The question came up on the PB whether Zwingli gets a bum rap on the Supper. It’s true that Zwingli has on the receiving end of the stick. This has provoked a reaction, led most recently by W. P. (Peter) Stephens in his excellent works on Zwingli’s theology. The revisionists argue that Zwingli did come to have, in his later writings, more than a a “mere memorial” view of the Supper. Contrarian and revisionist that I am I was initially attracted to this story of Zwingli’s view of the Supper, until I re-read him.Thus, when I started teaching Reformation history, first at Wheaton and then at WSC, I repeated the revisionist account of Zwingli’s doctrine of the Supper. In a discussion several years ago, however, Mike Horton challenged me to re-read Zwingli later writings. I did and I found that the revisionist case doesn’t hold up. Here are a couple of passages (provided by Adam King in the PB discussion) from Zwingli:
To eat the body of Christ sacramentally, if we wish to speak accurately, is to eat the body of Christ in heart and spirit with the accompaniment of the sacrament…You eat the body of Christ spiritually, though not sacramentally, every time you comfort your heart in its anxious query ‘How will you be saved’…When you comfort yourself thus, I say, you eat his body spiritually, that is, you stand unterrified in God against all attacks of despair, through confidence in the humanity he took upon himself for you.
But when you come to the Lord’s Supper with this spiritual participation and give thanks unto the Lord for his kindness, for the deliverance of your soul, through which you have been delivered from the destruction of despair, and for the pledge by which you have been made sure of everlasting blessedness, and along with the brethren partake of the bread and wine which are the symbols of the body of Christ, then you eat him sacramentally, in the proper sense of the term, when you do internally what you represent externally, when your heart is refreshed by this faith to which you bear witness by these symbols” (Zwingli’s Fidei Expositio in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries, 190-91).
To be sure, not everything that Zwingli said here was false, it’s just that, judged by Calvin and the Reformed confessions, he didn’t say enough. When Zwingli says “heart and spirit” we can see immediately that he was speaking in psychological categories not in objective categories. When he said “spiritually” he meant “metaphorically” or “not literally.” He wasn’t speaking in Pauline categories. The adverb here cannot be capitalized to refer to the person of the Holy Spirit as it can often be in Paul.
To put it bluntly even in Zwingli’s very latest writings, Zwingli was still teaching only the intense psychological experience of remembering Jesus’ death.
Even Zwingli’s “highest” language is some ways from the language of Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Belgic Confession. Zwingli would never say with the Belgic that, in the Supper, by the mysterious operation of the Spirit, believers eat the “proper and natural” body and blood of Christ.
BC Art 35 says:
In the mean time we err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. [emphasis added]
In the same way, HC 75 says, “that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life….”
It is clear from these brief but potent passages from the Belgic and the Heidelberg that by the early 1560s the Reformed had left behind Zwingli’s purely psychological and even subjectivist conception of the Supper.
After Calvin, the Reformed generally agreed with the Lutherans that, in the Supper, Christ feeds us with his body and blood. The question was not whether, but how.
For Zwingli, what takes place in the Supper is, at most, an internal psychological (intellectual and emotional) experience of remembering. It is more funeral than feeding. For Calvin, the HC, the BC, and, I think, the Westminster Standards there is undeniably a memorial aspect to the Supper but that memorial aspect exhausts neither the Supper nor the operation of the Spirit through the Supper.
Here is an essay on the Supper that elaborates some of these themes. I no longer agree with what I wrote (in ’95 or ’96) that, “Even Zwingli, who has sometimes been criticized for teaching that the Supper was a mere memorial of Christ’s death, taught that Christ strengthens us through the Supper.”
I also deal with the questions of the Supper and Christology in Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant.