This year marks the 500th anniversary or Reformation in Switzerland begun by Ulrich Zwingli in 1519. “That date, no less than October 31, 1517,” Timothy George says, “can answer the question, ‘When did the Reformation begin?’”
Here are nine things you should know about the influential Swiss Reformer.
1. Ulrich Zwingli (also: Huldrych Zwingli) is considered the most important reformer of the Swiss Reformation of his day (and the most important until the arrival of John Calvin). He started a revolution in religious thought in Switzerland that paralleled the work of Martin Luther in Germany. Zwingli wrote, “Before anyone in the area had ever heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516 . . . . I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther’s name . . . . Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy Scripture alone.”
2. Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in the eastern part of modern-day Switzerland. His father was wealthy enough that he was able to gain a first-rate education, earning bachelor’s (1504) and master’s (1506) degrees from the University of Vienna. After college he was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church and served in the pastorate at Glarus, his boyhood church. While there he began teaching himself Greek and started memorizing long passages of the Greek New Testament.
3. In an age when priests were often unfamiliar with the Scriptures, according to Christian History magazine, Zwingli became enamored with it, after purchasing a copy of Erasmus’s New Testament Latin translation. Zwingli began to preach the same message Luther would soon proclaim, Steven Lawson notes. Zwingli wrote Sixty-seven Theses (1523) in which he rejected many medieval beliefs, such as forced fasting, clerical celibacy, purgatory, the Mass, and priestly mediation. While still a priest, he married the widow Anna Reinhard—a year before Luther married the former nun Katharina von Bora. All of this appears to have happened, Lawson says, before Zwingli ever heard of Luther.
4. A hallmark of the Reformation was the recovery of biblical preaching. Zwingli’s unique contribution was the revolutionary approach of preaching through Bible books. In 1519 he started preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, a method known as lectio continua. Zwingli then continued to preach expositional sermons through Acts, Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters before turning to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.
5. Zwingli was born just a couple of months after Martin Luther, and the two would serve as significant, though unequal, co-founders of the movement that became the Protestant Reformation. The Swiss pastor once praised Luther as “that one Hercules . . . who slew the Roman boar” and said, “Here indeed you were the only faithful David anointed hereto by the Lord and furnished likewise with arms.” Luther, in contrast, never held Zwingli in such high regard. Luther considered Zwingli to be “of the Devil” and nothing but a “wormy nut.” The Colloquy of Marburg (1529) was arranged to entice the two men to come to reconciliation. Although the two Reformers agreed on 14 out of the 15 articles of faith, they could not come to an agreement about the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli was also so offended that Luther was treating him “like an ass” that the two were never personally reconciled.
6. As Sean Michael Lucas remarks, “It’s notable that the single most important division between the Lutheran and Reformed streams remains the Lord’s Supper.” That divide has its roots in the disagreement between Zwingli and Luther about how to interpret Christ’s words “this is my body” (Luke 22:19). Luther insisted on a literal interpretation by claiming the Supper contains the real presence of Jesus’s body. In contrast, as Lucas explains, Zwingli “believed the church was the body of Jesus; when the church participated in the common bread and cup, it was formed into Jesus’s own body. Something mystical did happen . . . but it happened to the people, not to the bread. The ‘is’ in ‘this is my body,’ then, was more symbolic, pointing to what happens as the church takes the meal.” Trevin Wax adds, “The political and religious consequences of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli’s failure to come to agreement on the Eucharist set the course for a political and religious split with reverberations that have lasted almost 500 years.”
7. Zwingli believed the Bible should be applied to every area of life, and that the gospel is about more than individual salvation. He thought the influence of Christ would transform all of culture and wanted to advance the Reformation through civil authority. As Ligon Duncan has said, “Zwingli . . . might be called by some a tranformationalist, a Kuyperian. He believed in the rule of God extending over all of life. Not just over just personal life, not just over church life, but over everything. And he was constantly personally involved in political, economic, and military discussions and alliances in order to gain an advantage for the gospel.”
8. In 1531 Zurich attempted to force the Catholic cantons (individual Swiss states) to accept Reformed preaching. The Catholic forces rebelled, leading to the battle of Kappel, where Zwingli was killed. Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s son-in-law and the pastor who succeeded him in the pulpit, wrote that Zwingli was found wounded on the battlefield. When Zwingli refused last rites by a priest an enemy captain “drew his sword and gave Zwingli a thrust from which he at once died.” His enemies cut off his head, hacked his body and burned the pieces, and then mixed them with pig entrails to prevent his remains from being used as a relic. (Luther, writing in Tabletalk, speculated that Zwingli was hell-bound: “I wish from my heart Zwinglius could be saved, but I fear the contrary; for Christ has said that those who deny him shall be damned.”)
9. The theology of Zwingli—sometimes known as Zwinglianism—was mostly a Swiss phenomenon. Despite being a co-creator of the Protestant Reformation, Zwingli’s influence has been eclipsed by Luther (who outlived him) and by second-generation Swiss reformers such as Calvin and Bullinger. Still, his influence—especially on the Lord’s Supper and preaching from the Bible rather than a lectionary—is felt today in many denominations. John B. Payne says that Zwingli “was the father of the Reformed tradition which spread out in many directions—across Switzerland and southern Germany, to France among the Huguenots, Holland, England, and Scotland among the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, across to the New World among the Congregationalists of New England and the Presbyterian, Dutch, and German Reformed Churches of the Middle Colonies.”