On F. Bruce Gordon’s Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet
The publication of Bruce Gordon’s much-awaited biography of Ulrich Zwingli in 2021 could not have arrived at a better time. In the midst of debates over “Christian nationalism” and whether the content of the Christian faith demands external political forms–as if on cue–there enters into the conversation one of the Reformation’s most overlooked and most controversial reformers.
In less than twelve hurried years, between the commencement of his preaching ministry in Zürich on January 1, 1519 and his death on October 11, 1531, Zwingli saw the Swiss city of Zürich transformed into a Protestant city, a bastion of Reformed orthodoxy, and a refuge for evangelical exiles. Yet in his life, as in his death, Zwingli has earned more opprobrium than praise. Though a contemporary of Luther’s, and a generation ahead of Calvin, Zwingli was never given the same degree of attention, primarily because of his advocacy of military aggression and for having personally taken up the sword to defend his city. Not only did he advocate what Gordon calls “religious bigotry,” he believed that the civil magistrate was obligated to enforce a “‘puritanical’ morality” on its populace.1 Such sentiments alone would lead many a modern secularist to agree with Luther’s assessment, “It is certain that Zwingli died in great sin and blasphemy.”
The goal of this article is not to render a final verdict on Zwingli’s life and methods, but simply to identify common threads in his reforming work in Zürich and what insights might be gained regarding the much-needed work of reformation today. What lessons can we glean from Zwingli the pastor, patriot, warrior, and reformer as we seek reformation in our churches, cities, and nations today? I’ll outline just four, looking at Zwingli’s preaching, patience, partnerships, and politics.
Reformation prioritizes preaching
From beginning to end, Zwingli’s reforming work in Zürich was inextricably tied to the public preaching of the Word of God. On Sunday, January 1, 1519–his 35th birthday!–Zwingli famously began his preaching ministry at the Grossmunster church in Zürich by commencing a series in the Gospel of Matthew. In contrast to much of the preaching around him, Zwingli abandoned the set readings of the lectionary in favor of consecutive expositions through books of the Bible. In this, he was not innovating, nor taking his cues from Luther, but returning to the ancient method of lectio continua advocated by his mentor Desiderius Erasmus and practiced by John Chrysostom and others. Each week, he picked up in the text where he had left off the previous week, beginning in Matthew, preaching through the rest of the New Testament, before turning to the Old.
Highly rhetorical sermons preached at church festivals and key liturgical seasons like Advent and Lent were the norm in Zürich.2 But Zwingli emphasized simplicity and intelligibility over skill, Sundays over holidays, and King Jesus over the Saints. As Gordon explains, “The Reformation’s reduction in the number of religious holidays was accompanied by an increased emphasis on Sundays… in order that the whole community might gather to hear the Word preached.”3
Each Sunday, Zwingli arrived in the pulpit carrying only his Bible. For about an hour or so, he preached extemporaneously without any notes.4 As he explained, his goal in preaching was always “to call my flock absolutely away, as far as I can, from hope in any created being to the one true God and Jesus his only begotten Son, our Lord.”5 While he was not afraid to denounce injustice or make passionate appeals for social change, the heartbeat of Zwingli’s preaching was joy in Christ. In Gordon’s assessment, “No contemporary reformer spoke so frequently and fervently about the joy of a Christian.”6 As Zwingli explained, “All our work, who preach the Gospel… consists only in preaching how we find the assurance of our salvation in the death of the living Son of God.”7
As preacher, he could exhort, persuade, and proclaim knowing only God could bring about lasting fruit. Reformation was God’s work and preaching was God’s ordained means. To the degree the Reformation of Zürich was successful, its success began with, and was sustained by, the preaching of the Word.
Reformation demands patience
If preaching is God’s means of reformation, then patience is the logical posture of every zealous reformer. If Zwingli had unloaded all his convictions during his first sermon from Grossmünster, denouncing everything that was wrong with Zürich and everything that needed to change, he would not have lasted long. For Zwingli, patience meant prioritizing certain principles of Scripture and proceeding persistently, but only insofar as support would allow.
As a pastor–a shepherd–Zwingli understood his responsibility for the flock as a whole. Drawing on images familiar to the rural sheep-herding Swiss villagers in his Commentary on True and False Religion, Zwingli explained 1 Peter 5:1-3 by writing, “Behold the grandeur of the Christian shepherd! He feeds the flock with painstaking watchfulness, and does not constrain except as far as the word itself constrains.”8
Such a posture of patient reform–of waiting for the Word to first convict, take root, and then bear fruit–displayed the mold of Christ, the True Shepherd, who “will not force anyone to believe.”9 Christ’s patience, Zwingli taught, set a high bar for anyone who would aspire to be an under-shepherd of God’s people: “He had great sympathy with the misled people in that they were robbed of the Word of God and had no fatherly shepherds.”10
Two of the main areas of controversy during Zwingli’s early years in Zürich’s pulpit were the abolition of the mass and the removal of images and icons. While Zwingli opposed the mass and preached accordingly, he believed that it could only be abolished gradually. As Zwingli and Jud advised the council, “the mass should be abolished and replaced by an evangelical service, but out of respect for weaker brethren this change should be made slowly.”11
Such insistence on patience, however, earned Zwingli enemies in unexpected places. For many, Zwingli’s patience looked like compromise. In fact, Zwingli’s fiercest local detractors were not the Catholic-sympathizing residents of Zürich who opposed evangelical reforms, but the rural preachers, iconoclasts, pacifists, and Anabaptists who insisted on a complete and immediate reformation of the church, without delay.
But Zwingli’s gradualist approach to reform won the day. On June 8, 1524, the Zürich City Council agreed to remove images from churches, “so that many [may] turn themselves from the idols entirely to the living true God.12 But the reformation of Zürich taught Zwingli about the need to fight, not only a long-war, but a multi-front one. It required near superhuman political savvy to convince the old Catholic elements of the need for reform while constraining the radical reforming elements from rash and precipitous actions. All of this displayed Zwingli’s patience, even a willingness to be misunderstood, and an unrelenting trust in God’s sovereignty.
Reformation requires friendships
No man is an island and no reformer ever succeeded alone. As Luther had Staupitz, Melancthon, and Karlstadt, and Calvin had Farel and Beza, Ulrich Zwingli’s success in Zürich depended in large part on key friendships, both in his city and throughout Europe. In fact, one of the most delightful features of Gordon’s biography is his elucidation of Zwingli’s friendships with other reformers.13 “Zwingli had loved his friends and was deeply loyal to them,” Gordon writes.14 Zwingli taught that “friendship formed part of the order of creation,” and friendship was especially natural between Christians who shared the same Spirit.15
In Zürich, Zwingli’s closest friend and confidant was his fellow preacher Leo Jud. Always at his side, Jud often wrote letters for Zwingli, read and summarized books for him, preached at the Grossmünster church in his absence, and defended Zwingli’s reputation after his death.16
Beyond Zürich, Zwingli’s friendships extended through an epistolary network of Reformers throughout Switzerland, France, and Germany. There was his friend Johannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531) in Basel who often appealed to Zwingli “not to engage in things that had little to do with the gospel,” but loved and supported him when few others would.17 There was Martin Bucer in Strasbourg (1491-1551), who always sought to bridge the divide between Zwingli and the Lutherans, and never gave up on the hope of Christian unity. There was Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), who would later play a significant role in John Calvin’s life. Farel visited Zwingli in 1524, read his works, and maintained a correspondence with him throughout his life.18 Also noteworthy were Ambrosius Blarer in Constance (1492-1564), Oswald Myconius in Basel (1488-1552), and Joachim Vadian in Bern (1484-1551). Each of these friendships were key because, as is often the case, “each possessed qualities lacking in the other.”19
In addition to camaraderie and encouragement, these relationships constituted Zwingli’s most reliable source of news of events throughout the Empire. They provided channels for new books and treatises to be secured, and advice for how to respond to the latest controversies of the day. But above all, undergirding these friendships were the battlescars of shared victories and losses, shared joys and crosses, and a shared vision of reform and renewal of Christendom. None of Zwingli’s efforts in Zürich would have been possible or sustainable without the web of friendships that extended throughout Europe. Even when his friends’ advice was not heeded, it was certainly always needed.
Reformation transforms community
The most controversial and lasting impact of Zwingli’s reformation in Zürich, however, was his commitment to the moral transformation of the community as a means of reform. For Zwingli, the notion that “reformation” would have only extended to the private faith of individuals was unthinkable. Faith was personal, but never private. And any reformation that dealt only with the internal affairs of the church and stopped short of the external affairs of society was not true Reformation. What modern ears can only hear as “religious bigotry, coercion of ideas and ‘puritanical’ morality,” Zwingli understood to be basic aspects of love of neighbor and honor of God.20 As Gordon explains, “Faith and politics were not separate rooms, for both are wholly rooted in the word of God, which works to bring all things into one.”21
Beyond his totalizing worldview, however, the distinctive contribution of Zwingli’s reform efforts in Zürich was the way in which he connected gospel-reform with the moral-transformation of society. Zwingli latched onto one aspect of injustice in particular and uncompromisingly insisted on its eradication. That issue, for Zwingli, was mercenary service.
Historically, the Swiss depended on mercenary service for wealth, social advancement, and ‘pensions’ that were paid out long after service was over. The practice was thoroughly entrenched in Swiss society and unlikely to change. But Zwingli taught that any enrichment that resulted from “guns-for-hire” constituted a corruption of Swiss virtue and was nothing less than spiritual adultery. Far from appearing a populist firebrand to the citizens of Zurich, Zwingli’s criticisms of the mercenary system resulted in his firing from his first position in the town of Glarus before his arrival in Zürich.22
Why, of all issues, did Zwingli focus on mercenary service? First, as mercenary service involved waging wars in far off lands that were not of a defensive nature, they were not biblically defensible according to the Just War tradition. For Zwingli, mercenary service was incompatible with the moral law of God as taught in Scripture. Second, since Swiss troops were in constant demand, it was morally urgent. Third, financial and military autonomy was essential for the long-term viability of the Reformed faith in Zürich.
Zwingli grounded his denunciation of mercenary service in the Scriptures and in appeals to Swiss patriotism. He was not anti-war. He was simply opposed to unjust wars. As Gordon summarizes Zwingli’s message, “War in defence of the fatherland was wholly justified, as it had been in the Old Testament.” But murder for hire was not. As Gordon explains, for Zwingli, “The banishment of mercenary service and pensions was essential to the renewal of the whole of society.”23
As a matter of scriptural clarity and moral urgency, Zwingli preached unapologetically against mercenary service from the pulpit:
As long as I hear that some of you take up war for money and thereby kill your body, and let the Devil lead your soul into eternal prison, so do I mourn that you depart from the community of the pious inheritance of the peasants and workers and are led into robbery and murder. How is it different to serve a foreign lord in war for money than to commit robbery and murder?24
As Zwingli wrote to the Swiss Confederates on May 18, 1522, “Protect yourselves from the money of foreign leaders! It will kill us!”25
Finally in 1521, through Zwingli’s influence, Zürich decided against contributing mercenary troops to the French; an act that Gordon calls “the first sign that religious reforms in the city were beginning to determine external affairs.”26 In just a few short years, the Reformation of Zürich had begun to take root and the fruits were increasingly evident in the political life of the city.
For Zwingli, Christian truth informed every aspect of society. Nothing captured his understanding of the integration of Christianity and all of life better than the doctrine of Providence: God’s all-encompassing rule over every domain of life. In his Commentary on True and False Religion (March 1525), Zwingli used the term “Captain” to refer to Christ’s authority—speaking the Swiss military language of the people—and showing how “ The authority of the son extended to all areas of human life, not just to the church.”27 God’s ordering of all things demands our obedience in all areas of life–because nothing is outside of the reach of his Providence. In describing our obligation to submit to God’s rule, Zwingli follows Erasmus in taking the Latin religio as an all-encompassing term for Christian piety, including “faith, life, laws, worship, and sacraments.”28 Along with religio Zwingli reclaimed pietas as a synonym for true religion, not mere sentiment, but the fullness of the Christian life. 29 True piety submitted to God’s Providence by subsuming all of life under God’s rightful rule, whether it be education, war, government, or worship.
Zwingli’s ministry in Zürich is a model of what Reformation can look like. Through preaching, patience, and partnerships, gospel-transformation can take over a city and result in long-term political change. But Zürich was never an end in itself. Once reformation had become rooted in the city in 1525, Zwingli set his sights on aiding reform work in other cities like Basel, Lucerne, Constance, and Bern. Even after Zwingli’s death in 1531, Zürich remained a refuge for reformers and exiles from across Europe, a center of theological training, and a model of a truly reformed church and city throughout the world.
Our context today may differ but many of the lessons from Zwingli’s life still apply. If reformation is to take root in America today, it will not be apart from the clear, unadulterated preaching of the Word of God, undergirded by a patient trust in God’s providence, aided by key partnerships, at home and from afar, and a willingness to uncompromisingly call society to the moral reforms consistent with God’s law. If it could happen in Zürich in the 1520s, by God’s grace it can happen again today.
Bruce Gordon’s biography of Zwingli is an informative, well-written, and thought-provoking source for contemporary reflection, for its historical interest, but also for the issues it forces aspiring reformers in the present day to grapple with as we partner together to patiently preach and prayerfully work toward a church and society that honors God.
*Image Credit: Pixabay
- F. Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 276. ↩
- Gordon, 50. ↩
- Gordon, 140. ↩
- Godon, 51. ↩
- Zwingli’s Works vol. 1, 286, 11-14; Latin Works, vol. 1, 239. Cited in Gordon, 51. ↩
- Gordon, 162. ↩
- Zwingli’s Works, vol. 3, 140, 12-24. Cited in Gordon, 121. ↩
- Commentary on True and False Religion in Zwingli’s Works, vol. 3, 728, 28-32; Latin Works, vol. 3, 162. ↩
- Zwingli’s Works, vol. 3, 38: “Christus nit wil, mit gwalt ieman zu dem glouben bezwungen werden.” Cited in Potter, Zwingli, 136. ↩
- Zwingli’s Works, vol. 2, 23, 12-19; Selected Writings, vol. 2, 93. Cited in Gordon, 110. ↩
- Gordon, 107. ↩
- Gordon, 117. ↩
- Gordon, 74-76. ↩
- Gordon, 74. ↩
- Gordon, 75. ↩
- Gordon, 76. ↩
- Gordon, 257. ↩
- Gordon, 152. ↩
- Gordon, 78. ↩
- Gordon, 276. ↩
- Gordon, 194. ↩
- Gordon, 39. ↩
- Gordon, 71. ↩
- Zwingli’s Works, vol. 1, 392, 5-20. Cited in Gordon, 82-83. ↩
- Zwingli’s Works, vol. 1, 186, 2. Cited in Gordon, 71. ↩
- Gordon, 61. ↩
- Gordon, 157 ↩
- Gordon, 153 ↩
- Gordon, 153 ↩