The general discussion took place on Saturday, the 2d of October, in a large hall (which cannot now be identified with certainty). The Landgrave in plain dress appeared with his court as an eager listener, but not as an arbitrator, and was seated at a separate table. The official attendants on the Lutheran side were Luther (dressed as an Electoral courtier) and Melanchthon, behind them Jonas and Cruciger of Wittenberg, Myconius of Gotha, Osiander of Nuernberg, Stephen Agricola of Augsburg, Brentius of Hall in Swabia; on the Reformed side Zwingli and Oecolampadius, and behind them Bucer and Hedio of Strassburg: all men of eminent talent, learning, and piety, and in the prime of manhood and usefulness.
Luther and Zwingli were forty-six, Oecolampadius forty-seven, Bucer thirty-eight, Hedio thirty-five, Melanchthon thirty-two, the Landgrave only twenty-five years of age. Luther and Melanchthon, Zwingli and Oecolampadius, as the chief disputants, sat at a separate table, facing each other.
Besides these representative theologians there were a number of invited guests, princes (including the exiled Duke Ulrich of Wuerttemberg), noblemen, and scholars (among them Lambert of Avignon). Zwingli speaks of twenty-four, Brentius of fifty to sixty, hearers. Poor Carlstadt, who was then wandering about in Friesland, and forced to sell his Hebrew Bible for bread, had asked for an invitation, but was refused. Many others applied for admission, but were disappointed.
Zwingli advocated the greatest publicity and the employment of a recording secretary, but both requests were declined by Luther. Even the hearers were not allowed to make verbatim reports. Zwingli, who could not expect the Germans to understand his Swiss dialect, desired the colloquy to be conducted in Latin, which would have placed him on an equality with Luther; but it was decided to use the German language in deference to the audience.
John Feige, the chancellor of the Landgrave, exhorted the theologians in an introductory address to seek only the glory of Christ and the restoration of peace and union to the church.
The debate was chiefly exegetical, but brought out no new argument. It was simply a recapitulation of the preceding controversy, with less heat and more gentlemanly courtesy. Luther took his stand on the words of institution in their literal sense: “This is my body;” the Swiss, on the word of Christ: “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit and are life.”
Luther first rose, and declared emphatically that he would not change his opinion on the real presence in the least, but stand fast on it to the end of life. He called upon the Swiss to prove the absence of Christ, but protested at the outset against arguments derived from reason and geometry. To give pictorial emphasis to his declaration, he wrote with a piece of chalk on the table in large characters the words of institution, with which he was determined to stand or fall: “Hoc est corpus Meum.”
Oecolampadius in reply said he would abstain from philosophical arguments, and appeal to the Scriptures. He quoted several passages which have an obviously figurative meaning, but especially John 6:63, which in his judgment furnishes the key for the interpretation of the words of institution, and excludes a literal understanding. He employed this syllogism: Christ cannot contradict himself; he said, “The flesh profiteth nothing,” and thereby rejected the oral manducation of his body; therefore he cannot mean such a manducation in the Lord’s Supper.
Luther denied the second proposition, and asserted that Christ did not reject oral, but only material manducation, like that of the flesh of oxen or of swine. I mean a sublime spiritual fruition, yet with the mouth. To the objection that bodily eating was useless if we have the spiritual eating, he replied, If God should order me to eat crab-apples or dung, I would do it, being assured that it would be salutary. We must here close the eyes.
Here Zwingli interposed: God does not ask us to eat crab-apples, or to do any thing unreasonable. We cannot admit two kinds of corporal manducation; Christ uses the same word “to eat,” which is either spiritual or corporal. You admit that the spiritual eating alone gives comfort to the soul. If this is the chief thing, let us not quarrel about the other. He then read from the Greek Testament which he had copied with his own hand, and used for twelve years, the passage John 6:52, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” and Christ’s word, 6:63.
Luther asked him to read the text in German or Latin, not in Greek. When Christ says, “The flesh profiteth nothing,” he speaks not of his flesh, but of ours.
Zwingli: The soul is fed with the spirit, not with flesh.
Luther: We eat the body with the mouth, not with the soul. If God should place rotten apples before me, I would eat them.
Zwingli: Christ’s body then would he a corporal, and not a spiritual, nourishment.
Luther: You are captious.
Zwingli: Not so; but you contradict yourself.
Zwingli quoted a number of figurative passages; but Luther always pointed his finger to the words of institution, as he had written them on the table. He denied that the discourse, John 6, had any thing to do with the Lord’s Supper.
At this point a laughable, yet characteristic incident occurred. “Beg your pardon,” said Zwingli, “that passage [John 6:63] breaks your neck.” Luther, understanding this literally, said, “Do not boast so much. You are in Hesse, not in Switzerland. In this country we do not break people’s necks. Spare such proud, defiant words, till you get back to your Swiss.”
Zwingli: In Switzerland also there is strict justice, and we break no man’s neck without trial. I use simply a figurative expression for a lost cause.
The Landgrave said to Luther, “You should not take offense at such common expressions.” But the agitation was so great that the meeting adjourned to the banqueting hall.
The discussion was resumed in the afternoon, and turned on the christological question. I believe, said Luther, that Christ is in heaven, but also in the sacrament, as substantially as he was in the Virgin’s womb. I care not whether it be against nature and reason, provided it be not against faith.
Oecolampadius: You deny the metaphor in the words of institution, but you must admit a synecdoche. For Christ does not say, This is bread and my body (as you hold), but simply, This is my body.
Luther: A metaphor admits the existence of a sign only; but a synecdoche admits the thing itself, as when I say, the sword is in the scabbard, or the beer in the bottle.
Zwingli reasoned: Christ ascended to heaven, therefore he cannot be on earth with his body. A body is circumscribed, and cannot be in several places at once.
Luther: I care little about mathematics.
The contest grew hotter, without advancing, and was broken up by a call to the repast.*
*History of the Christian church (Vol. 7, pp. 638–642).