Zwingli’s confession: The Sixty-Seven Articles

The Sixty-Seven Articles were prepared by Zwingli as “talking points” (theses for public debate) for the First Zurich Disputation held on January 29, 1523.1 In the four years prior to this, Zwingli, a Catholic priest and cleric, had publicly preached against many Roman Catholic practices including the sale of indulgences, the veneration of saints, pilgrimages, the use of images in worship, the requirement of clerical celibacy, and the dietary restrictions of Lent. Practicing what he preached, Zwingli made a bold statement in 1522 by publicly eating sausage during an imposed period of Roman Catholic fasting and by getting married without the sanction of the bishop (something strictly forbidden all Roman Catholic clergy).

When the weight of the Roman Catholic hierar­chy descended on Zurich with a demand that Zwingli be charged with heresy and expelled from the city, the city council called for this public disputation to decide on their future—would they continue with Rome, or would they follow the theology of Zwingli? At the end of the disputation, it was decided that the city would follow the Reformation, and they rejected the errors of Roman Catholicism. The city council urged Zwingli “to continue to preach the holy gospel as heretofore, and to proclaim the true, divine Scriptures.”2

So, what were these Sixty-Seven Articles, and how could they bring a city council to see the errors of Rome and officially break from the Roman Catholic Church?

These Articles are similar to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses both in content and form. Each of the Articles addresses, head on, some error and many of them state succinctly a doctrinal commitment. The adoption of these statements by the city of Zurich raised them from the level of “talking points” to becoming, really, the first of the Reformed Confessions, and a pattern that the Reformation would begin to follow in its adoption of confessions (succinct and clear doctrinal statements for the advancement of truth).

Reading through the Sixty-Seven Articles as Re­formed Christians in the twenty-first century, we could easily find some things with which we disagree, even pointing out faults in the thinking and argument of Zwingli. However, we ought not and will not do that, because these were written at a time and in a context very different from our own. The Reformation was still less than ten years old, and for more than 1,000 years the church had been under the tyranny of papal rule. In that light, the statements and theology of Zwingli in the Sixty-Seven Articles are remarkable, indicating how great a work of God the Reformation was.

Scripture alone

Every reformation in the church is a return to the Scriptures. This was especially true of the Reformation of the sixteenth century under the leadership of Martin Luther and John Calvin. The same can be said of the leadership of Zwingli. The starting point and dominant theme of Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles is sola Scriptura. This is evident not only from the Articles themselves but also from Zwingli’s introduction to the Articles:

The articles and opinions below, I, Ulrich Zwingli, confess to have preached in the worthy city of Zurich as based upon the Scriptures, which are called inspired by God, and I offer to protect and conquer with the said articles, and where I have not now correctly understood said Scriptures, I shall allow myself to be taught better, but only from said Scriptures.

A sample of the Articles also demonstrates Zwingli’s high view of Scripture.

5. Therefore, all who regard other teachings equal to or higher than the Gospel, err. They do not know what Gospel is.

 

13. Where people heed the Word of God, they learn the will of God plainly and clearly, they are drawn to him by his Spirit, and they are converted to him.

 

16. In the Gospel one learns that human doctrines and decrees do not aid in salvation.

 

57. The true divine Scriptures know nothing about purgatory after this life.

 

62. Furthermore, they [the Scriptures] recognize no priests except those who proclaim the word of God.

Both Zwingli’s introduction and these Articles give evidence to Zwingli’s high view of Scripture as verbal­ly inspired, as the only rule of authority for doctrine and practice, as trustworthy, and as fully setting forth the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. The validity of a doctrine or a practice is based, not on the weight of the one who declares it, whether pope or church councils, but on whether it is found in Scripture. In Zwingli’s view, church councils had no authority in­dependent of the Word of God.

Zwingli’s high view of Scripture arose out of his own conversion, ministry, and movement towards the Reformation from Roman Catholicism. As a priest, ordained already in 1506, Zwingli took seriously the duties of his office in the church. He wrote of his early priesthood, “Though I was young, ecclesiastical duties inspired in me more fear than joy, because I knew, and remain convinced that I would give an account of the blood of the sheep which would perish as a consequence of my carelessness.”3 This feeling of responsibility for his charge (rather than, like Luther, a personal quest for salvation) motivated Zwingli’s increasing interest in Scripture. During a time when priests were mostly un­familiar with the Scriptures, Zwingli became enamored with it. After purchasing a copy of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, Zwingli began teaching himself Greek and preaching regularly through the Gospels, Acts and epistles. Zwingli also did not recognize the apocryphal books as canonical.

Taking aim at Rome

Zwingli’s high view of Scripture led him to denounce the Romish practices and theology of his day. The question in his mind was this: “Who has ultimate authority, the church or the Word of God?” The majority of the Sixty-Seven Articles are directed against specific practices of Catholicism and against the pomp, hypocrisy, externalism, and hierarchy of Rome. Whereas Luther allowed for many practices in the church that are not directly commanded in Scripture, Zwingli followed what we now call the regulative principle, that “what is not commanded is forbidden.”

Concerning Rome’s view of church authority, Zwingli says, “All who say that the Gospel is invalid without the confirmation of the Church err and slander God” (Art. 1).

Concerning the papacy, “…those who have called themselves high priests have opposed the honor and power of Christ, yea, cast it out” (Art. 17).

Concerning the mass, “…the mass is not a sacrifice, but is a remembrance of the sacrifice and assurance of the salvation which Christ has given us” (Art. 18).

Concerning the intercession of the saints, “Christ is the only mediator between God and us; God desires to give us all things in his name, whence it follows that outside of this life we need no mediator except himself; when we pray for each other here on earth, we do so in such manner that we believe that all things are given to us through Christ alone” (Arts. 19–21).

Concerning good works, “Christ is our justification, from which follows that our good works, if they are of Christ, are good; but if ours, they are neither right or good” (Art. 22).

Concerning dietary restrictions, “No Christian is bound to do those things which God has not decreed, therefore one may eat at all times all food… ” (Art. 24).

Concerning pilgrimages and holidays, “…those who fix time and place deprive Christians of their liberty” (Art. 25).

Concerning hierarchy, “All Christian men are breth­ren of Christ and brothers to one another, and the title of Father should not be assumed by anyone on earth. This includes orders, sects and factions” (Art. 27).

Concerning the chastity of priests, “…marriage is per­mitted to all human beings“ [and] ”all who are known as clergy sin when they do not protect themselves by marriage after they have become conscious that God has not enabled them to remain chaste” (Arts. 28–29).

Concerning church discipline and excommunication, “No special person can impose the ban [excommunica­tion] upon anyone except the Church, that is, the congregation of those among whom the banned dwells, to­gether with their watchmen” (Art. 31).

Concerning prayer and hypocrisy, “True worship­pers call to God in spirit and in truth, without great ado before men. Hypocrites do their work so that they may be seen of men” (Arts. 4445).

Concerning penance and the remitting of sins, “God alone remits sin through Jesus Christ; whoever ascribes this to a creature, robs God of his honor and gives it to one who is not God. This is sheer idolatry; Christ has borne all our pain and travail. Hence, whoever attri­butes to works of penance what is Christ’s alone, errs and blasphemes God” (Arts. 50–51, 54).

Concerning purgatory, “The true divine Scriptures know nothing about purgatory after this life” (Art. 57).

Concerning the priesthood, “The Scriptures recog­nize no priests except those who proclaim the word of God” (Art. 62).

What a comprehensive critique of Catholicism, and so early in the Reformation!

Christ alone

In these Articles, Zwingli’s critique is aimed not only at the unbiblical practices of Rome, but also and primarily at the Roman Catholic denial of the gospel. The unbiblical practices of Rome are only a symptom of the denial of salvation “in Christ alone.”

Early in the Articles Zwingli summarizes what the gospel itself is (Arts. 2–3):

The sum and substance 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 has with his innocence redeemed us from death and reconciled us to God. Hence Christ is the only way to salvation for all who ever were, are, and shall be.

Following this, Zwingli emphasizes the headship of Christ and the union of all true believers to Christ their Head, in whom alone is their salvation. The salvation of believers is not in their membership in the Roman Catholic institute, but in their union to Christ. “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, ecclesia catholica” (Art. 8). Christ, he says, is “the only eternal high priest,” who, “having sacrificed himself once, is to eternity a certain and valid sacrifice for the sins of all believers” (Arts. 17–18).

These truths are now very familiar to us, but in the early sixteenth century, after 1,000 years of papal er­ror, these were a remarkable return to biblical teaching. Zwingli understood this when he also wrote:

13. Where people heed the Word of God, they learn the will of God plainly and clearly, they are drawn to him by his Spirit, and they are converted to him.

 

14. Therefore all Christian people shall use their best diligence that the Gospel of Christ be preached everywhere.

 

15. For in the faith rests our salvation, and in unbelief our damnation, for all truth is clear in him.

The effect of the Sixty-Seven Articles

Zwingli’s aim in the Sixty-Seven Articles was to call the church to repentance, to continue the Reformation through discussion and debate on the issues he had addressed, and to set the Scriptures down as the only basis for argument. This is clear from the last two articles and the conclusion:

66. All clerical superiors are to humble themselves instantly and erect the cross of Christ only and not the money box. Otherwise they will perish; the axe is laid to the root of the tree.

 

67. Should anyone want to discuss with me concerning interest, tithes, unbaptized children or confirmation, I declare myself willing to respond.

 

Let no one undertake here to argue with sophistry of human foolishness, but come to the Scriptures to accept them as the judge (for the Scriptures breathe the Spirit of God), so that the truth either may be found, or if found, as I hope, retained. Amen.

The presentation and adoption of Zwingli’s Six­ty-Seven Articles in Zurich led to a rapid reform in that city and beyond. Within months, a second public disputation was held, and within a year most of the Roman Catholic practices, including the mass, were abolished. There was some opposition, but this mostly resulted in those who remained loyal to Rome leaving the city. A new liturgy was established by April of 1525 in which the congregation celebrated the Lord’s Supper by sitting at tables to emphasize the meal aspect of the sacrament and used wooden cups and plates to avoid any outward formalism. The focal point of the service, in this new liturgy, was the sermon, and the priority of preaching over the sacraments was underlined by Zwingli’s pro­posal to limit the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to four times a year. In Zurich, the priestly orders were abolished, and the monasteries transformed into seminaries where the clergy were educated in the original languages and biblical preaching.

By the time Zwingli died in 1531, the Reformation in Switzerland had spread to the neighboring cities of Bern, Basel, and most of North and East Switzerland. In a similar way, God would later use the Heidelberg Catechism to bring the Reformation to the Nether­lands. As an early confession of the Reformation, the Sixty-Seven Articles were used mightily by God to bring the church back to the Scriptures.


1  The easiest place to find a complete copy of “The Sixty-Seven Articles” is online at https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/zwinglis-sixty-seven-articles. A pdf printable version can be downloaded at http://web.highland.net/~jwest/67.pdf.

2  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923), 54.

3  Mark Gail and Ted Olsen, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Christianity Today, Inc. 2000), 218.