Times Past, Pausing to Remember


Marburg is a medieval city in central Germany, and its 13th century castle (below, left) was the scene of a famous meeting between the two Protestant Reformation leaders, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Luther's work was in Germany, whereas Zwingli's home territory was the Canton of Zurich in what is now Switzerland.

Marburg Castle The two men were agreed on many religious principles but were seriously at odds over the meaning of holy communion. The Roman Catholic church taught that in the ceremony of the mass, the priest was able through miraculous power to transform the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. Neither Zwingli nor Luther found that view acceptable or supported by Scripture. Christ had ascended into heaven and his body was in heaven, not on earth. Luther believed that Christ was spiritually present in the bread and wine. Zwingli believed the whole ceremony of communion was a memorial of Christ's death for us, but Christ was not present in the elements, either physically or spiritually.

Disagreements between theologians was nothing new, but the conflict between Luther and Zwingli was viewed as a serious political crisis, and one with great and lasting consequences. As leaders of the Protestant movement in two separate countries, Luther and Zwingli threatened any kind of political alliance between the two countries. Philip of Hesse (1504-1567), the Landgrave of Hesse, understood the political benefits of an alliance with Switzerland, as did the Swiss. The Protestant states in their infancy were, after all, trying to survive beneath the cloud of Catholic Europe; the leaders of these states understood their precarious position since they were surrounded on all sides by hostile countries.

An alliance between the German and Swiss states, as intelligent as this was politically, foundered on the theological dispute between Luther and Zwingli. In order for the two states to ally themselves, the two Protestant churches had to agree on basic theology, particularly the theology of the nature of Christ.

In October, 1529, Philip invited both Luther and Zwingli to his castle in Marburg to hash out their differences. Their discussions ended in failure. Luther, for his part, thought Zwingli to be mad, a religious fanatic who had lost touch with common sense and spirituality. Zwingli, for his part, thought Luther to be hopelessly enmeshed in unsupportable Catholic doctrine. Their meeting in Marburg was perhaps the last point in the Reformation at which the movement could have preserved some unity. After Marburg, unification of the various Protestant movements became impossible, and the new church, which Luther believed would become another, more pure universal church, fragmented into dozens of sects unable to reach common ground.

City of Marburg
City of Marburg, with its castle above