the reforming thought and action of Zwingli
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
To understand fully the thought and action of the reformers, we must remember the important place of Christianity, in all its aspects, in the individual and collective life of their century. This is particularly true of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) whose enterprise of reformation was, to within a few months, contemporary with that of Luther, but without depending on it or following it in all particulars.
Zwingli became a priest, the parish priest of Glarus, at the age of twenty-two, without being greatly concerned whether or not he had a vocation: that was what was intended for him and the studies he had followed in Bern, Vienna (Austria) and Basel, strongly characterised by the humanist current and the return to the great “pagan” authors of antiquity, were in the eyes of his mentors a sufficient preparation for the priesthood, as much because of his mastery of Latin as his skills in public speaking. On this last point, they were not mistaken: Zwingli was one of the best preachers of his time. Indeed every statement of his ideas shows the effects of this: his theology is based on a way of thinking forged in accordance with his concern to be in direct contact with the preoccupations of his flock.
Zwingli began his ministry in Glarus in 1506 without questioning the received ideas of the Christianity of his time: God is the creator; we are his creatures, marked by the blemish of sin from which Christ Jesus came to free us by his death on the cross. To these core data there were obviously added the many dogmas or beliefs, rituals, institutional structures which had been developed over the centuries within the Western Church. But Zwingli, at the beginning of his ministry, considered them with the frame of mind and the outlook of a young clerk who was a fan of humanism, in particular that of Erasmus of Rotterdam, and who was on that basis already profiting from a certain distancing in relation to conventional wisdom and existing institutions.
Prioritising the biblical witness
It is this that provides the context for his appeal to the Bible. We know that, being a great reader (but also a musician, for which some, at the time, criticized him), he approached it first in Latin, with the help of numerous authors from the Patristic and Medieval periods. Then his humanist concern to return to the sources led him to learn Greek and, though in less depth, Hebrew, going so far as to copy by hand the Pauline epistles which Erasmus had just published in their original language. Zwingli dated to 1516, before he had even heard of Luther, the moment when, becoming aware of the divergences between the biblical text and what was said by some fathers of the Church, who were nevertheless held to be the most reliable in matters of exegesis or doctrine (Origen, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Rufinus, Basil, Cyprian, Cyril…), he decided to hold fast to what he read in “Scripture” and to focus on it completely. In his writings (and in the pulpit!), “the words of God” are henceforth the sayings of Christ Jesus in the Gospels and what his most faithful and reliable spokesmen affirm, starting with Peter and Paul, or what some pages of the Old Testament, for example those of the psalms or the prophets, record.
Is the whole Bible then “the Word of God”? In his writings, some slightly casual turns of phrase could lead us to think that. But on closer inspection, his reading turns out to be selective: he holds on to the words that speak to him the most or those that have the most impact on the issues with which he is dealing. His method is to compare the biblical passages to each other, and elucidate the meaning of the most obscure by that of the clearest, the most reliable words being precisely those which impose themselves by their clarity. In the end, however, it was the Holy Spirit who convinced him of the relevance and therefore of the truth of what he had just read. And it is also the Holy Spirit who alone can persuade his hearers of the validity of his interpretation. In this sense, any word taken from the Bible is not necessarily a “word of God”, but it is the words which clearly articulate for us the will or the grace of God. That is what self-evidently engages with the truth about ourselves and about our “blemish” (präst, he says in his southern German, a word which can also mean “canker”).
God’s will and God’s law
While Luther’s approach was based on his very personal experience of justification by the grace of God alone, Zwingli the preacher first asks himself: What do people need to be told from the pulpit? Hence his decision, from the start of his ministry in Zurich in January 1519, to part company with the list of biblical pericopes imposed by the lectionary (the liturgical book containing the list of the passages read at religious services) and to favour the Gospel of Matthew, commented on pericope by pericope. This gospel is precisely the one that contains the most precepts or guidelines for use by everyone.
There is no merit in doing what God wants. However, by living according to his will, by complying with his law, we are on the right track. Understood in this way, the law is good news, a gospel, as Article XIII of the Zurich Disputation (1523) suggests: “Where the Word of God is heard, one learns sharply and clearly the will of God, and the human being is drawn to him and transformed in him by his Spirit.” This is what Reformed theologians of the 17th century were to call the “didactic” use of the law: it allows not only to live in spite of sin (as the theologians of Lutheran orthodoxy will also teach), but to follow up effectively Christ’s injunctions which evade sin (to which Lutherans do not subscribe). On this point, Zwingli is more optimistic than Luther and his thought indicates the influence of “pagan” thinkers (Aristotle, Cicero, Livy, Juvenal, etc.) whose works appeared in his personal library. Creation, in other words, is good and the human creature is made to live in it normally, but with a normality which is that of the Gospels and not of a human nature impaired by the blemish of sin. Zwingli even goes so far as to say in passing that in this respect the law of nature corresponds to the law of God. We will have to remember this in relation to his criticisms of the vow of chastity.
The cross of Christ and the remembering of the Last Supper
There is nothing meritorious or compensatory about living according to the will of God. God alone can haul human beings out of trouble through love, through sheer grace. This is attested by the death of Jesus, the Christ, on the cross. Zwingli here keeps the momentum of the traditional terminology and speaks on numerous occasions of the “sacrifice” offered once for all on the cross. But he does not seem to be unduly moved by this, as those will be later who feel compassion for the blood of Jesus and the horror of his sufferings endured during his Passion – suffering and humiliations which, as Zwingli might have noted, are no worse than those of many other humans tortured or burned down the centuries and especially in his own. Above all what matters to him is the “once for all”: the sacrifice of Christ is not to be repeated and cannot be. To doubt this would be to doubt or downplay God’s grace and forgiveness.
In the context in which Zwingli lived, any reflection on the sacrifice of Christ was closely linked to the practice and doctrine of the Eucharist, therefore also to what would become the Reformed conception of the Lord’s Supper. In this regard, Zwingli is very much the logician (he received a solid training in logic): if Christ died and was therefore sacrificed once for all on the cross, this sacrifice cannot be repeated. The repetition of the last meal of Jesus with his disciples in liturgical form cannot therefore be presented as a “sacrificial” act, even symbolically, performed on an “altar”, and the bread and wine consumed on this occasion cannot be considered to be, even symbolically, the fleshly or material body and blood of Christ. Steeped in Aristotelian logic, Zwingli even goes so far as to say, during his controversy with Luther, in Marburg, that the body and blood of Christ cannot be present “in, under and with” the elements of bread and wine as his interlocutor claimed, since, as we affirm at the Ascension, Christ sits henceforth “at the right hand of God”. When Jesus said “This is my body”, he said it in the same way that he said “I am the door of the sheep”. In addition, he cannot have eaten his own body materially or drunk his own blood. The bread and wine of the last supper are a significant reminder of God’s salvation and grace; they do not communicate or transfer them in an almost miraculous way.
Another aspect of the Lord’s Supper: the “once for all” of Good Friday is opposed to the “papist” practice, as Zwingli calls it, which consisted (and still often consists) in celebrating masses on demand, against payment, for the rest of souls in the afterlife, as if this “sacrifice” repeated on “the altar” by the “priest” was able to reconcile the good grace of the Heavenly Father to those for whom this Mass is celebrated. For Zwingli, one could not be more unbelieving towards the grace of God: this way of being religious is close to the attitude of the high Jewish priest towards Jesus. The grace of God is not cut into portions nor bartered with the faithful.
One of the most concrete outcomes of this way of considering both the death of Christ and the repetition of his last meal with the disciples is precisely to assume that it is indeed a meal, and not an act with a sacrificial connotation.
In this way Zwingli persuaded the Zurich reformers to give up the liturgical vessels of pewter or silver-gilt used for mass, and to replace them with goblets and plates of wood exactly similar to those used at the most modest family tables. And rather than inviting the faithful to approach a holy or sacred table in the Grossmünster’s choir, he circulated these goblets and plates among the rows of the faithful seated in their place in the nave. This “remembering” of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples became a liturgical act performed three or four times a year, on the Sundays of major religious festivals (unlike Calvin who would have liked it to be weekly, the Zwinglians and most of the Reformed, until the beginning of the last century, celebrated the Lord’s Supper only three or four times a year out of concern for its significance and to better mark the celebrations).
Have at hypocrisy!
Zwingli’s theological thought, as we can see, is never disconnected from the concrete problems with which he was confronted by his exercise of the priesthood as a priest duly ordained according to the ecclesiastical canons then in force. In this regard, he was very hung up on this saying of Jesus: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; you do not enter it yourself, and you do not let in those who want to enter” (Matthew 23:13). He himself was aware of his own hypocrisy, whether when the apostolic nuncio put him forward for a papal scholarship in 1518 to encourage him to remain silent about his criticisms of the Vatican (the scholarship was refused in 1519), or when he had to admit in a letter to the Zurich authorities that, like others, he had sometimes gone wenching with a wanton during his years as a secular priest at Einsiedeln Abbey. Either way, one can only be struck by the frequency with which, in his very long commentary on the articles of the Zurich Disputation, he attacks not only the hypocrisy of the religious in general, but through them the hypocrisy of the system on which they depend.
The incumbents of the “papist” hierarchy are hypocritical at all levels because their way of life and their way of governing the Church contradict the message they should be carrying. They are also hypocritical because, under the appearance of concern and fine sentiments, members of the hierarchy impose on their subordinates the making of promises that they cannot keep and consequently encourage them to conceal hypocritically their breaches of the rule. In reality, even if Zwingli does not say it in these terms, the whole system is hypocritical and hides under the homespun, the habits, the veils or the tonsures of religious both regular and secular. And he is, so to speak, squared when he adorns himself with the princely prerogatives of the hierarchy, the sumptuous trappings that this entails.
Zwingli never tires of listing all the forms of this hypocrisy, starting with how it affects the daily life of his parishioners: priests, monks and nuns do not stop soliciting funds for masses or pious images, as if these gifts falling into the pockets of the religious or ultimately shoring up the resources of the Vatican were to earn them advantages before God. In passing, Zwingli obviously does not fail to attack the sale of indulgences, but without labouring the point: being unable to prohibit it, the bishop of Constance had condemned it in his diocese. The religious are therefore being hypocritical in making people believe that payment for masses or indulgences could be pleasing to God when they ought to know that this is against God’s will. And they are hypocritical when they keep asking for offerings when they have made a vow of poverty.
There’s also the hypocrisy of the system as a whole when it incites young women and young men to make monastic or priestly vows, including that of obedience which is presented as obedience to God when it is above all obedience to human rules. Now this is precisely not what the will of God postulates as we can understand it Bible in hand.
Hypocrisy rears its head again when the system imposes rules that its officials know are not being respected by their subordinates, or when these same officials impose financial penalties for wiping the slate clean in respect of certain offences. “Whatever God allows or doesn’t forbid is right,” says article XXVIII of the Zurich disputation. The system creates hypocrisy by not respecting this rule. Zwingli, in this case, has in his sights primarily the rule (and therefore the vows) of celibacy and ecclesiastical chastity. Here we find the correspondence between the will of God and the laws of nature: marriage, which means the physical union of man and woman, is a good thing. And to prohibit the conjugal union of a certain category of men or women because that would be what the service of God imposes on them, amounts to opposing the law of nature which is also the law of God.
It is worthwhile in this regard to read the plea, countersigned by a dozen other priests, that Zwingli addressed to the Bishop of Constance in 1518 for ask him to authorize the marriage of the priests (available in English at https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/zwingli-selected-works-of-huldrich-zwingli/simple#lf0763_label_049). Very deferential in its form, it is nevertheless fundamentally inexorable: “It is not good for man to be alone”, says God in Genesis 2, 18. But there are also all the New Testament passages arguing in favour of the marriage of “overseers”, obviously without making it obligatory for them. Zwingli highlights and comments on eleven of these – a piece of advocacy which remains as relevant as ever and could be sent to the Vatican today just as it stands.
The corollary of this plea is then thesis XLIX of the Zurich disputation: “I know of no greater scandal than the fact that the priests are not allowed to have wives, but that they are permitted to have relations with prostitutes for money.”
Declericalisation of Christianity
What if the problem of the religion current in Western Europe at the dawn of the 16th century was not only related to the hypocrisy that the system allowed or incited, but to the system itself, that is, to its clerical structure? At the time the distinction between what is spiritual and what is temporal was prevalent in society. The Church, that is to say in this case its clergy, its hierarchy and its monastic orders, claimed the management and the independence of all that belonged to the spiritual order; even though they were lay people, the faithful nevertheless had a life and concerns which belonged to the spiritual order and, as such, were deemed to be a matter for the clergy. What belonged to the temporal order, on the other hand, was a matter for the secular authorities, princes or magistrates, who administered the country or the city. The current consensus was that the representatives of the spiritual considered themselves above the temporal and were exempt from the authority of its representatives. This was also why clerics of all levels had to act “as if” – as if they were purer or closer to holiness than ordinary believers.
The only way to ward off the resulting hypocrisy, then, is to change the system. And for Zwingli to deconstruct it piece by piece, starting with the abolition of the priesthood as a quality or indelible character (character indelibilis) sacramentally conferred on individuals who are from now on distinct from the rest of the population by virtue of their ordination. He radically desacralises the ministry of the Gospel in order to make it more accountable. The pastor, the “watchman” (der Wächter) or the “shepherd” (der Hirt), is no longer supposed to be dressed in cassocks or chasubles which set him apart. He is a citizen like everyone else, but in charge of a service (or, as we might say, “ministry”), with a specific function: to proclaim to everyone the Word of God. Zwingli’s treatise on “the shepherd” emphasizes the demanding nature of this service. Its holder must take it on without weakening, especially when he approaches the powerful of this world. His role then is not to dictate policy to them, but rather to put them before the demands and promises of the Word of God: “The shepherd must not spare the king, the prince or the authority, but when he sees them deviating from the right path, he must show them their error.” Then it’s up to them to decide whether or not to draw the conclusions they deem appropriate.
One of the most characteristic claims set out in the articles of the 1523 disputation was that Church representatives (at the time of the disputation, Zwingli was thinking mainly of bishops and other members of the hierarchy) must submit to “authority”, that is precisely civil or temporal authority. At the time, it was a total inversion of prerogatives and values, and bishops, especially when they were prince-bishops like the bishop of Constance, were not about to admit it. But the principle was established, and it is very far-reaching.
But then, what was to be done with the clergy, the monks, the nuns and their material assets? These assets were still considerable, and the religious were notorious for their ability to collect alms and other donations.
Zwingli’s solution, like that of the other reformers, was as simple as it was radical: the convents must be closed and their assets put at the service of the poorest or those who had the greatest need. But not only that: these riches and these resources must also be put at the service of the community, which will materialise in the field of training the professional people that society needs, for example pastors.
In the view that Zwingli formed of the good functioning of community life and of what the Church could or should represent within it there is an acute sense of social problems, which has a distant outcome in what was to be, at the beginning of the twentieth century, religious socialism in German-speaking Switzerland or social Christianity in France and in French-speaking Switzerland.
The flesh and the spirit
Zwingli’s theology, it is widely said, is a theology of the Spirit. We saw that in relation to the interpretation of the Scriptures: in the final analysis, it is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, who persuades us of the relevance of the meaning that the exegete has succeeded in highlighting, and it is still the Spirit who, working from within on our own spirit, our intelligence, our heart, our will, our sensitivity, our mood (our Gemüt, as they say in German), challenges us to follow up its injunctions.
It is in this sense that the Spirit, but also the spirit, opposes the “lusts of the flesh” at the first rank of which there are obviously the different forms of hypocrisy that Zwingli attacked, the most formidable hypocrisy being that which seeks to pass itself off as a work of the Spirit. But it’s also the Spirit who arms us internally to cope with these lusts. And it’s the Spirit who should inspire the leadership of the city, of the country. What about the Church? For Zwingli, at the time, the earthly Church was hardly distinguishable, in its recruitment, from the population within which it exercised its ministry.
Through his preaching, his advice and his action, Zwingli always sought above all to contribute to the good of the country as a whole. Seen from this angle, he is a patriot-preacher, while always remaining aware that the only one who can change or improve things thoroughly is precisely the Spirit whose spokesperson he is.
But beware of the Schwärmer, the enthusiasts who believe that they can claim sudden, uncontrolled outpourings of the Holy Spirit in order to go into a trance or to advocate anarchy. Zwingli had read the apostle Paul and was convinced with him that humans must remain “subject to the authorities who exercise power” and that “the magistrates are not to be feared when one does good” (Romans 13: 1-3). So it is quite logical that the disputation of 1523 was convened and presided over by the magistrate, and that the decision to implement the reform of the Church, and so also of the country, was taken by the civil authority, counter to the ecclesiastical authority embodied by the bishop – a decision which in the final analysis, Zwingli was convinced, also involved the action of the Holy Spirit.
At the time, given the circumstances, this confidence in the wisdom and lucidity of temporal power could be considered justified. Five centuries later, it seems questionable to us. The fact is that circumstances have changed. And as year succeeded year, the pastors of the overwhelmingly Protestant regions sometimes found themselves very much alone in embodying the presence of the Church within the population. This change of status does not change the relevance of Zwingli’s theology as a whole, but it requires a constant renewal of reflection on what needs to be and to be undertaken so that the divine will may be done just as the gospels help us to understand it.
A reformer of the first rank
If, then as now, Zwingli’s Reformation is clearly distinguished from that of Luther, it cannot be reduced to the one on which Calvin or Théodore de Bèze, reformers of the second generation, left their mark. In the long run, the Zwinglian current proved to be significantly more open than the Calvinist current to what today we call liberal theology. Zwingli’s Erasmian sympathies and the way he understood the interpretation of biblical texts carried within it certain constants of the liberal theology of our time. One of the liberal theological currents in German-speaking Switzerland was called and moreover still is called the Zwingli-Bund, the Zwingli federation. A Reformation in which Zwingli had no place would be a Reformation of cut-price uniformity.
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