact of this upon Luther's Christology is that he refuses to countenance any kind of gracious encounter between human beings and God which does not involve Christ, and that not simply as the second person of the Trinity, but as the incarnate person as well. It is in the humanity of Christ that the believer finds God revealed as gracious, and to seek an encounter with God outside of that humanity is to seek the hidden God of judgment, not the revealed God of grace. Put simply, the result is that wherever we today find the gracious God, there we also find the gracious God's humanity as well.

In terms of Reformation history, the immediate and devastating consequence of this view was a breach between the Lutheran and Reformed churches over the nature of the eucharist, a breach formalized by the failure to reach agreement on the issue at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529, where the principal protagonists were Luther himself and the Zurich pastor and churchman Huldrych Zwingli.11 While agreeing on 1472 out of 15 points for discussion, they failed to agree on the significance of the eucharist.12 Zwingli argued for a symbolic presence of Christ in the eucharist, partly on the grounds that Christ's body was circumscribed by the normal physical dimensions of a human body, and that this had ascended to heaven where he would remain until the second coming. The key words "This is my body" could not, therefore, have anything other than a primarily symbolic meaning.

For Luther, this effectively turned the eucharist into a disaster area - if the humanity of Christ was not present but God was there in some way, then it must be the hidden God of judgment, and the eucharist is thus a means of judgment and damnation not of grace. Instead, Luther saw no reason to take the words of institution at anything other than face value: Christ said it was his body - therefore, it must be his body. The metaphysical problems involved in tying the bread and the flesh together in the same space did not worry him; for Luther, it was simply necessary to accept by faith that Christ's humanity, in some deep and mysterious way, was there in the bread and that, as in the word, so in the eucharist the poor sinner found the gracious God.

In assessing the breach between Luther and Zwingli at Marburg, it is tempting to see the issue as somewhat trivial given the large amount of common ground between the two men - a debate over an admittedly difficult, though somewhat peripheral, piece of exegesis. Indeed, the debate at Marburg tended to focus almost entirely on the issue of exegesis at the expense of the underlying doctrinal concerns, with Zwingli arguing that, as a literal interpretation of other sayings of Christ, such as "I am the door," made no sense, one was under no obligation to pursue such literalism with regard to the words of institution. Luther's response was simply to assert that non-literal interpretation could be used when no other approach offered cogent results, but the literal way should always be preferred. In the case of the eucharist, he argued, the literal approach did not result in any absurdity. In arguing this, of course, he merely begged the question of the criteria by which something is judged absurd, and thus pointed to the real points of dispute between the Reformed and the Lutherans: those of Christology and soteri-ology. It was ultimately the differing understandings of these two areas which provided the criteria by which each side judged the exegesis of the other to be absurd.

To interpret the debate in purely exegetical terms, then, is to underestimate the theological issues at stake. While it is true that the debates at Marburg hardly went beyond points of exegesis and the hurling of insults, the underlying questions, those of soteri-ology and Christology, are fundamentally important, and neither Luther nor Zwingli could really have come to any meaningful agreement at Marburg without a distinct modification, if not abandonment, of key theological points. It is these issues which were the real source of doctrinal, and hence ecclesiastical, division, and it was debates about these questions which were to dominate the subsequent debates between the two branches of mainstream Protestantism.

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