The Writing Under the Table Cloth

You may know the story about Luther’s debate with Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper in 1529 – how he dramatically whipped back the tablecloth to reveal the words he had chalked there at the beginning of the debate: “hoc est corpus meum”, and how he declared that “The Word stands there too mightily!” for him to deny it.

Walter Brandmüller, the President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences and (from 1970 to 1997) the professor of Church History at the University of Augsburg in Germany, makes the following comment in his new book “Light and Shadows: Church History amid Faith, Fact and Legend” (Ignatius Press) on page 154:

The true Church of Jesus Christ…is and remains uninterruptedly, through the millenia, through all the inadequacies and failures of her members and her pastors and through all historical changes, one and the same foundation of Jesus Christ, regardless of the fact that at any moment in history her nature could and should be more authentically realised than will ever actually occur in this age.

Since Martin Luther disputed this and regarded this same Church as degenerate, as the Babylonian Whore, not just because of the sins of her members but as a result of a fundamental defection from the Gospel, we must say to him, with reference to the above-cited words of Sacred Scripture [Matt 16:18, John 16:13, Matt 28:30, 1 Tim 3:15, Rom 11:29 etc.], what he himself had replied to Zwingli in Marburg in 1529: “The word stands there too mightily!” And just as he then took chalk and wrote on the table “This is my body, this is my blood”, so too in this case the Catholic must take his chalk and write on the table what Michelangelo wrote along the rim of the cupola of Saint Peter’s in Rome: “The Gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” This word, too, stands there too mightily for anyone to overlook it.

Which is rather nice. BUT…

But it is rather like engaging with someone on a debate about the Real Presence (to carry on the analogy) on the basis of John 6, when that someone denies that John 6 is even talking about the Eucharist. For, as Past Elder (a one-time frequent guest and interlocutor on these pages – remember him?) never tired of pointing out for us, Luther would simply have denied that the Roman Pope and the Bishops and all who regard themselves as being in communion with them is the Church to which Matt 16:18 refers.

Nevertheless, I like Brandmüller’s point.

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3 Responses to The Writing Under the Table Cloth

  1. Mike says:

    Yeah, but it really is just as good as Luther’s point. Hoc Est Corpus Meum can be as mighty as it likes if you’re convinced it’s metaphorical.

    It must have been fun to live in a place and era where such dramatic gestures have an impact other than getting you kicked out of the pub by RSA laws.

  2. Peregrinus says:

    On the other hand, since the “reaction” to such gestures could involve burning at the stake, or the Thirty Years’ War, maybe there’s something to be said for our lily-livered modern ways.

  3. Matthias says:


    To use an old 70’s phrase “Right On brother’.

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