Zwingli Against the Zwinglians?

By Ian Hugh Clary

Zwinglianism is the view that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are only a memorial and that Christ is in no sense present—what some have called the “real absence” view, or the memorialist view. The Eucharist was a hotly debated topic during the Reformation that resulted in deep lines drawn between the Reformed, particularly the Swiss, and the Lutherans. Luther could barely bring himself to say that Zwingli was a brother in the Lord because the Zurich theologian refused to believe in consubstantiation. It is often noted that Calvin sought to steer a middle course between the Lutheran and Zwinglian forms by offering a “spiritual presence” view, where the Spirit draws the believer by faith into true communion with Christ in the elements. The so-called memorial view had a continuing influence in subsequent Reformed theology, and even more so in broader evangelicalism. But was Zwingli a Zwinglian?

W. P. Stephens, in his Zwingli: An Introduction to His Thought (Oxford, 2001) puts Zwingli in perspective. The heat of Zwingli’s debate with Luther centred on the words of Christ who said of the bread, “This is my body.” For Zwingli, the word “is” should be understood as “signifies.” For Luther this was anathema. At the Marburg Colloquy (1529), though some headway towards agreement was made, the two Reformers could not agree on this point. However, this did not entail that Zwingli denied any presence of Christ in the supper. After the colloquy, Zwingli expressed his belief in the “real presence” of Christ. Stephens, pointing to Zwingli’s works like An Account of the Faith (1530) and The Letter to the Princes of Germany (1530), says, “Zwingli made it clear that the bread was not mere bread, and he began to affirm terms such as presence, true, and sacramental” (105). In the appendix to his An Exposition of the Faith (1531) Zwingli said, “We believe Christ to be truly present in the Supper, indeed we do not believe that it is the Lord’s Supper unless Christ is present” (Stephens, 105). This change in emphasis came with a greater stress on the bread and the wine, both of which were “divine and sacred” (Stephens, 107).

Stephens does an excellent job tracing out Zwingli’s overall Eucharistic theology. After establishing that Zwingli was not really a “Zwinglian,” as the term has become known, he also makes the important point that Zwingli was consistent in his theology from his early to his later years. While his earlier views were nascent, his later views did not contradict them. In 1523 Zwingli spoke of the soul being fed in the supper. Admittedly he emphasised the “symbolic” understanding of the elements after 1524, yet he held this view when he spoke of feeding on Christ. Stephens summarizes Zwingli’s overall thought saying, “The more positive notes in the later Zwingli do not indicate a real shift in his position, rather a difference of emphasis” (Stephens, 109). The concern for Zwingli, as for other Reformers at this time, was the place of faith in the communicant—he guarded against any gracious effect for the unbeliever who partakes. In this, he appealed to the early Luther who emphasized the need for faith. While issues of Christology and philosophy play into their differences, Zwingli was not as far from Luther as the German Reformer thought. Though he they did not share full agreement, Zwingli was much closer to Calvin, whose view Luther was not so scathingly against.

So, in a sense, Zwingli was against the Zwinglians.


Ian Hugh Clary is finishing doctoral studies under Adriaan Neele at Universiteit van die Vrystaat (Blomfontein), where he is writing a dissertation on the evangelical historiography of Arnold Dallimore. He has co-authored two local church histories with Michael Haykin and contributed articles to numerous scholarly journals. Ian serves as a pastor of BridgeWay Covenant Church in Toronto where he lives with his wife and two children.