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Zwingli: The Forgotten Reformer

I call Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) the forgotten Reformer because we hear little about him. Those who know of him do so most likely because of his disagreement with Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper at Marburg in 1529. Other than that we hear very little about him.

That’s the problem when you live between two Reformation giants: Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564). It didn’t help that he was killed on the battlefield at the age of 47 defending the economic blockade of Catholic cantons. (A canton was a state in the Swiss confederation.) However, God used him to bring the Reformation to Switzerland. The rest of my article will focus on how God worked through him. Much of what I have to say is based on Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations by R. Ward Holder.

When he was twenty-two (1506) Zwingli was ordained a parish priest. He served in Glarus, a small village of around two thousand people. He ministered there for ten years. The demands of that parish were not all consuming so he used his spare time to continue his studies on his own. He focused on reading the Bible, the church fathers, and the pagan classics. He was a man after my own heart because it was at this time that he also began to put together a “considerable library”.

He continued his personal study by learning both Greek and Hebrew. He soon became a Greek scholar with a very strong ability in Hebrew. In 1516 he also assumed the post of people’s priest at Einsiedeln where he devoted himself to his personal studies until December of 1518. All this prepared him for his call to the prestigious post of people’s priest in the Great Minster in Zurich.

R. Ward Holder then states, “On January 1, 1519, Zwingli announced that the next Sunday, he would begin preaching on the Gospel of Matthew, preaching directly through the text. This was a preaching revolution. For the medieval preacher, the texts for each day were set by long-standing tradition in a collection called the lectionary. The lectionary did not move directly through any book of the Bible in its entirety, and it left some portions of Scripture out. Zwingli was setting aside that tradition in order to take up a method that was much more concentrated upon understanding the text of Scripture, and in a form that lay people would understand.”

Holder continues, “For Zurich, this was the first of Zwingli’s reforms. Zwingli preached through whole books of the Bible. . . Zwingli later stated frequently that he had abandoned the human inventions that had dragged preaching down in order to preach the pure gospel of the Scriptures. This was one of the key changes that the Protestant reforms brought. There had been preaching in the medieval era, and some of the orders of friars were especially known for their preaching. But the concentration upon preaching, and biblical preaching at that, was new. . . Zwingli’s preaching succeeded. In 1520, the city council ordered all preachers in Zurich to preach from the Bible without human additions and explanations.”

Zwingli drove the truths of scripture home by calling on the people to compare the state of the Church in their day with what the Bible revealed and set forth in its teachings. He pushed the people to apply the truths being preached to their present situation. He, thus, pushed them toward reform.

Zwingli went even further. On March 9, 1522, he and a small group of men lived out Christian freedom for all to see. This was during Lent which at that time was universally acknowledged and observed. The group of men were helping a printer prepare an edition of Paul’s Epistles for a book fair. At supper time the printer also prepared a meal for the group because the print shop was in his home. Sausage was served and eaten by some present. Zwingli used the meal in a sermon two weeks later to show how Christianity is not about what you eat or don’t eat. “The Affair of the Sausages” is viewed by some as the start of the Swiss Reformation because those involved were given light punishments.

Zwingli was a reformer who was not afraid to go where Scripture was leading him. The first step in his call for reform was to concentrate on Scripture. He devoted himself to the study of the Bible in its original languages. This emphasis changed the way he preached and changed the focus of worship for the Swiss. This made the Word central in worship. It was the centerpiece in life as well. All of his theology and his call for reform in other areas flowed out of his belief that the Scriptures took priority in all things.

It is because of men like him that the Word is central in our worship services today. We come to worship expecting to hear from God as his Word is read and proclaimed. We say with King David, “I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; before the ‘gods’ I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Psalm 138:1-2).

Elder Jim Gordon