The sixteenth century witnessed the winds of reformation sweeping through Europe with fresh understandings of rediscovered Biblical truths. Justification by faith alone was heralded by Martin Luther, the sovereignty of God by John Calvin, apostolic simplicity by Ulrich Zwingli and many other fresh, valid emphases by many other lesser lights through this reformation. The focus was clearly centered on issues of Biblical understanding and dogma, yet often in an unyielding, graceless manner.
Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich, Switzerland, who swept from the church there all vestiges of medieval Catholic traditions met with the reformer Martin Luther along with reformation theologians Melanchthon, Bucer and others at the Conference of Marburg to discuss uniting the reformation streams throughout Europe.
The conference was started with the reading of a specially composed poem containing an appeal to heal their schism:
“The church falls weeping at your feet, and begs you, by the mercies of Christ to consider the question with pure zeal for the welfare of believers and to ring about a conclusion of which the world may say that it proceeded from the Holy Spirit.”
Zwingli, in the opening prayer, said, “Fill us, O Lord and Father of us all, we beseech Thee with Thy gentle Spirit and dispel on both sides all clouds of misunderstanding and passion. Make an end to the strife of blind fury. Arise, O Christ, Thou Son of righteousness, and shine upon us. Alas! While we contend, we only too often forget to strive after holiness which Thou requirest from us all. Guard us against abusing our powers and enable us to employ them with all earnestness for the promotion of holiness.”
As the conference progressed, doctrinal positions were dissected and formulated with the reformers agreeing on fourteen main points of theology, but disagreeing on the fifteenth – the nature of the Lord’s Supper: is Christ’s presence real or symbolic? The conference ended with sharp polarization between the two sides. At the concluding session, with tears in his eyes, Zwingli approached Luther and held out the hand of brotherhood; but Luther declined it saying, “Yours is a different spirit from ours.” Zwingli, believing that differences in non-essentials did not forbid Christian brotherhood, said, “Let us confess our union in all things in which we agree and as for the rest, let us remember that we are brethren. There will never be peace in the churches if we cannot bear differences on secondary points.” Luther, considering Zwingli’s liberality as indifference to truth, replied, “I am astonished that you wish to consider me as your brother. It shows clearly that you do not attach much importance to your doctrine.”
Luther’s part said to the other reformers in parting, “You do not belong to the communion of the Christian Church; we cannot acknowledge you as brethren.” They were willing, however, to include them in “that universal charity which they owe to all enemies.”
Such was the sad conclusion of this conference which was designed to produce unity. The unfortunate splintering of reformation Christians has continued unabated to our present time. If the Lutheran and Zwinglian camps would have developed a united front in order to resist crusading Romanism, they would have exerted much greater influence throughout Europe and would have been able to adjust each other’s excesses, balancing one another doctrinally.
Although the reformation saw the rediscovery of some Biblical truth and personal piety, it seemed to carry over intact from Romanism an institutional sectarianism which prohibited a genuine experience of catholicity with all true believes: Complete agreement as a prerequisite for recognition of authenticity and fellowship.
As we face the challenges of defining our theologies, church government, and eschatology, let us be mindful of the lesson of Marburg: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty: in all other things, charity.