“The Evidence of Things Unseen”: Zwingli’s “Sermon on Providence” and the Colloquy of Marburg -- By: Iren Snavely

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 56:2 (Fall 1994)
Article: “The Evidence of Things Unseen”: Zwingli’s “Sermon on Providence” and the Colloquy of Marburg
Author: Iren Snavely

“The Evidence of Things Unseen”: Zwingli’s “Sermon on Providence” and the Colloquy of Marburg

Iren Snavely

Late on Sunday afternoon October 3, 1529, the penultimate day of the Marburg Colloquy, exasperated leaders of the Protestant Party, Zwinglian and Lutheran, admitted their failure to reach agreement on the Lord’s Supper. When the Hessian Chancellor, Johann Feige, protested that “You were supposed to seek ways and means of achieving harmony,” Dr. Martin Luther replied, “I know of no other way than for you to honor the word of God and believe as we do.” After the Swiss declared their inability to either “comprehend” or “believe” that the body of Christ is in the Supper, Luther commended them to the judgment of God.1 Afterward, Luther expressed his thanks to Swiss spokesmen John Oecolampadius and Huldrych Zwingli, and asked them to forgive him if he had spoken harshly. Zwingli likewise asked Luther’s forgiveness, and with tears in his eyes said that he had always greatly desired Luther’s friendship. “Call upon God, that you may receive understanding,” Luther advised him. Oecolampadius retorted, “Call upon him yourself, for you need it just as much as we!”2

The irony of the Marburg Colloquy of 1529 is that it caused the first major rift in the fledgling Protestant movement at a time when unity was most critical. The Landgrave Philipp of Hesse organized the conference as the first step toward a Protestant political alliance against imperial attempts to enforce the Edict of Worms within the Holy Roman Empire. Theological consensus was the prerequisite for political cooperation. What was the basic issue that separated the Protestants at Marburg? Was the question simply whether the words of institution ought to be interpreted in a literal or figurative manner, or did a more fundamental disagreement underlie the opposing interpretations? In order to cast light on this problem, I will focus my investigation on the evidence of Huldrych

Zwingli’s Sermon on the Providence of God, a sermon that he preached immediately prior to the colloquy and subsequently published. I intend to show that the fundamental difference separating the reformers at Marburg was the relationship of the material and spiritual realms. In this treatise On Providence, Zwingli develops a philosophical rationale for his figurative interpretation of biblical teaching about the sacraments. This rationale stems from his fundamentally spiritualistic assumption that grace cannot be caused or channeled by any created, material thing, since grace comes directly from the Holy Spirit.

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