Unity in the
Early Church

The Marburg Colloquy was a meeting which attempted to solve a disputation between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli over the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  The leading Protestant reformers of the time attended at the behest of Philip I of Hessen. Philip’s primary motivation for this conference was political; he wished to unite the Protestant states in political alliance, and to this end, religious harmony was an important consideration.  Philip I felt the need to reconcile the diverging views of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli in order to develop a unified Protestant theology.

To briefly summarize their dispute: In a slight change from the Catholic doctrine, Luther argued that in the celebration of the sacrament, Christ’s body was truly and physically present in the bread despite the fact that the bread continued to be bread. In the same way that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, at the Lord’s Supper, the bread becomes both fully bread and fully Christ’s body. Literally, “this is my body.” (1 Cor. 11:24)

Zwingli, however, focused on the second sentence in 1 Cor. 11:24, “Do this in remembrance.” In a significant departure from the theology of Catholic Church, Zwingli argued that the meal was just a meal. The bread was just bread, the wine was just wine. So as the church gathered to celebrate the sacrament, they did it at Christ’s command because the meal was a memorial or commemoration through which the church demonstrated its faith. Literally, “Do this in remembrance.” each man quoted this scripture and that scripture in defense of his understanding of how the body of Christ was present when the congregation gathered for the sacrament. Ultimately, despite their true desire for unity, Luther and Zwingli finally admitted, “we have not agreed at this moment whether the true body and blood of Christ be corporeally present in the bread and wine.”

Calvin was neither Zwinglian nor Lutheran in the developed sense of those terms, but rather saw himself as one who might mediate between the two sides in their intractable debates, particularly over the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

But what is perhaps most interesting, given contemporary ecclesiastical circumstances, is that Calvin saw himself as unabashedly part of one church—not just invisibly, but visiblywith all magisterial Protestants in Europe, and sought to make that visible unity more concrete through his literary and theological efforts, even if those hopes were in large measure frustrated.

Let us begin with Calvin’s Institutes, Book Four, chapter one. The unity of the church is confessed and affirmed as an article of faith over and against the apparent and all too real disunity of the church.

So it is that much discussion of the unity of the church has to do with questions of leaving the church: Is it possible to leave the church? Is it proper or permissible to leave the church? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not?

“The Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments.” (IV.1.10)

Moreover, might it ever be not only permissible but mandatory to leave the church if the church ceased being the church?

While perhaps one of the most well-known early divisions in the Protestant Christian movement, the Marborg Colloquy was certainly by no means the last. Conflicts often turned violent. The Thirty Years War, fought between 1618-1648, began as a religious war between Catholics and Protestants, but developed into a more general conflict between political states. The result was the longest and most deadly war in European history with more than eight million casualties.

Over the centuries, the divisions and splits within the Protestant movement have grown. Some estimate there are more than 30,000 Protestant denominations with at least 100 distinct congregations. That number swells when one attempts to count the wide variety of independent churches and worshipping communities throughout the world.

The Historical Development of the Doctrine:

Bible Verses:

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Church Father Quotes:

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Non-Catholic Quotes:

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