Study Guide

On Providence

by Huldrych Zwingli

On Providence Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Ulrich Zwingli wrote his Latin treatise On Providence at the behest of Landgrave Philip of Hesse and saw it published in Zurich on August 20, 1530. The text is based on his recollection of a sermon he delivered at the landgrave’s castle in Marburg the preceding year, just prior to the formal commencement of the Marburg Colloquy (October 1-4, 1529). Zwingli’s treatise comprises a dedicatory epistle addressed to Philip of Hesse, seven chapters, and an epilogue in which he recapitulates his insights into the nature of divine providence. Its pages also reflect some of the contentious theological issues he debated with Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other Protestant leaders present at the Marburg Colloquy.

Proceeding by definition and syllogism, Zwingli reasons that divine providence in fact exists, because God’s nature is such that he cares for and regulates all things. Any thought that the Supreme Deity might lack the willingness or the ability to foresee and regulate the universe for the better is, in his view, inconceivable and would contradict that Deity’s necessary attributes: goodness, absolute wisdom, unrestricted power, and immutability. Theologians and philosophers who argue in favor of human free will ultimately diminish or abolish providence when they falsely presume that something can occur without God’s prescient knowledge.

Zwingli expresses formal acceptance of panentheism in the third chapter when he discusses God’s relationship to creation and the secret concordance of pagan and Christian doctrines. Because God is infinite, he writes, nothing can exist outside of him; all of his works and creatures exist in him and through him, and are a part of him. Zwingli finds evidence of this not only in Holy Scripture but also in the wisdom of the ancients. He voices approval of the Pythagorean doctrine of rebirth, or palingenesis; he applauds Gaius Pliny’s understanding of nature; he welcomes Plato’s and Seneca’s contributions to natural theology.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with humankind’s place in the universe, the nature of sin, and God’s reasons for predestining humanity’s fall. According to Zwingli, humans were created in...

(The entire section is 902 words.)

On Providence Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Gordon, Bruce. The Swiss Reformation. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2002. A survey of events and ideas of the Swiss Reformation, with emphasis on Heinrich Bullinger and Zwingli.

Locher, Gottfried W. Zwingli’s Thought: New Perspectives. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1981. A comprehensive study of Zwingli’s thought, with a chapter on his doctrine of predestination and comparisons of Zwingli to Luther, John Calvin, and Erasmus.

McEnhill, Peter, and George Newlands. Fifty Key Christian Thinkers. New York: Routledge, 2004. Includes an entry summarizing Zwingli’s life and the fundamental principles of his faith.

Snavely, Iren. “The Evidence of Things Unseen: Zwingli’s Sermon On Providence and the Colloquy of Marburg.” The Westminster Theological Journal 56 (1994): 399-407. Examines the events surrounding the Marburg Colloquy and their reflection in Zwingli’s treatise.

Stephens, W. Peter. Zwingli: An Introduction to His Thought. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. Discusses Zwingli’s stance on central issues, including baptism, the Eucharist, salvation, works, and the respective roles of church and state.