Bucer to Bullinger (4): On the Holy Supper

Here is the fourth installment of a 1535 letter (really, a smorgasbord treatise in miniature) from Martin Bucer to Heinrich Bullinger. This is the last section (for the moment) on the Lord’s Supper. As in the previous posts, I’ve included all the previous material for continuity and ease of reading. The new section in this post begins with “In this way we sufficiently take care of” in the middle of the third paragraph.

Of especial interest in this new passage are Bucer’s comments on Oecolampadius and Zwingli. As Bucer continues to insist on using the language of Scripture in speaking of the Supper, without “entangling [the matter] in complexity,” he comments that such a practice was not to the liking of Zwingli–a feature of Zwingli’s thought that Bucer sees not just on this topic, but on many others as well. Bucer, on the other hand–and, according to him, Oecolampadius–is more comfortable maintaining the use of realist language in describing what occurs in the Lord’s Supper. That’s not quite right, in fact: it is not just that Bucer feels comfortable with it, but that he thinks it is necessary to do so, for the theological and historical reasons.

Bucer to Bullinger on the Lord’s Supper

Concerning your confession: When you make the dispute a matter of the spiritual and carnal presence of Christ in the Supper, you show that you do not yet understand where the point of controversy is located. For no one defends a carnal presence. Thus no one demands that we say that the bread is the body of Christ, and all approve of taking care that the simple not venerate the signs instead of the realities. The contention is this: Since the words, “Take, eat, this is my body” etc. are the words of the Lord who gives[1]–and not bread only, but also his body, which was handed over for us–and since Christ says these things through us, his ministers, he uses us as the stewards[2] of his mysteries, so that we might believe and confess that the very body of the Lord is given[3] in the sacred Supper together with the bread (that is, the exhibitive[4] sign), just as regeneration is given[5] together with the water of baptism, and in former times communion in the divine covenant was given[6] through circumcision, the Holy Spirit was given together with the breath of the Lord, and the blessing of the Lord and various gifts were given together with the laying on of hands. The Passover was a commemorative, not an exhibitive, sign.

If the minister gives[7] nothing other than the sign, he will not dispense[8] the mysteries of God, he will not be a minister of the New Testament, he will not save, he will not regenerate. These are all things that the Apostle attributes to the sacred ministry–but in such a way that he at the same time affirms that we can devise none of these things from ourselves as ourselves,[9] much less do them. For we are not the Lord’s ministers unless we cooperate with him in planting and watering and building, that is, in the regeneration of the saints–which surely does not consist in the words and signs without the Spirit, without true communion with Christ. Paul boasts that he laid the foundation among the Corinthians, not sacred words and signs alone; that he begot them unto the Lord through the gospel, not that he administered words alone. But it does not follow from this that we do not receive all our salvation by faith alone or that our salvation is not entirely the work of Christ alone. Christ speaks and acts in his minister, and that which Christ says and does through his minister is received by faith; and he in whom Christ does not speak and do all things is not the minister of Christ. It is therefore a fallacious argument relying on an ignorance of how refutation works to say, “Christ is eaten through faith alone; therefore he is not eaten through the service of the minister.” That is like saying, “We receive food to our advantage through attractive power alone;[10] therefore, we do not eat through the service of the cook.” But what need is there for writing what I have learned so many times by experience to be pointless?

There is now (thanks be to the Lord) ecclesiastical concord about the following judgment and doctrine throughout the cities of the Empire: Because the natural man understands nothing when it comes to sacred matters, we must judge and speak as the Holy Spirit has taught us to judge and speak. Therefore, we desire religiously to maintain not only the sense of Scripture in these matters, but also to speak about those things with the words of Scripture. Therefore, we say that the bread that we break is the communion of the body of Christ, and that the minister gives this,[11] but ministerially. The Lord is the food and is himself the giver[12] of the food. Lest the simple conceive of this too crassly, we add that Christ is neither united to the bread naturally nor enclosed in the bread locally, nor does he become food for the stomach; and that this communion of Christ is a matter of the New Testament and something heavenly, but that it is efficacious and most real, because here there is nothing imaginary, nothing empty. In this way we sufficiently take care of the crass or even ungodly opinions carried over from the ancient error of the papists. We entangle nothing in complexity, but use the language of the Holy Spirit; Christians can fashion nothing clearer or more pleasing than it. The entire ancient and better church used it, and Oecolampadius approved of it too, although Zwingli did not approve of it throughout, just as he was not of the same opinion as the ancients in many other matters, which you see from the writings of each one if from no other source. Certainly the dialogue of Oecolampadius[13] was not to Zwingli’s taste, as his own letter to Sturm testifies. But this matter, too–that is, what one should think of the discussions of each of these men–cannot be dealt with in a letter. It is all too clear how you all, perhaps, think when reading the writings of others (as you write) in passing.


1 exhibentis.
2 dispensatoribus.
3 exhiberi.
4 exhibitivo.
5 exhibetur.
6 exhibebatur.
7 exhibet.
8 dispensabit.
9 I.e. from our own resources.
10 I.e. the natural ability to assimilate food through digestion.
11 hanc: the reference must therefore be to communionem (“communion”) rather than to corporis (“body”).
12 praebitor.
13 Johannes Oecolampadius, Quid de eucharistia veteres Graeci, tum Latini, senserint, Dialogus (1530). This edition is missing about a page at the end; here is a later one that has the final bit.


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