Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
(Note: In the last article, we began to discuss Zwingli’s work as a reformer. We continur that discussion now.)
Zwingli the Reformer
The Reformation spread through Switzerland in a way different from the spread of the Reformation in any other land. Upon a petition from a reformer or a group of reformers, the ruling Council of a Swiss city would order a disputation to which the public was invited. Reformers and Roman Catholic theologians would carry on the disputation by debating a specific matter of reform. In every instance where a disputation was held, the Council in charge made the rule that the disputation had to be conducted on the basis of the Scriptures alone. This put the Roman Catholics at a decided disadvantage, for there were very few theologians of note who knew anything about the Scriptures, while the reformers had studied them intensely. Further, it is obvious to any one that those Romish practices against which the Reformers protested simply cannot be supported by Scripture in any way.
The first disputation 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 This document is an important historical document because it constitutes the earliest declaration of the Reformed faith.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, Neuchstel 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, Base1 and most of north and east Switzerland were Re- formed and no longer Roman Catholic.
Two important events, in addition to his reformatory work, belong to this period in Zwingli’s life.
The first 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.1 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 other 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 did 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 overly harshly.
Unity among Protestants was impossible.
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 his 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!”2
The soldiers, joyful at his death, quartered his body for treason, 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 are 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.
1. For more information on the Anabaptists, cf. the special Reformation Day issue of the Standard Bearer of October 15, 199l.
2. See Schaff, History of the Christian Church for details.