The Swiss Alternative Zwingli And The City Of Zurich

During the 1520s, reforming movements sprang up in many territories and cities in western Europe.12 Our story here concerns a priest who celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday on New Year's Day 1519 by being installed as the "people's priest" at the Great Minster in the Swiss city of Zurich. Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) would never achieve Luther's fame and is today seen as ranking behind Luther and Calvin, in terms of both his ideas and his activities. Yet he played a vitally important part in initiating and directing the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland—a reformation that bore little relation to Luther's.13

At that time, Switzerland was much smaller than it is at present. The name "Switzerland" is based on one of the three original can tons—Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden—which signed a treaty of mutual defense against the Austrians in 1291. This confederation, known as the Helvetic Confederation, was gradually enlarged. In 1332 Lucerne joined the confederation, followed by Zurich (1351), Glarus and Zug (1352), and Berne (1353). When the confederation gained a historic victory over Austria at the Battle of Nafels (1388), other cantons were subsequently led to join. In 1481 the cantons of Solothurn and Fribourg joined the confederation, bringing the total membership to ten. In 1501 Basel and Schaffhausen joined, followed by Appenzell in 1513.

Zwingli was born on New Year's Day 1484 in the Toggenburg Valley in the canton of St. Gallen, in the eastern part of modern-day Switzerland. Strictly speaking, St. Gallen was not part of the Swiss confederation at that time. However, in a 1451 treaty, St. Gallen had allied itself to some of the Swiss cantons, and Zwingli appears to have always regarded himself as Swiss. He was educated at the University of Vienna at a time when the old ideas of scholasticism were being displaced by those of humanism. By the time Zwingli returned to Switzerland, he was familiar with the "new learning" and anxious to use it in reforming the church. He became linked with humanist groups in eastern Switzerland that were working for the renewal of the church, the advance of pacifism, and the development of a Swiss "republic of letters." Like many at the time, Zwingli was captivated by the humanist vision of Christianismus renascens—a Christianity that would be born all over again, restored to the simplicity and vitality of the apostolic age.

Zwingli's vision of reform began to develop during his time as a "people's priest" at the Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln during the mid-i5ios. In common with others beginning to think about reform around this time, Zwingli saw the Bible—or more specifically, the New Testament—as central to his program of renewal. Yet Zwingli, like so many reformers in eastern Switzerland, did not see any need for fundamental changes in what the church believed. His vision of reform was primarily institutional and moral: the church needed to return to the simple ways of the New Testament and behave according to the moral teachings of Christ. The New Testament was to be valued because of its clear teaching about Christian discipleship and ethics. Reformation was about the church and its members reshaping their lives in the light of that teaching.

On the day after his arrival at Zurich in 1519, Zwingli announced his intention of beginning a new course of sermons. He proposed to deliver a continuous course of sermons on the gospel according to Matthew. Instead of relying on commentaries, he would base his sermons directly on the scriptural text. For Zwingli, scripture was a living and liberating text by means of which God spoke to his people and enabled them to break free from bondage to false ideas and practices. In particular, he held that Christ's Sermon on the Mount set out a vision for the moral life that was binding on all Christians.

The contrast with Luther here is striking. Like the fourteenth-century English reformer John Wycliffe, Zwingli saw the Bible as setting out divine commandments for human behavior.14 These were to be contrasted with the human commands of the papacy or state, which did not have the same divine warrant. The proper task of Christian education was to ensure that people were made aware of these divine demands and responded appropriately. For Luther, however, the Bible was primarily about the promises of God—things that God offered to do for humanity, rather than things that God expected humanity to do. (Interestingly, it seems that many misunderstood him on this point and reverted to ideas similar to those of Wycliffe.) Zwingli's reforming program makes no reference to Luther's core doctrine of "justification by faith alone." Indeed, many scholars see an explicit tension between Zwingli's moralist understanding of reformation and Luther's emphasis on the grace of God.

One of the most visible and striking divergences between the two major emerging styles of Protestantism is to be found in their differing attitudes to imagery. Where Luther was prepared to tolerate religious images in churches, Zwingli held that the Old Testament ban on images was binding on all Christians. In June 1524, the city of Zurich ruled that all religious imagery was to be removed from churches.15 Iconoclastic riots spread throughout the region—Berne (1528), Basel (1529), Strasbourg (1530), and Geneva (1535)—marking the spreading of the Reformation by popular acts of violence and desecration.16

It is important to note that, throughout the entire formative period of his development as a reformer, Zwingli appears never to have heard of Martin Luther, let alone to have been influenced by him. Zwingli's distinctive approach to the reformation of the church reflected currents of thought characteristic of eastern Switzerland at that time. In common with Luther and Erasmus, Zwingli held that the church needed to realign itself with the Bible. Yet Zwingli's understanding of how that process should happen, and what form it would take, bore little relation to Luther's and was much closer to Erasmus's vision for institutional and moral reform based on an educational program grounded in the classics and the New Testament.17

In his 1522 treatise The Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Zwingli argued for the capacity of the Bible to interpret itself lucidly and unambivalently in all matters of importance. Like Erasmus, he insisted that the best possible aids to the interpretation of the Bible— such as a knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek languages and an understanding of the various figures of speech employed in scripture— needed to be brought to the task of establishing the natural sense of scripture.18 Like Luther, he held that the church had no authority other than the Bible.

Despite their shared emphasis on the centrality of the Bible, Luther and Zwingli used quite different techniques of biblical interpretation. Though both appealed to the same source as authoritative, the outcomes of their engagement with the biblical text were very different— and led to very different visions of reform. Illustrating this tension is one of the most significant debates between rival camps of the Reformation during the 1520s—the controversy between Luther and Zwingli over the nature of the "real presence."19

In what sense, if any, is Christ really present in the bread and wine of the mass? As we noted earlier, Luther was strongly critical of the medieval doctrine of "transubstantiation," believing that it was excessively dependent on the Aristotelian philosophical notions of "substance" and "accidents." Yet his own view was that Christ is indeed present at the mass. (Luther had no difficulty in using this traditional term.) In some way, the body and blood of Christ are conveyed in, through, or under the bread and the wine. For Luther, this was the only way of interpreting Christ's words at the Last Supper, as recorded in the gospels. When Christ offered bread to his disciples, he declared that "this is my body" (Matthew 26:26). Was not the obvious, correct way of making sense of this core text that the bread in question was Christ's body? What other way could there be of interpreting this text? If this was not so, Luther argued, then the Bible could not be interpreted reliably.

Zwingli responded by pointing out that this was by no means the only way of interpreting this text. The Bible was full of statements that might seem to suggest one thing but, on closer inspection, meant another. For Zwingli, the phrase "this is my body" did not mean that the bread was identical with the body of Christ; rather, it pointed to, or signified, that body. Christ's words were to be understood as meaning that the bread of the "Supper" or "Remembrance"—Zwingli did not wish to retain the traditional term "mass"—was a symbol of Christ's body, just as the wine symbolized his blood. Christ was being remembered in his absence, and his future return anticipated.

It will be obvious that these represent totally different readings of the same text. Luther's interpretation was much more traditional, Zwingli's more radical. Which was right? And which was Protestant? We see here the fundamental difficulty that the Reformation faced: the absence of any authoritative interpreter of scripture that could give rulings on contested matters of biblical interpretation. The question was not simply whether Luther or Zwingli was right: it was whether the emerging Protestant movement possessed the means to resolve such questions of biblical interpretation. If the Bible had ultimate authority, who had the right to interpret the Bible? This was no idle question, and it lay at the heart of Protestantism's complex relationship with its core text. For this question to be answered, an authoritative rule or principle had to be proposed that stood above scripture—the very idea of which was ultimately anathema to Protestantism. The three leading reformers—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—all recognized the importance of the question; significantly, each offered a different answer.20 Our concern here is with the influential civil political hermeneutic advocated by Zwingli.

The solution offered by Zurich was elegant in its simplicity. In January 1523, the great debate usually known as the "First Zurich Disputation" got under way. Its outcome was of great importance for the development of the Reformation. First, it was decided that the church in that city would be bound by the "word of God" and would be obedient to scripture. But who was to interpret the Bible? The pope? An ecumenical council? Zwingli himself? No. The city council, seeing itself as a duly elected representative body of the Christians of Zurich, declared that it possessed the corporate right to settle the question of the interpretation of the Bible. The interpretation of the Bible would thus be a local matter.

This was an approach that endeared itself to city councils throughout the region as the Reformation began to spread. Religious authority was transferred from the pope or local bishop to elected representatives of the people. This transfer of authority was yet another example of the "democratization of faith" that was so characteristic of the reforms then taking place, and it gave a place of no small significance to the city council within the urban "sacral community."21 Yet it raised a major question about the coherence of the movement. If the city councils of Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Constance—to note four major cities that sided with the Reformation in the 1520s—disagreed with each other over the interpretation of the Bible, how could such a dispute be settled? Was there not a danger that it would be the political status of a council, rather than the merits of its arguments, that would determine its power to interpret? In other words, would the authority of a council to interpret the Bible end up reflecting, not its theological ability or spiritual integrity, but its political power, as reflected in the size, wealth, and might of the city itself?

This was a serious question, but not one that Zwingli chose to address in any detail. He was preoccupied with far too many other projects, including taking part in debates in other Swiss cities that would determine whether they joined the Protestant cause. In Zurich, he faced many demands to institutionalize his vision of a reformed Christian church and the new challenges this brought. Holding that clergy were free to marry if they so chose, he married the widow Anna Reinhard secretly in 1522, then publicly in 1524. He was confronted with the growing threat from more radical reformers in Zurich and was personally involved in their suppression and execution, including the 1527 execution of Felix Manz. Manz, formerly one of Zwingli's closest allies, held that there was no biblical warrant for infant baptism. Refusing to recant his views, he was tied up and drowned in the River Limmat.

Yet this internal challenge to Zwingli's form of Protestantism within Zurich was soon displaced by a much more serious external threat. The five Catholic cantons of Switzerland, increasingly alarmed at the rise of Protestantism in the region, declared war on Zurich in October 1531. No Protestant canton offered Zurich any support, leaving it to face its opponents alone. Zwingli served as chaplain to the Zurich army, inexpertly led by Georg Goldli at the critical Battle of Kappel. A chaotic situation resulted in which the Protestants were ambushed while withdrawing, and many dead and wounded were left on the battlefield— including the mortally wounded Zwingli.22

The result was disastrous for Zurich, which not only was forced to accept unfavorable peace terms but lost its religious leader. Some regions of Switzerland that had converted to Protestantism reverted to Catholicism. Among these was the city of Bremgarten, where Heinrich Bullinger served as pastor. Forced to leave Bremgarten on account of his emerging Protestant sympathies, Bullinger settled in Zurich at the end of October 1531. Six weeks later, he was elected to take Zwingli's place. Yet Zurich would never recover its position of prominence in the Protestant reformation. Its power and influence seeped away as other centers of activity emerged. In what follows, we consider some of the early attempts to establish commonality between the various local reformations that emerged during this fascinating, formative period in the history of Protestantism.

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