In an attempt to unify the Protestant forces, in 1529 Philip of Hesse invited Zwingli and Luther to meet in the city of Marburg. There, from October 1 to 4, discussion turned into rancorous debate, as it quickly became evident that on the paramount issue of the Eucharist neither side was ready to make concessions. This letter is Zwingli’s account of the exchange.
Letter to Vadian (20 October 1529)
The landgrave decided that there should be separate preliminary conferences in private, Oecolampadius with Luther and Melanchthon with Zwingli, to seek between themselves for any possible measure of agreement that could lead to peace. Here Luther’s reaction to Oecolampadius was such that he came to me and privately complained that once again he had come up against Eck! Don’t tell this to anyone you can’t trust.
Melanchthon I found uncommonly slippery; he kept changing his shape like another Proteus, forced me—in lieu of salt!—to use my pen as a weapon and keep my hand dry, so that I could hold him fast for all his chafings and wrigglings and dodgings.
I am sending you a copy of a few extracts from our very lengthy conversations on the understanding that you will only show it to those you can trust—I mean, to those who will not use it to stir up another crisis: remember that Philip [Melanchthon] has a copy too, for I drew it up in his presence and under his eye, and many of his own words he actually dictated. But the last thing we want is to bring on a new crisis. Philip and I spent six hours together, Luther and Oecolampadius three.
On the next day the four of us entered the arena in the presence of the landgrave and a few others—twenty-four at most; we fought it out in this and in three further sessions, thus making four in all in which, with witnesses, we fought our winning battle. Three times we threw at Luther the fact that he had at other times given a different exposition from the one he was now insisting on of those ridiculous ideas of his, that Christ suffered in his divine nature, that the body of Christ is everywhere, and that the flesh profits nothing; but the dear man had nothing to say in reply—except that on the matter of the flesh profiting nothing he said: “You know, Zwingli, that all the ancient writers have again and again changed their interpretations of passages of Scripture as time went on and their judgment matured.”
He said: “The body of Christ is eaten and received into our body in the bodily sense [corporaliter], but at the same time I reserve my judgment on whether the human spirit eats his body too”—when a little before he had said: “the body of Christ is eaten by the mouth in the bodily sense, but the human spirit does not eat him in the bodily sense.” He said: “[the bread and wine] are made into the body of Christ by the utterance of these words—‘This is my body’—however great a criminal one might be who pronounces them.” He conceded that the body of Christ is finite. He conceded that the Eucharist may be called a “sign” of the body of Christ. These and others are examples of the countless inconsistencies, absurdities and follies which he babbles out like water lapping on the shore; but we refuted him so successfully that the landgrave himself has now come down on our side, though he does not say so in the presence of some of the princes.
The Hessian entourage, almost to a man, has withdrawn from Luther’s position. The landgrave himself has given permission for our books to be read with impunity, and in future will not allow “bishops” who share our views to be ejected from their place. John, the Saxon prince, was not there, but [Ulrich of] Württemberg was.
We finally left [Marburg] with certain agreements which you will soon see in print. The truth prevailed so manifestly that if ever anyone was beaten it was the foolish and obstinate Luther. He was clearly defeated, as any wise and fair judge would agree, although he now makes out that he was not beaten. We have, however, achieved this much good, that our agreement on the rest of the doctrines of the Christian religion will prevent the papal party from hoping any longer that Luther will be on their side. … *
*D. Janz, A Reformation reader: Primary texts with introductions, pp. 161–162.