The Plain Truth about the Protestant Reformation
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The Plain Truth about the Protestant Reformation

Chapter VIII:

The Zwinglian Reform

   During the early years of the Lutheran reform, a movement which was similar in many respects began in Switzerland. The guiding force of this movement in its early stages was Ulrich Zwingli.
   Zwingli was born in 1484 in the mountain village of Wildhaus and was a bright student from his youth. He studied at the University of Vienna and then went to Basel. He became absorbed in humanism, and later began studying the Greek Testament published by Erasmus. From this, he copied with his own hand the epistles of Paul that he might commit them to memory.
   In addition to his scholarly interests, Zwingli was also a zealous patriot and wished to reform the corrupt social and political life of his country. Bribes and ecclesiastical positions were commonly offered influential Swiss to gain their people as allies in fighting the battles of the pope or of the French king (Hausser, p. 127-128).
   After receiving his master's degree at the University of Basel, Zwingli was appointed as a parish priest through the influence of his uncle. He himself received for a time a pension from the pope by consenting to the mercenary hiring of Swiss youths as soldiers in the pope's army (Walker, p. 360).
   He was finally led to denounce this practice of mercenary hiring because of vigorous French activities to this end in his own parish. Zwingli then was able to effect a transfer of his activities to the famous pilgrim shrine of Einsiedeln, which greatly enlarged his influence and reputation.

Zwingli's Doctrinal Development

   During this time Zwingli was led to see the futility of the superstitious pilgrimages made each year to the religious shrines in Einsiedeln, and was led to preach against one Samson, a seller of indulgences.
   He also continued at this time his study of Scripture and began to develop a doctrine of justification similar to Luther's. He remembered some of the humanist lectures he had heard in the university exposing the worthlessness of indulgences, and affirming the death of Christ as the only price of forgiveness. He began to feel that Scripture was the only authority and, through its study, developed many points which came out in his later teaching.
   In 1518, Zwingli was transferred to the cathedral church of Zurich. He now refused his papal pension, and opposed all foreign entanglements of the Swiss. It was not until 1522 that Zwingli definitely broke with Rome. Some of his parishioners broke the Lenten fast, citing Zwingli's doctrine of the sole authority of the Scriptures (Hausser, p.132).
   Zwingli now preached and published in their defense, and the bishop of Constance sent a commission to put down the innovations. Zwingli now appealed to the civil authorities, and the Zurich burgomaster eventually ruled that only those things taught in Scripture were to be preached. Thus the road was open for a religious and political revolution.

Rapid Changes Occur

   News of the Reformation in Germany under Luther had now reached most of Switzerland, and this was an additional encouragement to their cause. Many of Luther's writings were also being distributed among the German-speaking Swiss, and his doctrine of justification by faith alone was now widely understood (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 147).
   But, as we shall see, with the aid of the civil authorities, who were already fed up with Roman tyranny, Zwingli was able to bring about an even greater change than had Luther.
   "Zwingli believed that the ultimate authority was the Christian community, and that the exercise of that authority was through the duly constituted organs of civil government acting in accordance with the Scriptures. Only that which the Bible commands, or for which distinct authorization can be found in its pages, is binding or allowable" (Walker, p. 361).
   Because of his strong belief that the Bible ought to be the complete guide in doctrine and practice, Zwingli went much farther than Luther in his reform. His attitude toward the heathen ceremonies and feasts that had crept into the Catholic Church was much more strict than that of Luther. "While Luther was disposed to leave untouched what the Bible did not prohibit, Zwingli was more inclined to reject what the Bible did not enjoin" (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 145).
   Zwingli now began the process of getting cantonal government officials to back his teaching. He arranged for a public debate on sixty-seven articles, involving the Catholic doctrines on the mass, good works, intercession of saints, monastic vows, and the existence of purgatory. The Bible was to be the authority on which the discussion was to be based. "In the resulting debate the government declared Zwingli the victor, in that it affirmed that he had not been convicted of heresy, and directed that he should continue his preaching. It was an endorsement of his teaching" (Walker, p. 362).
   Many changes now took place. The priests and nuns began to marry. Images, relics, and organs were done away. The confiscation of ecclesiastical properties by the state began in 1524. Zwingli himself married in this year a woman with whom he had lived since 1522, not without considerable scandal (Walker, p. 363).
   Because of the political value of Switzerland in the wars, the pope had not directly interfered with the Zwinglian movement all this time. Zwingli encouraged the spread of his movement throughout Switzerland. Most of the cities soon came under the influence of his teaching, and even the great German city of Strassburg had been won to the Zwinglian, rather than the Lutheran, point of view.
   It is important to note, however, that the changes were not actually accompanied by the wholesale conversion of the individuals in these cities to Zwingli's teachings. Rather, it was a combination politico-religious movement aided by the Swiss Republican Party, which came to oppose all things Roman. It was this very alliance with politics, which soon led to Zwingli's death on the battlefield.

Zwingli's Basic Doctrinal Position

   In 1525, Zwingli published his main theological work, the "Commentary on True and False Religion." Fisher summarizes his doctrinal position: "Although in most points he held the ordinary Protestant views, he differed from them in the doctrine of the Sacrament, as will hereafter be explained. He held to predestination as a philosophical tenet, but taught that Christ has redeemed the entire race. He considered original sin a disorder rather than a state involving guilt. He believed that the sages of antiquity were illuminated by the Divine Spirit, and in his catalogue of saints he placed Socrates, Seneca, the Catos, and even Hercules" (The History of the Christian Church, p. 308).
   Here we note that Zwingli so totally misunderstood the purpose and nature of God's Holy Spirit as to imagine that it was guiding the pagan philosophers of antiquity whose immoral lives and teachings are clearly alluded to by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (Rom.1:18-32).
   Of course, many Protestant writers acclaim Zwingli for his "broad" views on the heathen speculators. Hastie lauds Zwingli's view: "With a breadth of thought and feeling rare in his age, he recognized a divine inspiration in the thoughts and lives of the nobler spirits of antiquity, such as Socrates, Plato, and Seneca, and hoped even to meet with them in heaven" (Hastie, The Theology of the Reformed Church, p. 184).
   Zwingli's desire to meet these ancient philosophers in heaven is illuminating to the real student of Scripture. He had altered many outward Catholic forms for the better, and had adopted Luther's fundamental doctrine of justification, but his entire concept of God and of the ultimate purpose of salvation was still essentially that of the Roman Catholic Church.
   The Lutheran and Zwinglian branches of the Protestant movement had scarcely begun to develop when they came into a violent controversy on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, as they called it. It was a basic matter for both parties, and neither would give ground or yield to the other.

The Controversy Over the Lord's Supper

   Luther insisted that the objective presence of the glorified body and blood of Christ was actually in the bread and wine. In some mysterious way, His body and blood are actually received by the communicant whether he believes or not.
   On the other hand, Zwingli denied that Christ is present in any such sense, and believed the Lord's Supper to be simply a memorial of his atoning death.
   In the dispute, little love was shown on either side. Zwingli thought that Luther's idea of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a Catholic superstition. He said that a physical body could only be in one place, and that Christ was at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
   Luther accused Zwingli of exalting human reason above Scripture. He tried to explain the physical presence of Christ on ten thousand altars at once to be a scholastic assertion that the qualities of Christ's divine nature were not communicated to His human nature and so, as spirit, He could be everywhere at once.
   Perhaps the significant thing is that this dispute showed clearly that whether either one was right they were not of the same spirit. From then on, they could not honestly claim that the one Holy Spirit of God was guiding them into truth and that they were one in Christian fellowship. "Luther declared Zwingli and his supporters to be no Christians, while Zwingli affirmed that Luther was worse than the Roman champion, Eck. Zwingli's views, however, met the approval not only of German-speaking Switzerland, but, of much of southwestern Germany. The Roman party rejoiced at this evident division of the Evangelical forces" (Walker, p. 364).
   The heated controversy over this point extended for many years, and included a series of pamphlets, preachments, and discussions. The principal and, as far as results, final discussion between the reformers on this point took place in the castle of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse in Marburg. Philip, we remember, had such great sexual problems of his own at this time that he seldom partook of the Lord's Supper because of a guilty conscience (Walker, p. 377). We may add that it seems peculiar that an adulterer, a bigamist, and a drunkard should be one of the lay leaders in the Reformation movement.
   But he was one of the political mainstays of the Protestant movement, and desired that the two reforming parties come to an agreement, if at all possible. Therefore, he invited the leaders of both parties to meet at his castle and on October 1, 1529, the discussions began.
   Although Luther was suspicious of the doctrine of the Swiss on the trinity and the original sin, the main point of difference was the presence or absence of Christ's physical body in the Lord's Supper. Luther insisted on a literal interpretation of the words: "This is my body." Zwingli held that a physical body could not be in two places at one time. Though the discussions lasted for several days, agreement was impossible, and the two parties finally parted each doubting the "Christianity" of the other (Kurtz's Church History, Vol. II, p. 273).
   The Landgrave arranged one final meeting of the reformers, and urged upon them the importance of coming to some sort of understanding.

The Final Meeting of Luther and Zwingli

   Schaff describes this meeting: "On Monday morning he arranged another private conference between the Saxon and the Swiss Reformers. They met for the last time on earth. With tears in his eyes, Zwingli approached Luther, and held out the hand of brotherhood: but Luther declined it, saying again, 'Yours is a different spirit from ours.' Zwingli thought that differences in non-essentials, with unity in essentials, did not forbid Christian brotherhood. 'Let us,' he said, 'confess our union in all things in which we agree; and, as for the rest, let us remember that we are brethren. There will never be peace in the churches if we cannot bear differences on secondary points.' Luther deemed the corporal presence a fundamental article, and construed Zwingli's liberality into indifference to truth. 'I am astonished,' he said, 'that you wish to consider me as your brother. It shows clearly that you do not attach much importance to your doctrine.' Melanchthon looked upon the request of the Swiss as a strange inconsistency. Turning to the Swiss, the Wittenbergers said, 'You do not belong to the communion of the Christian Church. We cannot acknowledge you as brethren.' They were willing, however, to include them in that universal charity which we owe to our enemies" (History of the Christian Church, vol. VII, p. 644-645).
   Thus we see that Luther parted from Zwingli, not in the feeling that the Swiss party was guided by the Holy Spirit, but that Zwingli was guided by a different "spirit" than himself. Indeed, there is ample testimony even among Protestant writers that the reformers did not have the "unity of the Spirit" which only God's Spirit can bring.
   Notice Plummer's account of Zwingli's desire to avoid this pathetic disagreement: "But, there is no need to doubt his declaration that he had carefully avoided corresponding with Luther, because he says, 'I desired to show to all men the uniformity of the Spirit of God, as manifested in the fact that we, who are so far apart, are in unison one with the other, yet without collusion.' They did not remain in unison, as all the world knows; and it is one of the many sad facts in the history of the Reformation that Luther declared Zwingli's violent death to be a judgment on him for his eucharistic doctrine" (The Continental Reformation, p. 141-142).

Zwingli's Death

   Soon after the Marburg Conference, a war broke out between the cantons of Switzerland, which resulted in the death of Zwingli. It began as a direct result of the attempt of the Protestant cities to starve the Catholic cantons into submission, and ended with the Catholics repossessing some of the ground they had previously lost.
   The trouble developed out of the persecution of the Protestants in the Catholic cantons. The behavior of the Catholic cantons became threatening, and Zwingli recommended a resort to violent measures to force them into submission.
   "The chief demands that were really made were that the Protestant doctrine, which was professed in the lower cantons, should be tolerated in the upper, and that persecution should cease there. But the question was whether even these demands would be enforced. Zwingli was in favor of overpowering the enemy by a direct attack, and of extorting from them just concessions. But he was overruled, and half measures were resorted to. The attempt was made to coerce the Catholic cantons by nonintercourse, by thus cutting off their supplies. The effect was the Catholics were enabled to collect their strength, while the Protestant cities were divided by jealousies and by disagreement as to what might be the best policy to adopt. Zurich was left without help, to confront, with hasty and inadequate preparation, the combined strength of the Catholic party. The Zurich force was defeated at Cappel, on the 11th of October, 1531, and Zwingli, who had gone forth as a chaplain with his people to battle, fell" (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 153-156).

Why Zwingli Died in Battle

   The cruel truth is that Zwingli's violent death was a direct result of his own actions. He had not heeded the Scriptural injunction to "keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Neglecting to apply Christ's declaration: "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), Zwingli had made constant use of politics and physical power to gain the results he desired.
   As Fisher states: "Zwingli was a patriot and a social reformer" (The Reformation, p. 145). Like Luther, he put his trust in the princes of this world.
   Therefore, Zwingli's violent death on the battlefield in an essentially religious war which he himself had urged seems a striking confirmation of Christ's warning: "For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Mat.26:52).
   After his death, the reformed party could still have gained the victory. But they were disunited, and each city aspired to be the metropolis of a proposed confederation and so was jealous of the others. Consequently, they were forced to conclude a humiliating peace, and had to yield some of the gains they had previously made (Kurtz, p. 269).
   Thus we see division among the followers of Zwingli, and an even greater division between them and the Lutherans. That same spirit of mutual antagonism has possessed many of their Protestant successors to this day.
   One has only to look about him to see the hundreds of differing Protestant churches. On occasion, for a show of unity, they call themselves, collectively, the "Church of Christ." But they are not of one spirit by any means.
   At the very beginning of this division among the Protestant churches, Martin Luther was willing to face this fact. Referring to Zwingli and his followers, he said: "Either one party or the other must necessarily be working in the service of Satan; the matter does not admit of discussion, there is no possibility of compromise" (Alzog, Universal History, p. 352).
   Thus began the religious division and confusion of our times. Our purpose is to determine if this Protestant system or any part of it is a genuine restoration of the one true Church Jesus Christ said He would build.

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Publication Date: May 1956
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