Ulrich Zwingli: Switzerland’s Luther
by Rev. Christopher C. Arch, M.A.
“After Luther and Calvin, the most important early Protestant reformer was Ulrich Zwingli.”, states Dr. Walter Elwell, of Wheaton College. (1) Unlike his two more well known contemporaries, relatively little is known of Zwingli by the modern Christian. Yet, Zwingli played a prominent role in the Protestant Reformation, helping to shape beliefs that are still held as precious by many a Christian.
Huldrych (or Ulrich) Zwingli was born in 1484, the same year as Luther, in Wildhaus, forty miles from Zurich. Although from a peasant heritage, both Zwingli’s father and grandfather had served as chief magistrate for their district, and at least his father became a man of considerable means. It was in this Swiss upbringing that nurtured young Zwingli with the values of his people: sturdy independence, strong patriotism, a zeal for religion, and an interest in scholarship. (2) This scholastic interest was first developed under the ample tutelage of his uncle Bartholomew Zwingli, a former priest, and later dean of Weesen. Bartholomew Zwingli influenced his nephew into a Renaissance, or New Learning, education that removed many of the shackles of the mediaeval structure. Next, Zwingli was sent to Basel for further studies before enrolling in the University of Vienna. By 1504, Zwingli had earned his B.A. and continued on in school for another two years so as to earn his M.A. (3)
The year 1506 was crucial to the development of certain life-long theological beliefs Zwingli would hold. It was during this year, after completing his M.A., that Zwingli attended a series of lectures presented by Thomas Wyttenbach on Sentences, by Peter Lombard. This lecture series would cement within the Swiss Reformer two cardinal doctrines of his belief system: 1. the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures, and justification by grace through faith. (4)
It was during this personally monumentous year of 1506 that Zwingli received a call to his first pastorate, in Glarus. Zwingli would remain in Glarus ten years, and although the parish was by no means small, he had ample time to continue both humanistic and theological studies. During the decade at Glarus, Zwingli would become more interested in the question of mercenary service, a profitable business in his country, due to the reputation of the Swiss for hardiness and military prowess. (5) This mercenary service was resulting in a serious moral deterioration within Switzerland, and some were beginning to oppose it as a system. At first, Zwingli protested the mercenary system in all cases except those under the command of the papacy. In fact, in 1512, 1513, and 1515, Zwingli offered his services as a chaplain for the Papal armies. The travel associated with these responsibilities was to play a significant role in the transformation of Zwingli from parish priest and chaplain of Papal armies to Protestant preacher and chaplain/leader of Protestant armies. These travels led him to Italy, where Zwingli witnessed the Church’s activities and life, with which he was less than impressed.
A curious benefit of Zwingli’s service as chaplain in the Papal armies was a pension. With this extra income Glarus’ priest increased his library, focusing especially upon Renaissance scholars and other new publications. It was also during this time that a lengthy correspondence with Erasmus, the leading Christian humanist of the Reformation era, was begun. It was Erasmus who helped to undermine Zwingli’s faith in the traditional system of the Catholic Church. (6)
Zwingli’s last year at Glarus in 1516, was of immense importance to his life and ministry. It was during this year, and with much human credit being given to Erasmus, that Zwingli underwent an evangelical conversion. It was this period that marked a turn in Zwingli’s interpretation of Scripture from a traditional church position to that of an evangelical. It must be stated that this conversion was not merely intellectual, but rather affected him spiritually and morally, especially as to how he found relief in his evangelical faith from the sensuality that had always plagued him. (7) With this new-found faith, and at the behest of many of the French Papal pensioners in his parish whom he had irritated with his opposition to the mercenary system, Zwingli accepted a call to famous pilgrimage village of Einsiedeln. (8) Einsiedeln prepared Zwingli as a preacher, and the swelling crowds coming to the pilgrimage shrine of the Virgin Mary, went back to their homes praising the fine young preacher of the village. This acclaim helped to build Zwingli’s reputation and influence, which in later years would help him to spread evangelical teaching throughout other cantons.
Although an enviable post, with obvious benefits to Zwingli’s ministerial skills and reputation, Einsiedeln could not hope to hold Zwingli for long. In 1518, Zwingli would be called to be “people’s priest” at one of the greatest churches in his nation, Great Minster, in Zurich. At the very outset of his appointment to Great Minster, Zwingli set out on a radical (for the time period) course of action, preaching expositional sermons from the Bible. This teaching from the Gospel of Matthew, helped prepare the ground for the eventual work of reform. It was through the preaching of this series of sermons that Zwingli began to distance himself more and more from the Catholic Church’s practices that he viewed as unscriptural. Over the next five years, Zwingli, with the help of the town council, would overturn the influence of the Catholic Church on Zurich by: giving the priests freedom to preach from the Scriptures, rejecting the authority of the Bishop of Constance over their canton; rejecting key Catholic doctrines such as: salvation by works, monastic orders, the celibacy of priesthood, purgatory, and the sacrificial character of the mass; also Church lands were confiscated; and ultimately the mass was no longer allowed. It was also during this period, 1524, that Zwingli married Anna Meyer, herself a widow, who bore him four children. (9) Although it is true that Zwingli was involved in the political life of Zurich and surrounding cantons, he was primarily a preacher of evangelical truth and not a political statesman. “It is true that Zwingli did exploit the instinctive desire of the Council to achieve autonomy in ecclesiastical affairs. It is also true that he made use of his influence on the Council to put the various reforms into practical effect. But it is no less true that the real secret of Zwingli’s success was his ability to direct the religious thought of the city from the Minster pulpit.” (10)
Zwingli’s Theology and Contributions to the Reformation:
“Zwingli’s theology was a more rationalistic and biblicistic variation of Luther’s theology.” (11) Issues central to Zwingli’s theological position of importance included: supremacy of the Holy Scriptures, justification by grace through faith, an emphasis on divine sovereignty, the doctrine of the Church, baptism, and the Lord’s supper. Each of these six key theological beliefs helped to define Zwingli as a Reformer on his own merits. Certainly his views were arguably more rational and Biblically centered than Luther’s due to his interest in Renaissance learning, and the important influence Erasmus had upon his philosophical and theological outlook.
Zwingli was certainly a Protestant Christian in the truest sense. As a Protestant, Zwingli placed primary importance on the Scriptures, or Sola Scriptura, as was common with other great Reformers. This position, as stated previously, was cemented upon completion of his M.A., while listening to a series of lectures on the works of Peter Lombard. It was at least in part the influence of Erasmus who emphasized a rational interpretation of the Scriptures that would characterize Zwingli’s preaching in Glarus, Einsiedeln, and as priest of Great Minster, Zurich. Zwingli believed that the Word would give light and life to those who read it, but not to everyone who read it. “It does so only where a true response is kindled. In other words, it calls for a decision of faith.” (12) This work could only take place, in Zwingli’s estimation, as a result of the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
The second key doctrine for Zwingli, and another foundational belief within Protestantism, was justification by grace through faith. With this belief, Zwingli repudiated Rome’s teaching that external baptism could of itself cleanse from sin. Zwingli’s interpretation of the Scriptures led him to believe that “if salvation was by grace, if even faith was a direct work of God by the Holy Spirit, then there can be no place for schemes of religious life or thought which allow either for the merit of human works or for the ex opere operato efficacy of sacramental observances.” (13) “Justification became the sovereign and creative declaration of God by which those who are elected to faith in Jesus Christ are accepted as righteous on the merits of Christ.” (14) This was a monumental shift for anyone to make in opposition to the Catholic Church’s traditional view of soteriology, and thereby earned Zwingli a position alongside Luther and Calvin as a Reformer in his own right. Zwingli even made the proper distinction between rational, intellectual assent, and the necessity for a movement of the whole nature by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Zwingli’s insistence on justification by grace did not mean the negation of the Law. The Law was still seen as a part of God’s will for man as a guide to the believer and a warning to the unregenerate. “What Zwingli did negate was legalism, and especially that mediaeval form of legalism which had given rise to such corrupt and fictional notions as purgatory, indulgences, the power of the keys, the treasury of merit, prayers for the dead and the merit of works or supererogation.” (15)
The third defining doctrine of Ulrich Zwingli was his emphasis on divine sovereignty. Divine sovereignty was one of the two foundational theological presuppositions, along with the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures, upon which Zwingli’s theology was built. Arguably, these presuppositions gave Zwingli’s theology a “clarity and consistency which are not always apparent in the diffuse if more profound writings of Luther.” (16) Insistence on divine sovereignty was the unifying element of this Reformer’s theology. Unfortunately, like Calvin, the result of this insistence led Zwingli to his greatest theological difficulty: “including the fall of man in the providential ordering of the universe and also to assert a rigid predestination both to life and perdition.” (17) Yet, Zwingli should be defended on two issues surrounding this insistence. First, Zwingli was correct in the fact that God’s providence must include every act and event within its sphere of operation. Second, if God is God, then no man can either sin against or know God, without God. “The error of Zwingli was perhaps that he asserted the direct or sole causality of God, not that he asserted His supreme or over-ruling causality.” (18)
The fourth significant emphasis of Zwingli’s theology was the doctrine of the Church. Understandably, Zwingli’s teaching on predestination and election helped to influence his understanding of the Body of Christ, the Church. According to Zwingli, the Bible taught “the true Church is not at all co-terminous with what the visible organization or complex of organizations which is its outward expression in the world.” (19) According to Zwingli, the Church is the whole group of elect and redeemed individuals as called out from every age and place. The Church is only holy and one with Christ by virtue of its union with Christ. “It is catholic only in that it is not restricted to any particular epoch or locality.” (20) To Zwingli, the Church is “apostolic” not on the basis of succession, but through insistence on and practice of the faith and of the apostles. “To this inward Church of the elect Zwingli applied the term “invisible”. (21) By this definition Zwingli certainly did not mean that the “invisible church” did not find expression in the visible community, but rather, and contrary to the Catholicism of his day, and the definition of many within Protestantism today, its membership cannot be known merely by the measure of the external tests of man. Thus, to Zwingli, the Church is a field planted with both wheat and tares, professors who are not true believers, and possessors of a living faith in Christ. Interestingly, Zwingli developed his ecclesioloy in relation to the doctrine of the incarnation, realizing the Church had both a divine as well as human side along with a certain unity of these two separate natures. Finally, to Zwingli, the function of the Church was threefold: 1. preaching of the Word of God, 2. the due administration of the sacraments (communion and baptism), 3. the administration of church discipline.
Zwingli’s distinction on baptism was the fifth significant position within his milieu. Again, Zwingli’s Protestantism ran full in the face of Rome’s teaching of baptismal regeneration as discussed previously in this paper. According to Zwingli, and the traditional Reformed theological position, the sacrament of baptism is simply a covenant sign. However, Zwingli could not agree that the purpose and effect of such a sign was to confirm faith. Thus, baptism was an initiatory rite symbolizing, though not in itself effecting an inner change to those receiving or being administered it. Of course, Zwingli’s emphasis was on the baptism of infants, again a standard issue within the Protestant Church known as “Reformed”. It is here that arguably, much of Zwingli’s reliance upon exegesis seems to falter. Based on the argument of “covenant sign”, and with relative silence from the Scriptures, the reformer Zwingli stated that baptism was more an issue for the family than the individual, as was his understanding of the issue of circumcision in the Old Testament. Although no clear texts could be given, Zwingli felt as though there was enough inference from Scripture to allow for the baptism of infants. Zwingli differed from some later Reformers in his rejection of original guilt (sin) in infants, with baptism being the sign of remission. To Zwingli, the child was born with an “inherited frailty” which inevitably would give rise to a sin nature in each person. “To Zwingli, baptism was more a pledge of what we ought to do rather than a testimony to what God has already done for us.” (22) Although Zwingli was apparently weak in developing a theology of baptism, especially in relation to its sacramental effectiveness, certainly he helped to lay the groundwork that would be built upon by later Reformed theologians.
The last of the six defining elements of Ulrich Zwingli’s theology, and arguably the one he is best remembered for, is the Lord’s Supper. Again, Zwingli’s preaching and writing took place in a world that had long been taught by the Catholic Church that the communion elements literally became the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This view, known as “Transubstantiation”, taught that “the elements of the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of Christ while the accidents- i.e., the appearance, taste, touch, and smell, remained the same.” (23) This led to an unhealthy mysticism, superstition, and form of idolatry being promoted by the Church that in many ways enslaved the laity to the priesthood. A secondary view that was also being promulgated at the same time as Zwingli, was Luther’s view known as “Consubstantiation”. Luther varied somewhat from the Catholic Church by stating with regard to the Supper that “it is real bread and real wine, in which Christ’s real flesh and real blood are present in no other way and to no less a degree than the others assert them to be under their accidents.” (24) Obviously, this view was and is very accommodating to the Catholic position, with a degree of variance being made with relation to there being a mix of make-up in the actual elements.
Zwingli reacted strongly to both the teaching of the Catholic Church as well as the teaching of Luther. Undoubtedly, Zwingli’s position on the Lord’s Supper was influenced by his interaction with Erasmus, and his continuing bent towards the humanism of his day. This humanistic learning (to be distinguished in some degree from the school of thought sharing the same name today) discarded the mystical elements of Catholicism and Lutheranism in an attempt to see the Scriptures, and in this case the elements, for what they were, using the rational mind. Thus, Zwingli, in his theology surrounding the Eucharist, attempted to free Christians from the traditions and superstitions of man with a strict adherence to the Scriptures. “The chief differences between Luther and Zwingli theologically were Luther’s inability to think of Christ’s presence in the Supper in any other than a physical way and a heavy dualism that runs through much of Zwingli’s thought.” (25) To Zwingli, no physical element could affect the soul, only the sovereign working of the grace of God. Thus, he drastically departed company from both Catholics and Lutherans. The very idea of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ was seen as absurd and repugnant to the senses, with a weak hermeneutical understanding of the Scripture. Thus, Zwingli’s “Memorialism”, focused attention on remembering the work and words of Christ, rather and feasting on the body and blood of Christ. Many have criticized Zwingli for an apparent lack of appreciation for the real presence of Christ in the elements and state that this perceived extreme was corrected later by Calvin.
Reflections on Zwingli’s Contribution to Christianity:
Before his death in the Battle of Kappel between warring Swiss cantons, Ulrich Zwingli had secured for himself a position as one of the great Reformers. Although Zwingli was not, nor is today, as well known and influential as Luther or Calvin, he was or is not without influence on the Protestant Church. Zwingli’s theological dualism is one area that still influences the Protestant Church. Zwingli made the distinction between the visible Church and the true or real Church. Second, Zwingli’s “Memorialism” view of the Lord’s Supper continues to be a theological view held by many in today’s Church. Zwingli also influenced the Church by renewing the practice of expository preaching while a priest at “Great Minster”. Prior to his time there had been a great lull in this type of preaching, and his expositions of the Gospel of Matthew helped to chart the course of Reformation preaching. Expository preaching is still one of the main elements of the evangelical and fundamental Church today. Along with his preaching was Zwingli’s careful attention to the study of the Scripture with an attempt at correct hermeneutical interpretation. As a result of his being influenced by rationalism and humanism, and yet with an immovable conviction in the sovereignty of God and the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, Zwingli brought theological distinction that attempted to strip Christianity of much of its then middle ages mysticism and irrationality. Again, Zwingli has been condemned for a possible extreme insistence in this area, yet one must again recall the era in which he wrote and his reaction to what was the norm of his age. As a result of these and a litany of other accomplishments and anecdotes, Ulrich Zwingli continues to influence the Protestant Church from the grave.
1. Bromiley, G.W., Zwingli and Bullinger, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953).
2. Dowley, Tim, Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, (Grand Rapids:
3. Elwell, Walter, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Hants, England: Baker Books, 1985).
4. Latourette, Kenneth S., A History of Christianity, vol. II (San Francisco: Harper’s Press, 1975).
1. Elwell, p. 1203
2. Bromiley, p. 13
3. ibid., pp. 13-14
4. ibid., p. 14
5. ibid., p. 15
6. Dowley, p. 379
7. Bromiley, p. 16
8. Latourette, p. 748
9. ibid., p. 748
10. Bromiley, p. 29
11. Elwell, p. 1204
12. Bromiley, p. 55
13. ibid., p. 34
14. ibid., p. 34
15. ibid., p. 35
16. ibid., p. 37
17. ibid., p. 37
18. ibid., p. 38
19. ibid., p. 35
20. ibid., p. 35
21. ibid., p. 35
22. ibid., p. 127
23. Elwell, p. 653
24. ibid., p. 654
25. ibid., p. 655