Zwingli and the Reformation in Switzerland |

Sunday School Class, History of the Reformation, on Sunday, June 20.

When we talk about the Protestant Reformation, the first name that comes to mind is usually Martin Luther. But the truth is that along with the Reformation that Luther promoted in Germany, something similar and independent was happening in Switzerland through the ministry of a priest named Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531).

In fact, a year before Luther wrote his famous 95 theses, Zwingli had already begun to issue public criticisms of the church; and five years after Luther’s theses, he wrote 67, proposing a more exhaustive reform than Luther’s. It is that aspect of the history of the Reformation that we will be considering in the present lesson.

Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in a small Swiss village, into a wealthy family. Although contemporary with Luther (he was born less than two months after him), the reforming work of both arises independently of each other as a result of two very different spiritual experiences.

Zwingli never lived in a convent or experienced the deep conviction of sin that Luther had to wrestle with for so long. As Luther emerges from medieval obscurantism, Zwingli was educated by him under the influence of Renaissance humanism, a movement we already mentioned in a previous lesson. The humanists believed that Europe was going through a period of obscurantism that could only end by returning to the literature and culture of classical civilization. His war cry was: “Let’s go back to the sources.”

In 1506 he received the title of Master of Arts and that same year he held the position of pastor in the village of Glarus, where he served as a priest for 10 years (Luther had entered the monastery a year before and the following year, that is, in 1507, was ordained as a priest).

To understand what happened next, there is an important fact that we must know. In the 15th century, Switzerland was famous for the quality of its mercenaries (the legendary character of William Tell is a sample of the fame that the Swiss had as men of war; this legendary character refused to prostrate himself before the symbol that represented the power of the Habsburg, for which the governor, Hermann Gessler forced him to shoot an arrow on the head of his son, located 80 paces away; Tell hit the shot, but then rebelled, becoming a symbol in the struggle of Switzerland for their independence).

The village of Glarus was a kind of military camp that provided some of the most important soldiers for the pope’s army, who in Zwingli’s day was none other than Julius II, a pope renowned for his fondness for war.

Zwingli decided to join the pope’s army as a chaplain, so he could fight for the Holy Father and Holy Mother Church. But in 1515 they faced the gigantic army of the King of France, Francis I, where more than 10,000 Swiss lost their lives. That bloodbath had a profound impact on Zwingli, who from then on began to question some of his beliefs.

Back at his parish in Glarus, Zwingli realized that for years he had been reading Church-approved commentaries on the Bible, but he had never read the Bible directly. It was thus that in 1516 he bought a copy of the Greek NT that Erasmus of Rotterdam had just published with the permission of the Pope. For us today this is nothing special, but in Zwingli’s time it was a revolutionary thought, and even dangerous, for a person to decide to study the Scriptures for himself, since the Catholic Church taught that the Pope was the only qualified interpreter. to interpret it.

Zwingli’s enthusiasm for the Scriptures was so great that he devoted himself to copying almost all of Paul’s letters and memorizing the Greek NT. As one historian puts it, this meant for Zwingli something like the voyage of Christopher Columbus some 20 years earlier. Zwingli “found in the Bible a new world, a world he had never dreamed of” (Michael Reves; The Unquenchable Flame; pg. 68).

Although Zwingli would remain within Catholicism for a few more years, from that moment on his theology began to evolve. The pension that he received from the Pope was used to buy books; he also began to study Hebrew in order to read the OT in his original language. Meanwhile, the people who went in procession to Einsiedeln, where a black image of the Virgin Mary was venerated, dedicated themselves to spreading the fame of him as a preacher. And so in 1518, a year after Luther wrote his 95 theses, he was appointed as the first preacher in the main church of Zurich.


A few years before beginning his ministry in Zurich, in 1516, Zwingli had begun to publicly criticize the processions that were made to worship the Black Madonna. “Only Christ saves – Zwingli said – and he saves everywhere.” As he progressed in his study of the Scriptures, Zwingli came close to reforming ideas much like Luther’s.

In 1518 he attacked the sale of indulgences; and his authority had increased so much that he managed to get the government to expel the seller. On the other hand, the firmness that Luther showed in the debate in Leipzig and his action of burning the papal bull encouraged him to continue his systematic attack on any practice of the Catholic Church that seemed contrary to the Scriptures.

On Saturday, January 1, 1519, the day of his 35th birthday, he announced to the parishioners that instead of preaching in the order of the biblical readings indicated by the church, he was going to begin exposing the Gospel of Matthew verse by verse. And when he finished exposing him, he would continue to do the same with the rest of the NT.

That same year a plague struck the city of Zurich, bringing Zwingli to the brink of death; Nearing death, Zwingli realized that he could only put his trust in God’s mercy. When he recovered his health Zwingli was a changed man, determined never again to put his trust in created things, be they saints or sacraments. He would do everything in his power to turn the hearts of people from idols to God.

Problems with the Catholic Church became more acute when Francis I, King of France and an ally of the Pope, asked the Swiss Confederation to send him soldiers as mercenaries for his war against Charles V. All the Swiss cantons agreed to the request, but Zurich refused on Zwingli’s advice.

But the break with the church finally occurred due to an episode that one historian has called the “sausage gate.” During Lent of 1522 some of the members of the church in Zurich decided to have a dinner with sausages instead of sin, challenging the practice of Catholicism. Two weeks later, Zwingli addressed the issue directly in a sermon that was published in April of that same year, entitled “On the choice of food and the freedom to take it”, where Zwingli defends the freedom of the Christian not to submit to the commandments of men. .

In August of that year, 1522, Zwingli definitively resigned from the Catholic Church, saying that it was based on human laws. Despite this, some radicals wanted Zwingli to be faster and more determined in his reforms; but he understood that the secret of the reform consisted in the transformation of the hearts of men with the power of the gospel.

That same year Zwingli published one of his most important works on the power and efficacy of the Word of God. In this work Zwingli begins by commenting on the text of Gn. 1:26, where we see the three persons of the Trinity working together in the creation of man in his image and likeness. Because of this, Zwingli says, man secretly yearns for the Word of God. Of course, we are not aware of that, but that is the desire behind all our longings: we long for the life and light that God’s Word produces.

Zwingli points out these two characteristics of the Word of God: it is a word that has life-giving power and it is a Word that illuminates. When God speaks, his word has the power to produce what he wants (as when he said “let there be light” at the beginning of creation). But the Word of God also possesses clarity; By this Zwingli means, not only that it is an understandable Word, but that it brings with it his own illumination. We know that Scripture is inspired by God, not when the pope says it, but when we read it. If someone reads the Scripture and does not see its inspiration, it is not due to a defect in the Scripture, but to a defect in us. Therefore, if we want to promote a true reform, what we must do is preach the Word; she will take care of doing the work.

When the Bishop of Constance accused Zwingli before the Governing Council, the Council allowed him to continue preaching. A debate between the bishop’s vicar and Zwingli on the doctrines that the latter preached was then proposed. The debate took place in 1523. Zwingli had written a document in which he proposed some of his reform ideas, as a preliminary to the debate. Among the Sixty-Seven Articles proposed in the document, we find the following:

“The Bible is the only source of authority for the church; every tradition, every council and every papal pronouncement must be judged in the light of the Bible.”

“Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church and its only eternal priest; the papacy does not have absolute authority over the church.”

“The mass is not a sacrifice; it is rather a reminder of the completed sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.”

“Pilgrimages and other supposedly meritorious works are harmful since they only give a false assurance of salvation.”

“Civil governors have the duty to promulgate and enforce laws that lead society to conform to the divine will.”

After Zwingli raised and biblically defended his theses in the debate, the bishop’s vicar, instead of responding to them, limited himself to declaring that a universal council would soon settle the matter. Faced with his refusal to prove Zwingli wrong, “the Council declared that… he could continue to preach freely. That decision by the Council marked the break of Zurich with the Episcopate of Constance, and therefore with Rome” (Justo L. Gonzales; History of the Reformation; pg. 72).

“From then on, Zwingli, with the support of the Council, carried out his reform, which consisted of a restoration of faith and biblical practices. As to what this meant, Zwingli differed from Luther, for while the German believed that all traditional usages should be retained, except those that contradicted the Bible, the Swiss held that anything not found explicitly in Scripture should be retained. Being rejected. This led him, for example, to suppress the use of organs in churches, since it was an instrument that did not appear in the Bible”.

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