The ROAD TO REFORMATION
In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues
with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.
When a toddler writes on things, it is destructive. But when Martin Luther wrote on something as a grown man, it revealed his passion for the Word of God.
Rewind to 1525. Luther began exchanging sharp words with Ulrich Zwingli, a former priest in Basel, Switzerland. The two agreed on much, but not all, doctrine. Zwingli taught that the Holy Spirit could come to a person outside the Word. He was vague on original sin. But the clearest separation between the two theologians was on the Lord’s Supper.
Zwingli believed that communion called to mind the body and blood of Christ, but he rejected Luther’s teaching that Christ’s body and blood are truly present together with the visible elements.
Other Swiss reformers worked toward compromise, convincing Zwingli to admit Jesus was present in a “sacramental way,” that something “special” was received in communion. Luther thought the word play proved Zwingli was of a “different spirit.” Luther said, “How the words sound is where your heart stands.”
Europe’s doctrinal diversity filled Luther with the resolve to confess Scriptural teaching in clear and immutable fashion.
He began preaching on what he called the six chief parts of Christian doctrine, in order to get the words as precise as possible. In 1529, he published those words in “small, plain, simple form.” This Small Catechism allowed pastors and fathers to teach the faith in a repeatable and standard way, in the spirit of God’s command for His Word to be written “on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9) and “on the tablet of your heart” (Proverbs 7:3). He also published the Large Catechism, a thorough explanation of each carefully chosen word.
In July, Luther and other like-minded reformers began work on the Schwabach Articles. This document clarified what Scripture taught concerning the key doctrines contested across Europe and would serve as a precursor to the Augsburg Confession.
Then, in October, Luther and Zwingli finally met—the only time they would.
German political leaders were desperate for reconciliation. Basel and Wittenberg were independent of Rome, but several states in between were loyal to the Pope. They hoped that an agreement between Zwingli and Luther might serve to unite the Protestant states in the face of the Catholic threat.
Philipp of Hesse arranged for Luther, Zwingli, and others to hold a colloquy, or doctrinal discussion, in Marburg. The Colloquy was a four-day affair that included sumptuous wining and dining. Philipp reserved the face-to-face meeting for later. First, Luther was to meet with milder Basel theologians. They were also to discuss fourteen other points, hoping to find themselves in agreement.
When the time to face Zwingli directly had arrived, Luther wanted few others in the room, just Philipp of Hesse and an ally for each side.
The reports of that closed meeting are mixed, but that there was passion is undeniable. Some say Luther scratched the words “This is My body” into Philipp’s fine velvet tablecloth with chalk. Others say a knife gouged the letters into the tabletop’s fine veneer.
Whatever the bold action, the Marburg Colloquy ended with a fifteenth point declaring that no agreement could be found. The only statement Luther would sign was one which confessed and delineated their doctrinal differences.
Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.