By William Boekestein
EP Books, 2015, 163 pages
As I related in an earlier post, my wife and I visited Zurich, Switzerland as a side trip during our stay in Germany in early April. My wife had an interest in Zurich because her grandfather originated from there and I was interested in the city because it was the home of the Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli.
After returning to the U.S., I wanted to read about Zwingli but I didn’t want to get bogged down in an academic tome. This book from the “Bitsize Biographies” series was perfect.
When it comes to Reformation history, most people know about Luther and Calvin, but Zwingli is far less familiar. Ulrich Zwingli was born in 1484 and ordained a Catholic priest in 1506. Young Zwingli was strongly influenced by the priestly scholar, Erasmus, who was a critic of the thoroughly corrupt church. Zwingli was one of the first to obtain a copy of Erasmus’s New Testament translation in 1516. When Zwingli was appointed pastor of the most important church in Zurich, the Grossmunster (Great Minister), in 1518 at the age of thirty-four, he was already pushing for reforms that would return the church back to New Testament faith and practice. Zwingli preached against ritualistic liturgy and the mass, indulgences, obligatory Lenten fasting, worshipping statues, the intercession of Mary and the saints, and the enforced celibacy of priests. Zwingli taught that salvation was not by sacramental grace and merit as Catholicism taught, but by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone as revealed in the New Testament. The Reformer won over the support of the civil government of Zurich and most of its citizens.
Zwingli and Luther met in 1529 in an attempt to unite the Swiss and German Reformation movements but the two could not find agreement on the issue of the Lord’s Supper. Luther held to the real presence of Christ in the elements while Zwingli believed the bread and wine were only symbolic.
Zwingi believed in a strong alliance between church and government. Anabaptists pushed for reforms beyond what Zwingli could accommodate and he persecuted them via the city magistrates. Several of the Swiss cantons followed Zwingli’s Reformation while others remained Catholic. Civil war ensued and Zwingli died in battle in 1531 as a chaplain to the Zurich troops.
I learned quite a bit about Zwingli in this short book. His belief in an ordained, church-state alliance is disappointing but understandable given his times. Perhaps the most unusual information I learned about Zwingli was his belief that God elected some “heathens” for salvation, those who would never hear the Gospel during their lifetime.
As this book makes clear, Zwingli was an imperfect man. But as flawed as he was, the Lord used him in a mighty way to return the church back to the Gospel of grace by faith. In America, with all of its freedoms, it’s hard for us to imagine the amount of faith and courage needed by Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers to stand up to Rome in the 16th century.
* An interesting (and even comical) episode in Zwingli’s revolt against Catholic formalism and ritualism was the famous “Affair of the Sausages.” See here.