The first Swiss reformer was creative, combative and often controversial

HUldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) has generally not stood up well to historians. Whether cast as Martin Luther’s antagonist or John Calvin’s (largely forgotten) understudy, the Zurich reformer has been widely misunderstood, often reviled and often ignored. Even in death, Zwingli proved controversial: although a fierce opponent of the Swiss mercenary system, he perished in battle, sword in hand, seeking to spread Reformed Christianity to neighboring Catholic territories.

In his insightful new biography, Zwingli: the prophet armed with God, historian Bruce Gordon offers a compelling interpretation of this 16th-century preacher, theologian, political strategist and self-proclaimed prophet, demonstrating that Zwingli’s creative vision of church, sacrament and sacred community forged a new form of Christianity which has become known. like the Reformed faith. For Gordon, Zwingli’s creative but combative leadership in Zurich proved “remarkably generative, fruitful and destructive”.

The Embattled Reformer

Born in the Alpine village of Wildhaus on January 1, 1484, boy Huldrych Zwingli grew up in a world of subsistence farming, Catholic piety and stunning natural beauty. From an early age, he developed a deep attachment to the Swiss Confederation, its territory and its people.

Zwingli’s formal schooling took him to Basel, Bern, Vienna, and then back to Basel (where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1504 and a master’s degree in 1506). This academic background instilled in him an abiding love for humanistic learning, including the study of classical Greek and Roman literature, the mastery of biblical languages, and the application of Scripture for the renewal of the Church and of the society. Somewhat later, in 1514 or 1515, Zwingli was introduced to the writings of the famous Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, whose biblical scholarship and Christ-centered piety played an important role in Zwingli’s emerging reformist beliefs.

Ordained a priest in 1506, Zwingli served the parishes of Glarus and Einsiedeln for the next 12 years. During this period, he witnessed firsthand the brutality of the war and became an outspoken critic of the mercenary system and the pensions paid to wealthy Swiss citizens who recruited the mercenaries. Zwingli also cultivated a growing network of humanist friends and colleagues, including Joachim Vadian, Heinrich Glarean, and Erasmus.

Zwingli was known as a conscientious priest who supported the papal party, studied the writings of the early church, loved music, and excelled as a preacher. He also had a reputation for being promiscuous, a frequent visitor to the local brothel. According to Gordon, it was during his years at Einsiedeln that Zwingli experienced a kind of religious conversion when, following the example of Erasmus, he began to regard the Scriptures as the highest authority for Christian life. It was Erasmus more than Luther who contributed to Zwingli’s religious awakening.

Zwingli’s popularity as a preacher caught the attention of the magistrates of Zürich, and on January 1, 1519, he assumed his new position as a people’s priest in the city. In this capacity, Zwingli preached successively through texts of scripture several times a week from the pulpit of the Grossmünster church in Zurich. Over the next six years, the pulpit served as Zwingli’s primary platform for promoting religious change, as he became increasingly critical of medieval devotional practices, including the veneration of Mary and saints, the Lenten fast, the use of religious images, clerical celibacy and transubstantiation.

In 1522, Zwingli made the fateful decision to marry Anna Reinhart, then resigned from the priesthood, to be reappointed as the town preacher. Gordon shows that, throughout this dramatic period, Zwingli displayed real talent as a political strategist: while staging public provocations with his combative sermons and incendiary published writings, he and his allies constantly subject to the direction of the political authorities of Zurich. Thus it was the magistrates, not the bishop or the clergy of the city, who convened and judged the first and second discussions, held in the summer and autumn of 1523 – at which Zwingli and his opinions are emerged victorious. As Gordon notes, “The Reformation [in Zurich] was a movement not of the people, but of educated men working within the system.

After the mass was abolished and Zurich became an evangelical city in the spring of 1525, Zwingli encouraged and cooperated with the magistrates as they moved quickly to root out religious, Catholic, and Anabaptist dissenters. During these years, his sense of self as a prophet of God took shape: The prophet was someone called by God and enlightened by the Spirit to uphold divine justice and instruct the community through the public display of Scriptures. This prophetic ideal took institutional form in 1525, when Zwingli inaugurated the Propheta regular gathering of ministers and theological students who studied the scriptures together in the original languages.

During the 1520s, Zwingli gradually developed his original version of Christianity, articulated in works such as the Sixty-seven items (1523) and the Commentary on True and False Religion (1525), and expressed in the religious establishment of Zurich. According to Gordon, this Reformed vision included several distinct aspects: the temporal and sacred spheres formed a single religious community (christian body), with the church visible under the authority of the city’s pious magistrates. Moral renewal required purging the churches of “idols” and adopting a simple form of worship following the pattern of Scripture. The two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were no longer seen as conferring grace, but were understood as symbols of God’s work in Christ. Underlying this theological view were two of Zwingli’s fundamental convictions: that God’s timeless covenant with his chosen people involved the positive use of divine law in Christian living, and that the Word of God was powerful for transform both individuals and society.

More than the pastor of a single city, Zwingli emerged after 1525 as a leading figure in a network of like-minded reformers (including Vadian, Johannes Oecolampaius, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito) who intended to bring a religious shift in southern Germany. as well as to the Swiss Confederation. What Gordon calls the “decisive moment” for Zwingli was the Disputation of Berne (1528), when he and his colleagues convinced the Bernese magistrates to abolish the mass and embrace the Gospel faith. The following year, Zwingli and Luther clashed at the Marburg Colloquium, failing to reach a consensus on the controversial question of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. Gordon does not take sides in this debate, but observes that the Reformation, even in its early years, “never had an Arcadian age of peace and unity”.

During the last years of his life, Zwingli became increasingly isolated both theologically and politically as he refused to compromise and aggressively pursued the expansion of the Reformed faith into Catholic territories by force of arms. His death on the battlefield of Kappel on October 11, 1531 is the tragic consequence of his own belligerence. Indeed, as Gordon observes, Zwingli’s violent death “cast a long shadow over his legacy…for centuries to come.”

Gordon devotes his final chapters to tracing this troubled legacy, describing the variety of ways in which sixteenth-century contemporaries as well as modern scholars and filmmakers have sought to make sense of it. For Gordon, Zwingli is mostly remembered neither as a hero nor a martyr, but as an embattled prophet.

A reformer remembers

For too long, the Zurich Reformation and Zwingli’s life remained uncharted territory for English-speaking readers. Gordon’s masterful biography does much to correct this shortcoming.

Gordon’s skills as a first-rate historian are on display throughout this volume as he explores the dynamic relationship between high theology, political factors, and everyday social realities that have shaped experience and leadership. of Zwingli as a reformer. This rich contextual reading provides a portrait of Zwingli that stands out for its jarring inconsistencies, complexity, and sheer fascination.

The book takes Zwingli’s development and contribution as a theologian seriously. Gordon devotes one of his chapters to providing a succinct and insightful summary of Zwingli’s theology through the prism of his most comprehensive work, the Commentary on True and False Religion. Gordon is particularly helpful in showing how Zwingli’s distinctive theological views—his commitment to moral renewal, simple worship, sacramental symbolism, and town hall-centered reform—appealed to the civic ideals of many Zürich residents. Clearly, Zwingli’s theology not only shaped, but was shaped by the urban context in which he served. (At the same time, one questions the exegetical and patristic sources underlying his distinctive theological views.)

Another strength of Gordon’s analysis is how he situates Zwingli’s reform efforts within the vast network of friends and allies who served alongside him in Zürich and beyond. Even in his dramatic confrontation with Luther at Marburg, Zwingli was not a solitary reformer.

Ultimately, Gordon’s portrayal of Zwingli as a self-proclaimed prophet leaves the reader with questions about the nature of this office. Did the Zurich reformer distinguish his prophetic gifts from those of other reformed pastors? If Zwingli believed he had received the Word as divine illumination through the Spirit (as Gordon indicates), in what ways did he distinguish his prophetic gift from those of the Old Testament prophets – if any?

Clearly, the greatest strength of Gordon’s exceptional biography is that it allows readers to experience this complex reformer on his own terms – as a charismatic preacher, creative theologian, political strategist, flawed reformer and, bout, beleaguered prophet. .

Scott M. Manetsch is Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609.

Comments are closed.