Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet, by Bruce Gordon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021. Pp xvii + 349. $32.50 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0300235975. [Reviewed by Douglas J. Kuiper]

Biographies of Martin Luther and John Calvin abound. Of the reformer Huldrych (Ulrich) Zwingli (1484-1531) they do not. Another English biography of Zwingli is always welcome. Besides, Zwingli’s significance cannot be overstated. Although he began to understand the true gospel about the same time as Luther, Zwingli did so com­pletely independent of Luther. And in some respects he went further than Luther: “Nothing in Luther’s reforms matched the zeal with which the worship of God was spiritually and physically reconceived in Zurich” (5). Besides, Zwingli was both the first Swiss reformer, and the first reformer to lay the foundation for the Reformed branch of Protestantism.

Bruce Gordon is well suited to write this new biography. He is professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale University, and has previ­ously written a biography of John Calvin and a book on the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli is not an unfamiliar subject to him.

The book’s subtitle, “God’s Armed Prophet,” is a play on words. Many know Zwingli as the reformer who died in battle. But Gordon refers to him as God’s armed prophet, wielding the sword of the Spirit to oppose Romish doctrine and practice and to bring reform to Zurich. (Gordon also takes his starting point from a literary reference to the fiery Italian Girolamo Savonarola [1452-1498] as an unarmed prophet because he did not work in conjunction with the civil authorities.) Zwingli’s reformation, by contrast, involved an alliance of church and civil government. This last point becomes the book’s theme.

 

Summary

The book’s focus is on Zwingli’s twelve years as a Reformed pastor in Zurich (1519-1531). The first two chapters set the stage. Chapter one, the book’s shortest, covers the years from his birth (January 1, 1484, seven weeks after Martin Luther’s) until his ordination into the priesthood in 1506. Notable is the mention of the rise of the Swiss mercenary trade, the practice of hiring out Swiss youth and men to fight the wars of other countries. Zwingli would later strenuously op­pose this practice. When he encouraged war, he would not do so for monetary gain, but with a view to the spread of the Reformed faith.

Chapter two covers his priesthood in Glarus (1506-1516) and in Einsiedeln (1516-1518). Even though a Romish priest, Zwingli was well educated and a scholar, and he worked to educate his people. In Einsiedeln he began to understand the sufficiency of Scripture and the true nature of forgiveness. This gospel he needed: his sexual sins were frequent and well known. Many, Gordon included, consider this new understanding to be Zwingli’s conversion (39). Without question, these years were a turning point in his life, and were preparing for his later break from Rome; but that break would not come until 1522, three years into his priesthood at Zurich.

Zwingli moved to Zurich as a priest, but as a preaching priest. From day one he preached the true gospel there. His real break from Rome came when he defended some who ate sausages during Lent. He was also influential in ending Zurich’s practice of hiring out mer­cenaries. More than Zwingli’s gospel preaching and his ignoring the Lenten traditions, the ending of the mercenary service was the straw that broke the pope’s back: the pope needed these mercenaries to help him in his earthly battles. This one finds in chapter three.

But to learn of Zwingli’s life and work, you will have to read the book, not this review of the book. Suffice it to say that chapters four through ten tell the story of Zwingli’s work and writings; of the rise of the Anabaptists; of the Marburg Colloquy, at which Luther and Zwingli met; and of other attempts to unite the German Lutherans and the German-Swiss Reformed. Especially, they tell the story of how the Reformation progressed in Zurich; of how it spread to other Swiss cantons; and, of course, of how some cantons remained staunchly Catholic, so that war between the cantons was threatened and then broke out; and of how, in one of those battles, Zwingli himself went out to fight and was killed.

Chapter eleven examines the varied responses of Reformed, Lu­therans, and Catholics to the news of Zwingli’s death, while chapter twelve treats Zwingli’s legacy and scholarship about him in the last two centuries.

 

Themes

As the title suggests, the book’s main theme is that Zwingli’s reform work could not have been carried out without the help of the civil magistrates. This fact is an essential part of Zwingli’s history; Gordon certainly does not impose it.

Did Zwingli create this dependence of the Reformed faith on the magistrates? No; it was inherent in the way the Swiss cantons were governed, for each canton’s government determined the official religion of that canton. When a canton’s government sided with the Reforma­tion, that entire canton became Reformed. This meant that the progress of the Reformation in Switzerland involved a bigger challenge than in Germany. Luther needed only to know that his prince was behind him, but the Swiss reformers needed to convince an entire body of leaders. So Zwingli’s method was political, while his goal was religious.

What Zwingli did create is a method by which to help the magis­trates make their decision. This was the “disputation,” a public debate by Reformed and Catholic leaders, after which the canton’s leaders would make their decision. “A disputation was his most audacious move, a calculated plan to push religious change into the public square. The disputations that emerged in the early Reformation were not intended as open debates, but as a means by which one side might demonstrate its superiority” (89). In some cantons, the disputations sealed a victory for Catholics; but Zwingli knew that in Zurich it would result in the Catholic leadership being “effectively cornered” (90).

“Ever the tactician” (69), Zwingli encouraged political alliances when he thought they served the spread of the Reformed faith. He was even “ready to sacrifice the Confederation for the sake of true religion,” (187); the political union of the Swiss cantons meant nothing to him, if all of Switzerland would adopt the Reformed faith.

This desire motivated Zwingli to participate in the Marburg Col­loquy, at which he and Luther discussed the Lord’s Supper. Yes, he desired doctrinal agreement and union. But this colloquy might also serve an alliance of Swiss Reformed with German Lutherans, thus giving the gospel more political clout.

This desire also led to his death. The issue in the Second War of Kappel was whether the Reformed could preach the gospel in certain territories that were not Reformed. The Catholic cantons were ready to oppose the Reformed cantons, to prevent them from earning that freedom. Zwingli was ready to fight in that battle, to earn that freedom. He fought. And he died.

A second theme, though less prominent, is the development in Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Supper. Gordon refers to this at significant points throughout the book, and devotes the entire seventh chapter to it. What was Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Supper? True, Zwingli spoke of the Supper as being a memorial of Christ’s death (138). But that is not all he said about it, and why he said it that way is necessary to know. Zwingli denied that the Lord’s Supper was a sacrament in order to distance himself from Rome, which taught that a sacrament worked grace ex opera operato (the sacrament itself worked grace). But already in 1524 Zwingli taught that Christ was spiritually pres­ent in the Supper (132), and that the sacraments were signs of God’s covenant (145). His last treatise, in 1531, suggested that the bread and wine “are the means by which an almost mystical union with Christ is achieved” (237; quotation of Gordon, not Zwingli). Zwingli was closer to the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper than many have acknowledged, but to see that one must read all that he says about the sacrament.

A third theme is God’s providence. In Marburg, before the Col­loquy with Luther, Zwingli preached a sermon on God’s providence. In it he attributed all that had happened and would happen to God’s providence. That he and Luther ultimately did not agree was due to God’s providence. But his conviction that God was in control did not lead him to wait for God to work; providence led him to trust God, and to act! That Zwingli died on the battlefield, fighting for the cause of the Reformation, was God’s providence.

 

Analysis

The book is well written and gripping. Gordon presents the real Zwingli, warts and all. At times the reformer reaped what he sowed (120). Of his wife, Anna, we know very little; in this regard one can appreciate Luther far more than Zwingli. When leaving for the Marburg Colloquy, Zwingli did not even tell Anna that he was going! But he meant to spare her, for his life was in danger during the entire journey.

Gordon does not hide that unique aspect of Zwingli’s view of salva­tion, that many virtuous pagans would be in heaven (239). Zwingli held this view, not because he was a universalist (he was not), nor because he thought that man possessed inherent goodness by which he might be saved (he rejected Rome’s ideas of man and salvation), but because he did not relate unconditional election to the means that God uses to bring His elect to conscious faith. Zwingli’s argument, in essence, was this: Who is to say that Socrates was not elect? God’s ways are higher than ours! Sound Reformed theologians and lay-people will readily see Zwingli’s error, and realize the truth of the matter: God realizes His decree of election by working in us faith and sanctification (2 Thess. 2:14). But, while clearly differing from Zwingli on the issue itself, we must remember that Zwingli was facing the question without benefit of a Reformed foundation on which to build. He was working to lay the foundation. Any man who has never before laid the foundation for a house, and is asked to do so almost single-handedly, without training, can be expected to make a mistake somewhere.

That Zwingli was a controversial man friends and foes alike recognized (chapters eleven and twelve). His life, his theology, and even the manner of his death, was controversial. But God is a God of providence. In His providence, God raised up Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor, to strengthen the foundation that Zwingli began to lay, and to repair some of the cracks that Zwingli created. Zwingli was the very first Reformed reformer, but others must soon build on his foundation.

Also in His providence, God directed the political leaders of the villages around Zurich to resolve that, from the day of Zwingli’s death on, ministers would stay out of politics:

Let the preachers in the countryside say only that which is God’s Word, expressed in both testaments. Let the clergy, as stated, not undertake or meddle in any secular matters either in the city or the countryside, in the Council or elsewhere, which they should rather allow you, our lords, to manage. (251)

Early on, the Reformed learned that the armor that its ministers wear must be spiritual, not carnal.