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Zwingli: dare to be free

Zwingli: dare to be free
Pierre-Olivier Léchot


Canon Tony Dickinson

On March 22, 1522, the Zurich Reformation began with a thunderclap: the printer Froschauer, who was close to Zwingli, gave his employees and three priests present that day sausage to eat – something totally against the customs in force during Lent. Zwingli himself abstained from eating meat but defended the choice of his friends with these words of which Bernard Reymond reminds us in the following dossier: “Do you want to give up meat of your own free will? Don’t eat it! But let your brother have his freedom.” Freedom! This is how the watchword of the Reformation was proclaimed in Switzerland after it had been a few years earlier in Wittenberg. Luther, as we know, was not really called Luther, but Luder. It was only when he published his 95 theses on indulgences that he changed his name and opted for “Eleutherus” and soon “Lutherus”, from the Greek eleutheros, the one who is free. A great deal of stress is laid on the fact that the question of grace was the central problem of the Reformation. That is true – but it is only part of the picture. Because as soon as Reformers like Luther or Zwingli understood that their salvation depended only on God, what became clear to them was that this divine grace was the creator of their freedom. Freedom from human powers, freedom from habits, customs and constraints that long tradition had transformed into foundational works of salvation. With the Reformation, this vision of the world shatters, dispersed by the force of a conviction: to rely on human actions is essentially only to add sin to sin. It would be wrong today to underestimate this calling, the calling of Protestants: to freedom. Because our era is wary of freedom. We only have to see how the term “ultra-liberalism” is used as a catch-all in relation to economic problems in order to be convinced. Because rather than denounce what we could just as easily call the slow but irremediable triumph of economic criteria in our societies, we prefer to lash out at a system that is “too liberal”. It is not just a question of words; it is also a matter of feeling: our era is afraid of freedom. Of course, we continue to demand individual freedom, freedom of bodies or freedom of ideas. But behind these claims, which are just a front because they too have become works imposed by two centuries of tradition, we have lost the taste for freedom, true freedom, which is our most fundamental vocation. In fact, I believe we have never loved freedom because deep down that freedom is also a duty: one which commands us to take up our freedom to become adults. It is simpler, so much simpler, to remain children who claim their due from their parents rather than to become adults responsible for their actions. But this security is deceptive, as is the fear that surrounds freedom: to be an adult, to be free, is to assume that you are who you are and to have confidence. Confidence in life, in our loved ones and in everything that can help us become a little more who we already are before God. From this point of view, that of freedom, it seems to me that the Reformation remains unfinished or rather, that it is always something to be redone. Semper reformanda!

500 years ago, Huldrych Zwingli

Bernard Reymond

On 20th January 2019, residents of Zurich celebrated the beginnings of Huldrych Zwingli’s reforming activity in their city. It was in January 1519 that he began his ministry as a preacher in Grossmünster, the city’s main church. This preaching which was intended to be deeply evangelical was to lead step by step, without warning, to the disputation about religion at the end of which, in 1523, the civil authority decided to reform the Church in Zurich, and thus led to its Reformation.

You are not born a reformer, you become one
Huldrych Zwingli was not born a reformer; he became one gradually, as circumstances changed. Born into a family of ten children on 1st January, 1484, two months after Luther, at Wildhaus, an alpine village in Toggenburg, central Switzerland, he was entrusted from the age of five to his uncle and godfather Bartholomew, the parish priest of Weesen. The clerical environment was therefore familiar to him from his childhood and was not imbued for him with any halo of mystery or sanctity, unlike Luther, who was born into a family of businessmen. His uncle took care to give him a solid basic education, in particular in Latin, which enabled him at a later stage to follow a university career of a clearly humanist stamp in Bern, Vienna (Austria) and especially Basel where he benefited fully from the presence and teaching of Erasmus. Here again, his formation is distinguished from that of Luther, which was more marked by ecclesial and monastic tradition.

Zwingli’s path to the priesthood was almost a matter of improvisation. In the autumn of 1506, the parish priest of Glarus, a small town in central Switzerland, had just died. To counter the candidature of a careerist priest from Zurich, who already held two ecclesiastical benefices and was supported by the Roman curia, old Bartholomew Zwingli had the idea of ​​having his nephew, who was still a student, rapidly ordained to the priesthood. That was how Huldrych found himself parish priest of Glarus, and he remained in that role until 1516.

Neither he nor anyone else seems to have wondered whether or not he had a calling to exercise this ministry.

At the time, this was an issue that received little attention. Apart from the problem posed by the requirement of priestly celibacy, Zwingli seems never to have been tormented by questions as personal and nagging as was the case for Luther in relation to his own salvation. On the other hand, once he took office, he never ceased to ponder the match between the exercise of his ministry, the expectations of his parishioners and loyalty to the founding texts, mainly the biblical writings and those of Fathers of the Church. It is precisely this that, little by little, put him on the path to what was to become the Reformation: he became more and more aware of the distance and even of the contradictions between the Gospel texts, especially, and many practices, requirements or teachings of the Church of his time.

The experience of Marignano and the move to Einsiedeln
As the parish priest of Glarus, Zwingli was therefore also chaplain of the troops from Glarus. He had to accompany them on several campaigns and was with them in 1515 at Marignano when the Swiss (in the absence of Bernese troops) were severely beaten by the army of François I. Having witnessed the horrors of war at first hand, he became in the pulpit a determined adversary of mercenary service, remembering this question of Erasmus which he had underlined in the “Adages”: “War, what other thing else is it than the mass murder of many men together?”

This aspect of his preaching could not but displease the magistrates who supported mercenary activity as they profited from the largesse of the French ambassador. Forced to leave Glarus in 1516, Zwingli became Leutpriester at the abbey of Einsiedeln, that is to say a priest responsible for welcoming and accompanying pilgrimages to the Abbey of Our Lady (a pilgrimage still very popular today). “I started preaching in the year 1516,” he said later, “in such a way that I no longer went up to the pulpit without taking for myself the gospel read at the Mass that morning and without explaining it on the basis of Scripture alone.” So he did not change established practice in any way, but started, in a manner of speaking, to fill the old bottles with new wine. And the pilgrims did not fail to notice it.

A large group of Zurich citizens came back from this pilgrimage with the strong desire that they might benefit from his ministry as parish priest of the Grossmünster, the main church of their city. The canons readily followed up this desire, in full knowledge of the facts, at the end of 1518, without even consulting the bishop of the diocese who was based in Constance.

Step by step towards the Reformation
Huldrych Zwingli thus ascended into the pulpit of the Grossmünster on 1st January, 1519. From the outset he took the liberty of no longer sticking to the lectionary, that is to say to the list stipulating which biblical passages were to be read during mass and, where appropriate, give rise to a sermon. He chose to explain one after the other, page by page, the books of the New Testament, obviously starting with the Gospel of Matthew, followed later by the Acts of the Apostles, then by the Epistle to the Galatians and the two Epistles of Peter.

This choice is not only important, it is significant. Luther, it should be remembered, became a reformer through reading the Epistle to the Romans in the solitude of his monastic cell. This epistle enabled him to solve the serious problem in his personal life: that of his sin, absolved by the grace of God alone. Briefly stated, this was typically the problem of a man who entered the convent to work out his own salvation, and who discovered that salvation is precisely not the result of any human working, but is due to the grace of God alone, manifested in Christ Jesus.
The preaching of grace was a central theme in the thinking and preaching of Zwingli, too. But his main concern was above all pastoral: what did those who listened to his sermons need to hear in order to live better according to God’s saving will? Now Matthew’s gospel is precisely the one that corresponded best to this concern: it is the one that contains the greatest number of precepts or recommendations relating to the behaviour of each and every one (see for example the Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes).

From this perspective, the beginning of Zwingli’s activity as a preacher in Zurich does indeed correspond to the beginning of his action as a reformer, but without showing from the outset a desire to get everything into shape. Zwingli always cared about the weak and wanted to avoid pushing them around thoughtlessly. It was therefore step by step, sermon by sermon, discussion with his listeners by discussion, that Zwingli became a reformer and became ever more sharply aware of the reforms which his renewed and ever deeper understanding of the Scriptures was imposing. But he felt that the time had come to say things more and more clearly, and his preaching did not take long to take root in the people’s minds.

The decisive step, but after that of the printers
Significantly, the first truly landmark action which broke with the customs then in force was not Zwingli’s doing, but that of the printer Christoph Froschauer who had sausage served openly to his type-setters in the middle of Lent 1522. Three priests of the city joined in this agape while Zwingli thought it necessary to abstain from it, at the same time as defending the principle of personal freedom: “Do you want of your own free will to give up meat? Do not eat it! But let your brother have his freedom”. Although he wanted to advise caution, the type-setters of Zurich had in fact pushed Zwingli into taking the first public step of what we now call the Reformation.

A very personal decision, moreover, had just been made in line with this emancipation. In the spring of 1522, Zwingli married Anna Reinhart, the widow of a Zurich patrician. Always with the avoidance of scandal in mind, he did it secretly. But after the affair of the sausages this silence became burdensome for him.

At the time, that a priest, even the pope, lived with a woman who bore him children was no cause for surprise. However, in Western Christianity, a priest was not allowed to marry. This prohibition had no scriptural basis and it caused serious harm to the women in question. Zwingli convinced a dozen other priests to join him in addressing a request to their bishop to lift this ban, while at the same time distributing a printed text informing the laity of their approach and explaining the main reasons for it. The bishop’s terse and arrogant refusal to enter into debate decided Zwingli to publish in Latin a second text, the Archeteles (the first and the last word), which is in its way the equivalent of “I can do no other.”

Discussions began, spirits became inflamed, the conservatives uttered threats, the bishop looked to crack down. At Zwingli’s suggestion, the City Council organized a meeting where the whole affair was to be debated and even judged. From then on the Reformation was well underway and, as a result of Zwingli’s preaching, it was under the control of the laity. The bishop remained walled up in what he thought were his prerogatives, so the City Council reserved for itself the final decision on this question.

The Reformation in Zurich, and therefore in Switzerland, or even the whole of the Reformed tradition, differs in this respect from the Lutheran Reformation. Once the process launched by Luther in Germany with the posting of his theses on indulgences on 31st October, 1517, it was taken over by the princes who decided whether or not to join with all their subjects, without even consulting them. In Switzerland and in the cities of the upper Rhine, such as Strasbourg or Mulhouse, it was the burghers making up the city councils who made the decision, and then, it is true, imposed it on the peasants in the domains which were dependent on them. In a city like Bern, it was even a layman, the painter Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, who began the process by having vigorously Reformation-minded plays put on at the carnivals of 1524 and 1525.

On 29th January, 1523, a disputation about religion began in the main hall in Zurich’s city hall, at which all the inhabitants who wished were invited to be present, and they flocked to it. So that all could understand it, the disputation took place, not in Latin, but in German, the Allemannic (Swiss-German) dialect, obviously. It differed from the university disputations of the time in that it was organized, chaired and decided by lay people. This Zurich model was taken back to Berne in 1528 and to Lausanne in 1536, but this time inevitably in French. The use of the vernacular was one of the main characteristics of these religious disputations in a Reformed context.

The theses of the disputation and the commentary on them
In accordance with the university model, Zwingli wrote, still in German, 67 theses or “articles” which cover the whole field of traditional piety. He did it in a form that was, so far as possible, accessible to everyone. By chance, he wanted key points of what emerged from this disputation to be made available also to the civic authorities in Glarus, the town where he had been the parish priest. In the months following the dispute, he therefore hastily wrote up the whole of his argument, delivering it without delay to the printer as it was written up. This crucial document in the history of the Reformed Reformation has never been translated into French and is currently in course of translation. It is written in the German dialect spoken around Zurich and Glarus in the 16th century, which does not always make understanding it easy; but that’s also what makes it interesting. It is exciting to discover Zwingli’s constant effort to express himself in a way that would be fully understood by people who probably did not know Latin or for whom certain parts of the document had to be read aloud to compensate for their illiteracy.

From one article to another, Zwingli never ceases to try to convince his readers of the abusive nature of the authority or the powers that were customarily ascribed to the clergy or representatives of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, whose greed he never fails to criticize, with the sale of indulgences in his line of fire. Priests are in no way necessary as intermediaries between God and humans, because the only mediator here is Christ.

The pastor of the Zwinglian tradition (and the Reformed tradition in general) is a minister, even an official whose function is to proclaim faithfully the Word of God to all, including those who hold civil authority, should it be necessary to admonish them. Besides, Zwingli had a particularly demanding idea of ​​this function, as is evident from his little treatise Der Hirt, a title which can be translated as “The Shepherd” or “The Pastor”. The Zwinglian conception is aimed in particular at preventing the invasive abuses of the former clergy, for example with the obligation laid on the faithful to go through auricular confession; that is why, unlike Calvin’s practice in Geneva, pastors in Zwinglian territory were not empowered to refuse access to the Lord’s Supper, even temporarily, to the faithful whom they deemed unworthy: this decision had to be left to each person’s conscience (or lack thereof?).

Among all the subjects discussed in the commentary to the theses of 1523, let us keep in mind the Lord’s Supper. For Zwingli, the Supper is not and cannot be a sacrifice since, as the biblical texts affirm, the sacrifice of Christ was unique and took place once only for all. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is essentially a remembering in accordance with the command of Christ “Do this in memory of me,” and bread and wine can be only signs or symbols of his body and blood. And to signify that it is indeed a commemorative meal, but also a community meal, Zwingli wanted the Supper in Zurich to be celebrated with wooden vessels, like ordinary people, and not with pewter, gold or silver. The seeds of disagreement between Luther and Zwingli about the Supper are thus already sown in the comments of 1523.

Deliberately lay-focused, the Zwinglian Reformation acquired European importance with Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s main collaborator and successor in Zurich. His volumes of sermons, particularly on the Apocalypse, were circulated throughout Europe, including France, and even in the New World. And the Later Swiss Confession (1566), of which he was the author and which remains one of the main texts of the Reformed tradition, can be considered as one of the most direct legacies of Zwingli’s thought.
The Universal Church and the local church

Huldrych Zwingli

Under this title we offer extracts from Zwingli’s commentary on the eighth article in the Zurich disputation of 1523. It is translated from the French version of Bernard Reymond.

From ancient times to the present day we have debated what and who is the Church. […] I do not want to offer my word in this context, but that of God, nor a human teaching, but the thinking of the Spirit of God. […] [The words] “fellowship” and “community” are used in Scripture in two very similar senses.

First: for the whole community of those who are edified and founded on faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. […] Question: where is the Church? Answer: widespread throughout the world. Who is the Church? All believers. If it is an assembly, where does it gather? Answer: it is gathered here by the Spirit of God in one same hope and over there alongside the one God. Who knows the Church? God. But are the bishops who usually hold councils also the same Church? Answer: They are only members of the Church like any other Christian, as long as they recognise Christ as their captain. If you say: but they are the ecclesia repraesentativa, I answer: of that, the Holy Scriptures know nothing. […]

Second: the word church is used to denote the various assemblies that we call parishes or local communities. These are gatherings or communities of such a size that they can conveniently come together to hear and learn together the Word of God; in many places today they are still called parishes, after the Greek word paroecia, which indicates a nearby or neighbouring habitat; because the people of a region whose size is suitable for this purpose gather there. Christ speaks of the community or church in Matthew 18, 16-17: “If someone does not change his mind in front of two or three witnesses, tell it to the church”, that is to say to the parish, not to the universal Church. Because who could communicate orally to the whole community which believes in Christ and is united only by the Spirit, information about someone whom one would wish to exclude? Paul therefore calls the ecclesial parishes, ecclesiae that is to say communities, in 1 Corinthians 1, 2: “To the community which is in Corinth. ”[…] It is certain that here “church” is taken to be parish or community, because there is nothing more than a church or community to which this name is primarily and expressly suitable, she who is the bride of Christ and those who bear his name are members of the universal Church only if together they form a Church. […]

We say: “I believe the holy Christian Church”; but the two Greek words ecclesia catholica should properly be translated by “I believe the universal assembly”. But as we are thinking of nothing other than the Church of Christ, that is to say all Christian people united by the Spirit of God in one faith, we used the two adjectives: the holy Christian Church, and it is not a bad thing even if neither the Latins nor the Greeks say it in their language.

But those who try to draw everything to them have found in these words a trick to pass themselves off as the Christian Church and, taking advantage of this expression, Rome has wanted to be called for a long time now the Christian Church universal. The ignorant theologians have let this go so regularly that even today, if you ask, “What is ecclesia catholica, the Christian Church, in which we believe? “, they answer: “Ecclesia catholica means in our language the Christian Church, and it is the Roman Church”. And if you ask them, “Does catholicon mean Roman?” They say, “Yes. But they don’t know what the word catholicon means, whether it’s a cabbage or a hammer. […]

So that what ecclesia catholica means and so that everyone knows, it may be expressed in clear terms, the words “communion of saints” have been added. […] “Communion of saints” means […] nothing else here than communion of believers or devout Christians. […] The meaning of this article in the [confession of] faith is therefore: I believe that the holy universal or Christian Church is a legitimate wife of God. But the universal Church is the community of all devout and believing Christians. Therefore the assemblies of particular persons or bishops, even all if these so-called bishops gather, are not the Church in which and by virtue of which we believe; for in it are found all the pious Christians who will be gathered to God only after this time; but as long as it is here, [the Church] lives only in hope and never unites visibly; but in the light of the Spirit of God and faith, it is nevertheless always gathered; but that is not visible. […]

Now everyone can determine whether or not he is in the Church. If he has in particular all his assurance, his hope and his consolation in God through Christ Jesus, he is in the Church; that is to say in the communion of all pious Christians. For if he has clear faith in Christ alone, he has the Spirit of God; the latter is indivisible, and no one can have two kinds of faith in the one Spirit. Because all true believers are in one Spirit, they must also put one faith and one hope in the one good that the Spirit teaches them.

Conversely, those who put their hope in creatures are not in the Church or in the cohort of pious Christians; for they do not have, as said above, the one thing that comes from the one Spirit of God […], but they confide in foolish, lost, corrupt men. If you ask them who they believe in most and why they think they are going to be blessed, they say they have given the greatest faith to the Holy Fathers and will become blessed if they stay in the Holy Roman Church. And their crazy response shows that it is so. If someone says to them, “Do you not attribute more [importance] to the Word of God than to the Fathers of the Church? They say they couldn’t follow the Word of God without the Fathers; indeed, they would be authorized to understand it only according to the meaning of the Fathers who themselves ought to guarantee the Word of God. […] If all our knowledge depends on the Word of God, what need have we to grant to the Fathers or councils something that is God’s alone? […]

If the Spirit of God is with you, it is located first in the reality that, if you let His Word be your guide and do only what is clearly expressed in the Word of God; if Scripture is your guide and you are not the masters of Scripture, then the Spirit of God is with you. Furthermore, if your decisions and decrees reveal your humility and your modesty, the renunciation of erroneous human traditions and the valorisation of the Word and the glory of God, then again we can recognize that it comes from God. If nevertheless you take your safety and your prestige as a rule of conduct and seek only to avoid opposition against you and to preserve from ruin your honours, your names, your titles, your wealth and your splendour, then you have the spirit that made the Gadarene swine rush into the sea.

I am willing to accept that you are an ecclesia repraesentativa. But show me where you got the name by which you would be allowed or ordered to plot and to issue decrees that are not in accordance with the Word of God, to load them on the shoulders of men in order to overwhelm their conscience, and say that good is bad and bad is good. Or who commanded you to count against people as sin what God does not consider sin, nor has He forbidden? Yes, I readily believe that you are the ecclesia repraesentativa, that is to say the Church put on stage and impersonated, but not the real bride and wife of Christ.

I want to speak here only of false, greedy, proud, dissolute prelates. Don’t take it personally, godly man! Those who stand under Scripture and not above it are on the right track. […] It should be noted in this regard that Christ, as indicated above, is the head of the Church, and that sufficient testimony from the Scriptures has been given on this occasion; but whether the bishop or pope of Rome is the same universal head, there is really nothing scriptural about it. […] We should nail to the pillory the jingle-bells of these tyrants who not only call themselves princes among priests or high priests, but also pose as kings, emperors and lords of the bodies and the goods of all Christendom; and they do that even though it had been specifically said by the bishop of Rome that he should not be called universal bishop. This is why all those who put their trust in the Church of Rome are not in the community of devout Christians, for they put their trust in God.

Huldrych Zwingli


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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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