From his Birth to his Appointment in Zurich
Huldrych Zwingli was born on 1 January 1484 in Wildhaus (c. 50 km south of St. Gallen, situated in the top part of the Toggenburg). He had nine or ten brothers and sisters, at least two of whom died relatively early, and two of his sisters entered the convent. After school (among other things) in Basel and Bern, Zwingli studied from 1499 in Vienna and then from 1502 onwards in Basel, where he sat for his Master’s degree. Thomas Wyttenbach became the most important teacher for him in Basel. Following his studies of the “liberal arts” (liberales artes), Zwingli studied another half year of theology and from the summer of 1506 was pastor in Glarus, situated not all that far from Wildhaus.
Already early on, Zwingli took a stand on a political problem. The background
was the mercenary tradition widespread in the then Swiss Confederation.
This foreign military service (so-called “Reislaufen”) was
lucrative for the towns. Whoever put a proportion of the young men of
the town at disposal as mercenaries got money in the town funds. Under
consideration at this time in Glarus (1506) was the question of the direction
in which Glarus should orient itself and whom the mercenaries should
serve: Habsburg, France or the Pope. Zwingli fought on the side of the
Pope. He was able to understand the soldiers as a weapon of the Crucified
against the enemies of the Church – war was therefore a holy instrument.
In 1513 Zwingli was away as army chaplain and accompanied c. 500 Glarus
soldiers who were fighting in the papal army. The experiences that Zwingli
had in the war were to give him cause for thought. In 1515 the papal
army with its Glarus soldiers suffered a defeat and in Glarus itself
the mood changed in favour of the victorious French. This was a problem
for the Pope-supporting Zwingli. He left Glarus and in 1516 became a
lay priest in Einsiedeln, an old monastery and place of pilgrimage. In
the good two years in which Zwingli worked in Einsiedeln, the political
character of his activity, which had previously been a strongly determining
factor, faded into the background. His church activity as well as personal
and further scholarly studies came to the fore instead.
The Beginnings of the Reformation in Zurich
In Autumn 1518 Zwingli was appointed lay priest in Zurich. The main task was preaching. And he began with a peculiar feature. As a basis for his sermons he did not use the pericopic ordering, but rather interpreted the biblical scriptures in their continuity. Thus he opposed the dominance of the Church year and followed the Bible in its progress.
Zwingli’s knowledge of Scripture deepened throughout the years up to 1522. One topic of his sermons was his opposition to the Reislaufen. And this was successful, for in 1522 the Zurich Council forbade it. In the same year the public conflicts began. On 9 March 1522 a protest sausage-meal took place in house of the book printer, Christoph Froschauer, a protest because sausage was being eaten in Lent. Two smoked sausages were cut into pieces and distributed among the people present. Zwingli was there without participating in the sausage-meal. This first infringement of the lenten fast was followed by more in the following days. The whole thing became quickly known in Zurich. The Council began to intervene and started legal investigations. Only two weeks after the sausage-meal Zwingli preached on the subject of the problem of fasting. This sermon appeared in April 1522 under the title, “Concerning Freedom an Choice of Food.” Zwingli takes here an Evangelical understanding of freedom: Christians are released from all human commands and ordinances; human commands cannot demand unconditional obedience. The law of fasting is such a human, churchly statute. And because it has no godly authority behind it, which means no authority of the Bible, obedience to it need not be given. However, although Christians are free, this freedom is not to be used excessively because they do not live on it.
The situation in Zurich intensified further. The town council ascribed
to itself and not to the Bishop of Contance the power of decision. After
a hearing and a provisional prohibition of the breaking of the Lenten
fast, a disputation was fixed for the beginning of 1523. There the town
council intended to decide, and the Holy Scripture was named as the criterion
for the decision. Thus Zwingli’s Reformation perception achieved
its breakthrough in Zurich. Besides the breaking of Lent there were further
conflicts. Zwingli criticised the veneration of saints thereby giving
rise to conflicts with the mendicant order. The council also requested,
however, that the mendicant order preach only in accordance with Scripture.
Further, Zwingli called for celibacy to be given up and for Luther, who
was under imperial ban, to be protected. Likewise, Zwingli opposed Mary’s
mediation of salvation.
29 January 1523 the first Zurich disputation took place. Ultimately at
stake was whether arguments against Zwingli’s sermon could be found.
The council intended to decide on the basis of the Bible. Approximately
600 participants came to the town hall. A legation came from Constance
under leadership of Johannes Faber, who was not supposed to dispute,
however, but only to protest and act as observer. What was at stake above
all in the discussion was the problem of authority: who is entitled ultimate
authority on earth? By midday the council had already heard enough and
resolved that Zwingli could not be accused of any heresy but moreover
that even the other preachers should preach on the basis of Holy Scripture.
Zwingli formulated 67 articles or conclusions for the disputation. Two
catchphrases serve as a summary: solus Christus, Christ alone, and sola
scriptura, the Bible alone.
Theological Deepening and Conflicts
The year 1523 was for Zwingli characterised by a theological deepening of his thoughts. These were concerned, for example, with the sharp distinction between God and the creature, the understanding of sin, the doctrine of the Church, the meaning of justice and thus also the relation between state and Church. But his new thinking in respect of the Lord’s Supper was also already becoming clear – Zwingli no longer saw it as a means of salvation. All in all, it can be seen that Zwingli went his own independent way of reformation here. He was neither Luther nor Erasmus but developed an independent theology that could take elements from both.
Besides this theological deepening, the Reformation established itself
in everyday life. The monasteries emptied. Many priests married. The
church liturgy changed and simplified greatly. In September 1523 iconoclastic
activities increased, leading to disputes. In October 1523 there was
a second Zurich Disputation concerning the reform of the church service
and the pictures in the Church. The result was a recommendation not to
proceed by the use of power but to persuade with arguments. However,
it became clear in the Disputation that the priesthood as a whole was
badly educated in theology. And it was recognised that Zwingli and others
with him stood between two wings – believers of the old faith or
conservatives on the one side and radicals on the other.
This break took place definitively in 1525 as the radicals set up their
own small community outside Zurich in the village Zollikon under the
leadership of Konrad Grebel. Grebel’s ideal was a community of
believers, and thus child-baptism became a problem. Already in 1524 refusals
of baptism had occurred against the will of the council, which arranged
the baptism of new-borns. A disputation in 1524 had led to no result
and so the establishment of the new community in which only adult-baptism
(therefore rebaptism) was carried out, was a logical consequence.
Further writings of Zwingli emerged, for instance “The Shepherd” in 1524, in which Zwingli depicts the evangelical preacher as the faithful shepherd in contrast to evil counterexamples. A year later the “Commentarius de vera et falsa religione” – a commentary on true and false religion appeared, in the 29th chapter of which Zwingli describes the main items of the evangelical teaching. The commentary can be regarded as Zwingli’s main work. Early in the year 1525 the so-called “Prophezei” began, an exegetical training course in which the Bible was interpreted. This became an obligatory activity for pastors. As a result of these biblical interpretations, the Zurich Bible was available in 1531. In Zurich in 1525 a new liturgy for the Easter service was introduced, characterised by clarity and simplicity. At the centre stood the sermon; the liturgical singing and organ disappeared; and the instruments for the Lord’s Supper were made out of wood.
Zurich found itself largely isolated inside the Swiss Confederation. It was no longer invited to the Tagsatzung of the Swiss Confederation. Even so, the Reformation gained the upper hand in several places, including St. Gallen, Schaffhausen, Basel and Bern. The Reformation had also established itself in Constance. Zurich formed an alliance with these towns, agreeing upon the so-called “Christian Civil Rights (Das Christliche Burgrecht).” This threatened those cantons living in the milieu of the Christliche Burgrecht who were still Catholic. These also merged to form an alliance called “Christian Union (Christliche Vereinigung),” through which they also gained the Habsburgs as an ally. After a time of threat, the war finally broke out. 30 000 soldiers of the Burgrecht stood against c. 9000 Swiss members of the Christliche Vereinigung. But since only a part of the Burgrecht were committed to the war and the Catholic Swiss were hopelessly inferior, an agreement was quickly reached – the first Peace Treaty of Cappel 1529. From the perspective of the Burgrecht and therefore also of Zwingli, the result was modest because the mercenary practice in the Swiss towns continued to be possible. However, the first Peace Treaty of Cappel did make the Reformation possible in further parts of Switzerland.
Apart from externally directed disputes, there was also opposition within Zurich itself both political and ecclesiastical. Political opposition consisted above all in the traders, the nobility and others, who had a large interest in the Reislaufen and in the undisturbed running of the economy, and church opposition in many believers of the old faith who demanded the reintroduction of the daily Mass.
From 1523, Zwingli developed his own understanding of the Lord’s Supper. While Luther took as his starting point the fact that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ in believers, Zwingli emphasises that bread and wine signify the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who was given up once-for-all on the cross and who is present for believers in the Holy Spirit. The elements of bread and wine do not guarantee the forgiveness of sins, but are a remembrance of this happening. Whoever celebrates the Lord’s Supper confesses that our present is transformed through the power of the reconciliation which happened on the cross
On the basis of their different their understandings, Luther and Zwingli could not come to an agreement with one another. Luther saw in Zwingli an apostasy from the Reformation, a Spiritualist. And Zwingli had the impression that Luther got stuck at half way. Both composed a series of conflicting texts on the Lord’s Supper, in part also consciously against one another (e.g. Luther, Against the heavenly Prophets, on the Pictures and Sacraments ; Zwingli, a Clear Teaching on the Last Supper of Christ ; Luther, that the Words of Christ “this is my body etc.” still stands firmly against the Adventists ; Zwingli, that the Words “this is my body” etc. will have the old sense eternally ). Under the pressure of Prince Philip of Hesse a religious colloquy took place in Marburg in October 1529. This was ultimately a failure, for Luther and Zwingli could agree on all points but not on the Lord’s Supper. However, it might be true to say that in the understanding of the Lord’s Supper conflicts are brought to light (which would otherwise still be concealed). (Picture: Marburg Colloquy)
In Augsburg in 1530 the Diet of Augsburg took place, at which the Emperor wanted to achieve a reestablishment of unity in the Church. The “Confessio Augustana” (the Augsburg Confession) composed by Philipp Melanchthon, which became the characteristic confession of the Lutheran Church, was there read out. Zwingli also submitted a confession – “Fidei ratio” (the ground of faith). In contrast to the Augsburg Confession which was aimed at reconciliation and rapprochement, Zwingli here explained his interpretation of the Gospel in a very aggressive manner and from the Word of God demonstrated unequivocally to the Emperor his responsibility, his defects and his limits.
Zwingli was further engaged in Zurich politics and many of his ideas regarding Zurich’s foreign policy were taken up by the Peace Treaty of Cappel. But Zwingli could not particularly influence the course in its concrete developments. And as a result, he found his own political position in Zurich less and less influential. He felt that he was left in the lurch, and threatened in 1531 to resign, a move which was only prevented with difficulty. The dispute between Zurich and those allied with it, and the other towns, however, still carried on. For by the end of 1530 the Reformation had only been able to establish itself in Switzerland to a small extent. As a result, Zurich put on the pressure, indeed in 1531 with a foodstuffs blockade that came ultimately to nothing, and which Zwingli moreover did not want. In reaction the five Inner Swiss (Catholic) towns declared war on Zurich and at Cappel. On 11th October 1531 c. 3500 armed men from Zurich were devastatingly defeated by double as many Inner Swiss. In less than an hour 500 men from Zurich fell, Zwingli among them, as opposed to only 100 Inner Swiss.