Zwingli, Ulrich (1484-1531)

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Though not the most qualified scholar, the wisest churchman, or the most intelligent theologian in the Swiss-South German Reformation, Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli was beyond challenge the movement's most significant personality, and merits, if anyone does, the name of father of Reformed Protestantism. As befits a genius, Zwingli shows more vitality than unity in his life and thought; his life is a series of turning points and his doctrinal system shifted with the years. The present article is interested in these movements primarily with respect to their relation to Anabaptism, of which Zwingli is in a certain sense also the father.

From his birth in 1484 in the home of a respectable citizen of Wildhaus (Toggenburg), Swiss canton of St. Gall, through his theological and humanistic studies (Master's degree from the University of Basel, 1506, further study at Vienna) and ten years of priestly service in Glarus (1506-16), Zwingli betrayed nothing of a reformer's character, nor was he even especially religious. By birth and training a patriot, whose first writings argued against the current Swiss practice of sending young men into foreign mercenary service and against Swiss subservience to foreign powers, he nevertheless received a papal pension himself and served as chaplain in foreign wars.

In 1516 Zwingli moved decidedly into the camp of Erasmus. This meant first of all the adoption of a kind of patriotic-humanistic pacifism, further strengthening his antagonism to Swiss involvement in foreign wars. Allegiance to Erasmus meant further a more specifically Christian orientation in his humanism, turning somewhat from the noble and morally noncommittal Greco-Roman antiquities to a rediscovery of the New Testament and the purer, simpler, more demanding faith it portrays. Zwingli himself always referred to 1516 as the major change in his spiritual experience. In this attitude Zwingli preached, still unquestioningly within Roman Catholicism, at the pilgrimage center of Einsiedeln (1516-18) and at the Grossmünster in Zürich, where he began his ministry as the head pastor of Zürich in January 1519. In Zürich he began to preach straight through the Gospel of Matthew and other New Testament books; expository preaching and the development of the city's schools were his program for Christian-humanist renewal.

The second major change in Zwingli's understanding came in 1520. News of Luther's excommunication had come to Zürich. It was becoming evident that the hopes of Erasmus and his friends that through the recovery of the Scriptures all Catholicism could be renewed were to be disappointed. The recovery of the New Testament Gospel and the maintenance of the unity of the church, the two goals which Erasmus and Luther had hoped to keep together, were suddenly posed as alternatives, thanks to Rome's intransigence. Zwingli had to make a choice which, though its implications were then not clear, made the difference between Erasmus and Luther, humanism and Reformation.

Zwingli's "Pestlied," a poem describing sin and salvation in terms of deadly sickness and recovery, is often interpreted as evidence of a sort of "conversion" during the time of his own serious illness during an epidemic of pestilence in the winter of 1519-20. This is probably incorrect, but the general tone of the song is witness to a deepening in his faith and understanding which was going on during these Erasmian years, brought about as much by his own study of Paul as by Luther's influence. The clearest evidence of Zwingli's deepened insight and commitment is a letter written in late July 1520 to Oswald Myconius, then serving as a teacher in hyper-Catholic Lucerne. Zwingli gathers together all the New Testament references to suffering as the fate of Jesus' disciples. He contemplates seriously the possibility of Luther's being put to death and his own banishment, yet there is no turning back and no opportunistic search for halfway measures. "Born in blood, the church can be restored in no other way but by blood." Though he did not yet draw from this insight all the logically possible consequences, Zwingli's view of the church as a persecuted little flock in a hostile world was new and explosive.

This is the mentality with which Zwingli undertook steps toward Reformation, which were far more than a reorganization of the humanities curriculum. He abandoned his own papal pension and led Zürich to withdraw her alliance with Catholic France and to forbid her sons to serve as mercenaries. In 1522 he blessed with his presence a notorious breach of the lenten fasting regulations, and late in the same year resigned his priesthood and was re-employed by the city council as evangelical pastor, continuing in the same preaching post he had occupied before. During this time he gathered around himself a circle of enthusiastic younger humanists and clergy, several of whom (Grebel, Manz, Reublin, Brötli, Stumpf) were later to provide the backbone of the Anabaptist movement.

The Zürich Council obviously needed to justify its unprecedented move of installing a preacher who had just renounced Rome. According to the custom of the times this was done in the form of a disputation, to which all Christian Europe was invited. The disputation was held in January 1523, on the basis of 67 theses submitted by Zwingli.

Johannes Faber, vicar of the Bishop of Konstanz, to whose diocese Zürich belonged, refused to participate in the main portion of the debate since he challenged the competence of a city council either to convoke such an assembly or to rule on its results. Thus a ruling in Zwingli's favor was a foregone conclusion. Yet the council's decision was basically a conservative one: there was no abolition of the Mass or formal recognition of the Reformation. Zwingli was simply authorized to go on preaching the Gospel. From this point—even though there was no commitment made by the council—dates Zwingli's confidence that the council could be counted on to carry through all of the Reformation, and his consequent willingness to be satisfied with the pace set by the state's refusal (June 1523) to modify tithes legislation; abolition of the Mass deferred from October 1523 to May 1525; evangelical communion celebrated four times yearly instead of daily as Zwingli asked, and changed in form and significance by excluding the congregation from the speaking of the liturgy and by rejecting the connection with the ban.

At the cost of this willingness to compromise Zwingli was able to obtain and to consolidate a pro-Reformation majority in the council. The last pro-Catholic reaction within the city was crushed by the legally irregular execution in October 1526 of the patrician Jakob Grebel (father of Conrad), and from then on until just before his death Zwingli gained constantly in political influence, to the point of practically replacing the democratically elected Great Council by a Secret Council of which he was the dominant member. In this capacity he laid plans to destroy the Swiss Confederacy and set up a new union dominated by Zürich and Bern, as well as an anti-Hapsburg alliance stretching from Venice to Denmark, led by Zürich and Hesse and including the old enemy France. In 1529 Zürich was ready for a war to reshape the Confederacy, and in fact seized most of northeastern Switzerland from the Abbot of St. Gall, but the First War of Cappel ended in a truce without a battle. The second phase of the war found Zürich disunited and ill-prepared when it broke out in 1531. Zwingli accompanied the city's troops to the battlefield of Cappel, where his life, the battle, the war, and all hope of extending the Reformation to more of Switzerland were lost. A few weeks before his death Zwingli had attempted to resign his post in Zürich, because of growing opposition to his political leadership, but had been prevailed on to stay at the helm.

Zwingli and the Anabaptists. During 1523 Zwingli's younger associates became uneasy over their leader's concessions to the conservatism of the political authorities. When in December he finally promised to institute the Lord's Supper with or without state approval and then backed out of his bluff, not to raise the question again for over a year, the impatience could no longer be stemmed by the claim that the concessions he was making were purely tactical, and there began to grow around Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz a circle of dissenters, who in January 1525 were to be driven to found a new church (see Zürich).

The first of Zwingli's writings to attack the growing group of dissatisfied disciples within his own camp was his Who Gives Occasion for Rebellion . . .(Wer Ursach gebe zu Aufruhr) of December 1524. The main thrust of this tract is its attack on the bishops and princes whose injustice truly provokes revolutions. In addition, however, Zwingli refers to four distinct groups which profess allegiance to the Reformation but misunderstand its intent. One of these—and not the most dangerous in his judgment—is the circle of those "who are more bloated with the knowledge of the Gospel than they are on fire with love" and who in addition to their narrow-minded spiritual pride reject infant baptism. Already the main lines of Zwingli's defense of infant baptism are visible; arguing that the New Testament does not speak to the issue, he concludes that the identity of baptism with Old Testament circumcision is sufficient proof.

These arguments are repeated in Zwingli's On Baptism, Rebaptism and Infant Baptism of May 1525. The impossibility of the Anabaptist appeal to New Testament teaching and usage is assured by declaring that the word "baptism" has numerous distinct meanings in the New Testament, so that it is illegitimate to reason from any one New Testament utterance to another. The most basic distinction is that made between "inner" baptism (subjective faith) and "outer" (water) baptism, which renders illusory any attempt to correlate the two. Since the essential claim of the Anabaptists was precisely that faith and water baptism must be bound together, Zwingli's dualism, building on philosophical postulates which he considered unchallengeable, seemed to be a sufficient answer. Freed from any connection with personal faith, baptism may then be equated with circumcision as the sign of a child's being externally reckoned to belong to God's people.

On the Preaching Office (June 1525) reports that Anabaptists from Zürich were ranging over the whole countryside, demanding rebaptism, and attacking the resident village pastors because they were supported by prebends and did not move about like apostles. Zwingli defends the resident ministry and the traditional means of support on New Testament grounds, and rejects as irrelevant the argument that all Christians should prophesy (I Corinthians 14) or that all are priests (I Peter 2). It is an offense against canon law for the Anabaptists to have taken their objections elsewhere after having been condemned in their home jurisdiction (Zürich). Zwingli reports that the Anabaptists are self-called and claim a private possession of the Holy Spirit mediated neither by Scripture nor by the church; he thus fails to grasp the issue which was truly at stake, namely, where the church was which was empowered to govern and to send. The Anabaptists did not reject the church, as Zwingli's whole argument assumed; they believed rather that their fellowship of committed believers was the church and that the "Milords of Zürich," who thus far had barely begun the Reformation, were not the church.

Zwingli seems to have felt that these two pamphlets had adequately settled the issues involved in Anabaptism, for from this time on, his writings deal with the continuing battle with Catholicism and the beginning debate with Lutheranism about the sacraments. (Zwingli's Answer to Balthasar Hubmaier's Book on Baptism . . . , printed in November 1525, was written hastily, at the request of friends, and adds nothing to the debate.) The conflict with Anabaptism now moved to the level of practical politics. Zwingli's personal attitude toward the increasingly repressive police measures taken by the authorities (prison February 1525; money fines and torture late 1525; death penalty and banishment decreed in 1526 and applied in 1527) has not been adequately studied. On the one hand he seems to have urged moderation and to have intervened personally in favor of some prisoners, yet at the same time he is reported to have preached that repression is the duty of a legitimate government; and in view of his dominant role in Zürich's public life one can hardly conceive of these measures being taken against his will or without his approval.

Zwingli did not return in his writings to Anabaptism until two years later, when two Anabaptist documents came into his hands. One, which he calls a "confutation," is known only because he reproduced it in the process of answering it; it is a direct response to his own arguments and may have been written by Conrad Grebel. The other is the "Brotherly Union" of Schleitheim. Zwingli's In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus of August 1527 is his last word on Anabaptism, except for scattered references in his general doctrinal writings. It adds nothing to the argument on baptism but offers numerous historical side lights and represents his only reaction to other aspects of the Anabaptist position (oath, government, ban). Zwingli's interests now clearly lie elsewhere. He has no more personal contacts with Anabaptists, dealing with them only on the basis of writings or of rumor; the Elenchus is the epilogue to a chapter already closed.

How Zwingli's relation to Anabaptism should be understood depends largely on one's prior theological commitment. Grebel spoke for all the Anabaptists with the claim that "Zwingli led us into this" and only backed away from his own vision later be cause of fear. This claim is objectively confirmed in that Zwingli did conceive of the church as a visible, suffering minority between 1520 and 1522, a position which Anabaptism retained while he abandoned it. On the other hand, Zwingli saw an unbroken continuity in his own total work, and applied to the Anabaptists the harsh words of I John, "They went out from among us, but they were not of us." Where between these two claims the truth lies will probably depend on the significance attributed to the "turning point" in mid-December 1523, when Zwingli took a position which he had said a week earlier would make him "guilty of lying before the Word of God."

Author(s) John Howard Yoder
Date Published 1959

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Yoder, John Howard. "Zwingli, Ulrich (1484-1531)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 29 Jul 2021.,_Ulrich_(1484-1531)&oldid=101063.

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Yoder, John Howard. (1959). Zwingli, Ulrich (1484-1531). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 July 2021, from,_Ulrich_(1484-1531)&oldid=101063.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 1052-1054. All rights reserved.

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