Stereotypical treatments of the Protestant approaches to eucharistic doctrine tend to begin with Luther on one side, maintaining an almost crypto-Catholic doctrine of real, physical presence, progress downward through Calvin, who reduces the presence to a “spiritual” presence, and further to Zwingli, who eliminates presence altogether in favor of a mere memorialism. Once one studies the actual writings of the Reformers charitably, a much more complex picture emerges. While it is an overstatement to call Luther’s doctrine “crypto-Catholic,” his does resemble the Roman position at least insofar as it does require a local, bodily presence in the Supper. While I am certain there are debates to be had about the distinctions that Luther makes between his doctrine and the Roman doctrine, the primary concerns to be undertaken in this article are the significant popular misunderstandings of the doctrines of both Zwingli and Calvin. In a meaningful sense, the common understanding of Calvin’s “spiritual presence” is actually more representative of Zwingli’s position, and Calvin’s position of actual, bodily presence mediated by the Spirit cleaves rather nearer to Luther than is generally understood. Certainly, there were those who would profess that the supper is “mere” memorialism, such as the Anabaptists and their theological heirs, but that perspective will not be considered at length here except to acknowledge that such is not the position advocated by Zwingli.

Part of the sincere difficulty in navigating the distinctions between the conceptions of both Calvin and Zwingli toward the Lord’s Supper is that the two were not precisely contemporaries. As Zwingli passed before Calvin’s serious involvement in the Reformation, any interaction that passed between the two was necessarily indirect. Although there was some conference between Calvin and those who continued the Swiss Reformation after the passing of Zwingli, one must wonder how many of the disagreements perceived between the Calvin and Zwingli could have been resolved in a genuinely constructive fashion. Indeed, it is the contention of this treatment that Zwingli’s philosophical clarity and Calvin’s surprising mysticism on this point are not substantially at odds with each other, even if they do disagree on some meaningful particulars.

Zwingli and Polemics

If we are to understand the situation into which Zwingli was speaking, we must understand that he was one of the earliest Reformers. Ergo, his arguments were primarily meant to address the positions of Rome and Luther. Accordingly, even early on in Zwingli’s writing, we see the language of “memorial,” being brought out to militate against the Roman understanding of the sacrament. The primary force of such an argument is not meant to argue so much against a real presence as against the understanding of the supper as a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ. Zwingli’s argument does  address issues of presence, suggesting that Christ is present with us already and his sacrifice is eternally effective, but we have to note the polemic intent of this argument.[1] The important point is that Zwingli’s concern about presence is primarily to distinguish his position from the Roman position and, later, from Luther’s position. Discussing the differences between the differing conceptions of the Lord’s Supper in Luther and Zwingli, Timothy George writes, “At first Zwingli saw (or claimed to see) no fundamental difference in these two approaches to the Supper. In time, however, he came to believe that the Lutheran teaching that in the Eucharist ‘we eat the body of Christ under the bread’ was fraught with serious, even dangerous problems.”[2] If this is true, then it is necessary to see the disagreement between Luther and Zwingli as an extension of the break between Zwingli and the Roman church, at least in Zwingli’s conception. He believed that Luther’s position retained many of the dangers of the Roman position, and had to be pushed against.

To clarify Luther’s position, he does absolutely require a bodily presence of Christ in the Supper. Zwingli, however, departs from this understanding in two significant ways, in that Luther suggests that the presence is local and physical, while Zwingli suggests that the presence of Christ in the Supper is both mediated by faith and spiritual. It is important to note the distinction between mode and substance, as these define the scope of Zwingli’s break from Luther, and later, from Calvin. On both these points, Zwingli finds himself opposed to Luther. With Calvin, Zwingli is agreed on the mode of this communion being spiritual, but Calvin does insist upon a physical substance of the body in the Supper. It is also worth noting that the distinctions between mode and substance actually do not enter into Zwingli’s theology with anywhere near the clarity they do Calvin’s, since Zwingli’s theology is developed as a polemic against Luther and Rome and suffers from the polarizing tendencies of polemical theology.

Nowhere is this stark opposition shown more clearly than the Marburg Colloquy. This meeting between the Swiss and German factions of the Reformers was intended to reconcile the opinions of the two and bring about meaningful reconciliation, but the ultimate effect was a rather decisive break over seemingly secondary matters. Schaff points out that the Lutheran and Zwinglian parties managed to agree on fourteen of the fifteen proposed articles, and even on the fifteenth article, they were able to agree on the bulk of the issue, despite the divergence upon the point of corporal presence and oral manduction.[3] The most serious dispute between the parties of Zwingli and Luther was the interpretation of the phrase “This is my body” in the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26 and others). Zwingli interpreted the word “is” is that phrase to mean “signifies,” which is not an uncommon treatment of the construction in scripture. Zwingli’s counter to Luther’s dogged insistence upon the literal reading of the phrase was John 6:63: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.”[4] Sadly, this amounted to a complete breakdown of the discussion and matters never progressed further. Luther remained recalcitrant, refusing to read the statement in any possible figurative light, and the two theologians simply talked past each other for the remainder of the gathering. I am inclined to agree with Bavinck’s reading of this exchange as being fundamentally a misunderstanding between the parties, as both insisted that they professed a “true” presence of Christ in the Supper, but neither party could accept the other’s version of presence as “true.”[5] The Marburg Colloquy essentially marked the end of any meaningful hope for alliance between the German and Swiss Reformations.

Even though Zwingli died relatively early in the history of the Reformation, his thought on the Supper does get picked up by many who come after him and who clarify his ideas to a greater degree. As with most theology developed in polemical context, Zwingli’s thought pioneered many of these distinctions about presence, but his doctrine lacked clarity and consistency. In the later Reformed tradition, A’Brakel actually distinguishes the necessary approach to presence as not being either physical, local, or even spiritual, since he argues that that there is no necessary infusion of the matter signified into the elements themselves (which is a sentiment very in line with Zwingli’s insistence upon receiving the elements with the “eyes of faith”). A’Brakel suggests that a “representative” relationship is necessary, as he writes “It is rather a representative relationship, only consisting in applying the sign to the matter signified and the matter signified to the sign with the mind and faith – and then as determined by God in His Word, and not by far of mere contemplation and imagination.”[6] To some degree, this develops the idea of contingency in a similar manner to arguments which are accepted both by Zwingli and Calvin, who are both willing to insist upon the necessity of faith in order to appropriate the presence of the body, whether it be physical or spiritual. How this squares with Calvin’s stout refusal to separate the “sign and the thing signified” is another question to be explored when we consider Calvin’s perspective at greater length, but the difference seems to be shrouded in Calvin’s persistent mysticism on the subject.

While some have leveled the charge of Nestorianism against Zwingli for his militancy against the direct presence of Christ in the Supper (a charge which Luther would have likely concurred with), such a charge is overstated and unwarranted.[7] While it is absolutely true that Zwingli attempts to define which activities pertain to the distinct natures of the person of Christ, he absolutely does not go so far as to make those activities the activities of different persons. Indeed, it is not difficult to see how Luther’s insistence upon the contrary perspective runs a serious risk of monophysitism, as the attributes of Christ’s divinity and humanity are so intensely confused in the doctrine of ubiquity. While it is just to say that Zwingli does overstate his case upon occasion, polemical theology inevitably breeds polarization and a failure to systematize. Sadly, with Zwingli’s early passing, we never do get to see what synthesis he might have come to in direct conference with Calvin. Certainly the two agreed on much, and it is even quite possible that Zwingli may have proved a mitigating influence against Calvin’s mysticism on on this point (although, I suppose the desirability of such an influence might be a matter of some debate).

Calvin and Mysticism

So if Zwingli’s position on the presence of Christ in the supper occupies the traditional place given to Calvin in asserting the spiritual presence of Christ, where then does that leave us with Calvin? Calvin is definitely more of a systematizer than either Zwingli or Luther, so, as one might expect, his thought tends to bring in significant elements of the doctrines of both Zwingli and Luther. Although Calvin does reject Luther’s concept of the ubiquity of Christ’s body, Calvin does actually maintain a surprising insistence upon the necessity of the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. As he has rejected ubiquity, Calvin is put in a very difficult position as to how he can assert a genuine physical communion with the body without a local, corporal presence. Surely, the difficulty of this position cannot easily be overstated, but Calvin’s surprising solution to the problem is to simply insist that, through the power of the Spirit, it must be so.

He addresses both the perspectives of Zwingli and Luther in some detail in his Institutes, rejecting the points of their doctrine with which he disagrees. First, rejecting Zwingli, he writes:

I am not satisfied with the view of those who, while acknowledging that we have some kind of communion with Christ, only make us partakers of the Spirit, omitting all mention of flesh and blood. As if it were said to no purpose at all, that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood is drink indeed; that we have no life unless we eat that flesh and drink that blood; and so forth…. For I shall have a longer discussion with these hyperbolical doctors, who, according to their gross ideas, fabricate an absurd mode of eating and drinking, and transfigure Christ, after divesting him of his flesh, into a phantom…[8]

As uncharitable an estimation of Zwingli’s doctrine as this seems to be, it does draw a clear line to Calvin’s objective. Calvin’s reason for this distinction seems to swing on a similar exegetical hinge as Luther’s insistence upon the literal reading of “This is my body” seen in the context of the Marburg Colloquy. He is not willing to entirely divest the Supper of any meaningful physical presence of Christ’s body. To posit his construction of the real presence of the body in the Supper, Calvin writes:

And truly the thing there signified he exhibits and offers to all who sit down at that spiritual feast, although it is beneficially received by believers only who receive this great benefit with true faith and heartfelt gratitude. For this reason the apostle said, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ”? (1 Cor. 10:16.) There is no ground to object that the expression is figurative, and gives the sign the name of the thing signified. I admit, indeed, that the breaking of bread is a symbol, not the reality. But this being admitted, we duly infer from the exhibition of the symbol that the thing itself is exhibited.[9]

This is an extremely loaded and complex passage, as there are several key assertions made here which throw some light on the whole matter. First, Calvin dismisses the figurative reading of these statements concerning the communion which we experience with Christ in the Supper. This he does definitively. However, after this assertion, he seems to unpack a surprisingly complicated doctrine of relation between the symbol and the reality. While he acknowledges that the bread (or rather, the breaking thereof) is a symbol and not the reality, he continues to say that the symbol amounts to a real exhibition of the reality symbolized. Undoubtedly, this is a stronger statement than Zwingli would have made regarding the presence, and this unbreakable adherence between the sign and reality form the core of his argument moving forward. It does feel, however, that Calvin says here first that the breaking of the bread is not fully the reality, but then goes on to say that the reality is thus truly exhibited. The sacrament is then some type of mystical door into the real presence, yet Calvin still resists calling such a presence “spiritual.”

As to how this can be genuinely maintained, Calvin avoids the proposed solutions of both Zwingli and Luther and simply refuses to solve the equation. He writes, “Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than understand it.”[10] To suggest that this is a frustrating evasion is a massive understatement. While it is legitimate to charge both Luther and Zwingli with a degree of excess in their attempts to present a coherent system which accounts for their conception of the presence, Calvin simply begs off the question. Here, as Horton points out, Calvin actually more closely resembles the more mystical doctrines of union taught in the Eastern church than the clericalism of the Western church.[11] Horton brings in the concept of “energies” as a distinct ontological category which Calvin is referencing indirectly. This forms the basis of his assertion of the bread not being the reality, but the reality truly itself exhibited. It is undeniably true that Calvin’s development of the doctrine of the Supper in his Institutes propounds a robust vision of union with Christ which is somewhat alien to more Western conceptions of the experience, but such an approach means that Calvin is talking past both Zwingli and Luther and using genuinely independent categories heretofore foreign to the debate.

It is at this point that the tragedy of Zwingli’s early death really comes to the fore. If the differences between the perspectives of Zwingli and Calvin are primarily a result of a use of different categories, there is real hope that there could be reconciliation and clarity between the perspectives. If the ideas of “energies” does indeed function as Horton’s article seems to indicate, I see no fundamental disagreement with Zwingli’s perspective. Obviously, we will never know if the version of real, corporeal presence Calvin articulated would have been palatable to Zwingli, but it is certain the Luther’s followers decisively rejected Calvin’s doctrine on the Supper as conciliatory Zwinglianism. However, even if we can only speculate at the results of whatever meeting between Calvin and Zwingli might occur, there was substantial agreement reached eventually between those who followed Zwingli in the Swiss Reformation and Calvin’s Geneva in the Consensus Tigurinus. The consensus contained twenty-six points of agreement between Zurich and Geneva, among them this statement about the “Eating of the Body”:

When it is said that Christ, by our eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, which are here figured, feeds our souls through faith by the agency of the Holy Spirit, we are not to understand it as if any mingling or transfusion of substance took place, but that we draw life from the flesh once offered in sacrifice and the blood shed in expiation.[12]

While summary statements of this type are always open to some misunderstanding, there appears to be on display here a willingness by those who followed Zwingli in Zurich to admit the corporal presence of Christ, mediated by the Holy Spirit. If the followers of Zwingli did not see a significant difference between their doctrine and the doctrine of Calvin, perhaps it is a mistake to insist upon such a divide in our conceptions as well.


It is a colossal shame that the only relic of Zwingli’s theology which is known on a popular level is really not even his doctrine. The other strange outcome of this confusion is that many who claim to be Calvinists in regard to the Lord’s Supper are unwittingly Zwinglian in their doctrine, not only in the sense that they deny the corporal presence, but also in the sense that their understanding fails to comprehend to more mature statements of the doctrine of the Eucharist which both Calvin and the followers of Zwingli came to with time. While Zwingli’s push against Luther’s doctrine of the Supper was ultimately good and necessary, it is evident that such a polarizing debate tended to push Zwingli to forceful statements denying the corporal presence. In a sense, Zwingli’s doctrine is more successful in what it is not than what it is. It avoided the speculative excesses of Luther which led him to insist upon the seriously problematic doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body and instead created a space in which a genuinely biblical understanding of the Supper could be developed.

It is similarly a shame that Calvin’s doctrine is frequently not understood for what it truly is either: an assertion of our dramatic, mystical ascent to the body of Christ in our participation in the Supper. Of all Calvin’s doctrine, at this point he is the most unsatisfying in his refusal to clarify the mysticism he espouses, but also resoundingly biblical in the language he uses to describe the communion we achieve with Christ. It is, ultimately, the intense mysticism of Calvin’s doctrine of the supper which leads us to the popular confusion about the presence in the supper. If Calvin’s doctrine is truly more Eastern than Western, it does beg us to consider categories which we do not otherwise use in our Christian dialogue. Considering some of the excesses of the Eastern church, it is appropriate that the echoes of such doctrine in the writing of Calvin should give us pause, but this does not imply that we should reject them outright. Calvin’s assertion of the vital presence of Christ in the supper does indeed possess a passion which Zwingli’s writing frequently lacks, even if Zwingli possesses a greater clarity than his not-quite colleague. It is best to consider the doctrines of the two Reformers in light of each other, since only then do we see an image of the supper which both refuses to cynically unravel the mysteries of the gospel, yet is still intelligibly situated within the categories of the Christian church which we understand to be biblical. Without such a charitable reading, I fear that the current confusion of the church on this crucial doctrine will be impossible to penetrate.


[1] John W. Riggs, The Lord’s Supper in the Reformed Tradition: An Essay on the Mystical True Presence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 58-59.

[2] , Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (revised edition, Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 2013), 153.

[3] P. Schaff & D. S Schaff, History of the Christian Church (vol. 8, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 86-87.

[4] George, Theology of the Reformers, 155-56.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (ed John Bolt, trans John Vriend, vol. 4, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 557.

[6] Wilhemus A’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (trans Bartel Elshout, ed Joel R. Beeke, vol. 2, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Book, 2012), 475.

[7] Michael S Horton, “Union and Communion: Calvin’s Theology of Word and Sacrament.” IJST 11, no. 4. (October 2009): 407.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), IV, xvii, 7.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, IV, xvii, 10.

[10] Calvin, Institutes, IV, xvii, 32.

[11] Horton, “Union and Communion,” 412.

[12] John Calvin, John Calvin: Tracts and Letters (ed Henry Beveridge, trans Henry Beveridge, vol. 2, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 219.

Jason Waeber

Jason Waeber is an elder at Grace Bible Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, where he worships with his wife and three children. He is also a seminary student, under care with the Great Lakes Presbytery. As GBPC is looking forward to planting a church with him in the next few years, he felt called to develop the online presence of the denomination, both for outreach and the doctrinal maturity of the denomination. The Manna and the Stone is his attempt to pursue this. Currently, Jason is serving as the general editor for the site.

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