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Portrait of an Early Reformer Zwingli and the Reformation in Switzerland

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It is very remarkable that the reformation that took place in Switzerland was entirely separate from the reform movement initiated by Luther in Germany. Germany did not communicate the light of truth to Switzerland, but God raised up an instrument in that land to bring the Gospel light to its inhabitants. Initially, Zwingli had no communication with Luther. In fact, he had begun to preach the Gospel in 1516, a year before Luther had nailed his 95 Theses on the church doors in Wittenberg. In his works Zwingli writes, ÒIt is not from Luther that I learnt the doctrine of Christ, but from the Word of God. If Luther preaches Christ, he does what I am doing, and that is all.Ó It was through the light of the Dayspring from on High, Christ Jesus, that Zwingli was given to preach the true way of salvation.
His Early Life
Ulrich Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484 in the village of Wildhaus to middle class parents, seven weeks after Luther had been born. He was the third oldest in a family of nine children. His father raised sheep and was the bailiff of the local parish. Father Zwingli was well respected in his community; his character and office, as well as his large family, made him the patriarch of the mountainous area where he lived.

At the age of ten, Ulrich was sent to school in the university town of Basel, after which he attended the University of Vienna. In 1506, at the age of 22, he became the parish priest of Glaris. As a priest in the Roman Catholic Church he was not very different from the other clergy, except that he was very critical of scandals that plagued the church and he always felt the necessity of subjecting his own passions to the holy standard of the Gospel. Consequently, as a serious student of the Bible, Zwingli began to see more and more how the teachings of Rome contradicted GodÕs Word. At this early stage of his ministry, the evangelical doctrines concerning sin and grace had not yet changed his heart.

The Doctrines of Grace Make Inroads
By the grace of God, Zwingli became convinced of the grand principles of the infallibility and authority of the Scriptures. He saw that the philosophy of men and the truths of divinity were often at odds, and he wrote, ÒThey have a very mean idea of the Gospel, who consider as frivolous, vain, and unjust, all that they imagine does not accord with their own reason. Men are not permitted to wrest the Gospel at pleasure that it might square with their own sentiments and interpretation.Ó Zwingli sought to know GodÕs will from His Word alone. He began to entreat the Lord for His light, and the Scriptures began to become clearer to him than all the commentators. Then already, Zwingli began to employ the reformed principle of comparing Scripture with itself, explaining obscure passages by those that are clear. As Zwingli was led to diligently search the Scriptures, Switzerland took its first step towards Reformation.

From this time forward Zwingli preached the Word of God more clearly, explaining the Scriptures, which were to be read in the public worship services. He proclaimed the Gospel with animation and power, seeking to instil into his hearers what the Lord had revealed to him. He did not, however, openly attack the errors of the church as Luther did. Instead, he endeavoured to instil the truth of GodÕs Word, relying on the Lord to produce the fruits. If the people understand what is true,Ó then they will soon discern what is false,Ó he writes.

Because Zwingli was seeking to preach the full counsel of God in 1516, we would err by concluding that ZwingliÕs reform preceded that of the German monk. Luther had commenced preaching the doctrines of grace about four years previous to nailing the 95 Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg. Therefore, Luther was the first one who lifted up the standard of GodÕs truth against the errors of Rome, drawing attention to the fundamental doctrine of salvation by grace alone.

Called To Zurich
If, in GodÕs providence Zwingli had remained in the parish of Glaris, it is conceivable that he would have remained in obscurity. However, the Lord had greater things in store for His servant. In 1519 he was invited to become the preacher of Zurich, which was considered to be the head of the confederation of cantons into which Switzerland was divided. Due to its rank, this would not be an easy task, especially because this position required him to collect the revenues from the parishioners in his diocese. He also had to ensure tithes and dues were paid to Mother Church. While these demands and others disturbed Zwingli, he prudently expressed his gratitude for the position bestowed upon him and on New Years Day 1519, he preached his first sermon to the citizens of Zurich.

ÒIt is to Christ,Ó Zwingli declared, Òthat I desire to lead you, to Christ, the true source of salvation. His divine Word is the only food I wish to set before your hearts and souls.Ó Before dismissing the congregation he announced that he would commence preaching from the Gospel of Matthew beginning at Chapter 1 the next Sunday, when an even larger congregation assembled to hear GodÕs Word. After discoursing on the history of the patriarchs and the prophets, his hearers were said to have exclaimed, Ò We never heard the like of this before.Ó

Zwingli revealed himself to be a true shepherd of his flock. This became especially apparent when during a great plague about 2,500 of its 17,000 citizens died. The reformer, ignoring all danger of infection, sought to minister to the stricken families and comfort the dying. His indefatigable energy was laid low when he also became ill for a period of three months. This way of personal affliction was used by the Lord to make the reality of the Gospel more lively and real to him. His zeal knew no bounds as he put his hands to the plough of sowing the seed of the Gospel

Controversy with Rome
By 1522 Zwingli was headed on a collision course with the Roman Catholic Church when he began to preach the difference between the precepts of the Gospel and those of men. Especially during the period of Lent, he spoke against the prohibitions of eating meat and fasting. This resulted in a delegation being sent by the bishop of Constance to investigate the ÒfalsehoodsÓ Zwingli was said to be proclaiming. They had come to silence ZurichÕs reformer, but they could not resist the defence he made with the truths of the Word. The adversaries declared that he spoke doctrines that were seditious and subversive of civil laws. Zwingli declared, ÒIs not Christianity the strongest bulwark of justice among a nation? What is the result of all ceremonies, but to shamefully disguise the features of Christ and His disciples? Yes, there is another way, beside these vain observances to bring the unlearned people to the knowledge of the truth. It is that which Christ and His apostles followed, namely, the Gospel itself! Let us not fear that the people cannot understand it. He, who believes, understands. The people can believe; they can therefore understand. This is the work of the Holy Ghost, and not of mere human reason.Ó

Although the bishop was very dissatisfied, the City Council of Zurich stood firmly behind ZwingliÕs preaching and teaching.

Politics
Due to his position in Zurich, the Swiss reformer became involved with the affairs of the state as well as the church. Zwingli was convinced that political action was necessary to preserve and promote reform. Especially during the last years of his life, the registers of the city reveal that Zwingli was heavily involved in politics. He was commissioned by the councils of his canton to write letters, compose proclamations, and draw up opinions. He even became involved with the Helvetic (Swiss) troops. The pastor of Zurich was not only the shepherd of his church, but also the political guide of his country, and the general of the army

The question raised by historians is whether Zwingli was not too involved with the political affairs of his country, connecting religion too closely with political movements. Because he died on the battlefield in Cappell, some have alleged that the biblical principle, Òhe that taketh the sword shall perish by the swordÓ became a sad reality in his life. While a minister of the GospelÕs first calling is to His flock, this does not preclude him from promoting the well being of his country by which the kingdom of Christ may also be advanced. Furthermore, the situation during the time of the Reformation was such that political and religious affairs could hardly be kept distinct from one another. Had Rome not led the way for centuries, wielding both the secular and religious sword?

Theology
Although Zwingli began to preach the doctrines of grace in 1516, during the same period as Luther was struggling with them, his conflict with Rome was not as direct and vehement as GermanyÕs reformer. ZwingliÕs first works were not published until 1522, but during the remaining nine years of his life, he was a prolific writer. During these relatively few years, he produced four folio volumes, most of which contained the exposition of the Scriptures, his opposition to the Papists, as well as of the Anabaptists. Included in these writings was his understanding of the LordÕs Supper. Here Zwingli expressed differing views from Luther.

In 1529, one of the German princes, Philip of Hesse, called a conference at Margrave in order to bring unity to the reform movement occurring in parts of Germany and Switzerland. He believed the success of the Reformation depended on it. How could the Protestants resist the power of Rome if they were divided among themselves? While Luther held a different opinion from the Swiss Reformer when it came to the meaning of the LordÕs Supper, the reformers from each country agreed wholeheartedly with respect to major doctrines, such as those that had to do with the eternal and divine nature of God and the Trinity. They also agreed on the two natures of Christ, as well as His death and resurrection as the only ground for a sinnerÕs justification. They were united on the doctrines concerning the function of GodÕs Word, baptism, good works, confession of sin, etc. However, when it came to the LordÕs Supper, they could not agree. Luther held quite closely to RomeÕs doctrine of transubstantiation, which alleged that the elements of the sacrament actually became the body and blood of Christ. ZwingliÕs view is defined as consubstantiation. He alleged that the actual physical presence of Christ was with, or ÒunderÓ the elements of the LordÕs Supper.

Zwingli did not agree with Luther, but espoused the reformed view of the ÒspiritualÓ presence of Christ at the table while the elements of bread and wine remained what they were. While Zwingli was correct in this assessment, he held too strongly to the thought that the LordÕs Supper was merely an outward sign of ChristÕs propitiatory suffering and death, and nothing more. The sacraments, according to Zwingli, were bare signs or merely symbols, which emblematically and figuratively signify scriptural truths concerning ChristÕs finished work for sinners. He failed to clearly define the spiritual elements regarding the LordÕs Supper, namely, that by the grace of the Holy Spirit it is also a seal whereby ChristÕs merits are made a blessing to the soul.

Because of this difference in opinion, the reformers were never able to extend the brotherly hand of Christian love. While one can notice the respect the reformers had for each other, their divergent views on the LordÕs Supper prevented them from uniting as churches of God. Zwingli is reported to have said, ÒThere are no people on earth with whom I would rather be in harmony with than the Wittenbergers,Ó that is, with the followers of Luther. As a result of this difference, the Swiss believers formed the Reformed Church in distinction from the Lutheran Church.

Another fairly important belief adhered to by Zwingli must also be addressed. He also erred in his belief that some of the heathen could be saved outside the special revelation of GodÕs Word. While he constantly taught that men are saved only on the ground of ChristÕs atoning work and by the operation of GodÕs grace and Spirit, he minimized the absolute necessity of GodÕs Word in bringing this knowledge to man. He believed that the benefits of ChristÕs death might be imparted to men and that their natures might be renewed by GodÕs agency without having any knowledge of GodÕs special revelation. Some of the heathen, like Cicero for example, according to Zwingli, manifested such moral excellence as to indicate the presence of GodÕs special, gracious agency. We read in Romans 10:17, however, that ÒFaith cometh by hearing and hearing from the Word of God.Ó

Death
Quite a number of the Swiss cantons or provinces were favourably inclined to the cause of reform, especially in the outlying areas, but the majority were not, so that Switzerland remained largely Roman Catholic. As a result, those that were sympathetic to the Reformed cause experienced persecution at the hands of their Roman Catholic fellow citizens. This resulted in a civil war between Catholic and Protestant forces. About 2,700 followers of Zwingli opposed the 8,000 Catholics that invaded the canton of Zurich. GodÕs servant joined this force, not as a soldier, but as its chaplain. In 1531 the decisive Battle of Cappell was fought. Here Zwingli died for the cause of his Master. Badly wounded, his last words were said to have been, ÒThey may indeed kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.Ó His body was burned and his ashes were scattered in every direction. A great light had been extinguished in the Church of God.

Influence and Significance
Zwingli was not even 48 years old when he died for the cause of Christ. He had been the most gifted of the reformers, politically speaking. He laid the groundwork for CalvinÕs Geneva, where the local church also had much influence on the daily life of the city. ZwingliÕs Sixty-Seven Articles of Faith, published in 1523, ensured ZurichÕs emancipation from popery and the permanent establishment of the Reformed Church in that locale. Through his acts of reform in Zurich, the way was opened for his successor, Henry Bullinger, to proclaim the Gospel of sovereign grace. This successor is best known as the principle author of the Helvetic Confession of Faith after which many other Reformed confessions were modelled. This confession was later given approval by John Knox and was subscribed to by many Scottish ministers as well as those of southern Germany, Poland and Hungary. In this way the doctrines of sin and grace were upheld during the early years of reform.

May we also hold them dear and may the Holy Spirit seal them to our hearts that we may experience their power through the miracle of GodÕs grace.

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