Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Opitz on Zwingli and the Lord’s Supper

Peter Opitz, who heads the Institute for Swiss Reformation History in Zurich, recently delivered at the Sixteenth Century Conference this past October in Montreal a paper on Zwingli and the Lord’s Supper.

The paper is entitled: “At the Table of the Lord: to Zwingli’s View on the Lord’s Supper.” It can be downloaded via Jim West’s blog: http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2010/10/23/peter-opitz-zwinglis-view-on-the-lords-supper/

In this paper, Opitz takes issue with the often assumed view of Zwingli: that Zwingli “spiritualized” the Lord’s Supper with a result that Christ was not “really” present and that, therefore, the elements of bread and wine are mere “empty signs”.

Opitz draws attention to the liturgy for the Lord’s Supper developed by Zwingli in 1525: Aktion und Brauch des Nachtmahls. In this context, I believe that 1525 to be a critical year as it was the year that Bullinger gave input to Zwingli re the Lord’s Supper and, thereby, re the covenant.

Opitz’ focus on Zwingli’s liturgy is important. For it is one thing to scour Zwingli’s works and then piece together Zwingli’s thoughts on the Lord’s Supper. I have pointed out in a previous post that many of Zwingli’s earlier writings were “negative” in that they were attacking the Roman view. It is another thing to consider Zwingli’s liturgy as this gives us a window as to how he actually regarded the Lord’s Supper in practice.

The 18th of his Sixty Seven Theses (developed for the First Zurich Disputation of 1523) declares:

“That Christ, having sacrificed himself once, is to eternity a certain and valid sacrifice for the sins of the faithful, wherefrom it follows that the mass is not a sacrifice, but is a remembrance of the sacrifice and assurance of the salvation which Christ has given us.”

It can be seen for this statement how many people rush to the conclusion that, for Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper was primarily a “remembrance”. However, Opitz explains that, for Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper is a celebration of remembrance. It is also a liturgical activity commanded by Christ.

Opitz explains this as follows: “Zwingli names what happens during the Lord’s Supper, a ‘realization’ or an ‘assurance’ of the reconciliation of the person with God. The Lord’s Supper is thus a celebration of an event that has occurred and is therefore essentially a thankful, joyful and confessional meal. Zwingli’s liturgical blueprint Aktion und Brauch des Nachtmals is an attempt to put this theological idea into a liturgical form…..According to Zwingli, Christ called his church to act in a certain manner after his death, namely to celebrate Communion continuously until the eschatological meal at the accomplishment of his kingdom (Luke 22:30)”.

Opitz also explains that, for Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the “Gefletz” – ie on he very level at which the congregation is seated. Zwingli’s practical instructions involved a sermon, the reading of 1 Corinthians 11:20-29 and then the passing of the bread and wine around the church by the members themsleves. Thus, as the bread was passed around everyone could break off a piece ‘with his own hand.’ For Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper was truly a gathering at the table of Christ. Christ is the host. He makes the invitation: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-burden, and I will give you rest.”

John 6:47-63 would have been read during the distribution of the elements. This was to underline the fact that “Christ describes Himself as the true spiritual ‘bread of life’, and in the ‘I’ form invited people to come to him. It is Christ’s intention to give peace to the ‘weary and heavy-lade’. Therefore, eating and drinking the elements occurs under the ‘promise of peace’ from the host – Christ. The church is invited to come to the table that Christ has prepared, just like beggars in the parable of the dinner (Luke 14:15-24)”.

Opitz also points out that, for Zwingli, “Therefore the Lord’s Supper does not only remind of Christ’s death, but rather the entire life of God’s Son among with people: A life of caring for the ‘tax collectors’ and ‘sinners’. Here, in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s death for the sins of the world, Christ’s earthly deeds and his care for the poor, sick and lost, and the outlook at the kingdom of God are present”.

The emphasis on “table fellowship” also points to a growing and deepening relationship between the believer and God and between the believer and other believers. It is the church militant in fellowship with the church triumphant: “the Lord’s Supper becomes the place where Christ’s entire life and work is present as a scene: His earthly life, his suffering on the cross, his being at the right hand of the Father, promising to celebrate the meal again in the future kingdom”.

Thus, Opitz cites from the preface of Zwingli’s liturgy: “Necessary and helpful in no small way, for the spiritual memory of the death of Christ, to strengthen faith and brotherly loyalty, for improving life, and for protecting Christians from the vices of their own heart.”

In other words, the Lord’s Supper serves to aid the believer to keep on dealing with sin in his or her life God’s grace is offered but the believer is cautioned about misappropriating God’s grace. That is why Opitz points out: “It is no coincidence that in Zwingli’s liturgy, not only the famous words consecrating the Lord’s Supper are provided. The whole passage, where Paul outlines a “Christian Order for the Lord’s Supper’ in 1 Corinthians should be read”. That is, the warning passage was always read.

Finally, Opitz cites Zwingli against Eck where he appeals “to the Spirit of Christ and its (sic – he means 'his') multi dimensional effects in the sacraments”:

“Preach the salvation given by God and lead the human senses towards this salvation; at the same time; they spark faith, a faith which is also promised to your neighbor, and they lead to brotherly charitable love. And this is all effectuated, when it occurs, by the one and the same spirit”.

Opitz concludes his paper by declaring that Zwingli did not spiritualize the Lord’s Supper. Rather, “the table was the point where the vertical, spiritual dimension, and the horizontal, human dimension, could meet.”

To Professor Opitz we say: Vielen Dank für Ihre aufschlussreichen Gedanken!

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