Martin Luther, part XIII – The Marburg Conference

The Protest of the Princes had clearly stated the ground that the Reformation claimed and planted for battle the flag of Protestantism. “No one then living suspected how long and wasting the conflict would be–the synods that would deliberate, the tomes that would be written, the stakes that would blaze, and the fields on which, alas! the dead would be piled up in ghastly heaps, before that liberty which the protestors had written up on their flag should be secured as the heritage of Christendom. But one thing was obvious to all, and that was the necessity to the Reformers of union among themselves.” The History of Protestantism, 554.  Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, was especially anxious to see unity among the parties of the Reformation. He was most active in his efforts to strengthen the cause and worked day and night to that end. He was rough, fiery, fearless, and full of energy. Elector John was prudent and somewhat timid. They complemented each other in much the same way as Luther and Melancthon. But Philip’s main concern was to unite the parties so as to combine the strength of their forces for military might.

One Issue of Disunity

There was one area and one alone where there was discord. This was concerning the manner in which Christ is present in the wine and bread–corporally or spiritually? On the fundamental truths the whole body of Protestantism was as one but for this point only. The Reformers of Switzerland and the Reformers of Germany could not find union over this question.

Philip grieved over this division and longed to see it healed as he believed it was not really two opinions but one opinion stated differently. Especially now was unity needed, he felt, when they were waiting for the attack from their foes so sure to come. “They had just flung their flag upon the winds; they had unfurled it in the face of all Christendom, in the face of Rome; they had said as a body what Luther said as an individual at Worms–‘Here we stand; we can do no otherwise, so help us God.’ Assuredly the gage would be taken up, and the blow returned, by a power too proud not to feel, and too strong in armies and scaffolds not to resent the defiance. To remain disunited with such a battle in prospect, with such a tempest lowering over them, appeared madness.” Ibid., 555.

“Ere this several pamphlets had passed between Luther and Zwingli on the question of the Lord’s Supper. Those from the pen of Luther were so violent that they left an impression of weakness. The perfect calmness of Zwingli’s replies, on the other hand, produced a conviction of strength. Zwingli’s calmness stung Luther to the quick. It humiliated him. Popes and emperors had lowered their pretensions in his presence; the men of war whom the Papacy had sent forth from the Vatican to do battle with him, had returned discomfited. He could not brook the thought of lowering his sword before the pastor of Zurich. Must he, the doctor of Christendom, sit at the feet of Zwingli? A little more humility, a little less dogmatism, a stronger desire for truth than for victory, would have saved Luther from these explosions, which but tended to widen a breach already too great, and provoke a controversy which planted many a thorn in the future path of the Reformation.” Ibid.

The Marburg Conference

Philip quickly acted to bring about a reconciliation between the German and the Swiss Protestants who had come to be called the Lutheran and the Reformed respectively. Shortly after returning from the Diet of Spires he sent invitations to the leaders of the two parties to come to his Castle of Marburg to discuss their differences. Zwingli was joyful at the invitation and anxious to mend the breach. Luther was not. He declined the offer. “He did not like that the landgrave should move in this matter; he suspected that there was under it the snake of a political alliance; besides, although he did not confess it to his friends, nor perhaps to himself, he seemed to have a presentiment of defeat.” Ibid. He felt that minds that loved things that they could understand would find Zwingli’s arguments attractive. He himself believed that this great mystery of the miracle of Christ’s real bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper was in the Gospels to test the faith of the believer. “This absurdity, which wears the guise of piety, had been so often uttered by great doctors that Luther could not help repeating it.” Ibid.

After second thoughts, Luther and Melancthon realized that they could not decline. Rome would believe them to be cowards and the Reformers would lay the cause of the breach at their door. They tried to convince Elector John to veto their trip but he refused. They even proposed that a Papist should be chosen as umpire for the discussions as an “impartial judge.” When all failed they planned their journey.

With Luther came Melancthon, Jonas, and Cruciger; Zwingli was accompanied by CEolampadius, Bucer, Hedio and Osiander. Philip entertained them in princely fashion bringing them together for meals in hopes that this would help to draw them together. The first day he planned that they should have private conferences two by two. The following day the debate was to be public with a table for the members of the debate and the hall filled with a few of the many distinguished men who had come to Marburg for the occasion.

Zwingli Fails To Convince Luther

The proceedings opened with Luther taking chalk and writing on the velvet table cloth “HOC EST MEUM CORPUS.” He lifted the cloth to show it to those around him and declared, “These are the words of Christ–‘This is my body’. From this rock no adversary shall dislodge me.” Ibid., 556.

All acknowledged that these were the words of Christ, but what was their meaning? Was this meaning to be learned by following the great Protestant principle that the Word of God is the supreme authority and that the obscure and doubtful passages were to be interpreted by other passages which were more clear? If they followed this principle they would have no trouble understanding the meaning of those words.

The Swiss argued that the Bible has many figures of speech. Luther recognized this point but denied that this was such an instance. They continued to point out that if these words are taken literally then there is a contradiction between the teaching of Christ in John 6 and his teaching in the Lord’s Supper. In John 6:62, 63, concerning His instruction for His followers to “eat His flesh and drink His blood,” Christ said, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Here Luther’s arguments were so weak as to surrender the argument. He said that there was both a material eating and a spiritual eating and that the material eating was what Christ said profited nothing. This seemed to make a clear point as to the uselessness of believing in the value of a real presence, but Luther replied that we are not to question the value but just to do it.

The Swiss pointed out that the body cannot be present in two places at one time. They even used quotes from some ancient theologians to show that it was believed that this applied to the body of Christ since He took a human body. Luther said that there were more on his side than theirs. The Swiss said that they were not attempting to show authority from church Fathers for their beliefs, but to show that they were not inventing the belief. They went on to show that in numerous passages a sign is put for a thing signified. But to all arguments Luther answered little more than to repeat again and again the words that he had written on the tablecloth. He would assert that it was a matter to be believed and not understood. It might be against nature and science, but he was not concerned.

The Swiss arguments were not in vain. Many minds were opened. What had been so mysterious was now seen with the same clearness as the other institutions of the Economy of Grace and like them, as working spiritual effects by spiritual means. Luther remained unconvinced but in the audience there were many conversions. The ex–Franciscan, Francis Lambert was one notable convert. He who had enjoyed friendship and respect with Luther did not let this prevent him from taking his side with Zwingli. “The Wittemberg doctors bewailed his defection. They saw in it not a proof of the soundness of Zwingli’s argument, but an evidence of the Frenchman’s fickleness.” Ibid., 561.

Wittemberg Doctors Refuse Unity

“Two days had worn away in this discussion. The two parties were no nearer each other than at the beginning. The Swiss theologians had exhausted every argument from Scripture and from reason. Luther was proof against them all. He stood immovably on the ground he had taken up at the beginning; he would admit no sense of the words but the literal one; he would snatch up the cover from the table and, displaying triumphantly before the eyes of Zwingli and CEcolampadius the words he had written upon it–‘This is my body’–he would boast that there he still stood, and that his opponents had not driven him from this ground, nor ever should. Zwingli, who saw the hope so dearly cherished by him, of healing the schism, fast vanishing, burst into tears. He besought Luther to come to terms, to be reconciled, to accept them as brothers. Neither prayers nor tears could move the doctor of Wittemberg. He demanded of the Helvetian Reformers unconditional surrender. They must accept the Lord’s Supper in the sense in which he took it; they must subscribe to the tenet of the real presence. This the Swiss Protestants declared they could not do. On their refusal, Luther declared that he could not regard them as having standing within the Church, nor could he receive them as brothers. As a sword these words went to the heart of Zwingli. Again he burst into tears. Must the children of the Reformation be divided? Must the breach go unhealed? It must.” Ibid.

Writing about the conference a few days later, Luther described the scene, “They supplicated us to bestow upon them the title of ‘brothers.’ Zwinglius even implored the landgrave with tears to grant this. ‘There is no place on earth,’ said he, ‘where I so much covet to pass my days as at Wittemberg.’ We did not, however, accord to them this appellation of brothers. All we granted was that which charity enjoins us to bestow even upon our enemies. They, however, behaved in all respects with an incredible degree of humility and amiability.” Ibid.

Philip was extremely disappointed at this turn of events. He had worked hard and had such hopes of resolving the difficulty. When he looked toward the enemies of the Reformation he saw a strong union forming to crush both Wittemberg and Zurich, but these two camps in Protestantism were standing apart.

A terrible plague was sweeping Germany and leaving thousands dead. As it now approached Marburg there was another reason to end the conference. “Philip had welcomed the doctors with joy, he was about to see them depart in sorrow.” Ibid., 562. Charles and Clement were meeting nightly to make plans to exterminate the Protestants; the Moslems were marching on the Danube; and in Germany thousands of swords were ready to attack the adherents of the Reformation. “All round the horizon the storm seemed to be thickening; but the saddest portent of all, to the eye of Philip, was the division that parted into two camps the great Reformed brotherhood, and marshalled in two battles the great Protestant army.” Ibid.

Philip Attempts Unity Once More

Philip questioned to himself whether they were not all brothers even if Luther would not acknowledge it. He thought that if Rome saw them all as enemies then they must indeed be brothers. He made another attempt. He spoke to each participant one by one as to the advantages of unity in view of the troubles on the horizon. Out of a desire to satisfy the landgrave the parties agreed to meet again.

The interview presented a touching scene. Hundreds were dying all around from the plague. The Popish opposition was preparing for battle, eager to spill the blood of Zwinglian and Lutheran both. They cared not that Luther believed in the real presence and Zwingli differed. They saw both as heretics. Since they were all hated of men, was this not proof that they were all the followers of Christ?

“Taught by his instincts of Christian love, Zwingli opened the conference by enunciating a truth which the age was not able to receive. ‘Let us,’ said he, ‘proclaim our union in all things in which we are agreed; and as for the rest, let us forbear as brothers.’ adding that never would peace be attained in the Church unless her members were allowed to differ on secondary points . . .‘With none on earth do I more desire to be united than with you,’ said Zwingli, addressing Luther and his companions. CEcolampadius, Bucer and Hedio made the same declaration.

“This magnanimous avowal was not without its effect. It had evidently touched the hearts of the opposing rank of doctors. Luther’s prejudice and abduracy were, it appeared, on the point of being vanquished, and his coldness melted. Zwingli’s keen eye discovered this: he burst into tears–tears of joy–seeing himself, as he believed, on the eve of an event that would gladden the hearts of thousands in all the countries of the Reformation, and would strike Rome with terror. He approached: he held out his hand to Luther: he begged him only to pronounce the word ‘brother’. Alas! what a cruel disappointment awaited him. Luther coldly and cuttingly replied, ‘Your spirit is different from ours.’ It was indeed different.” Ibid., 563.

The Wittemberg doctors consulted together and agreed with Luther. ” ‘We,’ said they to Zwingli and his friends, ‘hold the belief of Christ’s bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper to be essential to salvation, and we cannot in conscience regard you as in communion of the Church.’

” ‘In that case,’ replied Bucer, ‘it were folly to ask you to recognize us as brethren. But we, though we regard your doctrine as dishonouring to Christ, now on the right hand of the Father, yet, seeing in all things you depend on him, we acknowledge you as belonging to Christ. We appeal to posterity.’ This was magnanimous . . .

“Their meekness was mightier than Luther’s haughtiness. Not only was its power felt in the conference chamber, where it made some converts, but throughout Germany.” Ibid. Their doctrine began, from this day, to spread throughout the Lutheran church. Even Luther’s last words to the conference revealed the effect, ‘We acknowledge you as friends; we do not consider you as brothers. I offer you the hand of peace and charity.’

The Marburg Confession

“Overjoyed that something had been won, the Landgrave Philip proposed that the two parties should unite in making a joint profession of their faith, in order that the world might see that on one point only did they differ, namely, the manner in which Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper, and that after all the great characteristic of the Protestant Churches was UNITY, though manifested in diversity.” Ibid. Both parties agreed and Luther was selected to draw up the articles of the Protestant faith. ” ‘I will draft them.’ said he, as he retired to his chamber to begin his task, ‘with strict regard to accuracy, but I don’t expect the Zwinglians to sign them.’ ” Ibid.

He wrote the Wittemberg view of the Christian system with fourteen points. After reading them before the assembly he was amazed when the Zwinglians cordially said Amen and were ready to sign them. Was it possible that they were so near to each other. But he had saved the argument on the Lord’s Supper till the last article. This brought the parties to an impasse and they could not advance further. They did agree however to walk together so far as they could agree and to avoid all bitterness and to regard each other with Christian charity.

They signed a joint profession of faith which marked them as distinct from the Romanist and from the enthusiasts. This document was to the oneness of Protestantism.

“But if the Church of the Reformation still remained outwardly divided, her members were thereby guarded against the danger of running into political alliances. This line of policy the Landgrave Philip had much at heart, and formed one of the objects he had in view in his attempts to conduct to a successful issue the conferences at Marburg. Union might have rendered the Protestants too strong. They might have leaned on the arm of flesh, and forgotten their true defence. The Reformation was a spiritual principle. From the sword it could derive no real help. Its conquests would end the moment those of force began. From that hour it would begin to decay, it would be powerless to conquer, and would cease to advance. But let its spiritual arm be disentangled from political armour, which could but weigh it down, let its disciples hold forth the truth, let them fight with prayers and sufferings, let them leave political alliances and the fate of battles to the ordering and overruling of their Divine Head–let them do this, and all opposition would melt in their path, and final victory would attest at once the truth of their cause, and the omnipotence of their King.” Ibid., 564.

The End