Luther's Life: Lessons From a Controversial Colloquy

There is an episode from Luther’s life in which he played a prominent role.  It is not a story with a happy ending, but we should be familiar with the Marburg Colloquy because it holds important lessons for the Reformed community today.

In the middle of the 1520s, key Protestants desired a political alliance between the Lutheran and Reformed (the non-Lutheran reformers in Switzerland and Strasbourg) bodies in order to bolster the reform movement and to present a united front against Rome, which had been mounting increasingly aggressive military efforts to counter the gains made by the Protestants.  To accomplish this, a meeting of the key players from both parties was sponsored by the ardent Protestant prince, Philip, Landgrave of Hesse.  His intent was to have the principals discuss and resolve their differences so that a confederation that was political as well as religious could be formed.

Zwingli had been in favor of such a détente, but Luther doubted the prospects for success and so hesitated to participate.  Despite holding many theological views in common, the Lutheran and the Reformed parties experienced a significant stalemate over the Lord’s Supper, which had played out in a rancorous and vitriolic literary debate between Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the years preceding the Marburg Colloquy.  In fact, Luther believed that since both sides were so entrenched and that neither could marshal new arguments or would change their mind, the results of the colloquy might be worse than the current impasse.

Yet the two parties met at the Landgrave’s Marburg castle in central Germany in October 1529.  Luther and Melanchthon headed the Lutheran delegation, and the Reformed side included Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Bucer.

The first-hand accounts show that while the discussions were often tense and at times acrimonious, the parties were able to agree on fourteen points, which included the persons of the Trinity, original sin, faith, justification, confession, and baptism.  When they came to the fifteenth (and last) point, the Lord’s Supper, the two sides were even able to agree on five of six sub-points regarding the Supper, some of which included that it was instituted by Christ, that the laity should be given both the bread and the cup, and that the Supper in the mass cannot secure grace for someone else.

But when it came to agreeing on the sixth sub-point, whether Christ is bodily present in the elements, the most distinguished minds of Protestantism slammed into an insurmountable obstacle.  While Zwingli and the Reformed representatives viewed the issue of Christ’s presence as a non-essential doctrine, Luther’s intransigence and his insistence that it is an essential guaranteed that there was no substantive final agreement at the colloquy.

There are lessons to learn from Marburg.  One of the biggest is that despite the potential it held for unifying a fragmented Protestant movement, their agreement on fourteen and five-sixths of fifteen points (98.8%) was not enough to bring and hold the two evangelical parties together!

This is a good reminder, in the face of ever-increasing diversity within Evangelicalism and growing pressure from a hostile culture, to look for what essential doctrines are agreed upon as a basis for charitable Christian unity.  On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Five Solas remain a good starting point.

Another lesson involves providence.  Our tendency in instances like Marburg is to lament what could have been.  But speculative history is rarely a profitable pursuit.  And yet the doctrine of providence reminds us that God wisely disposes all human events, even well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective attempts at doctrinal unity.  The Westminster Confession (V.vii) instructs us that “As the providence of God doth in general reach to all creatures, so after a most special manner, it taketh care of His Church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.”  This apparent “lost opportunity” at unity in the church of the sixteenth-century is not really a loss, but God’s special and wise disposition of human circumstances for his church’s good and his own glory.

Finally, Zwingli has left us a salutary reminder for our own attitudinal orientation when we are in the midst of such controversies.  At the conference he prayed, “Fill us, O Lord and Father of us all, we beseech you, with your gentle Spirit…Alas! While we contend, we only too often forget to strive after holiness which you require from us all.  Guard us against abusing our powers, and enable us to employ them with all earnestness for the promotion of holiness.” [i]

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

[i] Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1910.  Reproduction of Second Edition, Revised, 1980.  Volume VII, “Modern Christianity: The German Reformation,” 636-7.


James Rich