ZWINGLI: GOSPEL THEOLOGIAN WHO SPARKED THE REFORMATION

The 15th and 16th centuries brought major changes to the world as we know it. Three men entered the scene of Catholic Europe who would forever alter the flow of history and the events that followed were dramatic to be sure. Two of these three men are well known and most people in Europe as well as the United States know their names and have a rough idea of their life-work. Those two men are John Calvin and Martin Luther, the great reformers, in whose footsteps we as evangelical Christians walk even to this day.

The third individual was a man of virtue and character (or so he is described in virtually every source I have come across), firmly committed to the authority of the scriptures and convinced that each individual could and should understand and apply the word of God without the help of the clergy. According to M.A. Noll he is one of the reformations most appealing leaders[1]. Yet very few people even know his name, nor would they associate it with one of history’s most dramatic events.

His name was Huldrych Zwingli and he was the third man in the revolution. Zwingli was less of a systematizer than Calvin and much more an original thinker. He came to many of the same conclusions Luther had reached independently and when Luther’s ideas began to seep across the border of Germany into Switzerland, and it’s 13 Cantons, several of these independent city states broke with Catholicism and became Protestant including the powerful city state of Zurich under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli.

Zwingli was nearly as much the primary mover of the reformation in Switzerland as Luther was in Germany[2], despite the fact that this role is usually attributed to Calvin. Growing up in Germany with the study of theology and the reformation a common topic in both the Lutheran church of my youth as well as the mandatory religious education classes in high school, Zwingli remained a complete stranger to me until I started studying theology in my early twenties. The emphasis of study and therefore knowledge among the average person in both Europe as well as the United States remains firmly on Calvin and Luther, mainly because of their lasting impact in form of an official denomination or system of thought and faith. Zwingli did not start an official Zwinglian Church, but his impact on Calvin and on the reformation as a whole is undisputed.

Ulrich Zwingli was born January 1st 1484 (within 7 weeks of Martin Luther’s birth) in Wildhaus in Toggenburg, St. Gall, Switzerland as the third of eight sons. His Father Ulrich was a district official and an officer of the Church. He was a wealthy farmer certainly a middle class peasant, which afforded Zwingli a first class education. At the age of ten he left home for the first time and went to Basel and Later Berne to study Latin and enjoy a humanistic education. “Zwingli seems never to have had the kind of soul-shaking religious experience which molded Luther. His had been a happy boyhood and he grew up with no great sense of sin.”[3] At the age of 14 Ulrich desired to become a Dominican Monk and wanted to join the Dominican Monastery in Berne, but upon pressure from his parents went to Vienna and began his studies at the University there. Zwingli was brilliant and studied under various first rate scholars in both Basel and Berne. One of these, Thomas Wyttenbach, encouraged Ulrich to devote himself to the serious study of Theology and in 1506 Zwingli completed his studies and received the Master of Theology degree. Even prior to completing his studies the parish of Glaurus, Switzerland selected him as their pastor despite the fact that he had not been ordained yet.  During the next 10 years Zwingli poured himself into theological, philosophical and humanistic studies, which would earn him the respect of many of his contemporaries and prepared him for the political and theological controversies of the next couple of years.[4]

As military chaplain, Zwingli accompanied mercenaries from Glarus twice into battle in Italy. This made him question the practice of mercenaries and, according to Matthias Reuter, invoked thoughts of pacifism[5]. Zwingli studied the classical languages of Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew and read many of the classics of the Church Fathers. This brought him into contact with the great Humanistic thinkers of his day, Heinrich Loriti, Erasmus and Vadian. During this time as parish priest in Glarus, Zwingli also began to write and all of these early writings are distinctly political. In these writings he also seems to strongly support the pope, a position that would cause some trouble as the French party gained control over Glarus. This caused Zwingli to move on and in 1516 he became the preaching pastor at Einsiedeln, which was a popular location for pilgrims from both Switzerland and Germany. He stayed in Einsiedeln through 1518. Later in his own writings he disputed that Luther was first in voicing his criticism of the Catholic church, and claimed that he indeed began to speak and preach against the “Old Faith” during his time in Einsiedeln.[6]

In 1519 Zwingli was appointed “Leutpriester” of Zurich which roughly translated means “People’s Priest”. “People’s priest” was reportedly the most influential position in the church in Zurich, a position he almost didn’t get elected to because of rumors that he had broken the promise of celibacy which his position as priest demanded from him. When questioned Zwingli reportedly answered his friend Myconius that he had not been involved with a “respectable girl” but with “a common strumpet” with whom the rumored offense had been committed.[7] Apparently Zwingli didn’t make any effort to defend himself or deny the affair. His friend however did his best to cover up the story and Zwingli was elected with a huge majority.

However his intense study of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and constant struggle with the issue of sensuality led him to a spiritual breakthrough. He concluded that the institution of marriage was from God and that the idea of celibacy was artificially imposed upon him by the Catholic Church. He began to immerse himself in the scriptures and began to despise the system of penance and relics. He quickly abandoned the traditional Sunday readings and on January 1st 1519 began an exegetical study of the Gospel of Matthew during his first sermon in the Zurich Cathedral. According to Bruce Shelley “he launched the reformation not by posting theses on the church door, but by preaching biblical sermon’s from the pulpit”[8]. Many came to hear him speak probably as much because of the newness of his approach and the doctrines he preached as because of his gift as a preacher and orator. Even at this point Zwingli seemingly remained first and foremost a humanist and a politician, but he was beginning to buy into the ideas of Luther and independently reach some of the same conclusions.

In the years that followed he slowly but surely continued his reformation, which led to a condemnation by the Catholic officials who wanted the City council to denounce Zwingli and to condemn him as Ketzer (heretic). However in 1523 the city made a declaration of reform instead and adopted Zwingli’s ideas for church reform, which included the removal of pictures and relics from the churches and mass was replaced with the protestant style of church service. Zwingli wrote numerous tracts and aided in the composition of confessions to promote the course of the Reformation (e.g. Ten Theses of Berne).[9]

His theology was quite similar to Luther’s but the two had a falling out over the issue of the Lord’s Supper. Luther, Melanchton and Zwingli got together at the Marburger Religionsgespräch, known as the Marbury Colloquy. Here they argued about the nature of the Eucharist and while Luther held the opinion that there was a spiritual presence during the Lord’s Supper, Zwingli believed the whole act to be merely symbolic. For Zwingli both Baptism and Eucharist are merely symbolic. Luther believed in consubstantiation asserting, like the Catholic Church, that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, Zwingli denies that. This controversy stops the attempts Zwingli made a creating a unified Protestant society, and the Lutheran and Reformed churches part company.

“Yet Luther and Zwingli both taught that salvation is by faith alone. Zwingli said that one is only free from sin when his ‘mind trusts itself unwaveringly to the death of Christ and finds rest there’, that faith is born ‘only when a man begins to despair of himself and to see that he must trust in God alone,’ and that ‘it is perfected when a man wholly casts himself off and prostrates himself before the mercy of God alone, but in such a fashion as to have entire trust in it because of Christ who was given for us.’”[10] Zwingli, like Luther condemned the selling of indulgences, and believed that the scriptures are the guide for faith and practice. However, while Luther seemed to permit everything the Bible didn’t prohibit Zwingli prohibits everything the Bible doesn’t clearly promote and removes the organ from his church in Zurich. According to one writer Zwingli’s theology and morality were based on a single principle: if the Old or New Testament did not say something explicitly and literally, then no Christian should believe or practice it.[11] Zwingli believed in simple religion and along with that he believed in the literal reading of the scriptures the words meant exactly what they said and any difficulty in interpretation was completely the fault and responsibility of the Human reader. This is important to this day, as it began the tradition to read the simple meaning of the text instead of attempting to figure out the obscure hidden and allegorical meaning usually ascribed to scripture. This literal reading of scripture then also led to the strict observance of what the Bible taught which would impact the later Puritan and radical Protestant movements that were to come.

However soon the peace would be disturbed as the attempt for independence caused a rift between the cantons. In 1529 this unrest in Switzerland turned to a civil war between various cantons. The Waldstatters (Forest Cantons) marched on Zurich and Zwingli himself went with the army into war. On October 10, 1531, Zwingli, again working as chaplain for the Protestant forces, was first wounded and then put to death by the victorious troops of the Forest Cantons. The angry victors actually quartered his body and burned his remains.

Despite Zwingli’s and later Calvin’s reforms the reformation in Switzerland eventually came to a halt and the Reformation seemed to make no further headway the country is still divided: half Catholic, half Protestant.[12]

While Zwingli did not start the Zwinglian Denomination like Luther started Lutheranism or John Calvin laid the foundations for Calvinism he was instrumental in shaping Calvin’s ecclesiology and his legacy extends from the time of the Reformation and is to this day seen in the Reformed Church.


[1] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology p.1204

[2] McClintock and Strongs Encyclopedia: Zwingli, Ulrich

[3] Kenneth Scott Latourette: A History of Christianity Volume II, Reformation to the Present, p.747

[4] Matthias Reuter: Biographie des Ulrich Zwingli (In German)

[5] Matthias Reuter: Biographie des Ulrich Zwingli

[6] New Advent.org: Zwingli

[7] newadvent.org/cathen/03481

[8] Bruce Shelley, Church History in plain language, p.249

[9] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 1204

[10] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A history of Christianity Vol.II, p.749

[11] Richard Hooker: The Life of Ulrich Zwingli (www.wsu.edu/~dee/Reform/Zwingli)

One thought on “ZWINGLI: GOSPEL THEOLOGIAN WHO SPARKED THE REFORMATION

  1. Pingback: QUOTE (Huldrych Zwingli) – Jan 1 | A DEVOTED LIFE

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