Topic: “church history”

Zwingli and Luther: A Comparison

This short essay was written for Church History: Reformation to Modernity. I trust it will at least not bore you to tears.

Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli stand at the heads of two of the most influential streams of Protestant theology—the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, respectively. While the two men were united in their opposition to Roman Catholic doctrines and agreed on many doctrinal issues, they also differed so substantially in a few points of their theology that they were unable to unite their movements in a single front against Roman Catholicism.

Luther and Zwingli both emphasized justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believers. Both rejected the Catholic doctrines of papal authority, purgatory, priestly celibacy, veneration of saints, Marian devotion, and transubstantiation. Both affirmed sola Scriptura and the necessity and centrality of preaching in the life of the congregation. They affirmed similar views of the atonement and embraced an Augustinian, monergistic understanding of salvation and regeneration. They both wrestled with the question of infant baptism but ultimately affirmed it for political reasons. In the political sphere, both embraced the idea of the Territorial Church, in which the religious views embraced by the magistrates of a given region were to be enforced upon the citizens of that region (making both both “Magisterial Reformers”).

These wide-ranging points of agreement notwithstanding, the two not only could not unite their movements but considered each other heretics. To begin, they embraced substantially different views of the New Testament’s teaching on worship services. Luther took the view that the New Testament’s explanation of the practice of the early church is descriptive, not prescriptive (the so-called “normative principle of worship”). Zwingli understood the New Testament descriptions of the early church’s worship to be prescriptive and binding on the church: anything not explicitly described or enjoined of believers in the New Testament was verboten. Thus, Luther retained much of the language and many of the trappings of the traditional Catholic service, including calling it the Mass, and left decorations and instrumental music in place. Zwingli excluded instrumental music, white-washed the walls of his church, destroyed all icons, and referred to the Eucharist not as the Mass but by its biblical name, the Lord’s Supper. Luther continued to embrace much Tradition as genuinely good and valuable, even if not binding at the same level as Scripture; Zwingli rejected almost all Tradition, moving beyond sola Scripture almost to the point of solo Scriptura.

Most significant of the differences between Zwingli and Luther was their difference on the question of the Lord’s Supper. They differed not only on what to call the eucharist, but also (and much more importantly) on what was happening when the elements were offered to the congregation. While both rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, Luther continued to embrace the doctrine of Real Presence, arguing that Jesus is especially present in the elements. Zwingli, on the other hand, rejected Real Presence and embraced a memorial view, arguing that Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Insofar as Christ might be especially present in communion, he said, it was only by the presence of his Spirit with the church—not physically, as Luther asserted.

This division proved decisive in their break with each other, as it represented not only a difference on the Lord’s Supper but a difference in Christology. Though they were arguing over which words in the institution should receive the emphasis (“this is my body” or “do this in remembrance of me”), they were also arguing over how Christ as the God-man is present everywhere. Luther emphasized the divinity of Christ, noting his omnipresence. Zwingli emphasized the humanity of Christ, noting his especial presence at the right hand of the Father and arguing that his omnipresence is now through the Spirit. Both men died considering the other a heretic because they took this issue of Christology so seriously.

I find Luther more persuasive in some areas and Zwingli in others. Luther’s approach to worship (the normative principle) seems to be the more Scriptural of the two, since there is no injunction in the New Testament against innovation in form or contextualization. Thus, Zwingli’s emphasis on the New Testament as finally authoritative would seem to militate against his stated views on worship practice, though his caution about unauthorized forms of worship is well-taken and many churches would do well to heed it more thoughtfully. On the other hand, I find Zwingli’s emphasis on the continuing humanity of Christ, and thus the continuation of the everywhere-but-especially-somewhere theme so common of God’s presence through Scripture, the most satisfying view of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, the view of Spiritual Presence that Zwingli tentatively expressed in some letters later in life, and which Calvin further developed most closely matches my own position. Yet, again with Luther, I affirm the importance of much of the Tradition, and with him I also see preaching as secondary to Communion in the gathering of the people of God (though only just).

Contra Mundum: A Biographical Sketch of Athanasius of Alexandria

The following paper was prepared for Dr. Nathan Finn’s Patristic and Medieval Church history class.

I. Athanasius the Man

Even sixteen hundred years after his death, all orthodox Christians stand indebted to Athanasius, the man who stood contra mundum, “against the world.” Born in Alexandria between A.D. 296 and 298, Athanasius grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. As an obviously talented young man coming up through the ranks of the city’s famed scholastic system, he became a deacon and within a few years was picked by Alexander to accompany him to the landmark Council of Nicaea, where he wrote one of the definitive accounts of the gathering.

Athanasius came into his bishopric as the church underwent a number of substantial challenges in the first half of the fourth century after Christ. Internally, the church faced the threat of heresy from the Arians, ecclesiastical conflict with splinter groups such as the Meletians, and the task of integrating the growing ascetic and monastic movements into the life of the church. Externally, the church confronted the changes brought on by the new realities of first tolerance and then outright patronage by the Roman Empire. These challenges pressed the bishop into new roles, not merely a “local teacher” but now a “cosmopolitan representative of ecclesiastical and often secular authority.”1 Moreover, Imperial authority now touched on every action a major bishop could take, such that “Only someone with the intellectual power, obstinacy of will and longevity of Athanasius could stand against it.”2

By the end of his life, Athanasius had made significant progress in a number of these areas, though not without cost. Each of Athanasius’ five exiles were prompted by his opposition to Arian theology as the changing winds of imperial doctrine brought Nicene orthodoxy in and out of public favor. His fight was ultimately successful, however: the Arians were vanquished decisively (though not finally) at the Council of Ephesus only eight years after his death in exile. The influence of the Meletians in Alexandria had been thoroughly blunted. The monks, though still a distinct movement within the church, were tied much more closely to the bishop and local congregations than they had been when he came into office. Finally, his willingness to oppose the emperor even at great personal cost helped establish the independence of right doctrine from Imperial political authority, even if the point remained in contention and doubt for centuries. Read on, intrepid explorer →

The negative regard with which too many in the Free Church have approached the pre-Reformation church has prevented them from seeing that Christ’s promise to build his church and cause it to prevail against the “gates of Hell” (Matt. 16:18) pertains no less to this period [between the apostles and the Reformation] of church history. This promise was meant not merely for evangelical churches! Christ is himself the head of his body which is the church (Eph. 4:16). This is the church which Christ loves and for which he gave himself up in order “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). To understand these words in solely spiritualist or eschatalogical terms would do an injustice to the present sense of the passage, by refusing to see that Christ’s establishing the church in holiness is a part of the process of every age since his ascension.

—Daniel H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants