Huldrych Zwingli – An Overshadowed Reformer

October 11 marks the 486th anniversary of the death of Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531) at the Battle of Kappel, where he acted as chaplain and flag-bearer for the troops. In spite of being one of the key protagonists of the Protestant Reformation, he is mostly known today for his disagreements with Luther, for his military career, and for his stance on eating sausages for Lent. J. I. Packer called him “A Great Reformer Overshadowed by Two Greater” (meaning Luther and Calvin).

            William Boekestein, Pastor at Immanuel Fellowship Church and author of Ulrich Zwingli, Bitesize Biographies, EP Books, and Ulrich Zwingli: Shepherd Warrior, Trailblazers, CF4Kids, has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about this intriguing and influential Reformer.

1. Zwingli’s life took very different turns than Luther’s or Calvin. Could you sum it up briefly?

            The three names you mention are often grouped together as the early leaders of the Reformation. But as you indicate, there are important differences. For example, when Luther and Zwingli began making reformational waves in Germany and Switzerland, Calvin was still a kid, around eight years old. Calvin had the advantage of building on the foundation of the earlier reformers.

            Zwingli and Luther were born less than two months and four hundred miles apart near the beginning of 1484. They both spoke German and received a rigorous classical education. But whereas Luther began his religious career in a monastery, Zwingli, in his early twenties, became a Catholic priest in a small Swiss town just a day’s hike from where he was born. After serving in two small parishes for thirteen years, Zwingli became the pastor of a large church in the city of Zurich, where he served for the rest of his life.

            Zwingli used his influential position to promote the simple Christian faith that he learned from the pages of Scripture and from the teachings of the church fathers; a faith he believed had become almost unrecognizable through the influence of centuries of Catholic Church tradition. The ecclesiastical reformation emanating from Zurich produced gospel fruit—and civil tension—throughout the confederacy of Switzerland. In the fall of 1531 the religious conflict led to a civil war between proponents of the two faiths. This war claimed the lives of Zwingli and dozens of other pastors and hundreds of other citizens.

2. Why do you think we know less about him today than we do about Luther and Calvin?

            There are a number of factors that help explain why we often mention Zwingli as a reformer but tend to be able to say relatively little about him.

            First, whereas the reformational careers of Calvin and Luther lasted around thirty years each, Zwingli can only be considered “reformed” for around a dozen years. Formally, he did not break with the Catholic Church until six years prior to his death.

            Second, while Zwingli’s writings are energetic, fresh, and grounded in Scripture, they are not as polished or careful as Calvin’s nor as witty as Luther’s. Zwingli admitted that he often sent his manuscripts to the printer without ever even rereading what he had written! Given his tumultuous civic and religious life Zwingli was unable to edit his theology the way Calvin revised his Institutes over the course of more than two decades. His theology was changing (I think, in positive ways) but, given his untimely death, was it was unable to fully mature.

Third, in part through some ghastly comments by Luther (e.g. “Zwingli perished in his sins.”) and abiding misconceptions about his life and theology reformed people have tended to feel less affinity with Zwingli than with some of the other reformers.

3. What are some of the main misconceptions we have about Zwingli and how should we correct them?

            The first important misconception people often have is that Zwingli was a war-monger. Based often on the bare fact that he several times participated in war and died in battle—and based on his iconic statue in Zurich, with Bible in one hand, and a broadsword in the other—people assume that Zwingli favored a militaristic reformation. This impression is grossly mistaken. Zwingli rose to popularity—and notoriousness—through his early preaching against Swiss participation in mercenary soldiering. Zwingli argued that this practice created multiple social problems and violated the spirit of Christianity. He wrote a pamphlet to one of the Swiss states on the evils of warfare and encouraged his parishioners to take up more constructive occupations while at the same time remaining prepared to defend their families and territories against foreign invaders.

            Of course, he did himself go to war, and die in battle, but he did so in the capacity of a chaplain and citizen-militiaman for a state that had no standing army. It is true, however, that he did argue vehemently for the war that ended his life but only as an alternative to the cruel embargo that his state had imposed on the Catholic regions.

            Zwingli is also often accused of having a merely “memorialistic” view of the Lord’s Supper in which Holy Communion is simply a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice but not a means of grace. This is a complicated matter but we should at least realize Zwingli recognized that believers genuinely commune with Christ in the meal—he was willing to say things like, “Christ is in the Supper in the same way in which believers are now in heaven (Col. 3:1)—and that his Eucharistic theology near the end of his life was trajecting away from the position of the Anabaptists and closer toward the understanding of Luther. 

 4. In your books, you depict Zwingli flaws and all. What are some of the errors and compromises he made and how should we view them today?

            Of his many flaws, one of the most glaring in our day is his vehement, and even occasionally violent, suppression of minority theological positions. Like most of his contemporaries Zwingli could not image a state recognizing the rights of religious dissenters. This is a complicated matter but three things are worth considering.

            First, we should try to understand our heroes’ faults even if we cannot defend them (note the way Scripture honestly exposes the sins of the godliest people; e.g. Hebrews 11).

            Second, God’s people are always seduced by the sins of their age. We lament over the harsh actions of Zwingli and the Zurich city council against Anabaptists, but historically speaking, this was an “acceptable sin.”

            Third, God’s people often believe better than they behave. Zwingli treasured the Christian liberty that believers receive through the gospel. But in practice, he struggled granting to others what he claimed for himself. 

5.After Zwingli’s death and the disastrous defeat at Kappel, Heinrich Bullinger took on the tremendous challenge of leading the Swiss church and moving it in closer step with the other European Reformations. Which aspects of Zwingli’s work did he emphasize and which did he correct?

            Bullinger rightly recognized that the hand of Providence had checked the ambitions of the reformed states. In this way Zwingli’s error—failing to distinguish between the use of spiritual and carnal means of reformation—helped lead to an increasing spirit of Christian liberty in Switzerland and beyond. Theologically, Bullinger was heavily influenced by his predecessor and in Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession one reads Zwingli filtered through a more precise and careful grid.

6. Should we still read Zwingli’s works today? If so, which would you recommend?

            Zwingli is worth reading today. Regrettably, his works are not accessible in a modern, edited version. To get a taste of Zwingli’s reformational theology you can read his “Sixty-Seven Articles” available many places online (e.g. https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/zwinglis-sixty-se…).