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Reforming the Eucharist

When Ulrich Zwingli began his ministry in Zurich on 1 January 1519, he announced from the pulpit that he intended to preach “the entire Gospel of Matthew, one passage after another, rather than following the usual lectionary of chopped up Sunday Gospels.”

Throughout that year, day after day, hordes of hungry saints swarmed to Zwingli’s pulpit to feast on the spiritual banquet that God’s servant set before them from the Holy Scriptures. His sermons were electrifying, “and the excitement of revival and reform came upon the city.” It was Zwingli’s preaching that “gave birth to the Reformation, maintained it, and carried it through to a successful conclusion.”

Under Zwingli’s leadership, the city of Zurich began to reform its liturgical customs one by one. The Mass, the baptismal rite, the church calendar and the daily office were all reshaped according to the Word. Relics and images were removed from the churches; altars were replaced with tables; priestly vestments were discarded. The whole liturgy of the church was gradually and thoroughly overhauled. It was reformed according to scripture, the only infallible standard for worship.

At the center of the Reformers’ efforts to purify Christian worship was the sacrament of holy communion. The enormous amount of attention that they gave to the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper is bewildering to many modern evangelicals, who tend to treat the Supper “casually, as a pleasant and cozy ceremony,” which seldom inspires serious theological reflection. For the Reformers, however, it was a matter of first importance, one that often led to vigorous controversy. From the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) to the Colloquy of Montbéliard (1586), eucharistic doctrine was fervently debated among Protestants. Indeed, “intramural Protestant polemics focused on the Lord’s Supper more than on any other single issue.”

In the century of the Reformation the Supper was the single most commonly discussed topic. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike spilled more ink over this than over justification by faith or the authority of the Bible. It was the litmus test that defined a man’s religion.

The Reformers were zealous to recover the Biblical doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper. Their concern was not only with eucharistic theology but with eucharistic worship. Hence, in the early 1520s, they turned their attention to revising the communion service. Their first attempts to reform the liturgy were rather modest. They generally involved at least three things: translating the prayers into the common tongue, removing all sacrificial language and serving both elements to the whole congregation.

In February of 1524, Diebold Schwarz, a minister in Strasbourg, “celebrated a German Mass much like the service Luther” had proposed in his Formula missae (1523). Although the service “was not a Reformed communion liturgy but an expurgated Mass, it was an important step toward a truly Reformed celebration of the sacrament.” That same year, the Strasbourg Reformers began calling for “a more radical reform of the eucharistic liturgy,” and by Easter of 1525, they had instituted a Reformed communion service.

Over the next few decades, the Reformers of Strasbourg and other cities continued to revise the liturgy, and by the time that Calvin produced the Genevan Psalter (1542), he had at his disposal a rich tradition of Reformed eucharistic customs to build upon. Indeed, the Genevan Psalter is the culmination of a widespread, communal effort to reform the liturgy. As Hughes Oliphant Old says, it is “in a very real sense the liturgy not of Calvin, not of Geneva, but the liturgy of the Reformed church.”

It is significant that Calvin’s title for the Genevan Psalter claims that the liturgical forms contained therein are modelled after the customs of the ancient church:

La Forme des prières et chantz ecclésiastiques avec la manière d’administrer les sacremens … selon la coustume de l’église ancienne.

Calvin and his colleagues frequently claimed patristic support for their liturgical ideas, and we have every reason, says Hughes Oliphant Old, to take them seriously. They deliberately developed their approach to worship by returning, first and foremost, to the scriptures but also to the fathers of the church, whom they regarded as fallible, though generally reliable, interpreters of scripture.

As Calvin understood it, to worship in continuity with the “the primitive and purer church” was to align oneself with the apostolic tradition. This, of course, was his motivation for reforming the liturgy “according to the custom of the ancient church.”

[This excerpt was taken from The Eucharist in the Didache by Glen Clary.]


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