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Reformation Zwingli-style

Bernard Reymond

Translation Canon Tony Dickinson

Zwingli, two months younger than Luther, remains one of the less well-known known actors of the Reformation, especially in the French-speaking world. His writings are generally little quoted, often for lack of having been adequately translated and, above all, circulated. For example, little is known about the 67 theses he wrote for the religious disputation in Zurich in 1523 (fortunately a translation of them appeared in 2017 in the journal Études théologiques et religieuses), although they are in some respects more sharp-edged and reforming than the famous theses Luther posted in Wittenberg in 1517.
Now my skills as a retired theologian have just been called upon to translate accurately, at last, the very long commentary with which Zwingli accompanied each of these 67 theses for the use, not of other theologians or scholars of his time, but of the civil authorities of the commune of Glarus, in central Switzerland, where he had exercised his ministry as parish priest from 1506 to 1512. While almost all of Zwingli’s texts that have been translated into French were translated from Latin, which was the language of the scholars of the time, this commentary on the theses of 1523 was written in the sixteenth-century dialect of German that was spoken around Zürich and Glarus (just as Luther’s German was the language spoken in Saxony and Thuringia at the same time).
For the French-speaking translator, the challenge is great: Zwingli’s text is the transcription of an essentially oral, vernacular language. There is indeed a Latin version of it, but it dates from 1806! Fortunately, in 1995 a scholar from Zurich, Thomas Brunnschweiler, published a version of the text in modern German, but the French-speaking translator has to keep coming back to the original wording, if only to taste the flavour of this eminently local and popular way of speaking.
For the moment, my translation has only reached article 16. But after nearly four years spent in translating Schleiermacher’s “The Christian Faith”, which was discussed in Évangile et Liberté in October 2018 and in the Dossier of the December 2018 issue (a text whose syntax confronted me with many difficulties), I am struck by the simplicity of Zwingli’s language: no complicated sentences or drawn-out arguments, and a vocabulary which is always as concrete as possible. In a nutshell, he addresses people, to be understood by people.
And then there is the very nature of his argumentation. Let us take, appositely, this article 16, which reads as follows: “In the Gospel we learn that the doctrine and ordinances of men contribute nothing to blessedness.” The commentary is very long (some twenty-five pages) and probably reproduces the text of a sermon by Zwingli in the primatial church in Zurich during the dispute of 1523. The dominant theme here is classic in a Reformation context: like Luther, Zwingli attacks salvation through works. But what an emphasis, in his case, on the rejection of play-acting (that word being the best match for what he thought of it) to which the piety of the people responded excessively: processions, signs of the cross, sprinkling of holy water, accumulation of paternosters, purchase of indulgences, etc.!
And why did people devote themselves so much to these pious “works”? Because they were presented to them as necessary for their salvation. So Zwingli never stopped telling them: Do not submit to the laws and commandments imposed on you by the parish clergy, the bishops, the fathers of the Church, because what they are trying to persuade you of is contrary to the teachings of the Gospel of Christ and the grace which he brings. See and judge for yourselves, he repeats to them, quoting many words from this Gospel.
Viewed from this perspective, the Zwinglian Reformation is deliberately lay-centred and even non-clerical, as it was from an institutional perspective: where Calvin and his imitators granted many prerogatives to the pastors, it refused to let them adjudicate on the intimate convictions of the faithful, for example to grant or deny them access to the Lord’s Supper, and it entrusted the management of religious affairs to civil, not ecclesiastical, authorities. Our present context is different, but this Zwinglian way of looking at things still gives us pause for reflection!


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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