The online Bible teaching ministry of John Brand

Chalk on the Table: The Story Behind Our Different Views of Communion

(This is an excellent and really helpful breakdown and overview of the different views on The Lord’s Supper)

HT: Jared Kennedy

Bruce Wayne became Batman after his parents’ tragic deaths. Peter Parker gained his “Spidey-sense” from a radioactive spider bite. All superheroes have unique backstories that help us understand them. The same is true with Christian doctrines and denominations. One dramatic backstory is the tale of disagreement and division behind the major views of the Lord’s Table we find in Christian churches today.

In October 1529, a group of church leaders met for a colloquy—a great debate—about the Lord’s Supper. They gathered high above the winding Lahn River at the towering Marburg castle. This meeting wasn’t the reformers against Rome. No, the reformers were fighting among themselves. Who were the principals in this debate? What were the major views they discussed? What concerns influenced their arguments?


Inside the tall, stone castle, a wooden table sat in the center of a great hall. On one side stood the Lutherans: Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and their companions. On the other stood the reformers from Switzerland and southern Germany: Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Johann Oecolampadius, and others. Philip of Hesse (the nobleman who called the meeting), his secretary, and several local pastors stood at the room’s edges to watch.

All superheroes have unique backstories that help us understand them. The same is true with Christian doctrines and denominations.


No one in the room wanted to follow the pope’s views on the Supper. The Catholic Church saw the Supper as a sacrifice that would cover the guilt of righteous people who confessed their sins to a priest. The pope and his followers taught that when a priest blesses the bread and wine, the elements’ substance (though not their look and taste) transforms, like magic, into Jesus’s body and blood. Then the priest reoffers Jesus’s body and blood to God as a good work. In this view (called transubstantiation), what takes away sin isn’t what Jesus did on the cross but the priest’s work in reoffering the sacrifice.

Because of this teaching, some medieval Catholics stood in line to adore the bread and wine before it was served. They thought a blessing would come just by looking at the elements. Others carried pieces of bread to their homes, hoping to plant it in their fields and gardens to receive the blessing of good crops, or to feed it to sick animals to help them get well. To keep from accidentally spilling the enchanted wine, some priests gave only the bread to church members and kept the cup for themselves.

Everyone at Marburg rejected Rome’s view of communion. But what teaching about the Supper should be adopted in its place?


The nobleman’s secretary encouraged the theologians to get along. He urged them as they debated to “strive for the glory of God, the common Christian good, and brotherly unity.” He hoped that when the debate was finished, the theologians would sit at the prince’s table and take communion together. Luther wasn’t convinced the debate would end in agreement. He’d read Zwingli’s books. He knew what the Swiss churches taught about the Supper.

Zwingli did believe God’s Spirit was present when believers took communion, but in his view, the ordinance was little more than a way for believers to obey Jesus. Zwingli emphasized Christ’s command to take the Supper “in remembrance of [him]” (Luke 22:191 Cor. 11:24–25). His teaching is called the memorial view.

The Swiss reformer vociferously argued that the bread and wine couldn’t transform into Jesus’s body. That would be impossible. When God the Son came to earth, he took on human flesh. But the incommunicable attributes of the Son’s divine nature (attributes like his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence) weren’t mixed or shared with his human nature. So, Zwingli reasoned, Christ’s human body can’t be in many locations at the same time when the churches meet to take communion.

Instead, Zwingli taught that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” he thought of the bread and wine as symbols. Jesus meant, “This represents my body.” When a geography teacher stands in front of a map and says, “This is Switzerland,” she knows the image isn’t actually the country of Switzerland but only a picture. Zwingli taught that it’s similar with communion. Just like the map and the country aren’t the same, Jesus’s body and the bread aren’t the same.

Sacramental Union

Luther despised Zwingli’s view. He believed it gutted the power of God’s promise to forgive from the sacrament. Before the debate, he said, “I would rather drink pure blood with the pope than mere wine with Zwingli” (LW 37:317). So, as the colloquy began, Luther took a piece of chalk and drew a large circle on the castle table. Inside the circle, he scribbled Jesus’s words from the Gospels in Latin, Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body,” Matt. 26:26). Then, as if these words were the communion bread itself, Luther dramatically covered them with a linen cloth.

Luther didn’t think the bread and wine were magically transformed as the Roman Catholics did. (He wrote hoc est corpus, not hocus pocus.) But Luther did think Jesus meant the words “This is my body” literally.

Luther rejected Zwingli’s teaching that Jesus’s human body could only be in one spot, accusing Zwingli of ignoring biblical texts that describe Jesus’s resurrected body moving through walls and doors. “You seek to prove that a body cannot be in two places at the same time. I will not listen to proofs . . . based on arguments derived from geometry,” Luther said.

He was convinced Christ gives us his presence, even if—like comic-book science—it’s extradimensional. According to Luther’s view, God somehow gives sinners “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine.” This view is called sacramental union.

The two theologians argued back and forth for days. Finally, Zwingli cried out, “Show me a text that proves your view!” Lifting the linen cloth, Luther pointed to the words he’d written when the discussion began: This is my body. For Luther, those words were a line in the sand.

Spiritual Presence

At the end of the debate, Luther and Zwingli finally wept together and asked forgiveness for the harsh words they’d spoken. They even sat down to eat together at the prince’s table. But they didn’t take communion together. In their views of the Supper, Luther and Zwingli remained divided.

John Calvin wasn’t at the Marburg Colloquy, but his teacher and mentor, Martin Bucer, was there with Zwingli. When Calvin later published his view of the Supper in his Institutes, his familiarity with the Marburg debate was clear.

Calvin taught Christ is spiritually present in the communion meal, not merely as a sign but to accomplish what he promises.


Calvin agreed with Zwingli that Christ’s physical body and blood aren’t present in the Supper. He knew that to affirm this view would wrongly confuse Christ’s divine and human natures. But despite the hard edges of Luther’s personality (and his geographic distance), Calvin also followed many of the German reformer’s emphases. With Luther, Calvin affirmed the Supper is a covenant promise and that God’s Word and presence are encountered at the Table.

Calvin believed the Supper is a means of grace for the church. He taught that Christ is spiritually present in the communion meal, not merely as a sign but to accomplish what he promises: “For unless a man means to call God a deceiver, he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by him” (Institutes 4.17.10).

Let the Story Inform Your Convictions

Whatever Reformation position you adopt on the doctrine of the Supper, it’s good to learn from Calvin’s generous humility. Just as hearing backstories helps us better understand our favorite superheroes, learning the stories behind doctrines can help us grow in understanding too. They can help you better appreciate your own convictions, and to understand those of your Christian neighbors.

So, if you’re visiting a different church with a neighbor or family member, listen carefully to how they talk about communion. Differences over the Supper may seem archaic, or perhaps like splitting hairs. On any given Sunday, it’s unlikely most of the members of your church are consciously threading the needle between Luther and Calvin. But things that seem trifling to the world are immensely important to believers’ souls. By listening carefully, we learn to see others’ views fairly, respect their differing convictions, and even discern when not participating in the Supper is necessary to honor other believers’ consciences, or our own.

And next time your church celebrates the Supper, remember this backstory, and think about what the elements mean. This familiar ordinance has been deeply considered by Christians throughout the centuries. Though Christians may not agree, our thoughtful conversations testify to the Supper’s importance for a Christian’s spiritual health. Take the bread in your hand, and give thanks to Christ who gave his body for you and wants to minister to you as you eat and drink.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *