Protestant Profiles #2: Ulrich Zwingli

Ulrich Zwingli (1484 – 1531)


Born: Wildhaus, Switzerland
Priest, army chaplain, Reformer, soldier
Theological emphases:
Authority of Scripture, expository preaching, 
Protested against: 
Abuse of indulgences, Lenten legalism, Catholic sacramentalism

Most Christians today would know little more about Zwingli than his name and that he was a Reformer (if even that!). His legacy may seem obscured when sandwiched between that of Luther and Calvin, but Zwingli was one of the key players in the first generation of the Protestant Reformation. He was influenced by Martin Luther at different points in his journey, while also developing his ideas and emphases separately from the German Reformer.

While Zwingli, like Luther, had protested against the way indulgences were being sold in his area, this was not the trigger point of the Swiss Reformation, which he led until his death in 1531. “The Affair of Sausages,” as it has come to be known, occurred in 1522 when friends of Zwingli’s broke the Lenten fasting regulations in the season leading up to Easter, by eating sausages for supper. In the religious context of the time, every Catholic was expected to fast from certain foods during the 40 days preceding Easter – including meat. Breaking out the snags was an act of defiance against this custom considered mandatory by the Church at the time.

Zwingli vigorously defended the right of his friends to choose whether to eat certain foods or refrain from certain foods – at any time of the year – because the New Testament did not impose stringent dietary laws on Christian believers.  This sequence of events established him as a champion of Christian liberty in conflict with the Catholic Church’s extra-biblical religious requirements. The movement led by Zwingli majored on biblical preaching and as the Reformation in Switzerland unfolded, many Catholic practices and symbols went into decline as a result of a rising Protestant understanding of biblical worship.

Zwingli produced his own 67 articles relating to the Christian gospel and faith. He argued:

“The sum and substance of the gospel is that our Lord Christ Jesus, the true son of God, has made known to us the will of his heavenly Father, and has with his sinlessness released us from death and reconciled us to God.”

He challenged the role the Church had assumed for itself in the lives of Christians in article I: “All who say that the Gospel is invalid without the confirmation of the Church err and slander God.” He attacked the exalted position of the Pope in article 17: “Christ is the only eternal high priest, from which it follows that those who have called themselves high priests have opposed the honour and power of Christ, yes, cast it out.” He emphasised the true nature of the Lord’s Supper in article 18: “Christ, having sacrificed himself once, is to eternity a certain and valid sacrifice for the sins of all faithful, from which it follows that the mass is not a sacrifice, but is a remembrance of the sacrifice and assurance of the salvation which Christ has given us.” He presented the Reformed understanding of faith and works: “Christ is our righteousness, from which follows that our works in so far as they are good, so far they are of Christ, but in so far as they are ours, they are neither right nor good.” And he called purgatory into question: “The true divine Scriptures know nothing about purgatory after this life.”

Sadly, Zwingli’s life and ministry involved theological conflicts with more parties than just the Catholic hierarchy. He found himself embroiled in controversies with radical reformers (who wanted more religious reform – sometimes taking things to the extreme) on one hand and Martin Luther on the other. Sadly Luther and Zwingli could not arrive at a shared position on the Lord’s Supper to replace the idolatrous Catholic Mass. Luther conservatively modified Catholic teaching to arrive at a position that was distinct from the Roman Church, but still heavily emphasised the real presence of Christ in and around the bread (rather than the bread literally becoming the body of Christ), while Zwingli took a more progressive approach –  deciding that the meal was entirely symbolic with almost no spiritual (and certainly no mystical) qualities in and of itself. This created a rift in the emerging Protestant movement, which was sadly difficult to mend in the subsequent years.

Zwingli himself died in battle in 1531, while leading Zurich’s armed forces against the combined forces of  five Swiss Catholic states, which had been his political and religious adversaries for some time. His city’s army suffered defeat and his body was taken away by the Catholics and incinerated.  We will never know what the extent of Zwingli’s impact and legacy might have been had he survived the conflict that ended his earthly life. At just under a decade, his active ministry as a Reformer was significantly shorter than that of Luther and Calvin, yet in that time the Reformation in Switzerland got well underway and others would carry forward the banner he raised up.


Main Sources: “Zwingli,” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
                            “Huldrych Zwingli”


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