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The 1586 Colloquy of Montbeliard: Reformed-Lutheran Theological Excavations

Published Friday, September 18, 2020 By Joshua Pauling

When one surveys the broad landscape of Christianity today, confessional Lutheran and Reformed Christians share significant doctrinal acreage. This is something to celebrate and leverage amidst challenges in the broader Christian Church and society at large. Yet once the theologian’s shovel starts excavating below the surface, significant divergence at key points is found, revealing chasms centuries old.

Attempts at bridging this divide through Reformed-Lutheran dialogue has a long and checkered past. From the Luther-Zwingli showdown at Marburg in 1529, to the Prussian Union of Churches in 1817, to the 20th century ecumenical movement, there has been no shortage of confusion, rhetoric and distrust. Despite a shared commitment to the Reformation solas, as tremors and aftershocks spread across Europe from the ground-shaking Reformation, substantial fault-lines opened between the two traditions.

The most memorable debates centered on the Lord’s Supper, as Luther’s trenchant hoc est at Marburg made clear. But questions over the mode of Christ’s presence in the Supper were just cracks on the surface that widened with depth. Once below ground, larger fissures emerged; Eucharistic disputations flowed from differing Christologies, and baptismal disagreements connected to predestination, all of which linked to more fundamental questions of spirit and matter, and the role of logic in theology. As both traditions matured and clarified their core principles, a debate between a second generation of Reformation theologians ensued at the Montbeliard Colloquy of 1586 between Lutheran Jakob Andreae and Reformed Theodore Beza.

Historical Context

Over the course of several days in the spring of 1586, Andreae and Beza debated in front of large crowds and statesmen to make their case to be the official religion of the unique region of Montbeliard, a French-speaking Reformed county under the jurisdiction of a Lutheran Prince. With additional French Huguenots migrating to the region, and larger geo-political forces at work, there were hopes to unite a divided Protestantism. As Jill Raitt explains, the Colloquy’s “international setting” makes it much more than “simply another theological controversy that failed to reconcile Reformed and Lutheran princes and theologians” (4). Furthermore, Raitt notes, by the 1550s, thanks to “well-prepared sermons” and “carefully supervised instruction in catechism classes,” protestant laypeople “knew very well what they believed and what they did not believe.” Thus, meetings like Montbeliard “had profound political and religious repercussions that deeply affected the lives of the laity” (6). 

To be sure, the political and theological dimensions were inextricably interwoven into this colloquy. As Jeff Mallinson describes, this was the era of cuius regio, eius religio (whoever’s region, his religion), raising the stakes for Beza and Andreae as they debated in front of Count Frederick of Wurttemburg and Montbeliard, since “failure in the public square meant not only embarrassment, but also the concrete loss of rights to worship and teach within the region” (vi).

Their deliberation was organized around the same major topics that still divide the two traditions today: the Lord’s Supper, the person of Christ, baptism, predestination and church practices related to liturgy, images and music. Thanks to the work of Clinton Armstrong and Jeff Mallinson, the historic 1586 colloquy was made fully available in English for the first time in 2017 under the title Lutheranism vs. Calvinism. Here is a treasure for those interested in the history of Reformed-Lutheran dialogue and in understanding both traditions rightly. So many of the modern debates—online or in print—rehash the groundwork once laid so exquisitely at Montbeliard. Rather than attempting a full-scale evaluation, a summary of each theological topic debated at the colloquy, or yet another doctrinal comparison, I’d like to suggest some possible routes for exploring what might lie beneath the surface, that might be contributing to the doctrinal differences evident above ground.

Lord’s Supper and Logic

It should come as no surprise that the first and longest topic debated at Montbeliard was the Supper. It was, of course, disagreement over the mode of Christ’s presence in the sacrament that divided Luther and Zwingli fifty-seven years earlier. This sacramental conflict over whether Christ’s real presence is spiritual or physical, stems at least in some measure from how one understands spirit and matter and where one positions logic in the theological enterprise. Mallinson explains, “The colloquy reflects the fundamental differences between the formal principles (that is the authoritative sources of theology and the relative positions of those sources) of the Reformed and Lutherans. Specifically, the role of instrumental reason as a tool for interpreting biblical passages was elevated within Reformed circles. Likewise, logical consistency of various doctrines was valued more highly by the Reformed than the Lutherans” (vi).

One exchange particularly made this clear, as Andreae and Beza came to an impasse in their discussion of I Corinthians 10:16.

Andreae: Paul writes, I Corinthians 10:16, “The bread which we break is a communication of the body of Christ.” He does not say, it is a communication of the remission of sins, but rather it is a communication of the body of Christ.

Beza: Prove it with a syllogism.

Andreae: Sayings of Holy Scripture do not need to be proven with a syllogism; they are rather believed on account of divine authority.

Beza: Make a syllogism.

Andreae: This is a novelty unheard of in any school, that testimonies of Scripture are proved with a syllogism.

Beza: Make a syllogism.

Andreae: The genuine meaning of the saying of Scripture should not be proved with a syllogism, but should rather be demonstrated from Scripture (152).

Christology and Philosophy

Beza and Andreae eventually segued to Christological questions, revealing the connections between communion and Christology. “Controversy over the Lord’s Supper was,” as David P. Scaer notes,  “the reflection and result of a deeper Christological disagreement” (15). Beza was concerned that the Lutheran emphasis on the union of the two natures and the communicatio idiomatum verged on confusing the two natures (Eutychianism). Beza explains, “Christ’s flesh, that is, his humanity, should not be worshiped, since it is not Deity, that is, God. This honor is proper to God alone, as it is written: You will worship the Lord your God and serve him only (Matthew 4:10). We do not deny that the man Christ is to be worshiped, but we do not concede that the humanity of Christ should be worshiped in itself” (419).

For Andreae, the Reformed position verged on dividing the two natures (Nestorianism). Andreae asks “For what reason are you able to reject the Holy Spirit’s phrase and say that flesh is not God, when John says, The Word became flesh?” (421). Scaer summarizes well, “Both sides accused the other of repeating the old Christological heresies… Lutherans insisted that a unity between the divine and human natures of Christ resulted in one person,” while “the Reformed stressed the individuality of the two natures in Christ” (26).

One reason for the divergence here is found in the philosophical axiom oft-cited by Beza: finitum non capax infiniti (the finite is not able to contain the infinite). Beza claims, “The matter is so clear that it needs no proof. Because God’s power is infinite. But the human nature is finite. Therefore it is not capable of containing or sharing in infinite power” (333). Andreae responds, “I still hear no testimony of Scripture, but rather just a philosophical principle, that the finite is not capable of the infinite. This has its own place in Philosophy and the natural sciences. But it cannot hold a place in this mystery” (333).

Baptism and Dualism

The impact of philosophical assumptions on biblical interpretation similarly emerged in their discussion of baptism, when Beza explains, “Just as the body is sprinkled with water, so also we say that the soul is sprinkled. For this reason the water of baptism represents the blood of Christ, which should not be excluded from baptism…A washing of water is only a signification and representation of a spiritual washing, in which the soul is washed and cleansed from sins, which happens through the blood of Christ. The external and elemental water of baptism signifies and represents this washing. But it is not itself a washing or bath, nor can it deliver or accomplish this” (529).

Andreae retorts, “Christ did not say about the water of baptism, this is my blood. Nor did he say the water represents my blood. For just as in the Lord’s Supper bread and wine were ordained not for a representation, but for the delivery of Christ’s body and blood, so also the water of baptism has been ordained not for a representation, but for the delivery of a spiritual washing of regeneration in the name of the Trinity….there is no figurative language here, no metaphor…but rather it is, is, is a washing of regeneration” (529).

Might this be evidence of subtle differences in how the two theologians understand spirit and matter? For Beza, it seems that salvation comes in a non-mediated way from the spiritual realm. “Baptism of the Spirit is true baptism, which the outer baptism of water signifies and represents, and seals adoption” (529). For Andreae, it seems that salvation comes in a mediated way through the material realm. “In baptism adoption is not only signified and represented, but also delivered, and offered for the present…Baptism…is a washing of regeneration…delivered in the sprinkling of water” (529-530).

So too with assurance, Beza posits a spiritual assurance found in the personal witness of the Holy Spirit. “But the consolation that we have been adopted should be sought from the effects of the Holy Spirit, namely when we feel such movements of the Holy Spirit in us that bear witness that we have been truly regenerated and adopted and are sons of God” (627). Andreae suggests a material assurance and asks, “But why do you not direct troubled consciences back to the universal promises? Again, to baptism they received, the reception of the Lord’s Supper, so that they make up their mind about the certainty of their eternal salvation in light of these things?” (630). Beza responds, “Because not all receive this word, and most people are only baptized outwardly by the baptism of water, but not washed by the inner water of the Spirit. Again, many receive the bread and wine of the Supper without true faith, but they do not arrive at a participation of the spirit” (630).

Conclusion

While by no means doing justice to the lengthy debate, perhaps these excerpts offer inspiration to further explore what drives the doctrinal differences between Reformed and Lutherans, revealing the interconnectedness of one doctrine to another, and the interplays of theology and philosophy. The colloquy itself closed with a tense exchange. Despite their theological differences, Beza and his delegation were willing to extend the right hand of communion fellowship to the Lutheran delegation, but Andreae was unwilling, believing the disagreements were too strong for sharing pastors, pulpits and altars between the two traditions. Andreae did offer to extend the hand of friendship, but then Beza refused. So the groups parted ways, and what began as a hopeful debate, ended with growing bitterness and suspicion, as the letters published by both groups afterwards made clear (638-652).

Though Beza and Andreae soon receded into the background, their 1586 debate offers much for developing an understanding Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and suggests further lines of inquiry beyond the normal doctrinal disagreements and into the philosophical assumptions at work below ground. Also worthy of further study is the extent to which these two figures represent their traditions then and now. While the theological rifts evidenced at Montbeliard still remain today, as Mallinson puts it, “the nature of Christ—what Christ means for poor, miserable sinners—remained the central topic for both Andreae and Beza” (ix). And that is solid ground for both traditions—and all of Christendom—to stand on.

Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University, and has written for Modern Reformation, Mere Orthodoxy, Front Porch Republic, FORMA Journal, and Salvo Magazine. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He and his wife Kristi have two children who are being classically homeschooled.

  • Joshua Pauling