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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 9 — History of Protestantism From the Diet of Worms, 1521, to the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Chapter 17 — The Marburg Confession

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Further Effects of the Landgrave–Zwingli's Approaches–Luther's Repulse–The Landgrave's Proposal–Articles Drafted by Luther– Signed by Both Parties–Agreement in Doctrine–Only One Point of Difference, namely, the Manner of Christ's Presence in the Sacrament– The Marburg Confession–A Monument of the Real Brotherhood of all Protestants–Bond between Germany and Helvetia–Ends served by it.

YET before seeing the doctors depart, never perhaps to meet each other again, the landgrave asked himself, can nothing more be done to heal the breach? Must this one difference irreconcilably divide the disciples of the Gospel? Agreement on the Eucharist is, it seems, impossible; but is there not besides enough of common ground to permit of a union, of such sort as may lead to united counsels and united action, in the presence of those tremendous dangers which lower equally over Germany and over Switzerland?

"Are we not brethren, whether Luther acknowledge it or not?" was the question which Philip put to himself. "Does not Rome account both of us her enemies? " This is negative proof of brotherhood. Clearly Rome holds us to be brothers. Do not both look for salvation through the same sacrifice of the cross? and do not both bow to the Bible as the supreme authority of what they are to believe? Are not these strong bonds? Those between whom they exist can hardly be said to be twain.

Philip accordingly made another effort. He made the doctors go with him, one by one, into his cabinet. He reasoned, entreated, exhorted; pointed now to the storm that seemed ready to burst, and now to the advantages that union might secure. More from the desire to gratify the landgrave than from any lively hope of achieving union, the two parties agreed again to meet and to confer.

The interview was a most touching one. The circumstances amid which it took place were well fitted to humble pride, and to melt the hearts of men. Hundreds were dying of the plague around them. Charles and the Pope, Ferdinand and the princes, all were whetting their swords, eager to spin the blood alike of Zwinglian and of Lutheran. Only let the emperor be master of the position, and he will not spare Luther because he believes in the real presence, nor Zwingli because he differs on this point from Wittenberg. Both, in the judgment of Charles, are heretics, equally deserving of extermination. What did this mean? If they were hated of all men, surely it was for his name's sake; and was not this a proof that they were his children?

Taught by his instincts of Christian love, Zwingli opened the conference by enunciating a truth which the age was not able to receive. "Let us," said he, "proclaim our union in all things in which we agree; and as for the rest, let us forbear as brothers," [1] adding that never would peace be attained in the Church unless her members were allowed to differ on secondary points.

The Landgrave Philip, catching at this new idea, and deeming that now at last union had been reached, exclaimed, "Yes, let us unite; let us proclaim our union."

"With none on earth do I more desire to be united than with you," said Zwingli, addressing Luther and his companions. Ecolampadius, Bucer, and Hedio made the same declaration.

This magnanimous avowal was not without its effect. It had evidently touched the hearts of the opposing rank of doctors. Luther's prejudice and obduracy were, it appeared, on the point of being vanquished, and his coldness melted. Zwingli's keen eye discovered this: he burst into tears– tears of joy–seeing himself, as he believed, on the eve of an event that would gladden the hearts of thousands in all the countries of the Reformation, and would strike Rome with terror. He approached: he held out his hand to Luther: he begged him only to pronounce the word "brother." Alas! what a cruel disappointment awaited him. Luther coldly and cuttingly replied, "Your spirit is different from ours." It was indeed different: Zwingli's was catholic, Luther's sectarian.

The Wittenberg theologians consulted together. They all concurred in Luther's resolution. "We," said they to Zwingli and his friends, "hold the belief of Christ's bodily presence in the Lord's Supper to be essential to salvation, and we cannot in conscience regard you as in the communion of the Church." [2]

"In that case," replied Bucer, "it were folly to ask you to recognize us as brethren. But we, though we regard your doctrine as dis-honoring to Christ, now on the right hand of the Father, yet, seeing in all things you depend on him, we acknowledge you as belonging to Christ. We appeal to posterity." [3] This was magnanimous.

The Zwinglians had won a great victory. They had failed to heal the schism, or to induce the Wittenbergers to acknowledge them as brethren; nevertheless, they had reared a noble monument to the catholicity of Christian love.

Their meekness was mightier than Luther's haughtiness. Not only was its power felt in the conference chamber, where it made some converts, but throughout Germany. From this time forward the more spiritual doctrine of the Eucharist began to spread throughout the Lutheran Church. Even Luther bowed his head. The tide in his breast began to turn–to rise. Addressing the Zwinglians, and speaking his last word, he said, "We acknowledge you as friends; we do not consider you as brothers. I offer you the hand of peace and charity." [4]

Overjoyed that something had been won, the Landgrave Philip proposed that the two parties should unite in making a joint profession of their faith, in order that the world might see that on one point only did they differ, namely, the manner in which Christ is present in the Lord's Supper, and that after all the great characteristic of the Protestant Churches was UNITY, though manifested in diversity. The suggestion recommended itself to both sides. Luther was appointed to draw up the articles of the Protestant faith.

"I will draft them," said he, as he retired to his chamber to begin his task, "with a strict regard to accuracy, but I don't expect the Zwinglians to sign them."

The pen of Luther depicts the Protestant doctrine as evolved by the Reformation at Wittenberg; the rejection or acceptance of Zwingli will depict it as developed at Zurich. The question of brotherhood is thus about to be appealed from the bar of Luther to the bar of fact. It is to be seen whether it is a different Gospel or the same Gospel that is received in Germany and in Switzerland.

The articles, fourteen in number, gave the Wittenberg view of the Christian system–the Trinity, the person and offices of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, original sin, justification by faith, the authority of the Scriptures, rejection of tradition, baptism, holiness, civil order; in short, all the fundamental doctrines of revealed truth were included in the program of Luther. [5]

The doctor of Wittenberg read his paper article by article. "We cordially say amen," exclaimed the Zwinglians, "and are ready to subscribe every one of them." Luther stood amazed. Were the men of Helvetia after all of one mind with the men of Wittenberg? Were Switzerland and Germany so near to each other? Why should man put asunder those whom the Holy Spirit had joined?

Still the gulf was not closed, or rather sectarianism again opened it. Luther had reserved the article on the Lord's Supper to the last.

"We all believe," Luther continued, "that the Sacrament of the altar is the Sacrament of the very body and very blood of Jesus Christ; and that the spiritual manducation of this body and blood is specially necessary to every true Christian." [6]

This brought the two parties once more in presence of the great impassable obstacle. It marked the furthest limit on the road to union the Church in that age had reached. Here she must halt. Both parties felt that advance beyond was impossible, till God should further enlighten them. But they resolved to walk together so far as they were agreed. And here, standing at the parting of the ways as it were, they entered into covenant with one allother, to avoid all bitterness in maintaining what each deemed the truth, and to cherish towards one another the spirit of Christian charity. [7]

On the 4th October, 1529, the signatures of both parties were appended to this joint confession of Protestant faith. This was better than any mere protestation of brotherhood. It was actual brotherhood, demonstrated and sealed. The articles, we venture to affirm, are a complete scheme of saving truth, and they stand a glorious monument that Helvetia and Germany were one–in other words, a glorious monument to the Oneness of Protestantism.

This Confession of Marburg was the first well-defined boundary-line drawn around the Protestants. It marked them off as a distinct body from the enthusiasts on the one hand and the Romanists on the other. Their flag was seen to float on the middle ground between the camp of the visionaries and that of the materialists. "There is," said Zwingli, in opposition to the former, who saw in the Sacrament only a commemoration, "there is a real presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper." "Faith," said Luther, in opposition to the opus operatum of the latter, "faith is necessary in order to our benefiting by the Sacrament." We thus see that the middle camp has two opposing fronts, corresponding to the set of foes on either hand, but substantial oneness in itself. It is gathered round one King–Christ: round one expiation–the cross: round one law–the Bible.

But if the Church of the Reformation still remained outwardly divided, her members were thereby guarded against the danger of running into political alliances, and supporting their cause by force of arms. This line of policy the Landgrave Philip had much at heart, and it formed one of the objects he had in view in his attempts to conduct to a successful issue the conferences at Marburg. Union might have rendered the Protestants too strong. They might have leaned on the arm of flesh, and forgotten their true defense. The Reformation was a spiritual principle. From the sword it could derive no real help. Its conquests would end the moment those of force began. From that hour it would begin to decay, it would be powerless to conquer, and would cease to advance. But let its spiritual arm be disentangled from political armor, which could but weigh it down, let its disciples hold forth the truth, let them fight with prayers and sufferings, let them leave political alliances and the fate of battles to the ordering and overruling of their Divine Head–let them do this, and all opposition would melt in their path, and final victory would attest at once the truth of their cause, and the omnipotence of their King.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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