Zwingli did not see the need for a “sacramental union” in the Lord’s Supper because of his modified understanding of sacraments.
According to Zwingli, the sacraments serve as a public testimony of a previous grace. Therefore, the sacrament is “a sign of a sacred thing, i.e. of a grace that has been given.” For Zwingli, the idea that the sacraments carry any salvific efficacy in themselves is a return to Judaism’s ceremonial washings that lead to the purchase of salvation.
Whereas Luther sought to prune the bad branches off the tree of Roman Catholic sacramentalism, Zwingli believed the problem to be rooted at least partly in sacramentalism itself. The only way to legitimately resolve Roman excess was to reinterpret the nature of the sacraments. Pruning the tree was not enough; pulling the tree up from its roots was the only action that could actually fix the problems.
Applying his modified understanding of the sacraments to the Eucharist led Zwingli to affirm its primary purpose as the proclamation of salvation and the strengthening of faith in the hearts of believers. Zwingli insisted that the biblical text taught that the Lord’s Supper was a sign, and that to make it something more violated the nature of the sacrament. However, this caution did not keep Zwingli from strongly affirming a “spiritual presence” of Christ in the Eucharist brought by the “contemplation of faith.”
What Zwingli could not accept was a “real presence” that claimed Christ was present in his physical body with no visible bodily boundaries.
“I have no use for that notion of a real and true body that does not exist physically, definitely and distinctly in some place, and that sort of nonsense got up by word triflers.”
Zwingli’s theology of the Lord’s Supper should not be viewed as an innovation without precedent in church history. Zwingli claimed that his doubts about transubstantiation were shared by many of his day, leading him to claim that priests did not ever believe such a thing, even though “most all have taught this or at least pretended to believe it.”
Had Zwingli’s modified doctrine of the “real presence” been an innovation, it would probably not have been so eagerly accepted by his parishioners. The symbolic view spread rapidly because Zwingli had given voice and legitimacy to an opinion that was already widespread.
In Zurich, the mass was abolished in 1525. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated with a new liturgy that replaced the altar with a table and tablecloth.
The striking feature of the Zwinglian observance of the sacrament was its simplicity. Because the bread and wine were not physically transformed into Christ’s body and blood, there was no need for spurious ceremonies and pompous rituals. The occasion was marked by simplicity and reverence, with an emphasis on its nature as a memorial.
Zwingli’s denial of the “real presence” did not result in the neglecting of the sacrament that would characterize many of his followers in centuries to come. He saw seven virtues in the Lord’s Supper that proved its importance for the Christian life.
First, it is a sacred rite because Christ the High Priest has instituted it.
Secondly, Communion bears witness to something already accomplished.
Third, the action takes the place of the thing it signifies.
The Lord’s Supper is valuable because of what it signifies (communion with Christ for strength and communion with others for unity).
Sixth, observance of the Lord’s Supper increases and supports faith, and finally, its power is its keeping of an oath of allegiance.
Sources for this post:
Ulrich Zwingli, “An Account of the Faith of Zwingli” On Providence and Other Essays, ed. William J. Hinke (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1983), 47-48.
Ulrich Zwingli, “Letter to the Princes of Germany” On Providence and Other Essays, 117-118.
Ulrich Zwingli, “An Account of the Faith of Zwingli,” 49.
Ulrich Zwingli, “Letter to the Princes of Germany,” 119-120.
Ulrich Zwingli, quoted by W. Koehler, Luther and Zwingli, p. 74, from Zwingli’s Works, Critical edition in “Corpus Reformatorum” III. 350, 6 ff.
H. Wayne Pipkin, The Nature and Development of the Zwinglian Reformation to August, 1524 (Hartford: UMI Dissertation Information Service, 1989), 240.
Ulrich Zwingli, “An Exposition of the Christian Faith,” On Providence and Other Essays, 256-259.