Home » Course Material » Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Anabaptists On The Lord’s Supper


Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Anabaptists On The Lord’s Supper


Luther (1483 – 1546), Calvin (1509 – 1564) and Zwingli (1484 – 1531) and Anabaptists

On The Lord’s Supper


The conceptual “tools” in his toolbox were those of mediaeval Aristotelianism: substance and accident.

Substance: a thing’s definition, its “whatness”; e.g., that which renders bread bread.

Accident: a thing’s appearance; e.g, bread’s colour, taste, smell, texture.

Luther objected to Rome’s notion of transubstantiation (promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215). It presupposed

priestly powers vested in a man by virtue of ordination at the hands of an institution defined by its hierarchical order of priest, bishop, cardinal, pope;

the sacrifice of the mass.

Luther maintained

the mass is not a sacrifice;

ordination (by church of Rome) does not confer power to effect transubstantiation.

the clergy do not constitute the church;

all Christians are “priests”, ordained through baptism;

there is no distinction before God between clergy and laity; therefore the cup should be given to the laity (and clergy should be allowed to marry);

Christ is “really” present in the sacrament. “Before I drink mere wine with the Swiss I shall drink blood with the pope”;

the manner of Christ’s presence is consubstantiation, since the substance of Christ’s body and bloody (i.e, Christ himself) is present with the substance of bread and wine;

while Christ’s ubiquity means he is present everywhere, he is received “sacramentally” on account of the promise attending the institution;

Since Christ is “in” the elements, all communicants receive him; believers to their blessing, unbelievers to their destruction.


Superbly trained as a humanist (like Zwingli) Calvin’s toolbox contained the tools of Renaissance humanism rather than mediaeval philosophy. (The Renaissance wrote much literature, very little philosophy.)

Calvin objected to Luther’s consubstantiation, finding it no improvement on transubstantiation, and regarding it as cannibalism in any case.

Calvin maintained

Jesus Christ is not ubiquitous throughout the universe but rather is “located” in heaven;

by the strength, power (vis, vires [plural], Latin) of the Holy Spirit, believers are drawn up to heaven whereby they receive Christ to their blessing; (this position, following the Latin, is sometimes called “virtualism”. However, “virtualism” has nothing to do with modern notions of “virtual”, “as if”);

faith alone receives Christ (everywhere in Calvin, because everywhere in scripture); unbelievers do not receive him, since the Saviour cannot be received to anyone’s destruction;

communicants receive Christ in the totality of his reality: body and blood; i.e., they do not receive something “spiritual” in the sense of a disembodied spectre. At the same time, they do not “chew his flesh” (Luther). Concerning this viewpoint Calvin said, “Every time Luther mentions the Lord’s Supper he has in mind something that a butcher handles”;

the primary purpose of the sacrament is to strengthen weak faith (i.e., strengthen in Christ those who remain sinners in themselves); the secondary purpose is to pledge publicly our loyalty to our Lord.



Zwingli, following the Latin meaning of sacramentum (the oath whereby a Roman soldier pledged his loyalty to his commanding officer), puts first what Calvin put second.

Zwingli is everywhere falsely accused of “bare memorialism”– e.g., “For Calvin the elements exhibit a Saviour who is present; for Zwingli they recall one who is absent.”

Zwingli, the most woodenly literal of the Reformers in his reading of scripture, yet the least literal on the Lord’s Supper, maintained

in Hoc est meum corpus the word est means not “is” but “signifies” (as in “I am the door” — i.e., Jesus isn’t telling us he is rectangular and made of wood);

in the Supper believers do receive Christ, but they don’t eat him; i.e., Jesus is the diner but not the dinner. (Three months before his death Z. wrote, “Jesus Christ is received in conjunction with the elements”);

Calvin was wrong in accusing him of proffering an empty sacrament (“naked and empty signs”);

Calvin was correct in points (i) through (v) above;

Calvin was deficient in not recognizing the sacrament to bind believers to one another in the congregation as well as to their Lord. {NB}


There were many Anabaptist spokespersons, the best-known of whom is Menno Simons. In general they maintained

a “thing-holiness” is indefensible ; holiness does not pertain to things (books, bread, wine, vestments, candles, bells) but rather to relationships. Here the Magisterial Reformers are no better than Rome — both are wrong — in discussing the Lord’s Supper in terms of a holiness that attends elements. (Shepherd: I think it can be asked fairly if the Magisterial Reformers ever upheld what the Anabaptists imputed to them.)

they are unjustly accused of promoting “bare memorialism”; Christ is “really” present not to inert elements but rather to the congregation. In other words, the fellowship of believers rather than the elements is the vehicle of Christ’s continual self-bestowal. (I.e., they too do not believe in the “real absence”);

the church consists of Christians who are sinless by definition [here the Magisterial Reformers disagree totally: sinless people would have no need of the supper]; the supper maintains them in their sinlessness;

the supper pledges believers in the Anabaptist congregation/community to give up their lives for each other as Christ gave up his for them. {NB}



Note: Everything said above with respect to the Lord’s Supper could be said of preaching; namely, how is a creaturely item (a sermon delivered by a human being and a sinner as well) become the vehicle of Christ’s self-utterance and self-bestowal?

(It is assumed that no one will admit to believing in the transubstantiation of the sermon, the unqualified identification of the words of the preacher with the self-utterance of God.)