As God was stiring through Martin Luther in Germany, He was also working in Switzerland.
The Reformation a clear movement of the hand of God in history, bringing different Christian leaders in different regions almost simultaneously to similar conclusions. Among them: God is sovereign in history and in salvation. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and not as a result of good works or superstitious ritual. The Bible is the supreme and final authority in matters of faith and life.
Luther’s insights were either shared or followed by many others across Europe. In different localities, however, the Reformation took on some different emphases. Church leaders grappled with the full implications of the recovered Gospel. What did this mean for the practice of Christian worship? For the relationship between the church and the world? Or, for that matter, the relationship between different churches?
We will focus on two particularly significant leaders of the Reformation, but should not forget that the Reformation was most significant as a movement in the hearts and minds of countless people across Europe. In this, it was inseparable from – indeed, was inspired by and guided by – the Bible. And not just the Bible, but the Bible in the people’s own languages, spread rapidly by copies pouring off the recently invented printed presses. Between 1520 and 1530, the Bible was translated into German, French, and English, and given into the hands of eager people desperate to learn the will of God through the Word of God.
THE REFORMATION IN ZURICH: ULRICH ZWINGLI (1484-1531)
At the same time that Luther was locking horns with the Roman Catholic church, a similar struggle was ongoing in a small, newly constituted country halfway between Wittenburg and Rome, in Zurich.
When Huldrych Zwingli was born in 1484, Switzerland was not a nation, but rather a conferderation of states, “cantons”. Interestingly there were thirteen. Each canton was independent of the others and could form alliances within and without the Confederation.
When we think of Switzerland today, we think of fine watches, tasty chocolates, and political neutrality. Switzerland’s national roots, however, deeply intertwine with the roots of the Reformation, for the new nation’s relative political autonomy also created a fertile environment for religious reform. If we take Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin to be the three leading Reformers, it is both remarkable and not coincidental that the latter two conducted their reforms in Switzerland.
All of the theological and moral problems with the church were just as rampant in Switzerland as they were in Germany.
There was, however, one major difference. In addition to the theological and moral difficulties faced by Christians at the time, the Swiss were also having political and military trouble.
At the end of the 1200s and beginning of the 1300s, the Swiss had developed a new form of warfare using pikes and halberds that was essentially unbeatable until gunpowder comes into use.
It was for this reason that everyone wanted the Swiss on their side in a war. It is also why no one could conquer the Swiss and force them to fight on their side.
The King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor and various other leaders around Europe paid the Swiss to fight for them. The Swiss people became mercenaries.
This creates a number of problems that grow. The first of course is a whole new set of moral problems that arise from living in a mercenary culture. If you live in a nation of people who kill for money, the moral bar is going to be pretty low.
Also, remember the Swiss cantons were largely independent. Each canton decided who it was going to hire out to.
If the King of France hired mercenaries from one Canton, the Holy Roman Emperor might well hire mercenaries from another. So in most of the wars in the 1300 and 1400s, no matter which nations happened to be at war, it was still Swiss fighting against Swiss on the actual battlefield.
The Swiss liked the money but were not pleased with this situation. The question became “how do we escape this self-made trap we’re in?”
Into this comes Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation.
Note this distinction between what happened with Luther in Germany and what happens in Switzerland. In the Swiss Reformation, corporate concerns, the concerns of the body of people, are there from the very beginning.
Luther reforms as an individual, “here I stand,” and only later went back and developed a civil and ecclesiastical theology. Zwingli and the Swiss reformers began with “we believe.”
This is not a difference of doctrine, it is a difference of emphasis.
Born in 1484, Zwingli was a contemporary of Luther’s generation. He became ordained to the priesthood in 1506, and soon thereafter through study of Scripture, independently concluded that the Church was deeply corrupt and that Church doctrine was incorrect in many areas. Zwingli felt strongly the influence of Wycliffe and Huss, as well as Erasmus.
Having realized that the Bible was the supreme authority, Zwingli appropriately enough sought to apply this to his life, and the life of the church. True reformation, springs not from one man’s opinions, or even one social group’s frustrations, but from the Word of God.
We can date the beginnings of the Reformation in Zurich to New Year’s Day, 1519, when Zwingli – already a very popular preacher among the people – commenced a series of expositional sermons beginning in the first chapter of Matthew. He even preached through the genealogies as he began to work through the New Testament, chapter by chapter.
This new focus on the Bible and biblical doctrines soon brought tensions to a crisis, as Zwingli realized he could no longer stay in communion with the Roman Catholic church.
The next year he renounced his salary from Rome, and in October, 1522 he resigned his office as priest. The Zurich City Council immediately hired him to be the city’s official preacher, reflecting Zwingli’s widespread popularity and support.
We see the vitality of congregationalism; Zwingli himself acknowledged his support from the people, observing that “the common man adheres to the gospel although his superiors want nothing of it.”
Zwingli’s – and Zurich’s – final break with Rome came a few months later in early 1523, when Zwingli sought to defend himself against the criticisms of the Catholic hierarchy by calling a special town council meeting. Here he presented his 67 Articles, theological points he had composed to summarize his differences with Rome. Zwingli declared those 600 Christians gathered to be a legitimate church council, and challenged the small delegation led representing the local Catholic bishop to refute any of his points.
Again, this was a potent illustration of congregationalism: the Catholic authorities were aghast that Zwingli would believe this gathering of ordinary Christians, under the authority of the Bible alone, could be equal to an official church council led by the Pope, Cardinals, and Bishops.
But Zwingli and the people of Zurich, who by now had been sitting under biblical preaching for four years, believed it was, and the council issued a decisive verdict in Zwingli’s favor. This became known as the First Zurich Disputation, and marked a key moment in the Reformation, as it vindicated Zwingli against the charge of heresy and produced the first Reformed confession of faith.