Ulrich Zwingli (1 January 1484 – 11 October 1531) was a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland. Born during a time of emerging Swiss patriotism and increasing criticism of the Swiss mercenary system, he attended the University of Vienna and the University of Basel, a scholarly centre of humanism. He continued his studies while he served as a pastor in Glarus and later in Einsiedeln, where he was influenced by the writings of Erasmus.
In 1518, Zwingli became the pastor of the Grossmünster in Zurich where he began to preach ideas on reforming the Catholic Church. In his first public controversy in 1522, he attacked the custom of fasting during Lent. In his publications, he noted corruption in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, promoted clerical marriage, and attacked the use of images in places of worship. In 1525, Zwingli introduced a new communion liturgy to replace the mass. Zwingli also clashed with the Anabaptists, which resulted in their persecution.
The Reformation spread to other parts of the Swiss Confederation, but several cantons resisted, preferring to remain Catholic. Zwingli formed an alliance of Reformed cantons which divided the Confederation along religious lines. In 1529, a war between the two sides was averted at the last moment. Meanwhile, Zwingli’s ideas came to the attention of Martin Luther and other reformers. They met at the Marburg Colloquy and although they agreed on many points of doctrine, they could not reach an accord on the doctrine of the presence of Christ in the eucharist.
In 1531 Zwingli’s alliance applied an unsuccessful food blockade on the Catholic cantons. The cantons responded with an attack at a moment when Zurich was badly prepared. Zwingli was killed in battle at the age of 47. His legacy lives on in the confessions, liturgy, and church orders of the Reformed churches of today.
The Early Life of Ulrich Zwingli
Ulrich Zwingli was born on 1 January 1484 in Wildhaus, Switzerland in the Toggenburg valley to a family of farmers, the third child among nine siblings. His father, Ulrich, played a leading role in the administration of the community. Zwingli's primary schooling was provided by his uncle, Bartholomew, a cleric in Weesen. At ten years old, Zwingli was sent to Basel to obtain his secondary education where he learned Latin under Magistrate Gregory Bünzli. After three years in Basel, he stayed a short time in Bern with the humanist, Henry Wölfflin. The Dominicans in Bern tried to persuade Zwingli to join their order and it is possible that he was received as a novice.
However, his father and uncle disapproved of such a course and he left Bern without completing his Latin studies. He enrolled in the University of Vienna in the winter semester of 1498 but was expelled, according to the university's records. However, it is not certain that Zwingli was indeed expelled, and he re-enrolled in the summer semester of 1500; his activities in 1499 are unknown. Zwingli continued his studies in Vienna until 1502, after which he transferred to the University of Basel where he received the Master of Arts degree (Magister) in 1506.
Zwingli was ordained in Constance, the seat of the local diocese, and he celebrated his first mass in his hometown, Wildhaus, on 29 September 1506. As a young priest he had studied little theology, but this was not considered unusual at the time. His first ecclesiastical post was the pastorate of the town of Glarus, where he stayed for ten years. It was in Glarus, whose soldiers were used as mercenaries in Europe, that Zwingli became involved in politics.
The Swiss Confederation was embroiled in various campaigns with its neighbours: the French, the Habsburgs, and the Papal States. Zwingli placed himself solidly on the side of the Roman See. In return, Pope Julius II honoured Zwingli by providing him with an annual pension. He took the role of chaplain in several campaigns in Italy, including the Battle of Novara in 1513.
However, the decisive defeat of the Swiss in the Battle of Marignano caused a shift in mood in Glarus in favour of the French rather than the pope. Zwingli, the papal partisan, found himself in a difficult position and he decided to retreat to Einsiedeln in the canton of Schwyz. By this time, he had become convinced that mercenary service was immoral and that Swiss unity was indispensable for any future achievements. Some of his earliest extant writings, such as The Ox (1510) and The Labyrinth (1516), attacked the mercenary system using allegory and satire. His countrymen were presented as virtuous people within a French, imperial, and papal triangle. Zwingli stayed in Einsiedeln for two years during which he withdrew completely from politics in favour of ecclesiastical activities and personal studies.
Zwingli's time as the pastor of Glarus and Einsiedeln was characterized by inner growth and development. He perfected his Greek and he took up the study of Hebrew. His library contained over three hundred volumes from which he was able to draw upon classical, patristic, and scholastic works. He exchanged scholarly letters with a circle of Swiss humanists and began to study the writings of Erasmus. Zwingli took the opportunity to meet him while Erasmus was in Basel between August 1514 and May 1516. Zwingli's turn to relative pacifism and his focus on preaching can be traced to the influence of Erasmus.
In late 1518, the post of the Leutpriestertum (people's priest) of the Grossmünster at Zurich became vacant. The canons of the foundation that administered the Grossmünster recognised Zwingli's reputation as a fine preacher and writer. His connection with humanists was a decisive factor as several canons were sympathetic to Erasmian reform. In addition, his opposition to the French and to mercenary service was welcomed by Zurich politicians. On 11 December 1518, the canons elected Zwingli to become the stipendiary priest and on 27 December he moved permanently to Zurich.
The Ministry of Ulrich Zwingli
On 1 January 1519, Zwingli gave his first sermon in Zurich. Deviating from the prevalent practice of basing a sermon on the Gospel lesson of a particular Sunday, Zwingli, using Erasmus' New Testament as a guide, began to read through the Gospel of Matthew, giving his interpretation during the sermon, known as the method of lectio continua.
He continued to read and interpret the book on subsequent Sundays until he reached the end and then proceeded in the same manner with the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament epistles, and finally the Old Testament. His motives for doing this are not clear, but in his sermons he used exhortation to achieve moral and ecclesiastical improvement, which were goals comparable with Erasmian reform. Sometime after 1520, Zwingli's theological model began to evolve into an idiosyncratic form that was neither Erasmian nor Lutheran. Scholars do not agree on the process of how he developed his own unique model.
One view is that Zwingli was trained as an Erasmian humanist and Luther played a decisive role in changing his theology. Another view is that Zwingli did not pay much attention to Luther's theology and in fact he considered it as part of the humanist reform movement. A third view is that Zwingli was not a complete follower of Erasmus, but had diverged from him as early as 1516 and that he independently developed his theology.
Zwingli’s theological stance was gradually revealed through his sermons. He attacked moral corruption and in the process he named individuals who were the targets of his denunciations. Monks were accused of indolence and high living. In 1519, Zwingli specifically rejected the veneration of saints and called for the need to distinguish between their true and fictional accounts. He cast doubts on hellfire, asserted that unbaptised children were not damned, and questioned the power of excommunication.
His attack on the claim that tithing was a divine institution, however, had the greatest theological and social impact. This contradicted the immediate economic interests of the foundation. One of the elderly canons who had supported Zwingli’s election, Konrad Hofmann, complained about his sermons in a letter. Some canons supported Hofmann, but the opposition never grew very large. Zwingli insisted that he was not an innovator and that the sole basis of his teachings was Scripture.
Within the diocese of Constance, Bernhardin Sanson was offering a special indulgence for contributors to the building of St Peter's in Rome. When Sanson arrived at the gates of Zurich at the end of January 1519, parishioners prompted Zwingli with questions. He responded with displeasure that the people were not being properly informed about the conditions of the indulgence and were being induced to part with their money on false pretences. This was over a year after Martin Luther published his Ninety-five theses (31 October 1517). The council of Zurich refused Sanson entry into the city. As the authorities in Rome were anxious to contain the fire started by Luther, the Bishop of Constance denied any support of Sanson and he was recalled.
In August 1519, Zurich was struck by an outbreak of the plague during which at least one in four persons died. All of those who could afford it left the city, but Zwingli remained and continued his pastoral duties. In September, he caught the disease and nearly died. He described his preparation for death in a poem, Zwingli's Pestlied, consisting of three parts: the onset of the illness, the closeness to death, and the joy of recovery.
In the years following his recovery, Zwingli's opponents remained in the minority. When a vacancy occurred among the canons of the Grossmünster, Zwingli was elected to fulfill that vacancy on 29 April 1521. In becoming a canon, he became a full citizen of Zurich. He also retained his post as the people's priest of the Grossmünster.
The Reformation in the Confederation
On 8 April 1524, five cantons, Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Zug, formed an alliance, die fünf Orte (the Five States) to defend themselves from Zwingli’s Reformation. They contacted the opponents of Martin Luther including John Eck, who had debated Luther in the Leipzig Disputation of 1519.
Eck offered to dispute Zwingli and he accepted. However, they could not agree on the selection of the judging authority, the location of the debate, and the use of the Swiss Diet as a court. Because of the disagreements, Zwingli decided to boycott the disputation. On 19 May 1526, all the cantons sent delegates to Baden. Although Zurich’s representatives were present, they did not participate in the sessions.
Eck led the Catholic party while the reformers were represented by Johannes Oecolampadius of Basel, a theologian from Württemberg who had carried on an extensive and friendly correspondence with Zwingli. While the debate proceeded, Zwingli was kept informed of the proceedings and printed pamphlets giving his opinions. It was of little use as the Diet decided against Zwingli. He was to be banned and his writings were no longer to be distributed. Of the thirteen Confederation members, Glarus, Solothurn, Fribourg, and Appenzell as well as the Five States voted against Zwingli. Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen, and Zurich supported him.
The Baden disputation exposed a deep rift in the Confederation on matters of religion. The Reformation was now emerging in other states. The city of St Gallen, an affiliated state to the Confederation, was led by a reformed mayor, Joachim Vadian, and the city abolished the mass in 1527, just two years after Zurich. In Basel, although Zwingli had a close relationship with Oecolampadius, the government did not officially sanction any reformatory changes until 1 April 1529 when the mass was prohibited.
Schaffhausen, which had closely followed Zurich’s example, formally adopted the Reformation in September 1529. In the case of Bern, Berchtold Haller, the priest at St Vincent Münster, and Niklaus Manuel, the poet, painter, and politician, had campaigned for the reformed cause. But it was only after another disputation that Bern counted itself as a canton of the Reformation. Four hundred and fifty persons participated, including pastors from Bern and other cantons as well as theologians from outside the Confederation such as Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito from Strasbourg, Ambrosius Blarer from Constance, and Andreas Althamer from Nuremberg.
Eck and Fabri refused to attend and the Catholic cantons did not send representatives. The meeting started on 6 January 1528 and lasted nearly three weeks. Zwingli assumed the main burden of defending the Reformation and he preached twice in the Münster. On 7 February 1528 the council decreed that the Reformation be established in Bern.
While Zwingli carried on the political work of the Swiss Reformation, he developed his theological views with his colleagues. The famous disagreement between Luther and Zwingli on the interpretation of the eucharist originated when Andreas Karlstadt, Luther’s former colleague from Wittenberg, published three pamphlets on the Lord’s Supper in which Karlstadt rejected the idea of a real presence in the elements.
These pamphlets, published in Basel in 1524, received the approval of Oecolampadius and Zwingli. Luther rejected Karlstadt’s arguments and considered Zwingli primarily to be a partisan of Karlstadt. Zwingli began to express his thoughts on the eucharist in several publications including de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist). He attacked the idea of the real presence and argued that the word is in the words of the institution—"This is my body, this is my blood"—means signifies.
Hence, the words are understood as a metaphor and Zwingli claimed that there was no real presence during the eucharist. In effect, the meal was symbolic of the Last Supper. By spring 1527, Luther reacted strongly to Zwingli’s views in the treatise Dass Diese Worte Christi "Das ist mein Leib etc." noch fest stehen wider die Schwarmgeister (That These Words of Christ "This is My Body etc." Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics).
The controversy continued until 1528 when efforts to build bridges between the Lutheran and the Zwinglian views began. Martin Bucer tried to mediate while Philip of Hesse, who wanted to form a political coalition of all Protestant forces, invited the two parties to Marburg to discuss their differences. This event became known as the Marburg Colloquy.
Zwingli accepted Philip's invitation fully believing that he would be able to convince Luther. By contrast, Luther did not expect anything to come out of the meeting and had to be urged by Philip to attend. Zwingli, accompanied by Oecolampadius, arrived on 28 September 1529 with Luther and Philipp Melanchthon arriving shortly thereafter. Other theologians also participated including Martin Bucer, Andreas Osiander, Johannes Brenz, and Justus Jonas.
The debates were held from 1–3 October and the results were published in the fifteen Marburg Articles. The participants were able to agree on fourteen of the articles, but the fifteenth article established the differences in their views on the presence of Christ in the eucharist. Afterwards, each side was convinced that they were the victors, but in fact the controversy was not resolved and the final result was the formation of two different Protestant confessions.
The Theology of Ulrich Zwingli
The cornerstone of Zwingli’s theology is the Bible. Zwingli appealed to scripture constantly in his writings. He placed its authority above other sources such as the ecumenical councils or the Church Fathers, although he did not hesitate to use other sources to support his arguments.
The principles that guide Zwingli's interpretations are derived from his humanist education and his reformed understanding of the Bible. Modifying a literalist interpretation of a passage, he paid attention to the immediate context and attempted to understand the purpose behind it. He compared passages of scripture and used analogies, a method he describes in A Friendly Exegesis (1527). Two analogies that he used quite effectively were between baptism and circumcision and between the eucharist and Passover.
A rendition of Huldrych Zwingli from the 1906 edition of the Meyers Konversations-Lexikon Zwingli rejected the word sacrament in the popular usage of his time. For ordinary people, the word meant some kind of holy action of which there is inherent power to free the conscience from sin. For Zwingli, a sacrament was an initiatory ceremony or a pledge, pointing out that the word was derived from sacramentum meaning an oath. (However, the word is also translated "mystery.")
In his early writings on baptism, he noted that baptism was an example of such a pledge. He challenged Catholics by accusing them of superstition when they ascribed the water of baptism a certain power to wash away sin. Later, in his conflict with the Anabaptists, he defended the practice of infant baptism, noting that there is no law forbidding the practice. He argued that baptism was a sign of a covenant with God, thereby replacing circumcision in the Old Testament.
Zwingli approached the eucharist in a similar manner to baptism. During the first Zurich disputation in 1523, he denied that an actual sacrifice occurred during the mass, arguing that Christ made the sacrifice only once and for all eternity. Hence, the eucharist was "a memorial of the sacrifice".
Following this argument, he further developed his view, coming to the conclusion of the "signifies" interpretation for the words of the institution. He used various passages of scripture to argue against transubstantiation as well as Luther’s views, the key text being John 6:63, "It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is of no avail". Zwingli’s rational approach and use of scripture to understand the meaning of the eucharist was one reason he could not reach a consensus with Luther. The impact of Luther on Zwingli’s theological development has long been a source of interest and discussion among Zwinglian scholars. Zwingli himself asserted vigorously his independence of Luther. The most recent studies have lent credibility to this claim, although some scholars still claim his theology was dependent upon Luther's. Zwingli appears to have read Luther’s books in search of confirmation from Luther for his own views.
Zwingli did, however, admire Luther greatly for the stand he took against the pope. This, more than Luther's theology, was a key influence on Zwingli's convictions as a reformer. What Zwingli considered Luther's courageous stance at the Leipzig Disputation had a decisive impact on Zwingli during his earliest years as a priest, and during this time Zwingli praised and promoted Luther's writings to support his own similar ideas. Like Luther, Zwingli was also a student and admirer of Augustine. His later writings continued to show characteristic differences from Luther such as the inclusion of non-Christians in heaven as described in An Exposition of the Faith.
The Legacy of Ulrich Zwingli
Zwingli was a humanist and a scholar with many devoted friends and disciples. He communicated as easily with the ordinary people of his congregation as with rulers such as Philip of Hesse. His reputation as a stern, stolid reformer is counterbalanced by the fact that he had an excellent sense of humour and used satiric fables, spoofing, and puns in his writings.
He was more conscious of social obligations than Luther and he genuinely believed that the masses would accept a government guided by God’s word. He tirelessly promoted assistance to the poor, who he believed should be cared for by a truly Christian community. In December 1531, the Zurich council selected Heinrich Bullinger as his successor. He immediately removed any doubts about Zwingli’s orthodoxy and defended him as a prophet and a martyr. During Bullinger's rule, the confessional divisions of the Confederation were stabilised.
He rallied the reformed cities and cantons and helped them to recover from the defeat at Kappel. Zwingli had instituted fundamental reforms, while Bullinger consolidated and refined them. Scholars have found assessing Zwingli’s historical impact to be difficult, for several reasons. There is no consensus definition of "Zwinglianism"; by any definition, Zwinglianism evolved under his successor, Heinrich Bullinger; and research into Zwingli’s influence on Bullinger and John Calvin is still rudimentary.
Bullinger adopted most of Zwingli’s points of doctrine. Like Zwingli, he summarised his theology several times, the best-known being the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. Meanwhile, Calvin had established the Reformation in Geneva. Calvin differed with Zwingli on the eucharist and criticised him for regarding it as simply a metaphorical event. In 1549, however, Bullinger and Calvin succeeded in overcoming the differences in doctrine and produced the Consensus Tigurinus (Zurich Consensus).
They declared that the eucharist was not just symbolic of the meal, but they also rejected the Lutheran position that the body and blood of Christ is in union with the elements. With this rapprochement, Calvin established his role in the Swiss Reformed Churches and eventually in the wider world. Outside of Switzerland, no church counts Zwingli as its founder. Scholars speculate as to why Zwinglianism has not diffused more widely, even though Zwingli’s theology is considered the first expression of Reformed theology. Although his name is not widely recognised, Zwingli's legacy lives on in the basic confessions of the Reformed churches of today. He is often called, after Martin Luther and John Calvin, the "Third Man of the Reformation".
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