Huldrych Zwingli Introduction - Essay


Huldrych Zwingli 1484–1531

Swiss religious reformer, theologian, and essayist.

A contemporary of Martin Luther and a forerunner of John Calvin, Zwingli was a founder of the Reformed Churches and an important figure in the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. Concerned with political and social life as well as theology, Zwingli broke with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and medieval theology and encouraged theocratic social organization. More radical theologically than Luther and more political than Calvin, Zwingli had a profound influence on the debates that framed the development of Protestantism. Despite some pacifist tendencies, he believed in fighting to establish and defend his vision of a Christian society.

Biographical Information

Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, in the Toggenburg valley, in the rural district of St. Gallen, Switzerland. His family were farmers and magistrates, essentially well-to-do peasants. A good student, Zwingli was educated first in his village, then by his uncle, a pastor in Wesen, until he was ten. Thereafter he was sent to school in Basel and Bern. At fourteen he entered the University of Vienna, where he took a baccalaureate degree in 1504. He returned to Basel, taught classics at a local school, and took his master's degree in 1506. That same year he was ordained by the Bishop of Constance and assigned to the parish of Glarus. He continued studying on his own, learning Greek and reading Erasmus and other humanist thinkers. He remained largely at Glarus for ten years and gradually began his career as a reformer. His first published writings, The Fable of the Ox (1510) and The Labyrinth (1516), were political allegories critical of the Swiss practice of hiring out mercenaries in European wars, the results of which he had observed first hand, having served as military chaplain in Italy in 1513 and 1515. These views were politically unpopular in Glarus, and Zwingli was forced to leave town, though he did not formally lose his post as pastor. He went temporarily to Einsiedeln, where he stayed for three years and began to actively preach in what became the reform tradition, holding that the Bible was the supreme authority for God's will and criticizing such Roman Catholic practices as the selling of papal indulgences. In 1518 he competed for, and eventually won despite some political difficulty, the post of people's priest at

Zurich, where he launched his reform movement in earnest. He took up his position in January, 1519, beginning a series of sermons on the New Testament, critical both of practices of the Catholic Church and the immoral behavior of the citizens. Later that year he fell ill with a plague that struck Zurich and nearly died. His poem Gebetslied in de Pest (1519; Prayersong in the Plague) described the experience, which generally made him more serious and urgent about his goal of reform. By 1522 his ideas had begun to take hold in Zurich and that spring a number of people chose not to observe the Lenten fast, some quite publicly. Zwingli wrote Von Erkeisen und Freyheit der Speysen (1522; Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Food) arguing that there was no Biblical injunction against eating meat during Lent. The controversy, and condemnation by the papal authorities, led to the historic First Disputation, a debate convened by the City Council of Zurich. There he presented his Sixty-Seven Theses (1523), which became the core of his theology. His arguments won over the council of Zurich and led to an unprecedented break with the bishopric of Constance. Among the ideas presented there was a rejection of the celibacy of priests and in 1524 he married Anna Reinhart, with whom he had been living for two years. The following year he published his major work, De vera et falsa religione commentarius (1525; Commentary about the True and False Religion), a thorough presentation of his theological ideas. Many of the ideas set forth here, especially those concerning the meaning of the Eucharist, put Zwingli at odds with Luther. The two debated the issues in a number of treatises and met in 1529 at the Marburg Colloquy to try to reach an agreement that could allow for a unified reform movement. Their efforts failed and the nascent Protestant movement broke into two camps. During these years Zwingli's preaching and writing had been having an effect in Zurich; in 1524 the council ordered all images and music removed from the churches, and in 1525 the mass was discontinued, replaced by a simpler ceremony in the vernacular language rather than Latin. But the growing success of Zwingli's ideas in Zurich, Bern, and Basel led to increasing conflicts with more conservative Swiss districts that maintained their papal affiliation. The tensions finally came to a head in 1531, when a civil war broke out between the Evangelical Swiss and the Five Cantons, rural districts which rejected the reform movement. Zwingli was killed carrying the banner in the battle of Kappel, in October 1531.

Major Works

Zwingli developed his key theological ideas over the course of a decade, beginning with Archeteles (1522; The Beginning and the End), his first major treatise, which criticized many of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and ending with his Christianae Fidei Expositio (1531; Exposition of Christian Faith). In between, he published dozens of essays, sermons and letters expounding and defending his views. In the Sixty-seven Theses, Zwingli affirmed the primacy of scriptural authority and rejected papal indulgences, prayers to the saints or any other intermediary between individuals and God, transubstantiation and the mass, the use or display of images and music in churches and worship ceremonies, and the celibacy of priests. He elaborated on these tenets later that year in Auslegung der Gründ der Schlussreden (1523; An Exposition of the Articles). His most comprehensive theological tract was the Commentary about the true and false Religion (1525). Other essays addressed specific and controversial issues, such as: Vom Touf vom Wiedertouf und vont Kindertouf (1525; Baptism, Rebaptism, and Infant Baptism) and Ein klare Unterrichtung vom Nachtmal Christi (1526; A Clear Briefing about the Lord's Supper). Some of his last works addressed basic Christian beliefs: De Providentia Dei (1530; On Divine Providence), Fidel Ratio (1530; Confession of Faith), and the Christianae Fidei Expositio (1531; Explanation of Christian Faith). In all his writings Zwingli sought to free the church from the perceived idolatry of Roman Catholic practices and to build a theocratic community in which local civil leaders would have the right and the duty to regulate church teaching and social life. In this he was as much a political and social reformer as a religious one, and his thinking shows the influence of the humanist thinkers he read and studied. A contemporary of Luther, he insisted as early as 1519 that he had come to his ideas on his own, through reading and interpreting the Gospel, and rejected the notion that he was in any way a follower of Luther. In fact, the two men were in sharp disagreement about many points, most especially the meaning of the Eucharist. In general, Zwingli made a stronger break with Roman Catholic theology. Nowhere was this more clear than in his insistence that the Eucharist was a remembrance, not a repetition of Christ's sacrifice, and that the communion wafer was purely symbolic.

Critical Reception

Perhaps because of his sudden and early death, Zwingli is often forgotten as a founder of the Reformation, along with its giants, Luther and Calvin. While his successor Heinrich Bullinger continued to advance his ideas, he also gradually made concessions. The most significant was at the Zurich Consensus of 1549, where Calvin's more moderate ideas about the Eucharist won. Calvinist doctrine was subsequently adopted by the Swiss Reform Church and spread to other parts of Europe and the British Isles. Among the ways Calvinism differs are a position closer to Luther's on the Eucharist, a rejection of theocracy, and a stricter view on predestination. As Calvinist doctrines grew and spread, Zwingli's name and writings were largely forgotten outside of his native Switzerland. Luther and his followers invoked his work to criticize the Calvinist strain of Protestantism; Catholic theologians went even further, condemning him as a heretic and banning his writings. In the twentieth century, scholars of religious history and theologians have returned to Zwingli's work and ideas. While there is some disagreement about whether there is a coherent and distinct body of thought which can be termed "Zwinglianism," there is no doubt that Zwingli was the founder and leader of the Zurich Reformation, a profound influence on Calvin, and a major voice in debates that shaped the course of Protestantism.