Z is for Zwingli
Ulrich Zwingli is also known as Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss reformer and contemporary of Martin Luther. His ideas were independent of Luther’s, but did run parallel and both arrived at similar conclusions. Their most important commonality was the basis of their work – the Word of God. They both looked to the Scriptures rather than church traditions and edicts.
Zwingli lived from 1484-1531. Born in Wildhaus, St. Gall, Switzerland, he was the third of eight children in an important middle class family. His father was the magistrate in their town and his uncle was the vicar of the church. The reformation in Switzerland was centered at Zurich and spread from there to five other cantons, the same areas where the Catholics held power. This established a definite Swiss tension across theological and political lines.
Zwingli graduated from the University of Basel in 1506. He then became a parish priest in Glarus but did not yet understand the truth of what would become the Swiss Reformation. He had a zeal towards his responsibilities as a priest. Thankfully, those responsibilities drove him to develop a hunger for the Bible. At that time, priests were often unfamiliar with the Word of God, so this was all new to him. He began to teach himself Greek, bought a copy of Erasmus‘ Greek text, and began to memorize large segments of scripture. Change was definitely afoot as he began to break with traditional Catholic practices for which he could find no biblical support. He secretly married as celibacy is not a biblical idea. He also broke with the Lenten fasting by eating a sausage in public. Go Ulrich! He then brought even more change to the Zurich City Council when he recommended removing images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints from the church saying those objects of veneration obfuscated the true and sublime worship of the living God. He fought for the preeminence of the Word of God, not images and relics. In several instances, he approached the city council and gained their approval for reform.
One issues for which Zwingli is best known is his view of the Lord’s Supper. Roman Catholics held to the view of transubstantiation (where the bread and wine actually transform into the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.) Lutherans followed suit, but with their own twist; they believed that the presence of Christ was there in the elements but that the location was not the same. This is difficult to understand. They held to a real presence at the same time as it is still bread and wine. The Calvinistic teaching was that there was no change whatsoever in the elements but that the presence of Christ was real; the communion observance was a means of grace in the believer’s life. Zwingli took a radical departure from all of these views. He said that the observance of the Lord’s Supper was entirely and completely symbolic view. It was to be a memorial service and nothing more. To Zwingli it was an occasion to remember the Lord’s death and our atonement as well as to look forward to the Lord’s return, but he held that there was no literal presence of Christ or administration of grace in its observance. Zwingli’s radical interpretation of communion meant abolishing the mass in Zurich, a move certainly percieved as anti-Catholic. It also proved to be a difficulty with unity between the Lutheran segment of the Reformation and the Swiss. In a meeting between Luther and Zwingli, they agreed on 14 points of major doctrine. However, the fifteenth was a breaking point. At this point, Luther said that Zwingli was of the devil; he further said that he was nothing but a wormy nut. In turn, Zwingli complained that he was “treated as an ass.” And so the great minds of the reformation separated. Two years later Zwingli died defending Zurich from Catholic forces. However, Zurich did remain reformed after this. As the Swiss Reformation continued to grow and develop, the work that Zwingli started surely prospered.
Zwingli was a theologian who changed the world.
Zwingli’s stance on the Word of God is certainly noteworthy, particularly as this is what brought him in line with other reformers. He viewed the Bible as superior over any other source. He saw the Word of God as the final authority over creeds, confessions, church documents, and even papal decrees. It is not that he did not find value in other tools, but he saw them as less than Scripture. The Bible was supreme, sufficient, and the primary source of all conduct and belief – a major statement contrary to the Catholic way of believing. No papal decree or church council could then be binding if it was not properly supported by Scripture. All statements that were contrary to Scripture were now seen as null and void. Zwingli fully supported the ideal of Sola Scriptura.
Zwingli, as well as the rest of the reformers, firmly believed in paedobaptism, the idea that baptizing infants had a correlation to circumcision in the Old Testament. The Anabaptists dissented from this viewpoint. “Anabaptist” literally means “to baptize again.” They believed that if you were baptized as a baby, then you needed to be baptized again as a believing adult. In turn, they totally rejected paedobaptism in favor of credobaptism. The law in Zurich demanded that all babies be baptized, but the Anabaptists refused. Thus, the conflict was ignited between Zwingli and the Anabaptists. The Zurich Council considered the issue and decided that all who were baptized again should be executed. Felix Manz, an Anabaptist leader, was told to leave Zurich and baptize no more, but he came back and continued. He was subsequently arrested and executed by drowning. There were three others who were made into such examples. As a result, all Anabaptists either voluntarily left or were expelled from Zurich. (And people have a problem with John Calvin and his Geneva!) These were different times than we know – different culture, different forms of government. In America, this would be seen as an atrocity of religious nuts, but it would be perceived very differently if there were a state church. This was a very representative act of the day in which Zwingli lived. Should we impugn him of guilt? That would probably not be wise. Was he also a victim of the setting in which he lived? We think that is absolutely true as well. Our conclusion, therefore, is to read the life of Zwingli – as well as Calvin – in the cultures where they existed.
Zwingli is a somewhat lesser known reformer; however, he certainly influenced many people and the movement within Switzerland. On what points he was influenced by Luther or vice versa is unclear. It is possible that he had some influence over Luther’s thinking and thus the entire Reformation, but that is not a question we can definitively answer here. Zwingli certainly changed the world in terms of confident, sole, absolute trust in the Word of God above all else. He also changed the thoughts of many about the Lord’s Supper. Taking a symbolic approach was be a radical move that can be felt in many congregations today. Millions of Christians who take a similar stance may not realize that it is because of Zwingli. He also impacted the world in terms of the way he interacted with the Anabaptists, though not so much on the positive side. Zwingli made his mistakes; he was undoubtedly human, yet he was used by God to change the world despite his many shortcomings. Like us, he was not right on every issue, but we can appreciate his strong stance for the Word of God as his greatest value.
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