Tag Archives: Ecclesia catholica

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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