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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (3): Huldrych Zwingli

Huldrych Zwingli is not as famous as his German peer (Luther) or his French successor (Calvin), but his influence on the Anabaptist tradition is at least as direct. It was under Zwingli’s teaching in Zurich, Switzerland, that the first Swiss Brethren developed the convictions that earned them the name Anabaptist. For this reason alone, Zwingli is worth our reflective attention. Add to this Zwingli’s exceptional skill and dedication as a Bible expositor, and we are wise to join Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz for a time as his students.

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. While George surveys a wide range of themes, I am focusing on the subtopic of ecclesiology (theology of the church). Even within this topic I am limiting myself to quotes that I find especially fascinating or significant as I refine my own understandings about the Church. (For the introduction to this series, go here. For the ecclesiology of Martin Luther, go here. For the rest of my posts in this series, go here: John Calvin, Menno Simons, William Tyndale, and my conclusions and questions.)

Here, then, is Timothy George on Zwingli:

Zwingli memorized in Greek all of the Pauline Epistles, having copied them down word for word. This spadework would later bear fruit in Zwingli’s powerful expository preaching and biblical exegesis. (Kindle Locations 2560-2562)

On this date [January 1, 1519] the new pastor shocked his congregation by announcing his intention to dispense with the traditional lectionary. Instead of “canned” sermons, Zwingli would preach straight through the Gospel of Matthew , beginning with the genealogy in chapter 1. Matthew was followed by Acts, then the Epistles to Timothy, then Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, and so on until by 1525 he had worked his way through the New Testament and then turned to the Old. (Kindle Locations 2568-2572)

How amazing it must have been to sit under such preaching for the first time! While our own sermons today could benefit greatly from frequent imitation of Zwingli’s expository approach, I think it is easy to underestimate the novelty of Zwingli’s preaching in his day. In many of our own churches we hear more topical sermons than expositional ones. Sometimes these topical sermons are more like a random collection of leftovers than a well-designed meal. But even our topical sermons, like our unsystematic theologies, are indirectly the offspring of Bible exposition and careful theological reflection done in generations past. To have heard the Bible expounded directly and sequentially in this manner for the first time must have been exhilarating–a bit like a going hang gliding for the first time, with nothing but unfamiliar air currents (Scripture) to hold you up.

Even for Zwingli this must have been an exhilarating adventure. (I read that most of his sermons were delivered extemporaneously.) On the one hand we have the astounding fact that he had memorized the entire NT in Greek. On the other hand, Zwingli himself was learning as he preached his way through the NT–and learning without the benefit of a trusted theological tradition to guide him. We should not be surprised, given Zwingli’s mix of keen sight and lack of map, to find in his writings both brilliant observations and, at times, tentative or premature conclusions.

Two events mark his break with Rome and his public adherence to the Protestant cause. In late 1520 he renounced the papal pension he had been receiving for several years. Two years later, on October 10, 1522 , he resigned his office as “people’s priest” of Zurich, whereupon the city council promptly hired him as preacher to the entire city. Zwingli was now in a position to press for an official reformation in Zurich. (Kindle Locations 2597-2600)

I include the above quote because it shows that Zwingli’s ecclesiology began where it ended: arm-in-arm with the state. It seems Zwingli couldn’t imagine (or didn’t want to) a church that was not working in partnership with the state.

Zurich lay within the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constance, who regarded Zwingli’s strident preaching with growing alarm. The fear of schism was on his mind when he warned the Zurichers to maintain “the unity of the Church, without which there can be no Gospel; Christ is one, and the Church is one.” To this admonition Zwingli replied with his Apologeticus Archeteles (“ my first and last defense”). At points he sounded almost flippant. Is he accused of not listening to the bishops? “Nothing is easier, since they say nothing.” As for the charge of abandoning Holy Mother Church, he called on his opponents themselves “to leave the asses and come over to the oxen, abandon the goats for the sheep.” (Kindle Locations 2611-2616)

The above quote is perplexing, because I find myself initially liking the words of the bishop of Constance more than the words of Zwingli. On one level my reaction is just a distaste for the vulgar language that was employed by most religious combatants in the sixteenth century. On another level, 500 years after the Reformation it is easy to see the high cost of the Church being fractured into thousands of shards. I might not say that “there can be no Gospel” without “the unity of the Church.” But I do think that the disunity of the Church has tarnished the gospel in the eyes of millions. And I definitely affirm that–despite the Reformation!–“Christ is one, and the Church is one.” Yet, if I had to choose between the Roman Catholic mass of 1500 and the preaching of Zwingli… I have little doubt about my choice.

When Zwingli’s Roman Catholic opponents refused to engage in debate with him, saying that a city like Zurich was not an appropriate venue for resolving theological matters, Zwingli disagreed:

Zwingli responded , “I say that here in this room is without doubt a Christian assembly; there is no reason why we should not discuss these matters, speak and decide the truth.” This was a remarkable claim. Zwingli regarded this assembly not merely as a special session of the town council but as an evangelical synod on a par with a general council of the church universal, fully competent to pronounce authoritatively on matters of faith and worship. (Kindle Locations 2629-2632)

I think we see here something of Zwingli’s Swiss nationalism. He was very willing to cut ties with the Roman hierarchy. Yet he was equally willing to walk arm-in-arm with the local city council, even calling it an “assembly”–an echo perhaps of the NT word ἐκκλησίας, which means “assembly,” though often translated church.

The city council was on Zwingli’s side, so the First Zurich Disputation ended in his favor:

In the afternoon session the councilmen delivered their verdict: Master Zwingli could “continue and keep on as before to proclaim the holy Gospel and the correct divine Scriptures with the spirit of God in accordance with his capabilities .” …Zurich became “the first Protestant state by magisterial initiative.” (Kindle Locations 2635-2639)

I strongly disagree with Zwingli’s linking of church and state, but I fully affirm Zwingli’s core definition of the Church as presented here:

[As with Luther and Calvin, in Zwingli’s theology] the church is seen as the company of those who truly belong to God by faith: “All who dwell in the head are members and children of God, and that is the church or communion of the saints , the bride of Christ, Ecclesia catholica.” (Kindle Locations 2695-2697)

“All who dwell in the head are members”; this is clear and biblical thinking. On the other hand, while I, too, want to “let God be God,” I confess I find Zwingli’s stretching of Christ’s redeeming activity to be, well, somewhat stretching:

Zwingli held that even among those who had never heard the gospel, those who lived outside the chronological or geographical bounds of salvation history, God chose some. They were future neighbors in heaven—not only the Old Testament worthies but “Hercules too and Theseus , Socrates, Aristides, Antigonus, Numa, Camillus, the Catos and Scipios,” indeed every pious heart and believing soul from the beginning of the world. (Kindle Locations 2771-2773)

In accordance with John 14:6, which he often cited, Zwingli insisted that no one could come to the Father except through Christ who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” He refused, however, to limit the scope of Christ’s redeeming activity to the circumference of the visible church. This was his own way of saying, “Let God be God.” (Kindle Locations 2789-2791)

Socrates in heaven? And can one really be saved without being part of the Church (contra Luther)? First, according to George, Zwingli did not say that such “pious hearts” are outside the Ecclesia catholica (the universal Church), but outside the visible church. Perhaps he thought one could be part of the Church without being part of the church? Second, I want to affirm the NT insistence on the urgency of proclaiming, hearing, and believing the gospel, without pretending to fully understand how God will judge those who have heard less than we have. The NT says little about the latter, but much about the former.

Zwingli was much more radical than Luther in trying to prune from church life those ceremonial rites and religious accoutrements that were the mainstay of medieval piety. Thoughtless prayers, prescribed fasts, the bleached cowls and carefully shaved heads of the monks, holy days, incense, the burning of candles, the sprinkling of holy water, nuns’ prayers, priests’ chatter, vigils, masses, and matins—this “whole rubbish-heap of ceremonials” amounted to nothing but “tomfoolery.” To depend upon them at all for salvation was like “placing iceblocks upon iceblocks.” (Kindle Locations 2887-2891)

Amen! Let us listen and apply in our own churches. And yet…

Why was Zwingli so sternly opposed to images and other forms of ceremonial piety? …First, the principle of scriptural authority relativized all extrabiblical practices. This is clearly expressed in the second of the Ten Conclusions of Bern (1528): “The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.” In general, the Lutheran tradition has willingly retained in its worship those practices and customs not directly prohibited by Scripture. The Reformed tradition, following Zwingli, has tended to eliminate what is not expressly commanded in Scripture. (Kindle Locations 2898-2903)

Amen again! At least until the last two sentences.

I am eager to see the Church freed from all merely human traditions that are bound upon us as inflexible commandments, for they repeatedly make the word of God of none effect (Mark 7:9-13). But shall we insist that we must eliminate from our churches all freely-chosen practices that are not expressly commanded in Scripture? Here I confess that I disagree with Zwingli–and with Conrad Grebel, who even forbade singing in church on this basis–and agree with Luther, who commissioned and composed church music and prepared the way for his great Lutheran offspring, J.S. Bach.

(Grebel wrote: “Paul very clearly forbids singing in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 since he says and teaches that they are to speak to one another and teach one another with psalms and spiritual songs, and if anyone would sing, he should sing and give thanks in his heart… Whatever we are not taught by clear passages or examples must be regarded as forbidden, just as if it were written: ‘This do not; sing not.'” — From “Letter to Thomas Müntzer,” Sept. 5, 1524, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957], page 75.)

Back to Timothy George:

In Zurich, perhaps more than in any of the other Reformed cities, church and civic community were one indivisible body, governed by the spiritual and secular officers who both accepted the principle of scriptural authority as the basis of their joint governance… Zwingli saw no problem in this sort of cooperation between church and state. In a famous statement written shortly before his death he said, “The Christian man is nothing else but a faithful and good citizen and the Christian city nothing other than the Christian church.” (Kindle Locations 2947-2953)

Church and state were related as soul and body, distinct yet necessarily conjoined and interdependent. More than any other reformer, Zwingli reacted against the clerical supremacy of the medieval church . The error of the Roman Antichrist had been to set himself above princes and kings. Zwingli believed the Bible taught (Exod 4:16) that priests were to be subordinate to the magistrates. Zwingli’s message required a leveling of the sacred and the secular and a vision of reform that embraced both minister and magistrate as coservants of the Word of God. That “the kingdom of Christ is also external” meant that no dimension of human existence could be excluded from the claims and promises of the gospel. (Kindle Locations 2995-3000)

Here again, I think, we see a mixture of motives in play–probably some Swiss nationalism, combined with a laudatory vision how Christ’s kingdom reaches into both sacred and secular arenas, combined with a failure to understand that the kingdom of Christ is not served when its servants wield the sword of the state. Paul did teach us to pray for civil authorities, so that civil peace might assist the spread of the gospel (1 Tim. 2:1-4). But to effectively equate the “Christian city” and the “Christian church” goes far beyond anything the apostles envisioned.

(It would be interesting here to compare how Luther’s vision of two kingdoms contrasts with Zwingli’s pairing of church and state–and then to tease out how such apparently different theological starting points could lead them both to become magisterial Reformers with state churches. But I am not wise enough for the task!)

The next set of quotes describes the link between Zwingli’s defense of infant baptism and his concept of the church:

Zwingli believed that baptism was not primarily for the sake of the one who received it; it was, rather, a guaranty for those who witnessed it. Its purpose was to inform the whole church rather than one’s self of the faith that had been inwardly wrought by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. (Kindle Locations 3060-3062)

Zwingli’s description of water baptism as a public pledge implied that it was applicable only to adults who could consciously make such a commitment. In fact, this is precisely what he seems to have believed in the early years of his reforming career in Zurich… [But] beginning in late 1524, Zwingli issued a series of writings in which he disabused himself of his earlier doubts about infant baptism and defended the practice by means of a new argument: covenantal continuity between the people of Israel in the old dispensation and the visible church in the new. (Kindle Locations 3066-3074)

Zwingli did… place great store in the personal faith of the parents who offered the child for baptism… For Zwingli, though, the faith of the parents was secondary to the faith of the whole church. This is why he frowned on private baptisms and insisted that baptism be administered “in the presence of the church” by a duly appointed minister of the Word. “The recipient of baptism testifies that he belongs to the Church of God, which worships its Lord in soundness of faith and purity of life.” Infant baptism was, for Zwingli, essentially an ecclesial event. (Kindle Locations 3110-3119)

Part of the reason, then, why Zwingli and the Anabaptists disagreed on infant baptism was because they disagreed on the relationship between the NT Church and the OT nation of Israel. But I sense that there was a deeper cause for Zwingli’s disagreement with the Anabaptists over baptism. Before Zwingli ever began arguing for continuity between Israel and the Church, he was already committed to serving his city and his state. Zwingli was a Swiss army chaplain before he was a Reformer, and he died on the battlefield while serving in the same role.

(Wikipedia puts it this way: “Zwingli had considered himself first and foremost a soldier of Christ; second a defender of his country, the Confederation; and third a leader of his city, Zurich, where he had lived for the previous twelve years. Ironically, he died at the age of 47, not for Christ nor for the Confederation, but for Zurich.” Citation: Potter, G. R., Zwingli, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976], page 414.)

Back to Timothy George:

In one of his earliest writings as a reformer, Zwingli described himself as “a Swiss professing Christ among the Swiss.”(Kindle Locations 2523-2524)

By 1524 he had discerned that the real danger from the Anabaptists was not so much heresy as schism and sedition. Infant baptism came to be the fulcrum on which both the unity of the church and the integrity of the civic order turned… Zwingli’s program of reform… equated the visible church with the populace of the Christian city or state: “A Christian city is nothing other than a Christian church.” The Christian civitas might be a corpus permixtum of sheep and goats, God alone knowing for sure who was which, but it could not be a company of baptized and unbaptized lest the civic order itself, and the proclamation of the gospel that depended upon it, be imperiled. It is ironic that water baptism, which played at best an adiaphorous [neutral] role in Zwingli’s soteriology [doctrine of salvation], became the basis for his defense of the visible church. (Kindle Locations 3123-3132)

Despite Zwingli’s enhanced view of the Eucharist [later in life he “moved toward a more positive appreciation of the real presence of Christ in the Supper”], the primary pastoral purpose of the Supper—as with baptism—remained congregational rather than individual. The sacraments were chiefly those signs by which the believer proved to the church that he was a soldier of Christ; their purpose was “to inform the whole church rather than yourself of your faith.” (Kindle Locations 3388-3396)

Zwingli’s bold program of reform included a reordering of the whole community, not just the church. From beginning to end, he was single-mindedly concerned to uphold the sovereignty of God and to root out every practice that encouraged the placing of one’s trust in the creature. He took more literally than Luther the sola in sola scriptura, even if the Anabaptists did him one still better in this regard. (Kindle Locations 3443-3446)

Many more lessons could be drawn from Zwingli’s example. I’ll end by briefly underscoring two. A negative lesson is the reminder that our ecclesiology can be gravely distorted by our patriotism. Need I say more? A positive lesson is the reminder to test all church practices and beliefs by Scripture. Zwingli did this imperfectly, but he did it better than many in his day. His skillful biblical exposition paved the way for others to surpass him in forming biblical churches, and should remind us of our own unfinished task.

(Next up: the ecclesiology of John Calvin.)

What did you learn from these highlights from Zwingli’s ecclesiology? What might you add to George’s observations? How might you balance my reflections? What should the Church today learn from Zwingli? Share your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)


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If You’re Not a Berean, Who Might You Be?

Be a Berean! This is a common encouragement among Bible-loving Christians. But what does this mean? Why is it important to be a Berean? And what is the alternative to being a Berean?

The term “Berean” comes, of course, from Acts 17:11-12, which records what happened when Paul and his band arrived in Berea on his second missionary journey:

11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (ESV)

The most common way that I recall hearing these verses used goes something like this: “Be a Berean! Test what you hear by the Scriptures. Don’t believe everything you hear from every radio preacher. Don’t base your theology on what you read online. Don’t let commentaries determine what you believe. In fact, even when your own pastor teaches you something, don’t believe it without testing it first. Don’t be gullible! Test everything by the Scriptures!

While I heartily agree with this exhortation, I don’t think it’s the most direct implication of what Luke (the author of Acts) records in our passage. Let’s reconsider these verse by examining their literary context.

According to Luke, whom were the Bereans more noble than? The Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians. More precisely, the Jews in Berea were more noble than the Jews in Thessalonica.

So, in this situation, what was the alternative to being a Berean? What was the problem with the Jews in Thessalonica? We find the answer in the preceeding passage. The problem with the majority of the Thessalonican Jews is that they refused to believe Paul’s proclamation about Christ. Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (17:2-3). He did this over “three Sabbath days” (17:2). What was the response of the Jews? “Some of them were persuaded” (17:4). But the majority of them “were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob” (17:5). They dragged Paul’s converts before the city authorities and shouted denunciations against Paul and his coworkers: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (17:6).

In short, the problem with the Thessalonian Jews was not gullibility, but unbelief. Despite Paul’s careful exposition of Scripture–reasoning, explaining and proving everything he claimed based on the Jew’s own Scriptures, the Jews still refused to believe.

Why didn’t these Thessalonian Jews believe? I think we find an answer in verse 5: “the Jews were jealous.” They didn’t like how Paul was turning their world upside down. They refused to believe for the same reason the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem refused to believe Jesus (see 1 Thess. 2:14-16)–because believing would have meant loss of prestige and power.

So, what about us? What implications might this passage have for us today? Here are several I’d like to suggest–two exhortations and three theological truths.

Two exhortations:

  1. Don’t be a Thessalonian. Don’t reject gospel truth without giving Scripture a fair hearing. Don’t let a desire to preserve prestige and power keep you from believing the Good News. Don’t prevent the gospel from turning your world upside down! What about the truth that good works are the fruit and not the root of our salvation; have we let this good news shake our world? What about the truth that God the Holy Spirit dwells in his people, empowering victorious living and manifesting himself in a multitude of “natural” and “supernatural” gifts; have we examined the Scriptures and let our hearts believe? (What gospel truths do you think we might be in danger of rejecting?)
  2. Do be a Berean. When you hear someone proclaim good news, take time to examine it by Scripture. Don’t be surprised or alarmed if the gospel sounds like good news. Examine the Scriptures “daily.” If what you hear passes the Scripture test–that is, it is “necessary” according to Scripture (and certainly not everything does pass this test), then accept it “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). Believe it and let it turn your world upside down, even if it means rejection and “suffer[ing]… things from your own countrymen” (1 Thess. 2:14).

Three theological truths:

  1. Faith and reason are friends. Christian faith is rooted in reasoned, Scriptural evidence. True faith is not opposed to reason. It is not opposed to explanation and proof. It is not opposed to diligent Scriptural study. Notice the cause-and-effect link in our passage: The Bereans examined the Scriptures daily, and “therefore” many of them believed (17:12). Rational investigation is encouraged in Scripture and can lead to a strengthened faith. (In this case the rational investigation was of Scripture; in other places investigation of historical evidence is also encouraged.)
  2. Trust in Scripture is a friend to trust in Jesus. If the Bereans had not taken time to examine Scripture, they would not have accepted the gospel message Paul was proclaiming. But when they saw that Paul’s message was “necessary” (17:3) according to Scriptural evidence (that is, what Paul said had happened to Jesus was the perfect and necessary unfolding of the prophecies and typologies found in Scripture), they believed. It was the Berean’s prior trust in Scripture that prepared them to trust in Jesus. Those today who erode trust in Scripture are, by intention or not, also eroding trust in Jesus–even if the results of such erosion are not always evident for a generation or two.
  3. Heart condition determines our response to gospel truth. This observation opens difficult questions related to the order of salvation. (Which comes first? Our faith in Christ, or God’s work of regenerating our hearts?) But laying aside such discussions for the moment, notice the evidence in our passage. Both the Thessalonians and the Bereans possessed the Scriptures. They both heard the Scriptures explained by Paul. But one group was “jealous” (17:5) while the other “received the word with all eagerness” (17:11). And so, in the first group “some of them were persuaded” (17:4), while in the second group “many of them… believed” (17:12). Some versus many. Only hearts delivered from jealousy and self-preservation are prepared to believe the fullness of the Good News.

So, let’s be Bereans! Let’s be “gullible” enough to let Scriptural evidence convince us that all the riches of the gospel are true. Then let’s go out and imitate those who have willingly suffered for the sake of the word of God.


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On pragmatism and biblicism

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

I would rather be part of a biblical church that lasts only 10 years than be part of a human institution that lasts for 10 generations.

When it comes to church governance, leadership, and applications, the question “What will work?” (that is, “What will keep my church from falling into sin?”) must always be subordinated to the question, “What does the Bible teach us?” The former question, when given precedence, leads to rationalization and humanistic pragmatism, no matter how baptized with good intentions and genuine spiritual sincerity. The second question forces us to submit our thinking and planning to what truly works in God’s eyes, from his eternal perspective. And his Church will not die, no matter how many human religious institutions stand or fall. Nor will our churches die if we exalt His Word, no matter how radically they may experience outward change in the process.

The heavenly pragmatist remember’s Paul’s stinging admonition: “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3 ESV)


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