Martin Bucer party III: AbendmahlstreitThis is the third and last part of my series on Martin Bucer. The series starts here. Part II is here.
The Abendmahlstreit (Communion or Last Supper Controversy) is the best example of Bucer’s ecumenicalism–and its limits. The controversy concerned the nature of the Communion species (host): was it the ‘real presence’ of Christ, and what did the individual, especially the non-believed, receive when they took communion? It was a debate the flared up between two emerging camps within the Reformation: Luther and the German Reformers, Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers. On the one hand, Luther believed that there was ‘no presence’ within the species. On the other, Zwingli opined that there was a presence, but that not all the nourishment within the host was destined for the non-believer.
Bucer tried to create agreement around an ambiguous position: there was a spiritual presence on top of the physical presence, and the believer who took the host engaged in ‘spiritual eating’. The non-believer could not cheat G-d by taking the host: he did not possess the correct spiritual mentality in order to eat it fully. Bucer opined that the presence was spiritual rather than physical. This was the first of many interpretations in which he tried to describe a parallelism (miteinander/beieinander) between physical and spiritual elements of the species. Zwingli was not convinced of ‘double eating’. He demanded an explanation that was more explicit and that said that the non-believer received nothing.
The Streit became more acute when Luther forced Andreas von Karlstadt to seek refuge in Strasbourg in a dispute over the presence. Bucer attempted to mediate again. He went back to Latin and Greek version of the Bible to compare the wording; he concluded that the presence was symbolic rather than actual. This definition, on the surface, brought Bucer closer to the Swiss camp, but his interpretation was based more on Luther’s hermeneutics. Bucer tried to introduce his interpretation into German translations of Luther’s Latin writings. Rather than healing the rift, Luther became suspicious of Bucer and cut off ties for producing a specious and malicious translation.
The break led Bucer to collaborate with Zwingli. Strasbourg became the axis of communication for the Swiss Reform movement in Southern Germany. However, Strasbourg also became the axis around which the Streit turned. The split between Bucer and Luther complicated the city’s diplomacy.
Bucer attempted another mediation. This time he claimed that the conflict was merely a miscommunication, and the differences between the Germans and the Swiss were minor: just ‘modes of expression’. Not all nourishment was destined for the non-believer, and there were various purposes for eating the host. The two camps were brought together at Marburg in 1529 for a contentious meeting. (The negotiations were mostly between Bucer and Melancthon.) Bucer avoided all references to the non-believer. Luther and his entourage continued to resist Bucer. He called Bucer:
Schlingel, Nichtnutz, mit einem anderen Geist behaftet.Nonetheless, the conference ended with a Concord between the groups agreeing on ‘spiritual eating’.
It was an unstable Concord: it fell apart as soon as Zwingli died. Luther, in the Warning to Frankfurt of 1533, demanded adherence to his interpretation of ‘no presence’ in the host. The Swiss responded with their own calls for orthodoxy. Strasbourg’s political situation was still not resolved: Bucer and mayor Jacob Sturm signed the Tetrapolitan Confessions with Basel in 1530. Bucer continued to hold the middle ground. In 1534 he wrote to clergy in Münster:
We believe and confess that the Lord gives his true body and his true blood, not as food for the stomach ... but in such a divine way that the Lord truly lives in us ... .
A breakthrough came in 1536. At his house in Wittenberg Luther accepted the ‘real presence’ (that eating the host was more than a matter of nutrition). They did not define the meaning of the presence, agreeing that it was a ‘mystery’. The non-believer “ate of his damnation”. The issue was not really resolved, but a framework was established for further discussions. Bucer hoped to continue the dialogue, but getting Luther to agree require that he ground the Concord in Luther’s theology. Therefore he lacked latitude with which to negotiate with the Swiss. The burden was on the Zwinglians to accept the agreement as-is. This was, however, of little consequence. They had grown distant from the Germans, and the talks were mostly between the Lutherans and South Germans. Furthermore, there was no more political urgency to resolve the Streit–the Concord between Bucer and
In Leopold Ranke, in History of the Reformation in Germany, described Bucer as a “fanatic of unity”: he conceded too much, and allowed his theology to be overrun by political necessities. His only mention of Bucer comes with respect to the Marburg Conference, which he calls the failure of a great alliance. However, it was a failure that had historical consequences: the split between the Protestantism and the Reform removed the Swiss from the German world. Only a nineteenth-century nationalist could make that assessment. Bucer’s attitude helped to establish toleration in South Germany that allowed different confessions thrive in the same spaces.
Note: corrections made.