Ulrich Zwingli: Prophet of the Modern World

by Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe

Mr. Hambrick-Stowe is pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Westminster, Maryland.

. This article appeared in the Christian Century  April 4, 1984, p. 335. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Who has a greater claim to Zwingli’s military activist heritage — fundamentalist militarists in the United States or liberation theologians and radical priests in Latin America?. Does God ever approve our endorsement of and participation in violence for “just” ends? Or may we judge that Zwingli was entirely wrong to take up the sword in the name of Christ against those he viewed as oppressors?

The occasion of Francis of Assisi’s 800th birthday anniversary in 1982 commanded the attention of the Christian world, Catholic and Protestant. Last year Protestants of every stripe (and many Catholics) put aside denominational differences to celebrate the 500th year since Martin Luther’s birth. In the words of Isaiah, we “look to the rock from which [we] were hewn, and to the quarry from which [we] were digged”(51:1 RSV).

Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, was born January 1, 1584 -- 500 years ago. Who will celebrate? What is there to celebrate? In fact, does the sequence of Francis, Luther and Zwingli demonstrate how loyalties became divided and narrowed -- a baleful history of the rending of the Body of Christ?

More questions. How might the Reformed churches be persuaded that Zwingli is their true ancestor a generation “BC” -- before Calvin? How could those of us in the Reformed tradition convince Lutherans and other Protestants that for the sake of Christ they should study and celebrate Luther’s theological adversary at Marburg?

Can Protestants persuade Roman Catholics that, just as they have come to appreciate Martin Luther, so they should embrace others of our forebears, including one quartered and burned by Catholics on a field of battle?

An appreciation of Zwingli is not without its problems, especially in coming to terms with his violent death. Like many aspects of his life and thought, however, Zwingli’s death indicates his role as a prophet of the modern world. Today both right-wing North American fundamentalists and left-wing Latin American Christian radicals claim a divine call to take up arms against regimes perceived as evil. That faithful Christians are so totally opposed to one another in their identification of the oppressor should give us pause. Zwingli’s history can shed light on our own search for the path of a faithful life in Christ.

There is much to celebrate, too. Zwingli’s boldness for reform was not a mere copying of Luther. Far from simply jumping on a bandwagon, he was an original. Before anyone in my neighborhood had even heard Luther’s name mentioned.” he wrote, “I began to preach the gospel of Christ in the year 1516” -- one year before the 95 Theses. The real onset of the Swiss Reformation, however, came three years later when, on his 35th birthday in 1519, Zwingli mounted the pulpit of the Great Minster in Zurich as people’s priest. At that time he said. somewhat defensively: “None of us had known anything of Luther except that something had been published by him about indulgences. . . . Nor will I bear Luther’s name. . . . . I did not learn Christ’s teaching from Luther but from the very word of God.”

John Calvin had little that was good to say about Zwingli’s theology, but he was more indebted to it than he ever admitted. Moreover, Calvin could not have carried forward his constructive work in Geneva in the 1540s and thereafter had Zwingli’s Reformation in the turbulent decade between 1519 and 1531 not occurred. Zwingli’s greatness lay in his ability to forge a new theological understanding based on close study of the Bible at a time of intense political turmoil. The limitation of his success in part reflects his circumstances: Luther and Calvin were both able to study and write under the relative peace of stable political situations which Zwingli never experienced in the volatile Switzerland of the 1520s. He merits our celebration not only because he is the father of a great theological tradition, but because of his unwavering witness to the gospel in the direst of straits.

Zwingli was not a monk with a doctorate and a university chair, like Luther, but a parish priest from start to finish. He was intensely loyal to his people, construed narrowly as the flock of his parish and broadly as the heroic and humble Swiss. At the two churches he served between 1506 and 1518. the traditional ministry of saying mass and the cure of souls engaged his attention.

Even his wider activities were extensions of this parish ministry. On three occasions Zwingli served as chaplain to his Glarus parishioners who were sent as mercenary soldiers to war in Italy. The Reformer’s well-known opposition to mercenary service stemmed not from theological doctrine, but from pastoral concern. Similarly, his vehement preaching against a visit of an indulgence salesman, a priest named Sanson, was aimed at awakening his people to the true saving grace of Christ. The protest was double-barreled: for the gospel and against Rome. “Hence people began to take notice of these foolish Roman practices,” he wrote.

A secular priest. Zwingli was inclined more to action than to contemplation or debate. The “affair of the sausages” illustrates his difference from Luther. We commonly think of Luther’s posting of the Theses as a bold act of defiance, whereas in fact he was calling for academic debate in a conventional fashion. When Zwingli met with a group of Zurich lay leaders during Lent in 1522, not debate but ecclesiastical disobedience was on their minds. The printer Cristopher Froschauer served sausages, in conscious opposition to the Catholic Church’s Lenten fast requirements. All ate the meat but Zwingli himself, although he supported the action and it had in fact stemmed from his biblical preaching. Eating those sausages, as historian Steven Ozment points out, was tantamount to burning a flag or draft card today.

Zwingli instigated reform in a thoroughly pastoral fashion. While supporting the change in religious practice, he did not eat the meat because he did not want to endanger his position as pastor of the whole people. His sermon the following Sunday justified the abolition of the Lenten fast without condemning the traditionalists: “If you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice.”

Zwingli began to look solely to the Bible for doctrinal authority as early as 1516, and his two-year pastorate in Einsiedeln (1517-1518) cemented his recognition of the Bible’s supreme importance. He had left Glarus amid turmoil over the mercenary issue, and it seems that he viewed his second parish as a brief retreat for study. In addition to his duties as priest, he spent a large amount of time mastering Greek, studying Erasmus’s Paraphrases of the New Testament, reading the classics and Greek Fathers, and beginning to learn Hebrew. His correspondence with Erasmus reveals Zwingli as a leading humanist scholar, and subsequent theological disputations and colloquies show that he was among the foremost biblical scholars of Europe in his day. He acquired much of his erudition as a scholar-pastor while actively serving a parish.

Zwingli wrote about his period of private study in this way:

I know for certain that God teaches me, for I know by this experience. . . . In my youth I devoted myself as much to human learning as did others my age. Then [at Einsiedeln], I undertook to devote myself entirely to the Scriptures, and the conflicting philosophy and theology of the schoolmen constantly presented difficulties. But eventually I came to the conclusion -- led thereto by the Scriptures -- and decided “You must drop all that and learn God’s will directly from his own Word.”

Biblical study proved to Zwingli that many practices of Roman Catholicism were unfounded. Sanction for fasts, indulgences, celibacy, the authority of the pope, the use of icons and ornate ritual, and the mass itself, was nowhere to be found in the Bible. The gospel, in contrast to traditional Catholicism, appeared to Zwingli to be simple and clear. He began to preach sermons directly from the Bible, no longer following the officially prepared homilies.

From his first Sunday at Zurich in 1519, Zwingli gained renown for his biblical preaching. Week by week he preached his way through the Gospel of Matthew. Zwingli’s strict doctrine of sola scriptura was as much a key for him as sola fides was for Luther. The Zurich Reformers published their vernacular New Testament in 1524 and the entire Bible in 1530, four years before Luther’s translation became available. From Zwingli, even more than from Luther, comes Protestantism’s insistence on the centrality of the Bible.

Significantly, Zwingli’s elevation of the Bible did not reflect an ignorant arrogance, but a faithfully critical Christian humanism. His scholarly study established the authority of the scriptural text as overriding the church’s traditions, the history of interpretation, or the decrees of popes.

Zwingli the pastor, like Luther, was slow to abolish the mass. Although the liturgical implications of reform were evident by 1520, Zwingli remained (except for his marriage, unofficially in 1522, publicly in 1524) outwardly a Catholic priest for several years more. In 1524, under his leadership, the canton of Zurich endorsed the iconoclasm always bubbling just beneath the surface of the Reformation. Pious citizens stripped the churches bare of statues, stained glass, bones and other relics, pictures, candles and other altar equipment. Zwingli, who loved music, oversaw the dismantling of organs and the whitewashing of walls. Nothing “appealing to the senses would distract worshipers from hearing the Word of God. Yet he stuck to the traditional mass for one more year.

Anabaptists and other radicals were already worshiping without the mass, and Zwingli felt pressed to produce an acceptable Reformed liturgy. Finally, in Holy Week of 1525 he was ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in plain style. Seated around ordinary tables in the aisles of the nave, with Zwingli at the head, worshipers said a few of the biblically sanctioned portions of the mass, such as the Gloria in Excelsis, in their Swiss German dialect. Zwingli prayed in the vernacular and read the words of institution and other biblical passages over a common loaf of bread. After he communed with his assistants, they distributed both the bread and the wine to the tables.

While most would agree that Zwingli went too far in excluding all music from his service, Protestantism stands in his debt for recovering the simplicity of congregational worship. “Few ceremonies have been left us by Christ,” he wrote, believing that God intended worship not as the enactment of a ritual, but as a time for the communication of the gospel and the Spirit of Christ.

Early in his ministry, Zwingli saw how fine was the line separating politics and religion. Indeed, critics fault him for failing to recognize any line at all. His concern was pastoral, but his prophetic ministry constantly carried him into the world of politics and war. His experience as chaplain at the bloody, disastrous battle of Marignano led him to speak out against the longstanding practice of employing Swiss peasants as mercenaries by the European powers and by the pope himself. Zwingli the Christian patriot was appalled by the savage abuse dealt his countrymen and by the corrupting influence of money and foreign campaigns on the Swiss soldiers.

Although no pacifist, Zwingli protested the inhumanity of war:

If a foreign soldier violently bursts in. ravages your fields and vineyards, carries off your cattle, puts your magistrates under arrest, kills your sons who stand up to defend you, violates your daughters, kicks your wife to get rid of her, murders your old servant hiding himself in the granary, has no consideration for your supplications, and finally sets your house on fire, you think that earth ought to open and swallow him up and you ask yourself if God really exists. . . . But if you are doing the same thing to other people, you say: “Such is war!”

Zwingli’s first published works were poetic political allegories, The Fable of the Ox and The Labyrinth. His vocal opposition to mercenary service did not meet with universal agreement at Glarus, and the disapproval of influential laity was one reason for his move to Einsiedeln. But his reputation for having spoken out boldly attracted the Zurich search committee’s attention. The church there welcomed the prophetic posture in his ministry. In 1522 the city council of Zurich outlawed mercenary service.

In the 16th century, theological debate almost always had political overtones, and such was the case in Switzerland. In 1523 the Zurich civil government wanted to clarify the city’s official beliefs, in opposition to Roman Catholicism. A large number of clergy and laity, including delegates from the Roman Church, were called to a disputation on the chief religious questions. Not surprisingly, the result was a total victory for the Zwinglian viewpoint. The Roman Catholic cantons reciprocated a year later with a similarly one-sided debate at Baden. Zwingli refused to attend, out of either fear or principle, or a combination of both. The lines -- theological, political and military -- were now drawn hard and fast.

Zurich’s position became increasingly precarious. Berne established itself as Reformed in 1528. but none of the Protestant cantons was prepared to advance as rapidly as Zurich. Zwingli aggressively sent missionary preachers into Catholic territory. He attempted to secure Protestant political dominance through diplomacy but prepared for a military conflict. The plan for a Christian Civic Union was as much a military alliance as it was a federation of churches.

Zwingli’s political involvement made his voice a dominant one in the Zurich city council. Luther stood more aloof from politics partly because of the hierarchical nature of the German states, but in Switzerland a proud tradition of self-governance close to participatory democracy prevailed. The situation was less stable than in Germany, and more demanding of attention by religious reformers. Since the city council possessed authority to reform the church, the pastors felt called to make their voices heard in the council.

There is a historical lineage from Zwingli’s Zurich, to Calvin’s Geneva, to the Puritans’ England, to colonial America, to a democratic United States of America. What is less clear in the minds of some American Christians, in light of our constitutional separation of church and state, is the extent to which the church today should make its voice heard in the councils of state. Zwingli provides a model of vigorous Christian political involvement. To him, an essential part of Christian life was the struggle for God’s righteousness in the social and civic sphere. He was a thoroughly political pastor and paid the price: at Glarus by losing his pulpit, at Zurich by losing his life.

Luther and Zwingli were prevented from presenting a united evangelical front by their irreconcilable differences over a four-word sentence. Luther wrote the sentence in chalk on the table at Marburg Castle in 1529 where, for political and religious reasons, Philip of Hesse was striving to bring the two leaders together. The sentence was “Hoc est corpus meum” -- ”This is my body.”

Just as Zwingli believed that Luther had not gone far enough in simplifying worship, so he felt Luther was unreformed in his sacramental theology. Luther argued for the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in and through the bread and wine: Zwingli insisted that the ascension of Christ meant that his physical body was at God’s right hand and thus no longer on earth. Luther argued for ubiquity; Zwingli paraded numerous scriptural texts, the most important being John 6:63: ‘‘It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing,” which he returned to doggedly. Luther held fast to the literal sense of Jesus’ words; Zwingli read the words in a strikingly new way by pointing to the wide use of trope and metaphor in the Bible.

He wrote that the word is “does not always mean ‘to be’ but can also mean ‘signify.’ “ Jesus referred to himself as the door, the vine, the light; throughout the Bible, the word is frequently introduces a figure of speech or some symbolic language. Most significantly, according to Zwingli, the words “This is the passover” were figurative: “For the lamb that was eaten every year with the celebration of the festival was not the passover, but signified that the passover and omission had been formerly made.” In the upper room. “the passover was succeeded by the Lord’s Supper,” and “Christ used similar words.” Like the passover, the Lord’s Supper was a commemoration.

Did Zwingli negate the real spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament? He stated firmly that any presence had nothing to do with priestcraft and also denied that Christ was present for unbelievers. He continually emphasized the memorial and fellowship aspects of communion, but he did believe that Christ is present in the sacrament, saying, “Everything rests on faith.” In faith Christ is present, and believers experience him in several ways.

I believe that in the holy meal of the eucharist, the true body of Christ is present in the mind of the believer; that is to say that those who thank the Lord for the benefits conferred on us in his son acknowledge that he became true flesh, truly suffered therein and truly washed away our sins by his blood. Thus everything done by Christ becomes as it were present to them in their believing minds.

The body of Christ is at God’s right hand, but Scripture also teaches that his spiritual presence on earth continually becomes physical in his church. The church, as St. Paul said repeatedly, is the body of Christ. Jacques Courvoisier has pointed out that Zwingli’s truly stunning insight into the meaning of the sacrament was his revolutionary understanding of transubstantiation. Zwingli wrote: “This body is Christ’s church    In eating this bread we confess before our brothers that we are members of Christ’s body.” Thus, the sacrament constitutes the church. When believers eat and drink in faith they become through that act the body of Christ on earth. There is a change, but not in the bread; the transformation takes place among those who eat and drink together in faith.

Zwingli’s this-worldly view of the Lord’s Supper was in line with his general pastoral vocation and political preoccupation. He was, pre-eminently among all the Reformers, a theologian of the church and a theologian of action. Christ was present not in a piece of bread, but in his people. Zwingli believed that his mission was more than to reform individuals, and that his activities were not limited to his own parish. The Reformation would, he prayed, transform his whole nation, all of Europe, the entire earth.

Zurich opposed any compromise that would hinder evangelical preaching expeditions into Catholic cantons. War broke out in 1529 when Catholics executed a Protestant preacher who had encroached on their territory. Zwingli effectively aroused Zurich’s martial spirit and prepared elaborate military plans, taking on a broad role in the strategic planning and subsequent leadership on the field of battle. The massive force that marched from Zurich so alarmed the Catholics that they quickly agreed to a peace.

Zwingli saw the armistice as appeasement. He came disturbingly close to the doublethink of George Orwell’s 1984 and to the world’s real political rhetoric in 1984 when he wrote:

This peace which some are strenuously pressing upon us means war, not peace. And the war upon which I am insisting is not war, but peace. I am not out for anyone’s blood. . . I want to cut the sinews of the [Catholic] oligarchy. Unless this takes place neither the truths of the gospel nor its ministers among us will be safe. . . . I wish to save some who are perishing through ignorance. I must uphold the cause of freedom.

Zwingli insisted that the missionary forays continue, in violation of the terms of the treaty. He voiced his dream of an all-Protestant Swiss Confederacy. Zurich attempted to crush Catholic power with an economic blockade, but when the armies of the Catholic cantons attacked without warning in 1532, Zurich stood suddenly alone and surprisingly unprepared.

Zwingli rallied the troops at Kappel, but they were woefully inadequate to the challenge. Scores of the clergy and members of the city council died as soldiers on the front line. When Zwingli’s enemies discovered him among the wounded, they instantly killed him. Tradition holds that his last words were, “They can kill the body but not the soul.” For his heresy, Catholic soldiers quartered the body and burned it.

Luther’s response to the news of Zwingli’s death was a cold “All who take the sword, die by the sword.” That, of course, is true enough. But Luther sat in judgment from a position of comfort, under the protection of a powerful prince. Nor had Luther hesitated to use the sword -- more precisely, to order its use -- against the peasants. Zwingli was caught in what he saw as a life-and-death struggle for the gospel. His was a small country where a volatile, somewhat democratic political situation seemed to require of him every possible effort: pastoral, theological, political -- even military.

Who has a greater claim to Zwingli’s military activist heritage -- fundamentalist militarists in the United States or liberation theologians and radical priests in Latin America? Both of these contemporary Christian movements may justify their aggressive approach to the world by an appeal to history. Does God ever approve our endorsement of and participation in violence for “just” ends? Or may we judge that Zwingli was entirely wrong to take up the sword in the name of Christ against those he viewed as oppressors?

The Reformed theological tradition should embrace Zwingli as its first ancestor, a generation before Calvin, but should look closely at his excessive and bloody zeal. Subsequent events demonstrated that Protestants and Catholics could coexist productively in Switzerland. Would Zwingli have sold short his duties as pastor of the Great Minster in Zurich if he had satisfied himself with such an ecclesiastical peace? How do we Christians today live with the tension between total commitment to God’s righteous kingdom as we conceive it and the humble gospel of love of enemy espoused by our Lord?

We are challenged by God, just as Ulrich Zwingli was challenged, to live our faith boldly in a complex and violent world. God speaks to us through our history, and so we should use history not only for triumphalist celebration; but also for sober learning. What lesson does Zwingli’s death teach? He fell when he failed to follow his own favorite verse, John 6:63. That verse could, indeed, serve as an ironic epitaph to his memory and as a light for all modern Christians on the difficult path ahead: “It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.”