The sacraments and divisions in the reformations (Reformations 9)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'The sacraments and divisions in the reformations (Reformations 9),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

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An understanding of the sacraments is essential in making sense of the reformations of the sixteenth century. The seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, marriage, extreme unction, eucharist, confession, orders) were central to the medieval concept of the church (and would continue to be central within Roman Catholicism in the wake of the Council of Trent). The official church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth, was the mediator between God and the people. In the view of the papacy, it was through the administration of the seven sacraments in particular that God’s grace was communicated through the church to the people.

Reformers in the early sixteenth century, including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and those considered “radical” (Anabaptists) by others, unanimously rejected the traditional understanding of sacraments. For both the German and Swiss reformations (including the “radicals”), only baptism and the eucharist remained (and even these were not usually understood as “sacraments” in the traditional sense). Yet despite this agreement in rejecting a central aspect of medieval Christianity, the precise understanding of baptism and the eucharist remained a point of contention and division among reformation movements.

Thus, for instance, the leaders of the magisterial reformations (Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland) maintained certain medieval concepts of baptism, namely baptism of infants. Yet the Anabaptists, as their name shows (literally “re-baptizers”) felt that only the adult who could choose to follow Christ was to receive baptism. Anabaptists were executed (by Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Catholics alike) for their views, sometimes with the ironic death by drowning as in the case of Felix Mantz at Zurich (died 1526, among the first Anabaptists executed).

Divisions were also very apparent in the case of the eucharist (or communion or Lord’s supper). Despite their agreement on many other factors and despite the shared threat from Catholic (military) powers who opposed the reformation movements, Luther and Zwingli just could not agree to disagree on the precise understanding of the eucharist. On the one hand, Luther held to a view (closer to the medieval) that Christ was really present in the bread and wine based on the phrase “this is my body” (Matthew 26:26) (he nonetheless rejected the medieval explanation of this presence–the theory of transubstantiation). On the other, Zwingli understood Christ’s statement to mean that “this signifies my body” (understanding “is” in a metaphorical sense), and that Christ was not really present in the bread itself (but rather in the hearts of participants). When a meeting aimed at unifying the German and Swiss reformation movements took place in 1529 (the Colloquy of Marburg), this issue of “is” vs. “signifies” was the only factor that continued to separate these two major branches of the reformations (the German or Lutheran and the Swiss or Reformed).

For more on this topic see, for instance, Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), especially the chapter on the sacraments.

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