The Swiss Reformation and Ulrich Zwingli

The Swiss Reformation was shaped by the tireless efforts of Ulrich Zwingli, a humanist priest from the Alpine village of Wildhaus. Zwingli himself was shaped by three main influences in his life; the first was that of his grandmother, who would frequently call him to her side and tell him stories from the Bible. These times of storytelling would fascinate and enthrall him and created in his heart a deep love for God. The second influence in his life was the time spent as a young boy listening to the stories of Swiss history, told by his father’s friends who would gather at the Zwingli home on cold winter evenings.These stories created a deep love for his native land in his heart. The third influence that shaped him was that of the books he devoured while he was at school. Works by the great Greek and Latin philosophers like Scipio, Seneca, Demosthenes, and Cicero deeply influenced his thinking.

Spiritual Climate in the Church

In the Roman Catholic world at the time the church embraced two distinct methods that would help an individual obtain salvation. The first, was the method Luther had risen up against, that of salvation by works of merit. The second was the premise of salvation by scholastic or rationalistic methodology, which basically meant that in order for one to obtain God’s favor that individual must obey a system of rules and laws through which he could then receive divine enlightenment. It was a system of salvation through intellectual enlightenment and it was this branch of Romanism that Zwingli embraced. He gravitated towards this system because he had been deeply impacted by some of its most brilliant proponents like Erasmus and Wittenbach.

But all this changed when Zwingli personally discovered the power and beauty of Scripture and as he read and studied the Word of God he came to the conclusion that the Bible and not rationalistic thought was the sole authority on how a man could be saved. It was this principle that lay that root of the Swiss Reformation and it was this principle that was its foundation.

Parallel Movements

One of the points that most historians make when commenting on the Swiss Reformation is how it ran parallel but distinct and separate from the German Reformation. Zwingli himself wrote; “If Luther preaches Christ, he does what I am doing. Those whom he has brought to Christ are more numerous than those whom I have led. But this matters not. I will bear no other name than that of Christ, whose soldier I am, and who alone is my Chief. Never has one single word been written by me to Luther, nor by Luther to me. And why? … That it might be shown how much the Spirit of God is in unison with itself, since both of us, without any collusion, teach the doctrine of Christ with such uniformity.”

Underlying Principles of the Swiss Reformation

The reason for this is that the focal point of the Swiss Reformation was different to that of the German Reformation. While both agreed on the fundamental premise of the Reformation, that Salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone and in the power of Christ alone, the focal point of the Swiss Reformation was that these principles supplanted the ideology of Salvation by rational human thought and enlightenment.

The Reformation Progresses

The Swiss Reformation was concentrated in Zurich, where Zwingli was a canon of the Cathedral church and where he preached his radical sermons on the authority of Scripture over that of the scholastic commentary of church theologians. From Zurich it swept throughout the country, challenging the thinking of not just the common people but of the academic community as well. Zwingli also blatantly decried the church’s mandate that the Bible could only be read and interpreted by the Church, declaring that the Bible was open and accessible to every man, to read and understand what was written in it for himself. He rejected the belief that the church, through its sacraments and clergy, was a mediator between God and man, calling on every believer to have a direct and personal relationship with God.

As Zwingli’s reformatory ideas matured he came to look at the Bible as a comprehensive guide that was able to transform not just spiritual life but social and political life as well leading him to champion civic reform. This was one of the weak points of the Swiss Reformation which was later embraced by Calvin as well, that of seeing no separation between church and state. But despite his weaknesses, God used Zwingli to impact the lives of countless people across Switzerland and Europe by upholding the infallible authority of Scripture over that of the teachings of the church.  

Challenging Papal Authority

One of the biggest strides taken by the Reformation in Switzerland was in the spring of 1522 in Zurich. Zwingli openly challenged two of the main beliefs of the church, first by breaking the traditional fast held during Lent, arguing that it was not required in the bible and secondly by rejecting the idea of celibacy and publicly marrying. Subsequently, in 1523 the Zurich city council called for Zwingli and representatives of the Catholic church to present their arguments before the council, stating that the party with the most cogent argument would determine the future religious course of the city. Zwingli argued that the authority of Scripture was above the authority of the Pope, councils and church tradition while the representatives of the church argued for the supremacy of Papal authority over Scripture.

Zurich Becomes a Protestant City

The judges, appointed by the city council to preside over the debate, embraced the arguments of Zwingli, declaring that from that point forward all preaching in Zurich would be based upon the Bible alone, thus rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church. The next day the city council seized all properties held by the Papacy, removing all images and Catholic icons that had been set up in those churches. They then established a municipally controlled church, leading many staunch Catholics to abandon Zurich altogether and making Zurich a completely Protestant city.

Protestantism Embraced by the State

Other Swiss cities quickly followed suit, with Bern becoming a Protestant city in 1528, causing Switzerland to be divided. This led to the Catholic cities and cantons banding together in a common military alliance, threatening war on the newly formed Protestant movement, which was much smaller and badly outnumbered. Zwingli then went to the Protestant princes of Northern Germany for political and military aide but the negotiations broke down over the fundamental difference in the way Luther and Zwingli regarded the mass. While Zwingli believed that the bread and wine were purely symbolic or the body and blood of Jesus, Luther’s views differed. The powerful Lutheran Prince, Philip of Hesse attempted to broker an alliance and arranged for  Luther and Zwingli to meet at his castle in Marburg but neither party was willing to budge on their position and the talks fell through leaving Zwingli to return to Switzerland to face his Catholic opponents virtually alone.

The Battle of Kappel and Death of Zwingli

In 1531 war broke out between the Catholic Alliance and the Protestants and Zwingli personally led his forces into battle where he was killed in the Battle of Kappel. Later the peace treaty of Kappel ended the war leaving Switzerland religiously and politically divided.

The Reformation was led by men of enormous intellect, unrivaled dedication and fierce commitment to truth. The men themselves were not free from error, they were mortal and fallible just like any of us. Sometimes they made the wrong choices but despite their weaknesses, God saw in them the potential for greatness in his work. It is true that God doesn’t call the qualified and it is also true that he doesn’t call those who are perfect either but he does call those whose hearts are fully His and who are willing to lay down every fiber of their being in faithfulness to him.