The future reformer was born on January 1, 1484. His father was chief magistrate of the village of Wildhaus in northeast Switzerland, and the boy grew up proud of his Swiss nationality. Patriotic motives were destined to exercise a powerful influence on his life for good and ill in later days. A second important influence on Zwingli’s life during his formative years was that of the Renaissance. A new impetus was given to this revival of learning in 1453 when the Turks sacked Constantinople and sent hundreds of Greeks fleeing westwards, “whose only wealth” says Tanner, “consisted in their priceless manuscripts and their power to teach.” Before this time the knowledge of Greek had been almost lost in Western Europe.
The finest fruit of this reintroduction of Greek into Europe was the publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament in Basel in 1516. Zwingli as a young priest was so moved by reading this edition of the Greek New Testament that he set himself to copy out verbatim the epistles of St. Paul. The original autograph, together with the reformer’s comments in the margin, may still be seen in the State library at Zurich. Two humanists influenced Zwingli greatly: Thomas Wyttenbach, who taught that “the death of Christ was the sole price of the remission of sins, and therefore that faith is the key which unlocks to the soul the treasury of such remission.” The reformer also later wrote of the profound influence which a poem by Erasmus had on him: “I read a poem,” he says, “by that most learned man Erasmus of Rotterdam, in which Christ asks what it is that prevents foolish men from seeking all things in Him, since He Himself is the only fountain of all good, the Saviour and Helper, the very comfort and treasure of the soul. . . . When I read this I soon thought; this is perfectly true as you here read. Why then do we rush to the creature for help?”
The third great influence on Zwingli during his early years was of course the Medieval Church, which had by then come to the time of twilight and decay. Those early years of the sixteenth century in which he grew up were very like the sixties of the twentieth century in some ways. They were years of great mental and emotional disturbance for people in Europe. In those days it was the Turks who threatened the continuance of Christendom, and the revival of learning simply increased the questionings already prompted by new discoveries and the appetite for national greatness with which they coincided. At such a time “left to itself without captain or steersman the Church drifted about aimlessly on the unknown sea,” says a writer who is no friend of protestantism.
Ulrich’s education was conventional. In 1502 he was at Vienna University, and from 1502–1506 he was at Basel University. For the next ten years he was curate at Glarus. During this time he fell into the sin of sensuality of which later he became deeply ashamed. Such a failing brought no ecclesiastical censure, of course, in days when many clergy could cultivate what relationship they liked with the opposite sex so long as they did not attempt to get married.
During his time at Glarus, Zwingli went as chaplain to the Swiss troops who were fighting under the papal banner against the French. All went well until the disastrous defeat at Marignano in 1515. This left a lasting impression on the mind of the patriotic young priest, and Rilliet describes it thus: “Atrocious memories passed before his eyes; bloody corpses covering the Milanese plain . . . canals choked by dead horses. Was it right and normal for a . . . successor of St. Peter to unleash such massacres?”
The future reformer was learning much during his ten years at Glarus. He was impressed by his own sinfulness, by the need for reform in the Church, and most of all by Scripture. “When Zwingli turned towards Holy Scripture,” says D’Aubigné, “Switzerland took its first step towards the Reformation.”
In October 1518 Oswald Myconius, then teaching classics at Zurich, wrote to his friend Ulrich that the post of people’s priest at Zurich cathedral was vacant, and that he longed to see Zwingli installed in that post. In due course he was elected, and at Christmas 1518 he preached his last sermon at Einsiedeln, where he had labored since leaving Glarus in 1515.
As we approach a brief consideration of the reformer’s work at Zurich, we should notice that he was responsible for a reformation there, and not a revolution. The reformation began with preaching, but it was years before the effect of this preaching was seen in the taking of those practical measures which followed upon the spiritual transformation of many people. In his first sermon the reformer declared his intention to the awe-struck congregation.
“It is to Christ I desire to lead you,” he said, “to Christ the true source of salvation, His gospel is the power of God to salvation to all them that believe.” During those first days at Zurich it seems that times of great spiritual revival were witnessed at the Zurich cathedral. One member of the congregation declared that he was drawn to attend one sermon “as if someone had drawn me by the hair of my head.” “Never,” says Myconius, Zwingli’s first biographer, “had there been seen a priest in the pulpit with such an imposing appearance and commanding power, so that you were irresistibly led to believe that a man from the apostolic times was standing before you.”
We now briefly trace the course of events in Zurich by which the Reformation was established there, from the beginning of 1519 to the order for the abolition of images four and a half years later. Two general principles may be observed in the progress of reform.
1. Reform was gradual. Zwingli was content to bide his time, and to move without undue haste. Such an attitude seems to have been prompted by boundless confidence in his cause on the one hand, and compassionate concern for weak consciences on the other.
2. The reforms took place by the authority of the secular arm. If we feel that here Zwingli was at fault, we ought to ask what other course lay open to him than to use the civic authorities to carry out a lawful and orderly reform. To sympathize with Zwingli at this point does not commit us to the notion that there is any hope that the secular power today is likely to help the cause of reform for the Church in England.
The break with Rome at Zurich was at last precipitated by what appeared at first sight a fairly small affair (compare Luther’s experience with his Ninety-five Theses in 1517). During Lent 1522, when the eating of meat was forbidden, the Zurich printer Froschauer was working to prepare a new edition of St. Paul’s epistles for the Frankfurt Fair. One day the printer’s workmen were becoming tired towards evening. His wife purchased sausages to refresh the workmen, in view of the high cost of fish.
The steaming dish was in due course handed to Froschauer’s guests for supper, among whom were to be found three priests. Two of these eagerly devoured the forbidden meat; the third abstained, and that was Zwingli himself. The reformer’s enemies counted his teaching as responsible for this breaking of tradition, and they informed the bishop of Constance, who took action skillfully designed to silence the cathedral preacher; this very nearly succeeded. Three priests were sent to Zurich, with instructions to defend the traditional rules, to impress the Zurich council, and at all costs to avoid a public clash with the preacher at the great minster. It was only with difficulty that Zwingli and his friends obtained an entrance to the assembly where the representatives of the bishop pleaded their cause. These latter said that dangerous men were teaching that human institutions were no more to be regarded, and that such action threatened not only the authority of civil laws, but Christianity itself. Zurich replied to this testimony to the effectiveness of his preaching thus: (a) He was able to state that he had never spoken against the observance of the forty days fast in lent, (b) He was able to show that Scripture never commends compulsory fasting. “For my part,” he said, “one may fast the whole year if he have not enough in forty days; only I hold that fasts should not be imposed on any one by the threat of excommunication.”
The result of this preliminary clash between the reformed and the medieval way was indecisive, but the abiding controversy between Roman and Reformed Christianity is seen in the questions raised in the dispute. What is the relation between Scripture and tradition? In what manner does Christ the Lord exercise authority in His Church?
Events now moved swiftly to a climax. The reforming party in Zurich now went on to consider the more sensitive question of clerical celibacy. They sent a petition to the bishop, requesting permission for priests to marry if they wished to do so. To this restrained and reasonable request the bishop was unwise enough to reply with contemptuous silence. At this Zwingli and the council of Zurich arranged for a meeting for January 29, 1523, to which were invited the bishop himself, the clergy of Zurich, and delegates from the Swiss cantons. The purpose of the conference was to be the consideration of matters of pressing controversy. The Zurichers, unable to obtain a hearing from higher authority in the hierarchy, were beginning to assert their liberty to settle things, under God, for themselves.
In preparation for this crucial gathering, Zwingli prepared Sixty-seven Theses, “which,” says S. M. Jackson, “really sum up his teaching.” According to Rilliet, they “constitute the charter of the Zurich reformation.” These theses, written in Swiss German in a style which everybody could understand, do not, of course, exhaust the themes of Christian theology, but are rather a clear statement of gospel faith and practice in the light of the increasing controversy of the time. The intense feeling over the disputed matter of the forgiveness of sins is seen in theses fifty, fifty-one, fifty-four, and fifty-five:
50. God alone forgives sins, and only through Christ Jesus our Lord.
51. Whoever therefore attributes this power to the creature, robs God of His glory, and is an idolater.
54. Christ bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, whoever therefore attributes to works of penance what is Christ’s alone, errs and blasphemes God.
55. Whoever therefore refuses to pardon even one sin of the penitent, holds his office not from God, nor from Peter, but from the devil.
When the day of destiny came, a great crowd composed of all sorts of persons crowded into the Zurich town hall. The burgomaster welcomed the assembly and declared that the council was tired of complaints against “Master Ulrich,” and if he had in fact been unfaithful to Scripture, let those who knew this, show from Scripture where he was at fault. In strangely modern fashion, the representatives of the bishop made it plain that their desire was to observe the squabbles of others, and not to be drawn into any debate themselves. At last John Faber, vicar-general of Constance, addressed the assembly in a very smooth manner. He said he was a friend of gospel preaching, and suggested that the real judges of disputed matters were universities such as Paris, Cologne, or Louvain. “Why not Erfurt or Wittenberg?” interjected Zwingli—at this everyone laughed. “No,” said Faber, “Luther is too near there, and then all evils come from the North.” In reply to Faber’s further suggestions for delay Zwingli recommended that the assembly constitute itself as a Church meeting. “Why delay, are we not . . . sufficiently numerous and sufficiently learned? Is it right that souls under the tyranny of unjustifiable customs should have to wait for a council which might never be convened? O men of Zurich you may take the matter into your own hands. It is a great honor which God has bestowed on you.”
The conclusion of the disputation was a great public vindication of Zwingli’s ministry. We get a glimpse into the soul of this Mr. Greatheart in the words of a prayer uttered some time before. If outwardly he seemed always engaged in some controversy, his feelings were far otherwise: “O Jesus, thou seest how the wicked and the blasphemers stun thy people’s ears with their clamours. Thou knowest how from my childhood I have hated all dispute, and yet in spite of myself, Thou hast not ceased to impel me to the conflict . . . therefore do I call upon Thee with confidence to complete what Thou hast begun. If I have built up anything wrongly, do thou throw it down with Thy mighty hand. . . . O vine abounding in sweetness, whose husbandman is the Father, and whose branches we are, do not abandon Thy shoots. For Thou hast promised to be with us until the end of the world.”
From now on the actual visible reform of the Church proceeded apace, with God’s Word as the authority, and the civic authorities in Zurich as the instrument by which this was effected. In October 1523, images were abolished. In June 1524, it was ordered that relics should be removed from the churches, and also that organs should no longer be used. In December of the same year came the dissolution of the religious houses. Then on April 12, 1525, the last mass was said in Zurich. If it be true that the mass is the center of Catholic worship, then its abolition, just over six years after Zwingli’s arrival, was a memorable landmark in the progress of the Swiss Reformation. The magnitude of the reformer’s work is seen in that within the space of a few months from 1523–1525, the false traditions of centuries were swept away; in their place was established a Reformed Church, which would survive the storms of the coming centuries. If we can borrow a phrase from Professor Rupp, first used in another connection, we may say, “In 1525, Zwingli had overcome the world; there remained, the flesh, and the devil.”
The Anabaptist controversy at Zurich took place about the time of the abortive peasants’ revolt in South Germany and there were refugees from this disastrous episode in the Reformation story who found their way to Zurich. They swelled the ranks of those already meeting together, in whose gatherings the Anabaptist outlook became more and more articulate. Differing attitudes were to be found among the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, but one thing is certain: the controversy as to who were the proper subjects for baptism was not the sole nor even the chief cause of this unhappy dispute between Zwingli and the left-wing of the Reformation. For a time the Zurich reformer agreed that it might be best to defer the baptism of children until such time as they could confess the faith of their fathers for themselves.
Various other factors convinced him that the Anabaptists were a disruptive influence in the Reformation cause—a not altogether unreasonable view—and his subsequent spirited defense of infant baptism seems to me to have been more the outcome of a passionate desire to preserve the unity of the Reformed cause against the divisive influence of the individualistic enthusiasts than from any profound and ultimate conviction that one can prove the case for infant baptism from Scripture.
The Zurich Anabaptists had little difficulty in discovering what one supposes is obvious to any honest student of the New Testament; that there is no conclusive evidence there that infants were baptized in apostolic times. To them there seemed only one thing to say in the light of such a discovery, namely “down with infant baptism.” No sooner said than done, and some enthusiasts went and demolished the baptismal fonts at Zollikon Parish Church. As may be imagined this did not provide a very helpful background for the public disputations on the subject, which were subsequently held. One fanatic does more harm to a good cause than many of its enemies.
In due course the council of Zurich arranged for the disputations, the details of which are fairly well reported in Christoffel’s biography. Zwingli appears in not too pleasing a light. He gives the impression of a haughty schoolmaster reproving his erring scholars (the Anabaptists). Some useful things were said by both sides, some familiar to us and some unfamiliar. But one of the several unresolved problems of protestantism appears in the altercation: Who, if not the pope, is to be a proper authority to interpret Scripture? Both sides in this dispute claimed to prove their case from Scripture, and both came to diametrically opposed conclusions.
No one can justify the harsh treatment meted out to the Anabaptists, but in saying this we should remember that modern ideas of toleration were almost unknown in the sixteenth century.
Further, it is at least possible to understand Zwingli’s exasperation when, already opposed by a host of foes, he was confronted by a further threat to Reformation unity and strength by those who, in the zealous pursuits of strongly held views, threatened to dismember the infant Reformed Church of Zurich. The sixteenth century was the time for the struggle between the gospel and the papacy, and this was no occasion to try and settle the Church and State question, which underlay the Anabaptist controversy; that question could well have waited till less troubled and dangerous times.
J. T. McNeill regards the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) as “the earliest formal conference for unity in Reformation History.” It developed into a bitter theological wrangle which did credit to neither Luther nor Zwingli. The formal cause of violent dispute was the question of the manner of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Evangelicals, even in those days, wanted to be certain and definite about everything. But other factors served to sharpen this dispute, inviting Catholic suspicion, scorn, or amusement. Even before 1529 Luther and Zwingli had been engaged in a pamphlet debate in which they had become exceedingly irritated with each other. Added to this, political considerations caused the Germans to be unwilling to be too friendly to the Swiss. To crown all, the differing temperaments of the two great reformers easily fanned the flames of controversy once the two major contestants met face to face.
The sober judgment of the German theologian Dorner on this controversy was as follows: “This controversy by which the whole Reformation was soon agitated, did more than anything else to render the latter suspicious in the eyes of Catholicism, and make it seem to it to be only a human and not a divine work.” No doubt we should scorn to be persuaded by the opinions of men, but it is sometimes useful to see ourselves as others see us; and to a well-read Catholic one of the supreme absurdities of protestantism must seem to consist in this—that protestants boast of their unity in respect to the Bible and have quarreled most violently over the two sacraments of Christian unity commended in the Bible.
The lessons from the Marburg debate for the twentieth century are plain enough. In a Reformed Church it is neither necessary nor possible to agree about everything, still less to know and understand everything. Even 450 years after the Reformation it is still perhaps not too late to distinguish things essential from nonessential, and so discover a true basis for the visible unity of the Church of God. The New Testament requires that the spiritual unity inwardly experienced by Christians be outwardly displayed to the world. Such unity was not known in the sixteenth century, and since then it has been altogether lost. Modern evangelicals are guilty in that over four centuries after the first perplexities of the Reformation appeared, they seem little interested in resolving them in a truly Christian way. But the requirements of God’s Word stand. It is therefore our duty actively to seek what Scripture requires. The Marburg colloquy warns us to take care that our thoughts are governed only by Christian considerations.
It would be wrong to interpret the discouraging facts relating to the Anabaptists and the Marburg Colloquy in such a way as to conclude that the Reformation in Zurich ceased to make progress about the year 1525. In spite of increasing difficulties the Gospel spread in and around Zurich after that time. It reached numbers of cities in south Germany. In Switzerland.
Berne embraced the Reformation, preparing the way for the westward spread of the Reformed faith to Geneva. However this may be, it is difficult to avoid the impression that a spiritual decline took place in the soul of the Zurich reformer after the victory over the old order had been gained in Zurich. Having begun in the Spirit, Ulrich Zwingli seems unwittingly to have resolved to be made perfect in the flesh. Increasingly he became involved in politics, increasingly he ignored the distinction between Church and State, and in his last days at Zurich he was responsible for a law by which one of the qualifications for political office was regular attendance at the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper–a most unsatisfactory arrangement.
In all this political activity, through which Zwingli’s work as pastor, prophet, and preacher suffered, he seems to have lost sight of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose aid he constantly sought in early days. His last major work, An Exposition of the Faith, curiously dedicated to that unsatisfactory king Francis I of France, has no section on the work of the Holy Ghost.
The end of Zwingli’s futile political maneuvering was the calamity of the battle of Cappel, in which this prophet who began his work so well perished as some Josiah, cut down in untimely death in a war largely of his own making. The Reformation at Zurich survived this terrible setback, in which the flowers of its manhood were cut to pieces by the men of the Catholic forest cantons. But from that time these latter were confirmed in their catholicism, and those rural areas remain devoted to Rome to this day.
In Zurich, near the water’s edge, there is a statue of its greatest son. The face, strong and resolute, looks heavenwards; in one hand a great Bible is firmly clasped; and in the other—equally firmly clasped—is a sword. This fittingly sums up the career of Ulrich Zwingli. By the Spirit of God he set himself to find deliverance from the mire and misery of sin. Through the same Spirit speaking in Scripture, he found deliverance, and was soon used as an instrument to deliver many others, and to reform the Church in which he had been brought up. Then confiding in a strength which was really weakness, he took to the sword: and perished with the sword.
“Poor Zwingli,” said a Christian friend to me in the summer, “he did not go all the way.” Such pious and question-begging statements are common enough among us. But what is all the way? What is a true Church, pure and reformed in doctrine and practice? When we can give a satisfactory answer to these questions, then we can criticize Zwingli’s limited achievements, which appear great beside the boundless confusion which reigns in twentieth-century Christendom. The life of the Zurich reformer provides part of the answer to the problems of our time; and therefore we thank God for the heroic faith, dauntless courage, and consecrated devotion of Ulrich Zwingli.