21 September 2017

Huldrych Zwingli: The First Reformer?

Most history books credit German monk, Martin Luther, with igniting the sixteenth-century European Reformation by nailing his ’95 theses’ to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. However Swiss priest, Huldrych Zwingli, claimed to have discovered the reformation doctrine of justification by faith independently of Luther.

Zwingli was born on 1 January 1483, less than two months after Luther, in Wildhaus in the canton of St. Gallen in the Swiss Confederacy territory. Following education in Basel and Berne he commenced studies in the University of Vienna in 1498. He transferred to the University of Basel in 1502 and graduated BA in 1504 and MA in 1506. The church was his chosen career and he was ordained in Constance in September 1506.

From 1506 – 1516 he worked as priest in the small town of Glarus. The Swiss were famous for their mercenary troops and on at least two occasions Zwingli accompanied about 500 local troops into battle. During the Battle of Marignano in 1515 he witnessed heavy Swiss casualties at the hands of the French and thereafter he was resolutely opposed to the mercenary troop system. In the spring of 1516 Zwingli met Humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and his life changed dramatically and forever. Erasmus introduced him to elementary Bible study, seeking the simple meaning of the Biblical text. Modern scholarly opinion is divided on the question of whether Zwingli became a reformer before Luther or not. As a consequence of his discussions with Erasmus, Zwingli developed a new competence and confidence in preaching. From November 1516 until December 1518 he developed his preaching skills at the Benedictine Abbey in Einsiedeln. Unfortunately, none of his sermons from this period survive.

The position of ‘people’s priest’ in the Great Minster in Zurich became vacant in late 1518 and the church authorities announced their intention to appoint Huldrych Zwingli. A scandal threatened to deny him the appointment. A candid letter of Zwingli’s, dated 5 December 1518, survives in which he confesses having in his past enjoyed forbidden sexual intimacies with women and stressing that he had repented. His honesty impressed the authorities and he was appointed on 1 January 1519, his thirty-fifth birthday.

He immediately declared his intention by ignoring the prescribed Bible reading for that day and instead commenced preaching from Matthew 1:1. In subsequent weeks he preached methodically and chronologically through that entire gospel book. He followed this up with a series of sermons on Acts and I and II Timothy. His preaching style was exceptional for that time, consisting of a careful explanation of the meaning of each word and sentence in the Biblical text. His own growth in his faith was gradual but steady; a process of discovery rather than a sudden change of heart. His fame as a preacher spread throughout Zurich and beyond, helped by the fact that he was not afraid to name and shame individual Zurich citizens from the pulpit. He was relieved of other clerical duties in order to focus almost exclusively on his preaching ministry. An inscription above the door of this church today reads, “In this house of God, Huldrych Zwingli’s Reformation took its start.”

His single greatest achievement was to lead Zurich to become a reformed city, which he achieved by working in close harmony with the city authorities. Controversy arose on Ash Wednesday 1522 when several Christians, in defiance of the Lenten fasting rules, ate two smoked sausages in the home of printer Christoph Froschauer. Although Zwingli was present, he did not eat the sausage meat himself, but pronounced from his pulpit that no sin had been committed by those who did. Zwingli also challenged traditional church teaching on clerical celibacy. He secretly married widow, Anna Reinhard, in April 1522, but demonstrated his personal caution by not making this fact public for another two years. The city council organised a public debate between the pro-reformation Zwingli and the anti-reformation clergy on 29 January 1523. Around 600 people attended and Zwingli successfully won this encounter by challenging his opponents to show from the Bible where he was in error. The process of reformation was now unstoppable and further changes resulted; worship services were conducted in German rather than Latin, old ideas on purgatory, celibate clergy, intercession to saints and traditional understanding of mass were all abandoned.

Zwingli won two further public debates; on 26-28 October 1523 and 13-14 January 1524 by which time the influence of the bishop of Constance, who had exercised spiritual power over Zurich, had been decisively broken. Zwingli advocated a gradual reformation of doctrine and lifestyle. In a continuing reform programme in tandem with the city council, monastic orders were dissolved and their premises converted to hospitals or welfare institutions, a new Court of Domestic Relations was established to deal with issues of marriage, adultery and divorce, saintly images were removed immediately from city churches but gradually from rural churches, and some freedom in congregational singing was permitted in worship services. With all the mainstream reformers, Zwingli believed in co-operation between church and political leaders to establish and maintain a Godly community. His position as advisor to the Zurich council enabled him to influence policy on a wide range of practical issues.

Zurich developed reformation links with other like-minded cities and territories and Zwingli’s influence was extended as a consequence. Famously, he understood Communion as simply a memory aid for Christians, taking them back to the fact that Jesus died for our sins. He rejected any idea that grace is conveyed by participation in this sacrament. During 1-3 October, in Marburg Castle, he debated this issue face to face with Luther but neither reformer could convince the other to change their view. Despite common agreement on many other faith issues, these two giants of the Protestant reformation parted in anger and frustration.

The Swiss Confederacy cantons split into rival Protestant and Catholic alliances and fought each other in October 1531. On 11th October Zwingli accompanied Zurich soldiers in attempting to halt a Catholic invasion and was killed on the battlefield. He was only 47 years old and his anticipated leadership in Zurich and wider influence in Europe was never realised.

Laurence Kirkpatrick