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).

Discussion is closed at this time.