Philosophers and theologians have debated the existence and nature of divine providence since antiquity. Zwingli’s treatment of this complex issue from a Protestant Christian perspective required discussion of many related theological notions, such as God’s nature, the authority of Scripture, salvation, grace, baptism, the disputed doctrine of free will, and the disputed efficacy of faith and works. Considering the profundity and the scope of its issues, Zwingli’s treatise On Providence rightly ranks as one of the foundational works of Reformation theology.
In addition to the importance of Holy Scripture, the influence of classical scholarship and pagan philosophy is particularly apparent in this work. The Swiss reformer disagreed with Erasmus of Rotterdam and other Christian humanists on some fundamental issues, but he shared with them the same basic tools of exegesis: a solid foundation in biblical languages and a desire to reconcile classical wisdom and Christian society. Much of what Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pliny, and Seneca discovered through nature and reason was, in Zwingli’s opinion, perfectly consistent with Holy Scripture. Like Erasmus, moreover, he embraced the purity of classical Latin and shunned the eccentricities of scholastic jargon.
At the Marburg Colloquy, Zwingli and Luther reached agreement on most key points of doctrine, such as salvation by grace and the overriding authority of Scripture. They also succeeded in avoiding confrontation over the role of faith in salvation. The principal point of contention between them lay in their opposing interpretations of the Eucharist. For Luther, the expression “This is my body” was literally true; for Zwingli, it was a figurative statement. Although Zwingli did not name any of his Marburg adversaries in the treatise On Providence, it is clear that Luther was prominent among those he condemned as sacramentarians for their belief in the power of the Eucharist. According to Zwingli, it was wrong to attribute divine powers to anyone, or anything, but God.