Thursday, October 21, 2010

Zwingli and the Eucharist

Zwingli’s stress on the sovereignty of God underlies his understanding of word and sacrament. Thus he rejected any notion that the sacraments could be effective in or of themselves. For that would be to deny the sovereignty of God.

In his correspondence with Luther, Zwingli focused on Johannine texts such as John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”, John 6:45 “And they shall all be taught of God” and John 3:8 “The Spirit blows where he wills”. He was particularly fond of quoting John 6:63 to Luther – “It is the Spirit who gives live, the flesh is of no avail”.

Despite what is commonly believed, Zwingli did believe in the presence of Christ during the Eucharist. The commonly held view is that Zwingli denied the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as if others believed in the real presence and Zwingli in the real absence! In point of fact, Zwingli did believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist – but not his bodily presence, nor his presence in his human nature. Christ is present through the Spirit.

Zwingli’s position was developed in The Canon of the Mass in which he defended the use of the term “Eucharist”. Although this term was not used by Christ or the apostles, it makes clear that the sacrament is a gift from God. On the other hand, the term “mass” indicates that it is something that men and women offer to God.

There were several influences on Zwingli’s understanding of the Eucharist. These include Erasmus, Augustine and Hoen. The young Bullinger also had a significant influence on Zwingli’s thought concerning the Eucharist and this will be the subject of a subsequent post. Indeed, most scholars assume that Bullinger, as Zwingli’s Nachfolger, followed and developed Zwingli’s ideas. Stephens, for example, states that, “As Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, Bullinger consciously maintained Zwingli’s teaching and practice.”

On 15 June 1523 Zwingli wrote to his former teacher, Thomas Wyttenbach, concerning the Eucharist. The main concern raised was the presence of Christ. Zwingli wrote:

Eucharistiam illic edi puto, ubi fides est; in eum enim usum data est, ut mortis domini fructum, gratiam et donum cantemus, usque dum dominus veniat.

(see the post on Jim West’s blog:

In 1524 Zwingli read a letter by Cornelius Hoen. This letter argued for interpreting the word “is” as “signifies” in “this is my body”. In 1525 Zwingli was influenced by Bullinger though this is not widely known.

Gillies concluded that Zwingli made “the covenantal discovery” in the summer of 1525. 1525 was, indeed, a productive year for Zwingli. In June the Prophezei was commenced with studies on Genesis. These were subsequently published in March 1527 as the Genesis Commentary. In August of the same year Zwingli produced his Subsidiary Essay on the Eucharist of which Gillies noted, “attests to the existence of a developed covenantal theme during this period.” 1525 was also the year that Bullinger was in Zurich! He was invited by the Zürich council to attend the first disputation with the Anabaptists in Zürich on 16 January. Bullinger subsequently acted as clerk at the second (17 March) and third disputations (6-8 November). 1525 was also the year that reforms took a firm hold in Zürich.

Stephens has documented how Zwingli had different emphases on the Eucharist at different phases of his ministry. His earlier writings sought to counteract transubstantiation and Luther’s understanding of the presence of Christ. Thus he emphasized the symbolic nature of the Eucharist. For him, the focus was on remembering the death of Christ and not on the eating of the body. From 1525 onwards Zwingli referred more and more to the covenant in connection with the Eucharist. Stephens observed that in his later writings “the Eucharist is a thanksgiving for Christ’s death for us, a confession of our faith, and a commitment to love them as Christ loved us.”

(This post is based on W.P. Stephens, “Zwingli: An Introduction to his Thought”. The quotations are from: W. Peter Stephens, “Bullinger and the Anabaptists with Reference to His Von dem universchämten Frevel (1531) and to Zwingli’s Writings on the Anabaptists”, Reformation and Renaissance Review, vol. 3 (2001), p96 and Scott A. Gillies, “Zwingli and the Origin of the Reformed Covenant 1524-7”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 54 (2001), p21-50)


  1. In case the spirit of King Ludd ever convicts you, just wanted to let you know I am enjoying your blog. Keep up the post.

  2. Dear Openid,

    Thanks for the encouragement. Bullinger was one for encouraging others.

    cheers, sujomo