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Meet Ulrich Zwingli (Swing-Lee)

He’s the pale, stern-faced profile pictured for you to the left. Let me introduce you …


Zwingli began as a Swiss Priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He turned Protestant Reformer in the early years of the 16th century and developed a theology that helped shape the reformed tradition for years to come.

Zwingli was a contemporary of the more famous Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. In fact, the two were born within a year of each other. For the most part, they played well together. They agreed on a lot of points. The one thing they couldn’t agree on though was the meaning of the Eucharist. John Calvin, however, took much more to Zwingil’s thought. Twenty-five years the younger, Calvin carried on and developed many of the theological positions that Zwingli began to explore.

Both Zwingli’s theology and his reformation agenda were shaped by two factors: (1) His disillusionment with the Swiss mercenary system and (2) His fascination with the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Zwingli loved his country. He was Swiss and proud of it. Apparently, at the time of the Reformation, the Swiss had a world renowned system of mercenary service. Their soldiers were regularly bought and dispatched to fight for foreign causes. Zwingli originally supported this mercenary system, but later began to oppose it; he was sick of seeing the lives of young Swiss men cut short for the cause of the Pope and his Holy Roman Empire (think anti-war sentiment in the 1960’s - Zwingli had similar sentiments).This opposition began his first bout of disagreements with Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, he was relocated to a different parish because of his dissent and non-compliance.

Zwingli also had a bit of a man crush on Erasmus of Rotterdam - the popular Renaissance Humanist. Erasmus was an intellectual giant of the day and Zwingli was moved by his Renaissance vision. He learned Greek, Hebrew and Latin so that he could return to the original sources of the Church Fathers and study them fresh. Erasmus also published one of the first Greek New Testaments, which Zwingli joyously received and studied over day and night. It was a revolutionary opportunity to revisit the original text of the New Testament with fresh eyes and explore theology along those lines.

Writings and Contributions

Zwingli wrote a lot, but most of the writings are situational and very specific to the battles he was fighting with Rome; A Refutation of … or A Petition for …. preface a whole list of his writings. However, in the works On Providence and On The Lord’s Supper we get a better view of Zwingli’s broader theological vision. His 67 Articles also gives us some interesting insights. Zwingli agreed with the other Protestant reformers on the developing doctrine of justification by faith in Christ. However, at least three insights marked Zwingli’s unique contribution to theological thought.

For one, Zwingli highly emphasized the providence of God in the world. Rather than defining God’s providence as the overwhelming care and provision of God for His people (Matt. 6:32), Zwingli generalized the definition and claimed that every single thing that happened in the world was a result of the Divine will. Everything! In fact, even evil itself was a result of the Divine will - it was meant to show the world how good God was in contrast to the evil (sort of a problematic theodicy, but hey … )

Connected to his view of providence, Zwingli had an interesting way of thinking about the relationship between the Church and the State. Since the Divine will was behind anything and everything, the State became a tool of the Divine will - making Divine Law and the Civil Law almost inseparable. The two were really one in purpose (queue the weeping and gnashing of Anabaptist teeth). This all fit in well with his zealous Swiss nationalism.

Finally, for the Sacraments, Zwingli started to use the language of ‘oath’ or ‘pledge’. Baptism and Communion, in his thinking, were ways of pledging yourself to the community of Christ. He held strictly to infant baptism and a spiritual view of communion in contrast to Luther’s ‘Real Presence’.

In a lot of ways, Zwingli is a sort of introduction to the Reformed Tradition - a preface to Calvin. His thought didn’t fully develop; he died young serving as a chaplain in the Swiss military - making him the only theologian I know of who went down swinging.

Zwingli, meet the world!

World, meet Zwingli!

VI. For Jesus Christ is the guide and leader, promised by God to all human beings, which promise was fulfilled.
XVIII. That Christ, having sacrificed himself once, is to eternity a certain and valid sacrifice for the sins of all faithful, from which it follows that the mass is not a sacrifice, but is a remembrance of the sacrifice and assurance of the salvation which Christ has given us.

From Zwingli's 67 Articles

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