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Part V The Reformation: Lesson No. 29 - The Swiss Reformation

I . Huldreich Zwingli

Huldreich Zwingli, the foremost leader of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, was born January 1, 1484, seven weeks after the birth of Martin Luther. He received education in Bern, Basel, Vienna, and Basel again. It was while he was a student at the University of Basel (1502-06) that an instructor impressed him with the sole authority of the Scriptures, the death of Christ as the only price for the forgiveness of sins, and the worthlessness of indulgences. After completing his education, he secured an appointment as parish priest in Glarus. In 1516 he transferred to Einsiedeln and in 1519 to Zurich, which was to be his home until his death. During his early ministry he became convinced of the wrongfulness of using Swiss soldiers as mercenaries, which was the practice of the French and the popes, even though he accompanied the Swiss soldiers on their campaigns as a chaplain. Moreover, during this period he was evidently guilty, as were other priests, of fornication, a sin often attributed to compulsory, clerical celibacy (I Cor. 7:1-5). His position at Zurich was a high and influential one, and he soon gained a reputation as a preacher and an opponent to foreign military service. Zwingli held such sway over the government in Zurich that it was willing to introduce many of the changes which Zwingli favored. Though he had been moving in the direction of the Reformation for several years, it was in 1522 when he came out in opposition to ecclesiastically imposed fasts that he threw himself vigorously into the reformatory movement.

Zwingli's interpretive approach to the Scriptures was more stringent than Luther's approach. Zwingli believed that only that for which distinct authorization could be found in the Scriptures was allowable in religious practice. As a result, he and those of his persuasion rejected such things as the papacy, mass, saintly intercession, monasticism, purgatory, clerical celibacy, relics, images, and organs. By 1525 Roman Catholicism in German-speaking Switzerland had been completely overturned and the new order of the Reformation installed in its place. In 1524 Zwingli himself publicly married a woman whom he had been treating as a wife for the two previous years.

Luther and Zwingli were in substantial agreement on many points, but there were also some basic differences between them. Luther was of a different temperament and had undergone a different religious experience. Consequently, Luther and Zwingli had different religious emphases. To Luther the primary concern was the relationship of the soul to God and the freedom the soul could enjoy by forgiveness of sin. To Zwingli the will of God as set forth in the Bible, and conformity to it, was the central feature of religion. Thus, Luther's approach was of a more emotional nature while Zwingli's was more intellectual. However, that which proved to be the most irreconcilable difference between them was the question of the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper.

On October 1, 1529 Luther and Zwingli met in Marburg to consider their doctrinal differences and the possibility of the union of their forces. However, it soon became evident that they could not agree on the issue of Christ's bodily presence in the Lord's Supper. Luther was adamant in the contention that the words, "This is My body" (Matt. 26:26), were to be taken literally. Zwingli was just as sure that the proper understanding was, "This signifies My body," and countered with the argument that a physical body could not be in more than one place at the same time. Thus, Luther and Zwingli parted without achieving union. Luther was even unwilling to accept Zwingli as a brother in the faith.

Though Luther was content with a religious reformation, Zwingli's aims went beyond this. He also sought a revamping of the social and political order. To protect and promote the Reformation movement in Switzerland and other areas he helped form a league of Swiss Reformation cities against the league of Roman Catholic Swiss cantons. Zurich, the political center of the Reformation cause in Switzerland, provoked war with the Roman Catholic cantons by imposing an embargo on food shipments to them. In a battle that followed on October 11, 1531 the men of Zurich were defeated at Kappel. Zwingli was among the slain. Afterwards, each canton was given the right to regulate their own internal religious affairs, and the lines between the Catholic and Zwinglian cantons were permanently drawn where they were. Today, the "Reformed" churches trace their heritage, in part, to Zwingli.

II. The Anabaptists

As was true of Luther's followers, there were those among Zwingli's followers who felt he did not go far enough in the application of his principles. Because of the silence of the Scriptures on the administration of baptism to infants, some of Zwingli's followers began to doubt the validity of infant baptism. Efforts to suppress their views only encouraged them to act upon them. On January 21, 1525 a group of them received "baptism" during a meeting in a private home in Zurich. Initially, it seems that sprinkling was the mode used, but immersion soon began to be practiced. These views were soon spread to other places where they won converts. The groups thus formed separated themselves into their own communions and were called "Anabaptists" ("rebaptizers") due to their most distinctive practice. Anabaptists were bitterly opposed, even by Zwingli, and they were sometimes punished by drowning.

Anabaptists were severely persecuted because their views were regarded as detrimental to social order. In some parts they were treated as seditionists. This was because they believed in separation of church and state and that uniform religious faith was not essential to public peace and order. They viewed government as a necessary evil and opposed any involvement in it. They also opposed oath-taking, the bearing of arms, religious coercion, and any form of church discipline beyond excommunication. They supported believers' baptism, common observance of the Lord's Supper, and congregational independence. One group, the "Hutterite Brethren," established a lasting communistic order. Various tenets of Anabaptist beliefs survived in the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers.



III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) How did Zwingli's approach to Scriptural authority differ from Luther's approach?


What were the results of his approach?


Whose approach was Scriptural?


(2) What were Luther's and Zwingli's religious emphases? From a Scriptural viewpoint, were they really different?

(3) How did Zwingli and Luther differ on the Lord's Supper?

(4) How should Christ's words, "This is My body," be interpreted? Why?


(5) What were the characteristic beliefs of the Anabaptists?


(6) Is infant baptism Scripturally valid? Why?

(7) Do instances of "household conversions" in the New Testament (Acts 10:4448; 16:15,23; I Cor. 1:16) validate infant baptism? Why?


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