This article first appeared in the November 1, 2019 issue of the Standard Bearer, a special issue on the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland.
Preaching and Disputations: How Zurich Became Reformed
The settlement known today as Zurich, Switzerland, has a long history. Decades before Christ’s birth, the Romans conquered the area of Germany and Switzerland. On the northwest shore of Lake Zurich, by the Limmat River, they found a settlement of barbarians, uncultured people. These were pagans, of course; Christ had not yet been born, so Christianity had not yet come to that region.
Within three centuries of Christ’s resurrection, missionaries brought Christianity to the area. One of Zurich’s claims to fame is that it is the site of the martyrdom of missionaries Felix and Regula, about the year 286. The city grew and developed, becoming a citadel of Roman Catholicism. A monastery and nunnery were located nearby, and the construction of the Grossmunster (Great Church—see the photo on the cover) began about 1100. In 1218 Zurich became a free city, and a century later became part of the Swiss alliance.
The year 1519 marks another significant milestone in Zurich’s history: the beginning of the process of the city becoming Reformed. The teachings of the Reformation came to many cities, with the result that Reformed churches were formed in those cities. But in the case of Zurich, the city as a political unit committed itself to Protestantism and supported the teaching and promotion of Reformed doctrine and worship. How did this happen?
The preaching of Ulrich Zwingli was one factor in the city becoming Reformed. Several characteristics of his preaching are worthy of note.
First, Zwingli’s preaching was expository and systematic. When he came to Zurich in December 1518, he began preaching through the gospel according to Matthew, verse by verse. Between 1518 and 1525, he preached systematically through Acts, 1 Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, Luke, John, and other Pauline epistles. For the next several years he turned his attention to the Old Testament.
Second, Zwingli’s preaching was Christ-centered, setting forth the fundamentals of the gospel of grace. Zwingli preached that Christ’s sacrifice fully atoned for our sin and made the Romish mass both irrelevant and wrong. He also preached that Christ was an example to us of holy living.
Third, his preaching was polemical. He opposed Rome’s abuses of doctrine and practice and showed that they were contrary to Scripture.
Finally, his preaching was applicatory. He spoke to the people, comforted the people, and exhorted the people, all on the basis of Scripture.
Such preaching was not entirely novel: Zwingli reminded others that the early church fathers had preached this way. Yet this kind of preaching was not common in Romish churches in the Medieval period. The practice in Rome had been that the priests read a selected portion from the Gospels or some other Scripture passage, and then read a homily for the day. In every church building, on the same day, the same Scripture passage and the same homily would be read. The homily was not written by the priest; it was either borrowed from a church father, or made by a higher-ranking official in the Romish church. And the homily was barely an exposition of that passage; its aim was to try to convince the people that the teachings and practices of Rome were, in some general way, based on Scripture.
Not always was this homily actually read. Many of the priests were illiterate, making it impossible to read a homily. Besides, the Romish view of the sacraments taught that regular penance and the regular partaking of the Eucharist took away one’s sins. This took away the incentive to read the homilies. For these reasons, Zwingli’s preaching was revolutionary.
In His providence and grace, God used such preaching to cause the city fathers of Zurich, as well as the citizens generally, to choose in favor of the Reformation. He did so in at least two ways.
First, this kind of preaching gained Zwingli the attention of the people of Zurich. Zwingli had been preaching like this before he came to Zurich. Not so much during his priesthood in Glarus (1506–1516) did he begin preaching this way, but more especially during his time in Einsiedeln (1516–1518). Such preaching brought him to the attention of people in other cities. In the Fall of 1517, he declined an appointment to the city of Winterthur. A year later he accepted the appointment to Zurich. God used Zwingli’s preaching to bring him to the attention of many people, and the call from Zurich reflected the desire of many to have expository preaching in Zurich.
Second, this kind of preaching was the means by which many people came to understand the Scriptures clearly, and by which they saw the errors of Rome. The reception of Zwingli’s preaching by the people of Zurich demonstrated that the preaching of the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). As the apostle Paul went from city to city preaching the gospel, by which the Spirit brought many to conversion and conscious faith, so the preaching of Zwingli in Zurich was one means by which God caused the Reformed faith to take root and to spread throughout the surrounding area.
Zwingli’s preaching was the means by which many people became convinced of the Reformed faith. However, it did not yet commit the city officially to the Reformation.
The city’s allegiance to the cause of the Reformation was the outcome of three disputations (debates) called by the Zurich city council. This city council included two branches: the Great Council, which had 162 members, and the Small Council, which had 50 members. Together these had authority, among other things, to appoint ministers. The progress of the Lutheran reformation required Luther to get the support of the local nobles, if not the princes or emperor. Zwingli, by contrast, needed the support of the city council.
Support him the council did. It officially approved his method of preaching, a method that the local Romish bishop and others challenged. The difference between Zwingli and the bishop hinged on the question whether the pope’s authority trumped that of Scripture (that is, whether Rome had official authority to determine what Scripture meant), or whether Scripture’s authority was supreme. Disagreement on this question led to disagreement in other areas: May ministers marry? May baptism be administered in the language of the people, or must it be in Latin? Do images and crucifixes in the churches have any positive purpose, and if not, should they be removed from the churches? If the church administrators would not willingly remove them, should they be forcibly removed and destroyed? Should not Reformed worship practices be implemented immediately? Should those who were baptized by Rome but who now opposed Rome be re-baptized?
By supporting Zwingli, the city government had taken a stand for the Reformation. For this, Rome viewed the city council as unfaithful. The city council needed to convince the people that it was on the right side of the issue. So it called for three disputations. Here, too, the council showed its support of Zwingli: it insisted that the matters at the disputations be judged on the basis of Scripture, and it would determine which side won the debate.
The first disputation was held on January 29, 1523. To prepare for it, Zwingli drew up his Sixty-Seven Articles. Zwingli presented his case convincingly against his opponent, John Faber. Two other disputations were held in October 1523 and January 1524.
The outcome was that the council declared that Zurich cast its lot with the Reformation. The council also ordered all clergy in the city to recognize the authority of Scripture in their preaching and to follow Zwingli’s method. It chose in favor of the Reformation’s fundamental teaching (the final authority of Scripture) and its basic method (preaching the gospel as set forth in the Scriptures). But it made this choice knowing that it had the backing of the people. They had attended these disputations with interest; they loved their pastor, Zwingli; and they were willing to make the decisive break with Rome.
The hand of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ was directing all these affairs for the good of His church, and particularly for the spread of the Reformation.
Christ placed Zwingli in Zurich because Christ had ordained to use him there for the spread of the Reformation. The city’s population in Zwingli’s day was about 7,000. The canton (state) of Zurich, of which the city was the center, numbered about 50,000. The city was not only a population center, but also an economic and political center. It is not surprising, then, that after the city became Reformed, it spread its influence throughout the surrounding region.
From Zurich, this influence spread first to Basel and Berne. From there it spread to other parts of Switzerland. Historically, this explains why the Swiss cantons developed as Reformed cantons in distinction from Lutheran cantons: the influence of Zwingli in these regions overshadowed that of Luther.
That the Reformation might spread, Christ kept the Romish church from opposing Zwingli. Rome persecuted Luther and tried to kill him, but it left Zwingli alone. Perhaps, had Zwingli lived longer (he died in 1531), he would have endured more opposition. Another possible explanation is that the pope and Romish church were at war with France and Italy, and needed the help that the hired armies from Switzerland could give. Better to let Zwingli alone than to upset the armies that could help Rome politically. Either way, Christ was directing history so that His cause would spread.
Even by using the city councils as He did, Christ’s hand was at work. Reformed churches today emphasize that Christ rules the church through officebearers, and that the civil government is to rule civil society. The rule of civil government affects the church to a degree, because the church lives in the world and in civil society; but the civil government does not rule the church in ecclesiastical matters.
This point the Reformers did not see—in part because church and state had always been so intertwined during the Middle Ages, and in part because the Reformers were addressing the foundational doctrines of the Reformation, such as the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone without works. Yet Christ used the civil government of Zurich to guide the course of the Reformation. Still today, whether civil governments actively support Christianity or oppose it, Christ directs their affairs with the good of His church in mind.
Finally, the spiritual rule of Christ by His Spirit and Word was evident even then: the Zurich reformation was effected by the preaching of the gospel. Such preaching is always the power and wisdom of God unto salvation for all whom He has chosen in Christ and for whom He died.