In the work of God's kingdom and covenant, no one man can do the work which God needs done. Moses could deliver Israel from Egypt and lead them through the wilderness, but Joshua had to be called to bring them into Canaan. David could fight the battles of Jehovah on behalf of God' chosen people, but he could not build the temple. Solomon had to do that. Only Christ can do all the work that needs doing.
In the Reformation many different men engaged in the work, some of great importance, some of lesser. Yet each had his place. Luther could not do it all; it took also Calvin in Geneva and Knox in Scotland. But even Calvin could not do all the work that needed doing even in Switzerland. Zwingli had a role to play. And so Zwingli is counted among the four great Reformers.
Zwingli's Pre-conversion Life
In the midst of stunning Alpine beauty, in the Toggenburg Valley at Wildhaus, Ulrich Zwingli was born in a lowly shepherd's cottage to the mayor of this small hamlet. He belonged to a large family -- seven brothers (he was the third son) and two sisters. He was born seven weeks after Martin Luther, on January 1, 1484.
Zwingli received his education in the leading universities of Switzerland and Austria, but was throughout under the influence of the Humanism of the Renaissance. This is important, for Zwingli's Humanism was to be an influence in his theology even after his conversion and during the years of his reformatory work. The Renaissance was a movement which had begun in Italy a couple of centuries earlier and was characterized by a revival of learning, a return to the study of ancient Greek and Roman classics, and an exaltation of man.
In Basel, Zwingli studied Latin grammar, music, and dialectics. In Bern he studied under Lupulus, the greatest classical scholar and poet in Switzerland and a leading humanist. In Vienna he studied scholastic philosophy, astronomy, physics, and the ancient classics. His education differed somewhat from that of Luther and was more nearly like the education which Calvin received; but all three reformers were highly educated men. One is reminded of how God often uses educated men in the church, for even Moses was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians."
Returning to Basel, Zwingli studied and taught, acquiring his Master of Arts degree in 1506. Two events in Basel helped to shape his future life: He was taught by Thomas Wyttenback, a man deeply interested in the reform of the church; and he met Leo Jud, who was to remain his friend and co-reformer for the rest of his life. Both these men turned his thoughts to reform in the corrupt church of Rome.
Zwingli early showed remarkable ability as a musician, and in the course of his studies he learned to play with skill the lute, harp, violin, flute, dulcimer, and hunting horn. He made good use of this ability throughout his career and wrote a number of beautiful poems and songs.
His Early Ministry
In 1506 his work as minister began. He was ordained to the priesthood in Glaurus, but had to buy off a rival candidate for the sum of 100 guilders. Some interesting things happened while Zwingli was in Glaurus. For one thing, he immersed himself in the pastoral ministry, preaching, teaching, doing pastoral work and caring for the spiritual needs of his flock in so far as he was able, for he was yet an unconverted man. For another thing, he spent a great deal of time in personal study, reading avidly the old Greek and Roman authors. To read the Greek authors, he taught himself Greek and became proficient in this language. His admiration for classical writers grew with his reading, and he developed the idea that the Holy Spirit must have operated beyond the boundaries of Palestine among the heathen philosophers, for their writings could only be explained in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit. In this respect, he anticipated later views of the general and gracious operations of the Holy Spirit among the heathen, taught by the defenders of common grace. Because of his vast learning and ability, he supervised the education of two of his brothers and of several of the noblest young men of Glaurus, who became firm friends and remained such through his years of reformatory work.
During this period he also made three trips with Swiss mercenaries into Italy and came to hate this Swiss practice. The practice played an important enough part in Zwingli's life to say a few things about it.
It was common in Switzerland for the men to hire themselves out as soldiers to foreign armies. But Zingli came to hate the practice because the effects of it were spiritually demoralizing: the fathers away from home for long periods of time and fell into all the immorality attendant on such practices; and the men became accustomed to cruelty and hardness, which was a way of life on the battlefields. The practice later became an issue in the struggles with Roman Catholicism because the Roman Church supported the practice, seeing in it a source of vast revenues. Some estimate the revenues for the church in Switzerland may have amounted to over $3,000,000 a year. From this practice of mercenaries dates the papal custom of having Swiss guards in the Vatican.
In 1515 Zwingli moved to Einsiedeln, where he continued about three years. During his stay in Einsiedeln he gradually came to understand the evil of many Romish practices. Especially the corrupt practice of indulgences came to his attention when a huckster by the name of Samson tried to sell his indulgences in Switzerland. It is interesting that at least two years before Luther's attack against indulgences, Zwingli was preaching against them and condemning them vehemently from the pulpit. In this respect, as well as in other matters, Zwingli anticipated Luther and taught many of the same things, although he developed his ideas independently.
It was also in Einsiedeln that Zwingli made the acquaintance of the famous humanist, Erasmus, who, at about this time, published his first edition of the Greek New Testament. Zwingli was deeply attracted to Erasmus, visited him, became his friend, and invited Erasmus to Zurich in 1522, which invitation Erasmus declined. It is to Zwingli's credit that, while he agreed with Erasmus on many points, he repudiated Erasmus' Semi-pelagianism.
While Zwingli was in Glaurus and Einsiedeln, he fell into the sin of fornication. That this did not affect his standing in the church is only evidence of how common the practice was; but Zwingli later repented of it with great anguish of soul and lived with the burden of it all his life.
Zwingli never did free himself of his humanistic views, views which continued to influence his theology even when he became the reformer of Switzerland. All his studies had been from a humanistic viewpoint; he had read widely in classical literature; and his admiration for Erasmus all but guaranteed that humanism would play an important role in his thinking.
Zwingli's conversion was probably a gradual one which began while he was in Einsiedeln, but which came to full expression in Zurich, to which he was called in the latter part of 1518. God used several means to bring about his conversion. Increasingly, as he saw the need for reform in the church, he came to hate the Romish abuses which destroyed men's souls. As his studies turned more and more to Scripture, he, even before Luther, saw that Scripture alone had to be the authority for all the faith and life of the church. In fact, when he began his ministry in Zurich on January 1, 1519, on his 35th birthday, he began a systematic exposition of the Gospel according to Matthew. During the next four years of his ministry, he continued preaching systematically through the New Testament, going from Matthew to Acts, then to the Pauline and Catholic epistles, and then on to the other books, with the exception of Revelation. During the week he preached from the Psalms. Such a study could not have left him untouched.
In 1520 the plague struck Zurich, carrying off 2,500 people, about 1/3 of the populace. Zwingli was untiring in ministering to the needs of his flock, until the plague struck him down. From it he almost died, and by it God made him a new man. A poem he wrote aptly depicts his faith.
Help me, O Lord, Yet, if thy voice
My strength and rock; In life's mid-day,
Lo, at the door Recalls my soul,
I hear death's knock. Then I obey.
Uplift thine arm, In faith and hope
Once pierced for me, Earth I resign,
That conquered death, Secure in heaven,
And set me free. For I am Thine.
It was after his recovery that reform began in earnest. Once having become persuaded that Scripture was to be the only norm and standard of our life and faith, and of the life and faith of the church, Zwingli could not rest until reform took place.
In Switzerland, reforms came about in a unique way. The pattern was: The reformers petitioned the magistracy in a given city or canton to implement certain reforms; the magistracy called a public meeting or disputation to which were invited Roman Catholic theologians and the reformers; both were required to defend their position on the matter at issue before the magistracy, which would then decide whether the reforms were to be implemented. In these disputations it was common for the Councils to rule that the debate had to be conducted on the basis of Scripture alone.
The first disputation was held on January 29, 1523 in Zurich before a public audience of over 600 people. As would almost always be the case in future disputations, it was also true in Zurich that the reformers easily won their point, partly because their position was the only one grounded on Scripture, but partly too because the Romish Church had no significant and knowledgeable theologians who could hold their own in open debate with the reformers.
Victory followed upon victory, not only in Zurich, but also in other cantons of Switzerland where disputations were held. Lent was abandoned; clerical celibacy was declared unBiblical; the Bible was translated into the vernacular; images, pictures, and relics were removed from the churches; the churches were severed from the control of the papacy; the monasteries were dissolved; fasting was prohibited; the mass was replaced; the Lord's Supper was held at regular intervals, usually four times a year; discipline was established under the control of office bearers in the churches; biblical preaching was ordered in all the churches.
This first disputation, held in Zurich, ended in a complete victory for Zwingli and his fellow reformers, and the Council instructed Zwingli "to continue to preach the holy gospel as heretofore, and to proclaim the true, divine Scriptures."
Just prior to the disputation, Zwingli had published 67 articles of faith. This document is an important historical document because it constitutes the earliest declaration of the Reformed faith. A few articles will indicate some of the basic beliefs of Zwingli.
All who say that the gospel is nothing without the approbation of the Church, err and cast reproach upon God.
The sum of the gospel is that our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, has made known to us the will of his heavenly Father, and redeemed us by his innocence from eternal death, and reconciled us to God.
Therefore Christ is the only way to salvation to all who were, who are, who shall be.
Christ is the head of all believers who are his body; but without him the body is dead.
All who live in this Head are his members and children of God. And this is the Church, the communion of saints, the bride of Christ, the Ecclesia catholica.
Christ is our righteousness. From this it follows that our works are good
so far as they are Christ's, but not good so far as they are our own.
These truths are now very familiar to us, but if one will only think of writing them in the context of 1000 years of papal error, it will give him a sense of how great a work of God was performed in the Reformation.
With the Reformation firmly established in Zurich, it quickly spread to other parts of Switzerland. From Zurich it spread to Glarus, Schaffhausen, Appenzell, and the city of St. Gall. The spread continued when the leading canton of Bern adopted Reformation principles and proceeded to introduce them into the cantons of Vaud, Neuchâtel and Geneva -- where Calvin was later to do his great work. In every case the Reformation came by way of a leading reformer working closely with Zwingli, and by a Disputation ordered by the Council. Of interest are the ten theses or Conclusions adopted as a confession of faith in Bern. They read in part:
The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same . . . .
The Church of Christ makes no laws and commandments without the Word of God . . . .
Christ is the only wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world . . . .
The mass as now in use, in which Christ is offered to God the Father for the sins of the living and the dead, is contrary to the Scripture . . . .
As Christ alone died for us, so he is also to be adored as the only Mediator and Advocate between God the Father and the believers.
Scripture knows nothing of purgatory . . . .
The worship of images is contrary to Scripture.
All to the glory of God and his holy Word.
The high water mark of the Swiss Reformation was reached in 1530 when Zurich, Bern, Basel and most of north and east Switzerland were Reformed and no longer Roman Catholic.
Three Important Events
Three important events, in addition to his reformatory work, belong to this period in Zwingli's life.
The first is Zingli's marriage.
The reformers did not marry because, as Rome asserted, they were consumed by uncontrollable lust. They married because they received marriage as natural for man and as a gift of God to be used and enjoyed. The practical benefit was that the reformers together reformed also the home and the family.
Because of the times, Zwingli married secretly. For two years only his friends knew of his marriage. In April, 1524 he married publicly. His wife was Anna Reinhart, a widow with three children. From this marriage, four more children were added to the family. It is clear from Zwingli's letters that his home life was a happy one and that his wife was a faithful help to him in his years of work in the church.
The second was the controversy with the Anabaptists.
Anabaptism arose in Zurich during Zwingli's work there. It was a grievous threat to the well-being of the Reformation, for it was not only a doctrinal departure from the truth of Scripture, but it was, in some branches of the movement, a radical movement opposed to the authority of the magistrate and intent on setting up a kingdom of heaven upon earth. Zwingli and his followers were fiercely opposed to Anabaptism, as well they might be. But the secular magistracy, in cooperation with the Reformers, persecuted the Anabaptists severely, banishing them, imprisoning them, and in some instances, drowning them. Anabaptism continued to be a threat to the Reformation throughout the rest of the 16th century.
As always, God uses the struggles and trials of the church for good. Though Anabaptism was a serious threat to the Reformation, it was the immediate occasion for the Swiss reformers to begin the development of covenant theology. In defense of the truth of infant baptism over against Anabaptism, the great truth of the covenant was set forth by Zwingli and later by other Swiss theologians. We who so deeply cherish the truth of the covenant do not look, in the first place, to Calvin as our spiritual father in this doctrine, but to Zwingli and the Swiss who worked with him.
The third event of note was the Marburg Colloquy, held in the city of Marburg in 1529. Because of the threat of a united Roman Catholicism and the armies of Charles V, the Elector of Saxony and the Landgrave of Hesse wanted to unite all the Protestants in a common cause. To accomplish this, the differences between Lutheranism and the Swiss theologians had to be taken away. The Marburg Colloquy was called for this purpose.
Luther, Melanchthon, and other German theologians were there. Zwingli and his colleagues in the Swiss reformation were there. Calvin could not come. It did not take very long to discover that the reformers from Germany and Switzerland were agreed on all matters except the doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper -- the Lutherans maintaining their view of consubstantiation, and the Swiss maintaining their position. Luther was harsh and unyielding, A story has it that he wrote in the dust on the table in front of him: "This is my body," so that he would not forget his insistence that the real body and blood of Christ were present in the sacramental elements.
When agreement proved impossible, the Swiss delegates wanted to extend the hand of fellowship to the German theologians, but were rebuffed with the cold and cutting remark of Luther: "Your spirit is different from ours." Even Zwingli's tearful expression of respect and love for Luther could gain little more from the unbending reformer than a brief expression of regret that he had sometimes spoken too harshly.
Unity among Protestants was impossible.
Opposition, War And Death
It is not difficult to understand that the Roman Catholics were not about to see Switzerland become entirely Protestant without some kind of opposition.
This opposition began by severe persecution of Protestants in those cantons that remained Roman Catholic. One Protestant was even burned alive. To relieve their oppressed and martyred brethren, the Protestant cantons were prepared to go to war with the Roman Catholic countrymen, forgetting the words of Jesus Himself: "They that fight with the sword, perish with the sword." The story is quickly told.
In 1529 the Roman Catholics were in no military shape to wage war and so sued for peace. Zwingli urged strongly against peace and gloomily predicted that if the Protestants did not take the opportunity to fight the Roman Catholics when victory was almost assured, they would eventually lose. He proved to be right.
The Roman Catholics used the peace given to strengthen themselves and prepare for war. A blockade, imposed on the Roman Catholic provinces by the Protestants, and which caused much suffering and even starvation, goaded the Roman Catholics to go to war in 1531. In this battle the Protestants were decisively defeated, and Zwingli, who had insisted on going along with the troops as their chaplain, was killed.
Zwingli was stooping to console a dying soldier when he was struck on the head with a stone. He managed to rise once more, but repeated blows and a thrust from a lance left him dying. Seeing his wounds, he cried out: "What matters this misfortune? They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul." For the rest of the day he lay under a pear tree, hands folded as in prayer and eyes fixed upon heaven. Towards evening a few stragglers of the victorious army asked him to confess his sins to a priest. He shook his head to indicate his refusal. But after a bit one of the men, in the light of his torch, recognized him and killed him with the sword, shouting, "Die, obstinate heretic!"
The soldiers, joyful at his death, quartered his body, burned the pieces for heresy, mixed the ashes with the ashes of pigs, and scattered them to the four winds.
So died one of God's faithful witnesses.
The spread of the Reformation in Switzerland was halted.
Zwingli was, in some respects, an anomaly. On the one hand, he was a reformer faithful to the Scriptures. He insisted on the sole authority of Scripture before Luther raised his voice in Scripture's defense. He taught emphatically salvation in Christ alone and in His perfect sacrifice. He emphasized strongly the truth of sovereign and eternal predestination and preached it from the pulpit. He correctly and vigorously opposed all the Romish practices contrary to Scripture. He was instrumental in laying the foundation for the beginnings of covenant theology.
But, on the other hand, he never quite shook free from his humanism. He held to the end his notion that heathen men of renown could be saved. He taught that all children in the world who die in infancy go to heaven. And he continued to his last breath to admire Erasmus, that humanistic enemy of the Reformation.
And, in his opposition to Romish masses, he went to the opposite extreme and taught that the Lord's Supper is nothing but a memorial feast, and that Christ's presence in the bread and wine is not different from the presence of one we love whose photograph we cherish and by which photograph we remember our loved one, but who has, nevertheless, gone on to heaven.
Ulrich Zwingli's place in the Reformation was to prepare the way for a purification of the Reformation in Switzerland where Calvinism finally developed and flourished.