Christian History – The Reformation: Huldrych Zwingli and Boldness


Arising out of Biel’s theology of “earning grace” came a new kind of theology – one diametrically opposed to the prevailing paradigm of the time. Instead of appeals to God’s authority, appeals were made to God’s personality. Instead of His judgement, it appealed to his grace. Instead of a God of damnation, He is a God of love. That is not to say one side mystically dissipated, but both became part and parcel of theological developments.

This was what would become known as the Reformation, a reformation of the Christian faith “back to its roots”, so to speak, or at least what its supporters and adherents thought. In fact, a rediscovery of Augustine and the Church Father by ordinary laity, rather than church officials,  led to this change. Over time, the Church in its Catholic form had become an overbearing presence on the society at large, and not in a good way. The Bride of Christ, in this time, ruled by authority and tenacity, and disagreements, even on small issues, led to possible death sentences. Taking advantage of persons in this tumultuous dark age, certain priests began selling indulgences – literally, ways to reduce one’s sin toll in heaven through monetary means. This was a diversion from Christianity, to be sure!

Although one could fault the Church as an evil institution, that was not true – they were tying their best, but sometimes practical means can override spiritual needs. A loss of focus on what really matters can narrow one’s vision into a dark place which sometimes needs a “dash of cinammon”, or a motivating force, to push it aright. I view the Reformation in this light, a jolt of energy. After all, the Catholic Church did accept Luther’s pronouncements nearly five hundred years later. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves!

However, contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther didn’t start this movement first; in fact, he became a motivating force for many individuals irruptions of the same type of thought throughout Europe.  From the 16th to the 19th century, generally, debate took place within one of three traditions, that of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism. This debate was primarily internal: what is the true identity of Christianity? The ground set by Biel allowed for a massive debate, both through words and steel, to resolve the issues for good or ill. The grounds and source of the authority of God was not in question – God’s revelation to humankind was simply an assumed fact about human life – but the nature and true understanding of that revelation was. To look at the early Reformers was to see an attempt, inspired by humanism, to see the real source of authority from God.

Still, to take the historical line, Huldrych Zwingli first formulated the Reformation’s defining belief systems (and, to admit my bias, one to which I agree even more than with Luther or Calvin). Zwingli came out of a Swiss context, far removed enough from the Catholic Church that his development emerged without great rigor and restraint on theological thought. Zwingli cited Scripture as his authority, and though complaints emerged from his criticism of the Church at large, they never amounted to much against him. Well, until he died on a battlefield as a medic, but that’s a different tale.

What we should learn from Zwingli, and perhaps what we all accepted without recognizing it in a Baptist context, is that absolute authority of Scripture. God’s word is certain, and when God speaks it comes to pass. Scripture is clear, but it can be misunderstood if we come to the Bible with our own opinions and seek to force it into that mold. If that occurs, we cannot hear its true message; in his words,

And this they say in order to subject the interpretation of God’s Word to men..

But when God speaks to his children, the message brings its own clarity that can be understood without any human instruction because the Holy Spirit illuminates us to see the Word in its own light. That is why the Pope of Zwingli’s time was so dangerous in his view – subjecting the Word of God to an “infallible” human interpreter means the Bible could easily be twisted to support preconceived ideas. Certainty comes from humility, listening to God. As Zwingli said of himself,

When I was younger, I gave myself overmuch to human teaching like others of my day, and when…I undertook to devote myself entirely to the Scriptures I was always prevented by philosophy and theology. But eventually I came to the point where, led by the word and Spirit of God, I saw the need to set aside all these things and to learn the doctrine of God direct from his own word. Then I began to ask God for light and the Scriptures became far clearer to me – even thought I read nothing else – than if I had studied many commentators and expositors.

This is a view increasingly unpopular in our day. We use Biblical commentaries, we read about the history, and we know more about Christianity, the Bible itself and its formation, along with the theological views of two thousand years. One must ask the question, though: do we really know God better? Can we trust the Bible at all? Does it truly contain the Word of God, or do we no longer need such an outmoded device to convey the Gospel? As I surely said in the past, that line of thinking arrived as new and came out a heresy, but the old become new again, and nothing new, especially in intellectual pursuits, exists under the sun. People take old ideas and shape them into a different paradigm, but the ideas remain the same.

What happens in our time, however, seems a doubt of conviction and belief. Human beings do not naturally find themselves with belief and faith; psychology brings them there. We interpret what dead guys said and try to insert ourselves into them, the Bible included. And this turns into a dangerous enterprise where we insert our opinions, and no longer take things at face value.

There are a variety of ways to take this particular passage cited above, for example. On one opinion, one could say he was clearly inspired by a sort of Renaissance humanism to reject the authorities and discover his “own” religion, one that really said what Christianity was. One could also state that Zwingli looked in the Bible, saw what was his personal opinion, and began to promote this opinion as normative “since it came from Scripture”. In that sense does a commentator treat Zwingli as humans are viewed in modern societies, a “bundle of interests” seeking to protect his own personal concerns and ideas.

In addition, this could just as easily be the ravings of an anti-authoritarian, whose objections to the Catholic Church stem from its overbearing authority and lack of communication to the common man/woman. Zwingli saw an advantage, an opening, and took advantage of his region’s relative distance from the Papacy for a power play. Perhaps one could also criticize
him for not studying enough, or knowing about the origin of Scripture, or any number of  other objections not to the statement but to the man himself. These appear as highly suspect analyses from a Christian perspective; simply because he holds a view contrary to the modern culture, he is attacked almost instantly as incorrect.

Let us, however, take this passage as a genuine explication of what Zwingli experienced. With a cynical and post-modernist view of the past, one can justify any kind of view one wishes. Making Scripture authoritative, for him, is not an optional idea that one grafts upon Christianity – rather, it is essential. In Zwingli’s theology, the Word of God, though declared “unclear” by its critics, is indubitably clear; those who live in sin, or are “out of God’s favor”, are the people who cannot actually understand Scripture. In Zwingli’s words

It is right in itself and its proclamation is always for good. If there are those who cannot bear or understand or receive it, it is because they are sick.

Don’t I wish modern Christians declared such confidence rather than apolizing for every little thing! Since God’s Word brings its own clarity, telling the difference between one’s own opinion and the Word of God was easy for Zwingli, for it makes itself known – Zwingli uses Noah, Abraham, and a variety of other Biblical characters to prove this point. Of course, his boldness in declaring such a thing against a society turned towards the Church versus the Bible shows up in actual Scripture as well. It’s interesting to find that, in Acts, nearly every proclamation of the Gospel from the Apostles comes with the descriptor of “boldness” or courage – a lack of fear and doubt in their convictions and beliefs. What they did was for God, and nothing could stop them. Heck, they even frightened the Sadducees in Acts 4:

13 Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.

Now, what has changed? Why do we not believe ourselves confident enough, filled with doubt and fear? Why do we not even listen to Jesus in that respect?

12 “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. 13 It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; 15 for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. 16 But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, 17 and you will be hated by all because of My name. 18 Yet not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

No preparation? No forethought? Just God? Maybe our faith is not as strong as we think.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.