Zwingli and the Divided Soul of the Reformation

Since the beginning of days, people have hankered to rank things. The caveman ranked the loincloths of their fellow cavers. Northern Europeans of ancient times debated the most esteemed Nordic poetry. And if the aborigine islanders of Kiribati didn’t have a burning hot opinion of the most feared mosquito-borne illness, then they were sent on the first canoe out of town. It’s almost like God hard-wired the human operating system to love lists. With that in view, let us consider a list of seven interesting things about that contemporary of Martin Luther, the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli.

First, Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Supper

Luther and Zwingli’s disagreement over the Lord’s Supper centers on the meaning of Jesus’ words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Luther didn’t want to explain away the meaning of the word “is.” He thought that when a Christian participates in the Supper in faith that the body and blood of Christ are present. Luther called this view the Real Presence because Jesus was genuinely present in the elements. Luther’s difference with the Roman Catholic Church was that they taught that Christ replaced the bread and wine with himself so the elements looked like bread and wine but they were actually the body and blood of Christ. Luther taught that Christ did not replace the elements, but was present in the elements.

Zwingli, however, interpreted the word “is” to mean “signifies.” How did Zwingli come to this position? God revealed it to him in a dream.[1] Zwingli’s memorial view was that there was no real presence of Christ. The bread and cup are figurative only; they are a memorial to the death of Christ.[2]

Second, Zwingli’s Reforms Inspired by the Past

Zwingli was inspired by Erasmus, that Renaissance Humanist who took the church back to the sources. Zwingli studied classical Greek at a time when few people knew Greek. He read Josephus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Aulus Gellius. Zwingli demonstrates that reform is enhanced when it is informed by the past. 

Third, Zwingli’s View of the Classical Poets

Zwingli expected to find many of the classical writers and philosophers in Heaven, thinking they were part of the streams of wisdom that eventually come together by the working of the Holy Spirit. The great philosophers of the ancient world taught truths that agreed with the Bible such that their “words seem due to the direct influence of God.” Zwingli denied that the ancient thinkers were free from critical judgment, yet he thought God was speaking through the ancient philosophers in the way they acknowledged God’s existence and emphasized the goodness of God. In a 1525 essay, Zwingli created a list of the heavenly company, which included Hercules, Theseus, and Socrates alongside Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Zwingli’s thinking, the virtuous pagans had a place among the elect. In contrast, Luther criticized the ancients as “godless heathen(s)” who encouraged idolatry. To say they are among the elect is to say that the Christian faith is no better than any other faith.[3]

Fourth, Zwingli was a Magisterial Reformer

In the late Medieval world, it is difficult to untangle the world of the church and the world of the state. Zwingli’s vision was that the cities are churches. In Germany, there was a union of the throne and altar. In Zwingli’s Zurich, the throne and altar are the same. Zwingli implemented reforms through the city rulers, who were willing to make decisions on religious matters and determine church affairs in the city.

Zwingli pushed to align his reforms with political action. This was the only way to avoid the fate of Jan Hus. The Zurich Council ordered Zwingli’s preaching of the gospel to continue and the rural priests were ordered to follow Zwingli’s model. The magistrates had the power to make decisions about doctrine and practice. Magistrates shared authority with the clerics. An example of this came in 1524 when the Zurich Council stripped the churches of images and seized the houses of the Dominicans and Augustinians. In Zwingli’s thinking, it was the proper role of temporal rulers to preserve the true faith and punish those who rejected church authority. It was not the magistrate’s job to interpret God’s Word. The pastors of the church fulfilled a prophet role by admonishing rulers according to the Bible, just as Nathan rebuked the adulterous David. The pulpit and throne were not separate realms because the authority of both was rooted in the Word of God.

Bruce Gordon summarizes Zwingli’s view, “Zwingli’s decision to place the discipline of the Church in the hands of the magistrates spoke of his understanding of Church and rulers, whom he saw as the kings of Israel, protectors of the true faith. Indeed, Zwingli viewed the visible Church not as a suffering, persecuted minority, but as God’s chosen people of Israel, populated by both faithful and unfaithful, who were not distinguishable in this world. He wholly rejected the Anabaptist conception of a pure or separate body of Christ.”[4]

Fifth, Zwingli was a Fornicating Priest

Sexually active priests were common at the time. They were given look-the-other-way privileges to have unofficial wives and families. Rumors swirled around Zwingli, who was highly sexually active. He defended himself by saying he never slept with married women, virgins, or nuns, which suggests that he visited prostitutes. He had at least one child out of wedlock.

It’s not surprising then that in 1522 Zwingli made priestly celibacy a point of conflict. In early 1522, Zwingli married Anna Reinhart, making him the first reformer to tie the knot. Zwingli argued there were no Scriptural grounds to forbid priests from marrying. Celibacy was an unnecessary burden to the clergy. Sexual sin was the inevitable consequence of the policy.[5]

Sixth, Zwingli Preceded Calvin

Zwingli, a first-generation Swiss reformer, influenced Calvin, a second-generation French reformer who ministered in Geneva, Switzerland. But Calvin never mentioned Zwingli. Why? The Lutherans had a hostile view of the Zwinglians which traced back to Luther’s rejection of Zwingli. Calvin knew this. And Calvin believed he could bring together the different branches of the Reformation. Calvin aspired for a unified Reformation front. If he mentioned Zwingli, the Lutherans would leave. So, Calvin didn’t talk about Zwingli.[6]

Seventh, Zwingli Died on the Battlefield

Zwingli thought that if Catholic Europe heard the gospel they would convert. The problem was that the Catholic cities and rulers prevented the Reformation from spreading. Zwingli’s conviction was that Christian rulers should take responsibility to dislodge Catholic leaders using military force. Like all Swiss boys, Zwingli was trained in the art of fighting. He was also knowledgeable about tactics.

In 1520 Zwingli wrote this, “I say all this in order to hasten the battle that is already underway and hurries towards its end, to win for Christ as many soldiers as possible who will then fight boldly for him … For this I will tell you plainly: just as the Church was born through blood, only through blood can she be renewed.” It was the duty of the faithful to bring the gospel to the Catholic strongholds that remained in Switzerland, even if military action was required. Zwingli didn’t just urge the Zurich Council toward war. He donned armor and took up the halberd to enter combat. 

So, what happens when military skills and convictions are intertwined? You get a Protestant priest who dies on the battlefield trying to spread the Word of God. Zwingli used force for religious ends. On October 11, 1531, Zwingli took to the battlefield near Kappel to defend Zurich against the attacks of the Catholic Five States. The Zurichers were outnumbered and outgunned. Zwingli, dressed in green armor, was wounded in the leg. The Catholic soldiers found his still conscious body and ran him through with a sword.[7]

Leo Jud was Zwingli’s close friend. He shared in Zwingli’s call to arms and the need for war against the Catholic Confederates. Yet in 1542 (11 years after Zwingli died), Jud gave a deathbed confession, seeking God’s forgiveness for making war, “Protect yourselves from war. Do not be driven by lust for war. Work for the maintenance of peace. It is fitting for Christians … to show humility, not thirst for revenge. Regrettably, I rode to war in time, a great evil. Therefore, I cry out to God that he might have mercy on me and forgive me. Remember forever the unfortunate consequences of this war.” Zwingli would have no such regret for war-making.[8]

Bruce Gordon summarizes Zwingli’s legacy, “In many respects, Zwingli came to represent the divided soul of the Reformation: an arresting vision of the godly community, beset with the need to establish its own boundaries and cleanse itself of dissent. The godly community depended on the sword, and nearly vanished in military defeat.”[9]

[1] Eric Metaxas. Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Penguin, 2017), 369-372.

[2] P. P. Enns. The Moody handbook of theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 361f.

[3] Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 154f, 238f.

[4] Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 87-92, 119, 194-196.

[5] Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 42, 68-70.

[6] Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 266f.

[7] Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 48. 58, 76f, 218, 222f, 232, 248.

[8] Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 77.

[9] Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 254.

Published by Jason Cherry

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).