ZwingliWritten by G. R. Potter Reviewed By James Atkinson
Reformation scholars have awaited this book with eager anticipation, and the promise of a first-class study has materialized into an impressive and weighty reality. A study of the footnotes alone assures the reader of a wealth of detail supported by bibliographical references which perhaps no other man living could have supplied. Here is the fruit of a long, sustained, disciplined examination, undertaken by an accomplished historian. The entire work is written in the felicitous literary style appropriate to research of such rare quality, and throughout there shines a keen, though kindly, critical faculty, with frequent flashes of a warm and gentle humour.
Potter works through every stage of Zwingli’s career, from his birth at Wildhaus in 1484 to his tragic death on the field of Kappel, 1531. No detail escapes Potter: yet no detail obscures the essentials. He carefully describes Zwingli’s education and spiritual development, relating the latter to the better known ‘norms’ of Erasmus and Luther. He traces the stages of the Zwinglian Reformation through the first attack on compulsory fasting, the use of images in churches, the doctrine of purgatory, and finally, to his rejection of the sacrificial nature of the mass. Potter sees sensitively that the principles of Zwingli’s Reformation were essentially those of Luther, scriptura sola, fide sola, Christo solo, even if the lines were not exactly parallel. It was the doctrine of the real presence that finally separated Luther and Zwingli, and further, as Potter clearly sees, that strong, individualistic, patriotic nationalism of Zwingli, his Erasmianism, and his activism in politics which clearly marked off the two different patterns of reformation. Potter further carefully examines Zwingli’s problems with the Anabaptists, a very serious disturbance to theological and rational reform in the 16th century: their rejection of military service, oaths, payments of tithes, and other social issues they raised, tended to disturb theological, even rational, concerns. Potter does not claim to be a theologian, and theological men may have expected deeper theology, but he handles theological issues clearly and competently. He understands theological ideas, and discusses controversies clearly and competently. He walks delicately in theological matters, and never puts a foot wrong.
Zwingli had a splendid intellectual and spiritual triumph over the Catholics, whom he routed at the Berne Disputation in 1528. The consequence was the establishment of evangelical theology throughout Northern Switzerland, and Potter shows how Zwingli’s debates with Eck and Emser on the one hand, and Karlstadt on the other, had the effect of clarifying his eucharistic theology. Philip of Hesse sought to unite the Swiss and German theologies, but the effort, though in a large measure successful, finally foundered on the eucharistic theology at Marburg 1529. But a worse tragedy was to follow. War broke out with the Catholics, and Zwingli, with the Swiss pastors, took to the field with the soldiers, and at Kappel in 1531, Zwingli was numbered among the fallen.
Potter does not only relate this magnificent story in language worthy of its subject, and with a detail that makes the work definitive, he further draws conclusions for the European scene. He indicates how the Helvetic Reformation was taken over by Bullinger, and fulfilled in Calvin in the Consensus Tigurinus (1549), but also shows the grave consequences for European history which the theological division of Switzerland created. This he assesses when he shows the significance of the Swiss Confederation for the Reformation and for the European scene.
This splendid and authoritative work will stand for generations as the magnum opus of a great historian, whose informed and kindly critical faculty shows a complete mastery of the man and his times.