Philip of Hesse

The Marburg Conference

Of all the young princes to join themselves to the Protestant cause, the most chivalrous was Philip, Landgrave of Hesse. His activity knew no pause and how the Protestant cause might be strengthened was his constant concern. At times, his zeal was a source of concern to Luther, as Philip looked more to the formation of leagues and arms for the defense of the cause he loved, while Luther’s repudiated the use of arms in the defense of truth, depending rather on the arm of Omnipotence to sustain and defend the cause.

However, with all his defects, the landgrave was a great counterpart to the Elector John. John was prudent and even somewhat timid at times, while Philip was impulsive and altogether fearless. The same danger that would cause John to hold back pushed Philip forward. Philip and John were to the political field of the Reformation, what Luther and Melancthon were to the theological and religious.

Elector John

There was, however, one great division in the Protestant camp that caused Philip no end of concern. He realized that unless it was speedily resolved, it would widen and eventually create an irreparable division that would be the cause of irreconcilable future problems. If this one difference could be resolved, the two parties could, it seemed, walk side by side in their united strength carrying the banner of truth. This difference was between the Swiss and the German Reformers and it revolved around the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. The one point they differed on was the manner in which Christ was present in the bread and wine—corporeally or spiritually. This question divided Protestantism into two differing camps.

Philip was deeply grieved over this breach. He believed that in reality, there were not really two different opinions, but rather one opinion differently understood and variously stated and that if he could but bring the two leaders together, a free interchange of sentiments, along with some in-depth discussion, would quickly work to erase the perceived differences that threatened to create a great gulf. The resolution of these differences seemed especially necessary now that the Reformed princes of Germany had unfurled their flag upon the winds. There was little doubt but that the challenge would be taken up by a power too strong in armies not to resent the defiance. For the Protestants, apparently far lesser in numbers than the threatening force, to remain disunited and fragmented was sheer madness to Philip. While there is little doubt that Philip’s primary objective was to unite the arms of Protestantism, it is unfortunate that the Lutheran doctors were not as anxious to see a doctrinal resolution to the differences, and thus a uniting of the hearts and prayers among the faithful in Protestantism. 

There had already been an exchange of writings between Luther and Zwingli on the question of the Lord’s Supper. “Those from the pen of Luther were so violent that they left an impression of weakness. The perfect calmness of Zwingli’s replies, on the other hand, produced a conviction of strength. Zwingli’s calmness stung Luther to the quick. It humiliated him. Popes and emperors had lowered their pretensions in his presence; the men of war, whom the Papacy had sent forth from the Vatican to do battle with him, had returned discomfited. He could not brook the thought of lowering his sword before the pastor of Zurich. Must he, the doctor of Christendom, sit at the feet of Zwingli?” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 9, chapter 16.

The Landgrave of Hesse, with characteristic zeal set about to effect a reconciliation of these differences extending invitations to the two parties to meet at his castle in Marburg to discuss their differences in person. Zwingli’s heart leaped for joy, but the invitation was received with much less warmth and enthusiasm in Wittenberg. Though originally disinclined to accept the invitation, both Luther and Melancthon, upon reflection, realized they could hardly refuse. In an attempt to avoid such a conference, they even suggested to the elector of Saxony that he veto the idea, thus removing from themselves the stigma of willfully continuing the breech which so many deplored. The elector, disdaining so disreputable a course, refused. They next suggested a Papist act as an umpire between the two contending sides, using as a reason for this strange proposition that only he could be an impartial judge. In doing so, they apparently were willingly overlooking the fact that the papal party above all others in Christendom, was most committed to the doctrine of the real presence. However, as every device failed, they were left with no choice but to meet Zwingli at Marburg.

In Zurich, the town council having considered the matter of their pastor going to Germany, and having weighed the possible consequences of him traveling for a large part of his trip through territories of the emperor, refused to give their permission for him to risk the trip. Accordingly, Zwingli, rather than forego the opportunity to mend the ranks of the Reformation, took matters into his own hands and slipping away by night with a single attendant, left Zurich. Traveling by the most unfrequented paths, they at length arrived in Marburg.

Luther and Zwingli

The meeting that followed was watched with intense interest by both Protestants and Catholics; the one camp with hope that the differences might be healed and the other with fear that they would. 

The conference opened with Luther taking a piece of chalk and writing upon the velvet table cover the words, “Hoc est meum corpus’—This is my body. No one denied that these were the words of Christ, but the question was, in what sense did Christ mean them? The argument presented by the Swiss was in line with the fundamental principle of Protestantism. Luther, on the other hand, had only one argument, and little else, to which he tenaciously held and it was the words he had written on the table cover.

One point held to by the Swiss, and which has often been employed since in refutation of the corporeal presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, was that which Christ Himself employed when at Capernaum, he found that His hearers understood Him to say that they must eat his flesh and drink His blood, after a corporeal manner. He at once restricted them to a spiritual sense by telling them that His body was to ascend to heaven. He went on to say that, “it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”

There is little question but that the Scriptures, science, and the senses, all three denied the Lutheran and popish doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. At length, Zwingli presented in clear and forceful lines the simplicity of his views and their harmony with the usual method by which the Sprit acts upon the soul of man, recommending truth to his listeners. Clearly, he brought the Word to bear upon the Lord’s Supper, its nature, and its design. His words were not without effect, as Francis Lambert, an ex-Franciscan, and head of the Hessian Church, who though a friend and admirer of Luther, whose friendship and respect he enjoyed, declared himself to be of the opinion of Zwingli.

The conference lasted two days. Writing of it later, Luther wrote, “They supplicated us to bestow upon them the title of ‘brothers.’ Zwinglius even implored the landgrave with tears to grant this. ‘There is no place on earth,’ said he, ‘where I so much covet to pass my days as at Wittenberg.’ We did not, however, accord to them this appellation of brothers. All we granted was that which charity enjoins us to bestow even upon our enemies. They, however, behaved in all respects with an incredible degree of humility and amiability.” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 9, chapter 16

Philip, who had welcomed the doctors with such joy, watched them depart in sorrow, unspeakably mortified by the outcome of the conference. All around him he could see nothing but gathering darkness. A terrible tempest was threatening to break forth from the Alps where Charles and Clement plotted the eradication of Protestantism. While the ranks of Protestantism were fractured, around them there appeared to be perfect unity posed ready to strike a death blow to a divided and weakened Protestantism.

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